TT: Punking Up Computers

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and join in as we practice some of the steps in the Critique Dance.  Then join me and Alan as we continue our voyage through the varied realms of Science Fiction.

"Antique Computer" and Friends

“Antique Computer” and Friends

JANE: Alan, a couple weeks ago, you hinted there was a form of SF that owed more than most to the New Wave.  Can I guess?   Do you mean cyberpunk?

ALAN: Well spotted! That’s exactly where I was heading.

JANE: Do you have a good definition for cyberpunk?

ALAN: Yes, as it happens, I do. Cyber is easy of course. It derives from cybernetics, a term coined by Norbert Weiner in 1947. He defined it as the science of control and communication in animals and machines. Today, according to the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, cybernetics is defined as:

…the science of effective organisation.

Most people think it has something to do with computers and indeed it does, but only peripherally. One can talk of computer cybernetics as one branch of the science. But it is a small and not very important part.

Now, what about punk? What on earth is that? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as:

prostitute (archaic);
rotten wood; fungus growing on wood used as tinder;
worthless stuff; rubbish; tosh.

Obviously therefore, cyberpunk is literature about pimps and their effective organisation of worthless, archaic and somewhat wrinkled prostitutes who have fungus growing on the rotten wood beneath their beds. I suspect that the popular appeal of the books derives from the fact that the fungus may be used as tinder and is therefore highly inflammable and liable to burst into flame if too much friction is applied. The sources of such friction and the gory descriptions of burning beds that it engenders are, as far as I am concerned, the highlights of most cyberpunk novels.

JANE:   Ouch!  That’s wonderfully warped!

And to think I thought that “cyberpunk” was science fiction in which not only computers, but also the concept of “cyberspace”-  a semi-mystical or virtual reality realm in which people who are specialists live alternate lives within their computers – is central.

ALAN: Actually, to be serious for a moment, I think that’s a very good description of the genre.

JANE: I’m curious about how you – as someone who works with computers – felt about cyberpunk when the stories started becoming popular in the early 1980’s.

ALAN: It seemed to arrive with a fanfare of trumpets when William Gibson published Neuromancer. I read the book because everyone was raving about it, but I was distinctly underwhelmed and I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about. The style was terribly derivative, and the technology was naive. In a review I wrote at the time, I referred to Gibson as “The Raymond Chandler of the spaceship and rayguns set,” and the years have only served to reinforce that opinion. Gibson himself later admitted that he knew nothing about computers when he wrote the book and, irony of ironies, I think it was actually written on a typewriter rather than on a computer!

But I have to admit that the metaphors he coined are powerful ones. He deserves credit for that.

JANE: I’m with you in that I wasn’t crazy about cyberpunk when I first encountered it.  I think my first encounter  was also with Neuromancer.  I couldn’t believe that people who were that stoned and otherwise under motivated could be so effective just because they were interfacing with computers.

You mentioned that William Gibson knew nothing about computers when he dove into cyberspace and made his name.

Roger Zelazny was similarly ignorant – and yet similarly fascinated with the potential of the technology.  I remember when we were living together he’d stand behind me and watch when I used my computer, captivated by little things like how the line wrapped automatically, without the need to hit the “Return” key.

(For those of you who don’t remember typewriters, this key reposed where the “Enter” key is on the standard Qwerty keyboard.)

ALAN: Ah! That reminds me of something… May I tangent?

JANE: Go for it.

ALAN: Once I was in an antique shop in Auckland. It was obviously run by a typewriter enthusiast because one wall of the shop had floor to ceiling shelves full of refurbished and gleaming ‘sit up and beg’ typewriters – the kind you often see journalists pounding on in 1940s black and white movies. A little girl, who must have been about five years old, was standing in front of them, staring in open-mouthed fascination.

“Dad,” she shouted, “come and look at all these old computers!”

JANE: Oh!  Lovely!

Anyhow, Roger wrote at least two books that could be considered cyberpunk: Coils, with Fred Saberhagen, and Donnerjack, which I completed for him after his death.

I’ve often thought that Roger’s view of the future of cyberspace as presented in Donnerjack (okay, minus the big crash and alternate reality part) was much closer to what the internet has become in our daily lives, a place with room for ordinary people as well as wizard hackers.

ALAN: Given the importance of computers in the everyday life of almost everyone these days, I think that cyberpunkish speculations are a vital part of modern SF.

But beware! In 1909, E. M. Forster published an incredibly prescient short story called “The Machine Stops.” In it he envisages a connected world very similar to our own. Nobody goes out any more – all social interactions and routine tasks like shopping take place over the network. And then, one day, the network goes down; the machine stops. The results are truly horrifying.

JANE: I’m going to need to look for that one.

Now, we’ve been a bit hard on cyberpunk.  However, I need to go write.  How about next time we talk about cyberpunk stories we’ve liked?

6 Responses to “TT: Punking Up Computers”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I may have to look that one up too. Just the concept it making me think about my own habits. I get an odd rush from one aspect of an MMO I play. And once, not that long ago, I told someone that I’m more social and outgoing on my character than I am in reality.

    Not a thought process I’m enjoying, exactly.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    The fun part for me is that reality seems to have out-punked cyberpunk. I remember the 90s, when engineers kept trying to make cyberspace happen. The problem is always bandwidth–simulacrums of 3-D space are data-heavy and computation-heavy. Even when we can do it, why bother? It’s a top end application in a bottom-end world. So, instead of meeting each other face to face in cyberspace, we blog, text, and tweet, and call that a social interaction. Talk about punked.

    It gets worse. Back in the 80s, computers lasted for many years, so it made some sense to have cyber-implants so that you could get that extra edge. Now we’ve got electronics designed to last a few years, and gigabyte memories are close to disposable. While we can (and do) implant electronics (cf: Dick Cheney’s heart, erm, pacemaker), the thought of implanting a phone in our heads would make most of us cringe, even if the damn things are stuck to our ears most of the day. Planned obsolescence has ruined my 90s cyber implant dreams and probably those of others, simply because I don’t want to pay for the mandatory freakin’ upgrades. What with MRSA in the hospitals and all, getting upgrades every year is too risky and expensive. Better to get a throwaway phone from a big box.

    And while Gibson et al had a lot of fun with the viruses, none of them saw spam coming. Or Google. The cyberwar we face is terrifying not because of it’s fantasyland quality, but because it’s terrifyingly non-local. Cyberspace isn’t a location at all, it’s everyone’s computers wired together. If I’m careless, a punk in the projects can pwn my computer with a few lines of code, and I’d never see it coming.

    One kudo I will give is to Daniel Keyes Moran, who coined the idea of “datastarve,” addiction to computers. He got that one spot on.

  3. Jim Says:

    I love Alan’s definition of cyberpunk! That’s a book I would really like to read; books centered around the spontaneous ignition of fungus-infested rotton wood are too rare in today’s market!

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Thanks Jim. And I quite agree — there are far too few spontaneous combustion cyberpunk novels these days. Some writer is missing out on a great opportunity for fame and fortune.


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