Sunday, 31 August 2008

Reading William Gibson's Spook Country: The Long and glorious death of cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk, of course grew out of William Gibson's early writings (early short stories, particularly "Burning Chrome" and "New Rose Hotel", and the Sprawl Trilogy starting with "Neuromancer") and Bruce Sterling's manifesto-like proclamations Indeed, one can maintain that this is what real cyberpunk consists of, though less jaded view would be to include at least the fiction of Sterling himself, Pat Cadigan, Lewis Shiner, and the like (and especially "Mirrorshades"--an anthology edited by Sterling in 1986), movies from Blade Runner to Repo Man to Hardware (which, via a circuitous route, brings 2000AD comics onboard) to Johnny Mnemonic (based on the infinitely superior Gibson's story of the same name). Regardless, it isn't much of a stretch to claim that the genre has been rather sterile, if not dying off, after the creative explosion of the first few years. Successful (at least in their general reception--I can't say I have been particularly impressed) attempts at reusing cyberpunk themes--Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash and the Matrix movies rework them in a strongly ironic fashion so that one gets the impression that nobody could take cyberpunk ideas seriously at face value nowadays.
I find this particularly puzzling, as it seems that Neuromancer is just as topical now as it ever was--global corporations continue to grow in power and influence, as do global income disparities, high technology winds its way into the strangest nooks and crannies of the stratified world, information technologies pervade our lives more strongly than ever before. Anarchic resistance movements which can be tagged as alterglobalism are also strongly in evidence. Sure, there are some obvious differences from the 1984 vision of Neuromancer: Internet is not cyberspace, mobile phones burst onto the stage in the way nobody expected them to, and the current popular image of Japan is not the one of the 1980s. But none of these niggles formed the core of cyberpunk writing as I see it, and could be easily discarded without any radical reimagining of the genre. So what happened?
It might also be worthwhile to note that the critical reception of cyberpunk has been excessively warm, both among the more literary crowd and among social scientists. Scott Bukatman's Terminal Identity, various contributions by Frederic Jameson, Larry McCaffery's fiction/criticism collection Storming the Reality Studio are just three random examples. I have also spliced in various positive references to cyberpunk in my own writings, in something like a continued vain expectation to find the genre has been hibernating, rather than dying, since mid-1980s. So, again, what happened?
My current tentative answer grows from the look at the trajectory of William Gibson's post-Sprawl writing. With the exception of The Difference Engine (co-written with Bruce Sterling)--a novel reimagining Victorian past and infusing it with modern sensibilities (and vastly more powerful, if retro-looking, information technologies courtesy of a much more superheroic Charles Babbage of the novel), and giving birth to the label "steampunk," Gibson's work has been moving closer and closer to the present tense. His second trilogy (Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow's Parties) had a much more current feel than Neuromancer ever did, and the last two novels, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country (which I am still reading), are basically contemporary thrillers. At the same time, I would be hard-pressed to claim that Gibson's preoccupations have changed in any significant way--he is still obsessed with shady borders of the corporate world, with dark networks of global power, and with reality defined by brands, but nowadays he finds it easier to locate them in the present than in the gloomy future of cyberpunk. And perhaps for good reasons. It is so much easier to create a brand-saturated, icon-filled literary world if those brands provide immediate experiential feedback to the readers just as they do to characters. We all know what an iPod is, we might recognize at least components of Gibson's description of a Brabus Maybach, whereas when he wanted us to know something about OnoSendai, he needed to write it all up.
This is also perhaps the most retro touch of watching Blade Runner today: the movie is filled with (then) contemporary brands that have since gone out of business: Cuisinart, PanAm, and Bell System are images of the nostalgic past, not of the dark future, working now against the movie's narrative and visual structure. Marketing works best in the perpetual presence, supported by the constantly changing, contemporary web of references and cultural connections that keep unraveling.
Thus, the near-future of cyberpunk is either difficult to describe or constantly going obsolete (which, I suppose, is something of a poetic justice even if it helps to kill one of my favourite genres)
That said, the curious resurrection of the Atari brand (the logo of which also featured in Blade Runner) which definitely deserves its own blogpost, speaks of some brand persistence that might stretch well beyond the life of its original corporate owner.