Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back and join me on the road where names are made. Then settle back as Alan and I take a look at some of the better uses of cyberpunk and its tropes.
JANE: Last time, Alan, we talked about how both of our initial reactions to cyberpunk were more negative than not. However, I’ll admit, I later found stories I really liked.
One of these was Walter Jon Williams’ novel, Hardwired. His emphasis on the personal lives of his characters got me involved in a way I never was with Gibson’s characters.
ALAN: I agree about Hardwired. But my favourite cyberpunk novels, and the ones that finally convinced me that the genre was actually about something important, were the Budayeen novels by George Alec Effinger. When Gravity Fails was the first of the series, and he wrote two sequels before, sadly, he died. Had he lived, I’m sure these novels would have brought him fame and fortune. They were set in the Middle East in the 22nd century and the characters have cybernetic implants and modules allowing them to change their personalities and bodies.
JANE: I haven’t read those, but they sound interesting. You also bring up an important point – how cybernetic implants became an important part of the whole cyberpunk scene.
Many years after I had dismissed cyberpunk as more often window dressing than good story, I came across the works of Vernor Vinge.
These days, Vernor (I refer to him by his first name not only because we are acquainted but also to avoid confusion with his ex-wife, who also writes SF, Joan Vinge) is known best for the concept of the Singularity. However, back in 1981, Vernor published “True Names,” a novella that many consider to be the first cyberpunk story.
I recently re-read “True Names” and found the story remained gripping. As we have said so often, quality plot and characters keep a story fresh even when the trappings become out-dated and stale.
“True Names” was reissued on its twentieth anniversary in an anthology that included a very lively introduction by Vernor and essays by the many well-known figures in computer science who were inspired by this story. And, by the way, Vernor lists several stories that he feels anticipated even “True Names” on the cyberpunk scene.
So, who else has done a good job with cyberpunk?
ALAN: Neal Stephenson is often tarred with the cyberpunk brush and his essays as well as his novels are sometimes mentioned as inspirational within the genre. I think novels such as Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are the ones that made his cyberpunk reputation, but I’m arguing from weakness here because I never actually managed to finish either of them. However, they are both often mentioned in cyberpunk discussion groups.
One Stephenson novel that I am particularly fond of is Cryptonomicon. It’s probably only peripherally a cyberpunk book in that it doesn’t really make much use of the tropes and metaphors associated with the genre. But nevertheless it is full of speculations about the technology and the philosophy of computing. The novel mingles its computing speculations with an exciting and detailed narrative about cryptography during the Second World War – and brings both threads together into the present and near future. I’ve read it at least half a dozen times.
JANE: I tried Snow Crash and couldn’t get beyond the pizza delivery. I did manage to get through The Diamond Age, but it was an effort. I guess I missed its appeal. Maybe someone can explain it to me.
Later, I read Cryptonomicon because both you and my friend Michael Wester (another computer expert) spoke well of it. I must admit that, while there were things I liked, I found it overwritten with errors littering the extraneous material.
Early on (well, relatively), I encountered a basic North American history error. This made me doubt the value of the tremendous amount of other historical and technical material Stephenson included, and wish his editor had been more ruthless.
ALAN: Cryptonomicon certainly is a very large book – you wouldn’t want to accidentally drop it on your toe. It could easily have been trimmed down a lot. It’s the only one of Stephenson’s novels that I’ve ever managed to finish. I’ve always found his other books (particularly his so-called “Baroque Cycle”) very easy to put down and very hard to pick up again.
Stephenson has also published an essay collection (Some Remarks) which makes it clear that he really is as erudite as his novels make him appear to be. I was unable to fault Cryptonomicon when it went into areas in which I have some professional expertise and this, together with his essays, makes me trust his expertise. But even Homer nods – the error you spotted is probably just that, a small mistake that he made on a bad day. We all do it.
JANE: Ah, but if you’re like me – not an expert on what is important to the book (in this case computers and ciphers) and you catch an error in something pretty routine (like Adam’s apples in women, another thing that threw me out of the piece), then you begin to doubt the rest. I mean, if Stephenson messes up about American history (and he’s American, I believe), then can I credit the huge amount of Japanese, Philippine, and other history in the book?
But I digress…
ALAN: You’re allowed. These are tangents, after all!
JANE: Cyberpunk’s influence has gone beyond print fiction. The Shadowrun game system included cyberspace hackers and cybernetic implants. The concept worked best – at least in the games I played – when the focus of the adventure was on cyberspace intrigue. Otherwise the action was too split.
There was a Cyberpunk RPG. It had a Hardwired supplement (which Walter wrote). I bet there are others.
ALAN: Cyberpunk tropes have also been influential in the cinema, both directly and indirectly. Johnny Mnemonic is a movie made from a story by William Gibson. There are also strong cyberpunk elements in the Matrix movies and, rather more obscurely, in Max Headroom.
Originally Max Headroom (subtitled “20 Minutes Into The Future”) was a made for TV movie produced in the UK. The ideas (and some of the original footage) were later adopted by an American production company which turned it into a fourteen episode series. I quite like the thought of artistic input being provided from both sides of the pond. That’s almost a cyberpunkish idea in its own right!
JANE: I agree… Rather like two friends who haven’t met in person for something like eighteen years having weekly chats. <grin>
Anime and manga – both illustrated storytelling forms – have used cyberpunk very effectively. Indeed the giant mecha the Japanese love could be said to be forerunners of the concept of cyberspace since the wearers often interface with their armor and enter an alternate reality.
Illustrated formats are great for showing cyberspace, too. In Sai Yuki, for example, there’s a minor character who is always shown doing his work jacked-in and wearing VR goggles. What he’s doing doesn’t need to be explained… So I guess what was once cutting edge has become part of the furniture of the field.
ALAN: You know, looking back over this conversation, I get the distinct feeling that, with one or two exceptions, such as Effinger and Williams, we are both rather lukewarm about the cyberpunk phenomenon. To borrow a lovely descriptive word from modern slang: meh!
JANE: And Vernor Vinge! Well, I guess I am lukewarm when a sub-genre becomes defined by the window dressing rather than the content.
I hope that our readers will offer their thoughts on cyberpunk, pro or con.