The Cold Cash War, Robert Asprin

Ace, 1977 (1992 reprint), 212 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-11382-6

I’m not sure one could conceivably call this a “proto-cyberpunk” novel, but there’s certainly some eerily prescient content in here, even a quarter of a century after original publication.

You see (and please note that spoilers will follow), The Cold Cash War posits a future in which corporations are almost literally fighting against one another. The only “almost” that makes it impossible to use the unqualified “literally” is that, at least at the beginning of the novel, they use mock weapons and mock munitions, relying instead on a computerized system to account for kills and damage and such. Though bloodless, this is no mere set of simulations: the objectives gained or lost during those battles are very real, and the corporations act accordingly with the results of those battles, bound as they are by intricate agreements about this sort of thing.

But things escalate when a proposition is made at the highest levels arguing that “fake” munitions expended should be tied to real-world supply stocks. Suddenly, the war heats up and Real Deaths ensue in a shadowy campaign just this side of public exposure. But exposure there is, and by mid-book the governments are trying to shut down the renegade corporations. But in this particular reality, governments are breathtakingly corrupt and citizens quickly side with corporations (???) against the established order. Moments later, universal peace ensues and we’re left to imagine a future in which a cash-padded slipper is stamped upon the face of mankind –forever.

Are you laughing yet? Because despite the grim plot summary above, the 1992 reprint of Robert Asprin’s The Cold Cash War is definitely marketed as a fluffy comedy: “Corporate takeovers were never so hostile” blares the cover illustration as two GQ-worthy young executives fire at each other over a backdrop of business suit-clad armies. Even the book itself seems to be aiming for a broadly satiric tone, with its broad-brush hopeless view of governments and corporations. Chapter 22’s concluding “Big Speech”, in all of its simplistic glory, hearkens back to the golden age of satiric SF more than conventional SF

But one of the book’s biggest problem is that this satire falls flat, or more accurately that the tone of the book keeps shifting toward grimmer and grimmer territory as it advances. The encroaching power of corporations is no small matter nowadays, and there’s something quietly suffocating in the novel’s heady rush to oligarchy. This is dark comedy at its blackest, until it’s not comedy any more. The last line of the novel completes the circle, forever erasing whatever giggle factor the novel may have initially possessed.

There are other problems, mind you: Threadbare characters, a profusion of useless vignettes, a lack of focus, hum-drum action scenes and truly inconsistent storytelling (at time broad and at other times quite specific) all fail to do justice to the ideas behind the story. But it’s the shifting tone that makes The Cold Cash War such a jarring read.

Much better has been written on the subject since, whether in a serious or satiric mode. But this may take its place in cyberpunk’s anti-corporate lineage. SF historians take note. Meanwhile, I’ll still be waiting for the wacky SF novel promised by the book’s cover.

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