#120 = Volume 40, Part 2 = July 2013
On the “Double Vision” of Realism and SF Estrangement in William Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy
She turned on the bedside lamp, illuminating the previous evening’s empty can of Asahi Draft, from the Pink Dot, and her sticker-encrusted PowerBook, closed and sleeping. She envied it.—William Gibson, Spook Country (1)
She knows, now, absolutely, hearing the white noise that is London, that Damien’s theory of jet lag is correct: that her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.—William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (1)
Through this evening’s tide of faces unregistered, unrecognized, amid hurrying black shoes, furled umbrellas, the crowd descending like a single organism into the station’s airless heart, comes Shinya Yamazaki, his notebook clasped beneath his arm like the egg of some modest but moderately successful marine species.—William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties (1)
CPUs for the meeting, reflected in the window of a Soho specialist in mod paraphernalia, are a Fresh Fruit T-shirt, her black Buzz Rickson’s MA-1, anonymous black skirt from a Tulsa thrift, the black leggings she’d worn for Pilates, black Harajuku schoolgirl shoes. Her purse-analog is an envelope of black East German laminate, purchased on eBay—if not actual Stasi-issue then well in the ballpark.—William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (8)
1. Introduction. This essay is about William Gibson’s twenty-first century oeuvre, as epitomized in the above epigraphs. I will focus on the cultural, generic, and poetic analysis of a hypothesis that his Bigend Trilogy (also known as the Blue Ant Trilogy)—comprising Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010)—should be read as simultaneously realist and science-fictional. The sentences in these epigaphs, like the novels in general, represent a kind of perfected collision point where these apparently opposing generic tendencies approach each other to the closest possible degree. Gibson is mainly known as a cyberpunk extrapolator of the 1980s and 1990s, but in the twenty-first century he has turned to writing entirely contemporary novels in which realist motives and science-fictional motifs no longer exist quantitatively side by side in peaceful affinity. Unlike in slipstream or transrealist fiction, it is not a case of adorning a realist setting with a few closely extrapolated science-fictional elements nor, as with much of the sf of the 1990s, of trying to infuse a (near-future) science-fictional setting with as much realist plausibility as possible.1 Rather, in these sentences the generic tendencies of realism and science fiction have qualitatively converged: one and the same text, and all of the motifs therein, feel both plausibly everyday and plausibly cognitively estranging. And so, in order to adequately describe this prose and to “explain away” the convergence of utter plausibility and utter estrangement, it is not sufficient merely to detect and interpret its particular poetic details as either “realist” or “science-fictional.” Rather, such a mode of writing has to be approached through a simultaneous “double vision” of generic registers.
The following essay is an elaboration of some of the cultural, historical, philosophical, and poetic factors that contribute to the necessity of this “double vision” in regard to interpreting Gibson’s recent work. The current late-capitalist affinity between realism and sf is a familiar idea in recent discussions about the present conditions of science fiction (and, for greater convenience, this affinity will be discussed in more detail below). Nevertheless, it seems to me that Gibson’s latest trilogy represents a pivotal point where the gradual intensification in the interaction between these two generic tendencies has imploded into a new mode of writing. Furthermore, whereas the possibility of this implosion has already been noted in the present state of technocultural society and also, to some extent, at the level of the thematic content of the novels in question, the persistence of such a mode of writing on the scale of a whole trilogy provides us sufficient poetic evidence to back up these arguments with concrete observations. The present essay is precisely an analysis of that poetic evidence and, even more precisely, of the conditions of its possibility.
As it is impossible to quote large passages of literary material in the following, the sentences at the beginning of this article will epitomize the mode of writing in question and will therefore remain in the background of the whole essay, while some earlier examples from Gibson’s work will serve as necessary supplementation. My overall aim is not to make decisive and exhaustive claims about the current status of realism and science fiction as literary genres in general but rather to observe, against the background of already existing critical material, the relations between these genres in a single, narrow, but nevertheless very clear case, that of Gibson’s new-century prose. Genre theory still plays an important role in much of what is to follow, but my conclusions should not be interpreted as observations about the current status of the fields of realism and science fiction in general.
The specific convergence of realism and science fiction discussed below owes to at least three conditions: it is a symptom of a pervasive contemporary cultural condition; it is enabled by a quite recent theoretical recognition of the relative positions of sf and realism in the contemporary genre system; and it is the special poetic achievement of a kind of sentence that is both specifically “Gibsonian”and distinctively science-fictional.
2. Notes on the loss of the spatiotemporal Other in science fiction. The first decade of the new century has now passed, and its passing has invited at least one intriguing, complex, and persistent line of academic discussion concerning sf. Several recent theoretical inquiries have been devoted to the analysis of the empirical notion that in the contemporary western socio-cultural environment, the horizons of futurity have drawn decisively close to the present, that the future has “collapsed onto the present” (see Csicsery-Ronay, “Futuristic Flu”), and that sf, in some of its forms, has thereby lost its potential meaningfully to address its formerly common temporal field.
Commonly, this loss of futuristic potential—the notion that nowadays sf’s extrapolative powers all too easily meet their event horizon—has been attributed to the frantic, cognitively dissonant pace of change in contemporary technocultural society. Veronica Hollinger has devoted a whole branch of her theoretical oeuvre to inquiries in this direction and, in an article partially devoted to Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, has usefully and plausibly argued that “Science fiction is ‘the literature of change,’ but change is exactly what now defines the present. It no longer guarantees the future as the site of meaningful difference” (“Stories About the Future” 453).2 Hollinger concludes that “Science fiction’s founding assumption—that the future will be different from the present—has become outdated. Today the present is different from the present” (465). Many similar analyses of the socio-psychological status of the present have appeared in recent years, not only in academic research on science fiction but also in the wider field of cultural theory; in symbolic terms directly related to particular historical events, they are all backgrounded by J.G. Ballard’s well-known remark that “We have annexed the future into our own present, as merely one of the manifold alternatives open to us” (8).
Ballard’s statement is in close affiliation with, for example, the title of Hollinger’s article, which suggests that empirical mechanisms of future-oriented expectations have given way to mechanisms of present-oriented recognition. It also anticipates Neil Easterbrook’s notion of the sense of the present itself as “endlessly deferred, inexorably already the missing past or an impossible dream of the future” (487); the inaccessibility of the future expresses itself in the transformation of futuristic possibilities into the present spatial multiplicity of “readerly alternatives” (486). Also closely aligned here is Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s attentive remark that “as the transformations reach a certain pitch, the very idea of transformation changes from mystical to statistical, from transcendence to a selection of alternatives” (Seven Beauties 58). These commentaries all seem to suggest that contemporary perception transforms past or future temporal quality into present spatial quantity, a change identified by Fredric Jameson as one of the main features of “the cultural logic of late-capitalism” (see his Postmodernism).
A new surge of academic inquiry (see, for example, the special section of SFS [Nov. 2006]) into this revised concept of futurity was prompted precisely by William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003)—a “realistic novel set in 2002” that, in Hollinger’s words, “trades in the tropes of sf for the strategies of mimetic realism” to describe a “futurity-infused” here-and-now (“Stories About the Future” 452). As Brian McHale has noted, Gibson “has gone on to write entirely contemporary novels, set in the immediate present, involving no projection of future alternatives at all. Nevertheless, these novels have an entirely science fiction ‘feel’” (Grishakova and Tomberg). By the end of the last decade, Gibson had completed his latest trilogy, thereby confirming the possibility that its particular science-fictional style, applied as the mimetic representation of present reality, might well turn out to be one of the only plausible methods for accessing the ambiguously future-infused present moment (see Easterbrook 486). Gibson has explained his decision to continue with immediately contemporary novels in much the same terms that Hollinger and Csicsery-Ronay use to describe the “formerly autonomous” status of the future:
I don’t know if I’ll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way. In the ’80s and ’90s—as strange as it may seem to say this—we had such luxury of stability. Things weren’t changing quite so quickly in the ’80s and ’90s. And when things are changing too quickly, as one of the characters in Pattern Recognition says, you don’t have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future. (Nissley)
The notion of the collapse of the autonomous (and potentially meaningful) field of the future into the over-accelerated volatility of the technocultural present has therefore been noted for quite some time now, and the “feel” of it has also been detected and more than sufficiently analyzed thematically in literary works directly engaged with that present.
From a analogous perspective which will eventually be of deeper interest here, the supposed contemporary unattainability of everything but that which is directly present (and, in the limit cases, even of that which isdirectly present) has also sometimes been noted and analyzed in spatial terms. A first-hand reference here would be Jean Baudrillard’s essay “Simulacra and Science Fiction” in which he envisions a (present) era of simulacra where the “reduction and absorption” of “a certain distance” which enables both the separation of “the real and imaginary” and “a space for ideal and critical projection” has reached a decisive zero-point. Baudrillard traces the reduction of this distance from the era/field of classic utopias, in which the separation of imaginary transcendence from the real world is maximal and “the utopian island [forms a contrast with] the continent of the real”; through the era/field of science fiction where the imaginary transcendence is “an extravagant projection of, but qualitatively not different from, the real world of production”; to, finally, “the implosive era of models” which “are, themselves, an apprehension of the real, and thus leave no room for any fictional extrapolation—they are immanent, and therefore leave no room for any kind of transcendentalism” (Baudrillard).
In essence, Baudrillard, whose own major historical point of reference for this kind of sf is Ballard’s novel Crash (1973), approaches the critical analyses mentioned above, but in a spatial rather than a temporal register. Together, these parallel viewpoints offer a coherent vision of a unified, centripetal whole, an over-accelerated and totalized present that subsumes all “transcendent” spatiotemporal fields.
3. The poetic features of Gibson’s descriptive style. In this respect, the only thing new about Gibson’s latest triptych (as Easterbrook prefers to call Gibson’s trilogies ) might be the supposition that whereas earlier the concept of the “totalized present” was perceived and analyzed either on the thematic level of (literary) content or in empirical cultural-theoretical terms, with these three novels we might have a solid body of direct poetic evidence to back up those thematized perceptions.
The first critic to address that poetic evidence and to note the intimacy between realism and sf in Gibson’s recent oeuvre was probably Fredric Jameson in his 2003 review of Pattern Recognition (later reprinted in the larger utopia-centered study Archaeologies of the Future ) where he acknowledges the dynamic contradiction of its various thematic levels. On the one hand, on the level of the narrative, the novel’s protagonist, Cayce, is a peculiar intuitive “cool hunter” who, in the logo-filled technocultural cityscape of today, suffers from “commodity bulimia”—allergic physical reactions to bad fashion, logos, and advertising—and is therefore frequently employed in the advertising industry as a physical indicator of what might appeal to the general consumption-oriented “cultural subconscious” of the very near future. On the other hand, on the level of the novel’s main narrative focus, Cayce is employed to find the author of the anonymous footage published on the Internet which, in its tactfully minimal style, is devoid of (pop)cultural references of any kind. According to Jameson, the fact that Cayce’s talent lies halfway between (future-oriented) telepathy and old-fashioned aesthetic sensibility is in stark contrast to the “referential quietude” of the footage for which she is searching. This contrast, in Jameson’s words, “suspends Gibson’s novel between Science Fiction and realism” (“Fear and Loathing” 390).3 It should be noted that Jameson asserts this primarily on the basis of the novel’s general structure and motifs rather than on the basis of its particular poetics. He therefore notices the dynamics generated by the quantitative coexistence of general narrative elements or aspects of content rather than the dynamics generated by the qualitative indiscernibility or indistinction of particular poetic tendencies. But what is actually “novel”—and, on the scale of full novels, even anomalous—in Gibson’s recent work is that its style registers as realism and science fiction at the same time: it is not a matter of “realist motifs” and “science-fictional motifs” existing quantitatively and peacefully side by side in a single text, but rather a matter of the possibility of reading one and the same motif in a text as either realist or science-fictional with equal plausibility. It is this equality which seems to be at stake if one wants to characterize the empirical “feel” of Gibson’s style: the simultaneous feeling of utmost familiarity and utter cognitive estrangement arises from the sentence itself.
For example, at the beginning of Spook Country (epigraph 1), it is Hollis Henry’s envy of the machine and the density of proper brand names (Asahi Draft, Pink Dot, PowerBook) that is responsible for this feeling. In the case of the “jet lag theory” at the beginning of Pattern Recognition (epigraph 2), it is established by conveying an empirical condition through thoroughly technological metaphors (souls being reeled in like lost luggage). We get that same feeling in reverse at the beginning of an earlier novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999), when Shinya Yamazaki is described entering a subway station (epigraph 3) and technology itself is presented as something natural (the heart of the station; the notebook as the egg of some marine species). Finally, in the description of Cayce Pollard’s clothing at the beginning of Pattern Recognition (epigraph 4), the list of real-life brand names is energized and intensified to a point where “natural” language itself seems to be colonized by artificial, “technological” markers.4 There are also broader common tendencies that contribute to this feeling: for example, the capacious textual representation/establishment of the fictional world; the high density of material details; the seemingly fragmentary, intuitive, contingent choice of details; the large quantity and dense concentration of adjectives and descriptive phrases; and the predominantly visual, almost cinematic, quality of the narrative.
Two things seem to be pivotal in the generation of this “double vision” and therefore demand special consideration. First, the relationship between the organic and the technological, between nature and culture, between material and immaterial, seems to be thoroughly ambiguous in the social space that appears unable to reach any transcendent spatiotemporal Other. Corresponding to this ambiguity, the literary simultaneity of the apparently opposite tendencies of realist familiarity and science-fictional estrangement is indicative of the wider possibility that these generic tendencies already share an a priori common ground that enables them, in certain forms, to converge. I will first deal with the latter issue (sections 4a and 4b) and then turn to the former (section 5) in order to return to Gibson’s poetics once again in more detail (section 6).
4a. The Bigend Trilogy: on the background of synchronic and diachronic genre theory. To claim that the style of Gibson’s latest three novels registers as realist and science-fictional at the same time necessitates a brief elaboration of what might be understood by these categories from both synchronic and diachronic points of view, as well as an effort to negotiate a neutral common ground between these ordinarily opposed theoretical positions.
For Darko Suvin, in his groundbreaking survey Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979), the necessary structural component and the dominant formal device of science fiction is an element (the novum ) that causes the effect of cognitive estrangement. This effect is not far removed from Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, which the latter defined as “a representation ... which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar” (192). A novum or cognitive innovation, then, is in Suvin’s definition a “totalizing phenomenon or relationship deviating from the author’s and implied reader’s norm of reality” (64). The introduction of a novum as a poetic element of qualitative newness therefore transformatively hegemonizes the (previously supposedly “realist”) world of the text, and in a way enables a kind of readerly distance, a certain cognitively estranged (even if metaphorical) point of view from which to look at that world (and its corresponding reality) as if for the very first time.
I would supplement this concept of sf as the literature of cognitive estrangement with Roger Luckhurst’s more thematized notion of sf as “a literature of technologically saturated societies” (Science Fiction 3) and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s considerably broader approach to the novum, which employs “Suvin’s model of the novum as a tool for cognitive estrangement, with the caveat that estrangement is not always and necessarily theoretical and critical” (Seven Beauties 55). This serves to bypass the thoroughly normative nature of Suvin’s description according to which 99 percent of what is usually called science fiction really does not deserve to bear that name.
In sf criticism, Suvin’s very influential formal definition has been challenged by John Rieder’s “On Defining SF, or Not,” which develops a diachronic theoretical approach to the question of genre. In a nutshell, Rieder argues that all literary genres, including sf, are historical and mutable and that sticking to one formal definition tends to overlook that mutability. This necessarily subjects the “fuzzy set” of the genre’s multi-faceted elements and their historical variations to rigid ahistorical definitional criteria that leave little room for those variations to be treated as a part of temporal generic development. Two significant conclusions derive directly from this rigidity of formal criteria: genre becomes an ideal-abstract set of topological rules to which no particular literary work fully corresponds and these rules, to at least some extent, actually apply to all other literary genres as well.
In accordance with this, Rieder proposes that “sf has no essence, no single unifying characteristic, and no point of origin” (194); that “sf is not a set of texts, but rather a way of using texts and of drawing relationships among them” (197); and that “sf’s identity is a differentially articulated position in an historical and mutable field of genres” (197). He emphasizes the need to take into account the historical “subjects positing the category [of sf], and therefore the motives, the contexts, and the effects of those subjects’ more or less consciously and successfully executed projects” (192). Sf, according to these criteria, is “whatever [in all its historical mutability and rhizomatic irregularity] we are looking for when we are looking for science fiction” (201); and, as any other genre, it consists of “discursive claims made by real speakers for particular purposes in specific situations” (Altman 101, qtd Rieder 191).
Suvin’s and Rieder’s theories, then, form opposite poles of the same definitional axis, between which, as the latter remarks (191), no reconciliation seems to be possible. Rieder says about the historical approach that it “is not necessarily a better one, however, and the choice between the two alternatives remains a matter of first principles, where the evidence seems susceptible of logically consistent explanations from either point of view” (193).
In a way, Rieder’s diachronic approach to genre is (in spite of its usefulness) as rigid and problematic as Suvin’s. Suvin’s formal definition (and his Marxist normative requirements) excludes almost everything that is normally called science fiction and at the same time makes it possible to detect sf’s generic characteristics in all other literature. In contrast, Rieder’s (non)definition of sf, if taken at face value, does not attribute to what has formally been defined as science fiction any specific characteristics that might constitute it as at least a minimally fixed formal term, thereby reducing the definition of sf purely and solely to a matter of “current historical contingency” and largely rendering it ineligible for any kind of consistent academic analysis. A commonsense reconciliation of these two opposites would state that through its recent academic history, science fiction as a generic designator has come to designate a certain “fuzzy set” (Rieder 194-95) of explanatory attributes (“the novum,” “cognition,” and “estrangement” are some of these). This set is, by definition, subject to the contingencies of historical mutability, but it nevertheless also solidifies the term “science fiction” as having at least a minimally fixed formal definition. The presupposition would be that even if the history of sf (or any other genre) can be perceived as the consistent transformation of a fuzzy set of attributes, the common intuition would still perceive it as a set which does not include anything or everything, but rather follows a (however fuzzy) principle of inclusion, thereby providing its designating term (“science fiction”) with at least a minimal degree of fixed identity. I therefore see Rieder’s article and his approach not as definitively excluding any fixed, formal genre theory but as constituting a complementary deconstruction of it. Academic research needs seriously to consider both poles of the axis as first principles: any formal definition should not be constructed without the full acknowledgment of its fundamental historical mutability, but formal definitions should nevertheless be constructed so that academic analysis can take place.
On the basis of Suvin’s initial formal definition, its extensions by Luckhurst and Csicsery-Ronay, and its deconstruction by Rieder, I establish my current argument that science fiction is whatever we are looking for if we are looking for the (not necessarily theoretical and historically critical) literature of cognitive estrangement of contemporary technoculturally saturated societies.
Corresponding to these reflections on genre, I see realism not solely as an historically closed nineteenth-century literary genre with aspirations toward a plausible mimetic description of that moment’s socio-cultural and material reality, nor solely as an ahistorical marker for a purely mimetic technique of description, but rather as a commonsensical combination of the two: realism is whatever we are looking for if we are looking for a technique for a plausible mimetic description of a given socio-cultural and material reality.
In sf research, “realism” has often been taken for granted simply as a straightforward mimetic practice that is then contrasted to the relative complexity of science fiction. This essay refers to this use of the term by way, for example, of Chu and Hollinger and utilizes it in the general sense of realistic verisimilitude. Historically, of course, realism has had a more thorough and complex meaning that can be deployed to characterize the progression of Gibson’s work. For Georg Lukács, possibly the most influential theorist of literary realism, historical realism has to fulfill at least two requirements, both related to a work’s “perspective”: (1) it has to convey the present as historically mutable and the past (and the future) as qualitatively different from the present, and the perspective of radical change should be represented as being thoroughly accessible to everyone experiencing that present; and (2) it has to encompass the whole spectrum of a society’s struggles with social inequality (see Lukács 17-46). For the most part, in this article I utilize the term “realism” in the poetic sense of realist plausibility widespread in sf research, but I also acknowledge the challenges posed to this use by Lukács’s requirement that realism should also be historical.5
The literary examples transcribed at the beginning of this essay register both as plausible mimetic descriptions of a socio-cultural and material reality that appears unable to reach a spatiotemporal Other as well as examples of cognitive estrangement of the present technoculturally saturated society. In Rieder’s terms, it is adequate but not sufficient to say about Gibson’s latest triptych that this is what we today might call science-fictional estrangement; this assertion must necessarily be complemented by the assertion that this is also what we today might call realist plausibility. Considering the generic tendencies in focus, a preference for one approach over the other will render inadequate the description of the literary material at hand. It is not that there is no longer an autonomous literature that we nowadays might call science fiction or no longer an autonomous literature that we might call realism in a more traditional way. It is that we can also testify to the emergence of a poetics that is both at one and the same time or, from a different perspective, a shift in the historical conditions behind a previously existing poetics which enables it to simultaneously take on the qualities of realist plausibility and science-fictional cognitive estrangement.
Gibson’s latest triptych as a whole lacks any of the motifs that would classify it as conventionally science-fictional. There are none of the artificial intelligences, advanced nanotechnologies, or virtual realities that feature so heavily in his earlier extrapolative work. What this mode of writing abandons, however, when it refuses the involvement of a classically science-fictional “outer space-time” in order to become “fully contemporary and realist,” it makes up for in the estrangements inherent in its own descriptive language as well as in its focus on the carefully chosen motifs of an everyday cultural reality that, as a whole, emanates a thoroughly estranging quality.6
4b. The Bigend Trilogy: on the poetical common ground between realism and science fiction. Science fiction and realism have commonly been represented as opposite poles on a continuum of “realism”: realism has always represented that which was or is (familiar and necessary); science fiction, on the other hand, has rather turned its gaze towards that which will be (unfamiliar but possible). In order to accurately frame Gibson’s paradoxically convergent style, this common view needs to be undermined so as to emphasize the strong poetical undercurrents of both genres in his work.
In her “science-fictional theory of representation,” Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep?, Seo-Young Chu has argued that there is a solid poetical common ground between realism and sf. Chu first differentiates realism and science fiction through the different objects they are suited to represent:
SF is distinguished by its capacity to perform the massively complex representational and epistemological work necessary to render cognitively estranging referents available both for representation and for understanding. Realism, by contrast, is distinguished by the alacrity with which it can imitate certain kinds of objects, objects such as almonds and nickels, objects themselves distinguished by the alacrity with which they offer themselves up to flat description. (7)
Chu draws upon Carl Freedman’s notion that any kind of representation necessarily contains both cognition and estrangement, and therefore that any kind of representation is at least minimally realist as well as at least minimally science-fictional; she then situates realism and science fiction on the same representational axis on the basis of their specific “degrees of intensity”:7
What most people call “realism”—what some critics call “mundane fiction”—is actually a “weak” or low-intensity variety of science fiction, one that requires relatively little energy to accomplish its representational task insofar as its referents (e.g., softballs) are readily susceptible to representation. Conversely, what most people call “science fiction” is actually a high-intensity realism, one that requires astronomical levels of energy to accomplish its representational task insofar as its referents (e.g., cyberspace) elaborately defy straightforward representation.... Although the distance between realism and SF may be vast enough for the difference in degree to amount to a difference in kind, the distance will never be so vast as to render “science fiction” and “realism” each other’s antonyms. (7-8)
On a strictly poetical level, then, realism and sf in principle cannot be differentiated. Chu also notes the fundamental historical mutability of a referent’s position on this axis of “intensity”: a referent may, under certain cultural and political conditions, be at one time extremely cognitively estranging and, at another, become readily available for “flat description.”
It is no surprise, then, that the same style that characterizes Gibson’s later historical novels can be encountered all through Gibson’s earlier cyberpunk sf—at the particular moment of the beginning of the new century when Pattern Recognition appeared, there was simply no representational need to change styles in order to complete the transition from futurist visions to contemporary mimesis. One obvious example from Gibson’s earlier texts is the well known first sentence of Neuromancer (“The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel”), but there are many lengthier and equally characteristic examples:8
Bobby climbed down behind him into the unmistakable signature smell of the Sprawl, a rich amalgam of stale subway exhalations, ancient soot, and the carcinogenic tang of fresh plastics, all of it shot through with the carbon edge of illicit fossil fuels. High overhead, in the reflected glare of arc lamps, one of the unfinished Fuller domes shut out two-thirds of the salmon-pink evening sky, its ragged edge like broken grey honeycomb. The Sprawl’s patchwork of domes tended to generate inadvertent microclimates; there were areas of a few city blocks where a fine drizzle of condensation fell continually off the soot-stained geodesics, and sections of high dome famous for displays of static-discharge, a peculiar urban variety of lightning. (Count Zero 163-64)
Neo-Aztec bookcases gathered dust against one wall of the room where Case waited. A pair of bulbous Disney-styled table lamps perched awkwardly on a low Kandinsky-look coffee table in scarlet-lacquered steel. A Dali clock hung on the wall between the bookcases, its distorted face sagging to the bare concrete floor. Its hands were holograms that altered to match the convolutions as they rotated, but it never told the correct time. The room was stacked with white fiberglass shipping modules that gave off the tang of preserved ginger. (Neuromancer 21)
The large quantity of adjectives and descriptive phrases, the density of material details, the over-accelerated feel of the sentences, the cinematic quality of the narrative, the almost organic status of the urban environment, and the name-dropping are all there. The paragraph from Neuromancer could plausibly feature in Pattern Recognition or in any of the later novels; it is only when we reach the hologram hands of the clock and the fiberglass shipping modules at the end that we encounter something that is potentially novum-like.
Despite the fact that Gibson’s later prose lacks conventional sf novums—or anything that in a strict sense might transcend our everyday late-capitalist cultural reality—its sentences still estrange in a science-fictional way. It is not the case here that previously cognitively-estranging referents no longer estrange—as I have already noted, there are no artificial intelligences, nanotechnologically materialized entities, or fully realized virtual realities in these texts. Gibson has omitted these rather complex referents in favor of mimetic descriptions of an everyday cultural environment whose referents are all materially existent and potentially accessible. But at the same time, these referents—e.g., Cayce’s clothes and accessories (as in epigraph 4)—seem to take on a novum-like quality of their own and emit a strong sense of cognitive estrangement, resisting what Chu calls “flat description” (7).
I propose that a double movement is at work concerning the perception of reality in this fiction that enables Gibson plausibly to retain his earlier cyberpunk poetics as a mimetic/realist practice. First, due to the inherent, almost ungraspable multiplicity of the late-capitalist cultural context that is Gibson’s focus, the common objects that should be “readily available for flat description” have themselves taken on a science-fictional quality and become much more complex than simple “almonds,” “nickels,” or “softballs” (they have acquired a higher intensity of realism). Second, the complex referents that only sfshould be able to make available for representation have become much more common, much more available for representation (they have acquired lower sf intensity, as it were). In this cultural context, the wide variety of singular consumer products that used to be much more available to representation as common objects have become much less available as a coherent whole, whereas the previously very complex general ideas of cyberspace, nanotechnology, or virtual reality have globally become more common and everyday: it is as if in this cultural context these two fields inhabit almost the same plane of perception and the same intensity of cognitive estrangement. This is what is at stake at the representational as well as the generic level of this prose: it is not science fiction insofar as it has omitted the previously almost transcendent complex referential ideas that have become so available for representation; it is not realism insofar as the previously common objects of mimetic representation, while still everyday phenomena, are no longer as readily available for representation. On the level of their poetics, Pattern Recognition, Spook Country,and Zero History register as realist and science-fictional simultaneously and with equal plausibility.
This equal plausibility is possible only because of the fulfillment of particular socio-cultural and historical conditions—due to changes in the reality toward which Gibson’s mimesis is oriented. If cognition-based mimetic realism can nowadays produce a “science-fictional feel,” and if a fundamentally science-fictional poetic apparatus can really produce plausible accounts of everyday reality, then how can reality itself, in its immediate intimacy and in the direct realistic verisimilitude of its representations, somehow cognitively estrange us so that, in Brecht’s terms, we can “recognize” it (as something which is almost taken for granted) but still somehow retain a fundamentally “unfamiliar” distance toward it? What are the defining attributes of a cultural reality that enables the emergence of a consciousness that perceives (and is merged into) reality itself as a novum?
5. On the contemporary source of the novum: there is no more outside. On the basis of the numerous empirico-theoretical ideas surveyed in Section 2, I propose that the possibility of perceiving late-capitalist reality itself as a novum, as a source of qualitative novelty, is based on the premise that the contemporary technocultural contextthat Gibson draws on in his novels behaves as if there were no outside of any kind. I borrow the wording of this thought from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri who apply it in a different context to describe the current imperial status of capitalist expansion. In brief, Hardt and Negri claim that the capitalist market, which has always “thrived ... by including always more within its sphere,” is nearing its “ideal form” where “there is no outside to the world market: the entire globe is its domain” (190). As a symptom of or a parallel tendency to the current all-too-efficient internalization (which can easily be compared to the “critical pitch of transformation” noted by Csicsery-Ronay), Hardt and Negri list, for example, the extensive privatization of the public sphere, postmodernism in Jameson’s sense of the finalization of the civilization of nature, the ambivalent contemporary status of the concept of sovereignty, the perception of every war as a civil war, and so on (186-90). But the notion of the complete contemporary lack of an outside can also be elevated to a general level of philosophical or cultural-theoretical thought which is of a deeper interest here—its prevalence can also be detected in Deleuze’s demand for absolute immanence (for a lack of any explanatory or “comforting” transcendent Other [see 25-34]); in Sloterdijk’s assertion of the impossibility of any stable outside point of critical reflection (xxxiii); and in the precise features more closely aligned to science fiction that I have already touched upon. These include the transformation of temporal dimensions as sites of meaningful difference (Hollinger) into present categories of spatial multiplicity in the all-voracious here-and-now (Ballard, Jameson), the transformation of futuristic possibilities into the multiplicity of present readerly alternatives (Easterbrook), and Baudrillard’s notion of the system reaching its saturation point.
The final outcome of this incessant internalization is the inability to make a clear distinction between inside and outside. What results from this inability is that most of the conceptual categories that were earlier perceived as opposites (on the inside-outside axis) now enter a “zone of indiscernibility” (to borrow Agamben’s term from Homo Sacer ). The liminal border between categories has become an area extended to its outer limits, the line between black and white has widened into a gray zone, the state of exception has become the rule, and so on: “the modern dialectic of inside and outside has been replaced by a [postmodern] play of degrees and intensities, of hybridity and artificiality” (Hardt and Negri 187-88).
With respect to Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy, such an account of these processes is ultimately meaningful as regards both the tehnocultural context he touches upon as well as the “technological” quality of the language he uses—and it is one of my final aims to show here how this oeuvre is remarkable precisely because the nature of its descriptive language directly corresponds to the nature of the cultural context it describes. The increasingly efficient internalization of the outside and the resulting indistinction between inside and outside is also clearly evident in technology’s hegemonic position in relation to natural processes, and in the conclusive present collapse of the distinctions between culture and nature (this is probably how best to characterize Jameson’s notion of culture nowadays as a veritable “second nature”[Postmodernism ix]). This, in turn, designates a shift in the perception of technology’s position in contemporary technocultural reality, and thereby also a respective shift in the possible source of the science-fictional novum. On a broader level, culture has always represented the inside (of something known and homely) and (the overwhelming, unpredictable force of) nature has represented the outside (of something unpredictable and unfamiliar). Corresponding to this, inside the domain of culture, the organic human body has always represented the inside (of something homely) and its technological extensions or projections have represented the outside (of something estranging). In a culture where “the modernization process is complete” (Jameson, Postmodernism ix) and which behaves as if there is no outside, the internalization of technology corresponds to the general hegemony of culture over nature. Technology as a representation of (or a figure for) something outside or estranging is no longer firmly tied to the sphere of “otherness.” Little by little, such a cultural reality has become thoroughly and inseparably fused with the technological; the creation of the novum is thus no longer necessarily a matter of other-worldly, science-fictional invention (of the outside) but, as in Gibson’s fictions, fully as much the object of this-worldly, mimetic description (of the inside).
These descriptions of the contemporary technocultural lack of an outside, the apparently unobstructed self-governing immanence of technocultural processes, fruitfully complement Csicsery-Ronay’s brilliant notion of artificial immanence. Like Jameson, Csicsery-Ronay also notes the contemporary status of technoculture as a veritable “second nature” in the convergence of the technological and the natural; this is expressed in sf both in terms of poetic neology and in terms of current technological developments. The following two quotations testify to this idea:
The assimilation of the language of advertising and technology in everyday use leads to the proliferation of technical metaphors for living systems and vital metaphors for machines.... Sf now interrogates the way people might use complex and barely governable processes that are neither immanent (because they are the products of technoscience), nor transcendent (because they are manifestations of material processes, even if “forced” by human technoscience to evolve in certain ways). Rather, these processes are artificially immanent. (Seven Beauties 26; emphases in original)
The emergence of machines helping humanity to achieve its maximum comfort, security, and efficiency has come to be viewed as a historical force in its own right, propelling not just the odd inventor and explorer, but the whole species into new zones previously concealed by human beings’ physical and intellectual limits. With synthetic chemistry, nuclear physics, molecular biology, and information theory, technology arrives at a point where it no longer merely imitates nature—as a screwdriver mimics the wrist, and an airplane mimics birdflight—but actually transforms the material world, using scientific knowledge to make its physical substrate operate in ways that Nature “will not.” Second nature extends itself in this way into the core of matter. (Seven Beauties 93)
In this sense, Deleuze’s conceptual demand for absolute immanence as ontology can now be applied to the thematized descriptions of contemporary technocultural processes.9 Technology as a figure for qualitative novelty is no longer something that can plausibly be isolated in its own “outside” sphere of estranging otherness at a distance from the (“inside” of a) subject. Rather, the inside of the subject and its organic body and the outside of its extended technoscientific surroundings have entered an immanent “zone of indiscernibility,” to recall Agamben’s words. It is here that the “play of degrees and intensities, of hybridity and artificiality” (Hardt and Negri 190) takes place. Correspondingly, the novum is also no longer confined solely to its autonomous sphere of extrapolative/fictional outside but has become indistinguishably merged with the absolute inside of a now artificially immanent technocultural reality. Of the background to Gibson’s three novels, it is not sufficient merely to assert that “modern historical consciousness [that] is shaped by the belief in novums” (Seven Beauties 57) is constantly witnessing the contemporary quantitative proliferation of (distinct, external) phenomena that evoke cognitive estrangement in reality. It is even more plausible to assert that this proliferation has acquired a certain critical pitch or mass, so that the quality of the novum should now be indiscernibly added to cultural reality as a whole.10
Gibson’s smooth transition from cyberpunk to contemporary realism suggests that in contemporary technoculture that behaves as if it had no outside, the novum might also no longer have a relevant or plausible outside source; the sense of cognitive estrangement might thus directly inhere in the particular experience of (cultural) reality itself. A lack of outside erases all meaningful distances and, in the current theoretical context, first and foremost the distance that earlier enclosed technology in its own separate domain and maintained distinct borders between the categories of the natural and the artificial. Any kind of mimetic representation of this reality is therefore a priori also a mimesis of the cognitively estranging “second nature” that has “extended itself to the core of matter” (Seven Beauties 93).
In his well-known discussions of the technological sublime, Jameson notes that technology is not estranging in its own right but rather in its role as a figure for the ungraspable nature of the infinite multiplicity of late-capitalist society (Postmodernism 34-38). The domain of technology as a whole is therefore also the source of qualitative novelty that this ungraspable multiplicity provides. And in a culture that behaves as if there is no outside, it is precisely this qualitative novelty that is no longer confined to its own isolated (outer) sphere. In an era where “second nature” has “extended itself to the core of matter,” the lack of outside that eliminates all distances also internalizes the cognitively estranging distance from the ungraspable multiplicity of the late-capitalist socio-economic world-system—what is perceived as “always new,” as lacking the ability to grow old, is thus the real of that reality itself in its absolute inside. The cognitively estranging effect of Gibson’s realism (and the simultaneous realist plausibility of his science fiction) suggests that the high-tech scientific developments of contemporary late-capitalist culture have by now become so smoothly and thoroughly integrated into our understanding of the everyday environment that their near-natural and unnoticeable presence and their almost intimate closeness and speed of development are no longer worthy of note as distinctly novel. It is not that people have become too used to technology or that technology is no longer a figure for the source of cognitive estrangement; it is rather that we now stand too close to it, unable to maintain the distance necessary to confine this estrangement to a separate cognitive realm.
Gibson’s new-century fiction suggests that, in place of the specific technological phenomena that used to be the only privileged source of novel (science-fictional) estrangement, late-capitalist reality as a whole has now become thoroughly penetrated by the technological; at the same time, it is often experienced as if for the very first time. In Suvinian terms, the cultural reality that Gibson draws upon now functions as the novum in his novels, paradoxically appearing as if from outside the norms of the real (but only to a certain degree, because it is simultaneously and indiscernibly also that which is perceived as real). It is no longer specific (scientific or technological) phenomena that create cognitive estrangement from a safe distance; rather, in such a cultural context its inherent qualitative novelty has become an a priori filter through which reality itself is perceived. (To put it in Jamesonian terms, in the immediate socio-economic reality that Gibson describes in his novels almost everything is technological in the sense that almost anything is now a figure for the infinitely ungraspable late-capitalist world-system.) Such a reality, to return to Brecht, appears “familiar but at the same time unrecognizable” (192).
It seems to me that only in the basic framework of this particular thinking about the lack of outside and the resulting internalization of the domain of the technological is it possible to appreciate the double vision of (contemporary) realism and science fiction in Gibson’s work, and to consider the notion that directly mimetic representation of cultural reality, if it aims for plausibility, necessarily produces a cognitively estranging science-fictional feel. It is in this sense that we might interpret Gibson’s hypothesis that the only way to write sf nowadays is to write novels of contemporary realism—and vice-versa, we might add: the only way plausibly to describe the artificial immanence of contemporary culture is by using the tool kit of sf poetics.
6. The poetics of Gibson’s double vision. For Seo-Young Chu, science-fictional descriptions “are of the same intensity that we find in lyrical poetry ... because the work of description is extraordinarily difficult when the thing described does not belong to our everyday world” (32). Such descriptions literalize ideas about complex phenomena that are not otherwise easily accessible to representation. The objects of science-fictional descriptions are, furthermore, not “the cognitively estranging referents to which works of science fiction mimetically refer. Rather, they are instances of the units of the science-fictional medium ... through which cognitively estranging referents become available for representation” (47) Thus for Chu, the near-future San Francisco Bay Bridge with its “interstitial” status and its heterogeneous mix of cultures that is at the center of much of the action in Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy actually literalizes and makes available for representation the complex idea that cyberspace had become during the last decade of the last century (140-49). Chu offers many other examples of this kind of literalization: the supernatural abilities and diverse backgrounds of the X-Men function to make more easily available the virtually ungraspable notion of globalization (117), the science-fictional issue of robot rights makes available for clearer discussion the complex position of ethics and moral responsibility in the midst of contemporary scientific progress (244), and so on.
But Gibson’s new-century event-horizon, its “subject of literalization,” is somewhat different: in a culture that behaves as if it had no outside, there is also no plausible outside space-time where science fiction can position the figure of its estranging Other. The plausible novums are internalized and real—the “inside” of reality is itself novum-like. Corresponding to this, realism as a mimetic tendency that aims for an empirically plausible description of a particular cultural context has no outside point of view from which to encompass it as an integral whole. Its point of view is necessarily internal and therefore arbitrarily particular and fragmentary in nature. Science fiction is confined to positing reality as novum and realism is confined to describing it in all its immediate intimacy.
Taking up Chu’s analytical framework, I want to argue that there is no single “unrepresentable referent” in reality that Gibson’s work is trying to literalize; rather he is attempting to literalize the difficult representability of reality itself in all its materiality. The jeans, the Buzz Rickson MA-1, the sleeping PowerBook, the Stasi-issue envelope, and the station’s airless heart are all part of quotidian material reality. Nothing is wholly outside but neither is anything completely a part of an easily determined inside: this is where the indecision between realism and sf, between perfectly existent and attainable particular objects and the ungraspability of their universal multiplicity, finds its root. The whole of this reality now seems to be simultaneously easily available and hardly available at all for representation.
I hope to have demonstrated by now how the particular tendencies of Gibson’s style as well as the double perspective of realism and science fiction in his latest trilogy correspond to this internalization of the outside and the resulting ambivalent status of technology. There are four key points to this argument that I want to emphasize here.
First, I have already noted the lack of “transcendent Events” or traditionally science-fictional events in the Bigend Trilogy. At the same time, however, events built around everyday thematic motifs and most of all around the historical attainability of an origin are cast in an almost transcendent light. A subplot of Pattern Recognition deals with the origin of the anonymous footage that has gathered a cult following over the Internet; a subplot of Spook Country deals with the elusive original authors of locative art in the art world; a subplot of Zero History deals with the unknown origin of a “secret” brand of jeans.
Second, in Gibson’s trilogy, the human emotional/subjective faculty is often represented through its opposite, through thoroughly technological imagery or metaphors; conversely, technology is often represented as something organic, as a veritable Jamesonian “second nature.” As indicated in my epigraphs, Hollis envies a closed and sleeping PowerBook, jet lag is described in terms of souls, the crowds in the subway station are perceived as a single organism, and Yamazaki’s notebook is transformed into a marine creature. Furthermore, a brief observation of the first pages of Spook Country indicates that the narrator’s overtly particular descriptions of the object-world (representing scientific objective knowledge) often form a stark contrast to the indefinite and fuzzy nature of the characters’ (subjective) perception of these objects (“a sort of giant terrarium,” “it seemed,” “not certain what she meant,” “however obliquely,” “she wondered,” “she supposed,” “Hollis guessed,” “somewhere in a London she couldn’t be imagining,” and so on [Spook Country 2]). The result is that, from one point of view, the object is rendered intimately close, but from another, it is kept at an irreducibly estranging distance. (As with the everyday mind that is unable to enlist the very particular details of, say, the inside of a computer, it is as if the scientific truth is the most estranging and ungraspable thing, whereas its products are at the same time comfortably usable.)
Third, the dense concentration of descriptive words and phrases emphasizes the “critical pitch of transformations” (Csicsery-Ronay) in the artificial immanence of everyday technoculture. Consider a fragment of the description of Hollis’s hotel room in Zero History:
The two largest pieces of furniture in the room were the bed, its massive frame covered entirely in slabs of scrimshawed walrus ivory, with the enormous staunchly ecclesiastic-looking lower jawbone of a right whale, fastened to the wall at its head, and a birdcage, so large she might have crouched in it herself, suspended from the ceiling. (5)
This density—“slabs of scrimshawed walrus ivory,” “the enormous staunchly ecclesiastic-looking lower jawbone of a right whale”—complicates the slow reading of the long sentences, making a vast array of information almost instantly available.11 The critical volume of descriptive terms also renders these objects intimately and microscopically close; the considerable quantitative disproportion between objects and their characterizations dislodges them from their status as familiar common objects observed from a normal distance, conferring on them a scientific quality and a novum-like feel. The richness and variety of Gibson’s language also transforms common objects into plausible singularities, seemingly different from all others of their “kind.” From this perspective Gibson’s text-world can be characterized as a world of over-described singular objects to whose immanent Marxian circulation the characters or the narrative agents, who conveniently almost always have an eye for detail, merely bear witness or grant access (this being a literal reflection of Csicsery-Ronay’s notion of “artificial immanence”).12
Fourth, the objects themselves are, in their seemingly fragmented arbitrariness, carefully chosen and can in many cases be characterized (as in the first and fourth epigraphs to this essay) by what Jameson has attentively called “a kind of hyped-up name-dropping” (“Fear and Loathing” 386). In a telling paragraph Jameson notes that
little by little, in the current universe, everything is slowly being named; nor does this have anything to do with the older Aristotelian universals in which the idea of a chair subsumes all its individual manifestations. Here the “high-backed workstation chair” is almost of a different species to the seat in the BA 747 “that makes her think of a little boat, a coracle of Mexcel and teak-finish laminate.” But there are also exercise chairs, called or named “reformers”: “a very long, very low, vaguely ominous and Weimar-looking piece of spring-loaded furniture,” which can also be translated into another language, where it becomes “a faux-classical Japanese interpretation in black-lacquered wood, upholstered with something that looks like shark-skin.” Each of these items is on its way to the ultimate destination of a name of its own, but not the kind we are familiar with when we speak of a “Mies chair” or a “Barcelona chair.” Not the origin, but rather the named image is at stake. (387)
Jameson adds that “the brand names function as a wink of familiarity to the reader in the know” (387), and although he has “no idea whether all these items actually exist [,] ... it is clear that the references ‘work,’ whether or not you know that the product is real or has been made up by Gibson” (386).
Here the staggering density of proper names represents the technological colonization of common (“natural”) language. Items of clothing and accessories are described not only through common names but also through the smooth integration of the function of common names into (proper) brand names, with the proper name here symbolically designating infinitely more than the common name would. Thus, for example, it would be insufficient and implausible to describe a Buzz Rickson MA-1 merely as a pilot’s jacket; in the symbolic universe of Pattern Recognition, a pilot’s jacket is the least and probably the most insignificant thing to which a Buzz Ricksonrefers. The brand name as neologism renders the common object (a jacket, a chair) into a novum-like phenomenon and a poetics thoroughly penetrated with them feels both realistic and cognitively estranging at the same time. A further point about knowability is that a culture that behaves as if it lacked all outside also behaves as if everybody is “in the know.” This is why it does not matter whether the brand names in the text are made up or real: they are in any case plausible or realist, echoing the Aristotelian idea that the purpose or object of art is not truth but verisimilitude (see Genette 240). In Gibson’s case, though, the reality of the proper names can easily be confirmed through Google, suggesting that it is the infinite “inside” multiplicity of contemporary artificial immanence itself that is estranging and ungraspable. It is almost impossible to know beforehand the existence of all these brand names but, at the same time, the thought of the possibility of their existence is entirely plausible (and, following Jameson, it is as if all the common objects that have not yet been consolidated into proper names are nevertheless on a kind of teleological path to acquiring a critical mass of adjectives and imploding into branded singularities).
7. The Bigend Trilogy in comparative and parallax views. On a comparative note, we can detect sentences whose “stylistic totality” is seemingly similar to Gibson’s in novels such as Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003). But neither in DeLillo nor Atwood is this style really hegemonic. Atwood’s novel is situated in a post-apocalyptic world and functions as an anticipatory warning. The strong feminist, eco-, and socio-critical undercurrents of its rhetoric and its explicit satire of genetic experimentation, chauvinist perversion, and scientific progress hegemonically reconfigure its potentially more neutral descriptions to functional devices in a critical hierarchy. The main characters in DeLillo’s White Noise have an overwhelming fear of death that gives the novel’s central catastrophic event—an environmentally threatening chemical spill from a rail car—an almost science-fictionally estranging aura. The intensity of the novel’s prose and its quantitative attention to material detail might be compared to Gibson’s. The event, however, is isolated—a science-fictional injection into otherwise realist prose—and DeLillo’s narrative voice is even more explicitly satirical than Atwood’s.
Gibson’s style features neither explicit criticism nor satirical judgment; he is more concerned with authentically describing the surrounding material reality than critically evaluating it from a (fictionally constructed) distance. Neither DeLillo nor Atwood is as “tonally flat” as Gibson, who merely provides access to the reality he describes and does not provide any keys to its interpretation.13 He establishes his fictional worlds by listing the things that inhabit it in a neutral fashion; he does not position them in any kind of critical configuration. Hegrants solidity to an elusive reality and necessarily sacrifices the possibility of critical judgment about it. Using conventionally realist terms, Atwood and DeLillo stand in relation to Gibson as a psychological realist does to a naturalist. Gibson’s tonal flatness might also indicate a kind of general incapacity or refusal on his part to engage with psychological issues or to deploy direct critical judgment concerning the late-capitalist world-system. There is good reason to assume that the critical potential of these texts is suffocated in advance by Gibson’s (confused or conscious) fascination with the affective surfaces of the privileged technocultural environment of global post-national elites, an environment filled with iPhones, iPads, vintage clothing, and so on. After all, in actuality there really is an outside to this environment, and in this respect Gibson uncritically focuses on the small minority engaged in pretending that there is not. Paradoxically, this lack of critical edge gives to Gibson’s texts an almost preposterously neutral tone which in turn enables them to achieve their realist verisimilitude.
All in all, it seems to me that the double vision of realism and sf I have examined in Gibson’s fiction requires its own designation, its own definitive proper name (toward which, in a Jamesonian fashion, it might well be on its way: Hollinger’s “science-fiction realism” seems like a good possibility [“Stories About the Future 460]). That term suggests the persistent lack of common ground between realism and science fiction in these novels; as with the Žižekian parallax view (Žižek 4), they seem to form an impossible union of two very different perspectives. But perhaps these novels only come into full view in the oscillation between these two perspectives. From one point of view, the poetics of the Bigend Trilogy and the contents of its fictional world appear realist; from the other, they appear science-fictional. Overcoming this dualism and collapsing it into a single perspective may well require the formation of certain historical conditions yet to come—the sufficient further intensification of contemporary technocultural immanence.
I would like to thank Professors Brian McHale and Tomo Virk, SFS’s reviewers, and my editor, Veronica Hollinger, for their many helpful comments, suggestions, and corrections. This research was supported by the European Union through the European Social Fund (Mobilitas grant no. 1.2.03.01.08–0002) and by the Estonian Research Council’s target-financed research theme, “Rhetorical Patterns of Mimesis and Estonian Textual Culture.”
1. For contextual positioning, it is worth mentioning at the outset that so far such a poetics has occurred only rarely—Gibson is here almost the sole thoroughgoing reference on the scale of whole novels—and it seems likely to me that at present we might more probably detect it in the texts of those writers who earlier wrote near-future extrapolative science fiction and later crossed over to “contemporary” or “historical” realism (as in Neal Stephenson’s fiction) than in the work of authors of “contemporary” or “late-capitalist” realism such as Don DeLillo, Michel Houellebecq, David Foster Wallace, Frédéric Beigbeder, Margaret Atwood, and so on. For a more thorough comparison of Atwood and DeLillo, see my section 7. For a discussion about the generic attributes of science fiction and the specific nature of the realism in question, see my section 4a.
2. See Hollinger’s “Future/Present: The End of Science Fiction,” “A History of the Future: Notes for an Archive,” and “Stories About the Future: From Patterns of Expectation to Pattern Recognition.”
3. Cayce’s “talent” in Pattern Recognition is the only potentially science-fictional element in the Bigend Trilogy. In subsequent novels, the suspension between realism and science fiction is realized solely through the mode of writing.
4. I have deliberately selected sentences from the openings of these novels because it is there that the “materiality” of their fictional worlds is initially established and determined.
5. Following the Lukácsian definition, it is certainly possible to characterize Gibson’s two earlier cyberpunk trilogies—the Sprawl Trilogy and the Bridge Trilogy —as “future historical realism.” Both of them feature transcendent Events, events that reach the limits of the extrapolative imagination or what Gibson calls the “singularity” of absolute change. In Neuromancer (1984) there is the merging of the artificial intelligences Neuromancer and Wintermute; in Count Zero the cyberspace matrix becomes a home for sentient beings; in All Tomorrow’s Parties, there is Laney’s eventual confinement to the eternity of a totalized informational nodal point, as well as the nanotechnological materialization of the artificial intelligence Rei Toei simultaneously in all the stores of the retail Lucky Dragon chain at the conclusion of the novel. In addition to portraying the future super-rich of the post-national society, these novels include the outcasts as well—for example, the cyberspace cowboys of the first trilogy or the Bridge of the second trilogy that, as an interstitial space, is in itself a kind of a scale model or allegory of those structurally excluded from the privileged sphere of the global post-national elites.
The Bigend Trilogy differs significantly from the Lukácsian blueprint for realism. The collapse of futurity is a pervasive thematic issue here both in Gibson’s texts and in the accompanying theoretical discussions of them. None of these later novels feature such a transcendent focal Event. Pattern Recognition has been widely read as a novel of the aftermath of 9/11 (see Palmer). It might be postulated that in this later trilogy the transcendent Event has already occurred and everyone is living in its aftermath rather than in the anticipation of futurity. In part, Pattern Recognition deals with the search for the protagonist’s father, missing since 9/11. The plot of Spook Country largely revolves around efforts to obtain missing government money originally meant to support the US mission in Iraq, and Zero History deals with opportunism concerning military contracting—in these latter two novels, the aftermath is the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and, in Zero History, also the aftermath of the economic meltdown. In a way, there is a sense in these novels of a disappointment with historicity—the Event has already happened (and it might happen again in the future), but it does not have any revolutionary consequences.
Furthermore, the descriptive focus here is aimed more fully at the post-national elites who traverse the globe untouched by difference, and at the closed circuits of post-national “cool” of iPhones, iBooks, and vintage clothing. (Gibson’s tonal flatness and his almost uncanny neutrality toward and apparent lack of criticism for the post-national “cool” he focuses on is at least partially symptomatic of his own inherent fascination with it. See my section 7.) Gibson seems here to have much less interest in a broad typology of the social formation. In this respect, in Lukácsian terms, the realism of the Bigend Trilogy suggests Gibson’s turn to naturalism where, in Lukács’s sense, historicity is once more “apprehended in an external fashion” (see Freedman 47)
6. I will return to these latter elements in more detail later but, as an example, note the subplot in Spook Country centered on investigating the subculture of locative art—a field still relatively unfamiliar to the hypothetical common reader. The underlying premise here is that contemporary technoculture in its infinite multiplicity is full of phenomena of which the common reader is still relatively unaware; this, as Gibson has proved, is true not only in regard to cutting-edge modern technology, but also of everything that can be described in scientific detail, including even the seams and the fabric of an anonymous brand of jeans that is central to one of the subplots in Zero History.
7. Freedman’s claim is that whereas science fiction has classically been deemed the literature of the dialectic of cognition and estrangement, no kind of fiction (and no representation as such) can exist without this dialectic—if, hypothetically, the representation were an exact representation of reality, we would not recognize it as representation/fiction at all but rather as reality as such. On the other hand, and by the same logic, if the representation represented something totally unknown, we would not recognize it as representation either, because we would not have the basic cognitive means to understand it—we would perceive it as neither representation nor reality (see Freedman 20─21).
8. Jameson has noted the conceptual similarities between Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition, including the similarity in the names of their protagonists (Case and Cayce) (see Jameson’s Archaeologies 384─92).
9. “Absolute immanence is in itself: it is not in something, to something; it does not depend on an object or belong to a subject” (Deleuze 26).
10. As a necessary side note, it should be emphasized that in this present discussion of the double vision of realism and sf in Gibson’s work, this description (and the supplements by Csicsery-Ronay) of a culture with no outside does not necessarily have to apply to the de facto material conditions of contemporary reality, but only to the cognitive experience of its current characteristic undercurrents. It is not the case that late-capitalist technocultural reality in actuality lacks an outside (one can easily give, for example, an account of “outside cultures” still relatively uninfluenced by the hegemony of capital or its current technocultural mode of self-realization); it is rather that this culture or “world system” behaves as if that were the case, even if its subjects can easily provide plausible contrary de facto evidence. And it is precisely because of this self-governing “as if”—because of the secondary position of the now thoroughly integrated subject—that contemporary technoculture can also be considered artificially immanent.
11. Csicsery-Ronay is one of the few who has focused attention on this “Gibsonian” sentence. His “Futuristic Flu” is a treatment, among other things, of Gibson’s earlier poetics: “The language of Neuromancer surpasses that critical density beyond which a futuristic language merely imitates new conditions, and actually composes a “world”.... [A] futuristic language of sufficient density can create the illusion of realism—indicating real things and relations that do not yet exist, but whose inevitability feels incontestable and immediate” (37).
12. For example, Hollis Henry sees in Milgrim, one of the protagonists of Zero History, an “obliquely-looking-out thing” (72). On the same page, Milgrim says, “I notice things. I’m good with detail.”
13. Here we might consider a potentially interesting and meaningful duality concerning “realist” literature, that is, the dualism between explanation and access. The premise would be that a realism that aspires to grant plausible access is severely restricted in its ability to explain or pass critical judgment, and vice versa.
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