Psychodrome (1987) Book Review and Analysis
by Simon Hawke
Cyberpunk - Science Fiction
This novel is detail-heavy, overly expository and has trouble maintaining any sort of tension. That being said, the world-building and technology are well-developed, which were the only things which kept me reading. The reason I picked this book up from a used book store was because of the title. You don’t see titles like this very often in new sci-fis – some are overblown, of course, but rarely are they as dramatic in the way only the 1980s was.
The story revolves, in a very very long orbit, around a man named Arkady O’Toole, who gives us his entire backstory before getting into the action. Psychodrome is set up as a kind of “running man” or even Hunger Games scenario – people fight through intricate scenarios for viewer entertainment – but minus the “one person standing” requirement at the end.
After a drunken marriage, an affair with a punk biker, and somehow winning the Psychodrome lottery, O’Toole starts being part of these scenarios. This sounds exciting, but it’s really tedious because it’s told in this didactic first-person where O’Toole goes off on these long rambling tangents that have no place in this type of story. He’s chased by assassins as well, but none of this is overly interesting. By about halfway through I was getting bored, and it was only a mildly surprising twist near the end that drew me to the conclusion.
I will give the book a couple of good points though: his detail regarding world-building and technology was clearly well-thought-out and given much focus in the novel. And when the plot does move, he is good at action scenes.
Yet, because of the way O’Toole tells the story, there is a discernable lack of tension and due to the characters either saying next to nothing or going off on long-winded expository monologues, I didn’t care about any of them. There are a few female characters and some people of colour, but I'll talk more about that in the analysis.
Overall, Psychodrome has nothing “Psycho” about it. He should have called it Humdrumdrome.
I love 80s perceptions of future tech.
Halluncinact – Basically a holodeck, like from Star Trek. Yet, people sometimes aren’t sure whether they are in one or not. How they are unsure as never clear to me – do they walk through a door that is in truth a giant holodeck? Is it in their minds? I either missed it or I can’t remember. O’Toole spends a lot of time trying to figure out whether he’s experiencing reality or not.
Psych-Fidelity - in this future, viewers plug their brains into some sort of device which allows them to view and feel what the “players” in the Psychodrome are feeling. How this is better than just playing your favourite video game in VR is beyond me, but whatever, that’s the vice of the time. The viewers have access to the players via a Biochip, which is just an implant in their head.
Buzz disc – a weapon that fires little whirling ninja stars or whatever. Why this is better than a gun is beyond me but cyberpunk LOVES this shit.
Bradbury Obelisk – it’s the equivalent of the Statue of Liberty on Mars. Frankly, these little details that aren’t explained are the best part of the novel. They help to flesh out the setting and give it a depth of history. Who made the Obelisk? What does it look like? I’m intrigued.
Belter Uprising – Did S.A. Corey read this years ago and liked the concept of people living in the asteroid belt near Saturn? Same idea as the Obelisk – a neat reference to something we’re not given an explanation for but can fathom on our own.
Tachyon technology – how he explains FTL travel. He goes into a very long and unnecessary explanation of how it works.
Should you read Psychodrome? Eh… I guess. I didn’t hate it, but it’s just so bogged down with unnecessary crap that I couldn’t get excited by it, despite the rather cool setting.
There’s a second one, which I own, but I don’t know if I’ll read it. We’ll see.
I give it 2.5 / 5 Fire Crystals out of five.
Analysis - Here be Spoilers!
Thanks for sticking around for my analysis! I’m going to talk about the way this stellar novel depicts women, masculinity, and race.
Ladies first. Psychodrome does the thing that most 80s novel and movies do when they think they’re being progressive. It’s well-intentioned and I find it fascinating. There are two women in this novel who have almost as much depth as the male characters (not a lot for anyone in truth), but there aren’t women anywhere else.
All the random people in the book are men. This is a common issue in this era – while there might be a woman or person of colour in the main cast, there is no visibility elsewhere.
A brief detour about masculinity –Arkady waxes on about this a lot, but in the end, it’s more annoying than transformative because it’s clear Arkady is meant to be this “futuristic” man who isn’t sexist or racist … but he is just so perfect. He’s very self-reflective and always comes up with the “right” conclusion. It’s frustrating because he doesn’t grow or change. And society still retains the same ideas about masculinity given the comments of other characters.
Back to the female characters. We have Stone Winters, the rich-girl gone Psychodrome fighter, who is the love interest. And we have Kami, the bad-ass “breathtakingly beautiful” (minus her jagged scar) biker punk whom Arkady also sleeps with. Basically every woman with dialogue in this book is a love interest. It great that Stone and Kami have sexual agency, are top fighters, and hold their own in combat, but they are kind of the same person. They aren’t very interesting. It also doesn’t help that Stone gets crushed by a boulder with absolutely no emotional send-off and nothing the women do personally affects the plot. Arkady drives all the action – they just are there for the ride.
There is also Miko, whom Arkady gets drunk with and marries, but instead of just saying “wtf” and getting an annulment, he sticks by her and her family and elevates them out of poverty. This entire scenario feels really dated and is rather weird – I believe it was to show that he is a genuinely good person but it came off as a white saviour narrative.
This leads me into race. Arkady is clearly a white dude (he's always going on about his Irish and Russian background and the dichotomy in emotional disposition they create in him), but the novel takes place largely in Japan. I can’t tell if the country is used as an “exotic locale” or there was a legit reason for setting it there. Kami and a few other characters are people of color, but the three main characters (Arkady, Breck, and Stone) are all white. Yet the novel does have a lot of people of colour in the background, though I think he was trying to show a more cosmopolitan world (which came off a little half baked).
He talks a lot about prejudice towards people who are bio-engineered, specifically, Breck, which would have been an interesting tangent had he not belaboured it to death and if it had any real bearing on the plot.
The targeted racism in the novel deals with the shapeshifters on Draconis 9, the victims of an accidental genocide upon colonization of the planet (accidental in that the shapeshifters shifted themselves into animals, which the humans than ate and attempted to domesticate, not realizing they were sentient beings). It’s very heavy-handedly, but at least he novel was attempting to add some poignancy.
Essentially, Psychodrome failed to hit the mark on several aspects and it's rambling, repetitive prose didn't help me ignore those missteps.