This won’t be easy. But, it may be the future, at least according to a number of science-fiction writers collectively known as the “cyberpunks.” More disturbingly, there seems to be a number of scientists and researchers who agree. Hang on.
The first part of the word cyberpunks comes from cybernetics, a term coined by Norbert Wiener in 1948. Essentially, cybernetics deals with informational feedback, which is of some importance to the age in which we find ourselves. Even though the electromechanical devices of today have an apparent dominance, it’s superficial. Consider, for example, your VCR. An electromechanical device, right? Yes, but useless without the information—audio and visual—coded on the tape. You can hold up a piece of conventional film to light and see images; do that with a videotape and you’ll see nothing. Another example is the CD. And while personal computers proved to be a bust in the home market, even the smallest businesses are equipped with PC’s.
Important to note about PC’s and other computers is that the “hardware,” the nuts and bolts, is of lesser importance than the software, or the instructions, that make it work. Software, of course, is information.
The last half of the term cyberpunk is easy. It refers to a tendency to be hardedged and street-smart in the alleys and stainless steel sewers that few others dare to tread. This environment would scare the pants off an Isaac Asimov. It’s a postnuclear landscape that cyberpunks inhabit, a place wherein conventional geopolitical boundaries cease to exist, torn asunder by multinational corporations and collectives.
Since speculative fiction must be an extrapolation from a given, the possibility of such a world becomes increasingly evident. Large corporations are becoming larger through buy-outs of other corporations and through “partnerships” or joint ventures, usually with foreign firms. It’s a case of power simultaneously expanding and becoming more concentrated. Think of it as nuclear fusion.
Physically, in the world of cyberpunks, technology has proliferated so that the environment does not resemble the antiseptic interior of the starship Enterprise but the dark and damp guts of the Nostromo in the film Alien. The place tends to be Earth. And even if it’s elsewhere, there is a degree of sameness, as opposed to the exotic differences characteristic of earlier sci-fi writers. It’s a gritty reality, to be sensed in the video arcades of today, particularly since they have lost much of their popularity. Game screens vary from eye-aching brightness to a low-burning flicker; the plastic surfaces are scarred and fatigued; silver-colored duct tape serves as the Band-Aid of aching electrical lines. Hangers-on wear black T-shirts bearing the emblems of a fascist nightmare. Their jeans are worn, not through use, but as if they have been exposed to a steady stream of atomic particles. Sexuality is there, like a low-frequency hum, but it’s a hard-edged condition.
Who are these writers? They include Bruce Sterling (The Artificial Kid and Schismatrix), Greg Bear (Eon), and Rudy Rucker (The 57th Franz Kafka). Premier among them is William Gibson, Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick, awards-winning author of Neuromancer and Count Zero. To rephrase a line from Stephen King to describe Clive Barker, “I have seen the future of the future. His name is William Gibson.” He writes like a man with electricity in his veins and semiconductors for nerves.
Consider the first line of Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television”—not much there, sort of a high-school image—”tuned to a dead channel”: a dead-reckoned payoff. In Gibson’s world, technology tends to be cheap and humans nothing more than technological extensions:
Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button. Stop hustling and you sank without a trace, but move too swiftly and you’d break the fragile surface of the black mark; either way, you were gone, with nothing left of you but some vague memory in the mind of a fixture like Ratz, though heart or lungs or kidneys might survive in the service of some stranger with New Yen for the clinic tanks.
As repulsive as the market for body parts may sound, Gibson is positively benign compared to the contemporary use of brain grafts from dead fetuses for curing neurological disorders.
The physical setting of Gibson’s two novels is “BAMA, the Sprawl, the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis.” A look at a population-density map generated from data provided by a Landsat satellite will make the evidence of a creeping megalopolis clear; dreams of agrarian existence will have to be located in New Mexico (or old).
But Gibson’s turf is “the matrix,” or “cyberstate.” It’s a place of pure information that can be accessed through one means only: by becoming “jacked-in” through a computer deck. It is the other-dimensional universe where software, the invisible network, takes on form, where consciousness—which is, in one sense, nothing more than bits and bytes—can circuitously travel. Once inside, the plot is not unlike that of any other pop fiction: the “good guy,” typically an outcast, must overcome seemingly impossible odds as he takes on the enemy, usually an individual who is one with a massive organization.
What is off-putting is that cyberspace is not merely Gibson’s invention:
It is now well established that neutral networks [i.e., “cognitive information processing structure(s) based upon models of brain function”] can carry out a number of powerful, general-purpose information processing operations. Among these are the implementation of an arbitrary continuous mapping from n-dimensional space to m-dimensional space based solely upon a set of examples of the mapping’s action.
This text goes on to discuss the Grossberg/Mingolla Vision Processing Network and the Kukushima Neocognition; the Kosko Fuzzy Cognitive Map; the Carpenter-Grossberg Adaptive Resonance Network; the Grossberg/ Kuperstein Oculomotor Control Neutral Network; and others. It is precisely the topology of Gibson’s universe. Yet it comes from the Hecht-Nielsen Neurocomputer Corporation of San Diego.
The field of neurocomputers is not the same as artificial intelligence. AI explores the ways and means to make computers “think” by developing rules and procedures (heuristics) that structure information from a data base into human-like knowledge. AI is something of an analog to human thinking. The neurocomputer people are actually building silicon chips that are an analog to the neural networks within our brains and are devising the procedures to enable them to work as such. AI can be thought of as two steps away from thinking; neurocomputers are just one step back. And assuming that developments continue apace—for example, instead of silicon, genetic engineers could undoubtedly provide neurocomputer people with an organic substance—we could find ourselves in a world wherein the “matrix” is, in a sense, tangible. The concept makes the skin crawl—human flesh, not that material grown in the tanks of the Nephrine Black Medicals of Sterling’s Schismatrix.
With few exceptions, SF tends to be escapist. Many—if not most—of its contemporary works have been subpar. This can be dated from the release of Star Wars. Some publishers, apparently, figured that if a space opera could make millions, then their techno concertos could do pretty well, too. They failed to realize that it is the visual texture that makes Star Wars, not the Force. But in spite of that, there has been the deluge of would-be Skywalkers and sword-andsorcery variations on Tolkien.
Cyberpunk SF is, in contrast, something that can result in thinking. When its writers are at their best, they are a vacuum-sintered amalgam of J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and William Burroughs; radioactive heavy metals. Their work is as disturbing as they seem to be disturbed. In a very real sense, this rending of comfortable conventions serves a cautionary function. In a world where teenage West German hackers can tap into NASA top secret data banks a continent away (through the “matrix,” presumably), and a “well-meaning” genetic researcher can inject trees with a bioengineered product (he was reported tearful when he had to cut the mutants down), writers that throw expectations into hyperspace and jar our bearings certainly deserve our attention.
And since they are hip, it’s all for the better.