Unevenly Distributed – Cyberpunk as a Social and Mental Laboratory (Part 2)

The previous post in this series covered how Cyberpunk acts as a mental and social laboratory for new concepts, new ways of looking at the world. Now that we’ve established the background, I want to take a closer look at two other, quite different cyberpunk works of fiction (which incidentally happen to be two of my favourites): Neuromancer and The Diamond Age.

Unevenly Distributed

There’s a famous quote from William Gibson which goes, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” This is a pretty good summation of the present, and tends to be carried on into the future in a lot of cyberpunk. In our world, we have people walking around with powerful computers in their pockets, which give access to nearly the sum total of human knowledge within seconds, contrasted against grinding poverty and starvation. Inequality and hardship define the lives of many. We’ve reached a stage where real life is beginning to look a lot like some of the dystopian visions of the future imagined thirty or so years ago.

It’s appropriate that the genesis of the genre came in a similar period of conspicuous consumption and rampant inequality. Neuromancer, released in 1984 and written on a typewriter at a time when personal computers were still extremely basic and the internet as we know it today was a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, articulated this near-future world perfectly. In fact, the term “cyberspace” originates within its pages, and Gibson’s vision of a networked web of billions of computers where everyone has access from a device in their pocket has turned out to be startlingly accurate. We can forgive the little things he slightly misses (selling 3Mb of RAM for a plane ticket, for instance, or full immersion online), because the overall picture is so compelling.

Part of the problem in analysing Neuromancer as a work of cyberpunk fiction is that it appears to be the genesis for so many of the tropes that are now considered distinctive to the genre. Sexy female assassins with built-in blades? Check. Skull-mounted sunglasses providing a HUD to said sexy assassin (see also: Deus Ex: Human Revolution)? Check. “Jacking in” to an immersive online environment (think The Matrix or Ghost in the Shell – incidentally, the web’s called “the matrix” in the novel)? Check. A dystopian world controlled by giant mega-corporations? Check. Badass space-Rastafarians? Check. Well, okay, I’ve not come across them anywhere else, but they’re just cool. It’s these details, the vignettes and throwaway snippets of information about the diegetic world which serve to draw you in to the point where you can almost smell the grime of neon-lit back alleys.

The world-building element illustrated so well by Neuromancer is one common to the genre as a whole. Because it’s interested in the underdog, the down-and-out hacker forced up against the wall by a corrupt system, the people on the fringes fighting to survive, cyberpunk necessarily portrays its protagonists’ worlds in as much detail as possible – warts and all. The places where the system breaks down can only truly be explored if you don’t ignore the products of those failings: the crime-lords, the homeless, the strung out junkies, the prostitutes. Those fringes exist in our world, and it is the job of sci fi to hold up a mirror and reflect them back to us, twisted and dark, but visible nonetheless. Both Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age and Gibson’s Neuromancer take their protagonists from these liminal spaces. As in real life, the worlds built around the characters are in fact necessary to produce them in the first place.

In Notes Towards a Post-Cyberpunk Manifesto, Lawrence Person argues that The Diamond Age and works with a variety of similar characteristics should be defined as ‘post-cyberpunk’. For Person, their heroes usually try to reform a broken system – or create something better – rather than simply aiming for its destruction, and this, among other things, renders them distinct from previous cyberpunk. While I understand his point, I think Person’s being too rigid in his definition of genre; he also suggests that this development is a result of writers who were in their 20s in the 1980s ‘growing up’ and becoming less radical as they did so. I do not believe this to be the case (or indeed relevant), but I can see where he’s coming from, and it’s certainly true that the works he defines as ‘post-cyberpunk’ are more concerned with characters who attempt to improve the world’s lot. Personally, I rather like that.

The Diamond Age feels markedly different to Neuromancer, and, as Person points out, the classic cyberpunk protagonist to whom we’re introduced in the first few pages gets himself killed in a rather gruesome manner near the start. The heroine of Stephenson’s novel is his daughter, Nell, who starts off on the bottom rung of what is nominally a post-scarcity society with advanced nanotechnological engineering and ‘matter compilers’ to provide food and water for everyone free of charge.

The simple provision of food, clothing, and water doesn’t create a utopian society similar to Star Trek, however. The world is still divided and stratified, but instead of nations and corporations, humans are organised into latter-day tribes – ‘phyles’ – formed around common interests, philosophies, or ethnic identification. Those without a phyle (such as Nell) are known as ‘thetes’ and excluded from most of society, left to survive in the urban wild. Despite the lack of scarcity in terms of food and clothing, there is still inequality and there are still spaces from which revolutions and more radical, stranger changes can come.

Aside from being a very interesting idea, the way in which he organises society in the novel allows Stephenson to analyse different aspects of the societies to which the phyles loosely equate (Han Chinese, “Anglo-Saxon” New Atlantis, Nippon). Nell views this fractured society from the classicl cyberpunk outsider’s perspective, but with a far more positivist spin than, say, Neuromancer’s Case. The terrible things she experiences as the novel follows her growth into adulthood do not make her the bitter and cynical washed-up hacker archetype, but provide her with the raw material to enact world-shaking changes.

Person is right to suggest that works like The Diamond Age, written a decade or so after the initial flowering of cyberpunk in the ‘80s, take a different approach to the social problems they portray. However, I would view this as a maturing of the genre, rather than the budding of a new one. With the more positivist, proactive attitude taken by Nell and the other main characters in Stephenson’s novel, we see a genre finally beginning to get up off the sofa and suggest solutions rather than simply pointing out the cracks. Despite the brilliance of Gibson’s writing in Neuromancer, the world it depicts is just as dark and depressing at the end as on page 1. This doesn’t mean that it’s inferior at all, merely that it sets aside for others one of the jobs sci fi tends to do so well: that of imagining how we can overcome our own dark impulses and fix or replace broken systems.

Both novels are excellent, and I advise anyone reading this to pick them up as soon as they can. You’ll be missing out otherwise. They also trace the development of the genre across a decade, and we can see by comparison that the development Lawrence Person terms ‘post-cyberpunk’ – and I see as merely a genre becoming more complex – is a necessary and enriching one. We as a species are very, very good at thinking our way out of problems. Given that the world is looking awfully similar to it these days, near-future sci fi which tries to posit fixes to problems just around the corner is needed more than ever.

2 thoughts on “Unevenly Distributed – Cyberpunk as a Social and Mental Laboratory (Part 2)

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