Science Fiction Studies

#60 = Volume 20, Part 2 = July 1993

Rob Latham

Cyberpunk = Gibson = Neuromancer

George Slusser and Tom Shippey, eds. Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992. vii+303. $45.00 cloth, $20.00 paper.

In the informal interview that closes Fiction 2000 (a collection of essays from "an international symposium on the nature of fiction at the end of the twentieth century...held in Leeds, England...between June 28 and July 1, 1989...[and focusing] specifically on the form of science fiction called cyberpunk"[279]), Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, responding to a remark that the conference had featured "an emphasis on [William] Gibson's Neuromancer," replies: "I think the impression that much of the conference centered on Neuromancer may actually just be an effect of the convergence in time of the talks. I don't perceive this as having been a 'Neuromancer conference' at all" (280-81). Csicsery-Ronay is wrong. It was a Neuromancer conference, at least judging by the 17 essays gathered in this volume of proceedings. The overwhelming impression presented is that most of the conferees operated with the following equation implicitly in mind: cyberpunk = Gibson = Neuromancer. As a result, the movement, as a literary practice and a cultural ideology, gets forced into a straitjacket—a flashy one, true, patterned with intricate Orientalist flourishes, but confining nonetheless.

I don't mean to imply that I think Neuromancer (1984) undeserving of such close attention. If the essays in this book do nothing else, they certainly establish the novel's formal and thematic complexity, its openness to diverse and often conflicting modes of interpretation, and its sheer power to capture the critical imagination. But this is not all that Fiction 2000 promises to accomplish, and I'm afraid the volume is rather deficient in its other goals.

These goals are stated in George Slusser's introduction: since "Story telling is entering the future of the electronic den, a wraparound world of images and signals and data" (1), the essayists hope, by "examining cyberpunk's claims in relation both to traditional SF and to contemporary fiction in go to the heart of the problems narrative faces in the information age" (3). This is an ambitious and worthwhile enterprise, but one gets the sense that the conference participants either didn't fully understand their charge or were not entirely comfortable with it. Several of them refuse even to venture a guess as to the prospects of "fiction 2000," instead devoting themselves to Slusser's more modest corollary aims: "examining relation to traditional SF and to contemporary fiction." In those goals they are moderately successful (and then only with regard to Gibson's work specifically), yet one wonders why the editors felt the need to draw such a grandiose frame around their venture since the effect is to undermine the genuine achievements of their essays by requiring a larger purpose of them than they can fulfill.

The book is divided into five parts. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the dubious status of the editors' framing assumptions, the three well-focused middle parts—devoted to establishing cyberpunk's roots in genre SF, its relation to postmodern literature and culture, and the parameters of its canon—are bookended by sections whose rationale is either vague or overblown. Part 1, "The Movement: Forward or Backward?," opens with a meditation by Lewis Shiner on the crucial differences between "cyberpunk"— an historically useful, if now perhaps dated, term describing the work of a group of consciously affiliated writers striving to bring SF into the information age at the beginning of the '80s—and "scifi-berpunk," a mass-market version "commodified, summarized, codified, and reduced to formula" (22). His essay is amusing and often thoughtful, but the grounds for it as a point of departure for the volume are nebulous: one suspects it is because he was the only (more or less) self-identified cyberpunk author in attendance, and the editors wanted a programmatic kick-off. If so, this is the most mellow manifesto imaginable.

The two other essays in this section, by Csicsery-Ronay and Slusser, are broad theoretical discussions evaluating cyberpunk's modes of imagining the future. Both critics have axes to grind against the literature, expanding on complaints aired in earlier pieces that appeared in Larry McCaffery's Storming the Reality Studio (1991). Csicsery-Ronay provocatively diagnoses cyberpunk as suffering from an affliction he calls "retro-futuristic chronosemiitis," a disease in which the future takes revenge on the present for its cynical postmodernity, its delegitimation of transcendental (especially ethical) categories for evaluating technology. The result is that the utopian imagination historically embodied in SF is given over to visions "of a destructive, pathological future" (33) that, in a return of the ethical dimension repressed in postmodernism, pass the sentence of posterity on the present's reckless narcissism. The essay is a tour-de-force, combining theoretical sweep with meticulous close readings. Though I strongly disagree with its essentially organicist humanism—which pays off in the conclusion that "feminist futurism" (44) can cure SF of its affliction (because women, as mothers, have a special concern for coming generations?)—the argument is important and worth grappling with.

Slusser's essay is another matter. It definitely provides a good counterpoint to Csicsery-Ronay's piece, because its agenda is aggressively antihumanist: Slusser contends that cyberpunk, like a good deal of SF, is constrained from fully imagining the future by "the Frankenstein barrier"—an ideological impediment generated by the conflict between utilitarian and humanist values in the extrapolation of technology. The former permit the future to be envisioned as a lineal progress of technological innovation, but the latter persistently intervene with misgivings about the corrosive effects on traditional forms, biological as well as cultural. The result is Victor Frankenstein's bad faith, his apparent commitment to a futuristic vision yet his ultimate rejection of it on humanist grounds. And so the future, as with Csicsery-Ronay's retrovirus, returns to wreak vengeance on the present: "The creature of the future is now present as object of horror in the eyes of a humanity that cannot accept its futurity" (48). In effect, Slusser is merely restating a longstanding distinction in the world of SF fandom between science-fictional and "mundane" perspectives, and while I have a good deal of sympathy with the political animus behind this distinction, I really don't see what Slusser hopes to accomplish by couching it in a dense rhetoric replete with allusions to Plato, Descartes, and Shakespeare. In short, his essay is more complexly written than the argument itself requires (and perhaps merits). In any case the entire opening section is hardly auspicious for the volume's putative focus on "fiction 2000"; given that cyberpunk is variously seen as mired in the humanist past (Slusser), immured in postmodernism's eternal present (Csicsery-Ronay), or commodified out of existence (Shiner), it doesn't seem a very fruitful harbinger of anything.

The book's closing section, "The New Metaphoricity: The Future of Fiction," is even more disappointing in the gap between its promise and its achievement. Frankly, it's a mess. The first two essays extend Slusser's brief for utilitarian extrapolation, starting with Gregory Benford's defense of hard SF in contrast to cyberpunk's chic recycling of "film noir and pulp plots against a background taken mostly from the glossy aesthetics of magazine ads" (223). For those familiar with Benford's ubiquitous attacks on "cyberjunk," this snide, rambling piece offers nothing new. It is followed by Ruth Curl's essay unfavorably comparing Neuromancer with Benford's novel Great Sky River (1987) in light of the divergent metaphorical systems guiding their extrapolations of computer technology: Gibson's approach is anthropomorphic, deploying metaphors as ontological categories ("Paradise, the Fall, Frankenstein") which shackle the future to the humanist past, whereas Benford "demythifies the computer" by using metaphors epistemologically, as vehicles for exploring an uncertain future (237). It's a perfectly defensible argument, but unfortunately it has been Slusserized—i.e., rhetorically boosted by a philosophical apparatus that adds nothing to the account save pointless complication and citations of Descartes, Nietzsche, W.V. Quine, and Paul de Man. Benford's and Curl's essays both take a "back to the future" approach to SF narrative, evoking nostalgia for, quoting Benford, "the deeper, long-view realism" of traditional hard SF (224)—which is a paradoxical attitude to assume given that this section is nominally devoted to limning contemporary fiction's lineal future. Are we to imagine that the coming avant-garde will operate in the mode of Asimov and Clarke?

Curl's piece establishes a focus on metaphor that is expanded by Eric Rabkin in the best essay in this section. Rabkin identifies the trope of oxymoron as a device pervasively deployed in SF to depict the radical otherness of futurity; he locates in oxymoron the source of SF's traditional "sense of wonder," the compelling estrangement generated by its capacity to yoke seemingly incommensurate modes of being (as in the figure of the "cyborg"). Rabkin's case is methodically argued and persuasive; the problem in context is that he isn't discussing a metaphorical strategy peculiar to cyberpunk or even contemporary fiction, but to the timeless body of fantastic literature. To the extent that he is concerned at all with the "current hot, so-called cyberpunk brand of science fiction" (265), his whole purpose seems to be to debunk its pretensions to originality. This is quite a puzzling animus to discover in a section purporting to analyze the new metaphoricity.

The other two pieces in this section don't go any further towards establishing a plausible rationale for the blanket title. David Porush's essay is a collection of scattered fragments verging on prose poetry, arresting if essentially glib. The closing "interview" is even more disjointed, less a focused discussion geared for public consumption than a sprawling gabfest overheard during a conference lunch break. The only reason I can guess for the editors' choosing to include this slovenly ramble is for SF author Greg Bear's comments on HyperCard, the computer hypertext system designed for Macintosh, whose ennested informational structure, incorporating sound and image into a generalized digital text, could potentially create a "multifaceted, multisensory, multimedia experience, spreading out and eventually becoming something like real life, so that perhaps eventually you would actually be experiencing the novel as if you were one or two of the characters within it" (286). Embedded as it is in a contentious conversation, this fascinating tidbit goes nowhere, but its mere presence suggests the dimensions of truly exciting extrapolation the volume otherwise never provides. Tucking it in here at the end was, in my view, a major miscalculation: it makes the whole book seem a fundamentally botched enterprise.

Despite this draconian assessment, there is still valuable material in Fiction 2000, most of it located in the more modestly purposed middle sections. Part 2 opens with good essays by Paul Alkon and Gary Westfahl analyzing the convergence of Gibson's work with the agendas for SF set by Félix Bodin and Hugo Gernsback, respectively. Both essays establish suggestive parallels but these remain purely speculative, since neither critic details the historical filters through which the influence of these precursors might have been transmitted to Gibson. Westfahl's essay in particular goes much too far in arguing for Neuromancer as a virtually unmediated descendant of Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+ (1911-12), detailing every resemblance, no matter how tenuous or far-fetched. Moreover, the critic's casual contempt for contemporary literature and culture (which he dismisses with the blanket slur of "nihilism" [103]) leads him to seriously undervalue their influence on Gibson's work.

The paucity of historical argument in Westfahl's and Alkon's essays is more than made up for by Carol McGuirk's, which provides a magisterial periodization of modern SF and meticulously details Gibson's position within it. McGuirk identifies cyberpunk as merely the most recent in a long series of overlapping ideological renovations of the genre, whose evolution she details in an erudite and nuanced typology. Her anatomy of the "soft SF" tradition of the 50s, which is among the best I have seen anywhere, shows how that decade's writers were divided between two camps: humanism, concerned with the potential efficacy of heroic action and typified by James Blish and Walter M. Miller, Jr, and SF noir, focused on "psychic mutilation, used to set a stylized atmosphere" (118) and associated preeminently with Alfred Bester. While cyberpunk (i.e., Gibson) evinces some superficial similarity to hard SF in its "tendency to place technology in the foreground" (111), it is, McGuirk convincingly demonstrates, actually a variant of SF noir.

McGuirk's excellent placement of cyberpunk within American SF is equaled, in my view, only by Brian McHale's treatment in Constructing Postmodernism (1992; expanding material in McCaffery's Reality Studio), which has the added value that it sees cyberpunk not only as the latest installment in the immanent evolution of the genre but also as the historical culmination of a process of crossbreeding between SF and the literary avant-garde (a process only implicit in McGuirk's analysis). It is unfortunate that Fiction 2000 does not feature McHale—or McCaffery or Scott Bukatman, the critics who have done the most to establish how the cyberpunk movement converges with the methods and concerns of postmodernist fiction and culture. Fiction 2000's third section, devoted to outlining and analyzing this convergence, features an excellent essay by Brooks Landon and good ones by John Huntington and Lance Olsen, but these do not compare with the pathbreaking and synoptic achievements of the aforementioned group of scholars. The result is a patchwork of perceptive fragments rather than a detailed case.

Huntington offers yet another leftwing assault on cyberpunk's complacent postmodern politics. His efforts to locate and analyze a class dynamic in Neuromancer are earnest and diligently prosecuted; however, I must admit that, much as I sympathize with the socio-political agenda animating the critique, I find its chilly assurance and Olympian disdain a bit stultifying. Huntington's judgment that Gibson's novel "creates anxiety about an ambiguous and oppressive reality and at the same time revels in the increased possibilities the ambiguity allows and the anarchy the oppression justifies" (139) is both unanswerable and jejune, merely repeating an indictment already proffered by Andrew Ross, Peter Fitting, Neil Easterbrook, and several others.

Olsen's essay on "Cyberpunk and the Crisis of Postmodernity" takes up the neo-pragmatist, as opposed to the Marxist, line of critique against postmodernism: In both the political and the aesthetic arenas, it is simply impossible to "practically challenge all we once took for granted about language and experience" (144). I feel there is something essentially banal about this argument as well, but Olsen does not so much naively endorse it as deploy it as a rationale for the developing conservatism of mainstream literature in the '80s: the emergence of "neorealism" may be seen as a pragmatic counterrevolution against postmodernism's formal subversiveness. While Neuromancer deployed strategies akin to postmodernist experimentation, Olsen argues, Gibson's later novels have backtracked, displaying more conventional literary values. There is a slippery facility to Olsen's systematic contrasts that bothers me, but his effort to situate Gibson's work within the (d)evolving framework of postmodernist literature is generally commendable.

Brooks Landon's essay focuses fruitfully on postmodernist texts in which the representation of memory is foregrounded. The explosion of information in electronic culture, which amounts to an epochal challenge to the capacities of human memory, has generated two sorts of "digital narratives": the "postmnemotechnic," which proliferate synthetic alternatives to and simulacra of human memory (works by the cyberpunks, obviously, but also by postmodernists Kathryn Kramer and Don DeLillo), and the "antimnemotechnic," which are radically skeptical about the viability of memory altogether (texts by Kathy Acker, Steve Erickson, Denis Johnson). Landon's analysis is well thought out and engagingly written, offering a genealogy for cyberpunk that transcends genre boundaries in its articulation of a problematic shared by SF and mainstream authors alike.

The essays in part 4 pull back to the genre borders, purporting to trace the horizon of the cyberpunk canon. There are essays by John Christie on Gibson, Robert Donahoo and Chuck Etheridge on Shiner, Tom Shippey on Sterling, and Francis Bonner on cyberpunk in film and television. Not a far horizon obviously: the work of three writers and a handful of visual texts. The first two essays are at best routine, but Shippey on Sterling is excellent, showing convincingly how Sterling's extrapolations are guided less by a systematic philosophy than by a kind of ideological bricolage. With Bonner's essay, though, we are back to the routine: rigidly concerned with establishing plausible canonicity for the texts she surveys, she measures various SF films of the '80s against a thematic tally sheet. What possible value there can be in such a procrustean enterprise I can hardly imagine, especially considering that Vivian Sobchack's analysis of the subgenre of the "marginal postfuturist SF film" in her book Screening Space (1987) already comes fairly close to establishing a cinematic canon of cyberpunk (though this is not Sobchack's specific agenda), and is moreover part of an overarching treatment of SF film that is complex, subtle, and fascinating. Not so Bonner's picayune hair-splitting. (Csicsery-Ronay's brief analysis, in the essay mentioned above, of David Cronenberg's 1982 film Videodrome is a much more exciting treatment of cyberpunk themes in contemporary cinema.)

Aside from its fumbled prophetic agenda and its narrow focus on essentially a single text, Fiction 2000 has other editorial problems. Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia (1975) is cited as "Nostralia" (102) and the film Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) as "Colossus: The Forbin Connection" (195); H.R. Giger's name is persistently misspelled "Geiger"; Gale Anne Hurd is listed as the director of the 1986 film Aliens (295), whereas she was the producer (James Cameron directed). More egregiously, John Huntington, in his essay, rehearses the plot of a J.G. Ballard story that is cited as "The Terminal Beach" when in fact he is describing "The Voices of Time" (140). I don't mean to nitpick, merely to register that the volume's problems are endemic. As an assessment of the prospects of fiction in a cybernetic culture, I recommend instead Paul Delany and George P. Landow's Hypermedia and Literary Studies (1991) and William R. Paulson's The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information (1988), while as an overview of cyberpunk and its relations to postmodernism, McCaffery's Storming the Reality Studio, McHale's Constructing Postmodernism, and Bukatman's Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (1993) are greatly to be preferred. At best, the various excellences of the Csicsery-Ronay, Rabkin, McGuirk, Landon, and Shippey essays make the book worth consulting if not acquiring. In sum, though Fiction 2000 is not a bad book, it could, in every way, have been a substantially better one.

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