[12 November 2007]
In terms of literary merit, genre fiction rarely gets much attention or respect. Mystery, romance, and science fiction/fantasy are more easily written off as repetitions of convention and cliché. So when a loose group of science fiction writers had the temerity to consider itself a movement, it was simple to dismiss such a claim as miscreant self-aggrandizement by a handful of upstarts who self-styled themselves an avant-garde. Far more improbable was that more and more critics, and more importantly readers, would come to accept that claim as time passed.
Yet such is the legacy of cyberpunk. What was initially the short story work of individual young writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, and Lewis Shiner scattered across the pages of Omni and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine rapidly cohered into an aesthetic, a generalized approach to the future that focused heavily on technology’s impact on the very nature of humanity. The catapulting moment was the 1984 publication of Gibson’s debut novel, Neuromancer, a streetwise tale of a dark future that codified a then-unexplored notion of cyberspace. That novel was quickly hailed as a landmark, winning a science fiction trifecta of Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards, and almost immediately seized upon as a banner under which a cadre of similar writers gathered.
While Neuromancer was the first and most important cyberpunk book (and arguably remains so today in spite of rivals to the throne like Neal Stephenson’s 1992 debut Snow Crash) the book that cemented the movement and joined this cadre together under the appellation ‘cyberpunk’ was 1986’s Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling. If Gibson was the Godfather of Cyberpunk (if only by dint of his being the first to break through), then Sterling was its Pope, driven by a vision of the movement as challenging the hegemonies of traditional science fiction, and charging this new aesthetic with a theoretical foundation to mount a challenge against the whole of literature. But where Neuromancer was a celebrated work of vision, Mirrorshades was a hotly contested thesis that drew battle lines.
Chief among the criticisms was whether this group of writers was really a group at all. Though a small core of authors shared ideas and debated the topics of cyberpunk, it remained a fairly exclusive club who even among themselves had never agreed to one specific perspective on the future. Like the Dadaists of the early 20th century, as soon as the Mirrorshades manifesto was fired off, a handful of the writers collected quickly disassociated themselves from it. For one thing, they didn’t have a cohesive style or approach, nor did they all maintain Sterling’s agitprop stance on opposing science fiction’s traditions.
Many were unwilling to play the role of instigator, and the casual lumping of disparate voices into a single theme that was unjustly viewed as emulating Gibson’s achievement unsurprisingly rankled. Even more fundamentally, some of the writers included in Mirrorshades were outsiders to the core group, selected because their stories echoed some of cyberpunk’s ideas, but included mainly to flesh cyberpunk out into a larger body of work in order to justify an anthology (notably not per Sterling’s wishes, but those of the publishing editor). Some writers simply didn’t want to be pigeonholed, and besides, “cyberpunk” was a pretty silly name, and an uncomfortable label with odd implications.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the world of web forums. Cyberpunk became a sticky idea. As early sympathetic critics like Larry McCaffery pointed out, cyberpunk either mirrored or was born out of the era’s paradigm of postmodernism, and the result was that cyberpunk became a shorthand for one aspect of the zeitgeist. In the 1980s, dystopic and/or post-apocalyptic science fiction was hot, and it manifested everywhere from music to movies to prime time TV. Where early cyberpunk took its initial inspiration from Ballard and Burroughs and Bladerunner, Max Headroom and Lawnmower Man took their cues from cyberpunk.
At the heart of this development was the rise of the computer and its far-reaching impact on culture and society. Though Neuromancer was famously anachronistic for having been written on a typewriter, by the end of the ‘80s the computer was vital. By the end of the ‘90s, it was ubiquitous. With the computer came the Internet, and from the get-go cyberpunk was the sanctioned ethos of the early-adopters, real life programmers and hackers fashioning self-images of their status based on the fictional characters of a stylized fiction, with the promises of the Digital Age mirroring the anarchical impulses of its antiheroes. Wired magazine emerged as the lifestyle Bible, promising fresh reinvention with every issue. Virtual reality computer interfaces were coming any day now. Soon, the march of progress indicated, humanity would be transformed into a logged-on global biosphere that eschewed the traditions of labor and operated on the economics of data. And as a mark of this embrace, the Microsoft Word program this document is written on recognizes “cyberpunk” as a legitimate part of its dictionary. In short, cyberpunk had been mainstreamed.
But what of our science fiction avant-garde, these writers who seemed to have not only seen the future and predicted it, but even to have written its script (or at least a template)? This is, in a sense, where Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by science fiction notables John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, picks up by confronting a world that adopted science fiction dreams without necessarily paying attention to the cautionary tales buried within. This collection pointedly begins with a March 1985 quote from Sterling revealing that he’d already seen cyberpunk’s inevitable integration:
However, I don’t worry much about the future of razor’s edge techno-punk. It will be bowdlerized and parodized [sic] and reduced to a formula, just as all other SF innovations have been. It scarcely matters much, because as a ‘movement’, ‘Punk SF’ is a joke. Gibson’s a litterateur who happens to have an unrivaled grasp of the modern pop aesthetic. Shiner writes mainstream and mysteries. Rucker’s crazy; Shirley’s a surrealist; Pat Cadigan’s a technophobe. By ‘95 we’ll all have something else cooking.
Kessel and Kelly go on to point out much of what is laid out above: that in retrospect cyberpunk did prove to be a movement, though one of disparate voices. And if that original group of writers were prescient about the changes technology would make on society, they were also aware of how their own vision would be assimilated. But if the absorption of cyberpunk into the continuing cultural dialog was foreseen, what comes next? As Kessel and Kelly argue in Rewired, it’s a refinement and reevaluation of the original revolution.
According to the editors, the distinguishing mark of post-cyberpunk is that it recognizes and addresses the limitations of the original cyberpunk idea. While cyberpunk’s stereotypical setting was fringe criminals on the street or in the underground fighting against a totalitarian corporate oligarchy, post-cyberpunk recognizes that a society reshaped by technology must still include all aspects of human life, including family, love, ethnicity, entrepreneurship, cooperation, agriculture, spirituality, and that these impulses will also reciprocally shape technology’s impact.
Of these developments in the fiction, it is probably the family angle that adds the most depth to this form. Kessel and Kelly rightly point out that in classic cyberpunk there is often a void in character origins. The seedy antiheroes seem to have been born fully formed from the street itself, without a pause to consider parents and siblings or extended families, as if virtual reality has stripped out the reproductive and hereditary aspects of who we are and where we come from. Classic cyberpunk imagined a world of orphans. Many of the stories here correct this oversight and in some sense rehumanize the characters.
The collection appropriately opens with a story from Sterling, “Bicycle Repairman”, in which the central character lives alone in classic outsider fashion, but maintains an all-too-familiar strained but loving relationship with his mother, who suggests he eat more and find a girlfriend and cajoles him to visit more often. That the young Lyle is a test tube baby doesn’t matter, which not only ties the story to present day debates, but also pokes some fun at the very gap in cyberpunk’s past. Kessel and Kelly also note that the same chiding attitude towards the older traditional science fiction has now been turned on the cyberpunk of the ‘80s as well. The most blatant example of the way realistic family interaction has been brought into play in these tales is found in Elizabeth Bear’s “Two Dreams on Trains”, a very short story that flips the usual cyberpunk script to show how the criminal act to assert individuality, in this case some high-tech graffiti, still leaves a mother in anguish over the criminal status of her son. Remove all science fiction elements and this story makes just as much sense in the present, with an equal sense of pathos.
Kessel and Kelly also rightly point to the fact that the prognostication of post-cyberpunk has shifted from the technology itself (though its role is still central to the science fiction) and towards the concept of the Singularity, an ambiguously defined idea that we are headed towards a future where the concept of humanity itself is destabilized. The Singularity is a tipping point predominantly brought on by technological development, but more importantly by the ways that technology is applied, and is commonly viewed as the end of history and/or the basic fundamentals of what we today think it means to be human.
Depending on the author, this has many potential consequences. In Pat Cadigan’s “The Final Remake of ‘The Return of Little Latin Larry’”, the period that follows the Singularity is one of confused, misquoted notions of a lost past—humorously highlighted by the blurry conjoinment of Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas into one poetic figure—where the simulated sensory experiences of the bygone age are the height of entertainment, and where simulacra upon simulacra has distorted all the details. For Michael Swanwick’s “The Dog Said Bow-Wow”, the body has become a plastic thing, malleable and deceptive, even while the UK has regressed to a parody of the pomp of the Age of Empire. Walter Jon Williams combines the family tale with the notions of ill-defined humanity in “Daddy’s World”, offering insight into the depression and entropy that result when an artificial intelligence modeled after the brain of a dying boy becomes self-aware of its artifice, then outlives its family and function and is unable to grow and develop and live, trapped as it is inside the network of a computer mainframe.
And of all the stories in this album, David Marusek’s “The Wedding Album” explores all of these post-cyberpunk developments the most completely, even absolutely. Tracing the long history of a self-aware virtual reality construct that captured a bride on her wedding day, Marusek uses vivid emotional details to fill in the gaps between the on and off switch, the construct’s memory full of as many holes as there are number of times it is accessed. Marusek’s take on the Singularity forces its inhabitants to deal not only with the rights and status of artificial copies, but also with the weight and psychological impact of our emotions frozen in time. It’s a strange and beautifully handled testing of the boundaries of a love story within the confines of a confusing nightmare.
Like Mirrorshades before it, Rewired has its share of notable omissions and off-kilter inclusions. Kessel and Kelly are quick to point out the absence of Neal Stephenson from this collection. It does seem a glaring hole given that Snow Crash, assuredly the second-most important (or at least popular) cyberpunk novel, set the stage for many of the developments here labeled post-cyberpunk, including issues of family, ethnicity, and a connection with history. However, the editors are quick to point out that leaving Stephenson out of Rewired had more to do with his lack of short story material than a conscious decision not to include him. Other novelists mentioned for absence due to their concentration on the novel form include Melissa Scott, Richard K. Morgan, and Chris Moriarty. Not commented on or explained is the absence of writers from the original cyberpunk cadre like Shirley and Rucker who are yet still active in the field.
Then there is the curious inclusion of a story by Jonathan Lethem. While Lethem’s “How We Got in Town and out Again” and its futuristic spin on They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? certainly deals with cyberpunk ideas (particularly virtual reality) in a truly post-cyberpunk way (particularly what virtual reality looks like to the survivors in a future where even that culture has collapsed in desolation), the problem exists in classifying Lethem as a post-cyberpunk writer. While Lethem’s early work includes some definite science fiction, including his easy-to-read-as-post-cyberpunk debut novel Gun, With Occasional Music, his most recent work is a literature of the present and oriented towards reconciling identity in light of our past origins. Does Lethem count as a post-cyberpunk author? His inclusion here raises the same questions about whether cyberpunk or post-cyberpunk is a legitimate movement, or simply a style with an attendant aesthetic and set of props to be used as a framework.
More questions are raised by the inclusion of the William Gibson piece, which denies the props altogether. In a move that mirrors Mirrorshades, the Gibson inclusion is hard to reconcile as cyberpunk at all, post- or otherwise, and perhaps even as science fiction. In Mirrorshades, “The Gernsback Continuum” worked as a statement of critique against the fanciful utopias of science fiction’s golden years, the very tradition that cyberpunk deigned to challenge. In Rewired, “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City” strips conventions of plot and structure to take a frame-by-frame descriptive tour of a Tokyo subway shanty, removing any actual character even while building one from a set of inferences into the life of the squatter made by examining the details of his makeshift home. Again, without a few minor science fiction details, there’s no reason to place this in the future at all.
By dropping the pretext of data pirates and sexy, streetwise women, Gibson seems to be showing that habitat has an important and overlooked place in the speculative future. It may be bric-a-brac, but it is a habitat constructed of fine details of our own device. It’s a strangely humanizing turn for a story that has no humans directly in it, and in that sense it fits the mold, but once again, the Godfather of Cyberpunk’s contribution stands out as a turn away from the genre, something that’s also been developing in Gibson’s most recent novels.
With all the parallels to its predecessor, it’s impossible to avoid asking the same central questions. Is post-cyberpunk a movement? Or is it simply what comes after one? If cyberpunk was aligned in sympathy with or born out of postmodernism, does post-cyberpunk share a similar critical affinity to a different paradigm? Or is the claim that cyberpunk is dead identical to other postmodern postmortems, which are flashy and alluring, but a tad inflated?
In many respects this is an issue of time. Philosophy faced the same problem when it embraced the title “postmodern” since the use of “post” implies “after”. After the distillations of modernity came the desert of the real. And after cyberpunk comes… more cyberpunk? Kessel and Kelly would have us believe that what lies beyond is the Singularity itself, but history keeps sticking its foot in the closing door.
Put bluntly, the inverse to the prophetic-in-hindsight perspective of classic cyberpunk is that the fantasies of the ‘80s through late ‘90s haven’t all come to pass. Sure, Second Life is a growing Snow Crash-like video game, but it’s a far cry from virtual reality. Our cell phones are growing increasingly sophisticated, but we still watch the big game on good old television. The kind of technological determinism that fueled the future in the ‘80s now seems quaint. The world wasn’t a wasteland at the dawn of the 21st century, and Y2K is now a somewhat fondly remembered joke.
A few factors are at play here. First of all, technological development may seem rapid, but innovation and distribution don’t actually occur in compounding cascade. Science may be great, but it has its limitations as well. More importantly, social structures are designed to adapt. That’s what has made them vital survival mechanisms. For all that the technology of 2007 seems wild by 1980 standards, the foundations of culture and society have used that technology to maintain themselves, instead of being swept away like out of date fashions. Rather than information overload, we seem years from approaching our social storage capacity or processing speed, and any kind of doomsday prophecy might as well be a guy with a sandwich board howling at passers by.
This is, ironically, the “Gernsback Continuum” applied to cyberpunk itself. Snow Crash is nearly a decade younger than Neuromancer, yet it was almost immediately dated when it tried to set a timeline in a near-future world. The complete restructuring of culture and society and geopolitical boundaries occurring by the end of the 20th century? How silly we were. It’s no less a thrilling story with a whip-smart social critique in the details, but today its improbability cuts into its impact. Those Wired magazine stories that were so enticing once now seem goofy and naïve. That same sense of incredulity plagues the stories in Rewired. As the writers have pushed back their prognosis to later decades, they’ve started to ring a bit hollow. No, science fiction writers should never be held accountable for their stories not actually happening—that isnot
the point of science fiction—but wasn’t that a part of cyberpunk’s thrill, regardless? Now, whenever a stray 20th century awestruck-at-1999 moment sneaks in, we’re reminded that we’re living in the future today, and it doesn’t seem all too terribly different, just more crowded.
What Rewired does succeed at is showing how those original cyberpunk ideas are also adaptable. These writers have not only refined their concepts, they’ve asked us to stop focusing on the devices, both technological and literary, and pay attention to the larger themes and the philosophical questions raised at the heart of these stories. To dismiss the Singularity for not happening according to schedule is to miss the point of the speculation itself. What cyberpunk did most effectively was to take the futurism of science fiction and apply it in a more direct, visceral, and even exciting manner to the greater literary question of what it means to be human. If these stories are indeed post-cyberpunk, if such a thing even exists, then they are a continuation of that aim.
These authors are no longer the young punks rattling the gates, but are now the respected establishment still plugging away at some complex questions that resonate regardless of their context in a nebulous future. The song remains the same. On a basic level of genre fiction, Rewired is a short story collection filled with very good stories by very good science fiction writers offering very engaging ideas. Maybe it’s no more, but it’s certainly no less. As to whether this constitutes a movement in its own right, the answer seems to be no. But post-cyberpunk is movement.