#57 = Volume 19, Part 2 = July 1992
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
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
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
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
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"
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 politics...one 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
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
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
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
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
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
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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