Monday 2 September 2013

How Cyberpunk Broke my Scifi Dreams

I just read my way through Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, a 1986 collection of short stories put together by Bruce Sterling.  There are a number of good stories in this collection, but the two William Gibson selections struck me as interesting, because they are two of that author's more explicit "Meta-Commentaries" about the Scifi Genre itself.

The Gernsback Continum

"Gernsback" gives us a look at a photographer, working on an assignment for a book on old Retro-Futuristic architecture. The project, and an amphetamine habit, gives him visions of "a kind of alternate America: a 1980's that never happened."

The message of the story is that the old type of Scifi, that of Gernsback's "Wonder Stories", is dead.  The idea that science will bring us Utopian Societies and fulfil all of our Human needs no longer seems plausible.  We've seen technology integrated into our lives, and all the same old problems have remained, just in flashier chromed-out clothes. Gibson is pointing out that that this is the epiphany from which the Cyberpunk genre was born.

Red Star, Winter Orbit

This collaboration between Gibson and Sterling is one of my favourites due to it's tone of fallen majesty.  It's message, delivered through strong symbolism, is largely the same as "Gernsback", though the negative tone of the conclusion has been replaced with a more upbeat one.

The story starts out with Colonel Korolev's Burroughs-esque vision of Mars.  These dreams are interrupted by the unromantic realities of living on a Soviet space station: petty adulteries, smuggling, KGB intrigues, and Labor struggles, mirroring events below on earth, just on a smaller, less significant scale. By the end of the story, the station's mandate is revoked, and the crew abandons ship, leaving Korolev, whose ailing health prevents him from leaving, alone to die on the station with it's deteriorating orbit. In a surprise twist, however, a new generation of space explorers arrives and reclaims the derelict station.  Not government employees, but young privateers with tattoos and "eyes brimming over with a wonderful lunacy".

As for the symbolism: Korolev, an ageing Cosmonaut who bunks in room known sarcastically as the "Museum of the Soviet Triumph in Space" represents the old guard, Classic Scifi Literature.  The new privateers are, or course, the Cyberpunk Authors, here to inject the Scifi genre with new life.  As they say in the story: "We made that jump, and we're here to stay!"

On a More Personal Note...

Today, in the 2010's, the message of "Gernsback" really hits home for me. Science and Technology have brought us significant economic benefits in terms of productivity, as well as all sorts of toys, and...that's sort of it.  Even Pure Science has, to a large degree, reaped all of the low hanging fruits, making real breakthroughs in understanding few and far-between.  Technology is advancing.  In a few years, we'll have medical systems answering questions better than any Human doctor could.  These systems won't be based on any ground-breaking fundamental Medical research, but on better algorithms for search, expert systems, and the efficient operation of the Bioinformatics machine. Certainly those are incredible technologies that will change the world, but isn't there something terribly tragic about a Science that has abandoned the path to greater Human understanding in exchange for fancier tech? Indeed, it seems that the hope that classic Scifi put in Science, in it's ability to elevate and Enlighten Human society, was misplaced.  Where that hope will go, either returning to it's former abode in the Humanities and Religion, or simply dissipating into cynicism and despair, remains to be seen.


  1. Isn't the fact that we have given up on the hope that advancements in science and technology will give us fair, just societies of plenty actually a loss of hope in socialist (or utopian) politics? For example, we were promised (in the 50s and 60s) that the fact that technology would greatly increase our labour power would create societies of leisure. And technology did greatly increase our labour power, it had the imagined technical effect, but we (collectively) work longer hours than we used to, and the enforced 'leisure' of our reserve army of the unemployed is not the kind that is tended to by robot butlers.

    Cyberpunk came of age in the 1980s, as the welfare states, workers' rights, and equality of the anglophone states begins a (still continuing) roll-back of the progress since 1945 (and before). we might well develop the technology to move beyond scarcity, but we've lost hope in the politics needed to end want.

    1. Yeah, you could group the modern disillusionment with Science together with that of the many political theories that have sprung-out of the Enlightenment. People had high hopes for the Age of Reason and those hopes have been partially realized, but not nearly as much as some had hoped. Isn't that what characterizes our Post-Modern era, a disillusionment with the Modern era's euphoric optimism?

      As for tech allowing us to "move beyond scarcity", I'd like to believe that such an eventuality would bring an end to war, hunger, sickness, etc. but I'm highly sceptical. There's something about human nature... there are different types of scarcity that will always lead to conflict: scarcity of power, scarcity of fame, scarcity of respect. Technology can't solve these, not unless it's used to clip our wings of free choice and self-reliance, a possibility which is arguably worse than our current one.

  2. Billy, you really hit the nail on the head with your personal note, even more than the stories themselves. That was what we hoped for, and this is what we got.

    1. Cheers, dude. It's not every day one gets to riff off of Gibson ;)

  3. I'm curious if a single story in the anthology has anyone using cellphones or living in a world with cellphones at all?
    It's an excellent example, in absence, of how sci-fi isn't always about predicting the future but is an exploration of now (whenever that 'now" is).

    1. That's a good point.

      I remember this Gibson interview where he says he's less interested in predicting future tech and more interesting in exploring how people use tech. Maybe in this one

      "The Winter Market", "Burning Chome", and "Solstice"(James Patrick Kelly) seem to be really keen examples of this with their explorations of tech in the arts/entertainment industries. Even if the specific technologies they mention haven't come to fruition(yet?), there's something so very TRUE about these stories