Fri
Feb 3 2012 2:00pm

Looking Back on Womack’s Ambient, Cyberpunk, and Elvis Presley’s Vomitous Death

In order to understand Jack Womack’s first novel Ambient, I want to go back to the future that was the summer of the year 2000.

I’d become somewhat obsessed with an art exhibit; the Walker Art Center’s traveling exhibition of postmodern art entitled Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures. It ran at the Portland Art Museum from early July through mid-September, and I visited it often, bringing friends and family members back with me and introducing them to Jeff Koon’s penis, Takashi Murakami’s pornographic statue of an anime girl whose giant breasts gushed milk in a frozen action sequence, Dara Birnbaum’s Wonder Woman spin video, and a video reenactment of Elvis Presley’s vomitous death on his toilet. For some reason, I wanted everyone to see these things.

Just what did it mean? How bad was it that this stuff was in the gallery? And should alienation be considered art? When the show left town I felt hollowed out and anxious, but I did manage to hold onto a piece of it. I purchased a copy of the companion book Let’s Entertain and found that, on page 89, there was an interview with Jack Womack entitled “It’s Always the Same.” It was a reprint from Purple Prose magazine circa 1995.

Womack is a near future science fiction writer, so in 1995 he had his finger on the pulse of yesterday’s tomorrow, or on what we think of as today. It’s well worth considering what he said in that interview:

“Everybody in America is one paycheck away from disaster. We convince ourselves that we’re not, but you get two bad weeks in there, and you have real trouble. In my novel Random Acts I’m saying ’This could happen to you—think about it.’”

– Jack Womack, Let’s Entertain, pg. 92

In Womack’s dystopian Ambient, the world of finance and business, wealth and splendor, still works to maintain order even though it has been exposed as nothing but a brutal lie. For instance, Womack describes a roller derby “conference” in the book. The CEO villain, Mister Dryden, stages his corporate mergers, acquires his rivals assets, through this ritual blood sport. The niceties of money, of portfolios and trading, all of that healthy capitalism has been replaced by this deadly roller derby where the participants, half naked gun molls with daggers protruding from their leather bras, use battle axes and chains to accomplish what Dryden needs: primitive accumulation.

The new player—wearing skates—was more than six feet high. Her upper armor consisted of black chain mail worn over a breastplate. Long black leather leggies rose on high; her elbow and knee guards bore sharp spikes. She was nude between her navel and thighs. She carried a long mace and a broadax...

’[That’s] Crazy Lola. We grew up on the same block. She’s fucking psycho.’

Crazy Lola hadn’t run the ground twenty seconds before she’d maced our sales manager. Out last regular player, the VP of demography, dispatched SatCom’s last executary with his kendo pole, only to skid into the path of Lola. Slipping her mace into her holster and raising her broadax, she brought the latter down on his crasher and split his head to the chest.

— Jack Womack, Ambient, pg. 31

For Womack even this violence is a charade or a spectacle. Before the fight begins, he announces that the game is fixed. Dryden always wins even if he loses. So there are no stakes here, the Mtv battlefield, the neon arena, is a distraction from the real conflict. Still, we have to read on. Womack spares us none of the gory details, and thus the violence is made worse. The fact that we know that the proceedings are pointless compels us to understand how complicit we are as we enjoy the scene.

“Our audience, heady with delight…stood Avalon an ovation as she rolled to our barricade. She burst into tears…without thinking of consequence I threw my arms around her and hugged her…she returned my embrace, tightened; my chest stung with the prick of her daggers.”

— Jack Womack, Ambient, pg 32

Cyberpunk was a contradictory genre just as the Walker Art Center exhibit was contradictory. On the one hand, it was a genre that criticized and even lamented a society dominated by information technology and multinational capitalism, but on the other it was a literature that understood what it meant to live in a world wherein the financial sector could roam free.

Back in the late sixties Nixon cut the leash that was the gold standard, and over the following decades a stream of zeros and ones, of virtual money, encircled the globe. By 1985 the machine language of the new system was on everyone’s lips, and cyberpunk authors could hear how different this language really was. We were all of us saying strange things and the cyberpunk authors, men and women like Jack Womack and Pat Cadigan, could understand what we meant even as we were mostly confused. Cyberpunks heard the clamor, deciphered it, and were appalled.

We are surrounded by a massive overflow of stimuli—a sea of images and information generated by television, movies, video, newspapers, magazines, cartoons, billboards, posters, and commercial packaging that transforms our everyday life into an endless loop of multisensory spectacles and fictions."

-Walker Art Center Webpage for the exhibit Let’s Entertain

And yet, cyberpunk was also a genre that recorded a kind of liberation. Something had been set free in 1969, and while inequality was the marker of the new era, while global poverty was one of its consequences, the cyberpunks dreamed that this new poverty might be different. This was four-star poverty. Dumpster divers could find microchips and converter cables. Johnny Mnemonic could tap into the virtual stream of Capital and the mean streets were transformed. It was a dystopia awash in neon light and Madison Avenue sex appeal.

Cyberpunks enjoyed their own dystopian nightmares. Why? Because, as nightmares, they still contained a kernel of some long-standing dream.

 


Douglas Lain is a fiction writer, a “pop philosopher” for the popular blog Thought Catalog, and the podcaster behind the Diet Soap Podcast. His most recent book, a novella entitled “Wave of Mutilation,” was published by Fantastic Planet Press (an imprint of Eraserhead) in October of 2011, and his first novel, entitled “Billy Moon: 1968” is due out from Tor Books in 2013. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.

5 comments
Ken La Salle
1. Ken La Salle
Awesome article, Douglas! Glad to see you writing for Tor!
Ken La Salle
2. DaveGeek
I was a big fan of the cyberpunk genre but as ultimately it had a limited lifespan. It was very much a product of its time and milieu, like hardcore punk of the 80s. And like HC only a little of it has a timeless quality.

I really like this article as in it you have touched on one of the factors that drove me away from cyberpunk, the vast amount of fawning over laissez-faire economics even while portraying its outcome as a dystopia. The mega-corps represented the bad sort of capitalists while a lot of the "heroes" represented the good sort who were always hustling and looking for the big score to elevate themselves and maybe, as an incidental, take down the mega-corps. After a while that sort of amoral outlook kind of wore my enthusiasm down. I do recall some class-concious cyberpunk being out there but what little I read either read as liberal claptrap or was just poorly written.
Douglas Lain
3. douglain
DaveGeek,
Thanks for leaving your comment here. My response may seem like a bit of a nonsequitur, but I think it engages with what you're saying but from the side a bit.
Last night I was listening to a lecture by the Marxist economist Andrew Kliman and he was asked about Marx's theory of exploitation. That is, Marx theorized that all profits under Capitalism are generated by exploitation, but the questioner wondered if Marx had meant to point to the unfairness of this situation or not. Kliman said that one had to develop an historical sense of justice (Nietzsche springs to mind) and realize that Marx isn't urging us to seek fairness but wants instead to demystify our situation. So, to bring this back to the point, from that perspective a working class protagonist in a cyberpunk novel may be no more helpful than a hustling Capitalist one.
Chuk Goodin
4. Chuk
Love what I've read of Womack. His
Random Acts of Senseless Violence was amazing and shows you how the setting came to be through the eyes of one character.
Roland of Gilead
5. pKp
The whole political side of cyberpunk, the idea of showing society's worst places as a way of illustrating political thought, is IMHO very much a legacy of the hard-boiled/noir crime novel that gave cyberpunk about half its genome (the other half being, obviously, classic SF). I seem to remember a Gibson interview where he states that he was a lot more influenced by Chandler and Hammet than, say, Asimov.
About DaveGeek's point @2...the fact that most CP protagonists are "good" capitalists, in addition to being another legacy of noir (Marlowe is just looking to make ends meet, not to exact some kind of social justice), is also a consequence of the fact that cyberpunk is a post-political world. It's probably clearest in Stephenson's Snow Crash: the governements have all failed, disappeared or withered, and all that's left are megacorp-owned Franchise-Operated Quasi-National Entities (like MacDonald's for citizenship, basically). In that kind of context, you can't actually do anything to make things better globally (you don't take on megacorps or the Yakuza unless you've got a real bad death wish or can't do anything else).
Interestingly, most Cyberpunk novels I've read still involve the protag going against megacorps (T-A in Neuromancer, L. Bob Rife's corp in Snow Crash, etc).

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