Cyberpunk and Science Fiction in the Information Age Cyberpunk science fiction is considered to be the “literary manifestation of postmodernism” (Elements149). According to McHale, as a sub-genre of science fiction, cyberpunk stands as the product of the convergence between “science fiction poetics and postmodernist poetics” (Elements 149). In Constructing Postmodernism, McHale states “cyberpunk…as science fiction derives certain of its elements from postmodern mainstream fiction which itself has…already been ‘science-fictionized’ to some greater or lesser degree” (229).
The correlation of cyberpunk and postmodernism however is not limited to the existence of cyberpunk as a coagulation of the different factors within science fiction tales. Postmodernism, as a school of thought and as a movement in the different arts, may be characterized by its “incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard xxiv). Metanarratives refer to the “‘grand narratives’ or stories that go to legitimize particular practices” (Warren and Warren 78).
In the same manner that postmodernism debunks the idea of grand narratives, cyberpunk debunks such grand narratives by placing emphasis on the construction of a separate individual reality within the sphere of cyberspace. Works considered as a part of the sub-genre of cyberpunk are named as such due to their focus on “technological revolution and its social and psychological implications…on online publication” (Stierstorfer 109). The correlation between cyberpunk and postmodernism may thereby be traced to the existence of various worlds within cyberspace presented within cyberpunk texts.
It is important to note that the importance of cyberspace is attributed to the space that it provides the individual user for the creation of fictional production. Cyberspace, within these works, stand as a space which is in continuous creation. The creation is determined by each individual and hence it provides the individual with both the freedom and the power to create and determine the worlds created by other individuals within the cyberspace.
Within the aforementioned context, reality stands as an individual construction determined by a set of rules for how such a creation may occur. These rules however are not moral rules but merely substantive rules. In a sense, one may thereby state that ‘reality’ within these texts is in continuous flux since what is ‘real’ is determined by one’s point of view, one’s perspective of the world.
The act of reading these texts are in a sense determined by the sequence in which these texts are presented however within the context of the assumptions of reality within the text it is possible to imagine a space wherein all acts do not merely interact or collide but occur at the same time since cyberspace is a boundless space and such is the world presented by the texts within the genre of cyberpunk fiction. In line with this, what follows is a discussion of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Spook Country and Stanislaw Lem’s Imaginary Magnitudes.
Online communication creates a space of social contact out of intertextual materials that may end up relying on the very conventional social narratives that many participants hope to escape. These hidden conventional structures within social interaction are the subject of the novel that gave us the term ‘cyberspace’ that being William Gibson’s Neuromancer. A discussion of Gibson’s novel not only provides a glimpse of the very different understanding of identity that results from this intertextuality but also suggests how best to negotiate these narratives.
At the most general level Neuromancer is the story of Case’s quest to be re-integrated with cyberspace and the information that it possesses. The story opens with Case’s nervous system intentionally harmed in subtle ways by a past employer so that he is unable to access cyberspace and perform his past role as a ‘cowboy’ who infiltrates computer networks and steals information. Case is mysteriously offered surgery to repair his system if he participates in a complicated scheme to free an artificial intelligence named Wintermute from the limitations placed on it by its creator.
Gibson describes Case’s experience of cyberspace in terms of the pleasure of reintegration. The experience is described in the following manner. Found the ridged face of the power stud. And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film compiled from random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information.
Please, he prayed, now…Expanding- And flowed, flowering for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity…And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face. (Neuromancer 52) In the aforementioned passage, Case’s movement into cyberspace is a kind of homecoming that brings him back into contact with a network of human information.
Given the lyrical tone of this passage, it is not surprising that interpreters of Neuromancer have concluded that the connection to networks of human information that Case pursues is a uniformly positive thing. Cyberspace subculture frequently takes the disembodied integration into electronic information systems quite literally as a next stage in human evolution. Rather than asserting the value of social integration for its own sake, this story treats such connections as merely showing the protection and evolution of individuals.
The links between individuals are similarly ambivalent in Neuromancer. Probably the novel’s clearest statement of the ambivalence of social connection comes late in the novel when Case reflects on his involvement with unseen ‘bosses’. Case has been hired by the mysterious Armitage, who turns out to work for Wintermute. As Case realizes the degree to which Armitage is a puppet or even a construction of Wintermute, he reflects on his involvement with larger political and social powers. It goes in the following manner,
Case had always taken it for granted that the real bosses, the kingpins in a given industry, would be more and less than people…He’d always imagined it as a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system, the parent organism. It was the root of street cool, too, the knowing posture that implied connection, invisible lines up to hidden levels of influence. (Neuromancer 203) Case’s reflections about the nature of social connection suggest both its positive and negative qualities from the perspective of the individual.
Positively, these connections position the individual as a kind of parasite within the ‘parent organism’, sheltering the individual who may not share the goals of the larger system to which he or she belongs. Within this context, one might perceive individuals as pieces of a larger puzzle whose form is partially known but whose image is only available through the different vantage points available to different individuals. Such vantage points however are only accessible or can only be known to one individual unless it is penetrated and in a sense controlled by another one.
Knowledge within this space is thereby continually in flux as a result of the power struggles of the entities within it. Imagining people as ‘assemblages’ whose subjectivity is constructed from sources of which they are rarely aware and whose elements do not necessarily cohere certainly seems unappealing at first glimpse since it works against traditional ideas of self-consciousness and personal coherence. However, Neuromancer also suggests that much more dangerous than this disunified subjectivity is the attempt to deny multiplicity and to hide behind some apparent unity.
Precisely this tension between unity and incoherence is at issue. One might state that cyberdiscourse enables individuals to raise their consciousness about their own identity however it is also possible to state that it is nothing more than an intertextual concoction of mass media cliches and stereotypes. Gibson’s other novel Spook Country also raises these issues. Spook Country stands as a continuation of Pattern Recognition. As opposed to the futuristic setting of Neuromancer, the later novel is set within the current century.
It presents the story of a former rock singer named Hollis Henry who turned into a freelancer researching about locative art for Node magazine. In the process of the research, Hollis discovers that locative art is an art form that combines virtual reality with GPRS technology. As a result of this combination, an individual is able to replicate the events occurring within a particular place thereby allowing the spectator of the artwork to participate within a different reality. This is evident in the following passage from Spook Country.
As Hollis and Chombo discuss locative art, they specify the experience that one may achieve in it. They state We’re all doing VR, every time we look at a screen. We have been for decades now…VR was an even more specific way we had of telling us where we were going. Without scaring us too much, right? The locative, though, lots of us are already doing it. But you can’t just do the locative with your nervous system. One day, you will. We’ll have internalized the interface. It’ll have evolved to the point where we forget about it. Then you’ll just walk down the street… (Spook 65).
In the aforementioned excerpt, one sees the tension between unity and coherence not only in the definition and specification of reality as a result of technological innovations but also the tension that it creates in the process of determining individual identity. This tension is apparent if one considers that an individual’s conception of the ‘self’ is partially dependent upon his surrounding environment. Within the virtual space of locative art, one may thereby create and in a sense develop one’s own space separate but at the same time placed within the sphere of immediate reality.
The tension brought about by the existence of the various possibilities of reality within these cyberpunk texts is also evident in Stanislaw Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude. Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude is composed of different introductions and prefaces to non-existent books. The various texts serve satirize the current trends and movements within literature and the other arts. An example of this is evident in the following passage. He states, In an extreme instance, in which there is a Propervirt of less than 0. 9%, the TEXT OF THE PRESENT PROSPECTUS may likewise undergo an ABRUPT change.
If, while you are reading these sentences, the words begin to jump about, and the letters quiver and blur, please interrupt your reading for ten or twenty seconds to wipe your glasses, adjust your clothing, or the like, and then start reading AGAIN from the beginning, and NOT JUST from the place where your reading was interrupted, since such a TRANSFORMATION indicates that a correction of DEFICIENCIES is now taking place. (Lem 86) The aforementioned passage may be seen as alluding to a period in the future when it is possible for human beings to directly interact with their reading material.
In another context, one might also see it as a parody of the impositions regarding the proper position and manner that individuals ought to read texts. Either way, the book in itself as well as its content of imaginary texts presents the reader with yet another conception of reality that allows the fluidity of experience. Within the aforementioned contexts, one considers how one is to understand the concept of reality, self, and knowledge within the context of cyberpunk science fiction.
Within this genre, one sees reality, the self, and knowledge in itself as continuously in flux. Within a text which creates worlds determined by intertextuality, the process of reading the text becomes an act of recognizing the interrelation of its parts to the extent that one is willing to recognize that the events within it and in a sense the realities within it may all occur within the same time and space. Works Cited Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Np: Ace Books,1984. ___. Spook Country. Np: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007. Lem, Stanislaw.
Imaginary Magnitudes. Michigan: U of Michigan, 1984. Lyotard, Jean Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 1984. McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1992. ___. “Elements of a Poetics of Cyberpunk. ” Critique 33. 3 (Spring 1992): 149-75. Warren, William and Bill Warren. Philosophical Dimensions of Personal Construct Psychology. London: Routledge, 1998. Stierstorfer, Klaus. Beyond Postmodernism: Reassessments in Literature, Theory, and Culture. Np: Walter de Gruvter, 2003.