TT: Cybernetic Storytelling

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.

Realms of Cyberpunk

Realms of Cyberpunk

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.



6 Responses to “TT: Cybernetic Storytelling”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    I was really into cyberpunk in college, to the point where I got Walter Jon Williams to autograph my copy of his Hardwired supplement for Cyberpunk. Personally, I liked Voice of the Whirlwind better than Hardwired, but they were two of my favorite cyberpunk books. I read the first two Effinger books. While I enjoyed them, as others noted, he was having a lot of fun transposing New Orleans into the Middle East and decorating it up with cyberpunk. I suspect that transposed spirit was a lot of their charm.

    I enjoyed Snow Crash too, but I read it as deep on the humor/sarcasm end of the literary spectrum, rather than as straight drama. If cyberpunks were westerns, Snow Crash was the equivalent of Blazing Saddles. Oddly, I never got into The Diamond Age.

    The one I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned is Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix. While that one had its own errors (to be fair, they all do), it was the most idea driven of the lot, and IMHO among the best. I suspect it’s poorly known simply because it was so hard to find while the cyberpunk was ascendent.

    • janelindskold Says:

      So, what got you “really into” cyberpunk? I’d be curious to know because I’m always eager to be converted to appreciation of a form.

      Didn’t mentioned the Sterling novel because I hadn’t read it and I guess Alan hadn’t either… Remember, these aren’t scholarly papers (despite the fact that we’ve been repeatedly told they seem that way!). The Tangents are just two friends who love stories talking about them.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Well, if you find a copy of Schismatrix, you might like it. If you liked, say, Candide, that is. It’s in much the same spirit.

    As for why cyberpunk appealed to me? The simple answer is I enjoyed it when I was in college and for many years thereafter. I hadn’t read much noir fiction, so while I recognized the tropes, it was new and different. It was also interesting because it presented what I thought (and still think) is a realistic future. And heck, I like mirrorshades.

    After all, we’re dealing with veterans with advanced prosthetics, there’s an ongoing build-up to a massive cyberwar, even people talking about using computers to help those with brain damage to regain function (as in Effinger’s books). “The Street finds it’s own uses for things” from Neuromancer was repeated frequently during the early parts of the war on terror, and a lot of change seems to be happening in the slums of the world. If I had to pick between, say, Star Trek and Neuromancer, I’d say Neuromancer got more stuff right, but Star Trek won the war for entertainment dollars.

    The interesting thing to me is that SF has mostly abandoned cyberpunk, in favor of…what? We’re also past the nanotech-as-fairy-dust movement, but we still seem paralyzed by Kurzweil’s Singularity, telling SF writers that they can’t predict the future because change is accelerating to infinity, and so it’s not worth writing future history any more. It seems so weird, though. We in the SF community should be dancing in the streets, saying that Gibson got it more right than Verne, Asimov, or Roddenberry did. But we don’t. Instead, it’s a set of aging stories. A historical movement, like the New Wave. The authors are respected of course, still writing, but the genre was put away, and I’m not entirely sure why.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Perhaps it was “put away” because it did become the now, so it is no longer interesting as the future.

      I also think people now have a different “feeling” about computers. They’ve lost some of their magic and potential and joined dishwashers as useful but sometimes annoying and very routine tools.

      Just a thought….

    • Heteromeles Says:

      That’s an interesting couple of thoughts. I don’t read many modern thrillers, so I don’t know if they’ve gone cyberpunk. I’m still not sure whether ubiquitous computers are the issue, or whether it’s the ick and obsolescence factor. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to stick a cyber-thingie in my brain if it’s going to break in five years and be obsolescent in two or three. On the other hand, Google is trying to commercialize its Google Glasses, so we’re likely to get “enhanced reality” (pardon me while I cough up a hairball on that term), with map overlays on our horribly expensive glasses instead of brain implants for healthy people. Hmm. Yes, definitely something to think about.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    On a semi-unrelated side note, I went to an interesting blog called “Kung Fu Tea” after reading this. The author is a wing chun teacher and (AFAIK) a professor or research in political economics, and he writes interesting essays about the political, economic, and historical contexts in which modern Chinese martial arts developed. You might find it interesting, both for research for fantasy stories (there is quite a lot of source material that doesn’t have to stay with China. Other martial arts like capoeira and even renaissance fencing schools have similar histories), and because the social turbulence of southern China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries seems very cyber-punkish. Substitute smart-gun AR-15s for dadaos, posit a need for militias in a time of weak government and social unrest, and this material could easily become background for a cyberpunk story, even a straight SF one. Just a thought.

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