(This awesome, positive review of Robotomy appeard in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine on June, 1999)
Aside from actual comics and graphic novels, how often in SF have inventive visuals and wild fonts been integrated with mature text? The stories that have utilized typographical ingenuity and pictorial embellishments can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956) of course, and Ellison’s “The Region Between” (reprinted with cuts in 1970 in the anthology Five Fates, but most definitively seen in the March 1970 issue of Galaxy). In 1972’s Again, Dangerous Visions, Gahan Wilson’s icon-titled story about an alien blot comically fulfilled part of the promise implicit in the marriage of text and visuals. But aside from the currently trendy trick of denoting telepathy or cyberspace communications with weird brackets, SF has generally neglected any kind of experimental blending of words and images. And in this age of easy access to Pagemaker and Photoshop, such timidity seems downright shameful and horizon-bound.
Now comes a small-press book that seeks to remedy this lack. Andres Vaccari’s Robotomy intersperses a fairly standard yet affecting cyberpunk narrative with gritty yet evocative low-res B&W illustrations and with meaningfully variant fonts to achieve a unique impact. Designed, decorated and written with admirable intelligence, Robotomy conveys the sensation of being trapped in a shadowy, melancholy alternate reality much more effectively than mere text alone ever could.
Vaccari’s book opens with the image of an Op-Art, shard-framed sphincter like a black hole, obviously meant to suck the reader in. Next comes a human eye accompanied by text recalling a memory of a woman. On the next page, the eye distorts, and the focus of text accordingly narrows. Then italics indicate a shift of consciousness, as the entity doing the recall is distracted, jolted out of its nostalgia. A bold-faced “ABORT” is followed by a page of visual white-noise. Subsequently, assorted nebulosities cohere into the picture of a room, and more textual memories. By now, the reader has the definite impression of a disembodied intelligence sorting through its files. And this proves to be the case.
Drake Ullmann, “deck cowboy,” and his lover, Fabiana, have ripped off a corporation named Sogushi, proprietor of “a virgin nonlinear liquid microprocessor cell, capable of transcribing functional neural-tissue maps”. This key to downloading one’s personality into machine-space is eventually employed by Drake as a means of escape from his pursuers. Now existing only in digital form, Drake is the shaping consciousness whose viewpoint we share as he rummages through the debris of his life, seeking answers to why his life went so wrong.
But Drake is not alone in his space. Various Ghosts beyond his control share the realm, most disturbingly the recurrent Ghost 34. Startlingly, Drake begins to lose control of his domain. Chased into a virtual corner, Drake’s consciousness seems on the point of extinction. The Ghostly taunt, “Goodbye, sucker,” is followed by two and a half pages of solid black, which in turn is followed by – well, you really should take this interior journey yourself to learn that.
By arraying his visual tropes in complex patterns – “the moth, the rat, the room, the pillow, they orbit with no center” – Vaccari achieves a consistent and impactful symbology. Similar in its conceptual daring and challenging disruptions of convention to Darick Chamberlin’s Cigarette Boy(1991), Robotomy takes several steps forward into the tantalizing literary future where the eye of the reader will feast on both words and images marching in a common cause.