Flowers for cyberpunk

A few years ago, when I was speaking at my first gig in France, a friend introduced me as “a genuine cyberpunk.” I don’t mind telling you I was a little taken aback: (a), Chairman Bruce deserves the tag more than I ever will, or could, and (b) I’ve always thought of that word as a descriptor of literary genre, not of people. Maybe it’s different in Europe.

What I will not deny, though, is that the genre which appropriately does bear that name was probably the major formative influence of my adolescence, and my discovery of it while it yet hovered more or less on the margins of popular culture one of only two junctures in my life that I truly felt myself to be close to the epicenter of a Moment. Finding stories like “New Rose Hotel” in my sister’s copies of Omni — devouring them with by flashlight, under my bed, as if they were some species of pornography — then stumbling onto that first Ace Special Edition of Neuromancer at sixteen: these were inflections I experienced physically.

I mean it. Reading these stories consistently and reliably generated in me a precise somatic sensation. It felt like this: like someone had clamped strong hands on my shoulders, forcefully pivoted me forty-five degrees to the left, then planted a solid kick in my ass. My heart would start to hammer. I’d have to get up, go out and do something, anything, just to burn off energy and ease my way down from maximum jouissance. Every new, outré detail — the assassin with a monomolecular whip secreted in a false thumbtip, the smackhead dolphin abandoned by the government that had recruited him, the death-by-pheromoned-cloud-of-smothering-butterflies — set off a fresh detonation of glee.

There were more intellectual pleasures, too. One of the things cyberpunk was relatively good at was suggesting the political economy of the future, the institutional structure that would characterize the way we lived there. Genre authors delighted in attending to details like “Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority” and the “Mare Tranquillitatis People’s Circumlunar Zaibatsu,” and I as a reader delighted in their cleverness and perspicacity. My imagination could churn all day on everything so densely implied by a line like: “His right bicep was tattooed with a geodesic balloon above crossed lightning bolts and bore the legend SUNSPARK 15, UTAH.”

It worked (and I’m only something like the eighteen millionth person to have pointed this out) because it was still recognizably an exaggeration for effect, the Reagan/Thatcher/Nakasone Eighties in a funhouse mirror. No wonder contemporary sf, by contrast, tends to leave me so cold: it’s hard to top the details of a world that’s seen all of this come to pass.

I thought of this the other day when I passed an artifact that seemed to sum up most of cyberpunk’s formal concerns. It was nothing more than a graffiti’d shipping container piled in a maintenance yard, but it:

– represented the fruit of a deeply digitized military-logistic material culture;
– still bore the marks of its native China;
– and, layered atop them, bore the blazons of street identity.

It struck me as occupying an amazing position in material-semantic possibility space, the polemical-made-real. Running past it was something like listening to a digital file of Brazilian speedmetal, or having a woman you meet at a party nonchalantly introducing you to her wife, in that everyday life seemed to have more or less effortlessly remolded itself around tropes which once, and not so very long ago, dripped with futurity.

And a world filled with such objects is in some way almost beyond commentary, or critique. Maybe this is why William Gibson’s own last few books, delightful as they remain — the brand-new Zero History being the most recent case in point — read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know, capering through places, scenes and contexts we know all too well. It’s competently constructed entertainment, resonant enough of our moment, and is amusing as something to play the roman-à-clef game with. But it’s not (and cannot be?) revelatory. I’m having a hard time imagining anyone having their ass kicked by Zero History the way mine was by Neuromancer.

As for the earlier work, I can’t for the life of me imagine what a contemporary reader confronting it for the first time would make of it. Any possibility of getting a frisson or lift off of that material would seem to be undermined by the fact that so much of it was first rendered into genre cliché, in the hands of much less capable writers, and then had the bad manners to come true. (Believe me, there was not a single hip thing about the Giger-themed bar in Shirokanedai, even before it went out of business.)

More broadly, I’m having trouble even coming up with any cultural artifact capable of generating that kind of shock’n’awe rewrite of the world. For me, for anyone. And that’s too bad.

24 responses to “Flowers for cyberpunk”

  1. Bruce Sterling says :

    Fewer Ace paperbacks, more abandoned Chinese military-entertainment shipping crates.

  2. Justin Pickard says :

    As a relative young’un (born late 1980s), Pattern Recognition provided a gut-punch, if somewhat muted, and only because I was reading about the world as it was for me; with Gibson incorporating the phenomenology of web forums and viral media – something rare for contemporary ‘realist’ fiction.

    Now, the kind of revelatory shock’n’awe stuff comes from media that is geographically or culturally distant/distinct, rather than overtly future-oriented. See: Geoff Ryman’s Air, Ian MacDonald’s River of Gods, Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids.

  3. Lachlan Hardy says :

    Pattern Recognition had that effect on me. Frisson is the *only* word for it.

    As did Neuromancer when I discovered it at age 12. PR wasn’t as much of a strong reaction as Neuromancer was, but I had a much deeper intellectual appreciation and sense of purpose from it as a reader of 24 or so involved in the Internet than I ever had to Neuromancer as a moderately geeky teen.

    Indeed, I just started Spook Country today, hoping to capture something of that feeling again – the same reason I re-read Pattern Recognition every year.

    But those *kicks* are so much rarer now than they were when I devoured the genre of cyberpunk. Like you, I don’t know where to find more.

  4. Igor Schwarzmann says :

    In a ever more complicated world, it’s hard enough to capture the now. Indeed, it’s practically impossible and that’s why so many – including me – love Gibson’s work so much.

    The singular impact of “Neuromancer” can not be matched today by anything, but the reason is not in the lack in ability of contemporary authors, but the fact that we’re so much more used to a rapid change in what future might actually look like.

    But I do agree, that it is regrettable not to be able to experience the kind of punch you got from reading “Neuromancer”. “Pattern Recognition” did the trick for me or else, I would use a quote from it to teaser my new company.

  5. The Doctor says :

    Lachlan: “But those *kicks* are so much rarer now than they were when I devoured the genre of cyberpunk. Like you, I don’t know where to find more.”

    Those kicks are all around us, now, that’s why they’re getting hard to find in science fiction. We swim in them. Private military corporations, surveillance at street level becoming more and more pervasive, living in a world where net.connectivity is growing as common as the air we breathe, corporate corruption, cities growing together into sprawls… it’s here.

  6. niaveidiot says :

    Try Henrik Ibsen for balance.

  7. Jon Courtenay Grimwood says :

    Think Neuromancer obviously an early book. In the sense it’s raw and says, Wow. Think Zero History obviously far more mature in style, content & aim. It say (to me) I think, I observe… Also, suspect cyberpunks kick had to do with its newness (obvious) and most avid fans relatively young age. Personally, sadly, I’d love to get get back the raw kick I got from discovering different schools of SF. But I feel the fact I can’t says more about me than about the genre

    [extrapolating wildly from the personal to the general]

  8. Wintermute says :

    The thing about the cyberpunk ass-kick feeling was precisely what you identify: it turned in a different direction than you or (SF) was headed in, on purpose (Gibson made a punk-rebellious point of deconstructing SF genres in his young age). It’s like Bob Dylan showing up on stage and blowing perceptions out the window with the first rock song. Any upstart rock band, no matter the amp-wattage, cannot replicate that singular moment, that cataclysmic shift. That party is over. Attempting to replicate the world-break with cyberpunk *cannot* work by creating more cyberpunk.

    The new ass-kick will have to be some completely new and unexpected angle, turning you 45 degrees to rip you away from the mirror-shaded future towards some other world you didn’t realize was there. (breaking of the urban fantasy genre?)

    Paradoxically, GIbson tries to shift the angle, even as so many cry out at book readings for “more Neuromancer!!!”. I think, however, he has simply lost his angry-youthful-edge mojo in his old age by the fact of being a completely different person, writing more comfortable, less hard-hitting books, and it will have to be someone else to produce the new kick.

  9. Evyn MacDude says :

    I have this feeling a lot, i was on of those digital boys of the late 70s and early 90s reading books about a world to be, and seemingly it has appeared around me without my noticing.

    Maybe I should have looked at my own life in comparison to the literature I was reading.

  10. Lachlan Hardy says :

    Upon reflection, I’ve realised that I do still get that feeling of something more, a whole new world to explore, from new content. Content on blogs like this one,,, and, as mentioned above, Bruce Sterling’s Wired posts.

    If anybody can offer any other recommended reading, I’d much appreciate it.

    The Doctor,
    What you say is true. So perhaps that’s why *this* no longer provides the kick? It’s become the norm.

    Jon Courtenay Grimwood,
    Your own novels kicked me *hard* first time around. And continue to do so on re-reads, much as William Gibson’s do. Especially redRobe and the Arabesks. So I’m intrigued that you, too, are looking for a new kick.

  11. AG says :

    For the record: I do very much enjoy a good deal of contemporary sf. I read every word Ian McDonald publishes, Peter Watts is good for a bracing dose of empirically-validated misanthropy, Geoff Ryman’s Air and “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” are touchstones, and I’ll occasionally kill a long flight with one of the nü-opera dudes — Alastair Reynolds, or like that.

    But for the most part, the stuff I see on the sf shelves is dross; contemporary literary fiction seems to have taken up some of the slack, but not all. Any anyway, literary fiction all too often pulls its punches, or doesn’t know quite how to land them in the first place. (For example, I super-enjoyed Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, and felt that among other things he really, really got a particular flavor of Korean-American life…but then I realized that a lot of the deadpan critique critics really enjoyed about the book had been done with much greater verve and finesse by the criminally overlooked Jack Womack, fifteen-twenty years ago.)

    Thanks, though, Lachlan, for describing where you get your kicks. It’s a big responsibility, and one I’ll do my best to shoulder with some measure of grace.

  12. Eric Rodenbeck says :

    Storming the Reality Studio, edited by Larry McCafferey, is a compendium of a good representative slice of cyberpunk fiction *and* nonfiction. I absolutely devoured that book when it came out.

    I came across it in a used bookstore the other day and had a hard time committing to reading my old friend, as my iPad glowed seductively at me the whole time. And it’s now available for free on Google Books at , which fact pretty much says it all.

  13. Johnny Laird says :

    Nice post….you might like to check out some of the new wave of Cyberpunk coming out of Africa…Afrocyberpunk:

    Obviously, Mr Gibson gets a namecheck here and in other places on my blog:

  14. The Necromancer says :

    Someone above identified an important factor — Gibson’s capacity for genre deconstruction. Witness the short story “The Gernsback Continuum”, a psychedelic pastiche of golden age SF tropes. Like Metropolis on LSD.

    But it’s also a question of time and place. I too have a post mourning “the cyberpunk moment”. Anybody who read Neuromancer and all that stuff in the mid-1980s can relate to this sense you express.

    I’ve recaptured the frisson at times since, by going backwards. Reading PKD’s Now Wait For Last Year last year snapped a few cords in the cortex here and there. And then there’s VALIS

    But the space you are in also alters the experience. I went back to PKD when I journeyed out to the Pacific Northwest, even making a foray down to CA. That’s his world, from its sinister suburbs to its epic coastlines. Maybe that’s just sci-fi country (apologies to the Texan in the above comment…). Gibson prowls around BC when he is writing, and visits to certain streets in Vancouver always prompts me to think of Dick wandering around there in a pink haze during his “Canadian period”.

    This has gone from a reply to your brilliant ode to the c-punks to a bad case of western romanticism, but maybe you’ll take my point. Rediscovery and transformation is always possible. And maybe the new frontier of transformation in SF is not exterior, objectivist, material and technological, but interior, subjective, spiritual and natural. Or not. Right now it seems stuck in genre bending silliness, which is fine (c.f. Night of the Living Trekkies).

    Anyway, I haven’t read Zero History yet, but Spook Country was very of the moment. And, as I was ensconced in the Detroit-Windsor area, his final scenes set in North Van and the harbour just made me homesick…

    So you see my point.

  15. Arvind says :

    Hm. I am much younger than you, and I only discovered Neuromancer a few years ago. Frissoning was definitely experienced.

    I wonder, though if there’s something else going on here, if there’s some kind of uncanny valley effect in operation. Things that are too far off – they’re merely futuristic (and we have all become better at imagination because our generation has been creating a higher volume of imaginative works than previous ones). Things that are too near are merely forecasting and speculation – only marginally better than predicting what the next iPhone will be like. It’s the region in between – where we don’t have the apparently impossible, and where we don’t have the normal and mundane – that is the strangest for us when we encounter it.

    I had this experience with Ian McDonald’s River of Gods – specifically since I grew up in India. A Balkanised India with a hyper-articulated mythology was nowhere on the map of my imagined futures. Frissons abounded. The more so because this image was of a future that didn’t include any of the elements I would wish for – it doesn’t jive with my perceptions of a better world. Perhaps that’s the nub – cyberpunk will flourish if it explores aspects and geographies not considered or noticed through the lens of Western writing. Cyberpunk as the voice of the voiceless: imagine that.

  16. AG says :

    So *as pure writing*, and as an attempt to ground sf in the world that most people actually live in, I really dig both “River of Gods” and the trendlet it seems to belong to. I have to say, though, that I’m really ambivalent about McDonald’s ventriloquism, his attempt to imagine and portray the interiority of the Other, just as I am about Bacigalupi’s in “The Wind-Up Girl,” Ryman’s in “Air,” and so on. I’m working on a piece about this ambivalence, and will post it soon.

    These are undoubtedly some great, entertaining, well-written books, and they display a taste and intelligence that’s been missing from sf for entirely too long. But I can’t let the notion go unchallenged that the current generation “has been creating a higher volume of imaginative works than previous ones.”

    I want to point you at “Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions.” Not by any stretch of the imagination all of the work stands up…but when you look at those compilations as a lens on what was happening in that moment, I’m sure you’ll agree that the range *and volume* of imaginative exploration was greater then. The formal and thematic bravura of the British New Wave, feminist and ecological concerns, Beat-inspired and otherwise experimental structures and cadences, the influence of psychedelics, explorations in what we’d now think of as body horror…really, this generation can’t hold a candle to any of that.

  17. Arvind says :

    @AG: will have to take a look at the dangerous visions pair. but i was referring to both amateur and non-literary work. there simply seems to be more of it (and not all good, and not all published for anything more than an audience of a dozen, i agree). but perhaps the youtube stats are misleading…

    curiously enough, the Other-revisioning I find interesting precisely because it isn’t mine. it’s not that I think it is anywhere near accurate, but it’s selective exaggeration puts aspects of my experience in sharp relief. the truth, of course, is both more complex and weirder.

  18. Juha says :

    Adam, I will start sending you my catalogue of 2005-2010 bass music. From Kode9 to Kuedo, and from Rustie to Hudson Mohawke. Your mind will pivot more than forty-five degrees…

  19. AG says :

    HAHAHAHAHA, *tremendous*. Thanks!

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