Thursday, November 20, 2008

William Gibson retrospective; or, how Bush killed cyberpunk

A long, somewhat cranky piece on William Gibson, cyberpunk, and the failure of a certain kind of technological-change ideology under the pressure of political events.

William Gibson has now written eight novels, not counting The Difference Engine, and in some basic sense they are all the same novel. They are all populated by stock archetypal characters -- the Thug With A Heart Of Gold. The Finder of Art, someone with the medieval-mystical ability to find God in the ordinary, picking out sculpture or watches or cool itself. The Everyman With A Skill, the completely ordinary person, usually a computer hacker, who carries a fundamental innocence. The Wizard / Oracle. The Dupe, longing hopelessly for the world before everything broke down. The usually evil Corporate Boss. The same goes for the themes of the work, and the plots are mostly "let's get the party together -- we need a fighter, a mage, a thief, and a cleric -- and do the quest."

This is not necessarily a bad way to write. There is a peculiar energy in Gibson's best work, and Neuromancer is going to be remembered long after technically better works have been forgotten. I've wondered how to describe authors of this type, and I think that the best short phrase is "subgenre creators" -- writers who tapped into some essential aspect of their time, something that gave their work that vigor that led to many imitators, often many failed imitators. Think H.P. Lovecraft and those works now called Lovecraftian. Robert E. Howard and sword-and-sorcery. E.E. "Doc" Smith and space opera. And Gibson and cyberpunk. Before the inevitable objections, I'm aware that Gibson wasn't the first cyberpunk writer, didn't coin the word, that Bruce Sterling was the movement's chief ideologue, and so on, but without Neuromancer, I think that cyberpunk would have been a hopeful might-be-subgenre that never reached critical mass, like so many others.

Why write about the death of cyberpunk now? People have been saying it's dead since the 90s, after all, so why bother? Because it tells us something about cyberpunk and about our time, I think. In October 2008 Bruce Sterling responds to the is-cyberpunk-dead question: "It might well be, depending on how you define “cyberpunk” and “dead,” but that’s not gonna make any practical difference. Me, Gibson, Rucker, Shiner, Shirley, Cadigan, Di Filippo, I doubt any of us give that issue a minute’s thought now." That sounds about right. Gibson, in particular, seems to me to still be writing cyberpunk. It never was about the gizmos and the gadgets. It was about "the street finds its own use for things", about social change starting at the margins under the pressure of technology, about the uncontrollability of culture by governmental forces. And Bush essentially took a lead pipe to that and beat its head in.

I'm talking, here, about Gibson's 2007 novel Spook Country. Gibson has previously written novels that are simply bad, within the context of his work -- Idoru, anyone? -- but Spook Country is that rare case of a tremendous failure that points out something interesting. I'm going to write spoilers about the book at this point, if anyone cares.

Spook Country's plot concerns a shipping container full of money, packed full of the bricks of money delivered to Baghdad by the Bush administration to spread around during the Iraq war, and then embezzled by corrupt insiders and diverted. It's being chased down by the good guys not to steal it, but to render it radioactive and unuseable, and therefore to strike a quixotic blow against -- who? Certain unnamed mid-level government people for whom this was the most that they could steal, unlike the real big-timers.

Gibson clearly really wants to denounce Bush, as well he should, but he just can't seem to find the purchase to do so. Absurdly, a standard-order lecture about and criticism of the Bush regime pops out of the mouth of a junkie, directed towards a contract thug who couldn't care less. And the junkie thinks "why am I saying this?" As does the reader, and, I got the feeling, the author himself. The book might work as a sort of leftist romp -- "ha ha, you liberals, you think you can fix this system" -- but Gibson doesn't seem to really have absurdity in him. Instead what he has is a subgenre in which governments can not do what the Bush administration evidently did; take control of society, in every important sense, and turn it to its own ends, using brute force and even the momentum of failure itself. So the book is one long thrashing-around, like the apologetics of a Marxist coming up with reasons why the USSR was really state capitalism.

Gibson is forced to make every actor in his books a social marginal of some kind. For instance, he never had a handle on real, impersonal corporate power -- all of his bad guys were highly atypical, individual and eccentric super-rich people. Now he has people distressed by bricks of money being loaded into planes bound for Iraq and disbursed to who knows who -- but the bad guys are somehow not really the government. Oh, they may be in the government, but they're basically thieves; they aren't carrying out governmental policy, as the real people who sent those bricks of money were. And the people opposing them aren't trying to bring anything to light, or engage with democracy in any way -- it's just spy-vs-spy. Weirdly, there's bad apples at the bottom, and only silence at the top. Gibson is left with no way to say "Huh -- you know, maybe the government really is important after all." There's Spook Country, but no one can ever give orders to the spooks. The Cossacks do not work for the Czar.

It's not just Gibson, though. Try Bruce Sterling -- I think that Sterling is a better writer in almost every sense, and doesn't get the chops that he should, even though it seems likely that no individual work of his is going to be as influential as Neuromancer. Compare Schismatrix and Holy Fire, his in my opinion two best novels. While they're both about human attempts to transcend limits to freedom, Abelard Lindsay's increasingly slick betrayals of every ideology that would freeze his life and Mia Ziemann's fulfillment of youthful fantasy that turns into her remaking into a creative person are the actions of two actually different characters. So it's a shock in 2004 when Sterling writes The Zenith Angle, in which once again, people are maneuvering amidst the wreckage that Bush left, but the government really doesn't control anything -- Sterling puts in an offhand remark about how Bush is really a kindly dullard, mostly concerned about his daughters. So all the post-9/11 farcical war on terror just sort of happened. No one did it. It was in the zeitgeist. Sterling gets tremendous credit from me for the Viridian list, a good attempt to mobilize his SF prestige and his fans towards global warming issues, but I also remember the denial that crept in with Bush-v-Gore. You couldn't get the sense, reading the list, that this really would make a much greater difference than any kind of decentralized action by designers and technologists could.

The New Weird, the subgenre that has as great a claim as any towards picking up cyberpunk's baton, has China Mieville's Iron Council as its signature work. That's a novel in which the action is driven by social marginals, yes, but in the end, it makes a whole lot of difference which government stands and which falls. And that's what makes it a more or less living SF subgenre in our time.


  1. That's a novel in which the action is driven by social marginals, yes, but in the end, it makes a whole lot of difference which government stands and which falls.

    Indeed, and we have an eight year example to prove it. As in so many other human expressions of attention to the world around them, most people only see governments (and other systems) as a collection of the mishaps, mistakes, and wrecks that have occurred. It is much more difficult to acknowledge all the real good governance can create for the many: public education, public infrastructure, public sanitation and resource provisions (water, solid waste collection, recycling, sewage), and so forth. Do we want our emergency services to focus their energies on law enforcement and criminal justice (wasting money on victimless crime, etc.) or do we really advocate they focus on human health and vitality?

    The Bush government focussed its energies on enriching their chosen families, regardless of the expense such enrichment brought to the rest of the country and planet. Responsible for delays that have led to massive species extinctions for the pursuit of acquiring more and more value assets, the administration, through unparalleled corruption linked deeply into the justice system, encouraged their friends and families to extract wealth at every turn of a drill head. Few realize the permanent damage they have wrought. It isn't cynical to call them out over this, and it really isn't very difficult to identify it for what it is. They have been one of the truly successful organized criminal rackets ever produced by the planet, plundering relentlessly at the expense of all others.

  2. Thanks for commenting, spyder (and for your comment down on the first post). Insofar as imaginative literature affects our expectations of what will happen in some way, I think it's interesting to look at how the Bush administration did and didn't match the archetypal cyberpunk novel. The archetypal novel of this type is quite comfortable with dystopia, bad governance, and corruption, but it always posited that these things went along with loss of control.

    Bruce Sterling wrote from here:

    "Postmodernity loves to dwell in the dishonored bones
    of the dead Modernist project. We prefer almost any
    humiliation to the severe mental challenge of building a
    new and original order all our own.

    In some strange sense, wrecked cities made of
    washed-up scrap are clearly what we *want.* The Burning
    Man festival looks rather like this; a dense, enthusiastic
    cluster of termite anarchists, drifting someplace,
    patching together their own little world, for an orgiastic
    three-day weekend. This scenario borrows the highly
    popular set design from Blade Runner and Mad Max. We
    twentieth-century types would all know how to behave
    there; we'd be trading our black leather jackets for
    black-market gasoline without ever missing a beat."

    Bush provided the wrecked cities made of washed-up scrap, yes, but there was nothing freeing or orgiastic about it. It's governmental corruption *along with* continued governmental control. And it's hard to argue that it didn't set the ground rules everywhere; all of the temporary autonomous zones that cyberpunks love to dwell on had to deal with Bush and the War on Terror in a very real sense, even as it was simultaneously a farce.

    That's pretty much what I'm getting at when I write about the death of cyberpunk.

  3. The Burning Man festival looks rather like this; a dense, enthusiastic
    cluster of termite anarchists, drifting someplace, patching together their own little world, for an orgiastic three-day weekend.

    That is the way it used to be, but much like your ruminations on the death of cyberpunk, Burning Man has undergone its own reconstruction. A working government, performing all of the necessary and good functions, trying to, in some sense, cover up its vast revenue generation and expenditures, promotes an event that is now home to people "playing" at being the anarcho-cyberpunks they dreamed of long ago. It takes extraordinary discretionary funds to attend these days.

    I can see perhaps an example of your view in Stephenson's new book, ANATHEM. Rather than heroes being rebel outsiders, there exist strands of networked hierarchies organizing and arranging citizens. He has created a future world in which most of the anti-governmental issues have been minimized by compartmentalizing most of the population along their own paths of belief and actions. Interesting take, and promotes the death of cyberpunk to a certain degree.