Science Fiction Studies

#57 = Volume 19, Part 2 = July 1992

Nicola Nixon

Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?

In the 1970s feminist writers made successful intrusions into the genre of the popular SF novel, a genre whose readership, then and now, is assumed to be one who can appreciate, for example, that taking blue mescaline inspires the confidence "you’d feel somatically, the way you’d feel a woman’s lips on your cock" (Shirley, Eclipse 74). One hardly needs recourse to Althusserian models to determine who the interpelated reader is here. Suffice it to say, it isn’t me. In the ’70s Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Sally Miller Gearhart negotiated—rather boldly, given such a readership—a political and artistic trajectory from ’60s feminism to its enthusiastic articulation in specifically feminist utopias. Collectively they provided an often implicit and stinging critique of male SF writers’ penchant for figuring feminist power as the threat of the future. Parley J. Cooper’s The Feminists (1971), where the "top dog is a bitch" and men "mere chattel," for example, sports a dust jacket that reads: "The story that had to be written—so timely, so frighteningly possible, you won’t believe it’s fiction."2 But they also presented alternative, genderless futures and worlds. Characteristically yoking the genres of fantasy and SF, or positioning themselves on the border between the two, the feminists of the ’70s exposed gender as a crucial political lacuna in mainstream popular fiction and emphasized the urgency to change gender assumptions. If Russ, in The Female Man (1975), constructs the war of the sexes as a literal turf war, complete with bunkers and shell-pocked borders between Manland and Womanland, she also suggests that the presence of a literary turf war as "soft" female fantasy encroaches on "hard" male SF.

The Female Man, Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1975), Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Gearhart’s The Wanderground (1978) all posited near-present dystopian worlds, which displaying all manner of technical/medical/industrial/political abominations, functioned in critical counterpoint to utopian future worlds.3 And thus they articulated criticisms of their current society while presenting potential emancipatory alternatives. Jean Pfaelzer observes that the feminist utopian text

represents two worlds, the flawed present and the future perfect, which contradict and comment on each other. One world is feminist and egalitarian. The other world is not. And the world that is not utopian derives from the author’s representation of contemporary gender inequality, sexual repression, and cultural malaise. (286-87)

For various reasons (many of them political, as Peter Fitting has indicated), the ’70s feminist utopias gave way to straight, uncontrasted dystopias in the ’80s, barely concealed allegories of feminism’s complacency and failure: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Zoë Fairbairns’ Benefits (1979), Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue (1984) and The Judas Rose (1986), and Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women (1986). Less optimistic than the ’70s feminists, but no less political—at least insofar as they deployed gender as the linchpin for their fiction—the ’80s feminists produced a form of quasi-didactic (fictional) finger-shaking, a series of monitory or cautionary tales. Also rising on the heels of the ’70s feminist SF writers, however, was another SF "movement," one loudly proclaiming its "revolutionary" status: cyberpunk.4

Cyberpunk—slick, colloquial, and science-based—represented a concerted return to the (originary) purity of hard SF, apparently purged of the influence of other-worldly fantasy, and embracing technology with new fervor. Bruce Sterling’s review of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1983), reprinted on the flyleaf of the text, invites us to "say goodbye to [our] old stale futures.... An enthralling adventure story, as brilliant and coherent as a laser. THIS IS WHY SCIENCE FICTION WAS INVENTED!" Sterling is clearly not referring here to those futures produced by the "legion" of cyberpunk precursors he describes in his rather self-congratulatory introduction to Mirrorshades (1986)—the "idolized role models" like J.G. Ballard (xiv), the "classic Hard" SF writers with their "steely extrapolations" (x-xi), the New Wave "independent explorers" of SF whose "bible" was Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave (xiii). Presumably their futures never stale. Only once in the introduction does Sterling suggest the gender of those producers of stale futures when he posits a connection between drugs, personal computers, and cyberpunk as "definitive high-tech products": "No counterculture Earth Mother gave us lysergic acid—it came from a Sandoz lab" (xiii).

Sterling’s allusions to the influential fathers of SF, indicative of what Samuel Delany calls the male SF writers’ "endless, anxious search for fathers" ("Some" 9), betrays his need to forge a filiation with established (male) SF writers, to construct a form of legitimacy which, not insignificantly, manages to avoid mention of any potential mothers: the feminist SF writers (countercultural Earth Mothers?) of the previous decade.5 But this construction of cyberpunk as the legitimate progeny of earlier SF is only part of Sterling’s project in Mirrorshades. Far more overt is his relentless attempt to locate the "loose generational nexus of ambitious young writers" (xi) of cyberpunk as "disentangling SF from mainstream influence" (x), as, in effect, both marginalized and revolutionary. In other words, once he has unearthed adventurous fathers and constituted a satisfying filiation for cyberpunk writers, he can figure oedipal rebellion, reinterring the fathers as "mainstream" and celebrating the sons as young turks. Sterling’s desire to represent cyberpunk as a radical subgenre within SF—one which prompts him, in his introduction to Gibson’s Burning Chrome (1986), to dismiss all of ’70s SF as "not much fun," as in "the doldrums," "dogmatic slumbers," or "hibernation" (1-2)—is rearticulated even more forcefully in the special Mississippi Review cyberpunk issue (1988) and in the Rucker-Wilson anthology, Semiotext(e) SF (1989).

Larry McCaffery, in his introduction to the Mississippi Review special issue, argues that

cyberpunk seems to be the only art systematically dealing with the most crucial political, philosophical, moral issues of our day...[issues] which are so massive, troubling, and profoundly disruptive [that they] cannot be dealt with by mainstream writers. (9)

John Shirley maintains, in the same issue, that cyberpunk writers like himself are indeed "preparing the ground for a revolution" ("John" 58). Rudy Rucker and Peter Wilson, in the introduction to their anthology—their self-styled "Einstein-Rosen wormhole into anarcho-lit history," their "godzilla-book to terrify the bourgeoisie" (11-12)—differ from Sterling in that they find cyberpunk’s origins not in SF but in designer drug culture and punk rock: John Shirley’s credentials, for example, are that he is a "Genuine Punk" who has "earned the right to a revolutionary stance by serving his season in the Lower Depths" (60). For Rucker and Wilson, cyberpunk is "ideologically correct" (13) and insurrectionist in the face of the SF publishing industry’s "stodginess, neo-conservatism, big-bucks-mania" (12). These are grand claims. We might recall, however, that none of the cyberpunk writers has had much difficulty publishing his writing: four of Gibson’s Burning Chrome stories and almost half of those in the Mirrorshades anthology, for example, appeared first in Omni, which is, as Richard Stokes points out, "merely a technology oriented Penthouse" (29), despite Sterling’s attempt to give it a revolutionary savor by praising Omni’s Ellen Datlow as "a shades-packing sister in the vanguard of the ideologically correct" (Mirrorshades xv).6

Lest we be tempted to dismiss such inflated claims—that cyberpunk is "ideologically correct," that it is truly "revolutionary" and subversive, that it is in the political vanguard, if not of art in general, then certainly of SF—as a form of professional, self-interested hype or a clever marketing strategy on the part of the SF publishing industry itself, we should remember that such claims are reiterated, albeit with a more sophisticated theoretical apparatus, by critics and academics outside SF coterie culture.7 But is cyberpunk realizing a coherent political agenda? Is it indeed "preparing the ground for a revolution"? If we are to take such promotion seriously as something other than hyperbolic advertisement, we need to examine cyberpunk contextually —not only as an SF "movement" in the wake of, and contemporaneous with, particular forms of political, feminist SF, but also as a response to (or perhaps a reflection of) the Reaganite America of the ’80s. Because "cyberpunk" is, to a certain extent, a catch-all, convenient label for the work of a number of vaguely heterogeneous writers, I will confine much of my examination to the exemplary William Gibson, who is, according to Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, "the one [cyberpunk] writer who is original and gifted enough to make the whole movement seem original and gifted" (269), and who is, according to the widely circulated mainstream magazine Interview, "the king of cyberpunk" (cf Hamburg).

Sterling insists that cyberpunk is sexy social critique, legitimizing its political content through comparing it to the ’60s counterculture, and retrieving many of its generic roots from ’60s SF. And the Washington Post reviewer of Mirrorshades, among others, concurs, heralding cyberpunk as "the first genuinely new movement in science fiction since the 1960s." That Sterling harks back to the ’60s counterculture to establish political connections for cyberpunk, and thereby implicitly reinstates the very lacuna the ’70s feminist SF writers sought to expose in their exploration of gender relations, is itself provocative, particularly because it represents a peculiar avoidance of rather obvious and immediate political SF precursors. But his elision of specific ’70s texts seems even more striking when we consider that William Gibson’s novels, for example, inscribe quite overt revisions of the very texts which form the potentially (anxiety producing?) absent referent in Sterling’s delineations of cyberpunk’s origins. Russ’s dauntingly powerful (and emasculating) Jael in The Female Man, for example, who describes matter-of-factly how her cybernetic boy-toy, Davy, can be "turned off or on" as she desires, and how her nails and teeth have been cybernetically enhanced for use as lethal weapons against men, is effectively transformed into Molly, a "razor-girl" who sells her talents (razor implanted finger-nails) to the highest bidder in Gibson’s "Johnny Mnemonic" and Neuromancer; or into Sarah, the dirtgirl/assassin who uses the cybernetic weasel implanted in her throat to kill with a kiss in Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired (1986). Explicit reworkings of an antecedent female character, Molly and Sarah are effectively depoliticized and sapped of any revolutionary energy: Jael had a political agenda, Sarah wants only to make enough money to get herself and her brother off earth; Molly’s ambitions are to make as much money as possible—in "Johnny Mnemonic" she is Molly "Millions," and in Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) she refers to herself as an "indie businesswoman"—and to bed Console Cowboy Case, the tough-guy hero of Neuromancer.

Jael is a killer, an allegorical figuration of feminist struggle, the active, ruthless and productive rage which eventually allows the utopic Whileaway to come into existence. Delany argues that Jael is Molly’s fictional precursor, that strong female characters like Molly would not have been possible for cyberpunk writers without the earlier influence of feminist writers like Russ. "Gibson’s world," he maintains, has "neither Jeannines or Janets—only various Jael incarnations" ("Some" 8).8 While Delany makes a good case for comparing Jael and Molly, his contention that strong female characters in cyberpunk owe their existence to the ’70s feminists is considerably less convincing, particularly if we recall the relative paucity of strong female characters in cyberpunk. Rucker’s Software (1982) and Wetware (1988), for example, contain almost no female characters, save for Della Taze and Darla in the later novel, both of whom are primarily surrogate mothers for Bopper progeny; Lewis Shiner’s Frontera (1984) includes a Molly who is distinctly secondary in importance both to Kane and to her father, Reese; George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails (1986) concentrates, almost exclusively, on the entirely male-dominated world of the Budayeen where the few female characters—whether biologically or surgically female—are either wives or prostitutes; even Sterling’s Islands in the Net (1988) presents Laura Webster, the central protagonist, as perpetually in need of rescue from prisons, would-be assassins, and terrorists. Indeed, from this perspective, Delany’s comments about the strong female characters derived from ’70s feminist SF seem to apply to relatively few works. Apart from Gibson’s Molly and Williams’ Sarah, we can perhaps include Pat Cadigan’s Gina in "Rock On" (1984) and her Alexandra Haas (Deadpan Allie) in Mindplayers (1987), but very few other strong female characters come to mind.

If Delany’s observations, for all their overstatement, do succeed in rectifying the elision of feminist SF writers from the supposed influences on cyberpunk—his project is, in fact, to establish an alternative "maternal" filiation for the latter—they nevertheless fail to acknowledge the rather crucial differences between Molly and Jael. When Delany contends, for instance, that the two have "a similar harshness in their attitudes" ("Some" 8), the comparison works only for the Molly of "Johnny Mnemonic" and Neuromancer.9 In Mona Lisa Overdrive Molly/Sally, the tough entrepreneur/ assassin/businesswoman, is distinctly softened, less harsh because she is effectively "feminized" when Gibson positions her in relation to a child.10 The unwilling bodyguard of Kumiko Yanaka, the motherless and innocent young daughter of a top Yakuza (Japanese mafia) warlord, Molly develops what can only be construed as a (natural? instinctive?) maternal protectiveness of, and affection for, Kumiko, a parental protectiveness which is not prompted, say, in Turner when he takes custody of Angie Mitchell in Count Zero (1987).11 And Molly, with her street sense and ability to survive, represents a preferred alternative to Kumiko’s helpless and sensitive mother who eventually commits suicide, unable to cope with the Yakuza world. Molly thus becomes the appropriate maternal model for Kumiko, teaching her the necessary tactics with which to survive and flourish, and, perhaps more importantly, facilitating her reconciliation with her father.

If Kumiko serves as a catalyst for Molly’s feminizing or transformation into a quasi-maternal figure, she also provides the means through which Gibson presents an insider’s view of the Japanese Yakuza as a "family" organization. Kumiko, the "Yak" daughter who represents a miniature extension of a vast and inscrutable corporate collective, functions as a temporary bridge between the world at large—the Sprawl desperados, matrix hackers, data pirates, and console cowboys, the self-consciously militant individualists—and the Yakuza, a threatening and powerful familial structure which, in fact, constitutes a kind of monolithic Japanese corporate entity. Indeed the Yakuza is the paradigm for all the other Japanese megacorporations which appear regularly in Gibson’s texts: a collective construct which conflates the tight familial bonds of the Italian-American mafia with the equally tight employer-employee bonds of the frighteningly efficient Japanese industries. It is the latter which formed the subject of endless documentaries and business-magazine articles throughout the ’80s because their corporate practice presented the most substantial threat to American-style capitalism America had yet experienced.12

American xenophobia and isolationism, particularly with regard to the Japanese scientific and economic invasion, manifested itself in the media through such scare tactics as Andy Rooney’s piece on 60 Minutes (Feb. 5, 1989), which portentously identified various historic American monuments as Japanese owned! And 48 Hours presented a piece called "America for Sale" (Dec. 29, 1988), in which various reporters, including Dan Rather, emphasized American objections to Japanese ownership of American real estate and industry. Amorphous Japanese collectives clearly posed a threat to the land of the free entrepreneurial spirit. This is surely the fear underlying the (defensive?) mockery and ridicule attending representations of Japanese tourists, traveling in tightly-knit groups, sporting extremely expensive, high-tech photographic equipment. If Canada as a whole did not reflect precisely the same degree of anti-Japanese paranoia being played out in America, British Columbia, Gibson’s home, betrayed more conflict about Japanese investment than most parts of the country. In the early and mid-’80s, in the midst, that is, of British Columbian Premier William Bennett’s open-door policy to Pacific Rim investment, reactions to Japanese tourists and potential investors were mixed: their infusion of capital into the flagging B.C. economy was indeed welcomed, and yet their actual ownership of luxury hotels, real estate, and various natural-resource companies (the forestry industry in particular) was both attacked and feared as being, ironically, merely a reenactment of past American practice.

If we examine Gibson’s texts within the context of such conflicting interests, we see the degree to which he deliberately avoids any form of simplistic anti-Japanese paranoia or its attendant racism and ethnocentrism. And yet Gibson’s Japanese conglomerates, in their collective and familial practice, nevertheless form the implicit antagonistic counterpoint to the individualist heroes. The bad guys in Gibson are, after all, the megacorporations—Ono Sendai, Hosaka, Sanyo, Hitachi, Fuji Electric. The good guys are the anarchic, individualistic, and entrepreneurial American heroes: independent mercenaries and "corporation extraction experts" like Turner, console cowboys like Case, Bobby Newmark, Gentry, Tick, and the crew at the Gentleman Loser who jack in and out of the global computer matrix with unparalleled mastery. In Williams’ Angel Station (1989), Bossrider Ubu traverses the galaxy, roping in black holes. In Sterling’s Islands in the Net, American Jonathan Gresham, the self-styled "post-industrial tribal anarchist" (388), rides his "iron camel" through the "bad and wild" African Sahara—one of the few places free of the global Net—and eventually saves the hapless but earnest Laura Webster. The cowboys in Gibson, Williams, and Sterling are heroes who represent, as Williams suggests in Hardwired, the "last free Americans, on the last high road" (10). It seems telling that the American icon of the cowboy, realized so strongly in Reaganite cowboyism, the quintessence of the maverick reactionary, should form the central heroic iconography in cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk’s fascination with and energetic figuration of technology represents the American cowboy as simultaneously embattled and empowered. In ’80s America the Japanese megacorporations did dominate the technological market, but the cowboy’s freedom and ingenuity allow him to compete purely on the level of mastery. The terms of such a competition—Japanese pragmatism and mass production versus American innovation and ingenuity —seem precisely analogous to those of a familiar American consolatory fiction: that free enterprise and privately funded research and development in science and technology have produced in America the most important technological innovations of the 20th century, innovations which the Japanese have simply taken, pirated, and mass produced, thus undercutting the very American market which encouraged their discovery and making it financially difficult for the neophyte technological wizards to get corporate funding. In Interview’s special "Future" issue (1988), almost adjacent to Victoria Hamburg’s interview with Gibson, there appeared an article titled "Made in Japan," which confirmed for the American readership that the Japanese did not "initiat[e] new ideas" (Natsume, 32) and reassured it about the benign nature of the new products coming out of Japan: micro-thin televisions, special low-water-consumption washing machines, camcorders with RAM cards, auto-translation machines—non-essential but nice, unthreatening appliances.13 Computer and technological innovation would still come from American silicon valleys, would still be, by implication, "Made in America." In Gibson’s novels the console cowboys use expensive Hosaka and Ono Sendai cyberspace decks, but such mass-produced technology is always customized and enhanced, its performance and capabilities augmented by the cowboys’ more inventive, finer ingenuity.

In effect, the exceptionally talented, very masculine hero of cyberpunk, with specially modified (Americanized) Japanese equipment, can beat the Japanese at their own game, pitting his powerful individualism against the collective, domesticated, feminized, and therefore impenetrable and almost unassailable Japanese "family" corporations. After all, in the world of the microchip, small is potentially powerful.14 If, however, these demonized/ feminized Japanese corporate collectives form the consistent and implicit counterpoints to the individualized heroes in Gibson’s novels, representing as they do a quasi-new industrial threat to America, they frequently pale in comparison to the families-gone-bad of an old-world, European, aristocratic order: the most obvious example is Tessier-Ashpool in Neuromancer, the "very quiet, very eccentric first-generation high-orbit family, run like a corporation" (75), which has the ability to clone itself endlessly, to keep clones in cryogenic storage until they are needed to replace family-member clones who have died, to copulate with and kill its members without danger of legal interference. And Tessier-Ashpool has the mad, female 3Jane at its helm, which seems to cement its construction as a demonic parody of the "proper" nuclear American family and to suggest its peculiar connotative link with the domesticated, multi-generational Japanese corporations, run like a family. The individual cowboy hero, then, rarely combats an individual villain; rather he employs his particular performative mastery against a demonized and feminized Other, represented implicitly in the threatening Japanese conglomerates and explicitly in the aberrant familial forms of an old European aristocracy, the inbred and mad Tessier-Ashpool clan.15 And yet the significant mastery of Case, Bobby, Gentry, Tick, and others, the mastery they must deploy against such feminized collectivity is never quite secure, not necessarily because they have superior rivals, but because of the multifaceted and mystical nature of the matrix itself.

The computer matrix, a construct culturally associated with the masculine world of logic and scientific wizardry, could easily constitute the space of the homoerotic. But it doesn’t. Oddly enough, in cyberpunk fiction only the posturing and preening at the cowboy bars comprise the locus of the homoerotic; the matrix itself is figured as feminine space. The console cowboys may "jack in," but they are constantly in danger of hitting ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics), a sort of metaphoric hymeneal membrane which can kill them if they don’t successfully "eat through it" with extremely sophisticated contraband hacking equipment in order to "penetrate" the data systems of such organizations as T-A (Tessier-Ashpool). Dixie Flatline tells Case in Neuromancer, for example, that the Kuang ICE breaker is different from others: "This ain’t bore and inject, it’s more like we interface with the ice so slow, the ice doesn’t feel it. The face of the Kuang logics kinda sleazes up to the target" (169). And Flatline points out to Case that should they approach the T-A ICE without the Kuang, "it’ll be tellin’ the boys in the T-A boardroom the size of your shoes and how long your dick is" (167). Obviously not long enough if Case allows himself to get caught in the ICE.

If the data constructs of the domestic or familial corporations are metaphorically feminized, protected as they are by feminine counter-intrusion membranes that resist "bor[ing] and interject[ing]," so too are the interspacial zones in the matrix. Any (masculine) scientific and technological purity the computer matrix might once have had has been violated, invaded: in Count Zero, virus software programs have infected the matrix; it’s "full of mambos ‘n shit." Finn tells Bobby, "there’s things out there. Ghosts, voices.... Oceans had mermaids, all that shit, and we had a sea of silicon" (Count Zero 119). The matrix has a generational life of its own, but one configured by the likes of 3Jane, Slide, Angie Mitchell, and Mamman Brigitte, a voodoo feminine AI (Artificial Intelligence). And even the quasi-masculine AIs in Neuromancer, Wintermute and Neuromancer, who eventually fuse and expand into the matrix, do so, not because they have their own autonomous desires, but because the original mother, Marie-France Tessier, has deliberately reconfigured them to unite and destroy the "sham immortality" (269) of her husband Ashpool’s empire. When Neuromancer tells Case his name, he explains: "Neuromancer.... The lane to the land of the dead.... Marie-France, my lady, she prepared this road" (243); and thus Marie-France, in her ability to control and direct (even posthumously) the parameters of matrix inhabitation, seems a ghostly prefiguration of Mamman Brigitte, the Queen of the Dead.

Not only is the matrix itself mystified and feminized, but so are the means of entering it. Lucas tells Bobby in Count Zero that certain women, voodoo "priestesses" called "horses," are metaphorical cyberspace decks: "Think of Jackie as a deck, Bobby, a cyberspace deck, a very pretty one with nice ankles.... Danbala [the snake] slots into the Jackie deck" (114). The cowboys can "mount" and "ride" such horses into the matrix. In Williams’ Angel Station, Beautiful Maria is a cybernetic "witch" who, like Angie Mitchell in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, has that specialized mysticism which enables her to negotiate and manoeuvre within the complex eroticized data matrix. Angie can "dream cyberspace, as though the neon gridlines of the matrix waited for her behind her eyelids" (Mona 48). When Beautiful Maria navigates the Runaway, flares "pattern[s] her belly," "Magnetic storms howl[s] in her throat," "Electron awareness pour[s] into her body" (Angel 105). The cowboys have to "interface" with the matrix through "slotting into" feminized cyberspace decks; certain females, however, require no such mediation: they are already, by implication, a part of it.

Constituting both what is fascinating and generative about the matrix itself and the means of accessing its secrets, the feminine is effectively the "soft" ware, the fantasy (and world) that exists beyond the "hard" ware of the actual technological achievements realized in the silicon chip. Finn points out to Bobby that "anyone who jacks in knows, fucking knows [the matrix] is a whole universe" (Count 119). This feminized universe is inhabited by ghosts, not simply ghostly personality constructs, but textual ghosts. In Mona Lisa Overdrive, Bobby tells Angie "about a general consensus among the old cowboys that there had been a day when things had changed, although there was disagreement as to how and when. When It Changed, they called it...." (129), referring, in effect, to when the matrix became an inhabited feminized world. The implication of this dangerous "soft" fantasy-world of the matrix is even more pronounced when we consider that "When It Changed" is also the title of Joanna Russ’s Nebula Award-winning story upon which she based The Female Man. The "change" in Russ’s story is initiated by the arrival of several (decidedly sexist) men in Whileaway, which had previously been an entirely female society, made so earlier by a gender-specific plague. In Mona Lisa Overdrive the change that Gentry, Finn, and Bobby locate is, in fact, also gender specific: the uncontrollable feminizing of the matrix, the uncheckable transformation of viral software technology into a feminine Other, complete with ghosts and the prevailing influences of Mamman Brigitte and 3Jane—respectively the Queen of the Dead and the dead queen of the Tessier-Ashpool empire.

If Gibson posits the obverse of Russ’s patriarchal imperialism as a kind of female infection and (viral) takeover of original masculine space, he also suggests that the matrix turf can potentially be won back, reconquered. And this is curiously like a male version of Gearhart’s The Wanderground, in which Earth and her daughters, the Hill Women, reclaim, quite successfully, the territories that men had once conquered; they work their reclamation through ensuring that masculine technology will not operate outside a certain, very constrained area. When Darko Suvin argues, then, that Gibson presents the matrix as a utopia, he seems not to recognize how very gendered the matrix is; however, one could supplement his contention by suggesting that Gibson is indeed gesturing towards a potentially utopian matrix, a macho, "privatized utopia" (Suvin 45) which can be brought about by the energy and vision of such heroes as Bobby Newmark.

Gentry is fascinated by Bobby Newmark’s aleph in Mona Lisa Overdrive because it is nothing less than an insulated territory carved out in the matrix, a secure homestead, technologically protected from the intrusion of the matrix wilds, a benign "approximation of the matrix" (Mona 307). Is Gibson simply invoking traditional tropes of American imperial or colonizing fictions —in which the valiant and resilient Western homesteader wins back civilization from the savage feminine wilds (the virgin land)? Or is he presenting a particularly unsavory and reactionary ’80s working of those tropes, an aggressive anti-feminist backlash which figured feminists as emasculating harridans and ball-busters, a back-lash which surfaced quite overtly in the media. In the early ’80s, for example, the Toronto Transit Commission was forced, by public outcry, to remove an advertising placard for Virgin jeans that displayed a prone female figure, naked except for a pair of jeans, with a red knife/lipstick slash down her nude back, and the single caption "SINNER" below. Equally symptomatic of an embattled masculinity is the poster Peter Fitting found in San Francisco in 1986, appealing to "All Men": "DON’T SUBMIT TO A FEMINIST-LESBIAN TAKEOVER. RESIST!!!" (Fitting 17). Whether or not we choose to see Gibson’s configuration of the frightening feminine matrix as an extension of particular anti-feminist politics in the ’80s, we are still left with the fact that his male heroes play out their mastery within that specific locus of femininity; their very masculinity is constituted by their success both within and against it.

"Soft" fantasy has indeed a dangerous appeal, testing as it does the mettle and performance of the would-be masters. While anyone with a set of "trodes" in Gibson’s texts can jack into the matrix, only the heroes have the specialized, though provisional, mastery which allows them to negotiate their way through it and, perhaps more importantly, to exit it when their mastery becomes unstable. The cowboys’ proficiency does not, however, ensure their success: Slide, from within the matrix in Count Zero, for example, kills Conroy electronically while he is jacked into a telephone line; Angie Mitchell, simply by imagining the configurations of cyberspace behind her eyelids, saves Bobby from dying after he hits black ICE; and the matrix-dwelling 3Jane dislocates cowboy Tick’s shoulder, almost killing him, in Mona Lisa Overdrive. Gibson has indeed constructed the soft world of fantasy as a sort of phallic mother: erotic, feminine, and potentially lethal. If the cowboy heroes fail to perform brilliantly, they will be "flatlined" or have their jacks melted off, whichever is worse.

But old cowboys never really die: they ride out of the sunset to become presidents, then ride back to the ranch to embrace a domestic life. In the Reaganite revision of the cowboy, he is no longer the solitary, autonomous hero, but one whose eventual home is constituted by wife and range. Console cowboy Case in Neuromancer settles down and has four children; Corporate Extraction expert Turner in Count Zero finds a wife, has a son, and lives a rustic life on his brother’s ranch; console cowboy Bobby Newmark, in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, ends up in an aleph-secured little matrix-homestead with Angie Mitchell; Panzerboy pilot Cowboy in Hardwired, recovering on a "sweaty Nevada dude ranch" (340), anticipates "eas[ing] carefully into peace" with Sarah (337). These are the couples and families which represent the correct form of domesticity, correct insofar as they are contrasted with the antagonistic, exclusive and threatening domesticity of the Japanese "family" corporations or the mad, inbred, European, aristocratic Tessier-Ashpool corporate family. The potentially emasculating feminine matrix is replaced by the unthreatening wife, biological reproduction replaces replication, and the triumphantly masculine hero returns to a romanticized rural life: the garden stays intact despite the sophisticated technological warfare waged outside it.16

Where then, we might well ask ourselves, is revolutionary potential articulated in cyberpunk fiction—apart from in its writers’ own self-promotion and in the introductions to their anthologies? Or is it articulated at all? The Reagan ’80s, which saw the rise of the moral majority to unprecedented heights, the revocation of many of the feminist advances of the ’70s, and the curtailing of most forms of social assistance, realized a coherent return to an idealization of the nuclear family and the simple rural life. Technology, particularly cheap Japanese-disseminated technology, wouldn’t save America; it was dangerous: unsuspecting American kids could be killed by oncoming (Japanese?) cars because they were wearing Sony walkmans. As Gibson says, without a trace of ironic understatement, in the Village Voice: "The potential for technology of oppression seems very strong" (Carpenter 38).

But Gibson’s masculine heroes are masterful because they use a feminized technology for their own ends, or better, because their masculinity is constituted by their ability to "sleaze up to a target" and "bore and inject" into it without allowing it to find out the "size of their dicks" in advance— their facility, in short, as metaphoric rapists. And their success is celebrated as a form of triumph to such an extent that we can hardly view Gibson’s texts as deliberately dystopian, much as we might flinch at the implications of such triumphs. Indeed to read Gibson’s novels as extrapolations to, or fictional figurations of, a particularly untenable, hideous and ugly future, that is, as some sort of dystopian fiction, seems to me an active misreading of them, and one, I would suggest, indulged in by various critics. Andrew Ross, for example, calls cyberpunk "survivalist," a "new dystopian realism" which presents a future "governed by the dark imagination of technological dystopias" (432-33); and Pam Rosenthal suggests that the future in cyberpunk is "our world, gotten worse, gotten more uncomfortable, inhospitable, dangerous, and thrilling" (85). In contrast, Gibson himself comments that his books are "optimistic," that his future "would be a neat place to visit," that the thing he likes about his future is that "there’s a sense of bustling commerce. There seems to be a lot of money around. It’s not very evenly distributed, but people are still doing business" (Hamburg 84).

Ross and Rosenthal, in their rush to justify the politically correct content of cyberpunk, need to construct it as dystopian, as monitory or cautionary fiction. In my estimation and surely in that of "pessimists" (Suvin 50) like Suvin and Csicsery-Ronay, they are grasping at straws; they are also ignoring (suppressing?) some actual dystopian novels, that is, SF novels with a fairly overt political agenda, which were written in the ’80s at exactly the same time as cyberpunk. Elgin’s Native Tongue and The Judas Rose, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Fairbairns’ Benefits all posited dystopian futures in which women’s rights had been extinguished altogether, in which women were valued only as breeders, in which the moral majority had ascended to establish tyrannical theocracies, in which technology had become the sophisticated means by which women could be successfully oppressed once again. These writers, in fact, represent in their fiction what Gibson observes in passing but does not really articulate in his texts: that the "potential for technology of oppression" is (not "seems") very strong.17 Elgin, Atwood, and Fairbairns all provide active critiques of political trends which surfaced in the early ’80s; and thus they differ quite drastically from Gibson, who hopes that the future will "be as much like the present as possible" ("King" 86). And their works proffer a critical contrast to cyberpunk’s optimism with its manly heroes who, given the appropriate arena ("bustling commerce"), can achieve success and clinch their masculinity.

Gibson ultimately celebrates the same initiative and ingenuity which has always characterized the American hero, indicating that, within his chosen models of a relentlessly capitalist future, a paradigmatic American heroism can be rearticulated virtually uncritically: past, present, and future are the same. As Richard Stokes points out, there is, in the apparent street punks of cyberpunk, "an overwhelming desire for upward mobility" (29). The powerful Japanese megacorporations serve only as worthy antagonists for the American hero—and the hero will inevitably triumph; they do not present the arena for the hero’s potential subversion of or assault on them, for it is the established power structures themselves which provide the means by which he can succeed. In Gibson’s fiction there is therefore absolutely no critique of corporate power, no possibility that it will be shaken or assaulted by heroes who are entirely part of the system and who profit by their mastery within it, regardless of their ostensible marginalization and their posturings about constituting some form of counterculture. As Stokes and Csicsery-Ronay quite rightly point out, the idea that computer cowboys could ever represent a form of alienated counterculture is almost laughable; for computers are so intrinsically a part of the corporate system that no one working within them, especially not the hired guns in Gibson’s novels, who are bought and sold by corporations and act as the very tools of corporate competition, could successfully pose as part of a counterculture, even if they were sporting mohawks and mirrorshades.

Unlike Stokes, Suvin, and Csicsery-Ronay, Rosenthal approves of the apparent politics in cyberpunk; her reservations are minor:

If one wanted to criticize cyberpunk for its bad would correctly point to the desperate loneliness it portrays. But I’d prefer simply to observe that, painful as it may be to think about, cyberpunk is onto something real here. We live in lonely times. (100)

Cowboys, capitalist entrepreneurs, American heroes—these are lonely, autonomous heroes by choice, and they are, undeniably, mythologized in American culture; but how "real" are they? And if they indeed represent the "times," doesn’t this raise some rather crucial questions about what exactly is being mythologized as heroic in the ’80s? I am afraid it would be rather difficult to locate cyberpunk’s "good politics," despite Rosenthal’s contentions that cyberpunk writers are on the cutting edge of interesting politics, that they "can’t wait until all the returns are in, until political and economic theorists agree upon new models for the forms underlying social life" (80). Nor, in fact, is it really possible to locate that supposedly "revolutionary" agenda cyberpunk is touted so regularly as having. This is not to say that Gibson and other cyberpunk writers are not excellent craftsmen, interesting stylistically, and capable of constructing complex and gripping plots. But the conflation of aesthetic appreciation and good politics surfaces, in certain critics, as a form of leftist wish-fulfillment; that, in other words, if one likes the fiction, it must necessarily involve the articulation of a perceptible, revolutionary project. To make such an argument, however, is to remain effectively blind to what cyberpunk does represent, particularly when one contrasts it with other forms of political SF. The political (or even revolutionary) potential for SF, realized so strongly in ’70s feminist SF, is relegated in Gibson’s cyberpunk to a form of scary feminized software; his fiction creates an alternative, attractive, but hallucinatory world which allows not only a reassertion of male mastery but a virtual celebration of a kind of primal masculinity. Political potential is indeed lost in the iconography of all that Reagan himself represented.

For all its stylish allusions to popular culture—to punk rock, to designer drugs, to cult cinema, to street slang and computer-hacker (counter?) culture —cyberpunk fiction is, in the end, not radical at all. Its slickness and apparent subversiveness conceal a complicity with ’80s conservatism which is perhaps confirmed by the astonishing acceptance of the genre by such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and by the ease with which it can be accommodated and applauded in the glossy pages of such American mainstream (boys’) magazines as Omni.18 Sterling argues in Mirrorshades that the cyberpunk movement "is not an invasion but a modern reform" (xv). "Reforming" what, we might well ask? Certainly not SF’s gender politics. Or maybe Sterling is right; maybe cyberpunk is a "modern reform." But, like so many other "reforms" in the Reagan/Mulroney era, it involves an unsavory and regressive positioning of us. Yes, "us"—those (other SF readers) not properly equipped to appreciate Shirley’s analogies, or to "bore and inject," or to have our identities constituted and verified in multinational boardrooms through the measure of the length of our dicks.


1. This article is a revised version of "‘Jacking In’ to the Matrix: Metaphors of Male Performance Anxiety in Cyberpunk Fiction," a paper delivered in the special session on "Political Directions in Popular Culture" at the May 1991 meeting of the Association of Canadian University Teachers of English in Kingston, Ontario.

2. Along the same lines as Parley J. Cooper’s novel are Charles Maine’s Aleph (1972), Edmund Cooper’s Who Needs Men? (1972), and Sam Merwin, Jr’s Chauvinisto (1976). In her "Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction," Russ describes this trend in male SF, examining in detail The Feminists and a number of other novels.

3. Although Le Guin’s Urras is not precisely a "near-present" world, its economic, social, cultural, and political models are based on existing and familiar 20th-century models.

4. There is, of course, an on-going debate about the term "cyberpunk," and what /who it represents. Bruce Sterling’s response, in Interzone, to Lewis Shiner’s "Confessions of an Ex-cyberpunk Writer" (The New York Times, Jan. 7, 1991), makes clear what William Gibson has been saying for years: that "cyberpunk" is a label with which many of the writers who have been dubbed part of the "movement" are uncomfortable. That said, writers like Gibson, Sterling, Shiner, John Shirley, and Rudy Rucker have been reasonably content to have their novels marketed as "cyberpunk" fiction, and their more recent disavowal of connections to the label comes as much from their discomfort with the amount of imitative cyberpunk which has glutted the market—what one SF publisher calls the "cyberpunk sludge"—as from anything else. As Darko Suvin suggests, "cyberpunk" may well be not so much a movement as the result of "a couple of expert PR-men (most prominently Sterling himself) who know full well the commercial value of an instantly recognizable label, and are sticking one onto disparate products" (50).

5. Several critics have noted this elision. See, for example, Delany, who describes Sterling’s "obliteration" of the ’70s feminist writers in his introduction to Burning Chrome ("Some" 8), and Gregory Benford, who points out that the "feminist perspectives SF pioneered in literature are here [Sterling’s introduction to Mirrorshades] largely brushed aside" (22). See also Joan Gordon’s "Yin and Yang Duke It Out," in which she remarks on the absence of reference to women SF writers in Sterling’s introductions; she calls it, however, only "an oversight" (38).

6. In a conversation with Edward Bryant, Datlow makes clear the limitations on her freedom to select material for Omni: she publishes what she likes, as "long as I don’t get in trouble at Omni from the people who control me" (59).

7. See, for recent examples, Pam Rosenthal’s "Jacked In: Fordism, Cyberpunk, Marxism" and Andrew Ross’s "Getting Out of the Gernsback Continuum."

8. In The Female Man Russ presents four principal female characters: Jeannine, living in a perpetual Great Depression, represents the malleable, soft, would-be ’50s housewife; Joanna, living in the present of the ’70s, is intelligent and intellectual but still expected to find a man to marry; Janet is a product of the futuristic, all-female Whileaway; and Jael is located temporally in a near future where feminist struggle has become an actual war between men and women. Delany’s comment suggests that Gibson, unlike Russ, is not interested in representing temporal/political transitions; rather he presents the near future in isolation.

9. Delany may not, in fact, have read the later novel: his interview with Tatsumi was published in March 1988 and Mona Lisa Overdrive appeared in the fall of the same year.

10. Nickianne Moody points out that cyberpunk, like other technology-based SF, has a problem with active female characters: such a character either recovers her full sexuality when she "retires from the scene" because of pregnancy or domestic demands or "tactfully removes herself when relationships get serious" (27). Moody argues that such SF "cannot move from the base which allows us to comprehend it— the present. And such problems in the 1980s are far from solved as far as post-marital roles are concerned" (27).

11. Interestingly enough, these assumptions about the maternal instinct as natural which we seem to find suggested in Gibson’s representations of Molly and later of Angie at the end of Mona Lisa Overdrive are precisely the same assumptions at work in Cooper’s The Feminists. Cooper’s novel ends with the mayor’s having to "choose between her loyalty to the Feminists and her role as the antiquated woman of her youth. Motherhood had won and her feeling of tranquility told her the decision had been the right one" (182). As the driver explains to the mayor’s son, Keith, at the end: "When she had to face the choice...the mayor discovered that she possessed the major feminine weakness she despised in others. Before she was a Feminist, she was a mother!" (187).

12. Suvin contends that Gibson’s use of the zaibatsu model for the corporations of the future is justified, its logic "centered on how strangely and yet peculiarly appropriate Japanese feudal-style capitalism is as an analog or indeed ideal template for the new feudalism of present-day corporate monopolies: where the history of capitalism, born out of popular merchant-adventurer revolt against the old sessile feudalism, has come full circle" (43).

13. There is a rather interesting parallel here between Interview’s "Made in Japan," which displays at once a form of American anxiety and a means by which it can be defused, and a book which was first serialized and then published almost exactly a century earlier in England: E.E. Williams’ Made in Germany (1896). Williams’ book was a clear attempt to strike fear in the hearts of the English, since it simply detailed the frightening degree to which they relied upon imported products, from Germany in particular, products which ranged from the strictly domestic and commonplace to the technological. Made in Germany, unlike "Made in Japan," however, did not articulate consolation or attempt to defuse fear: it was a "call to arms," designed to create the very paranoia that "Made in Japan" attempts to allay.

14. See Donna Haraway’s "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" for her discussion of microelectronics, and of power as contiguous with reduced size: "Miniaturization," writes Haraway, "has turned out to be about power; small is not so much beautiful as pre-eminently dangerous" (70).

15. Csicsery-Ronay argues, quite rightly, that the "villains come from the human corporate world, who use their great technical resources to create beings that program out the glitches of the human: the Company in Alien seeking a perfect war-machine; the consortium in Robocop constructing the perfect crime-fighter; in Blade Runner, Terrell Industries, who have created the Nexus-4 [sic] replicants, the perfect servant-worker-warrior" (275). But I would elaborate a bit here and suggest that the relationships established, at least verbally, are strikingly familial: in Alien and Aliens the Company wants the war-machine born, quite literally, out of the stomachs of human beings in a demonic form of maternity, and in the latter film the central antagonism is between the alien family and the human family of Ripley and Newt; in Robocop the Consortium Head’s final words to Robocop are "fine shootin’, son;" in Blade Runner Roy addresses Terrell as his maker and "Father."

16. See Haraway on the significance of the Edenic garden—the romantic "myth of original unity, fullness, bliss" (67)—in relation to technology and cybernetics (66-69).

17. As Csicsery-Ronay points out: "All of the ambivalent solutions of cyberpunk works are instances/myths of bad faith, since they completely ignore the question of whether some political controls over technology are desirable, if not exactly possible" (277).

18. Delany bemoans the fact that supporters of cyberpunk have been, by and large, conservative: "The conservative streak in the range of sympathetic cyberpunk criticism is disturbing. That streak is most likely the one through which the movement will be co-opted to support the most stationary of status quos" ("Some" 10). But, as I have argued, this conservatism seems perfectly consistent with the politics that cyberpunk does present.


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