Death to cyberpunk! Long live the new flesh!
When I read Neuromancer at sixteen I was completely unprepared for it. Its dense prose, mystifying imagery and hard-boiled aesthetic bypassed my analytical circuits—where much of the science fiction I’d previously read had settled nicely, in a somewhat detached realm of ideas and thought experiments—and rushed directly to my limbic system. The text seemed to download itself directly into my amygdala, and it wasn’t an enjoyable process. In fact, I almost gave up on it several times.
The novel was too stylized, too ambiguous, too saturated in every way—and too discontinuous from the science fiction I’d experienced before.
But I couldn’t get it out of my system.
When the initial overload dissipated, I thought to myself, “Well, that was an interesting one-off,” and returned to what I thought would be known quantities, the field’s current and/or emerging writers, who surely would give me exciting but nonetheless more comprehensible stuff. Casting around for stories and novels that were getting “buzz,” I found myself reading Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan and K. W. Jeter, and before you can say “neon chrysanthemum” the cold vertigo of disorientation was upon me again, though somewhat lessened by my initial Gibson-esque inoculation.
Sterling and Cadigan and Jeter weren’t really writing like Gibson—who was?—but somehow their work was crossing frequencies with his. I was intrigued. By reading discussions and reviews of Gibson’s work, I discovered some of his literary precursors, like William Burroughs and Raymond Chandler, and realized that there were continuities after all, just not neat ones with writers like Asimov or Le Guin, with whom I was better acquainted. Next, I stumbled onto Will Self and Jeff Noon and Michael Marshall Smith and was stretched in a dozen different postmodern ways. (Later I would find out that academics liked to twin postmodernism with cyberpunk. Whether that juxtaposition holds up to scrutiny is up for debate). By the time I was nineteen, heavily into industrial music, and immersed in the imagery of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, whose films bled across all sorts of biological/technological/metaphysical divides, I was ready to reconsider the science fiction of the cyberpunk pioneers.
I’ve been reconsidering it ever since.
You see, uneasy reconciliation is, for me, the best way to respect what I perceive as the spirit underlying cyberpunk. John Clute wrote that Neuromancer offers “a double intuition … about the nature of the world to come—that we are hugely empowered, that we are essentially powerless,” elucidating an important reason the novel was initially so hard for me to decrypt and warm to. Cyberpunk often deals in grimy, rainy, drug-infested, hypercapitalist near-futures. Consider the “Pills” and “Derms” in Neuromancer, the “sink” of John Shirley’s Eclipse, or even the eponymous “snow crash” of Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk-descended narrative. But cyberpunk neither glorifies nor condemns these addictions. Likewise, its attitude toward technology, beyond recognizing that it will likely colonize every niche of the human ecosystem, and that such an infiltration will produce traumas along the way, is primarily ambivalent.
This fundamental irresolution, coupled with a provocative, almost transgressive pastiche of noir—a genre itself renowned for its moral ambiguity—is part of what makes cyberpunk endlessly fascinating, but also barbed and nettlesome. Fully accepting cyberpunk, I feel, would turn it into the mulch of the established. It would remove the “punk” and leave us with an empty, crassly commercial “cyber.” (No “the” in front of “cyber,” please, regardless of what you hear out there).
As Cat Rambo has so aptly written, “The worst aspect of cyberpunk is the way it’s been commercialized and turned inside out, made into a smartphone skin rather than a question.” I think that to truly embrace cyberpunk we must also resist it, the latter being necessary for the former. After all, by doing so we’re merely flinging the genre’s questioning attitude back on itself, and forcing its continued relevance.
Admittedly, I don’t return to the seminal cyberpunk works often. Been a while since I donned mirrorshades and jacked in to cowboy consoles. But I do enjoy discovering the influence of cyberpunk on modern writers, like David J. Williams’ Autumn Rain trilogy, or the Takeshi Kovacs novels by Richard K. Morgan, or Simon Morden’s Metrozone series.
I also like to go back and read books of the cyberpunk heyday that I missed the first time around, texts I think will help flesh out my understanding of its historical development. A few months ago, following the recommendation of my good friend David Molina, who happens to be a software designer, I hit on George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails and was completely swept up by its intricate plot, rich color, grim, sarcastic humor, clever extrapolations and shimmering sexuality. Because they are stylistically so different, my mental network of science fiction doesn’t place When Gravity Fails alongside Neuromancer, but intellectually I can see they have common elements, and can both be labeled as cyberpunk.
That’s certainly part of the joy of any outgrowth in science fiction; exploring precisely how it has grown out, and seeing how different one offshoot is from the next.
Donald A. Wollheim, founder of DAW books and editor of the first dedicated science fiction anthologies back in the 1940s, writes in The Universe Makers that “science fiction builds upon science fiction. As a result of this, modern stories are freer to deal with sociological possibilities and the movement of humanity under future conditions.” He was referring to the fact that once a concept like the matter transporter or the FTL drive enters science fiction, it doesn’t need to be re-explained and re-justified by subsequent writers. It becomes part of a common conceptual toolkit. That’s clearly the case with some cyberpunk concepts, like virtuality or neuro-augmentation or nano-surgery, which are widely used in movies, comic books, or video games today.
Another insightful assessment can be found in Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things: “tomorrow composts today.” So it is with science fiction. Today’s works compost those that came before, reconsidering and remixing narratives that have lost some of their former inventive sheen and chic appeal, narratives, if you will, that are beginning to decompose in the broader cultural consciousness. Contemporary storytellers rescue previous works’ most organic and adaptable elements and recycle them into the imaginative soil from which new stories can be grown.
This is something happening in cyberpunk right now.
Approaches to this rescue-and-remold operation are as varied as their practitioners, as can be gathered from comments made in a recent Tor.com discussion by contributors to the new cyberpunk anthology, Cyber World. (Clear disclosure: I’m also a contributor). For Madeline Ashby, staying away from a “checklist” mentality is key; getting on with a good story is ultimately what matters. Indeed, always a useful thing to remember.
Stephen Graham Jones, who is not crazy about the name cyberpunk, finds that the sub-genre nevertheless continues to present stimulation, a sense of frontier exploration: “… this space you’re writing in actually and really feels like the next step.” That was definitely my experience writing my Cyber World story, “wysiomg.”
Matthew Kressel points out that “cyberpunk will continue to anticipate the future in ways other genres can’t, simply because it has been exploring the implications of rapid technological change for decades.” Another key insight; as mentioned before, one of cyberpunk’s strengths is depicting the inundation of everyday life by all-permeating technology.
No doubt, fresh personal perspectives will continue to revitalize cyberpunk. Nisi Shawl talks about exploring cyberpunk’s “concerns from a place of conscious intersectionality,” which is already paying off interesting dividends in her work, and Alyssa Wong reminds us that “cyberpunk can also be a good vehicle through which to explore physical and emotional trauma,” something I tried to explicitly tackle in my story.
In fact, I believe that all of the above, along with a willingness to engage in stylistic experimentation and work in the overall mode of ambivalence I described before, will guarantee cyberpunk’s longevity for a long time.
The first line of this piece references Videodrome, and it seems apt to end by invoking a lesser David Cronenberg movie, eXistenZ. About two-thirds of the way through, a character says, “I’m feeling a little disconnected from my real life. I’m kind of losing touch with the texture of it, you know what I mean? … I actually think there’s an element of psychosis involved here.”
To which another character responds: “That’s a great sign. It means your nervous system is fully engaging with the game architecture. The game is a lot more fun when it starts to feel realer than real.”
As a reader and writer, these seem to me fine words with which to describe cyberpunk.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro writes fiction, of the non-tingler variety, and non-fiction, of the technicolor kind. Alvaro is one of the contributors for Cyber World, an anthology of diverse tales of humanity’s tomorrow, available from Hex Publishers.