‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Thoughts on Cyberpunk



I'm assuming the idiom ‘such-and-such is not all that’ is one with which you are familiar. What I like about it is the way it steers its course between harsher dismissal or snark on the one hand, and undercommitted neutrality on the other. I'm not suggesting that Cyberpunk was, as it were, actively bad, deplorable, anything like that. There's some Cyberpunk I like a great deal. But I am, I suppose, suggesting that it wasn't quite as cool, or as signficant, or as core to the larger narrative of science fiction's development, as is sometimes claimed.

These thoughts aren't exactly pursuant to the fact that William Gibson has a new novel out, although they are perhaps provoked in part by the excitement lots of people are performing on social media at the fact that William Gibson has a new novel out. I haven't read Agency yet. I will, although I wasn't especially bowled-over by The Peripheral (2014), to which it is, it seems, a kind-of sequel. Still, the level of online excitement suggests that plenty people are still invested in Cyberpunk as a mode. It hasn't gone away. Neuromancer was 1984, and 1984 was a long time ago now, but it can't be denied the movement still has acolytes. People are still attentive to, and in many cases prepared to put lots of money behind, it. The Netflix adaptation of Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, one of the most expensive TV series ever made, has been commissioned for a second series. CD Projekt have a team of 500 people working round the clock readying the game Cyberpunk 2077 for its September release (see Keanu, above). The gamble here is: cyberpunk is still cool. Maybe the gamble will pay off.

I wonder. There certainly was a moment, at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, when it looked as though Cyberpunk was coming true, and that in turn cast a certain neon glamour back upon Gibson's predictive and social-diagnostic talents. But, actually, Cyberpunk didn't come true. So it goes. There are two main criteria against which Gibson's nostradamusing might be measured: on the one hand there are the props and tech of his novel (and he was, it's true, the first to use the term ‘cyberspace’ in print); on the other is the new economic logic underpinning all that surface Blade Runnery, Matrix-y aesthetics and vibe. For the first of these, the salient is not that Gibson ‘saw that computers were going to be, like, really important in the future’, or anything so vague (lots of people saw that, long before Neuromancer). The salient was that the Gibsonian Matrix, and its many imitations in later SF, were to be immersive, their virtual reality ‘a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation’. This has not come to pass, despite vast sums of money having been spaffed on research for VR helmets etc. We remain absurdly, even ludicrously happy with screens mediating our cyberexperience, just as we were happy with (and continue to be happy with) screens mediating our televisual and cinematic experience.

The one genuinely revolutionary change of the last thirty years is one Gibson simply didn't foresee: phones. So far from abandoning our screens for a wholly immersive VR cyberpunkness we cling to our screens. We love our screens so much we want to take them everywhere with us. Moore's Law has been harnessed, mostly, to one great task: making our computers and screens small enough and wifi-connected enough to be able to take them everywhere with us. We love our screens so much that it even turns out we're only happy watching our big screens if we also have our small screens with us. What does the Matrix actually look like? Not ‘lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data, like city lights, receding’, but this:


Cyberspace turned out to be recursive, not linearly urban-topographic.

Neuromancer was wrong about its more fundamental things, too, I think. Its world is one in which (a) state power has effectively withered away with everything now being run by corporations, and (b) as a consequence of this things have defaulted to dystopian desocialiation, urban wildernesses, predatory violence, unregulated tech, organised crime and a general homo hominibus lupus vibe. Cyberpunk's imagined world is also decoupled from the traditional temporal structures of our social habitus (the city never sleeps, the action largely happens at night). The implication here is that it is these new cybertechnologies that have brought about the world's Hobbesification; that it's a case quite specifically of cyberhomo homini lupus. But this is not where we are. Folk sometimes talk as if it is, but it's not. Facebook, Google, Apple and Disney are huge corporations, no question, and make obscene amounts of money; but they haven't taken over actual governance. On the contrary, the nation state is as strong as it's ever been (arguably, with Brexit and the election in so many territories of aggressively tribalist-nationalist quasi-fascist leaders, it's stronger than it's been for a while). And moreover it seems to me a moot question whether Google, Facebook and Apple are huger, as corporations, than were (say) the Ford Motor Company or BP a century ago. We forget: not only did Ford generate eye-popping profits throughout the 1920s, he even bought up a five-thousand-square-mile chunk of Brazil in order to establish his own Fordlândia quasi-country. That came to nothing, of course, but actually that's my point. Big corporations have aggressively pursued myriad ways of maximising their profits, and it transpires taking over the business of national and international governance is not one of those. Which, if you think about it for thirty seconds, makes sense, actually.

But my point is not really to twit Gibson as a prophet. It is to suggest that Cyberpunk, though often entertaining and thought-provoking, and though it once was (but, I think, no longer is) cool, wasn't actually all that. Its kudos is notional rather than actual. Some of that derives from the fact that it used to be cool back when a lot of middle-aged SF fans were young. I grew up in the 1970s and early 80s reading SF promiscuously, and back then, although there wasn't anything so interconnected or immediate as today's congeries of plugged-in fandoms, there was a kind of consensus that ‘proper’ SF was Golden Age-y, hard-ish, masculine, can-do. That was because middle-aged SF fans of the 1970s and 80s had grown-up reading SF in the 1940s and 50s. It's the way of things, and nor do I absolve myself. I retain within me, if I'm honest, a sense that ‘proper’ SF is New-Wave-y: Le Guin and Delany, Phil Dick and Brian Aldiss and Lem. Joanna Russ and Chris Priest. Ian Wat- and M John Harri-, son. It's certainly what I tend to write. Give me more by way of Moorcock, cock, and less of this video-games-in-novel-form gubbins, thank you very much. Give me Leguinity or give me death! But folk a decade or so younger than me are also middle-aged now, and they look back to the stuff that was cool in the 80s and early 90s, and that was cyberpunk.

Having written that, I now look at it and think: no, it's too facile an explanation. I'm actually sidling-up to a different kind of argument, along the lines of: critics and fans embraced Cyberpunk in the 1980s and 1990s because they thought it was the wave of the future. So, one history of the mode goes like this: science fiction begins towards the end of the nineteenth-century, with Verne and Wells, because the nineteenth-century saw such rapid and socially disorienting advances in industry and technology. SF is a way of apprehending this pace and many of the specifics of such change. It is the literature of industrial and technological change, because it does what no other kind of literature can, and extrapolates change as such into the future, bodying forth textually the many ways, utopian or dystopian, in which industrial and technological advances are liable to impact human existence.

OK: I don't, as it happens, buy that argument. But perhaps you do, and perhaps you're right and I'm wrong. Say, then, that people looked around them in the 1980s and 1990s and said: ‘if the main driver of change over the last 150 years has been primarily industrial, has manifested in manufacturing and technological advances, then the main driver of coming change will be advances in information storage and processing, in computers and interconnectivity, and therefore the most relevant and important science fiction will no longer be about gigantic spaceships or world-destroying guns, but about computers and information. If Verne's imagined big machines were the wave of the 1860s' future, then Gibson's Neuromancer is the wave of our future.’

I run the rusk of strawmanning, I know. So let me say, instead: I don't think SF begins with Verne and Wells. There's plenty of stuff prior to them that we can only avoid calling SF by engaging in semantic contortions: trips to the moon and planets, crazy speculative technology, futurology and so on. My argument is that SF first distils into something recognisable as SF around the time of the Protestant Reformation. My thesis nutshell is: ‘fantasy’ is the default mode of human storytelling (people by and large like a bit of magic, or surrealism, or transcendence, in their tales) from which something like ‘literary Realism’ is an 18th-19th-century aberration. Also: the difference between Fantasy and SF is that the former extends beyond mimesis through novums predicated on magic, where the latter does so through novums predicated on science, or pseudo-science. In my Palgrave History I argue that this distinction was connected with the European cultural revolution of the Reformation, in which Catholicism insisted on the durability of its magical worldview where Protestantism took a step away from the whole transubstantiation/holy-relics/pilgrimages/miracles-and-saints side of things into a more austere, less enchanted form of faith. This disenchantment has been experienced by many as a painful thing, such that a form of literature that offers to restore enchantment, as much Fantasy does, will always find an appreciative audience. It's not that SF has turned its back on enchantment, of course: it's just that the characteristic SFnal mode of it, ‘sense of wonder’, in essence a high-tech, galactic-scale revisioning of the old Burkean or Kantian sublime, tends to be future-oriented, materialist and individualist, where High Fantasy, influenced heavily by that great Catholic writer Tolkien, tends to be past-oriented, quasi-religious and communitarian. But in neither case does your average Joe, Joanna or Jenderneutral SF Fan particularly care about the new railway networks, new modes of factory production, or even new ways of launching satellites into orbit. The appeal is techno-numinous, not socio-economic.

From this perspective, the thing that the implicit prophetic excitement of 1980s/90s Cyberpunk got, as it were, ‘wrong’ had less to do with its particular props and toys, or its thrillingly grimdark dystopian urbanism (a conceptual playground in which you, yes you, get to be the badass and shake to earth like dew all those Civilisation and Its Discontents chains). What it got wrong was how un-numinous, how unsomatic and therefore unerotic, actual cyberspace was actually to become. Yes I know 99% of the world's porn is now delivered via the internet. That doesn't seem to me to contradict what I say about the uneroticism of our new screen-mediated Being-in-the-world. Porn is desomaticised sex, and whatever functional role it plays in 21st-century life, for better or worse, it indexes a disjunction between representation and actual sexual connection. This really doesn't strike me as a controversial thing to say, actually. Anyway: what Neuromancer promised, excitingly (for 1984), was a kind of techno-communion, a total immersion, a reconfiguration of existence as such. This did not come to pass. There's a reason why the sub-genre settled quickly into a variety of sex-n-violence poses: nudity and blood-spurting from bullet-riddled torsos (and how readily that aesthetic aligns with a set of right-wing, libertarian and techbro ideological priors, alas).

There's an interesting essay by Eric Korn from 1993, written at exactly the moment the more outré predictions of first-wave Cyberpunk were tripping over their feet of clay. In that year Korn visited a Virtual Reality Centre, located near Piccadilly Circus, where punters could roam around rudimentary VR landscapes (‘William Gibson’s man,’ Korn complains, ‘is coupled to the computer, brain to brain, while we had to make do with lumpy goggles, like a high-tech condemned man’s bandage over the eyes’). His experiences are disappointing; he feels nothing but awkward: ‘I find a new and more disabling clumsiness as I wave my unfamiliar limbs. I am not Superman but Gregor Samsa. I lumber, I dance wooden-legged, I fall off things: this is Turing’s problem as nightmare.’ What's the problem? Korn finds an explanation in an unlikely text:
I try to cram myself further into the mind of the monster whose body I temporarily inhabit. I realise that identity problems would be still more acute if my helmet delivered a split-screen image, my subjective view and God, the Overhead Monitor’s view, or better yet my view and my opponent’s. In the near-future, we shall see ourselves as others see us, the target and the target’s target, the loved one’s love. I find a description of all this, surprisingly, in Anne Carson’s study of Greek lyric poetry, Eros the Bittersweet:
Possibilities are projected onto a screen of what is actual and present by means of the poet’s tactic ... That godlike self, never known before, comes into focus and vanishes again in one quick shift of view. As the planes of vision jump, the actual self and the ideal self and the difference between them connect in one triangle momentarily. The connection is eros.
And again, with uncanny precision: ‘tactics of imagination ... all aimed at defining one certain edge or difference: an edge between two images that cannot merge into a single focus because they do not derive from the same level of reality – one is actual, one is possible. To know both, keeping the difference visible, is the subterfuge called eros.’ Ludus, jouissance or agape maybe, but there wasn’t a great deal of eros in Piccadilly Circus.
I think this lays its finger on the problem. The excitement of the original Cyberpunk, its beguiling dream, was of a new techo-eros, where actual cyberspace has moved us further away from, not more intimately into, our own and others' bodies. Cyberpunk promised us a shattering, perverse but orgasmic new kind of penetration (those prongs sliding with such resonant force into the docking-ports sunk into the backs of Neo and Trinity's necks in The Matrix, a literal as well as a metaphorical headfuck) when what we have actually gravitated towards is a kind of high-tech cordon sanitaire. A world of intervening screens, not of ports (the sky above which turned out to be, in the end, not the color of television tuned to a dead channel after all: for the cyberrevolution will not be televised). As the reality of cyberculture has not provided the eros, the techno-juissance, promised by Cyberpunk, the genre itself has reverted to more and more sexually explicit and body-penetratingly violence content, a facile sort of compensatory gesture.

Take away its simulacrum of contemporary relevance, its pretence to devestating insight into our contemporary condition, and what is left of Cyberpunk? Some of the books are well written. Some of the ideas are cool. But without its tacit, tantalising sense of illicit insight into next year's reality, the mode falls back into a set of styles and story-conventions, more or less diverting. Cyberpunk is fine. It's OK. It's just not all that.

32 comments:

  1. This strikes me as wrongheaded in several ways I'm having trouble articulating (it's early morning over here), but here are some scattered thoughts:

    - The strength of "The Peripheral" is that it recognizes the obsolescence of that vison and captures -- quite prophetically, given it was published in 2014 -- our current moment of resurgent ethno-nationalism, climate denial, and international kleptocracy. I still find the future-London sections weak, compared to Gibson's best work, but I've warmed to it; I think it's the best novel yet written about Trump and Brexit, or at least the best I've heard about. (FWIW I don't think "Agency" does anything as interesting.)

    - "Cyberspace" as Gibson envisoned it didn't happen, but it was always about moving us farther away from our own bodies. It's right there in the text.

    - It's a misreading of early Gibson (if a common one) to read his dystopias as updated cozy-catastrophy power fantasies. For that you want to go to Stephenson, who in ideology as much as techno-imagination was hugely influential on a generation of Silicon Valley assholes, many of whom are now rich and powerful people. (I read "Snow Crash" when it came out as a satire of Gibson, and it took some time for me to figure out that people were taking it seriously. I don't know if Stephenson was taking himself seriously yet then, but earlier works like "Zodiac" and "Interface" suggest to me that he probably was.")

    - The vision of the corporation as the future of power is interesting not as a prediction but as a snapshot of how Western civilization in the 70s and 80s saw itself. It's over the last decade or two that our discourse around economic power has changed back from the amoral faceless corporation (Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Exxon) to the equally amoral but more charismatic owner-founder-CEO figure (Jobs, Bezos, Musk). [Digression: you can see this progression in the Alien movies: in 1986 Weyland-Yutani is a dull mining-and-manufacturing-and-terraforming conglomerate that is willing to sacrifice lives because the aliens' biology is "worth millions to the bio-weapons division"; in 2012 Peter Weyland is a TED-talk-giving nutjob who wants to usurp the powers of the Demiurge.]

    - Success at predicting the future is a bad metric for judging science fiction.

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  2. (Ugh, two paragraphs got switched there. The one about "The Peripheral" should come after the one about corporations.)

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    1. So if I understand you (and tell me if I've missed your point): you think my post wrongheaded specifically as an account of Gibson and (perhaps?) not so wrongheaded as an account of Cyberpunk more broadly? Or equally wrongheaded on both counts? I can see that what I've written slides from one to the other and back in terms of its focus, which is sloppy (and I think you rate Gibson as a novelist more highly than I do: in that, you are more in line with the smart people consensus, and I'm the outlier, of course). By and large I agree with you that success at predicting the future is a bad metric for judging science fiction; or, to rephrase, that most science fiction is not in the business of concrete prediction and that to score it as if it is represents a kind of category error. But I do think Cyberpunk is a little different. It really does seem to me that much of the buzz surrounding it in the late 80s and early 90s was predicated upon a sense that it was, in some sense, coming true. And more I'd say that, if you take out that frisson, that cool-beans kudos (such amazing insights into where we are now!), a lot of Cyberpunk loses much of its glamour. Otherwise I think I agree with your comment.

      One thing though: the whole "about moving us farther away from our own bodies" question. One thing I didn't get into, in the post, is the way Cyberpunk in the broader sense, as a style as much as a specific canon of texts, connects with Trans culture. There's a facile sense in which one might expect this, in that one of the things Cyberpunk does is treat the body as fundamentally plastic (and that is there, I'd say, in eg Neuromancer: physical real-world bodies being altered, maimed and healed, adapted, swapped about and so on), and to focus attention not on the exigencies of physicality but instead on a cyber-reified sense of 'true' identity. The genre's most notable movie franchise was directed by two Transwomen after all, and contains in symbolic form a whole bunch of stuff about all this. Or, more recently, Richard Morgan has become the target of a large amount of Trans ire, fans who enjoyed stories about a universe in which identity can be easily resleeved in any body-type and -gender you like and who have been angered to learn that the author of those stories doesn't think the real world actually operates like that. It's hard for me to see the current intensity with which Trans rights, identity etc is being argued over, contested, supported etc, as evidence of us "moving us farther away from our own bodies"; although, again, I accept you're talking specifically about Gibson there, and not about Cyberpunk as a whole.

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    2. See also John Varley circa Eight Worlds* - bodyswapping and polymorphism à go go, but none of it's even slightly queer. The protagonist of one story ends up having sex with his gender-swapped but otherwise cell-for-cell-identical doppelganger; he says it was very good sex. (Just thought for a moment what Christopher Priest could have done with that premise and felt a bit dizzy.)

      Perhaps something the appeal of cyberpunk, if not necessarily the works themselves, expresses is a yearning to go beyond our actual physical bodies, but into a realm where we have as much agency - (apparently) unmediated, physical agency - as we do in meatspace; hence all the martial arts, gun fu, car fu etc in the Matrix films. And then the bodystocking question comes back: that just doesn't seem like something we actually do with computers. (Whereas using a QWERTY keyboard to serialise my thoughts - in a monospaced, faux-typewriter font! - very much is.)

      If I can start another hare, consider trolling. In 1997 - a bit later than the heyday of cyberpunk - someone I know wrote an Academic Paper about trolling, in which inter alia she explained what fun it was and gave wider circulation to the names of skilled practitioners such as Ted Franks, snopes and Kibo. Those were the days eh? (No, they were. Trust me on this.)

      The thing about trolling was that it was low-tech: everything happened in words on a screen, generally in a monospace font with eighty characters to a line. Immersive it ain't. Except that, in effect, it quite plainly is (and everyone knows which XKCD comic I'm thinking of now). Irritating a bunch of strangers in unrelated Usenet newsgroups till they can't help explaining to you patiently that, in actual fact, light does travel in a vacuum... well, that was some people's idea of fun, and I'm not going to tell them they were entirely wrong.

      But who, in 1995, would have bet on glove-and-goggles virtual telepresence being an amusement-arcade novelty in 2020, and words-on-a-screen trolling being universally familiar?

      *says man who rediscovers sf at cometary intervals and consequently happened to be taking an interest in the early to mid-90s, but could tell you very little about the late 90s, early 00s, etc

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  3. I'd say that the rise of surveillance capitalism, although it is not predicted as such in cyberpunk, is nonetheless makes sense as an extension of its worldview, and therefore serves to validate at least some of its prophetic claims.

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    1. Surveillance is a fascinating context, I agree. I suppose I wonder what Cyberpunk as a mode, specifically, adds to the anxieties SF had been expressing about increasing surveillance for most of the century. Zamiatin's We was written in 1920, after all; Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four in 1948.

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    2. I think cyberpunk adds the 'capitalism' part of 'surveillance capitalism'.

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  4. I think cyberpunk was predicated on a fusion of the Internet and VR which has not only not happened, but which nobody has imagined in any detail. Which is interesting. It ought to be possible to be a VR hacker, for instance - flying over a map of the world (or a map of the streets outside) looking for targets, scrolling through addresses with Minority Report-ish hand gestures - but nobody seems to have found it worth the effort.

    Back in 1992 I reviewed a book about VR, which included a section on 'teledildonics' - body stocking, pressure sensors, goggles, fast connection, off you go. I'm not saying that three-dimensional whole-body (bare-nekkid-body) telepresence could or should have been a reality by now, but it is interesting that it isn't. Something there is that loves a screen.

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    1. I agree entirely. The second paragraph of your comment is the nub of the matter, it seems to me: what happened to the eros of cyberspace?

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  5. Although I haven't read all of Gibson's newer novels, I think it would be wrong to call them all Cyberpunk (as you at least implicitly do).

    For my taste you put too much emphasis on the question whether "Cyberpunk was right". I understand that this is not really your argument, but the question whether sf writer x or subgenre y was able to predict developments accurately always strikes me as complete misunderstanding of what sf is really about. Again, I know that I'm not telling you anything you don't know, but sf is never about the future but always about the present. To me, Gibson is first and foremost an eminent stylist and his great strength is finding striking images and phrases for things which are happening now.

    As for the question of the birth of sf: My problem with your approach (which I know well from your «Palgrave History») is that while I can accept that what you describe as Protestant vs. Catholic approaches to fantasy may very well have prepared the ground for sf and fantasy (with capital F), this does not mean that the genres existed then. Genre to me means established tropes, shared protocols, a market category – whatever you might call it. It means that there is a group of text which producers and recipients both recognise as something distinct. And you might very well argue when this genre we now call sf came into being, but one «Somnium» or «Frankenstein» doesn't make a genre. They are forerunners or taproots text, early examples of a specific mode of writing (actually that's what I would propose – to distinguish between mode and genre), but they do not yet constitute a genre.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. As I say upthread, in reply to David Moles, I agree that SF isn't really about predicting the future; but I do think (I'd say) that there was a moment, in the 80s/early 90s, when much of Cyberpunk's rep was that it was coming true all around us. Otherwise (and as David M also notes) you're right that Gibson, though his name is linked with the movement, is at best an atypical example of it, and (latterly) has moved away from many of its conventions in what he writes. My blog suffers, I suppose, by starting out as a kind of reaction to the fact that Gibson's got a new novel out, before going on to discuss the Altered Carbon-y, Cyberpunk 2077-y iterations of the mode.

      The thesis of my Palgrave book is, in part, an attempt at a corrective, an intervention into the existing critical history of SF narratives, and liable therefore to a kind of over assertion. I do say, in that book, that though SF first emerges in the 17th-C it remains a very minor form of culture, marginal, and remains so until the end of the 19th-C when it starts to accumulate cultural heft (and especially in the 20th-C, when it takes off in a significant way). But there does seem to me—I mean, I would say this, wouldn’t I, but still—merit in tracing the genre back to its actual origins, not just to when its popularity began booming; not least bc it seems to me that key and recurring fascinations of today’s SF, to do with the status of the superhero/saviour figure, with atonement and transcendence, with the relationship between magic and ‘science’—are the grounds on which the Reformation fought its conceptual, and often actual, wars; that SF being "born" out of that tumult marked the genre in deep ways. But I have to accept that my thesis has been out for a decade and a half now, and has pretty much failed to find support in the academic debates about the history of SF, so it may be wrong. I don’t think it is, but you don’t have to take my word on that.

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    2. My problem with your approach is not the genealogy you construct, but simply the fact that you talk about a genre called science fiction. I am probably just a pedant, but my main beef is the term "genre". As far as I am able to tell, your history does make sense. But while the texts you talk about may have had an influence of what became later known as sf, they are by no means part of the genre because there was no genre.

      What you describe may have very well fed into the genre, but so did many other things. I think you really have to distinguish between the moment where a genre exists as an entity which is recognised by its 'users' (and be it only in the way of "book a and book b are similar") and the developments leading to this moment.

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    3. Well I'd certainly agree that a lot of SF fans, and even some SF crtics, use the term "genre" in a way largely innocent of the way genre theory has developed its critical discourse. Which isn't a problem, by and large, although it does mean the word is used both as a shorthand for SF or Fantasy (or crime or whatever) as such, and as a way of grouping certain texts by similarities ('space opera', 'time travel' and so on). I'd only suggest, mildly I hope, that there's more to genre as a piece of critical and theoretical terminology than that. Derrida's "Law of Genre" essay is good on this I think, linking the question of "why are there genres instead of just Literature?" to questions of, for instance, gender, a concept he thinks not only etymologically but substatively connected to it (does the fact that we only now recognise, let's say, transwomen and transmen mean that the occasional, sometimes fleeting, glimpses of non-cis individuals in history don't belong in that narrative?). Derrida's point is to interrogate the division of genre theorists into formalists, who construct schemas of textual similarity and pigeonhole texts within them, and critics who see genre as a purely discursive category constructed by readers. The first group might see Beowulf and The Terminator as belonging together, since they tell basicaly the same story (call it: overcoming the monster); the latter group would consider them generically different. Derrida doesn't prioritise one of these two groups over the other, and doesn't try to as it were dialectically combine them, but instead he notes that they are, as it were, two genres of genre, and that that recursive element is very interesting. How many genres of genre are there?

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    4. Talk about coincidences – literally the moment you wrote this (give or take a few hours) I was preparing Derrida's text for my students.

      I think Rick Altman's semantic/syntactic/pragmatic approach does a pretty good job of unifying the formalist and the discursive approach, although, if taken seriously, it means that research into genres must always include (historical) research beyond the pure text (as a side note: this approach isn't as alien to the formalist program as is often suggested. Boris: Tomashevskij already wrote in the late 1920s that genres ultimately require a descriptive approach, and Jurij Tynjanov emphasized the historical context in which a text is produced).

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    5. That is funny! Don't know Tomashevskij, and should check him out, clearly. I sometimes think that it would be of better service to SF criticism (certainly better than writing speculative critical histories of the whole of SF) to write a short book about genre theory more broadly, and how it might relate back. I'm not actually that much of a Derridean; although there are things of his I do rate highly.

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    6. I would certainly welcome such a book!

      It's my impression that there's a strange split in research on genres. There's genre theory with very elaborate models and there's genre history which often simply ignores the theoretical insights (that's not directed at you, btw). I guess one reason for this is, as I have already indicated, l that if we take genre theory seriously, genre history becomes a much more complex and laborious undertaking which has to go beyond the mere text.

      I am not an expert in Russian formalism either, but it's interesting that in almost every text I've read by one of its proponents, that they aren't as formalistic as we might think. Meaning: Most of them were very well aware that literature does not happen in a vacuum and that the outside world has influence on the text.

      The Tomashevskij piece I was referring to is available in « Formalism: History, Comparison, Genre» edited by L. M. O'Toole and Ann Shukman, Oxford 1978.

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  6. Adam, thanks for your thoughts, interesting as ever. Given that I have the Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture out recently, it's not surprise that I think cyberpunk has had a wide-ranging impact in our cultural understanding of computers, the internet, VR, science fiction - although I would probably agree with you that, in its sense as a literary genre, it doesn't have a great number of classic books to recommend it.

    But more specifically in response to your thoughts, I think it's a mistake to say that cyberpunk was 'wrong' about virtual reality. Yes, the potential for VR has not been fulfilled, and it's unclear whether it ever will be, but the logic and the affect of the internet has, in my opinion, soaked into what we once thought of as 'reality'. We could consider this spatially (navigating our landscape via Google Maps, Trip Advisor reviews, etc.) but also emotionally and physically. We don't need to plug into the matrix - the emotions generated there are already in us, and its already changing things in other real ways. If we have fights on Facebook we shake, and the panic attacks are real. If we are 'cancelled' or 'doxxed' we might self harm or worse - to die in the 'game' can be to die in 'real life'. I think I'm with you, though, on the lack of erotics, I just don't think that the mediation of a screen really distances us from the online action. What we have isn't immersion (as imagined by cyberpunk), but rather (as Gibson put it in Spook Country) the EVERSION of cyberspace. Which isn't the same as the entry into the matrix predicted by cyberpunk, granted, but the reality ends up being the same in that we are all denizens of cyberspace.

    I would also say that the things cyberpunk 'got wrong' are worth considering in greater detail because, for better or worse, I think the cyberpunk imagination of cyberspace has informed our cultural understanding of how it works, and this can blind us to real problems. I've written about this recently in AI Narratives, referencing algorithmic decision-making and Cambridge Analytica, so that's definitely another story that I only mention here as a sidebar: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/ai-narratives-9780198846666?cc=gb&lang=en&

    One further thought I had was whether the academic interest in cyberpunk has had any influence on its popular legacy. The appearance of cyberpunk at the same time as the academic interest in postmodernism made it the perfect genre for scholarly interest in the late-80s/ early-90s. I don't want to give academia too much credit for having any influence on popular tastes, but I do wonder if that interest maybe had some influence on canonising cyberpunk.

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    1. Your Routledge book looks amazing, Anna. I can't wait to have a look.

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    2. I second what Gwilym says: your Cyberpunk book does look amazing. And I can't disagree with much of your comment. As several people have noted, this blog doesn't do itself any favours by folding Gibsonian speculations into Cyberpunk more broadly conceived. I think (I'm not sure) that I have reservations about your "VR has overwritten our experience of everyday life, even if only a little" argument. I see what you mean: but I suppose I wonder if the kind of somatic reaction we have to online aggression, argument, abuse etc (which certainly is a thing) is different in kind, or even actually in degree, from someone reading a poisoned-pen letter in the 1930s, or getting a Dear John letter, or something like that. But maybe it is.

      The academic cross-pollination point is a really fascinating one: that Cyberpunk became a big popular cultural idea at around the same time that postmodernism, poststructuralism and so on because big academic ideas. Perhaps the two worked to reinforce one another, culturally. I can certainly see the argument that eg Donna Harraway's Cyborg Manifesto took Cyberpunk ideas (and others) and used them to rewire how lots of people thought about feminism, gender, animal studies, the whole culture/nature thing.

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  7. War and surveillance occur in cyberspace, with non-cyberspace eversions, for example, as GPS-guided-missiles and Pokemon presenting the illusion of the non-binary. But the hardening, libertarian, liqeudating nature of cyberspace now is the new cyberpunk: not-nice and non-consensual (and all-too-real) hallucinations colonised by self-interested nation-states, troll-farms and oddly motivated individual actors.

    William Gibson is nice, and Spook Country and The Peripheral are really interesting works, about eversion, and about 'stubs'. It's the 'stubbiness' that I think makes Gibson's work (in 1984 and now) interesting: it's new-wavy, fragmented, collaged postmodern-ness is perfect for the post-Golden-Age generation.

    It's a bit like steampunk (with Gibson's own stamp on that genre too): I don't think it will go away, as a fashion, as a sub-culture, as a way of seeing the world, even if the reality of that world has (menacingly) moved on.

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    1. Good points, yes. US drone operators in some anonymous facility in Des Moines, or wherever, are one thing; facebook being bombed with targeted pro-Brexit propaganda as the deadline of the vote approaches, because it's happening in plain view, is another I suppose. Although that kind of collective social hacking is also, I suppose I'd have to concede, hidden in plain view.

      I get that people like the stubbiness of Gibson (it's a nice way of putting it); I do. Indeed I wonder, a little, at my resistance to that side of what he does. Maybe reading Agency will win me round a bit more. I think I have an as it were principled objection: I have issues with the Leibnizian model of SF, the argument that its various built worlds are little windowless monads (stubs, in effect) that interact with one another, and with our world, only via a magical handwave pre-established harmony. I don't like this as a model of SF. But maybe that's just me. And surely it's not fair of me to stick Gibson with it.

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  8. First, regarding Adam's post: Hear, hear!

    Second, I'd like to remind everyone of the total failure that Google Glasses met with a few years ago. This surprises me still, as I though they were a good idea that was certainly predicted in SF and other sources. Why the public hated them is beyond me. Curiously, Gibson has glasses just like them in AGENCY.

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    1. "Google Glasses" makes an excellent two word thumbnail for my over-lengthy post.

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  9. [A comment from my friend Ian Sales, who's been having difficulties getting blogspot to load it (indeed he suggests I relocate altogether from blogspot as a platform, for this and other reasons)]:

    A couple of points:

    Any discussion on the origins of cyberpunk (no need for init caps, btw) really needs to mention The Movement, which was framed as a deliberate antidote to the 1970s bloated over-privileged child of the can-do super-competent sf of the 1950s and 1960s, but in the process managed to erase feminist sf and pretty much every female sf writer except Le Guin. Cyberpunk has a lot to answer for in its male takeover of science fiction.

    Per your distinction between science fiction and fantasy, I would say that in fantasy the novum is predicated on authorial fiat, whereas in science fiction it's predicated on universal laws or extrapolations of universal laws. Yes, FTL might as well be magic, and every space opera has its own narrative-bending means of collapsing vast distances into something which resemble those present in various historical Earthly empires... but I'd argue the "universal law" governing FTL as a trope has itself risen out of its treatment throughout the corpus of science fiction.

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    1. You can take the capital-C from my cold dead hands, Sales.

      Good point re: the Movement, and the masculinist bias of Cyberpunk more broadly. On Fantasy: I disagree, but you'd expect me to. Tolkien was drawing on pre-scientific systems (exploded ideas now, but believed-in once upon a time) of magic and magicians when he wrote his Fantasy realm; this was hardly authorial fiat. Le Guin's Earthsea magic is based on a kind of magical nominalism that, again, precedes her by many centuries. FTL is SF not Fantasy bc the universe that needs FTL (because it is so extraordinarily vast) is a SF universe; a Fantasy universe is always human-scale, more or less, as per C S Lewis's Discarded Image. That's because the former drives out God, where the latter is hospitable to numinous enchantment. But we can, you know: agree to disagree.

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. I wrote a long reply but your site deleted it and I can't think it through again. TLDR Cyberpunk is an extension of the desire to escape the body - inheritance of religion/intellectual repulsion etc etc.

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    1. I'm so sorry your comment got exterminated! Wordpress/blogspot is a bit crap.

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  12. Just found this post through your Twitter account. Is it gauche to reply to a post this old? Probably committing some social media faux pas, but nevermind, we press on: Just wanted to say thanks for the enjoyable and insightful piece!

    I think the ongoing popularity of the genre probably owes more to aesthetics and fashion than anything else. Black never goes out of style.

    At the same time, while I agree some of the more literal predictions of cyberpunk have not come to pass, perhaps the root cause of cyberpunk's unease is still with us: Our growing dependence on technology in every aspect of our lives, and the consequent atomization of society.

    All I might add here is that perhaps the Japanese iteration of cyberpunk also merits study. I think it has both influenced, through Akira and Ghost in the Shell, and in turn been influenced by Western cyberpunk. Particularly the issues it raises of the invasiveness of technology feel relevant today. While we don't literally fear our minds and bodies will be hacked, I think there is a definite sense that we have lost control of our personal information online, and thus by extension some important aspect of ourselves and our identities.

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    1. Not gauche at all! Thanks for your comment. I think you're right about the style angle and you're certainly right about the Japanese context, and the sense of how invasive online living has become.

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    2. At the risk of committing yet another faux pas then, here's the review of Altered Carbon I wrote 2 years ago. I flatter myself our styles are not that dissimilar (though mine is infinitely less published) so if you ever find yourself excessively and pandemically idyll, it might amuse:
      https://one-way-mirror.blogspot.com/2018/01/the-carbonist-manifesto-now-with-added.html

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    3. That's a great review! And it has the added advantage of leading me to your blog, which I have now bookmarked.

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