Science Fiction

High-Tech Romanticism


On a wave of hype, PR wizardry, and loud polemics, the Cyberpunks have become the first literary movement to burst out of the tight little world of science fiction and into the general media limelight since the New Wave of the late 1960s.

A single novel started it all, and a first novel at that, William Gibson's Neuromancer. It swept the science fiction awards, film rights were bought outright for $100,000, the PR machinery cranked up, and voila, the Cyberpunk Movement exploded into the pages of Rolling Stone, Spin, and even the Wall Street Journal.

But there is substance as well as media hype here, for Gibson's novel, and the movement it has spawned, are symptomatic of a cultural transformation—a transformation expressed in the evolution of rock music, itself a thematic touchstone of the Cyberpunk movement.

When Bob Dylan appeared at a Newport Folk Festival in the early 1960s playing an electric guitar, the assembled beats and folkies were scandalized. Dylan was their hero and his lyrics spoke for what was later to become the spirit of the Counterculture. But the electric guitar was the instrument of rock and roll, the music of greasy punks in black leather jackets. Yes indeed, kiddies, difficult as it is to believe now, once upon a time, Rock was regarded as antithetical to the elitist bohemian values that Rock itself was to transform into the shared values of an entire generation in the form of the Counterculture!

But there was a strange contradiction at the heart of the Counterculture. Its antitechnological ideology, its neo-Ludditism, its bucolic mysticism, its ecological awareness, the whole tie-dyed ball of candle wax, was characteristically expressed by rock and roll, a musical mode whose dominant instruments were the electrically amplified guitar and the electronics-based synthesizer.

The political polarizations of the time led to the entirely false perception that there was an irreconcilable dichotomy between the things of science and the things of the spirit, between technological literacy and streetwise sensibility, between computer hackers and hippies, between the scientific worldview and the romantic impulse.

It has taken us a long time to begin to understand that this dichotomy is an illusion. Yet we should have seen it all along, or rather heard it. Rock has always been the music of libidinal anarchy and the romantic and transcendental impulses; without this message, it just ain't rock and roll. Yet Rock also has always been by definition technological music, for without the electric guitar and the synthesizer, it sure as shit ain't rock and roll either.

The nouvelle punks who emerged in the 1970s were not, like their early-'60s prototypes, in rebellion against the Establishment of the 1950s. They were rebelling against the antiartificial, antitechnological esthetic of the Counterculture, against what was seen as the reactionary wimpish denial of the esthetic possibilities of the technosphere. Out went flowery tie-dyed earth colors, and in came shiny black leather and high-tech high-gloss chrome. Out went rose-colored granny glasses and in came mirror-shades. Out went long natural hair and in came defiantly artificial spiked, color-frosted, and sculptured hair-dos.

A new, forthrightly high-tech, romanticism.

The nouvelle punks are not nose-to-the-grindstone technocrats but anarchistic rockers in the old romantic tradition. But they are rockers who have finally come to embrace wholeheartedly the real world that science and technology have made, the technosphere, the cybersphere, the reality of the last quarter of the 20th century and as far ahead as the visionary eye can see.

So too the Cyberpunks.

Case, the "hero" of Neuromancer, is an ex-speed freak, and a marginal man living on the razor edge of the underworld of the future, and his sometime lady-love is a mercenary killer with permanently implanted mirror-shades. So far we could be dealing with a punk of the early 1960s in somewhat updated black leather and chrome fetish gear.

But if the punks of the 1950s were naive natural nihilistic rebels without a cause, the punks of the 1970s were self-consciously nihilistic pessimists. Gibson's Case is an intellectual punk rather than a simple greaser, and it is the "cyber" half of the equation—that deliberate technological expression—which informs his intellectuality. This is precisely what makes Neuromancer a watershed book and what begins to define what the Cyberpunk movement means to literature.

Case is the "Neuromancer" of the title, and the word is of course a pun on necromancer, meaning magician, and neuro, meaning pertaining to the nervous system. The Neuromancer is an electronic magician who directly interfaces his protoplasmic nervous system with the electronic nervous system of the computersphere, manipulating it (and being manipulated by it) much as more-traditional shamans interact with more-traditional mythic realms via drugs or trance states.

Now of course as a science fictional idea, this is not exactly new. But what is new is that Gibson's Neuromancer is not a computer wimp or a computer hacker but a computer punk.

"…a cowboy, a hustler…on an almost permanent adrenaline high…jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix."

A Cyberpunk.

Some of the Cyberpunks, like Gibson and especially John Shirley, are "punks," in that much of their work is directly informed by the trappings and surface texture of contemporary rocker style. Others, like Bruce Sterling and Greg Bear, are writing stories set in milieus in which any sort of punk esthetic is entirely absent.

But what they share in common is a general subject of discourse—how our increasingly intimate feedback relationship with the technosphere we are creating is altering our definition of what it means to be human.

John Shirley's novel Eclipse is forthrightly and specifically political. Set fairly early in the next century, it tells the complex story of a complex resistance to a complicated fascist conspiracy to take over the United States and Western Europe. Eclipse is that current rarity, an angry, openly politically committed science fiction novel.

What makes Shirley a card-carrying Cyberpunk? Well, for one thing, most of the sympathetic characters in Eclipse derive from the same marginal underbelly of high-tech society we see in Neuromancer, and Shirley's overall stylistic sensibility is even more self-consciously streetwise than Gibson's. And while there is plenty of conventional combat and action in Eclipse, the key arena of the struggle between the forces of religious-corporate fascism and the amorphous resistance is what Shirley calls the Grid, the international media net that permeates the planet.

The fascist forces use the Grid subliminally and subtly. The resistance fights to gain a measure of access. The point being that what is perceived via our extended electronic senses has more psychic reality than actual events in the so-called real world, and hence determines political reality more certainly than the outcome of physical combat.

At the climax of Eclipse, the fascist forces literally crunch the Arc de Triomphe, the ultimate symbol of the resistance. But Rickenharp, rock musician/resistance fighter, has occupied the top of the Arc with instruments, microphones, and amplifiers, and his final performance unto death before the world via the Grid transmutes the fascist triumph into a symbolic apotheosis of resistance.

And it is entirely appropriate that he achieves this triumph of symbol over raw physical reality via the electronic instrumentalities of rock and roll, for the thematic centrality of rock and roll is critical to the novel's Cyberpunk sensibility.

For Rickenharp's triumph is a cyborged triumph made possible only through the electronic augmentation of his fleshly musical powers, and what it demonstrates is that cyborgs, romantic cyborgs, Cyberpunks, if you will, have in fact been using technological augments for transcendental purposes ever since Dylan picked up that electric guitar.

Rickenharp is a devotee of a drug called blue mesc, which enhances his musical creativity, though not without psychic cost. Shirley reminds us that chemical alteration of consciousness is technology too, that it is no accident that drugs and rock are so intimately intertwined. Electronic amplification and consciousness-altering drugs have already changed the parameters of the human sensorium and altered, thereby, our perceptual and psychic definitions of what it means to be human.

Other Cyberpunks carry the technological alteration of our definitions of humanity much further, and indeed it is precisely the acceptance of the technological evolution and alteration of our humanity that ultimately defines the Cyberpunk sensibility.

In the short-story version of Greg Bear's "Blood Music," an experiment with biochips goes awry, the altered molecules become sapient, spread like a plague, and eventually infect the entire human populace. People evolve into colonial organisms, each molecule or "noocyte" of which is possessed of human-level intelligence, and humanity as such disappears, replaced entirely by the new form of intelligent life. Something of a traditional scientific horror story.

But in the process of turning the short story into the novel Blood Music, Bear transformed himself into a Cyberpunk, for the novel goes on to explore the new world the noocytes make.

The personalities of the vanished humans are replicated, multiplied, and stored on the noocyte level, achieving a kind of immortality by their translation to the "Noosphere," a kind of transcendent software reality, which ultimately detaches, itself from the physical universe in a mystical apotheosis.

Bear's approving attitude towards this supercession of humanity as we know it by this higher form of sapience is an ultimate expression of Cyberpunk scientific transcendentalism, the transcendence of the physical universe itself via science and technology. Bruce Sterling's novel Schismatrix does something even more radically disturbing to our cozy definitions of humanity.

Schismatrix is the picaresque story of diplomat Abelard Lindsay's wanderings through the solar system. From circumlunar space colony, to the asteroid belt, to the outer satellites, Lindsay wanders and machinates through a series of entirely artificial environments, conveniently giving the reader interior access to a long stretch of history in the process.

The historical dynamic of Sterling's solar system is the dialectic between the Mechs and the Shapers. The Mechs are devotees of the arts and sciences of cyborging humans, and the Shapers are genetic engineers and biological transformers. Their endless conflicts are occasionally military, but mostly economic, diplomatic, technological, and esthetic. As waves of defectors and refugees pass back and forth between them, what finally emerges is the "Schismatrix" of the title—a solar system of bewildering human complexity, in which the key concepts are "post-humanism" and "moving in clades."

"Post-humanism" is what evolves in the Schismatrix after decades of genetic engineering, cyborging, cloning, and combinations of the two lines of species-altering technology. The original human form has been so diversely transmogrified by these technologies that it persists mainly in a circumlunar colony set up as a kind of nature preserve. "Post-humanists" view this as positive and not at all with horror.

"Moving in clades" is the most extreme statement of the Cyberpunk concept of human evolution through science and technology. Evolution, chez Sterling, does not move linearly, it radiates. Successful species do not evolve in a straight line into a single daughter species, they radiate into a multitude of successor species, or "clades."

The Schismatrix contains a vast complexity of "post-human" species, all products of technological development. "Lobsters" so cyborged into their spacesuits that they abhor atmospheres. Humans biologically adapted to methane oceans. Even an entire space colony whose interior structure is the altered protoplasm of a single woman. But whatever their "clade," these "post-human" characters, no matter how weird their physiognomies become, are quite human on a psychological level.

And that, perhaps, is what makes Schismatrix and Cyberpunk fiction itself so radical and disturbing. Whereas Bear's singular Noosphere is a mystical transcendent end-point that confronts primarily our spiritual definition of humanity, Sterling's nontranscendental rendering of the relatively ordinary and indisputably human psyches of all these physically transmogrified "human clades" forces us to confront the inevitable alteration of our body images by science and technology.

Through science and technology, we will meet the aliens, and they will be us.

Look around you, say the Cyberpunks. We're here already.

Norman Spinrad is the author, most recently, of Little Heroes and is a literary critic for Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.