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Reviewed by:
Scott Bukatman. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

By now it’s pretty clear that the defining technology, our legacy for the future from the last half of the twentieth century, has not been the atom bomb nor information, but cybernetics. Ours has been and will continue to be the Cybernetic Age, the age of evolving feedback loops among culture, communication media, computers and our individual cognitive states. Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity captures the sensibility and traces the anxieties of this age from a post-critical, post-apocalyptic and postmodern perspective that says it’s all over except for the shouting. Bukatman’s the one to do that shouting. The result is a staccato, neuromantic book of thick prose, joyriding, rapping (mixing) and zapping (channel surfing) its way among the terminals of modern, and perhaps even Western civilization. Terminal Identity is to literary criticism what “Videodrome” is to “Gilligan’s Island.”

I could go on wisecracking like this forever, or at least while I wait for Netscape to track down all references on the World Wide Web to the landmark legal case D. Porush vs. Prodigy, but you get the drift. Bukatman’s thesis is that much recent science fiction across the interfertilizing media of television, comics, fiction, movie, music, video games, computer software, and haut pomo cultural criticism and philosophy attempts “to construct a new subject-position to interface with the global realms of data circulation.” This data circulation synthesizes imaginative realms residing somewhere between public culture and individual identity, “the cyberspaces of contemporary existence,” which destroy all our old props and mutate us into post-humans as we are force-marched into cyberdiaspora. [End Page 224]

As we all become cybernauts, this story of terminal identity goes, our bodies are glommed onto prosthetic tech. We are all terminator-cyborgs. Our very genetic codes become the object of cybernetic manipulation. Morality, traditionally rooted in the body, or at least the control of the mind over the impulses of the body, is obsolete, since the body and mind both become infinitely plastic as we morph and mutate to fulfill fluctuant desires. Even the unconscious, that Viennese Modern hell, seems a silly flirtation, at best an anticipation of cyberspace, at worst a (cigar) smokescreen in front of an empty Victorian closet of vices. Culture gives way to self-cultivation in the sense that a gardener might cultivate a rose bush, through grafting and genetic tech. The soul remains in suspension, downloaded into sentient software packages.

Science fiction, according to Bukatman’s expanded pan-media view of it, is therefore, for its prescience and responsiveness to this critical moment, the informing genre of our cybernetic age, struggling to posit some value against which we can measure the effects of largely dispiriting technophobian vistas. That value is usually some ineffable sense of being human. In its groping after value, this pan-generic SF must reinvent, more vigorously than the old high cultural forms and genres, robust new expressions, new styles, new perspectives, working in the new media it has helped envision. Bukatman plays a kind of Jeopardy for the cyber-criticism set: The answer is the dissolution of all boundaries. The question is, What is the master narrative when we are all going toward terminal identity? Presiding over this master narrative, its godfathers and godmother, are Baudrillard, Burroughs, Samual Delaney, Deleuze and Guattari, William Gibson, Haraway, Jameson, McLuhan, and Terminator 2 (for its dark morph aesthetic). I would add to Bukatman’s party list that old Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, who suggested that the function of art was to prolong the audience’s “moment of perception” by “defamiliarizing” (or in the translation I prefer—“deautomatizing”) the scene of experience through the invention of an alien style and structure, an idea echoed by Larry McCaffery (whom Bukatman does quote) in Storming the Reality Studio. But a master narrative about the dissolution of all boundaries is a hopelessly slippery construction. Bukatman struggles against its mercurial slickness by trying to impose some structure on his thousands of cut-up and paste back references, quotations, allusions, centrifugal [End Page 225] associations. This is...

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