Grunge Futurism

Julian Loose

  • Virtual Light by William Gibson
    Viking, 336 pp, £14.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 670 84081 5
  • Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction by Scott Bukatman
    Duke, 416 pp, £15.95, August 1993, ISBN 0 8223 1340 5

The future isn’t what it used to be. In one of William Gibson’s first published stories, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, a photographer is assigned to capture examples of ‘futuristic’ American design from the Thirties, the kind of dream architecture that graced the covers of pulp science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories. Familiarising himself with streamlined dime stores and Coca-Cola plants built like submarines, the photographer starts to glimpse an alternative world born of the aerodynamic optimism of that earlier age, sees blond-haired people driving shark-fin roadsters down 80-lane freeways towards a towering metropolis. But these are ‘semiotic ghosts’ from a heroic, expansionist future that has passed America by: a gee-whiz, fascist-tinged fantasy that ‘knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, or foreign wars it was possible to lose’.

Spaceships, robots and atomic power are, of course, no longer the glorious shape of things to come. The future that penetrates our present carries, rather, a sense of end-of-history exhaustion. The Cold War promise of apocalypse has been kicked away only to uncover rampant nationalism and what Robert Lowell called ‘small war on the heels of small war’. Our destiny seems to lurk in terrorist outrages and unstoppable new viruses, in the city homeless, in ecological disasters like Chernobyl and Bhopal, in rising world temperatures and evaporating ozone. Computers accelerate stockmarket crashes, companies hack into one another’s databases, Nasa space shuttles explode and Mars probes fall silent. Technological development no longer seems progressive but merely market-driven, out of conscious control and promising imminent sensory overload. As one of Don DeLillo’s eloquent paranoids observes of tomorrow, ‘it’s collapsed right in on us. It’s ahead of schedule.’

This is the bad news that Gibson has broadcast for over a decade. In Gibson’s near-future, first sketched in the novel Neuromancer (1984) and refined in the following volumes of his cyberpunk trilogy, the social contract has finally lapsed. Governments have been replaced by zaibatsu, multinationals who behave like organisms obeying the ‘all but unreadable DNA of commerce and empire’. These ruthless zaibatsu battle constantly for market share, and think nothing of assassinating one another’s best scientists to maintain their cutting edge. Gibson’s slangy, brand-conscious vocabulary signals that power has shifted decisively to the East, particularly to Japan. Tokyo corporations and the yakuza gangs control much of the globe, while Chiba City’s neurosurgery clinics develop new methods of implants, nerve-splicing and microbionics. Gibson here profitably plunders the ideas of K. Eric Drexler, proposer of biochips which permit direct exchange between brains and computers: ‘simstims’ plugged directly into the back of the skull allow you to enter another’s pre-recorded sensorium, the only drawback being the lingering suggestion ‘that any environment might be unreal’.

Gibson’s focus is on the inner-city underworld, outlaw zones where poverty, burgeoning technologies and the latest designer drugs interact ‘like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button’. No one has the time to read the manual: people carry silicon implants in their heads, turning themselves into portable data storage units, while cheap cosmetic surgery supplies the face of the latest simstim star or the teeth of a shark. Gibson tosses such surreal inventions into the never-ending ‘dance of biz’, the intricate exchange of information and services on the black market. This high-tech, low-life setting provides a compelling backdrop to his fast-moving thrillers, and furnishes an assorted cast of data thieves, hustlers, hookers and ‘street samurai’.

Gibson’s new novel, Virtual Light, presents us with a richly satirical preview of this technosleaze future. America has survived the millennium, even if a melancholy Japanese sociologist suspects that modernity itself may be ending. California has split into different states, and a host of new religions have sprung up, including a trailer-camp video-sect who believe the television screen is a kind of ‘perpetually burning bush’. In Los Angeles the wealthy shop in exclusive malls, attend gyms where they have their skeletons reinforced with performance materials, and then retreat to fortified ‘stealth houses’, all watched over by a law enforcement satellite nicknamed the Death Star. The surveillance and privatisation of once public space is a new theme for Gibson, and his acknowledgments cite the influence of Mike Davis’s study of Los Angeles, City of Quartz. But Gibson’s main characters, as usual, come from the other side of the tracks: Rydell, likeably naive but over-enthusiastic, works for a security organisation as a ‘skiptracer’; the person he has to track down, Chevette, is an equally impulsive San Francisco messenger, whose prize possession is a ultralight bicycle made of carbon-wound Japanese paper. In the 21st century such bike couriers are becoming an expensive anachronism: most information is exchanged via telepresence goggles (‘eyephones’) which log the viewer onto the virtual world of DataAmerica.

Gibson is frequently credited with inventing virtual reality, and certainly his lyrical depiction of ‘cyberspace’ inspired early VR researchers. Cyberspace is the place, as he once put it, where the bank keeps your money: a computer matrix incorporating all academic, financial and military networks, onto which Gibson grafted the interface of a vastly elaborate arcade game – ‘a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system’. Gibson portrays this parallel universe as a kind of three-dimensional Al Held painting, glowing with the neon icons of databanks and corporate systems. Slap on a pair of dermatrodes, punch the keys on your cyberspace deck, and you ‘jack in’, propelling your disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination of the matrix. The fastest kids on the virtual block are the console cowboys, ‘casing mankind’s extended electronic nervous system, rustling data and credit’, and always on the look out for ICE, lethal feedback programs which induce a fatal epileptic seizure. In America, police reportedly conclude the worst when they come across a teenager equipped with a computer and a copy of Gibson’s book.

Neuromancer was the first novel to win all three major science fiction awards, and according to Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk’s main polemicist, it sent the entire genre ‘lurching from its cave into the bright sunlight of the modern zeitgeist’. Although Gibson has collaborated on an alternative Victorian history (‘steampunk’) and published ‘Agrippa’, a poem on computer disk which wipes itself after one reading, his cyberpunk trilogy remains his most influential work. Several science fiction writers have adopted the cyberspace conceit wholesale, many more strive to replicate his hip, in-your-face vision of the future. Any decent cyberpunk library would include the novels of Sterling, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley and Lewis Shiner, along with the anthology Mirroshades, the casebook Storming the Reality Studio, and a growing number of academic studies like Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity. Bukatman pays extensive tribute to Gibson’s seminal role as he charts cyberpunk’s roots in European comics, Ridley Scott’s film Bladerunner and the new wave fiction of Ballard and Delany. Writers and critics alike tend to overplay cyberpunk’s radical methods and its revolutionary significance, but the hype certainly extends beyond the SF ghetto: Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless paid Gibson plagiaristic tribute, Timothy Leary now advises people to ‘activate, boot up, and change disks in their minds’. Science fiction, increasingly recognised as Post-Modernism’s ‘low art’ double, is in danger of becoming respectable. Frederic Jameson has even declared cyberpunk to be ‘the supreme literary expression, if not of Post-Modernism, then of late capitalism itself’.

In all the acclaim it is a relief to come across a critic who dares to suggest that today’s grunge futurism might be just as naive as anything that appeared in Amazing Stories. In his essay ‘Cyberpunk in Boystown’, Andrew Ross observes that for all its radical gloss, the movement offers only ‘a one-way ticket to a future that we must try to make obsolescent as quickly as possible’. He chides cyberpunk for its adolescent white middle-class fantasy of inner-city life, and shows how Gibson’s extrapolation ignores the influence of such social movements as feminism, green politics and civil rights, an oversight indicative of ‘masculinity in retreat’. Ross himself overlooks the many strong female protagonists in Gibson’s fiction, and discounts the pull dystopias have always had on our imagination. Yet his objections carry weight, as the admirably frank Gibson (who has admitted that at the time of writing Neuromancer he neither understood computers nor had been to Japan) would probably be the first to acknowledge. For the crucial point about Gibson, despite plausible attempts to situate him alongside mainstream American novelists like DeLillo, Burroughs and Pynchon, is that he is content to work within his chosen genre. Although his thrillers increasingly make room for humour and reflection, essentially they remain like the machines he loves to describe: fast, showy and relentlessly slick. His exhilarating if occasionally portentous style, with its ‘superspecific’ abundance of detail, is a direct descendant of the hardboiled prose of Dashiell Hammett. The opening paragraph of Virtual Light gives a flavour of this noir-ish, information-rich idiom: ‘The courier presses his forehead against layers of glass, argon, high-impact plastic. He watches a gunship traverse the city’s middle distance like a hunting wasp, death slung beneath its thorax in a smooth black pod.’

Gibson’s weakness is for the argot of weaponry. Superbly attentive to the terminology of computers and biochemistry, to the jive of drug dealers and the slang of bike couriers, his fiction is also studded with the pornographic terminology of death: nunchucks and flechette pistols, fractal knives with edges ‘more than twice as long as the blade itself’, razorgirls whose painted nails conceal retractable scalpel blades. Virtual Light makes ironic play with this fascination – cars with vocal and hyperaggressive anti-theft systems, SWAT trainers that have ‘Kevlar insoles in case somebody snuck up and tried to shoot you in the bottom of the foot’. But the wit only carries Gibson so far, and he avoids the kind of question which seems second nature to a writer like DeLillo: ‘If you think the name of the weapon is beautiful, are you implicated in the crime?’

Picturing a helicopter gunship as a wasp or a city map as a printed circuit, Gibson’s prose constantly closes the gap between the natural and the technological, associating man and machine, reality and simulation. Characters are always donning mirrored glasses – if these are not already surgically inset – and the plot of Virtual Light hangs on a pair of stolen sunglasses which work the optic nerves directly, relating what is seen to a spool of figures and information relayed from the datanet. Such hardware dehumanises, but then for Gibson there’s nothing wrong with being a cyborg. Baudrillard has described how the contemporary body, with all its extensions and complexity of organs, seems increasingly superfluous, a view certainly held by Gibson’s cyberspace cowboys, who feel ‘a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat.’ But whereas Baudrillard finds something apocalyptic in ‘this obscene delirium of communication’, Gibson positively exults in it. Virtual Light is set at a deliberate distance from his earlier celebration of hackerdom, but we soon realise that the bike messengers, speeding through the urban matrix, are experiencing that old cyberspace high: ‘She was entirely part of the city, then, one wild-ass little dot of energy and matter, and she made her thousand choices, instant to instant, according to how the traffic flowed, how rain glinted on the streetcar tracks.’ This sublime integration reaches its climax when characters turn themselves into machines, ‘clossing over for good’ as they download their personalities into ROM and merge with the net. As Bukatman argues in Terminal Identity, the effect of Gibson’s transcendent neuromanticism is ‘to construct a new subject-position to interface with the global realms of data circulation’: in other words, to project a place for the human in the brave new technological reality. Not everyone will want to follow this triumphant post-humanism, but then one attraction of Gibson’s work is his equal fascination with what gets abandoned in the process of upgrading ourselves and our hardware to next year’s model. Gibson is particularly fond of the Japanese word gomi – ‘rubbish’ – even though he has a most un-Japanese sense of the potential of piles of accumulated stuff.

This beachcomber aesthetic is everywhere apparent, his novels and stories arrive cluttered with endless lists of things and populated by artists who work exclusively with ‘garbage, kipple, refuse, the sea of cast-off goods our century floats on’. In one novel, Count Zero, there is even a rogue Artificial Intelligence which passes its time constructing boxes enclosing bones, circuitboards and fragments of old lace, delicate collages inspired by the American Surrealist Joseph Cornell and redolent with the ‘evocation of impossible distances, of loss and yearning’.

Gibson’s love of cyberjunk finds its boldest expression in Virtual Light’s image of the Oakland Bay Bridge. Abandoned after the earthquake that has finally shaken California, the bridge has been taken over by the homeless and dispossessed. The twin decks now form a symbolic ‘accretion of dreams’: tattoo parlours, gaming arcades, Thai restaurants, living shacks, all cobbled together from scrapmarble walls scavenged from forgotten banks, the wingless carcass of a 747, entire house-trailers ‘winched up and glued into the suspension with big gobs of adhesive’. Across the bay lies San Francisco, which a Singaporean corporation plans to rebuild from the ground up, vast tower blocks ‘grown’ from miniature robots, the very latest in German nanotechnology. The precarious shantytown represents an alternative version of tomorrow’s cityscape. Even when everything is known and owned and plotted, Gibson will be right there, ‘watching myths take root in a parking lot’.