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March 19, 2011 / tietze

Neuromancer: Cyberpunk and Novum Ownership (Pt. 1)

Neuromancer is Cyberpunk and Cyberpunk is Neuromancer. That’s how it’s supposed to go.

Though the term Cyberpunk was first used in a short story published in 1983 actually called “Cyberpunk”, the word’s birth is usually attributed to William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer. This is understandable. According to Timothy Leary, Gibson has, through his trilogy of Cyberpunk novels (Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive), “produced nothing less than the underlying myth, the core legend, of the next stage of human evolution.”
And this is precisely what Cyberpunk, as a sub-genre, serves to achieve.

But we ought to break it down. What’s in a word? In this instance, ‘cybernetics’ and ‘punk’. To focus on the latter first. As a movement, it’s not what one would usually associate with science fiction. Focussed by frequently aggressive, atonal music, it had its greatest social impact in late 1970s Britain, and had piss all to do with dreaming of a bright future as all too many editions of Tomorrow’s World at the time would have us believe was around the corner.

Certainly, when I hear the word punk being used, I tend to think first of the Sex Pistols and an episode of The Goodies made at the time as a satire on the punk wave, rather than science fiction. I think disgraceful haircuts, torn clothes, safety pins in all manner of distinctly unsafe places.

And phenomenally good, melodically transgressive music.

I think youth pessimism on an enormous scale. I think rebellion, I think the fear generated by the onset of Thatcherism and its crass privatisation of existence itself. But above all, I think of angry music with negative lyrics, of youth uniting as something entirely new and simultaneously distinct and indistinct, of an outcry against the shape of western society – particularly after the death of the hippie era and the anti-conformist, anti-bureaucratic sentiments behind it. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s weren’t so much a time of harsh, violent rebellion, but they did represent a period in which society as we think we know it – capitalist, consumer-driven – was rejected as too ‘square’. Well, the same goes for punk, except it was a little more violent and a lot cruder.

But where does this put Cyberpunk? Is it an attempt to give longevity to “the latest fad”, as someone put it in that Goodies episode, to give it a future by giving the future to it?

I think this is partly true, as a lot of what went into punk has survived in works such as Neuromancer, but on a much grander scale. Corporations have taken over but nobody in the novel seems to like the fact. Rebellion still has its roots in looking ugly and dosing up on drugs. As Reagan turned to Bush and Bush again, as New Labour resembled Old Tory, it held prescient.

But fashions have changed in Gibson’s world, with safety pins turning into cybernetic “enhancements” and heroin evolving beyond chemicals and inside computers. Not only has this once chemically induced release from the woes of society hidden itself within the plastic walls of a PC, but also in the socially acceptable (indeed, socially necessary) form of the computer.

One gets the impression in Neuromancer that people still don’t know how to dress particularly well, or indeed that they don’t really care, and that they’re still fighting something bigger than them. Once this was the government, now it’s corporations. However, it still amounts to much the same thing: the notion of western society as the enemy. As Fred Jameson said of Cyberpunk, it is “the supreme literary expression… of late capitalism itself.”

(What an interesting notion: “late capitalism”. Given how long ago he penned those words, it’s got to be well past midnight by now, and capitalism is still running the party.)

So why did Gibson and others think there was hope in the notion of reviving punk through science fiction? If we look at the style of Neuromancer, and the world it positions its characters in, there are obvious nods to such cultural phenomena as Blade Runner (the film much more than its literary antecedent), which helped to bridge the gap between the death of that first punk wave and the birth of Cyberpunk. Does this suggest that Gibson was cowering from change during this transitional period? I doubt it, but it seems clear that it was less noticeable to him as a result of the bridging elements. Either that or he is, through Neuromancer, being retro.

The other root of the term Cyberpunk, as I mentioned, is cybernetics. This is a fairly popular science fiction concept, and it’s been toted as the most frightening to present-day society because, as some have claimed, it’s closer to us than any other SF concept. That this is clearly unfounded – the old favourite, computers, are now an obvious and integral part of our lives, and genetic engineering has surpassed cybernetics and the concept of ‘spare part surgery’ with its mechanically engineered spare parts.

(This is, of course, a pretty amazing feat, considering that DNA was only discovered in 1953, while works of fiction and hypothesis that specifically examine the integration of man and machine (the modern definition of cybernetics) date somewhat earlier, a good example being Bernard Wolfe’s 1952 Limbo 90. Admittedly, it can be argued that H G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau joins the genetics category, but then Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sits on both sides of the fence. So, it’s perhaps more fitting to categorise both approaches to bodily ‘enhancement’ as too inseparable to be considered distinctly.)

Cybernetics, like the aftertaste of punk, is splattered all over Neuromancer. It demands a deep analysis, as do claims to authorship and originality. But that’s going to wait a little while…

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