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The Gibsonian Mythos I: Cyberpunk Origins

To any of you who have read William Gibson's Neuromancer: what do you think of it?

My impressions

taiji_jian and I have been discussing my underwhelming impressions of the book, which I read in 1993 (about eight or nine years after it came out). I remember thinking it was definitely visionary in its premise, and all right as far as plot went, but a little disappointing otherwise, particularly in the aspect for which I had heard it hyped the most: setting. More than anything else, I was a bit taken aback at the almost caricaturish treatment of the city-world (the Sprawl or Boston-Atlanta Metro). The incomplete amalgamation of Nippono-American hybrid culture - a topic in which I have some interest, even if I can't profess genuine familiarity with it - is also a little jarring. Finally, the nontechnical aesthetic descriptions of everything - ICE, the Matrix, dead bodies, interfaces, orgasms - became grating. Gibson literally takes every phenomenon and entity in the story world and shades and colors it. This is all right when the protagonist (Case) is having his ability to interface to the global network burned out of his brain with biotoxins; when people are hang-gliding through a firewall perched on a butterfly-shaped virus, it gets too surreal to hold interest. If you've seen The Lawnmower Man, whose CGA sequences are surely derivative of Gibson's writings, you know what I mean.

A defense of Gibson, and a rebuttal

When I expressed my misgivings about Gibson's style, taiji_jian mounted a rather spirited apology that asserted the following as positive points:

  • Gibson immerses the reader in the mythos, eschewing technical detail for imagination. See, when you put it that way, it sounds great. The problem is that reifying the analogy only goes so far. I don't love TRON and Automan because I really think people can be digitized with LASER scanners, bits and cursors really behave like little pets, and processes walk, talk, play Jai-Alai, drink electricity, or ride on neon motorcycles! I love them because they take the "computer geek" culture and make it sympathetic without taking themselves too seriously. It's the same reason people loved Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included. So, much as I'd like to, I don't quite buy this argument of "Gibson knows almost nothing about computers... and the best writers of his genre don't need to". It may be the definition of cyberpunk (classic or in toto), but it's not an unqualified good in and of itself.

  • There is nothing about Gibson's story world that is impossible at face value. Excuse me? Hold up there, Matrix cowboy. I'm going to invoke an aphorism of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's, by way of his magnum opus, Sherlock Holmes: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however implausible, must be the truth." A corollary of this is that when you string together a thousand implausibilities, each skirting on the edge of the impossible, the reader's willing suspension of disbelief is constantly tested. Eventually, if it is too sore a trial, this willingness may wane.

  • The book was the first of its genre, and so defines the genre. Saying that the prototype of a genre defines it can result in something of a cultural Pyrrhic victory: you may be right, but how long can a genre last, by definition, if the first example is held up as the best example? IMHO, popular music history (particularly ska and metal) is replete with object lessons to this effect. And if Gibson's canon is the be-all and end-all of cyberpunk, how long before the subgenre stagnates entirely? Answer: it pretty much already has, as taiji_jian conceded. He may be right, but if he is, I don't see why an underwhelmed reaction is in any way unnatural. Dead subgenres of fiction hold my interest only when they are worth reading just for their literary value, and I don't think Gibsonian cyberpunk quite clears that hurdle.

Billy Mnemonic: my reading history

I did not come to cyberpunk when it was new. I came to it when it was middle-aged or old, if the premise is that its flourishing period was that of William Gibson. I started by reading Michael Swanwick's Vaccum Flowers (serialized in Analog circa 1987). Looking back, it came out at least a couple of years after Neuromancer and may have been influenced by Gibson's short stories. The Terminator and other futuristic dystopian visions had also come out during the intervening period.

On the nonfiction end, my first awareness of cyberpunk came from the direction of Omni magazine. Grant Fjermedal had published a book titled The Tomorrow Makers: A Brave New World of Living-Brain Machines in 1986, where he had interviewed what we now know as Singularity researchers - from futurists such as Hans Moravec and the controversial nanotech advocate Eric Drexler, to artificial intelligence and robotics researchers such as Rod Brooks and Marvin Minsky. He also hopped across the Pacific and talked to Fifth Generation researchers and robotics group at Waseda, complementing his foray into MIT's AI Lab, CMU's SCS, and the Stanford AI Lab (SAIL).

What's wrong with this picture?

In my opinion, the problem lies in taking a too-panoramic view of the dystopia. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is hardly less fantastic, with a technology-fueled caste system, live births becoming a thing of the past, and everyone drugging themselves into oblivion. However, in any story set in the "unspecified future", the analogy has to stop somewhere for the reader's imagination to take over and interpolate from the real world. Take communicators in the Star Trek franchise as another example: the original series had communicators that looked like Motorola RAZRs. By the time of ST:TNG, when cell phones were becoming prevalent, badge pins replaced the communicators. This was a wise move: a good magician doesn't spoil the trick by showing the wires. The creators of Enterprise put it in the unfortunate position of showing the wires, making it a link between contiguities, not continuities. Most people lost interest.

The cautionary tale is that if you are Tolkien or Howard or Lovecraft, it is easy to toss geology and history out the window and say "this is the unwritten prehistory of our world"; if you are E. E. "Doc" Smith or Gibson or Tim Kring, it's harder to say "this is our future". Willing suspension of disbelief is achieved by tacit agreement with an often increasingly skeptical audience! In a science fiction subgenre, straining that agreement too far with junk science, or an excessive aestheticism, stands to lose an author at least as many readers as flooding the story with psychobabble.

Edit, 10:25 CST Sun 19 Nov 2006 - I should mention that after our debate, taiji_jian and I both agreed to re-read Neuromancer some time in the next few months. I'm curious whether my impressions have changed in the last 13 years.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 19th, 2006 01:39 pm (UTC)
Did you read Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson?

Gibson seems to be an author that people either like or are put off by. Every one of his novels seems like you are falling into it missing something essential until almost the end of the book to me.
Nov. 19th, 2006 04:23 pm (UTC)
Stephenson: Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash
I've read Cryptonomicon but none of Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, nor any of the Quicksilver series. I liked Cryptonomicon because it doesn't take itself seriously, for all the (minor) .implausibilities.

Your characterization of Gibson includes a couple of my feelings about his writing stylle, but progressive plot revelation has never bothered me. If its done as part of an immersive fictional world that is so engrossing that you really want to visit, it can be great.

In fantasy, this is a fairly basic test. Tolkien does this with Middle-earth and of course Lewis does it with Narnia; to a lesser extent McCaffrey does it with Pern, Lackey with Velgarth, and Kurtz with the Eleven Kingdoms. IMO, Brooks is borderline and Eddings fails this test. In science fiction, it's a much harder sell. In "future epic dystopias" such as the Duneverse of Herbert, the Fireflyverse of Whedon, or the Hegemonyverse of Simmons, the role of our protagonist(s) is that of deliverer(s). These are not places the readers want to be so much as places where we care about the protagonists nonetheless and want to hear what happens to them. It's why odysseys such as Battlestar Galactica and even ST: Voyager make for an engrossing hour of television each week.

I suppose I'm making a case for quasi-realism, but the level of "fidelity to true life" is not so much the crux as the level to which the fictional aspects are flaunted in the reader's face. IMO, the "fairy story" should thank and reward the reader for believing in it, not make the reader feel vaguely stupider than the author. Herbert was a true visionary for all his pseudoscience, but you also got a nondescript feeling that he was beating you over the head with his own cleverness (see the Book-a-Minute synopsis of Dune and its sequels).

Nov. 19th, 2006 06:25 pm (UTC)
Re: Stephenson: Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash
Geez Bana

You haven't read snow crash?! WTT!

Go get it. Now.

Snow crash is like, um, Monty Python for geeks.

Also, word of warning. PREPARE FOR PAG TRASKING.
Nov. 19th, 2006 08:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Stephenson: Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash
Geez Bana
You haven't read snow crash?! WTT!
Go get it. Now.
Snow crash is like, um, Monty Python for geeks.

Now who has naz RAM?! I've told yew, lik, a quijillion thymes!

Also, word of warning. PREPARE FOR PAG TRASKING.

Fllo, I'm LAWAZ prepared to trask Pag!

Nov. 30th, 2006 04:55 am (UTC)
Re: Stephenson: Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash
define "didn't take itself seriously" please. i'm not sure what you mean by that (ha-ha funny perhaps?), while it wasn't non-fiction, it seemed to me to take itself seriously as fiction. it read as a well-researched, well-thought out book. this makes it "serious" in my book (ho ho, i am punny... sorry, couldn't resist).

i have read Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, and Diamond Age. as far as i am concerned, Cryptonomicon isn't cyberpunk, or even science fiction, it's just historical fiction by a science fiction author. the others however, ARE clearly cyberpunk, and to me, while i didn't laugh uproariously through the books, there were smile moments, where i knew that Stephenson was making fun of his own characters.

Made in DNA
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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