Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk & Postmodern Science Fiction

Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk & Postmodern Science Fiction

by Larry McCaffery

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The term “cyberpunk” entered the literary landscape in 1984 to describe William Gibson’s pathbreaking novel Neuromancer. Cyberpunks are now among the shock troops of postmodernism, Larry McCaffery argues in Storming the Reality Studio, marshalling the resources of a fragmentary culture to create a startling new form. Artificial


The term “cyberpunk” entered the literary landscape in 1984 to describe William Gibson’s pathbreaking novel Neuromancer. Cyberpunks are now among the shock troops of postmodernism, Larry McCaffery argues in Storming the Reality Studio, marshalling the resources of a fragmentary culture to create a startling new form. Artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, multinational machinations, frenetic bursts of prose, collisions of style, celebrations of texture: although emerging largely from science fiction, these features of cyberpunk writing are, as this volume makes clear, integrally related to the aims and innovations of the literary avant-garde.

By bringing together original fiction by well-known contemporary writers (William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Kathy Acker, J. G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany), critical commentary by some of the major theorists of postmodern art and culture (Jacques Derrida, Fredric Jameson, Timothy Leary, Jean-François Lyotard), and work by major practitioners of cyberpunk (William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, Bruce Sterling), Storming the Reality Studio reveals a fascinating ongoing dialog in contemporary culture.

What emerges most strikingly from the colloquy is a shared preoccupation with the force of technology in shaping modern life. It is precisely this concern, according to McCaffery, that has put science fiction, typically the province of technological art, at the forefront of creative explorations of our unique age.
A rich opporunity for reading across genres, this anthology offers a new perspective on the evolution of postmodern culture and ultimately shows how deeply technological developments have influenced our vision and our art.

Selected Fiction contributors: Kathy Acker, J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, Pat Cadigan, Samuel R. Delany, Don DeLillo, William Gibson, Harold Jaffe, Richard Kadrey, Marc Laidlaw, Mark Leyner, Joseph McElroy, Misha, Ted Mooney, Thomas Pynchon, Rudy Rucker, Lucius Shepard, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, Bruce Sterling, William Vollman

Selected Non-Fiction contributors: Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Fredric Jameson, Arthur Kroker and David Cook, Timothy Leary, Jean-François Lyotard, Larry McCaffery, Brian McHale, Dave Porush, Bruce Sterling, Darko Suvin, Takayuki Tatsumi

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Editor McCaffery here collects over 50 essays, short stories, novel excerpts, literary criticism, poetry, artworks, and a comic strip that illustrate the influences on and of the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction and its distinctive sensibility. Most of the space goes to the two godfathers of cyberpunk, William Gibson (whose Neuromancer , Berkley, 1984, won the science fiction triple crown--Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards) and Bruce Sterling ( Schismatrix , LJ 6/15/85), but most other major cyberpunk writers are represented. McCaffery does not limit cyberpunk to science fiction but puts it in the context of postmodern literature and 1980s popular culture. The only flaw is that Sterling's preface to Mirrorshades ( LJ 12/86), often considered a cyberpunk manifesto and constantly referred to in the essays, is not presented until the end of the nonfiction section. An important work; highly recommended for all sf, literature, and pop culture collections. (Illustrations not seen.)-- Keith R.A. DeCandido, ``Library Journal''

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Storming the Reality Studio

A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction

By Larry McCaffery

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-1168-3


Cyberpunk 101: A Schematic Guide to Storming the Reality Studio

A quick list of the cultural artifacts that helped to shape cyberpunk ideology and aesthetics, along with books by the cyberpunks themselves, in roughly chronological order.

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1989 [1818], Penguin). The recycling of body parts, the creation of life (or monster making), murder, sex, revenge, the epic chase, the brilliant scientist working outside the law, a brooding, romantic atmosphere—this book is a veritable sourcebook for SF motifs and clichés. It also created the first great myth of the industrial revolution, and reflects the deeply schizophrenic attitude toward science so evident in postmodern culture and in the fiction emerging from this culture.

Red Harvest (Dashiell Hammett, 1929, Vintage). Established the basic template for the hard-boiled detective format. The tough guy—loner confronting a vast system of corruption with his own private code of ethics, the vividly drawn underworld populated by sleazy criminal types, the richly idiosyncratic lingoes, the violence and surrealism of urban life—these motifs proved readily transferable to cyberpunk's portrayal of survival in a multinational version of street life.

Last and First Men (Olaf Stapledon, 1937, Dover). Hardly a novel at all. More like a long, brilliant encyclopedic essay on the next million-or-so years of human evolution.

The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler, 1939, Random House). Chandler's smooth, polychromatic prose style and vision of the detective as knight-errant has influenced more than one cyberpunk.

"Coming Attraction" (Fritz Leiber, 1950, in The Best of Fritz Leiber, 1974, Ballantine). Virtually without precedent in 1950s SF, this grim short story of the future was told in sharp, surreal images, highlighted by an unflinching noir viciousness and terse prose. Its opening sentence is a paradigm for much of cyberpunk: "The coupe with the fishhooks welded to the fender shouldered up over the curb like the nose of a nightmare."

Limbo (Bernard Wolfe, 1988 [1952], Carroll & Graf). Wolfe, ex-Trotsky bodyguard, wrote this great American dystopia (and proto-cyberpunk) novel. Self-mutilation, lobotomy, and prosthetics are seen in a postnuke North America as the cure for war. Limbo is a brilliant black comedy, which is probably why it has been so neglected. Average SF readers don't score high on irony tests.

The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester, 1956 [1955], Sidgwick & Jackson). Body modification, corporate intrigue, baroque settings and characters, and a walk down the gray line that separates criminals from the straight world. But it's the protagonist's purely anarchic belief in humanity that makes this book remarkable. This remains one of the few truly subversive novels ever to come out of science fiction.

Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs, 1962 [1959], Grove). A blast of maniacal laughter from Hell. A combination of comedy as black as clotted blood. Dr. Benway's twisted medical speculations, tales of the criminal underground, and sexual fantasies that tear at your inseams like a rabid brontosaurus, all told in a fragmented prose style that still reads like the raw, beautiful poetry it is. The influence of this book is enormous. Without Naked Lunch there would probably be no cyberpunk.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, Understanding Media, and The Medium Is the Massage (Marshall McLuhan, 1962, University of Toronto Press; 1964, NAL; 1967, Random House). McLuhan was to the 1960s what Baudrillard, Kroker and Cook, and Deleuze and Guattari are to the postcyberpunk era: grasping the profound implications of how technological change (in the form of the printing press, television, movies, the telephone, and so on) was reshaping human interactions, perceptions, and self-concepts, McLuhan presented his message in a medium that was "postmodern" before its time—that is, via a jagged mosaic of audacious speculations, samplings of quotes, photographs, footnotes, digressions. Another candidate for the "Godfather of Cyberpunk."

A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962, Norton). Alex is the subject of a mind control experiment in a bleak near-future world overrun by youth gangs obsessed with violence and trendy fashion. Told in a well thought-out patois collaging bits of Cockney rhyming slang and various Eastern languages.

The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express, The Wild Boys (William S. Burroughs, 1966 [1961], 1967 [1962], 1964, 1971). In this sequence of novels (or prose poems), Burroughs draws more heavily on the SF pulp motifs of his childhood than in Naked Lunch. Space odysseys, Uranium Willy and the Heavy Metal Kid, image banks and silence viruses, protopunk "wild boys" engaged in apocalyptic guerilla warfare, body and mind invasion, the Nova Mob matching wits with the Nova police (hampered by the corrupt Biologic Courts) for control of the Reality Studio—these hallucinatory SFelements interact with shards of poetry by Rimbaud, Shakespeare, and Eliot (and much, much more) to fuel Burroughs's atomic-powered strap-on, which probes the asshole of society with more glee and wicked humor than anyone since Swift.

The Crying of Lot 49 (Thomas Pynchon, 1966, Perennial). Like Pynchon's first novel, V. (1963), this book serves up bits of history, science, philosophy, and pop psychology in a sauce wonderfully spiced with rock lyrics, sophomoric jokes, and truly twisted character names and types; when these elements are heated by paranoia and alienation, severe turbulence occurs. Less dense and less grounded in technology than his massive next novel, Gravity's Rainbow, Lot 49 nonetheless anticipates cyberpunk in its wondrous use of scientific metaphors, its slam-dance pacings, its depiction of an exotic underworld of alienated weirdos, and its rapid modulations between the realms of "high culture" and the pop underground of drugs and the media culture.

Andy Warhol Presents the Velvet Underground and Nico (Velvet Underground, 1967, Polygram). Lou Reed and John Cale took pop audiences for harrowing rides into the darkness existing not on the edge of town but right in its center. Combining avant-garde, industrial-strength noise and back-to-basics impulses, VU's brutally honest depiction of drugs, S&M, and desperation was a breakthrough for a pop culture then entranced by the Summer of Love. The epitome of cool, bored-but-hyper hipness and street smarts, Reed—resplendent in black leather jacket and mirrorshades—created adult songs about characters whose arrogance and paranoia clashed headlong with their human frailties. As musicians and as cultural icons, the VU were seminal influences on the 1970s punk and the 1980s cyberpunk scenes.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick, 1968, Ballanftine). Renegade androids escape to earth from off-planet, and robot killer Deckard must track them down. Identity is the big question here: who is more human, the androids who want to live or the cop who wants to kill them? Basis for the film Blade Runner (1982).

Nova (Samuel Delany, 1968, Bantam). Stylistically, the bridge between the baroque 1950s SF of The Stars My Destination and the harder edge worldview of Neuromancer. A space opera full of feuding families and oddball characters, but with a respect for the science that makes it all run.

La Société du Spectacle (Guy Debord, 1967, Buchet-Chastel; trans. Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, 1977). The first comprehensive examination of the far-reaching effects of postindustrial capitalism on individuals. The book opens with the following startling statement: "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation." From there, we are only a hop, skip, and a jaunt from Baudrillard's "simulacra," Rucker's software, and Gibson's cyberspace.

The Cornelius Chronicles, volumes 1—3 (Michael Moorcock, 1969, Avon). The semicomplete story of the life/lives of Jerry Cornelius, Nobel Prize—winning scientist and rock and roll musician. The existential plotting, ambiguous sexuality of the main characters, and general low life/high brow feel make these very important works in the canon.

The Atrocity Exhibition (J. G. Ballard, 1990 [1969], Re/Search Publications). Ballard studied medicine while in college and it shows here. Through a series of fragmented "compressed novels," Ballard traces the breakdown of a doctor at a mental hospital.

Future Shock (Alvin Toffler, 1970, Random House). Information increased and comprehension decreased. Sound familiar? Get ready. The future is only going to get weirder.

Dub Music (1970-present). Reggae, all dreads and drive, collides with modern tech toys like digital delays and rhythm machines. That bastard offspring is called Dub, a hypnotic dance music from Jamaica, a brain graft of primitive glee and cool digital grace. Sly & Robbie, Prince Far I, the Mad Professor, as well as British honky Adrian Sherwood, are all masters of the style. This melding of tech and street music was extended even further by adding sampling machines (digital shoplifting of sound) by Rap musicians.

Dog Soldiers (Robert Stone, 1973, Houghton Mifflin). Stone's post-Beat prose style and vision of America as a morally bankrupt party town tearing itself apart is as harrowing as Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." The difference is that like most cyberpunk, the action in Dog Soldiers could be happening right next door.

"The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (James Tiptree, Jr., 1973, in Warm Worlds and Otherwise, 1975, Ballantine). A near-future Pygmalion story in which a hideous street girl is fitted with a sleek new "perfect" body and groomed for media stardom as a sort of living-breathing ad for all things marketable.

Crash (J. G. Ballard, 1973, Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The erotic thrill of violence, the secret satisfaction of watching machines fuck up and go haywire, and the numbing power of mass-produced imagery have never been presented more convincingly. If you've ever wondered what it would have been like to be approaching orgasm with Jayne Mansfield just before the Fatal Impact, this book is for you.

Gravity's Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon, 1973, Viking). The best cyberpunk ever written by a guy who didn't even know he was writing it. Pynchon's most difficult (and rewarding) book puts you into the bad brains of soldiers, scientists, hookers, losers, and more during World War II, when science was about to Change Everything.

Soon Over Babaluma (Can, 1974, Restless). Trance music from the band that practically invented what we now call "modern rock." Bassist Holger Czukay studied with Stockhausen for several years beforejumping into a rock band. Their sound influenced everyone from Soft Machine to Public Image Limited to the Talking Heads.

Horses (Patti Smith, 1975, Arista). Patti Smith's androgynous, defiant, radiantly obscene stage personality showed a generation of would-be women rockers (and a number of cyberpunk authors) that females could be every bit as tough, raunchy, and daring as their male counterparts. Drawing equally from the realms of the artistic avant-garde (Rimbaud, Genet, and Burroughs) and of pop culture, Smith dipped down into the sea of possibilities and conjured up a jagged, delirious vision that drew its intensity from the same sense of desperation and exhilaration that characterized cyberpunk.

Shockwave Rider (John Brunner, 1975, Harper & Row). When people are little more than bytes in the government data stream, can anyone remain human? Fugitive Nickie Heflinger wants to find out, and change a few things.

Galaxies (Barry Malzberg, 1975, Pocket Books). Pure postmodernism in SF drag. A novel about a trip to a "black" galaxy, as well as a novel about writing a novel. Self-referential and reflexive in the extreme. Like reading Wittgenstein in a hall of mirrors.

Plus (Joseph McElroy, 1976, Knopf). A dying engineer who has his brain removed awakens to find he has become, literally, a mere communication device, attached to a computer inside a satellite orbiting the earth. As "he" (Imp Plus) gradually recovers his memories and reinvents language, he transforms himself into a fully conscious biological and chemical laboratory. Eventually he discovers a means of rebellion against the people and world that put him where he is. Told in a dense, poetic blend of Beckett and computerese.

Never Mind the Bollocks (The Sex Pistols, 1976, Warner). The band that shook the world and said "No" in power chords so loud and elegant that they were heard by a whole generation of artists wishing to escape the emptiness and safety of the corporate consumer mentality. The dadaists performing nightly in Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 performed an experiment in which the language used to justify the great war raging outside was destroyed. If they had had access to electric guitars and amplifiers, those dadaists would have sounded like this. Enter cyberpunk, which appropriated punk's confrontational style, its anarchist energies, its crystal-meth pacings, and its central motif of the alienated victim defiantly using technology to blow everyone's fuses.

Second Annual Report (Throbbing Gristle, 1976, Industrial Records). Throbbing Gristle completely abandoned the pretense of playing anything like conventional music. Their albums and performances were psychological assaults of the most extreme, where creative use of pure noise substituted for songs. The Futurists performed similar experiments in the 1920s. Throbbing Gristle's brilliance, however, came when they approached their noise assaults as rock and roll shows, seducing thousands of listeners who would normally run screaming from anything called "art."

Low (David Bowie, 1977, Ryko). Bowie's first collaboration with Brian Eno resulted in the album that mended the rift between the razor heat of rock and the cooler geometry of electronic/progressive/avant-garde sounds. A happy mistake early in the recording process resulted in a fresh drum sound still being copied.

The Ophiuci Hotline (John Varley, 1977, Dial). Cyberpunk ideas presented in their larval form are the highlight of this otherwise vastly disappointing first novel. Though the prose is graceless, Varley has a fine feel for the infinite malleability of flesh through technology, and his multiple clones of a single female character and their wildly different fates is an excellent depiction of the fragmentation of a single personality.

Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978, Media). The mindless zombies who can eagerly (but placidly) rip-and-devour the flesh of gun-toting bikers (when they're not riding the escalators or being drawn to Blue Lite Specials) and prowl the shopping mall scene of this classic, horrifically funny film are, of course, the same folks we've hurried past on our way to the Cineplex 12. The nightmarish, punk extremities of surreal violence, the relentless exposure of capitalism's banalizing effect on individuals, the insistence on visceral, bodily reality that our airbrushed, roboticized exteriors deny—all would find their way, in transmuted form, into cyberpunk's own brand of dark humor, aesthetic extremity, and notions of guerilla-tactics survival.

Blood and Guts in High School (Kathy Acker, 1984 [1978], Grove). Her influence is similar to that of Burroughs and Moorcock, but Acker started out as a poet, so her prose is infused with the poet's lust for words. That and her moral outrage make her very important. If Genet had sung for Black Flag, he might have sounded like this.

Survival Research Laboratories (Mark Pauline, Matt Heckert, Erick Werner, ca. 1979—present). These San Francisco—based industrial sculptors and performance artists have literalized the machinery-run-amok theme by staging spectacular, alarming, and often nauseating catastrophes. As these surreal, grotesque mechanical simulacra (which are often rigged up to dead animals magically brought back to a pathetic parody of "life") attack effigies, images, targets, and eventually turn on each other, our culture's deepest emotional responses toward the technological milieu are played out in ways not soon forgotten by anyone who was there (and survived).


Excerpted from Storming the Reality Studio by Larry McCaffery. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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