Science Fiction Studies

#93 = Volume 31, Part 2 = July 2004

Russell Blackford

Reading the Ruined Cities

Sabine Heuser. Virtual Geographies: Cyberpunk at the Intersection of the Postmodern and Science Fiction. New York: Rodopi, 2003. xlv + 257 pp. $60 pbk.

Sabine Heuser’s Virtual Geographies is an ambitious attempt to relate the 1980s-and-continuing phenomenon of cyberpunk to the more general field of science fiction, and to postmodernist literature, art, and architecture. It focuses on the work of William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and Neal Stephenson, three of the best-known and most impressive authors to have attracted the “cyberpunk” label, though it cannot be attached to any of them (or perhaps to anyone) without a certain amount of hedging. Gibson, the cyberpunk par excellence, has expressed discomfort with the label. So has Cadigan, who was less directly involved in the early days of the supposed “movement,” although Bruce Sterling identified her in 1984 as one of the new group of radical, hard-edged sf writers. Stephenson is, perhaps, a second-generation cyberpunk, and his celebrated novel Snow Crash (1992) reads in many ways as a parody of cyberpunk writing.

All the same, Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and such stories of the 1980s as “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981) and “Burning Chrome” (1985) are the paradigm texts of cyberpunk. If Gibson in this phase was not a cyberpunk writer, no one ever was. Similarly, Cadigan’s early novels and Stephenson’s Snow Crash display many of the identifying elements of cyberpunk. Heuser’s inclusion of Cadigan and Stephenson in her study gives it greater range than would a narrower concentration on those writers who were most prominently identified with the phenomenon in the early 1980s: Gibson plus (for example) Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, and Lewis Shiner.

By examining the work of Cadigan and Stephenson, Heuser is able to test more broadly just what elements identify cyberpunk writing, while also exploring some of cyberpunk’s wider possibilities. If anything, the study would have benefitted by extending the range beyond prose fiction, with some detailed discussions of works from other media, such as cinema, television, and comics.

In all, Heuser’s project begins with a promising idea, and she has chosen an appropriate set of writers to examine. There is already a rich body of scholarly work that explores science fiction and postmodernism, including Damien Broderick’s Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction (1995), which Heuser discusses briefly. Few if any earlier studies, however, discuss the constellation of ideas—sf-postmodernism-cyberpunk—in the detail that Virtual Geographies attempts. That said, I am not sure that Heuser ever provides a clear or convincing analysis of the relationship between cyberpunk and postmodernism, though she does have many insightful comments about it.

Her significant achievement in this book is a detailed and provocative discussion of the history, concerns, and icons of cyberpunk itself, as well as her useful analyses of several important novels: Gibson’s Neuromancer; Cadigan’s Mindplayers (1987), Synners (1991), and Fools (1992); and Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Most impressively, her analysis shows that “cyberpunk” is not merely an empty label. In one sense, of course, that must be true, since there were historical connections and influences among many of the alleged cyberpunks in the halcyon days of the early 1980s. To some extent, Gibson, Sterling, and others really did form a literary movement within the sf field, however short-lived it was, and however much the individual writers welcomed or rejected the actual label of “cyberpunk.”

Heuser brings out many important connections and summarizes the roles of some key players. She mentions Terry Carr, who commissioned and edited Neuromancer; Ellen Datlow, who, as Omni’s fiction editor, provided a relatively high-profile market for Gibson’s early fiction; Gardner Dozois, who popularized the word “cyberpunk” (though he did not invent it); and, of course, Sterling, whose polemics in his magazine Cheap Truth, his Mirrorshades (1986) anthology, and elsewhere, were all-important.

More importantly, Heuser discusses the formal elements that identify cyberpunk, whether in the form of narrative prose or visual performance, or implied by musical lyrics or computer-game scenarios. She points to two main elements, or clusters of elements, which might be summarized as follows without too much distortion: first, the presence within the narrative of advanced cybernetic technology that enables some form of full-sensory-immersion virtual reality (“VR”); second, a “punk” quality that typically includes depictions of street life, youthful rebellion (particularly, but not solely, against the power of ubiquitous, transnational business corporations), tough-guy attitudes and dress codes, certain specific images (such as those of rust, chrome, concrete, and reflective glass), and a prose style that foregrounds the punk element and its imagery.

In addition, cyberpunk’s concern with cybernetic technology typically involves some degree of adherence to a functionalist view of mind, self, and memory. Heuser does not use that terminology, but she gives considerable emphasis to the prevalent assumption in cyberpunk narratives that mind, self, and memory can all be grounded in digital, as well as neuronal, substrates. They are products of computational activity, whether in the brain or in advanced computer hardware. To a greater or lesser extent, cyberpunk writing works with the idea that mind, self, and memory can be transferred from brain to computer (or vice versa), from computer to computer, or from brain to brain.

Heuser adds to this picture by providing an extensive discussion of the built environments depicted in cyberpunk narratives. She identifies a concern with damage and ruins—with the appropriation of buildings and living spaces for new and diverse purposes. It is as if cyberpunk is deliberately trashing the edifices of the international style of architecture, rejecting their corporate purposes in favor of a postmodernist pluralism.

Heuser’s analysis of the way in which cyberpunk depicts architecture does not entirely convince me. I am not sure that she has demonstrated any direct line of influence from postmodernist architecture to the 1980s cyberpunks, if that was her intention; but she does seem to be on to something. Her analysis at least shows the rational possibility of such an influence. Even if no historical influence took place, she demonstrates cyberpunk’s concern with ruins, damage to the natural and built environments, architectural grunge, and appropriated spaces. All of this is, perhaps, related to the “punk” quality implicit in “cyberpunk.”

It seems possible to take this kind of formal analysis further than Heuser does herself. For a start, there is probably a limited range of thematic puzzles that can be examined through the use of full-immersion VR as a plot device (these are largely to do with the nature of reality, the possibility and desirability of life in a simulated world). Therefore, it is not surprising that many works that appear related to cyberpunk, and show the “punk” element in spades, do not specifically depict full-immersion VR. Often there is still a “cyber” element, but it takes the form of an emphasis on some form of machine intelligence or merger of machinery with the human body. Works of this kind seem to stand outside the core of cyberpunk, especially if they were not historically influenced by the original group of cyberpunk writers; still, they display much the same sensibility and aesthetic values.

Viewed in this way, some important sf movies of the 1980s and thereafter appear to be closely related to cyberpunk without being core cyberpunk works. Perhaps the best example is Blade Runner (1982), which closely resembles Gibson’s early cyberpunk fiction—so much so, indeed, that Gibson reportedly found it disturbing to watch when it was first released: it was too close in its resemblance to Neuromancer, which he was writing at the time. Similarly, The Terminator (1984) and its sequels have many cyberpunk elements, though they are perhaps further than Blade Runner from core cyberpunk.

By contrast, The Matrix (1999) and its sequels appear to be latter-day, core-cyberpunk works. The Matrix is clearly influenced by Gibson’s writing, and it closely resembles Neuromancer in its look, feel, and tone. It shows pretty much all the formal elements and icons of 1980s cyberpunk, and is arguably the most important full-on cyberpunk work since Neuromancer itself.

When the internal elements of cyberpunk narratives are analyzed in this way, it assists discussion of its origins, influence, and possible future. Heuser’s analysis should help open the way for considerably more sophisticated treatment than has commonly been achieved to date. While I have extended Heuser’s own discussion in making some of these points, they seem to confirm that Heuser has given a robust and sophisticated account of cyberpunk’s formal elements. For that reason alone, her work should find a valuable place in continuing scholarly discussion of the cyberpunk phenomenon.

Unfortunately, Virtual Geographies is flawed in some ways. The more minor difficulties relate to structure, format, and style. The problem is not with Heuser’s actual prose, which is intelligent, flexible, and generally very clear, even when the author is trying to explain a difficult point. She discusses complex issues with only a necessary minimum of theoretical jargon. The book is marred, however, by what sometimes seems an overly-zealous wish to cover every possible aspect or side issue, even if it sometimes requires that the footnotes take up as much space on the page as the actual text. Heavy footnoting, with some notes over three hundred words long, often makes reading the book a frustrating experience. The use of endnotes, rather than footnotes, would have obviated this considerably, and that would have been a much better format for this book. In any event, much of what is contained in the notes is tangential to the argument and probably could have been removed. Other material could have been incorporated into the body of the text, with some additional work.

The problem of readability is aggravated by the overall structure, which includes an authorial introduction almost forty pages long, paginated with Roman numerals, before the commencement of the text proper. It is not obvious to me why anyone would need to write a forty-page introduction to her own scholarly work, unless new ideas or theoretical underpinnings are being introduced as an afterthought. The material in the introduction is directly relevant, and goes far beyond a brief explanation of methodology (for example), so a way should have been found to restructure the book and assimilate the introduction’s ideas in the main text. This might have involved no more than calling the introduction the book’s first chapter, but the text proper already starts with a long chapter entitled “Introducing Cyberpunk.” Thus, I found myself eighty pages into a relatively short book, and feeling rather lost, before reaching material that was not, in one way or the other, labeled as introductory.

More important than any of these distractions is the fact that Virtual Geographies contains too many specific claims that are inaccurate, misleading, or just plain odd. As I read the book, I was struck by this often enough to question the extent of Heuser’s general grounding in the wider science fiction field. I have not compiled anything like an exhaustive list of points that struck me, but will give just a few examples. As might be expected, Heuser discusses the disagreements among critics, scholars, and others as to who, exactly, belongs in the original 1980s group of cyberpunk writers. Then, in a footnote, she makes this remarkable statement: “Just to illustrate how little agreement there is about who should be included under the new label cyberpunk, even one of its main promoters, Bruce Sterling, insists on including himself among the ranks” (7). But why “even one of its main promoters”? How does Sterling’s inclusion of himself in the group, or movement, of cyberpunk writers illustrate any disagreement about who was in or out? There is nothing inconsistent, or even especially strange, in a writer’s belonging to a new literary group while also being one of its “main promoters.” Even if one questions how much of Sterling’s fiction is core cyberpunk in its formal elements, his historical inclusion in the 1980s grouping of cyberpunks is not a matter of scholarly disagreement. He is one of the very few whose presence in the original group of mutually-influenced writers is undisputed. If anyone apart from Gibson is in, that someone must be Sterling.

Another oddity is Heuser’s definition of a “semiprozine” as a magazine with a circulation of less than 100,000 and at least 1,000 (11). She references this to Peter Nicholls’s “Semiprozine” entry in the authoritative Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993). Yet Nicholls actually explains that a magazine qualifies as a semiprozine if it has a print run of less than 10,000 (not 100,000) and has published at least four issues (at least one in the previous calendar year). Heuser does refer to some of the other criteria, but in a garbled way. In short, she misunderstands the concept, despite having read Nicholls’s encyclopedia entry. This confusion is not important to Heuser’s argument, but it is not the sort of error that I would expect from someone with a strong general grounding in the sf field.

Elsewhere, Heuser imagines that the movie Johnny Mnemonic (1995) adheres closely to the text of Gibson’s original short story of the same name (18), though that is far from being the case. She displays only a faint familiarity with The Terminator and its sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), despite wishing to use them to make general points about the cinematic portrayal of cyborgs. She refers to “the cyborgs” (plural) in these two movies morphing into a liquid-metal state (75). Some pages later, she makes a similar claim about “the liquid-chrome Terminators in the movie Terminator [sic]” (86). In fact, no such characters appear in The Terminator, though one (singular) morphing, liquid-metal character does appear in Terminator 2. Since Virtual Geographies was written, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) has appeared in the cinemas, and it also features a humanoid killing machine that is partly constructed from liquid metal, but Heuser is clearly not referring to this movie (indeed, she discusses no works published or released after the year 2000).

The predominant image of “the cyborg” in the Terminator movies is actually nothing like Heuser’s description. Instead, that image is of the three physically identical characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger—one in each of the three movies. These “cybernetic organisms,” as they are referred to, are massive, somewhat ponderous, hypermasculine juggernauts constructed of steel alloy and bulging human flesh. The stealthy, catlike, shapeshifting characters played by Robert Patrick in Terminator 2 and by Kristanna Loken in Terminator 3 are introduced by way of a sinister contrast to this dominant image. Such errors of memory or understanding suggest that the information in Virtual Geographies needs to be used with caution.

In addition to its structural and stylistic problems, and its specific errors and oddities, Virtual Geography is a weaker book than it might have been if it had included some detailed discussions of cyberpunk elements in non-prose works. Heuser does briefly discuss cyberpunk-related cinema and a few specific movies. With some plausibility, she refers to the movie version of Lawnmower Man (1992) as the most successful cinematic representation of virtual reality “[n]ext to The Matrix (1999)” (19). What is surprising is that these few words are her only reference to The Matrix, even though she evidently considers it the most successful cinematic representation of virtual reality. Despite that assessment, and the fact that The Matrix captured the essence of Gibson-style cyberpunk more precisely than any other movie that had been made at the time she was writing her book, Heuser does not even include it in her Cyberpunk Time Line at the back of the volume. Yet she includes an episode of The X-Files from 2000 scripted by Gibson with Tom Maddox.

The release of The Matrix was a defining moment in the cultural influence of cyberpunk. It achieved commercial success and a great deal of journalistic and academic attention, ultimately leading to the release, in 2003, of two sequels plus a series of short animated movies collectively known as The Animatrix. Heuser could not, of course, have been aware of these further works when she was writing Virtual Geographies, but even the success of the first movie should have suggested that cyberpunk narrative retains a potential for significant cultural impact. Perhaps because she does not wish to range too widely beyond the area of prose fiction, Heuser is too quick to assume that cyberpunk in its purer forms is dead, and that its elements have been diffused and absorbed into the more general fields of science fiction and popular entertainment.

Despite this criticism, Heuser provides useful, detailed readings of individual books by William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and Neal Stephenson. These occupy about a third of Virtual Geographies, and they are so detailed and sensitive that they should be consulted by anyone doing research on these authors. Even here, however, some care needs to be taken with her conclusions, though that could, of course, be said of almost any critical text.

One point worth challenging is Heuser’s claim that Gibson seems to promote “a throw-away attitude to the body,” whereas, by contrast, Cadigan “consistently and radically questions the Cartesian mind-body split” (167). This claim is pardoned insofar as it is almost a cliché of contemporary sf criticism that cyberpunk endorses or reintroduces such a Cartesian “split.” A better conclusion, however, would be that all of the cyberpunks, including Gibson, radically reject the Cartesian account of the self. The philosophical position assumed, or entertained, in cyberpunk writing is functionalist rather than Cartesian: i.e., mind is seen by the cyberpunks as dependent on the functioning of matter—rather than as separable from it. Descartes would not have been pleased by Gibson’s work, though some of his contemporaries, such as Hobbes and Gassendi, might have been.

Gibson does not imagine the possibility that mind, self, or memory could exist independently of the physical world—the central claim of the Cartesian analysis of the self. Moreover, when his work does depict some kind of mental life attached to a physical-but-non-biological substrate, it is usually with anxious questioning and at least some sense of loss. This can be seen with such characters as the Dixie Flatline construct in Neuromancer, and most poignantly in Gibson’s vivid, emotional story of personality uploading (into digital form), “The Winter Market” (1986). I suspect that Gibson is the victim of a contemporary penchant for literary scholars to spot Cartesian dualism everywhere, and to treat it as a kind of sociopolitical enemy.

Virtual Geographies is a significant contribution to our understanding of the cyberpunk phenomenon. It contains some convincing discussion of architectural fabrications and spaces in cyberpunk narratives, useful readings of particular books, and many insights. Overall, however, it would have been worthwhile for the author to have undertaken another full draft before the book reached the stage of publication. As it stands, Virtual Geographies is not entirely successful, and scholars, teachers, or students should use it with a degree of caution.

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