- Deuteronomy Comix
Late in his critique of the cyberpunk vogue, Andrew Ross turns his attention to what may be its ultimate expression—Cyberpunk: the Role-Playing Game. Here, he suggests, we may find the national pastime and true mythology of Cyberpunks-in-Boy’s- Town, a socializing ritual for aspiring dystopians. “The structure of the game,” Ross observes, represents “an efficient response to the cyberpunk view of survivalism in a future world where the rules have already been written in the present. True to the adaptational educational thinking from which roleplaying games evolved, the education of desire proceeds through learning and interpreting the rules of the play, not by changing them” (160). The game of Cyberpunk, as Ross sees it, offers not the differance of deconstruction, not the paralogies of postmodern science, not even the “euretics” of an Age of Video. It promises a new world order that looks suspiciously familiar, a bored fast-forward into a “future” that is actually a repeat loop grafted neatly onto the past.
Yet as Ross points out, William Gibson’s own myth of artistic origins stands at odds with this circularity. In an early short story, “The Gernsback Continuum,” Gibson’s protagonist suffers semiotic hauntings, visions not so much from Spiritus Mundi as off the covers of Amazing Stories. Much like the nation itself in the grip of Reaganoma, Gibson’s sufferer finds himself caught in a pernicious revision of history. His 1980 is steadily replaced by another 1980, one that seems to have been projected from 1925. He finds himself falling into the American future imagined by his grandparents, a world of flying-wing airliners, shark-finned bubble cars, and perfect Aryan citizens of Tomorrowland. The only thing that saves the poor man from complete psychic collapse is dystopian therapy: a crash diet of pornographic video and hardcore journalism, which reminds him that the utopian visions of science fiction’s Golden Age have no claim upon the world as we know it.
If we can read “The Gernsback Continuum” as an origin story for cyberspace fiction, then this kind of writing seems to set itself against the old utopian project of science fiction, insisting that we move not “back to the future” but instead (as the New Wave once had it) straight on from the confounded present. Novels like Gibson’s Neuromancer, Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net, and Rudy Rucker’s Wetware describe social upheavals triggered by rampant extension of current technological development. They thus offer an important corrective to the militarist saga-mongering of Star Wars and other forms of recycled space opera. Yet the cultural politics of science fiction do not arrange themselves in neat dialectical patterns. The utopianism of the Gernsback era had its moment of sincerity before it was commandeered by Hollywood jingoes; and as Ross demonstrates, the dystopian refusal of the cyberpunks turns all too easily into an apology for the military-entertainment complex.
This seems clear in what may be the culmination of the cyberspace project, Gibson and Sterling’s alternate history novel, The Difference Engine. Though these writers had earlier fled the Gernsback Continuum, in this work they fall headlong into the clutches of a far more evil empire, Great Britain’s circa 1855. In the world of The Difference Engine, Lord Byron has somehow avoided exile and death at Missolonghi, and under his dictatorship the Industrial Radical party has set up a savantocracy using gear-driven mechanical computers for panoptic social control. As an exploration of “difference” on the level of technics, the book is admirable. But in its very project The Difference Engine falls back into the same mode retro which the younger Gibson once condemned. Ursula LeGuin remarked a long time ago on the affinity of certain American science fiction writers for the ethos of the British Raj. Fleets of battle cruisers, voyages of discovery and conquest, the inhuman Other: all are fetishes of the 19th century transferred to the 21st or beyond. In their own way, Gibson and Sterling take us back to that racist, jingoist “future” at full steam; and of course this reversion...