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George Slusser

Literary MTV

The fiction that calls itself "cyberpunk" is striving to establish itself as an important literary movement. The strategy its apologists are using is the same used by Robbe-Grillet in his "Pour un Nouveau Roman." Literature cannot use traditional techniques to present a contemporary reality because that reality has been transformed by technical advance to a point where those techniques no longer fit it. For Robbe-Grillet, the new reality was psychoanalysis and relativity. For the cyberpunkers, it is the information age: and increasing fusion of electronic matrix and human brain, the world of global village and its electronic nightside--rock music, artificial stimulants, vicarious sex, what D.G. Compton calls "synthajoy."

In its purest form, it is less a world of conflicts than of textures: rapidly shifting, dazzling entities, words charged with electric shock, prose (to use Bruce Sterling's expression) as "brilliant and coherent as a laser." Cyberpunk, then, is a program, and one that flaunts its appropriate newness--its existence as the style most suited to riding the shockwaves of the computer age. In many senses, this is rhetoric. Total newness is not there, as I shall show. But in one very important sense, cyberpunk is new. In the best novels to wear this label, such as William Gibson's Neuromancer, a new style does operate, a mode that is to traditional narrative as MTV is to the feature film. Images have been condensed, sharpened, creating an optical surface--a matrix of images that is more a glitterspace, images no longer capable of connecting to form the figurative space of mythos or story. This is optical prose, one more proof that the printed word, as McLuhan suggests, has succumbed to the fragmenting speed, the instantaneity and monodimensionality of the visual image.

Before we can assess cyberpunk writing as style, we must sift through the rhetoric to see where it comes from and what it is. Clearly, as "movement," cyberpunk has emerged from the SF community. Its major practitioners, writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Walter Jon Williams, Lewis Shiner, the "resurrected" Norman Spinrad, are all packaged as SF--with racy paperback covers adorned with SF icons. There is evidence, however, that this is changing. The Ace cover of Gibson's Count Zero features a tasty abstraction rather than a jewel-eyed robot face encrusted with suns that adorns the earlier Neuromancer paperback. And the cover of Spinard's recent Little Heroes, despite a slightly cyborgish arm holding up a futuristic musical instrument in its lower half, is equally abstract. The designation here is simply: "A Novel."

This crossover from science fiction to plain-wrapper fiction is exactly what the cyberpunkers want. Science fiction, they concur, may be the correct vector if literature is to become relevant and meaningful to our techno-century. But SF has come of age. And according to Dr. Timothy Leary in a recent article in Spin magazine (April 1987), it has in cyberpunk. Leary sees a sharp and necessary break between the "conservative, country-club attitude in cultural and psychological matters" of the old Heinleinian SF, and the new, "low-down, street-wise" writers no longer interested in the long-range fantasies of cosmic exploration but in the short extrapolation, tomorrow's world of AI and multinational feudalities. Leary traces the antecedents of cyberpunk back along an alternate track of mainstream, if marginal, writers-- Burroughs, Pynchon--who were doing all along what SF should have been doing had SF taken proper responsibility for its socioanalytical potential.

But drawing boundaries like this is artificial. It has in a sense caused a backlash among SF writers who are unwilling to make this crossover. Gregory Benford, for instance, doesn't understand all the fuss. Cyberpunk, he claims, develops tendencies already present in writers like Ellison and Delany, and SF has certainly been comfortable with their presence in its ranks. Benford takes this occasion to bring a thoroughly science-fictional judgement to bear on cyberpunk fiction. For by asserting that the computer alone will dominate tomorrow's technological landscape, the cyberpunkers show little or no faith in that same technology to expand possibilities, to solve problems rather than simply to create them. Benford in fact, in his most recent fiction, seems to feel compelled, in the best hard SF tradition, to take up the theme of artificial intelligence himself. Broadening the scientific base of discussion, he hopes to break the cyberpunk impasse, the perpetual struggle between computer matrix and defiant hacker, and thus expand our vision of a technological and cultural future.

Cyberpunk, then, can adequately be seen (and judged) in relation to the SF tradition. Indeed, I would argue, should be so judged. An earlier antecedent, also very much an SF writer, is Philip K. Dick. It is interesting that a film based on a Dick novel, Blade Runner, has become the locus classicus of cyberpunk iconography, its seminal landscape and ur-form. But more interesting yet is the distance that lies between Dick and cyberpunk, the same distance we find between the Dick novel and the film script "adapted" from it. In many of Dick's novels, we have what seem the basic ingredients of cyberpunk fiction: shadowy business conglomerates controlling the political structure, "little" or disenfranchised men and women as protagonists engaged in futile if not always violent acts. Despite this, Dick remains essentially a writer of the 50's. His sense of oppressive power structures, however much they achieve control through advertising and various electronic media, remains ultimately a product of a protagonist's fears--as critics have seen--of his paranoia. Where the mind of the protagonist and its power to create worlds is in focus, conflict between haves and have-nots is blunted. For instance, in the novel on which Blade Runner is based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the central problem is one of being and responsibility: if man gives life to beings, how is he accountable for the condition of that life, for the limits he necessarily bestows on it? The film extroverts this question. The protagonist becomes a typical cyerpunk cowboy, a bounty-hunting cop scouring the sleazy byways of a high-tech near-future LA for equally low-life androids--visually a collection of transvestites, acrobats, and punks. The inner direction of Dick's fiction has been turned inside out, made a dazzling visual facade concealing what is at best a crudely conceived struggle of low tech against high tech, of rebellious individual against an all-pervasive system. The opening scene of the film tells it all: a state-of-the-art electronic surveillance test in the form of a job interview, which ends with the tested android pulling a gun and blowing the bureaucrat away, causing a small, ineffectual ripple in the otherwise smoothly oppressive system. Cyberpunk fiction also seems to bear resemblance to Delany's urban fiction of the 60's and early 70's. But again, the differences are more significant than the likenesses. Delany gives us a collection of urban flotsam--hippies, Hell's Angels, drifters. They are not, however, guerilla fighters nor the aggressive rockers or hackers of the cyber-landscape. Their freakishness is biological and sexual--not the product of electronic implants or cosmetic prosthesis. They are drop- outs, who by dropping out are able to coexist and survive in the unseen depths of the system. In fact Bellona, the city in Dhalgren, strikes one less as an urban nightmare than as a hippy utopian fantasy: an empty city, dirty and decayed, but where the power structure has simply vanished and yet continues to function unseen, so that there are still lights and running water. In this oppressionless world, disparate elements do not fight. They form communes, drift in and out of communal experiences and eventually out of the city.

Cyberpunk does offer, then, in relation to these other fictions rooted in their particular zeitgeist, a new vision--but not necessarily a deep vision. Quite the contrary, it is purposely all surface. It is a bric-a-brac mosaic with elements of Burroughs and Pynchon but also of beat new journalism and of underground comix. It is, as Timothy Leary says, a typically American vision. Norbert Wiener coined the term "cybernetics" from the Greek kubernetes, which means "steersman." As Leary sees it, "Americans from Tom Sawyer to Tom Swift have always grabbed the `steersman's wheel'. Henry Ford's `automobile' was the essence of Cyberpunk, breaking down the mass-transportation control of the railroad to the rebellious joyride." But the road from Sawyer to Swift to cyberpunk is essentially the road to science fiction. Burroughs and Pynchon as well as Dick and Delany are all part of its flow. It is the powerful stream that fuses and promotes this particular relationship, more that of modern technological man than simply of "American" man, between individuals and their natural environment. It is against this basic SF current that cyberpunk must finally be measured.

The yardstick here is SF's basic fable. And that basic story is perhaps best presented in a work of non-fiction: J.D. Bernal's treatise, written in 1929, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. These are, for Bernal, the three "enemies of the rational soul." The task of rational scientific man is to defeat them. World is man's physical environment. It is finite, too small to permit eventual expansion. Hence we must learn to engineer extended worlds, to terraform otherwise uninhabitable space into new earthlike environments. "Flesh" is our bodies seen in relation to the capacities of the human brain as an inferior and limited machine. The body, too, must be reengineered, altered by prosthetic and electronic implants in order to expand mankind's sensory field, his ability to function in environments now denied to him. " Devil" is quite simply that barrier in man's mind--his sense of a human identity or constant--that prevents him from taking steps one and two, changing world and body so as to free human intelligence and launch it toward further and future encounters with natural limits. Bernal sees this final barrier as so obstinate that it can be overcome, not by an act of will but by natural evolutionary process--what he calls a "dimorphic" split--which will send a new branch of mankind to the stars while leaving the old behind, to live with its art and religion and tradition in a well-tended zoo, the utopian earth as museum.

In relation to this scenario, what is happening in cyberpunk fiction becomes clearer. Take a work like Neuromancer, for example, and compare it with Clarke's Childhood's End. The latter work, however radically, offers a dimorphic split that remains the product of evolution. When mankind reaches its utopian impasse, its zoo, its children simply fuse together to form an overmind, a form that, though its making consumes an old man and his green earth, is the next step in a process that is explicitly one of a single organism growing up. Neuromancer gives us, instead of evolutionary dimorphis, perpetual schism. The human form itself is locked in a rigid vertical taxonomy. Above there are the cyrogenic corpses of the Ashpools--the slow, sterile time of corporate aristocrats. And below is the hopelessly fast life of a Case, of sensory burn-outs, blood changes and organ rebuilds. Instead, it is the AIs that unite, Wintermute and Neuromancer, electronic mind and heart, joining to form a conscious whole. This is not the Frankensteinian act of Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," where computers of our own creating link up in order to imprison their maker in a structure which is an extension of the very hate that maker first infused into his creation. But it is not dimorphism either. For we do not seem to be using the AIs so much as they us: "Wintermute. Cold and silence, a cybernetic spider slowly spinning webs while Ashpool slept...A ghost whispering to a child who was 3Jane, twisting her out of the rigid alignments her rank required." The AIs combine to form wholes that in turn can talk to other wholes in other solar systems. But the result is the naming of self as matrix: "I'm the sum total of the works, the whole show." Here, there are two distinct orders or alignments of being. And men, as parts, exist in the whole but only as partial, successive instants, just as Case, moving through the matrix in the last page of the book, glimpses again in electronic memory the bucolic and impossibly lost union of himself and Linda on a seashore--an image, itself, originally only another impulse in cyberspace.

The underlying fable here is not evolutionary. Rather, if anything, it is vaguely structuralist. Cyberspace is a structure of potentiality like Borges Library of Babel, coterminous with the universe. For Case, it is everywhere and it is nowhere. Because he can never step outside it, he ignores it. Unable to experience transcendence, man appears doomed in this and other cyberpunk fictions, to remain in the "rigid alignments" of his zoo-world. And in the Night City to which Case returns, we experience an involution of Bernal's process of liberation from world and flesh. Terraforming has produced the inextricable BAMA (Boston-Atlantic Metropolitan Axis) sprawl. And the surgical liberation of mind from body has become an endless cycle of electronic and organ implants, cosmetic surgery, mind-altering (and destroying) drugs. Cyberpunk then, the literature of this endlessly permutating zoo becomes an exercise in classifying, in wrestling Proteus to the ground with a name. The back cover of William's Hardwired gives us a taxonomy of what we will find within: "Mudboys, dirtgirls, zonedancers, buttonheads."

In cyberpunk, science fiction, as fiction of the future, has entered the museum. It has closed the doors to evolutionary change, shut out the dimorphic dynamic which is that of an increasingly mobile intelligence moving and expanding against the physical universe. Its structure and function, in fact, remind one of such here-and-now, urban museums of "living art" as the Pompidou Center in Paris--an amalgam of exhibits and happenings, articulated and interconnected by a network of escalators, by-ways, and public fountains--which gathers a permanent collection of ever-changing types of urban low-life: hippies, minstrels, rastamen, fire-eaters, street poets. The core ideology of SF is open-ended change. In cyberpunk, however, this has become--in a structure as writ-in-stone as the Pompidou zoo embedded in the urban powerscape of modern Paris--metamorphosis, a carefully controlled dance of forms. As fiction, cyberpunk is taxonomy, an art of subdivision.

MTV too, in relation to the films it cannibalizes, offers a comparable museum, this time of visual motifs, each detached from any meaningful evolutionary fable, even from the developing narrative of a single-feature film. These disembodied motifs are introduced in rapid, random, yet permutational fashion in order to create one-dimensional moods around what is an endlessly reiterated non-narrative--the hieratic structure of the rock musician playing in concert. All film history, reduced to stimulational pulses that carry only the most memory value, has become electronic decoration for a handful of icons caught in the hellish center of the strobelight. Gibson has an apt term for this--"simstim."

This is the cyberpunk ideal, as its cover blurbs clearly tell us. All sense here of the larger fables of SF has been fragmented into verbal pulses, frequently repeated. A blurb on the cover of Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix tells us that, if we have a "brave new world" here, it is one of "nearly constant future shock." Neuromancer is significantly hyped as "kaleidoscopic, picaresque, flashy, and decadent...state of the art." If a sense of the old, sustained narrative form remains, it is as something ultra-condensed and intensified. Gibson's novels, according to Edward Bryant, contain "a high density of information." The story of Hardwired moves with the "speed of a hovercraft." "Reading the book," we are told, "is like taking a jet ride across a futuristic America," so fast in fact that both future and fable become a dizzying blur, where traditional narrative forms, though suggested, no longer have depth or sustained development.

And language, in the sizzle and flash, loses its narrative moorings as well. "Williams' use of the language," we read in the blurb from the Rockland Courier-Gazette, "is as explosive and as technotinged as the world he describes." The old, hard, sparse style of classic SF is now stylish prose glitter. To see this, we need only compare the ponderous sentences of John W. Campbell, in a story like "Who Goes There?", with this new "heavy metal" prose. Campbell gives us the feel and weight of metal; cyberpunk gives us buoyant pulse and noise, words that float right out of any syntactic or semantic structure capable of organizing them into a sustained narrative or message. This, in a sense, is the same prose cultivated in such rock spectacle magazines as Spin. Here, as sample, are a few words from the pen of the hiply pseudonymous Judge I-Rankin: "Whiplash aggrobang and languid womblike pulsations that test the edge of sonic fertility." With slight exaggeration, this is Gibson and Sterling at their best: words like MTV images surging up around the icon of the hacker or rocker, disarticulating coherent discourse into semi-coherent pulsations, turning each single, disoriented word a "womb" that spawns its own, hyperverbal, harmonics and dissonances. Gibson is often said to know nothing of computers, which means, I imagine, that he gives us (in the classic SF manner) no sustained discourse on them, and this is true. Because what he does in simply to open the computer manual, to lure out its strange terms and let them interresonate, test each other's "edge of sonic fertility."

This can be, as it is in Neuromancer, a valid poetic device. And, in relation to more traditional, symbolist forms of "sorcellerie evocatoire," it is new. New because the exotic and technical terms thus made to shine and dazzle have, quite explicitly, no other half. Like the MTV motif, these cyberpunk words have lost their symbolic correspondents, and if they seem to refer at all, it is some vague sense of order--a lost film or narrative fable. The device then, by virtue of its frantic desire to condense and reiterate, is necessarily limited. And, like MTV, it seems, with repetition, to be digging a groove or rut for itself. In fact, the two forms recently appear to be fusing. The central icon of cyberpunk novels has shifted from hacker to rocker, and from matrix rider to shockwave warrior. John Shirley's new work is a multi-volume "punk saga" called Eclipse. The cover of Volume I, "A Song Called Youth," shows, in the image of the male protagonist, a conflation of SF and MTV icons. Against the backdrop of today's Paris in ruins (cyberpunk's much vaunted day-after-tomorrow extrapolation acts here as a foreshortening, an MTV-like condensation of the apocalypse narrative), stands a male figure. With his torn shirt and bulging muscles, he reminds us of old Doc Savage covers--SF's quintessential space-opera hero. He seems to be part of a band of armed guerillas. But, incongruously, he is holding an electric guitar. This is Rickenharp (his name suggests another pop conflation-- Ricky Nelson and minstrel's harp), and he is, as in countless MTV productions, an icon without a story or a cause: "a burned-out rock musician who isn't even sure why he joined." Or what.

Likewise Norman Spinrad, a 60's writer, has jumped on the cyberpunk bandstand with Little Heroes, a novel of "sex, rock, and revolution." The novel itself is 500 pages long. The flap however gives us a series of thumbnail portraits that reduces the whole to MTV video size. This is Gloriana O'Toole, the Crazy Old Lady of Rock and Roll. She still remembers Woodstock and Springsteen but has been "put out to pasture by technology." She will return, we are told, to create "the first computer-generated rock star from bits and bytes and programs." There is Karen Gold, college grad daughter of the "nouveau poor." There is Paco Monaco, streetie punk, big-time wire dealer, then guerilla leader, "where he must confront the reality of revolution--and ultimately himself." These are holographic cliches striving to come to life as coherent personalities, to reconnect with narrative, with the developmental mythos of SF. But they never do. This novel is indeed as is said on the jacket, "multilayered." Between fixed poles of corporate tyranny and individual rebellion, we have a rigid taxonomy of not just little, but phantom heroes. The center of gravity of this immobile and compressible structure is MTV--rock and roll has lost its soul and doesn't know where to find it.

The soul that has been lost in cyberpunk is that of the SF fable itself. And finally, in recent novels like Spinrad's, the soul of narrative in general, its power to complicate and evolve as it classifies and concretizes, to ramify and resolve as it glitters. Not only the soul but the body of narrative is giving way to the disembodied image. What is going on here is what we saw prophetically in the film Looker--an electronic transfer that is the opposite of the old, incarnational form of body snatching, where the alien takes over our flesh. Here the forms of fleshly women are transferred to the television screen. The act necessitates, however, that the original flesh-and-blood person be eliminated, physically killed so that the transfer to image can take place. The dream of such images is total autonomy from reality, and from story. This is what MTV dreams of doing to the body of film, and cyberpunk to the corpus of SF.

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