Aging Chrome: Cyberpunks in 2009

Here are a few characteristic, albeit somewhat tendentiously chosen facts about the year 1984, courtesy of the invaluable tagging function of Wikipedia.

  • Ronald Reagan held the office of president of the USA.
  • The Soviet Union still flourished.
  • The Space Shuttle Challenger made its fourth flight into orbit.
  • Moviegoers enjoyed Police Academy, Footloose, and The Karate Kid.
  • Music lovers welcomed new vinyl albums from Hall & Oates, Wham!, the Cars, and Culture Club.
  • William Gibson’s debut novel, Neuromancer, was published as a paperback original, launching the cyberpunk movement.

Twenty-five years later, Reagan, the Soviet Union, and the Challenger craft and its final crew are all dead. The policies of the first two political entities named above have been, to greater or lesser degree, thoroughly discredited, while the obsolescent Space Shuttle program is almost fully phased out. The movies and albums cited, while perhaps still watchable and listenable, have spawned no recent progeny or movements, have not become touchstones, and look and sound positively antique.

But William Gibson is still writing, perhaps better than ever, with Neuromancer remaining in print and being taught in many schools. The movement Gibson helped to create and publicize stands tall alongside a legacy of fulfilled prophecy and ground-breaking artistic achievement. The movement has been taken up by a new generation of writers, at least the third generation of cyberpunks, if not the fourth, and cyberpunk’s tenets and styles, attitudes and tropes have been to a great extent absorbed into all science fiction as foundational material — futuristic wallpaper, if you will.

Cyberpunk’s style and outlook continue to exert an extra-literary influence in the culture at large, even among those unfamiliar with the core texts. The landscape of 2009 has become to a large extent the same wired, information-saturated, absurdist, multicultural, hardscrabble future predicted in Neuromancer and other cyberpunk works. My very use of Wikipedia to launch this article is, in fact, a thoroughly Gibsonian moment.

Twenty-five years onward from Neuromancer, then, the worth, prescience and general ambiance of cyberpunk seem utterly well known and widely distributed. But what goes somewhat overlooked in this success is that almost all the original practitioners — including, if truth be told, the writer of this essay, whose name can be found among the annointed in the canonical Mirrorshades anthology — are still productive, having adapted their work to post-cyberpunk realities in both the literary marketplace and the culture at large. Here, then, is a look at three recent offerings by first-generation cyberpunks.

John Shirley was always among the most politically engaged of cyberpunks, with a raw Huey Long urgency to his rock’n’roll-infused jeremiads. His Eclipse Trilogy (1985-90) postulated a right-wing fascist takeover of Europe, a Thatcherist fate that seemed likely at the time. So it seems a trifle odd at first to find him concentrating of late on supernatural fantasy, a genre often characterized by an airy-fairy disconnectedness from realpolitik. But readers of his newest, Bleak History, will discover Shirley still raging against the machine. (Oddly enough, another first-gen cyberpunk, Richard Kadrey, has simultaneously ventured into this same territory with his novel, Sandman Slim.)

The abusive power structure in this scenario is a US government black-budget organization called Central Containment Authority. Central Containment knows a secret: that magic is real, a kind of unexplored physics. They wish to bring all magic users under government control, ostensibly to prevent any kind of supernatural Chernobyl. But a corrupt president and a pawned general, utilizing a day-after-tomorrow terrorist attack as excuse, are more concerned with their megalomaniacal personal goals.

Our hero is Gabriel Bleak, member of the Shadow Community. As one of the most powerful wizards around, Bleak is being chased by CCA. His reluctant but oftentimes lethal response assumes a personal dimension when he discovers that his long-lost brother Sean has been co-opted by the CCA. Will assistance both mystical and practical from government agent Loraine Sarikosca, Bleak’s “soul mate,” be enough to turn the tide in favor of the rogues? And how does a mysterious artifact buried at the North Pole tie in?

With its conspiracies and factions and secret histories, Shirley’s novel partakes of a Pynchonesque vibe. That particular postmodernist was always a model for cyberpunk. Additionally, Shirley precisely fulfills the capsule description of cyberpunk — “low lifes and high tech” — if we accept his equation of “magic equals technology.” He abets this view by couching the supernatural in cyber terms: “Familiars?are like a computer program, that we put out to run in the Hidden.” And don’t forget the precedent of the AI loas that inhabited Gibson’s cyberspace.

Shirley’s novel will ultimately remind readers of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy mythos. Although not generally included in the main lineage of cyberpunk, Hellboy, who debuted in 1991, has always struck me as owing much of his literary genome to the cyberpunk vision, a kind of lateral descendant. So it’s intriguing to see one of Hellboy’s godfathers blithely and gracefully waltzing with that particular mutant offspring.

From the start of the cyberpunk movement, Rudy Rucker’s fiction has focused on complexity and on speculative, cutting-edge strangeness. And on gonzo behavior and style. Can’t forget that last essential. His early critical theorizing about the nature of cyberpunk emphasized its bandwidth and bold inclusivity: fat pipes filled with mucho weirdness. The intersection of Rucker’s interests with the generic Blade Runner future would typically involve brain-eating robots or sex spheres from alternate dimensions. The motto of the mega-popular blog Boing Boing, itself a cyberpunk affiliate of sorts, “A directory of wonderful things,” might very well be applied to Rucker’s fiction.

His latest, Hylozoic, a sequel to Postsingular (2007), ramps up the strangeness to new levels.

In the previous novel, Earth underwent a sea change known as Lazy Eight Day. Compacted dimensions of spacetime became unfurled, giving humans godlike powers of telepathy and teleportation and matter control. Matter, moreover, became sentient — the new title is the defining adjective for this condition — with every atom and composite entity possessing at least a rudimentary mind, right up to Gaia, the supreme instantiation of the whole planet. Humanity now consists of post-scarcity slackers and those denialists who stubbornly pursue the old ways of living. Our heroes are husband-and-wife media stars Thuy and Jayjay, and the autistic savant child of friends, Chu. The three, with a little help from a transdimensional Hieronymous Bosch, will combat a dual alien invasion from the Peng and the Hrull, who are intent on colonizing our world.

Rucker’s amiable, antic apocalypse is full of loose-limbed Beatnik/Firesign Theatre/Warner Brothers cartoon goofiness. His rigorous extrapolation of quantum strangeness veers deeply into that territory identified by Arthur C. Clarke, where technology becomes magic, but Rucker plays square with the reader by imposing sharp boundaries of digital logic that encourage genuine narrative peril and suspense. His dialogue-heavy style lends a cinematic immediacy to the action. And just as cyberpunks were always happy to acknowledge ancestors such as Samuel Delany and Alfred Bester, so Rucker tips his hat to the comic genius of Robert Sheckley.

What’s most energizing about the novel is how precisely it mirrors and valorizes our current condition. As all our revered and immemorial fiscal and cultural systems collapse about us, some of us stick our heads in the sand, but others creatively surf the chaos straight into the optimistic future SF has always held dearest.

Back in the day, we all called Bruce Sterling “Chairman Bruce.” As chief ideological helmsman and theoretician of the cyberpunks, he juggled the cognitively dissonant tasks of enforcing the party line and simultaneously encouraging a thousand flowers of hip speculative fiction to bloom. He always handled the job with sardonic wit and ingenious prescriptions. And of course, his own artful prose and conceptual brilliance precisely exemplified just what needed to be done to drag science fiction kicking and screaming into the postmodern era.

Almost from his first published work, Sterling deployed a formidable, fully honed toolkit which he continues to draw from down to the present. Assembling journalistic hot-button topics and bleeding-edge scientific research with an avant-gardist’s sensibility and a historian’s acumen, he manifested razor-sharp fictions that combined Heinlein-level verisimilitude with brain-boggling Big Ideas. If his characters sometimes seemed antiseptic — well, he’s improved even on that deficiency, as any reader of his newest novel, The Caryatids, will swiftly observe. For underneath its scintillating, glittering futurist overlay, the book is all about character.

The caryatids are seven female clones of a criminal woman, a “Balkan Lady Macbeth” named Yelisaveta Mihajlovic. In the year 2065, only four clones survive: Biserka, Sonja, Mila and Vera. Despite identical genomes, each woman boasts a unique personality: criminal, soldier, artist, worker. And it is through these four finely formed female filters that Sterling will shine a piercing light on his broken-backed future, a climate-disaster world where billions have died but where humanity’s future is still full of glorious potential — if the species survives at all. Two rival globally distributed entities, the Dispensationists and the Acquis, as well as the last remaining nation-state, China, compete to impose their vision of proper living on the world, providing the impetus for a slambang thriller of a plot.

Sterling has imaginatively inhabited every finely polished inch of his subcreation, from the desert plains of Mongolia to a drowning, burning Los Angeles. His technological extrapolations are matched only by his sociological insights. His portrait of the caryatids is authentic and deep, serving as both anchor and sail for the vessel of his story.

Warmhearted, big-spirited, grimly humorous, cynical yet hopeful, resembling Ursula LeGuin’s famous “Nine Lives” retooled into a rap song by M.I.A., then condensed into a Twitter feed to amuse Somali pirates, Sterling’s newest proves that when a cyberpunk is once truly plugged into the zeitgeist, the mere passage of twenty-five years does nothing to degrade his performance, relevance or wisdom.