Cyberpunk Pioneer John Jurek’s nanotech-powered programmable KaeLF Skin finally arrives

Photo from Endgaget of nanotech "artificial skin"

Jurek's KaeLF Skin seen in the wild


I see from Engadget that some wacky scientists at a “defense”-related (quasi?)-governmental research laboratory have invented a “cyberpunky” electronic skin using nanotechnology:

Researchers working for the Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab have figured out how to create relatively inexpensive “electronic skin” comprising carbon nanotubes enriched with semiconductors. Their process involves an enriched single walled carbon nanotube (SWNT) solution embedded in a honeycomb pattern of hexagonal holes. . .

The article goes on to say that this is a development reminiscent of the novels of William Gibson et al. But Gibson’s not the cyberpunk author that this story brought to my mind. I thought of John Jurek, whose 2000 self-published novel KaeLF Skin was about just such an artificial skin and the various fun and vicious uses it could be put to.† If I remember right, Jurek’s KaeLF Skin was invented at a quasi-governmental research lab — perhaps even Berkeley itself; I can’t seem to find my copy of the book right now to fact-check. But in any event, much of the book concerns Berkeley Laboratory-type doings. The Engadget article could have been ripped from KaeLF Skin’s prologue, that’s how close Jurek’s book is to this story.

I forget how John and I discovered each other’s books, but since we had both written and published cyberpunky thrillers based on nanotech themes, we agreed to do a book swap: he sent me an iUniverse (printed) copy of KaeLF Skin and I sent him a copy of my Acts of the Apostles.† He wrote a glowing review of my book for the Midwest Book Review,(alas, since confined to oblivion), and an abbreviated version of that glorious review for Amazon. I wrote a positive but somewhat less glowing review of his book and posted it on Amazon. After that we exchanged emails for a few months, and I remember that he was pretty down about the poor reception that his book gotten– like most self-published novels KaeLF Skin didn’t sell many copies and got few reviews.

My original review of KaeLF Skin, which I posted on Amazon, is below.

The unfortunate news about Jurek’s novel is that some of the writing is, in fact, pretty weak; KaeLF Skin reads like what it is: the first work of an amateur whose metier is not writing fiction. (I think Jurek would have benefited from a strong writing group, a demanding editor, or a talented co-author.) But the good news is that the basic story in the novel is really cool. Repeat: really cool. It’s imaginative and creepy and I think it may turn out to be pretty prescient — that is, I can imagine the “skin” announced by Berkeley Labs and publicized by Engadget may have many of the properties (good and bad) that John Jurek imagined a long time ago. With regard to this particular technology, he really is a Gibson-class visionary. Jurek not only comes up with various unexpected yet logical uses for the “electronic skin” in his novel, he also invents various cults and social trends that arise because of it — not unlike how LSD caused cultural movements. It’s a fun and disturbing mix, and some scenes in the book have stayed with me for ten years. (I wish I could tell you how to get your hands on a copy, but I think they’re pretty rare. My copy (when I find it) is not for sale.)

If I remember correctly, I tried to talk John into rewriting the book to make it less amateurish and more “commercial”. But he was, quite understandably, burned out, sick of working on KaeLF Skin, and ready to move on. The last I heard from him was a short note he sent me when his book was mentioned in passing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, which gave him some small measure of recognition for all his hard work.

My next several emails to him went unanswered, and over time I figured that John no longer wanted to talk about his self-publishing or novelistic careers, and we fell out of touch. It’s been about a decade since I heard from him. The last review he posted on Amazon was in 2001.

Here’s my Amazon reivew of KaeLF Skin:

Wacky, sexy, creepy, seductive, scary stuff.
By A Customer

I liked this book a lot. It has a few problems, and I’ll start with those so that you know this review is legit. But its strong points far outweigh its weak points, and I recommend it highly.

It has some of the problems associated with first novels, especially self-published first novels: namely, the prose could stand to be trimmed a fair amount, and there are some extraneous subplots that clutter up the main story. I got the impression that the writer didn’t believe that the main story was sufficient, and thus kept adding on sub-plots– an overly earnest priest, a lost love who emerges from the foggy mists of time, and so on. I think a hard-nosed editor could have cut the book by 25% without changing the story in any significant way.

But the good news is that the main story IS good enough to carry the extra weight. The central conceit is a programmable fabric (the “Kaelf Skin” of the title) of incredible strength and subtlety. It can be used for therapy. It can be used to enhance the wearer’s physical appearance. OK, fair enough. It can be used for erotic stimulation. . . hmmm, this is getting interesting. . . It can be used to electronically connect two-wearers’ suits for mutual programming. . . *very* interesting. . . It can be used to induce trance-like states that make its wearers susceptible to manipulation — a little over-the-top, perhaps, but Jurek makes one willing to say “OK” and go along for the ride– Now then: KaeLF Skin can also be programed to chemically bind with the wearer’s own human skin–creepy. It can be used to control prisoners. It can be used to kill. It can be used to torture and permanently imprison. . . It can be programmed remotely. Without the wearer’s knowledge. This Kaelf Skin is some wacky, sexy, creepy, seductive, scary stuff.

Jurek takes this premise and runs with it. Who would be interested in such a fabric? Fashion designers. Clothing manufacturers. Physical therapists. Prison wardens. Sadists. Quasi-legal secret government agencies. Sex-obsessed hedonists. Jurek’s book has all of these kinds of characters, and a few more for spice. For example, he invents a cult centered around the fabric. While most of the actors in the book– the protagonist, the villains, and those in between– want to exploit the fabric to their own ends, the Kaelf Kultist literally worship the fabric and submit themselves to its control. I thought this was a great touch, both funny and creepy, and altogether plausible.

Jurek clearly is concerned with the problems of runaway technology. The questions that he implicitly raises are good ones. But this book is not preachy, and one never gets the impression that one is listening to some soapbox speech. Quite the contrary, in fact: Jurek is a very playful author, and his tongue is planted firmly in his cheek throughout.

This is an author with great imagination and heart. I’m looking forward to his next book, and I hope it comes soon.

If you’re out there, John, take a bow. It looks like your KaeLF Skin has arrived, and you novel remains a better guide to its implications than anything by our more famous cyberpunk novelist colleagues. I just hope you were wrong about the more scary parts.

P.S. John’s kind review of my novel Acts of the Apostles is here.

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