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  • Virtual Light
  • Lance Olsen
Gibson, William. Virtual Light. New York: Bantam, 1993.

I. Cyberpunk 101, or: The Luminous Flesh of Giants

Until now, and for no particular reason, PMC hasn’t reviewed a novel. And it seems appropriate that the first novel to be reviewed in these electronic pages should be one by none other than the godfather of cyberpunk, William Gibson. A cultural impulse birthed in the mid-eighties, and disowned as a concerted movement by its creators fewer than four years later, cyberpunk is still very much a cultural phenomenon—as a quick skim through the hallucinatory and info-dense pages of the Berkeley-based magazine Mondo 2000, or its how-to book, A User’s Guide to the New Edge (1992), will tell you. The very name cyberpunk fuses and confuses the techno-sphere of cybernetics, cybernauts, and, most of all, computer hacking, with the countercultural socio-sphere of punk, the embodiment of anarchic violence, fringe mentality, and a sincere (even naive) attempt to return to the raw roots of rock n’roll. Cyberpunk was, and is, in some very spooky and some very exhilarating ways, a whole heck of a lot more than merely a short-lived trend, some simulacrous eighties echo of Poundian Imagism or Boccionian Futurism.

For a whole bunch of people it’s a way of life—a phenomenon that far exceeds the discourse of its shrill self-proclaimed mouthpiece, Bruce Sterling (whose cyberpunk manifesto appeared in his 1986 cyberpunk anthology, Mirrorshades), as well as that of Marc Laidlaw, Pat Cadigan, John Shirley, K. W. Jeter, Lewis Shiner, and the other writers originally associated with the term.

Just modem into a couple of underground bulletin boards around the country—The Temple of the Screaming Electron (510-935-5845) with Jeff Hunter’s BBS Review, a comprehensive listing of international fringe BBS’s; or maybe Private Idaho (208-338-9227) with its deep-seated information-wants-to-be-free message; or perhaps Burn This Flag (408-363-9766) with its cybersex scenarios involving, I kid you not, everything from nose fetishes to water sports—and you will find a lot of people who want, like Andy Warhol, to be a machine. The plethora of electronic subcultures, each with its own codes, languages, and styles, can make you feel old at twenty-five, already past the point of ever being able to keep up with it all.

Little cults embrace Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, with its speedy surreal images, thickly textured information, and techno-sleaze ambiance. Sonic Youth dedicates a song called “The Sprawl” to Gibson on the 1988 album, Daydream Nation. Kathy Acker openly pla(y)giarizes whole parts of her 1988 novel, Empire of the Senseless, from Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer. A cover story in Time (February 8, 1993, there goes the neighborhood) focusing on the cyberpunk moment is laid out like a series of pages from, what else, Mondo 2000. Billy Idol’s really bad 1993 album Cyberpunk comes replete with its video about the LA riots, “Shock to the System,” featuring a Terminator-esque Idol transmogrifying into a cyborg with a TV camera protruding from his eye-socket. Scott Bukatman’s fascinating Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, out just months ago from prestigious Duke University Press, nips hot at the heels of the excellent 1991 Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction, edited by Larry McCaffery and containing pieces by everyone from J. G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs to Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida.

Idol’s, Bukatman’s, and McCaffery’s projects of course also suggest that appropriation and commodification— academic and otherwise—have set in. So what else is new? But in many ways, William Gibson continues to stand at the center of this cultural firestorm as the guy whose seminal Matrix Trilogy—composed of Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1990), and foreshadowed by some of the stories collected in Burning Chrome (1986)—explored, among other things, computer-generated reality, information as the new power base, and a grungy near-future universe that looked way too much like our own present one for comfort...

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