Is cyberpunk still breathing?

Two new science-fiction novels take a stab at an increasingly moribund genre.

Published September 14, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Who killed cyberpunk? Whatever happened to all those hardwired leather-clad computer jockeys slithering through the Matrix, dodging devious artificial intelligences and inscrutable transnational corporations? Forget about the space operas, the fantasy epics, the Michael Crichton/Tom Clancy techno-thrillers -- where are the posthuman cyborgs battling it out in dystopian splendor? The Rastafarian asteroid dwellers? The East Asian black-market body-mod specialists? What happened?

Oh sure, there are outbreaks of cyberpunk creativity every now and then. Once every couple of years a promising newcomer like Ian McDonald makes noise with a book like "Terminal Cafe," or an old fogey like William Gibson returns to form with an offering like "Idoru." But as a genre, cyberpunk is washed up, as outmoded as a 1980s hard drive.

There's no shortage of explanations. One could point the finger at, for example, the healthy economy of the last half-decade. True cyberpunk visionaries thrive on imagining a bleak future, one in which unrestrained capitalism has widened the gaps between rich and poor, destroyed the environment and obliterated democracy. But after years of solid economic growth, low employment and techno-pollyannish enthusiasm, dystopia has become a harder sell in the science-fiction economy. No one wants to buy.

Literary fads also come and go. Gibson always gets irritable when reporters or fans ask him when he's going to write another "Neuromancer" -- that's someone else's job, he snaps. Meanwhile, Bruce Sterling gets obsessed with tornadoes and health care, Neal Stephenson translates Victorian values into a postmodern China and old cyberpunk stalwarts like Walter Jon Williams zip off in new directions, successfully merging science fiction and fantasy.

But there's another, better reason why cyberpunk is dead: The Web killed it.

That's right: Cyberspace killed cyberpunk. The real world caught up very quickly to the imaginary one. Who needs to dream up octopus-like transnational corporations when you've got WorldCom? If you're looking for virtual reality, just go to the mall and don a helmet. And as for that networked autonomous consciousness spanning the globe and merging humanity into one super-mind -- have you checked your e-mail lately?

Two recent novels, both of which self-consciously describe themselves as "cyberpunk," illustrate the point. Neither "Mir: A Novel of Virtual Reality" by Alexander Besher nor Scott Grusky's "Silicon Sunset: Where the Information Highway Really Leads" can sastisyfingly transcend contemporary Net-based reality.

The telling details are small -- throwaway lines in both books. In "Mir," Besher, a San Francisco resident -- who according to the book jacket copy enjoys the unique status of being both a "consulting futurist for the Global Business Network" and a "revered cult figure" (thanks to the success of his first book, "Rim") -- refers at one point to "cnewmark's list of possibly interesting events."

"cnewmark" happens to be a real person living in San Francisco right now. His name is Craig Newmark and a few years ago he created a highly successful mailing list alerting recipients to high-tech jobs and new-media events. The fancy that "Craig's list" (which is now, by the way, technically known as "The List Foundation") is still going strong in the year 2036 is an astonishingly lazy inside joke. It's also a nice metaphor for how contemporary science-fiction cyberpunk authors can't escape the confines of their own e-mail in box.

Putting aside an initially mind-numbing act of hubris -- he dedicates "Mir" to Dostoevsky and "all the other great tortured Russian writers for blazing the way" -- Besher is a decent writer with some vivid ideas. The central conceit of "Mir" is the wacky but beautifully entertaining threat posed by sentient tattoos who may or may not be the spawn of an alien virus aiming to conquer human "Omnispace." Overlay that with Besher's obsession with Tibetan tantric Buddhism and a few marauding neo-czarist Russian mafia, and you have all the ingredients for a nice cyberpunk thriller.

Except that Besher isn't lazy just when it comes to making inside jokes. The entire novel is lazy. Stereotypes abound, from Chinese triad mobsters to spiritually advanced Tibetan taxi drivers to prima donna Russian ballerina revolutionaries. Descriptions of San Franciscan night life in the year 2036 read as if Besher was observing the action outside his own window right now, from the woman wearing "a black motorcycle jacket with a pinball-maze of studs and schizoid zippers fashionably unzipped every which way" to the stunningly anti-climactic conclusion at the "Burning Minds" festival in the Nevada desert. Far from demonstrating his "uncanny knack for predicting the on-line future" (as the book jacket blurb declares), what "Mir" really exposes is Besher's ability to filter 1998's new-media culture through a Gibson/Sterling cyberpunk translator.

Grusky's "Silicon Sunset" also has a throwaway line that underlines the book's dependence on contemporary Web realities. In this case, the reference occurs when the novel's evil dictator, Knotty Burgstaller, reads a book called "Microeconomics" by Hal Varian. Varian is a big name in current Internet economic theory -- he's one of the main proponents of the belief that Internet services, bandwidth access and connectivity should be priced according to demand, rather than at flat rates. Without such demand pricing -- which would entail paying higher prices if you wanted your e-mail delivered now rather than next Tuesday, or if you wanted to video-conference in real time rather than simply post on a bulletin board -- the Internet will eventually collapse under its own weight, he argues.

Why are we hearing about Varian in a novel set in the year 2077? Because the central idea underlying "Silicon Sunset" is that all of humanity has been linked into a "fully efficient" economy by virtue of integration into an all-encompassing Net via cell-sized meters embedded in every human brain.

Now that all humanity is fully integrated into the Net, a perfectly efficient free market economy reigns. Both buyers and sellers are fully cognizant of the price each side is willing to pay or sell for -- there's no waste, no fraud, no gross exploitation. Oh, and there's also no freedom to speak of, really, or innovation, or sex. But whoever said full efficiency was supposed to be fun?

It's a great idea, reminiscent of the best work of Philip K. Dick, and if Grusky were a more accomplished writer, "Silicon Sunset" would be a fine addition to the cyberpunk canon. Unfortunately, he writes in a flat, colloquial style that tends to cast his whole project under an amateurish light. And, like Besher, he has trouble wrapping up his story with a satisfying conclusion.

More important, despite the magnitude of his central idea, Grusky's fully efficient Net is just an extrapolation of ideas very much in circulation right now among Net pundits. There's nothing new at all about the idea that the Web will facilitate the exchange of information to the point that it removes all "friction" from the economy. In a short foreword to "Silicon Sunset," Grusky emphasizes that the "substantive content of this novel was conceived and written" during the years 1986-88 -- in other words, before the Web was created. That's nice to know, but as published in 1998, "Silicon Sunset" doesn't break new ground; it merely provides an innovative twist to a contemporary possibility.

Woe is cyberpunk -- there's nothing left for it to do. Once upon a time, before the world discovered flame wars, Net porn and Web robots, cyberpunk could surprise, dazzle and frighten us with bold new visions. But those new visions are now an integral part of our regular operating systems. Everyone lives in the Matrix -- we're all now computer jockeys slithering through cyberspace, whether we wear leather or not.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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