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 The niceties of money, of portfolios and trading, all of that healthy capitalism has been replaced by this deadly roller derby where the participants, half naked gun molls with daggers protruding from their leather bras, use battle axes and chains to accomplish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."
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.