A True Tale of Lust, War and Betrayal On the Electronic Frontier

By Indra Sinha

Viking. 394 pp. $28.95

Reviewed by Linton Weeks

Type the name Indra Sinha into the Yahoo! Internet directory, and you'll discover that he is, among other things, a translator of the Kama Sutra.

In his exotic, electric new memoir, The Cybergypsies: A True Tale of Lust, War and Betrayal on the Electronic Frontier, Sinha again serves as a translator. This time he's deciphering the digital world for the rest of us, speaking of his own addiction to computers and, specifically, of an early form of online role-playing entertainment called a MUD, or multi-user dungeon.

Assuming the nickname "Bear," Sinha -- a London public-service advertising copywriter -- narrates his deeper and deeper descent into a make-believe game-world. He stays up all hours type-talking to other cybergypsies around the world. He neglects his nature-loving wife, Eve, and children. The line between his real life and his surreal life blurs, then vanishes: "I sit down at the machine. The house is empty, my family has disappeared and I sit at the machine. Can't think of anything else to do. This is what I always do. I don't feel right unless I'm sitting here."

This is a clever, inspired tale of the pre-World Wide Web days when folks communicated via bulletin boards, companies charged hourly access fees, and mad hackers roamed the phone lines. We meet strange characters -- online and off -- such as the puritanical pornographer Nasty Ned; the cannibal Pompadora; Lilith, who prefers virtual sex to the real thing; and Jarly, who can't afford food because he spends all his money on phone bills.

"Jarly has tried many times to break his modem habit," Sinha writes. "He's tried everything he can think of but, lying on his narrow bed, he knows that sooner or later he will succumb to the whispering of that little mouth in the wall. He describes to me the self-hatred and sweetness of the inevitable moment of surrender, of giving in, letting go, of busy fingers conjuring a fix, the buzz of the modem coming to life, the whistle of connection sliding like a needle into his brain, and the rush of relief as he floats into the game."

With Sinha as participant/guide, we tour the spooky electronic underworld and the equally eerie real world. And we delve into the most complex network of all -- the human imagination. Sinha calls it the Coconet.

Now and then, Sinha interrupts his impressionistic narrative for basic explanations -- modems, viruses, trojan horses. Or for poetic exposition: "In cyberspace, for the first time, we create imaginary worlds which can truly be shared, in which each of us is fully present, with the power of free and spontaneous action. We no longer have to follow a script. We can play inside each other's imaginations."

E-world story lines and real-life relationships are creatively interwoven. Occasionally, however, Sinha goes too far. The reader must surrender to the notion that Bear is living in a similarly befuddling fog, confusing eff-2-eff (face to face) with ess-2-ess (screen to screen). Sinha also fills many pages with technological gobbledygook that will drive some readers away. This book is not for everyone.

But for those who care about the ways in which the new technology is swaying us, and the ways it isn't, Sinha has written a new-edge love story of adman and Eve in the garden. Though Bear loses touch with reality and begins to speak to his wife as he does to his online friends, and though Eve, in turn, develops an interest in someone else and explores her own imagination -- with no need of a computer -- the two truly love each other. And that steadfastness conquers all.

This is an intriguing experiment in nonfiction because, like the online world, it is so filled with fiction. But there is, at the center of this story, a deep and abiding truth. As fantastic and fascinating as the man-made technology might be, it will never come close to the majesty and wonder of the God-made world.

Linton Weeks is a Washington Post staff writer who covers books and publishing.