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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Punking Everything in SF/F (Part Three): The (Closer) Past (Cyberpunk A)

To define cyberpunk is to literally take up the foundations of science fiction and say, "this is it, and there are no other options." Anyone who attempts a definitive definition to science fiction will know how ridiculous this is to accomplish, particularly because no two individuals will agree. Cyberpunk is to punk what science fiction is to itself. Any attempt to define cyberpunk will be either heavily contested, patently wrong, or shortsighted. I expect here, in this brief forum, that I will have approached some semblance of all three categories.

Cyberpunk began, at least in its most recognizable form, with Bruce Bethke, a fellow most of you have never heard of precisely because another fellow by the name of William Gibson stormed onto the scene and stole the limelight from our little Bethke. You see, Bethke was a visionary who unfortunately was rather shortsighted in his presentation of what we now know to be "hacker culture." His story, aptly named "Cyberpunk," was quite literally the embodiment of punk in the narrowed vision of the future, a molding, literally, even, of cyber (to mean future technology) and punk (to mean what I attempted to utter here). Fitting how the term came together, don't you think?

Then there was Gibson, and Bruce Sterling, and Pat Cadigan, and even a few friends from the past who, for better or worse, were adopted into the fray by enthusiasts of the genre, even though they were not, by any stretch of the imagination, attempting to toss their names into the cyberpunk hat (how could they when they had no idea that cyberpunk would exist in another decade or two, the Philip K. Dicks and Stanislaw Lems, with all their proto-cyberpunk tales that were either ignored or acknowledged as wonderfully complicated).

And what were they writing? Future punk, to be rather brutally simplistic about it. They were extrapolating upon the present by imagining a future that punk had yet to conceive: one in which globalization had been taken to the extreme, so much so that corporations took that final step to being more than just entities with a voice, but true powers, global entities with desires, wills, and superiority over the then-present (future-present) society. Here is when punk met cyber, because as society in the 1980s was gearing up for the incredible shift in economic priorities, cyberpunk writers, whether announced or silent, were imagining the decay of cities and neobarbarism (an examination of extremist urbanity), and envisioning the future of post-industrialization. Super economies were becoming service economies (Fordism vs. Toyotaism) and the entire structure of society, as envisioned by the league of cyberpunks themselves, was shifting from that in which the individual fit into one of two categories: 1) the hapless victim of social and economic change, unwilling or unskilled to mount any sort of resistance, except to adopt the new cultural paradigm and become "citizens" of the post-industrial, corporation-as-self structure; and 2) the "punk" as embodied in he/she who resists, who mounts some form of opposition and bleeds into the structure of society as one who is not supportive in action (though in mind they were not necessarily aware of said resistance) of the dominant social structures.

And so, cyberpunk became a way of envisioning the future as always already screwed up, as filled with all that was wrong with the present amplified, but all that was right with the future. There was the net, a force of both social cohesion and discord, and even such wonders as quasi-noir imagery (a la old detective novels), cybernetics, bionics, excessive reference to new or improved drugs, and hacking. Much of cyberpunk, thus, saw the net as coming alive, becoming, as it were, a being-to-itself, with artificial intelligence and pre-visualized navigation structures that allowed it to be more than just a place of numbers and code. Here you should think about the nature of video games and how the Internet has change how we play them; cyberpunk saw that coming from a mile away, but yet was so clearly wrong in some respects, because we have yet to devise a game world that is a world experienced as such.

This post, unfortunately, has grown too long, and must be split. Here I have conceptualized a relationship to punk itself and given a brief idea of what cyberpunk is, though rather haphazardly. There is more to say, but for now we have the above. There are movements to be discussed, within cyberpunk, and other elements that have largely been forgotten, including the interesting nature of merger and collaboration amongst the various other genres, and even the supposed death of cyberpunk. Those are forthcoming.

But, for now, if you have thoughts, disagreements, or downright hatreds for what I have uttered here, please use the comments below to relay them in the manner you deem appropriate. And that concludes my rather formal, somewhat critical language. Have at it!


Read Part One (Punking), Part Two (Punk), Part Four (Cyberpunk B), and Part Five (Cyberpunk C).

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  1. Anonymous1:20 AM

    I'll refrain from broad comment until you get the second half of this up, but I'll say now that I just love this phrase: "Cyberpunk became a way of envisioning the future as always already screwed up." Great! Although I think you might want to take another look at the syntax of the last bit of that sentence.

    Also one point: you may be leading up to this yourself, but I think the dichotomy between "1) the hapless victim of social and economic change" and "2) the "punk" as embodied in he/she who resists" only tells half the story of the cyberpunk. How do you feel about the idea that the cyberpunk, as a character, has a foot in both of these categories, and is defined by precisely the tension between them? Or that to put it a bit differently, the cyberpunk is defined by the ambivalence of the modern pagan towards his corporate gods?

  2. True. Honestly, this post really only tells the initial history of the genre and gives a rather bland listing of its features. I'm trying to avoid getting overly "philosophical" with this discussion of what cyberpunk is so as to stick close to definition rather than examination of its proposed philosophy. I'm sure I'll fail miserably at that, but so be it.

    As for what you said: Yes, I do think there is a potential for cyberpunk to have its feet in both categories, though I don't know if it can be defined so clearly by the tension created by the victim and the punk. There are certainly cyberpunk tales in which that conflict is present, but often times the most visualized conflict is that of the punk vs. the corporate entity, or against the artificial intelligence gone haywire, and other such more clear cut almost-good vs. almost-bad dichotomies (since, after all, it would be impossible to say that Case, from Neuromancer, is either good or bad, but an amalgamation of the two, a quasi-gray figure who lacks a definitive connection to either the victim or the corporate entity). Then again, in referring to Case we might also see that tension you are speaking of precisely because Case is neither the punk, nor the victim, but a merger of the two. There your point seems to hold weight.

    But cyberpunk is not always about that tension. The tension exists, true, but there are plenty of cyberpunk tales in which the lines are more clearly drawn and either the punk is the screwed up "hero" or the resistant figure who may or may not be the punk, but certainly is not the hapless victim who has accepted things as "the way things are."

    As to your last question: Typically, yes, it is defined by an ambivalence of something (not necessarily pagan, but certainly human and complicated by existence in a world-gone-screwy) towards corporate "gods." The metaphor, I feel, gets lost if we focus too much on the religious aspect and not enough on what is actually going on. We see that ambivalence even today, though perhaps a little more well-defined and less ambivalent in recent months. It seems that while the punk attempts to resist the dominant social order (the corporation), his/her resistance is not typically directed at the corporation, but at society as an object. They resist established order, break the codes and hack the networks, not because they are necessarily trying to "get at the man," or because they accept authority. You might say that cyberpunk envisions the true punk, who is, as you say, ambivalent, not to subjects, but to the object of society itself. The punk in cyberpunk is a resistance to social hierarchy and convention, directed or otherwise. If directed, they have a goal, one that may or may not be "good"; if they are not directed, then they are performing a form of resistance that doesn't know it is resistance. They're simply going through the motions, doing and buying and using, with no clear conception as to why they are doing, except to please whatever internal mechanism demands they perform.

    I'm starting to get lost in my own thoughts here, but hopefully the above makes some sense.

  3. Anonymous1:17 AM

    That makes a lot of sense. I'm glad you mentioned Case in Neuromancer, because he's the specific character I was thinking of when I proposed my definition :D

    I agree that "focusing on the religious aspect" isn't much help when we're talking about a landscape that's so definitively post-organized-religion. Just to clarify, by "pagan" I only meant "person who is not Christian," not an adherent to any kind of modern Pagan religion or sect. Sorry if that wasn't clear! I wanted to suggest that citizens of the cyberpunk city have sunk into a kind of late-period Roman Empire state of existence where they live in terror and subservience to a shifting pantheon of bloodthirsty "corporate gods," as you say. Of course it is always possible to stretch a metaphor like this too far :)

    You noted "there are plenty of cyberpunk tales in which the lines are more clearly drawn and either the punk is the screwed up "hero" or the resistant figure..." How about some examples in the next part of this post, for reference points? Looking forward to it!

  4. Well, I would be hesitant to say that the cyberpunk city is inhabited by individuals existing in terror. Terror may exist in some cyberpunk stories, but not necessarily all of them. There's often, it seems, a sort of willing acceptance of the way things are, even if the urban environment is decaying and the corporate gods control everything from technology to the standard of living. Cyberpunk is often capitalism taken to its logical extreme (though other economic systems do appear here and there, though not in any English works I am familiar with).

    As for examples of the screwed up "hero":
    Case from Neuromancer. He's not a hero in the sense that he wants to be, just that he ends up being so.

    Resistant figure:
    If we take The Matrix to be a cyberpunk tale (although in the upcoming post I talk about why it is not), then we can see Morpheus and Trinity (and many others) as resistant figures. Neo, unfortunately, is a flipflop of identities. On the one hand he begins as the screwed up hero, very much like Case might be perceived, but on the other, as his true "destiny" becomes apparent, he shifts, slightly, from being like Case to being more like Morpheus. To be fair, Neo is more like a mixture of Case and Morpheus in the sense that he is not so clearly set in his "destiny."

    Other examples:
    Most of the characters from the movie Hackers are either screwed up heroes, or Neo-like flipfloppers. They all become resistant figures in the end, but they begin more like screwed up heroes.

    You might think of Mind Over Ship by David Marusek as a post-cyberpunk story, though I'll get into some of that in the third editing of this series.

    There are others, but I think those examples will suffice. Right?