cyberpunk, technosleaze,
& the apotheosis of postmodernism

lance olsen
© 1992

Jameson's comment accords well with that of Darko Suvin who, in his by-now famous phrase, defines science fiction as the "literature of cognitive estrangement."(26) Through its various techniques, science fiction makes our world strange, distorts it, and, by doing so, allows us to see our universe anew. Science fiction confronts us with otherness, with alien characters and landscapes, which we recognize as extensions of ourselves and our contemporary cosmos. Consequently, it enacts the process Russian Formalists such as Victor Shklovsky call defamiliarization. It disrupts conventional perception, sometimes to a lesser extent, sometimes to a greater, thereby forcing us to perceive our situation in a fresh way. It interrogates traditional notions of reality, selfhood, and language, challenging conventional ideas of ontology and epistemology. Very little, if any, science fiction actually tells us about our future, however. Most tells about our present — about our contemporary culture's anxieties, wishes, fixations. "Readers who think that SF is 'about' the future are naive," Gibson reminds us.(27) "I don't think science fiction has a lot of predictive capacity, but it's an interesting tool for looking at the world you live in."(28)

Obviously science fiction has some predictive capacity, though, in the sense that it is a narrative mode that focuses our attention on things (possibly) to come. It debates what is important to contemplate, thereby orienting us with respect to the future. It asks us to be forward thinking, to ponder the relationship between what is and what might be, and it thereby invites us to consider tomorrow. Its extrapolations from the present about such concerns as artificial intelligence, nuclear power, and postindustrial politics become, not literal predictions, but figurative warnings. This is what might happen, it often asserts, if we do not think harder.

Gibson is less interested in exactly what will happen in the year 2050 than he is with what is happening today. Or, more precisely, he is interested in how today is already tomorrow in a world undergoing future shock. "I'll be sitting in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport looking out my window and thinking, 'What is this landscape?'" he explains. "You know you're in a very strange place, but you're also aware this weirdness is just your world. One of the liberating effects that SF had on me when I was a teenager was precisely its ability to tune me in to all this strange data and make me realize that I wasn't as totally isolated in my perception of the world as monstrous and crazy." (29)

Because of this stress on a future-present, Gibson does not think of himself primarily as a science fiction writer. He feels the label "science fiction," often applied to his work, is simply a helpful marketing strategy that has allowed his fiction to reach a wider audience than it might have done otherwise. "As far as I know, I've reached exactly the audience that I would have wanted to reach, plus the science fiction audience as well," he says. "If you're selling reasonably well as a science fiction writer in the States these days, you're getting quite a lot of exposure . . . . And I think if I'd been writing these books and publishing them as sort of avant-garde mainstream literature, relatively few people would have heard of them."(30)

His association with cyberpunk, a term which spawned much heated debate in the SF community in the late 1980s, certainly hasn't hurt his popularity any. It has been, as he is quick to acknowledge, "good for business." Despite his assertions that, "historically speaking, I'm not sure there is, or even was, a movement in . . . the capital 'M' sense of the word," and that "I've sort of gotten tired of [talking about] it," Gibson's name has become inextricably linked with cyberpunk.(31) Csicsery-Ronay has gone so far as to write that "my suspicion is that most of the literary cyberpunks bask in the light of one major writer who is original and gifted enough to make the whole movement seem original and gifted. That figure is William Gibson, whose first novel, Neuromancer, is to my mind one of the most interesting books of the postmodern age."(32)

In order to gain a fuller contextual understanding of Gibson's work, it is necessary to spend some time discussing the history and major tenets of cyberpunk. Although what may finally matter most are the differences and not the similarities among the loose group of writers whose names are connected with cyberpunk, it is nonetheless significant that during the mid-1980s they viewed themselves as belonging to a movement that shared a vaguely defined if deeply felt sensibility. As late as 1986, many of the key figures were quite happy to contribute to Sterling's Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, which Sterling prefaces with what amounts to a cyberpunk manifesto. On the one hand, the cyberpunks are wary of "label mongering" because of the pigeonholing effect labels tend to have on creators.(33) On the other, they are mesmerized by labels because of the powerful space labels open in literary discourse. Thus these writers have tried on, or have had applied to them against their wishes, a number of labels including The Outlaw Technologists, The Neuromantics, and The Mirrorshades Group — these in addition to "The Cyberpunks" which, according to a Science Fiction Eye editorial, was originally coined by Gardner Dozois in an article in the Washington Post.(34) Even after "cyberpunk," whose usefulness as a term might have run its course by 1988 or 1989, many still think of themselves as part of something simply referred to as The Movement.

At the core of the literary cyberpunks stand Rudy Rucker (Software, 1982), Lewis Shiner (Frontera,1984), John Shirley (Eclipse, 1985), Greg Bear (Blood Music, 1985), and Pat Cadigan (Mindplayers, 1987) — as well, of course, as Sterling (The Artificial Kid, 1980) and Gibson. Work by Tom Maddox, Marc Laidlaw, James Patrick Kelly, and Paul di Filippo also appears in Mirrorshades, while such seemingly dissimilar writers as John Brunner, George Alec Effinger, Richard Kadrey, and even Kathy Acker have at one time or another been associated with the cyberpunks, at least in the minds of literary critics. In retrospect, Blade Runner (1982) and Videodrome (1983) stand as cinematic cyberpunk classics. So do such pop cultural projects as the Max Headroom TV show, MTV videos and station IDs at their most innovative, and the self-destructive robotic sculptures of Mark Pauline and the Survival Research Laboratories.

Common to manifesto pronouncements, Sterling asserts something new and fresh (cyberpunk) has just begun to revolt against something old and stale (conventional jaded 1970s science fiction). On closer inspection, it becomes apparent that cyberpunk has done no more than develop trends already present in a number of previous texts, such as those by New Wave writers like Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick, Brian Aldiss, and J. G. Ballard. David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust pose, Laurie Anderson, and Devo also figure into the cyberpunk equation. One of the most influential earlier sources has of course been the work of Thomas Pynchon, for whom the cyberpunks hold "special admiration." Pynchon's "integration of technology and literature stands unsurpassed."(35)

Integration is a key concept in cyberpunk. "Suddenly a new alliance is becoming evident: an integration of technology and Eighties counterculture," Sterling remarks. "An unholy alliance of the technical world and the world of organized dissent — the underground world of pop culture, visionary fluidity, and street-level anarchy."(36) And again: "cyberpunk comes from the realm where the computer hacker and the rocker overlap, a cultural Petri dish where writhing gene lines splice."(37) Integration is even enacted in the neologism cyberpunk. Cyber connotes the techno-sphere of cybernetics, cybernauts, electronics, and computers. This is coupled with punk connotations of the countercultural socio-sphere, especially late 1970s punk rock, itself an embodiment of both anarchic violence and an attempt to return to the roots of pure rock'n'roll. At the heart of cyberpunk is the conviction that, like rock'n'roll, science fiction had become too safe during the mid-1970s, that drastic measures were required to reenergize it. This project shares much with that of the New Wave that appeared a generation before and attempted to add literary craftsmanship, power, and innovation to what it perceived as the lifeless and predictable pulp science fiction preceding it.

While the romantic counterculture of the late 1960s was in large part anti-tech, postmodern cyberpunk is high-tech. "Technology is visceral," Sterling states, and Timothy Leary adds that personal computers are the "LSD of the 1980s." Cyberpunks feel, not that they are just working in a literary tradition of science fiction, but that they have been born into a world where technology is "pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds."(38)

The most striking emblem of cyberpunk integration are the mirrorshades, mirrored sunglasses, which became the movement's totem in 1982. "The reasons for this are not hard to grasp," Sterling explains. "By hiding the eyes, mirrorshades prevent the forces of normalcy from realizing that one is crazed and possibly dangerous. They are the symbol of the sun-staring visionary, the biker, the rocker, the policeman, and similar outlaws."(39) Mirrorshades depersonalize and dehumanize, giving world rather than self back to the viewer; this reflects cyberpunk's emphasis on moral neutrality and emotionless surface. Mirrorshades suggest that the future is opaque to us all, that at best in cyberpunk fiction we see a reflection of our present. Traditionally in Western art, eyes have been windows to the soul, insight, and love; in cyberpunk, however, eyes are covered with reflective surfaces (Bobby Newmark in Count Zero wears mirrorshades, Molly has had them surgically implanted into her face), or are often plainly artificial (Rikki in "Burning Chrome" buys Zeiss Ikon eyes modeled on those of her favorite simstim star). Western tradition is thereby turned on its head. Human and inhuman merge. Humanism gives way to posthumanism. Man becomes — to use the title from Anthony Burgess's proto-cyberpunk novel (1963) — a clockwork orange.

Cyberpunk, forced as it is by the press of fashion to present itself as radically new, seems unaware that it shares much with an earlier multimedia movement in the twentieth century: Italian Futurism. Initially a literary concept born in the mind of the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and best expressed in the works of Umberto Boccioni, Futurism was propagated in manifestos in 1909 and 1910. Its proponents attacked ideas of imitation, harmony, good taste, and traditional subject matter embodied in libraries, museums, academies, and cities of the past, while extolling the beauties of revolution, war, metamorphosis, motion, and, most important, the speed and dynamism of modern metropolitan life, industry, and technology. From the German Expressionists it also inherited a passion for developing an empathetic identity between the viewer/reader and the artwork, a direct appeal to emotions. In his manifesto of "tumbling and incendiary violence," Marinetti "sing[s] the love of danger," "the beauty of speed, . . . . the great crowds tossed about by work, by pleasure, or revolt, . . . . the gluttonous railway stations . . . . , the factories hung from the clouds . . . . , and the gliding flight of airplanes."(40) Italian Futurists display the same adoration of the contemporary, of speed and motion and technology tinged with danger, as do the cyberpunks. One cannot help thinking of Marinetti, for example, when reading about Turner closing his eyes and jacking into the microsoft carrying Mitchell's dossier in Count Zero: "It came on . . . , a flickering, nonlinear flood of fact and sensory data, a kind of narrative conveyed in surreal jump cuts and juxtaposition. It was vaguely like riding a roller coaster that phased in and out of existence at random, impossibly rapid intervals, changing altitude, attack and direction with each pulse of nothingness" (chap. 3).(41)

It is easy enough to attack cyberpunk, or what some less charitable critics have dubbed cyberbunk or cyberjunk, on a number of predictable fronts. Interestingly enough, few choose to take on the truth-value of its vision. Most, such as Gregory Benford and David Brin, primarily launch assaults along media hype lines. "What we have here, folks," Benford declares, "is a marketing strategy masquerading as a literary movement."(42) Brin chimes in: "'cyberpunk' is nothing more or less than the best publicity gimmick to come to Speculative/Fiction in years. Adherents make their grand pronouncements and thereby attract the roving press flocks, always eager to do a piece on the latest rebel."(43) Others, such as John Kessel and Csicsery-Ronay, primarily launch assaults along narrative lines: "How many formulaic tales can one wade through," the latter asks, "in which a self-destructive but sensitive young protagonist with an (implant/prosthesis/telechtronic talent) that makes the evil (megacorporations/police states/criminal underworlds) pursue him through (wasted urban landscapes/elite luxury enclaves/eccentric space stations) full of grotesque (haircuts . . . /rock music/sexual hobbies/designer drugs . . .) representing the . . . mores . . . of modern civilization in terminal decline?"(44) Cyberpunk falls into the trap of virtually all movements: it is by nature trendy, its spokesperson shrill. It opposes itself to a tradition out of which it in fact grew. It is short-lived. Its few powerful key works are relatively easy to imitate, if not equal.

None of this negates the fact that cyberpunks (self-proclaimed and otherwise) such as Gibson, David Bowie, Ridley Scott, Laurie Anderson, and Kathy Acker continue to address immensely important contemporary matters in an intensely forceful and innovative way. "Cyberpunk," McCaffery observes, "seems to be the only art systematically dealing with the most crucial political, philosophical, moral, and cultural issues of our day."(45) Among those issues that go virtually unnoticed by other contemporary creators are genetic engineering, organ transplantation, multinational control of computer networks (and thus information access), commodification of culture, future shock, artificial intelligence, cybernetics, chemical weapons, terrorism, techno-angst, the devaluation of cash currency, conurbation, the advent of postindustrialism, denationalization, hacker outlaws, religious cults, the reemergence of fundamentalism around the world, toxic waste, famine, and our culture's romanticization of insanity. Such concerns seem simple "publicity gimmicks" or mere "trendiness" only to the wildly naive or amazingly uninformed.

Many cyberpunk ideas about these issues were influenced by Toffler's The Third Wave (1980), a generally optimistic futurist sociological study that in tone and vision is a far cry from Gibson's fiction.(46) Toffler argues that civilization has evolved through three stages or "waves." The First Wave, reaching back at least ten thousand years, was agricultural. The Second Wave, initially surfacing in the seventeenth century, was industrial. This "indust-reality" advocated standardization, specialization, massification, centralization, concentration, nationalization, and synchronization. Since the 1950s, a Third Wave has appeared and begun to clash violently with the Second. Presently "colliding visions rock our mental universe" as our world teeters between opposing perceptions of reality.(47) The Third Wave has begun to revolutionize the deep structure of society, entering the techno-, info-, socio-, bio-, power- and psycho-spheres, and advocating the antithesis of "indust-reality": customization, decentralization, demassification, diversification, and globalization. Rather than thinking in terms of hierarchy, it thinks in terms of network. Rather than thinking in terms of Cartesian parts, it thinks in terms of post-Cartesian wholes. Politically, it moves away from the authoritarianism of capitalism or socialism toward a complex democracy advocating minority power and denationalization. Third Wave civilization will be neither utopia nor dystopia. It will be practopia instead — "neither the best nor the worst of all possible worlds, but one that is both practical and preferable to the one we had."(48)

Informed by Toffler's ideas, cyberpunk harmonizes well with the basic orientation of postmodernism. Csicsery-Ronay has in fact called cyberpunk "the apotheosis of postmodernism."(49) While power struggles continue to rage around the definition of this term, and its parameters continue to shift almost weekly, some agreement has nonetheless been reached about the mode of consciousness our culture seems intent on naming postmodernism. Like Toffler's Third Wave, it embraces notions of decentralization, diversification, and demassification. Like cyberpunk, it has little patience with borders — between human and machine, country and country, writer and writer. As I have discussed at length in Ellipse of Uncertainty and Circus of the Mind in Motion, postmodernism may be thought of as a radical form of skepticism which challenges all we once took for granted about language and experience. This definition subsumes a number of seminal ones: incredulity toward overarching belief systems (Lyotard); an inability to reflect and shape the world (Thiher) or self (Caramello); ontological instability (McHale); cultural schizophrenia (Baudrillard); the fusion and confusion of "high" and "low" culture (Huyssen).(50)

Implicit in modern thought, as Gianni Vattimo writes, is the belief that history is progressive. The world, according to such modern thinkers as Hegel and Marx, undergoes a series of relatively gradual revolutions (political, aesthetic, intellectual, etc.) towards something. In consumerized postmodern thought, however, the new is taken for granted. We no longer generate the new in order to "progress." Rather, we are addicted to producing it for its own sake. Revolution follows on the heels of revolution, but leads nowhere.(51) "Accustomed to coping with low diversity and slow change, individuals and institutions suddenly find themselves trying to cope with high diversity and highspeed change," Toffler affirms. "The cross-pressures threaten to overload their decisional competence. The result is future shock."(52)

Postmodern humanity must learn to deal with a situation that goes nowhere, but travels at an astonishing velocity. Alan Wilde claims the truly postmodern human will come to accept extreme indeterminacy as a way of life, John Brunner (deeply influenced by Toffler) that one must "adjust to shifts of fashion, the coming-and-going of fad-type phrases, the ultrasonic-blender confusion of twenty-first-century society, as a dolphin rides the bow wave of a ship . . . . and hav[e] a hell of a good time with it."(53) Often, of course, this joy in the face of unlimited possibility seems forced, paired as it is with the feeling that something important has been irrevocably lost. Such paradoxes, or contradictions, lie at the heart of the postmodern enterprise and remain, as Linda Hutcheon points out, forever unresolved.

Cyberpunk, then, is a cultural manifestation of postmodernism. With this in mind, Brian McHale's observation comes as no surprise: over the past few decades postmodernism has begun borrowing motifs and topoi from science fiction in works such as Alasdair Gray's Lanark (1981) and Raymond Federman's The Twofold Vibration (1982), while science fiction has begun doing the same with postmodernism in works such as J. G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) and Samuel Delany's Dhalgren (1974).(54) It depends on one's vantage point as to how Gibson fits into this paradigm. From many readers' perspective, he is a science fiction writer who has adapted several postmodern motifs and topoi to his purposes. From Gibson's own perspective, he is a postmodern writer who has adapted several science fiction motifs and topoi to his purposes. In either case, the result is the creation of a fictional universe and core of central themes that are both alarming and intriguing.


26 Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979), 4.

27 Nicholas and Hanna, 18.

28 MacNair, 23.

29 McCaffery, 230.

30 Harper, 30.

31 Harper, 16.

32 Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, "Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism," in Mississippi Review 16.2 & 3 (1988), 269.

33 Sterling, ix

34 Anonymous editorial, "Requiem for the Cyberpunks," Science Fiction Eye 1.1 (Winter 1987): 5.

35 Sterling, x.

36 ibid., xii.

37 ibid., xiii.

38 ibid., xiii.

39 ibid, xi.

40 F. T. Marinetti, "The Joy of Mechanical Force," in The Modern Tradition, ed. Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson, Jr. (New York: Oxford UP, 1965), 433.

41 Gibson took several courses as an undergraduate at UBC, but says he didn't learn anything from them. His interest in art history, he claims, is "fetishistic." He obsesses on a given artist, learning all he can about him or her. His knowledge of art history is nowhere more apparent than in CZ.

42 Gregory Benford, "Is Something Going On?" in Mississippi Review 16.2 & 3 (1988), 22.

43 David Brin, "Starchilde Harold, Revisited," in Mississippi Review 16.2 & 3 (1988), 26.

44 Csicsery-Ronay, "Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism," 268.

45 Larry McCaffery, "The Cyberpunk Controversy," in Mississippi Review 16.2 & 3 (1988), 9.

46 In fact, Gibson hasn't read The Third Wave, although he was clearly exposed to many of its ideas through the Sterling and Shiner connections.

47 Toffler, 289.

48 ibid., 357.

49 Csicsery-Ronay, "Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism," 266.

50 See Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, tr. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1984); Allen Thiher, Words in Reflection: Modern Language Theory and Postmodern Fiction (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1984); Charles Caramello, Silverless Mirrors: Book, Self and Postmodern American Fiction (Tallahassee: UP Florida, 1983); Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1987); Jean Baudrillard, "The Ecstasy of Communication," tr. John Johnston, in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983): 126-133; Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.

51 See Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture, tr. Jon R. Snyder (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988).

52 Toffler, 361.

53 John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider (New York: Ballantine, 1975), 53.

54 McHale, 65-72.