Victoria de Zwaan
Rethinking the Slipstream: Kathy Acker Reads Neuromancer
The best known cyberpunk manifesto ... cannily describes the cyberpunk school's aspirations not in terms of conceits, but as the reflection of a new cultural synthesis being born in the 1980s, making it essentially a paradoxical form of realism. (Csicsery-Ronay 182)
Sf is a genre seeking to bury the generic, attempting to transcend itself so as to destroy itself as the degraded “low.” (Luckhurst, “Polemic” 44)
The guiding premise of Larry McCaffery's Storming the Reality Studio, still the definitive work to date on cyberpunk, is spelled out in McCaffery's introduction:
In a basic sense...this book is dedicated to the proposition that the interaction between genre sf and the literary avant-garde—two groups traditionally segregated (at least in the United States) and, hence, not influencing one another directly —needs to be noted, discussed, and encouraged. (3)
This “interaction” is defined in different ways throughout the volume: McCaffery refers to “parallel developments” (2), Brian McHale to a “feedback loop” (314). The concept that describes this idea most efficiently, and that is now used casually by a number of sf critics, is Bruce Sterling's term “slipstream,” with its suggestion that there has emerged a new kind of text that lies on the margins of both mainstream and science fiction. It is this particular term, or rather the complex of issues it raises, that I investigate in this paper.
If “slipstream” refers to the intersection of “postmodernized sf” (McHale 317), notably cyberpunk, and “quasi-sf” postmodernist fiction (McCaffery 2) by such writers as Thomas Pynchon and Kathy Acker (see articles by Hollinger, McCaffery, and McHale in Reality Studio for detailed lists), then it is clear that the common terms, the terms that require clarification, are postmodernism and science fiction. It is my argument that, while the idea of a connection between postmodernist experimentalism and cyberpunk sf is potentially useful and interesting, the descriptions in the McCaffery volume are somewhat confused and even misleading.
The claim that Neuromancer is postmodernist sf relies on two related definitions of postmodernism, one sociological and one literary-stylistic. The first, sociological definition has to do with a historical placement of cyberpunk into contemporary techno-culture. That is, following the arguments about “late capitalism” by Mandel and Jameson, a number of critics situate cyberpunk in a “postmodern reality” (Hollinger 217), or what McCaffery, following the theories of Debord, Baudrillard, and Kroker, calls “the postmodern desert” (McCaffery 6). From this vantage point, some of the most pressing social, political, and existential issues of our time—the complicated interfaces between technology and human beings, the global realities of post-industrial capitalism, and the implications for identity and agency of the processes of simulation— these issues themselves define the postmodern condition. Accordingly, cyberpunk, which foregrounds these novums, comes to be defined as postmodern sf, at least in part because it is thought to explore an objective postmodern culture.1
What clinches this definition of Neuromancer as postmodernist, however, is the fact that the narrative surface of the novel echoes recent non-sf avant-garde writings, particularly by such writers as Thomas Pynchon and William Burroughs. Themes of American postmodern experimental fiction—paranoia, indeterminacy, uncertainty, popular culture, history, science, identity, technology—are certainly featured in Gibson's novel, and in literary critical discussions of cyberpunk. I would say, however, that the deeper structure of Neuromancer is to be contrasted with that of contemporary experimental fiction. Specifically, the invention of cyberspace as a novelty in sf does not in itself undermine the specific (and realist) conventions that are crucial to traditional sf, in which the other worlds, whether of the present or the future, have ontological and narrative coherence. In experimental fictions such as those of Kathy Acker, this stability is simply unavailable. I will develop this point shortly.
The other claim, that such postmodernist vanguardists as Pynchon, Burroughs, and Acker write a species of science fiction, or are influenced by science fiction, is also somewhat problematic.2 This is not to say that sf has had no impact on the mainstream, but rather that it is difficult to ascertain whether it is the science or the fiction that creates the relationship between sf and non-sf.3 Certainly, it is indisputable that “the presence of Pynchon's texts ...is pervasive in cyberpunk” (McHale 315); but that does not mean that Pynchon's texts can themselves be called even quasi-sf. After all, science makes its appearance in many different genres, both fiction and non-fiction; sf is surely defined as a genre, however, because of particular conventions about how science is to make that appearance.
More specifically, the acknowledged influence on cyberpunk of Pynchon and other writers is an example of what I would call “trickle-down postmodernism,”4 perhaps a quintessential feature of the intertextual nature of writing itself. Put differently, in his interview with McCaffery in Reality Studio, Gibson cites Pynchon this way:
Pynchon has been a favorite writer and a major influence all along. In many ways I see him as almost the start of a certain mutant breed of SF —the cyberpunk thing, the SF that mixes surrealism and pop culture imagery with esoteric historical and scientific information. Pynchon is a kind of mythic hero of mine.... (272)
Here, Gibson cites certain techniques in Pynchon's work that become part of the stylistic surface of his own text. The significance of Pynchon's work to writing, then, is not that it is early sf, but precisely that it is avant-garde; conversely, particular experimental techniques that become common currency in other genres do not render those new texts themselves cutting-edge.5
Postmodernism is, of course, a slippery term; and I will not attempt to resolve contemporary debates around it here. However, I should say that I think we reduce the heuristic power of the concept when we subsume postmodernist fiction into an objective and knowable “postmodern reality.” This move promotes a mimetic view of fictions that notoriously resist interpretation, and provides a determinate political position from which to overcome that resistance. My own literary-critical use of the term postmodernist fiction takes seriously that there are texts, anti-realist in both content and structure, in which the self-conscious experimentation with narrative conventions disrupts textual closure and precludes determinate meaning.
In Constructing Postmodernism, Brian McHale suggests that Kathy Acker's plagiarism from two episodes from William Gibson's Neuromancer in the first section of Empire of the Senseless is “pointless,” “apart from...producing the `sampling' effect itself” (234). Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr criticizes McHale's argument in the following way:
McHale is content to speculate—tautologically—that Acker is simply attracted to the same repertoire of motifs that a mainstream postmodernist like Acker would be attracted to. Why Acker should be attracted to Gibson to make her “blank parodies” and sentence violation is bracketed out. (“An Elaborate Suggestion” 463)
In my view, McHale's argument is limited, not simply by the tautological circularity Csicsery-Ronay rightly points to, but also by the very notions of pointlessness, violation, and parody that guide his reading of Acker's work. I will argue in what follows that, despite the introduction of crude pornographic passages into canonical texts and other literary disruptions, Acker does not do violence or destroy her source texts: rather, in what turn out to be cogent, creative, and even sensitive readings, she creates a narrative of desublimation for each of the narratives she uses. On this reading, the term parody, par-ticularly in relation to the term pointless, is too narrow especially because McHale is clearly drawing on Jameson's notion of pastiche or “blank parody” (Postmodernism 114)6 in thinking about Acker's work. In short, the descriptors above tell us very little about what Acker achieves in her use of Neuromancer either at the level of content or at the level of genre, to the extent that these two can be legitimately separated.
Specifically, and starting with genre, Acker's deployment of Neuromancer into the radically counter-realist fabric of Senseless foregrounds the rigid sf frame, as well as the series of both sf and non-sf realist conventions that function to give closure and coherence to her source text. As I will show in the following discussion, what Acker does with Neuromancer in Senseless places Gibson's work squarely into the mainstream American novelistic tradition, and far away from the avant-garde experimentalism her own work embodies.
At the level of content, Empire of the Senseless neither parodies nor does violence to Gibson's text. Appropriating both character and structure from the opening of Neuromancer, Acker deploys this “ready-made” for her own narrative, which engages (as does all her work) with the history of western narratives. In this case, Acker addresses particularly American themes, American myths, and, consequently, American texts. In Empire of the Senseless, Acker bases her first-ever male protagonist, Thivai, on two quintessentially American prototypes: Gibson's Case from Neuromancer, and Twain's Huck from Huckleberry Finn. It is interesting that, although the texture of Senseless is, like Acker's other novels, a seamless jumble of metonymically and metaphorically related discourses, she does not juxtapose or link her “readings” of Twain and Gibson from one paragraph or sentence to the next. Instead, she structures (creates seams for) the first section of the novel around the opening of Neuromancer, and the last section around the ending of Huckleberry Finn. The meeting of Case and Molly, then, is the model for the “romance” between Acker's Thivai and Abhor; and the final separation of Jim and Huck is the model for Abhor leaving Thivai at the end of Senseless. What are the connections between these two American “classics” besides the fact that Gibson implies one by naming one of his characters Finn?
The most obvious connection, of course, is that Gibson's Case is, like Huck Finn, the loner “cowboy,” the adventurer who constantly eludes, not only the arm of the law, but also the weakness of “meat” connections and emotions—symbolized in both books by women. On this reading, cyberspace is the new version of the frontier so prominent in the American literary and philosophical imagination, and the transcendence Case desires is metaphorically related to the myth of absolute freedom pursued in Huckleberry Finn by both Huck and Jim. The fact that Acker moves backwards, from contemporary versions of the American Dream to a nineteenth-century version, is very telling: when Abhor (the textual equivalent at this juncture of runaway slave Jim) rides away on her motorcycle, she has written a wish-fulfillment narrative for herself in which freedom from slavery is possible. This is not an option in the Neuromancer text, where transcendence has become the poverty-stricken notion of jacking into the speedy, but highly ordered and entirely “mapped” (“already written,” as Jacques Derrida would put it) world of high-tech, multi-national “biz.”
Thivai's character, which does not have the solidity or coherence of Case or Huck, desublimates repressed aspects of both. Acker gives Thivai an entirely unreliable history of sexual and emotional abuse that nevertheless accounts for and then links up the death wish of Case with the sadism of Huck. More specifically, if briefly, the scene that Acker takes from Twain is one in which Huck and Tom Sawyer refuse to rescue Jim from jail in a straightforward way, because Tom wants the whole caper to have risk and romance to it. In Senseless, likewise, Thivai and Mark are reluctant to rescue Abhor:
we told her...she was going to have to get permanently and seriously maimed escaping from her jail because escaping from jail is a difficult and dangerous thing for a man to do. (202)
In Acker's recycling of this material, she highlights the sadistic impulses of Thivai and Mark—impulses that at least superficially serve comedy in Huckleberry Finn.7
There are several other twists of interest to us in Acker's use of Twain's text. In particular, Thivai/Huck is the one that lands Abhor/Jim in jail, motivated by his resentment that “she was as strong as I was,” and “just like Ahab” (192). Once she gets arrested, Thivai feels remorseful enough to want to rescue Abhor, although his desire is primarily stimulated by the fact that this will obligate her to him: “I really like the idea of stealing Abhor” (195). This combined theme of slavery and imprisonment is a recurring motif in Acker's fictions, and it is often explored through appropriations, not only of deSadean and pornographic texts, but also of canonical American and British novels: The Scarlet Letter in Blood and Guts in High School and Jane Eyre in Don Quixote are two good examples. Perhaps the most important point about the use of the rescue-from-jail scene in Senseless is that Abhor clearly chooses to be Thivai's victim. Just as Twain's Jim can break his chains—although he does not necessarily know it—any time he is ready, it turns out that Abhor knows all along that she can escape from the prison by herself at any time. She can only do so, however, once she is ready to give up on Thivai; once, that is, she is ready to “break out of the prison of her mind” (Blood and Guts in High School 98). Abhor's realization, at the end of Senseless, is that Thivai represents death, and that she is in pursuit of life.
This brings us back to Case. When we first meet Case in Gibson's text, he is a suicidal drug addict, who has fallen out of cyberspace/paradise and into the world of flesh or “meat.” In the “Nightmare City” section of Senseless, Acker reworks Gibson's “Night City,” making a number of crucial changes. The most significant of these, besides the name-change which speaks for itself, is that Thivai has not been incapacitated by neural circuitry damage. Instead, he has developed an incapacitating psychosis since contracting gonorrhea: “I'm...physically and mentally damaged because my only desire is to suicide” (27). With this move, Acker diagnoses Thivai/Case's problem, not so much as an objective medical-health issue, whether that be neurological or sexual, but rather as the psychotic death-wish that is a feature of the male protagonist of both Neuromancer and Senseless. The other implication of this change is that the obsession with cyberspace is, like gonorrhea, a disease. Moreover, it may be a sexual disease. Certainly, Gibson's Case, who cannot even take responsibility for his own urination when he is “jacked in,” is sexually dysfunctional when he is in cyberspace.
I am not claiming here that Acker is introducing anything fundamentally (thematically) new into her reading of Neuromancer. On the contrary, Gibson builds into his text a self-conscious awareness on the part of Case that he rejects the “meat” emotions of love, attachment, and bodily pleasures; and the Case-Molly partnership is deliberately set up as a mind-body combination. Even as he sneers at “meat” technologies, Case is fascinated, in fact seduced, by the way Molly moves, and by her unfathomable survival instinct. Furthermore, the fact that Gibson's Case literally dies, flatlines, when he is in cyberspace makes Case's death-wish very explicit.
What Acker does with this material is to pick out the self-reflexive aspects of Gibson's text in order to recycle them into a more deliberately and overtly intertextual metafiction. In particular, she introduces into Gibson's material a foregrounded psycho-sexual subtext, often using another “ready-made,” the psychoanalytic narrative. Thivai can say things that Case can't:
I didn't bother saying anything. It's a policy of mine: Don't believe in human speech as anything but a stuffer of time. I would, and I would have, run away, but there's no place to which to run, so the only safety is in psychosis and drugs. (27)
This is one small example of a strategy of de-sublimation. Case does not talk about safety; but Acker's Thivai makes it explicit that his primary motivation is fear, or a need for safety from “human speech,” from the vulnerability of connection with others. On Acker's reading, then, this escape is what Case seeks in cyberspace, Huck Finn in the frontier; Thivai, who cannot escape, expresses his fear through his psychosis, which, as I have already suggested, eventually takes a futile form of sadism.
What clearly draws Acker to Gibson's work, however, apart from the motif of loner-cowboy male protagonist, is, of course, the implied deconstruction in Gibson's novel, at least at the thematic level, of the integrity of human identity itself. If an Artificial Intelligence can orchestrate the plot, and personalities can be downloaded from and uploaded into computer programs, our sense of “humanity” is severely problematized. In a section called “Beyond the Extinction of Human Life,” Acker's text specifically addresses this issue of the constructed nature of identity and personality, but, it should be noted, without the apparatus of Gibson's sf. That is, Acker strips her version of Neuromancer of the basic structuring principles of the source novel, that is, of the “neu.” AI, which means “Artificial Intelligence” in cyberpunk—actually, in all sf—refers to “American Intelligence” here; the references to computers do not refer to the matrix; references to “Screaming Fist” are expunged and replaced by references to the Korean War; there are references to AIDS and other contemporary sexually-transmitted diseases; most significantly, there is no mention of cyberspace. This erasure of the sf novum that provides for coherence in Gibson's text hardly constitutes a casual or pointless changing of superficial details: Acker's use of Gibson deconstructs, quite literally, the conventions and principles that make Neuromancer a cyberpunk sf novel that “makes sense.” In so doing, she reveals the stable and realist nature of those conventions.
Specifically, when Thivai, having learnt that Dr Schreber (the Armitage of Senseless) will be able to cure him, says, “I, whoever I was, was going to be a construct” (33), the term “construct” does not mean what it does in Neuromancer. In Gibson's text, this is a reference to the “reconstruction” of biological into artificial “mind”: the “Dixie Flatline” is the “downloaded” mind of what used to be a real person; and Neuromancer is itself a scientifically produced artificial intelligence. These beings are “written” or constructed as data-entry, but there is nevertheless something prior to the construct, namely the biological entity, as well as a scientific principle involved in its creation. Furthermore, even though the gap in Gibson's text between the present and the future is very narrow, as many critics have pointed out, there is nevertheless an “otherness” about the textual world he creates. In Acker's text, on the other hand, “construct” has no scientific (or futuristic) meaning; rather, the term refers to what one could call, following Jacques Derrida, the “already written” nature of mind, reality, and text.
Similarly, the introduction of Abhor into Senseless as “half-robot” does not tell us what the term means: could it be a metaphor for her personality; or is it to be taken literally? At a different level altogether, Thivai and Abhor discuss that the construct they seek is called “Kathy” (34). This metafictional move gestures, not to the interface between technology and humanity, as is the case of the “construct” reference in Neuromancer, but to the constructed nature of narrative and character in Senseless. Put differently, the “construct” in Neuromancer is a particular phenomenon or product of research into artificial intelligence. In Senseless, it is much less determinate and comprehensible; and it disrupts conventional notions of character, agency, and personality.
Even at the most basic level of plot, Acker's version of the Neuromancer story refuses us the satisfaction of an ending. Once Abhor/Molly kills Schreber /Armitage, Thivai and Abhor find themselves at a dead end. Although their prototypes, Case and Molly, are able, with the help of Wintermute, to carry out their mission, Thivai and Abhor find themselves inside other narratives, other discourses, other multiple constructions. Gibson, on the other hand, gives his readers the satisfaction of a beginning, a middle, and an end; of relationships; of crises and tension; of coherence; of resolutions, however ironic; even of some good sex. Furthermore, despite the idea of cyborgian constructs, he gives us rounded characters in the mode of Dickens or any other realist writer. As Claire Sponsler notes, despite the apparent, or potential undermining of subjectivity implied by the surface of Neuromancer, Gibson's protagonists “fit the well-known mold of the free-willed, self-aware, humanist subject” (637). Even the Dixie Flatline construct has a constant and consistent personality structure and a voice that, as Glenn Grant brilliantly points out, uncannily invokes that of William Burroughs (44).
Acker's stripping of the sf frame from her reading of Neuromancer reveals, and sets into relief, the necessary rigidity of that frame for the coherence and pleasure of Gibson's novel. That is, the scientific novelties—virtual reality/ cyberspace; programmable humanoids; immortality through programming— allow the text its measure of suspension of disbelief. As in all good sf, no matter what the subject matter or thematic interest, from Star Trek to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, there is a great deal of scientific explanation that keeps in place the coherence of the possible world being created in the text. This is, in fact, a traditional realist technique adapted to the needs of a futuristic or fantastic fiction; and it is no less true of Neuromancer than of I, Robot. The constant reminders that Case is jacking in, or cleaning his trodes, or inserting a catheter while he is in cyberspace all contribute to the impermeable generic wall around the text.
The best example of how this works is a comparison between a phrase in Gibson's text, and its “quotation” by Acker. During Case's water break during the Dixie Flatline robbery, Case sees on the screen that “a pulsing red cursor crept through the outline of a doorway” (65). This cursor actually represents Molly's position close to the cabinet where the Dixie Flatline is stored. As readers, we know what a cursor looks like, and given the scientific information we have been given, we know that when he is not in cyberspace, the computer screen can give Case information as to Molly's whereabouts because there is a particular technology, we have been told, that has achieved this. In our daily, extra-textual lives, moreover, we are aware that such computer tracking devices exist. The point is that we have no trouble understanding the reference here; the frame gives us the information we need to follow this as easily as a line in a Jane Austen novel that describes someone putting on a hat, even though we have never been in Molly's or Case's actual (textual) situation.
Almost the very same phrase makes its appearance in Senseless: “A pulsing red and black cursor crept through the outline of the doorway” (34). In Acker's text, however, this comes out of nowhere. It has not been prepared for, provided for, or given a context: it does not signify. Or rather, what it does, especially if the reader is familiar with Neuromancer, is provoke confusion: is the whole text of Senseless actually inside cyberspace? Is this more simply a powerful metaphor that points to the virtual reality of textual space? This is a deliberate violation of the conventional pact between writer and reader, in which the latter suspends disbelief as long as this disbelief is not stretched too far, and the former either sticks to the realm of the possible outside the text itself, or creates a new set of rules for understanding what can be possible inside a given textual world. In contrast with Acker, this is a pact entirely and absolutely honored by Gibson.
When McCaffery suggests that interaction between avant-garde and sf writing should be encouraged, this is partly because, that way, sf will be regarded as more “serious” and “important.” Claire Sponsler suggests, in fact, that sf is struggling against ghettoization (625), while McHale attributes the growing “legitimation” of sf to the “high degree of overlap” between sf and the mainstream avant garde (320). The term “slipstream” is not simply a descriptor of objective relationships between different types of fiction, then; rather, it reveals a desire for legitimation, for the erasure of the boundaries between what John Clute calls “greasy genre stuff” and the “haute sf” (Evidence 423) that potentially belongs in the category of (capital L) Literature.
In his provocative and eloquent polemic, “The Many Deaths of SF,” Roger Luckhurst traces the connection between two ongoing features of sf criticism: the overt desire for legitimation, and the prevalence of what he calls “fantasies of death” (“Polemic” 47). As Luckhurst puts it: “Sf is a genre seeking to bury the generic, attempting to transcend itself so as to destroy itself as the degraded `low''' (“Polemic” 44). In this way, he accounts for what he calls the “panic narrative of degeneration” (“Polemic” 47), in which sf is “haunted by its own death” (“Polemic” 35), or at the very least, and as he fully documents, “constantly entertains fantasies of death” (“Polemic” 47). On this reading, the attempt to erase the boundaries between genre-sf and mainstream Literature entails “the very destruction of the genre” (“Polemic” 38).
The notion of the slipstream takes on a different meaning in the light of Luckhurst's argument. Bruce Sterling presumably coined the term to refer to fictions that were neither mainstream nor entirely sf, but a new avant-garde hybrid. However, if we take the metaphor to its logical conclusion, as John Clute does so cleverly in Look at the Evidence, we see that those in the slipstream are “in tow” (Clute 197) of the wake created by something much larger, whether that is traditional genre-sf (what Clute customarily calls Dinosaur or First sf) or, more likely, that “fantasy projection of sf” (Luckhurst, “Border Policing” 365), “the Mainstream” of Literature-with-a-capital-L.
As Luckhurst points out, many critics have, for many different reasons, announced the end or the death of sf. However, when someone like John Clute argues that “it may not be the worst thing that ever happened to sf that it died” (17), he is referring to a particular type of writing, or a particular set of thematic concerns or philosophical and political assumptions. The genre itself is, if Neuromancer is anything to judge by, alive and well. To be sure, there is a danger that the genuine introduction of avant-garde experimentation into sf would mean the end of sf itself. After all, the sf tradition has managed to produce many fine, serious, provocative, and cutting-edge novels—of which Neuromancer is certainly one—and it will continue to do so; but not if it strips itself of the realist conventions that have made it powerful; and that allow it to explore, to crassly quote Star Trek, “strange new worlds.” Avant-garde writing that appears to borrow from sf tends to use it for very different purposes, and certainly not for the same purposes as sf proper.
for the notion of a postmodernized sf, we fall into tautology. If postmodern refers to an objective cultural reality, then any novel that examines that reality in any way will be called postmodern. If it is meant to refer to sf that has been transformed by avant-garde postmodernist fictions, then I would have to argue that the experimental novels written by Acker and others refuse a closure that is crucial to sf. The range of reference and allusion in Neuromancer may mirror the surface of postmodern experimentalism, but this remains a matter of style, not structure. Its function is to establish a setting, and not to undermine conventional systems of signification.
Neuromancer, unlike Senseless, is a “great read.” Acker's interpretive trans-formation of Gibson's storyline does not produce the same kind of textual surface or textual depth; in other words, it would make for terrible sf. Read as avant-garde experimentalism, however, her work is challenging, disruptive, and intellectually interesting. I would not recommend Acker to someone who wanted to relax and be transported by an absorbing story; nor would I recommend Gibson to someone who wanted to read avant-garde experimental fiction. I say this because it is clear, in the light of Acker's work, that Neuromancer does not disrupt the conventions either of realist fiction or science fiction.
1. McCaffery reprints, in Reality Studio, a portion of Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, perhaps the best statement of one of the ruling paradigms of postmodernism as a new cultural form that requires “cognitive mapping.” In one footnote to that book, Jameson calls cyberpunk “the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself' (419). In a review article of McCaffery's text, “The Post-Liberal Mind/Body, Postmodern Fiction, and the Case of Cyberpunk SF,” John Fekete argues that this kind of description of cyberpunk:
“not only reduce[s] the feature wealth of both cyberpunk and postmodernism, but also dilute[s] cyberpunk sf's normal specificity (and thus its specific novelty and effects) as a transitional literary form.” (396)
Randy Schroeder also takes issue with the notion that Gibson's world is the postmodernist reality described by postmodernist writers:
Gibson's universe recapitulates the traditional Western terms for thinking about the world, in that his fiction exhibits a constant tension and interplay between conceptions of determinacy and indeterminacy, realism and anti-realism (155-56)
2. In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute and Peter Nicholls suggest that “arguably [Kathy Acker] influenced cyberpunk more than it influenced her” (290). Putting that to one side, the more general point here is that the experimental levels of any genre may at any given time have common characteristics. Detective fiction, then, may have some conventional forms, but one is always going to find someone working away at the edges to subvert the very notion of the detective: and then a writer like Pynchon will come along and give us, in The Crying of Lot 49, a character like Oedipa Maas, a detective who has no clues! Does that mean that the detective story and the avant-garde of experimentalism are in contact. Yes, of course it does. The sf influence on more “mainstream” work, is at the level, however, of subject matter, and not of formal innovation.
3. This is a point of difficulty raised by McCaffery himself when he says about the role of science and technology in avant-garde fiction:
one gets less a sense of these authors consciously borrowing from genre sf norms than of their introducing these elements simply because the world around them demands that they be present. (Reality Studio 10-11)
In a slightly different vein, Miriyam Glazer points out that there is a narrowing gap between science and literary culture: “in our era, science and technology are no longer remote from the everyday life of the culture” (155). Writers who engage with the discourses, if not necessarily the facts of contemporary culture, would be very likely, then, to address the growing sense of the omnipresence of technology in our everyday lives.
4. Brian McHale uses the term “trickle-down modernism” in his article in Reality Studio to talk about the way he thinks certain modernist features worked their way through a series of intermediaries to “a wide range of mass market media” (311). I think that the notion of “trickle-down” made famous by Reaganomics intrinsically recognizes that the deployment at the bottom of the scale has less power than at the top. That is, features associated with postmodernist fiction may find their way into texts that would not be called postmodern for any other reason.
5. The stylistic features of what McCaffery calls the “postmodernist aesthetic” (Reality Studio 14) cannot in themselves constitute postmodernism. Perhaps a good recent example is that of a bank using Bob Dylan's song, “The times, they are a changing” to bring customers through their doors, as opposed to the uses of popular song in a text like Gravity's Rainbow. Linda Hutcheon suggests in The Politics of Postmodernism that it is the former kind of “borrowing” that perhaps deserves the rather negative concept of pastiche that Jameson claims characterizes postmodernist fiction. She says:
the politics of postmodern parodic representation is not the same as that of most rock videos' use of allusions to standard film genres or texts. This is what should be called pastiche, according to Jameson's definition. In postmodern parody, the doubleness of the politics of authorized transgression remains intact: there is no dialectic resolution or recuperative evasion of contradiction in narrative fiction, painting, photography, or film. (Hutcheon 107)
I do not want to address Jameson's “Pastiche” or Hutcheon's “Parody” here—see next note. The point is that the adoption of a particular style can signify different things in different contexts.
6. Jameson has used the term “Pastiche” to draw attention to what he thinks of as the empty or blank quality of the parodies he encounters in postmodernism, which reflect, in his view “the death of the subject” or the end of individualist ideology (Postmodernism 114). In The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon argues that postmodernist parody performs a critical, usually metafictional strategy for the subversion of dominant cultural values. Both of these views, though different on the surface, rely on the paradigm of postmodernism as the “metanarrative” of capitalism. This particular formula is rather too narrow, in my view, to be very useful in discussing experimental postmodernist fictions, because it upholds a Marxist base-superstructure model, in which the surface of the text is not really disruptive of convention, but rather reveals the true, underlying nature of things in the non-textual world that produces it.
7. Discussing this section of Senseless in an interview, Acker says, “Twain was obsessed with racism; me with sexism. I am a reader and take notes on what I read” (Friedman 36). Her reading of Huckleberry Finn picks up on the undercurrents of racism to be found in Huck throughout Twain's novel.
Acker, Kathy. Blood and Guts in High School. NY: Grove Press, 1978.
─────. Don Quixote, which was a dream. NY: Grove Press, 1986.
─────. Empire of the Senseless. NY: Grove Press, 1988.
Clute, John. Look at the Evidence: Essays and Reviews. Brooklyn, NY: Serconia Press, 1995.
Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls, eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. NY: St Martin's Press, 1993.
Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “An Elaborate Suggestion: Review of Brian McHale's Constructing Postmodernism.” SFS 20:457-64, #61, Nov 1993.
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