Cyberpunk as a literary subgenre: overrated or misclassified?
A third and final aspect of cyberpunk disillusionment, I think, is that one has to have a little distance from the subject matter. Insofar as "cyberspace" has become a household word and the internetworked culture has penetrated very far into the society of developed and developing countries, it seems to me that cyberpunk has done its job, and that we are ready to move on. More to the point, I think many of us in the IT field came to the literary subgenre of computer-oriented sci-fi already a little jaded.
But wait a minute! Is cyberpunk really about computers, or is it about the ambience of a fragmentary and quasi-fantastic computer culture? Is it even a subgenre per se, or just a stylistic category? Take Ridley Scott's 1982 film, Blade Runner. This modern classic was a contemporary of Gibson's earliest writings and the first film (to my knowledge) that really illustrated the dystopian-yet-darkly attractive future that lay before a post-Information Age society. I remember being very impressed with the film when I first watched it in 1999, even though it had surreal, ugly, and chilling parts. The Brave New World aspect of the film fascinated me. I got a similar feeling from the even more surrealistic Deadline starring Rutger Hauer.
My own journey to the doorstop of cyberpunk
I'm getting ahead of myself, though. First, I should tell you how I came to cyberpunk, and let you decide for yourself whether my arrival amid the subculture was typical. As I said, I was a young teen groupie of the MIT AI Lab / Stanford AI Lab (SAIL) / CMU Robotics Lab hackers. Downloading my consciousness into a robotic body was a definite life's goal when I was 14. If you remember Ross Geller's conversation with Elle Macpherson's character in one of the codas of Friends, that was me in 8th grade. Any person you could find who was interested in philosophy of mind - especially teenagers - was my mark. Male or female, nerd or athlete, mature or childish, I would single these rare individuals out and postulate everything from fembots to wetware reprogramming to the existence of a soul. Yes, dear reader, I got some funny looks from freshmen at Severn who found poring over The Tomorrow Makers: A Brave New World of Living-Brain Machines during study hall. That book, written by Grant Fjermedal, a bowtie-clad science writer who was, in retrospect, the Kerouac of the geek squad, became a testament of my tronkie bible. Together with a paper by Geoff Hinton that my uncle gave me the same year (1986-1987), it formed the basis for my majoring in computer science.
For me, the intellectual precursors of cyberpunk were not photos of Tokyo's neon districts, but tales of the Fifth Generation Project and Wasubot, not noir and the trappings of a net that never was, but the true-life stories of Red Whittaker, Hans Moravec, Eric Drexler, and Rod Brooks. I grew up fed by stories such as the Minsky-Sussman neural net koan. And so it was that I came across a funny little story serialized in four issues of Analog magazine. It was called Vacuum Flowers, and it had some interesting ideas: cybernetics, of course, and a pre-Borg hive mind; wetware, persona engineering, implant-based cyborgs; and a general flavor of information profiteering. This was before Johnny Mnemonic was a movie, much less The Matrix, and I had read nothing of Gibson's yet. I was absolutely enthralled by the dazzling array of technology implied by the story, and the nonchalant reference to Dyson spheres and the like. Later, Dan Simmons's Hyperion and Endymion series, and even Joss Whedon's Firefly/Serenity universe, would hold my attention in a similar way. After Neuromancer, by contrast, I lost my interest in Burning Chrome and Count Zero. It wasn't that Swanwick's story was oversaturated with technical detail; it was that he wasn't actively running away from it. It was just there, taken for granted in exposition and flashbacks. The human cultures are just as organic when we see them, perhaps more so for the blessed lack of people jacking in with brain ports all the time. After Vacuum Flowers, which I've since heard referred to as typifying both a contemporary and a derivative style of Gibson's, the world of Neuromancer seemed almost stale by comparison.
The final reflection
My personal feeling, as I've often expressed before, is that I probably gave Neuromancer less than a fair shake, being ignorant of its primacy when I first read it. I pegged it and Vacuum Flowers as true contemporaries, while Neuromancer was earlier by a very important three or four years: those were the years when the post-WWII assimilation of Japanese technoculture was at its height, when Morita and Ishihara wrote The Japan That Can Say No, when the trade wars and anti-Nipponism raged the strongest but the counterreaction to those cultural phenomena were opening channels for everything from manga and anime to mass-produced kitsch (Pokemon, Tamagotchi). This was the era of the Transformers and Gobots on television, the time when futurism wore a Made in Japan sticker. And so in that sense, Neuromancer was quite important: it bridged a cultural gap that I did not quite appreciate as a Chinese-American teen.
And so I've decided to read Neuromancer again, along with other works of Gibson and later books by contemporary cyberpunk authors (such as Swanwick) and quasi-cyberpunk sci-fi authors (from Simmons to Stephenson). For those of you who have been following this account: do you have a recommended reading order, or suggested authors I haven't listed?