Lesson 11: Cyberpunk and the Singularity

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define “cyberpunk” science fiction and describe what is meant by “post-cyberpunk.”
  • Discuss how modern science fiction has evolved as a genre from the earlier works of SF you have read throughout this course.

Readings
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Accelerando, by Charles Stross

Introduction

As the influence of the major magazine editors waned, the science fiction field lost the philosophical consensus that characterized the genre throughout the early twentieth century. Virtually every dozen years after Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, a new magazine or a new editor brought a new vision of what science fiction could be, attracted a new kind of writer to create it, or persuaded older writers to transform themselves: 1926—Amazing Stories; 1938—Campbell’s Astounding; 1950—Boucher and McComas’s F&SF and Gold’s Galaxy; 1964—Moorcock’s New Worlds.

But no such powerhouse editor ever arose among the book publishers, and as a result, the science fiction field experienced an unprecedented splintering of philosophies and styles. It was not until 1984 that a novel came along unique enough in its vision and forceful enough in its presentation to create something similar to the transformations brought about by the magazines. That novel was Neuromancer by William Gibson, and the movement it launched was cyberpunk.

Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter, never having seen a computer, but his creation of a computer-important world not only captured the imagination of his readers but significant attributes of the world yet to come. To get a visual equivalent, watch the 1982 film Blade Runner. Gibson recalled that he walked out after the first fifteen minutes of the film because it was exactly what he was writing about.

The world Gibson imagines is governed by international corporations, primarily Japanese, with the help of computers and the computer-experts who operate them, as well as by massive new artificial intelligences (AIs), about whom the plot revolves. Case is a “matrix cowboy . . . hired to link a digital version of his mind into cyberspace itself,” as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction summarizes, “and, once ‘inside,’ to steal data.” Ultimately he must cope with competing AIs in their attempts to resolve their differences.

One of the characteristics of cyberpunk is its depiction of a future world so powerful and so complex that no one can predict its behavior or control its outcome. The world is seen from the viewpoint of street people who survive only by knowing the nooks and crevices of the world where they can hide and get by—hence the “punk” of the genre. The “cyber” part is described in Gibson’s definition of “cyberspace”: “A consensual hallucination . . . a graphic representation of data abstracted from every computer in the human system.” The punk portion, as Paul Kincaid has pointed out, deals with the fact that “these stories were largely about an underclass in a world gone sour. In many ways the most lasting legacy is that aspect of their fiction which was perhaps least appreciated at the time: their vision of a crumbling future.”

Gibson is concerned with the importance and fragility of memory, the tenuous distinction between human and machine, suspicion and fear of multinational corporations’ control over information and individuals, a distrust of normalcy, the instability of postmodern society and self, a longing for a transcendent realm beyond the meat world, a complex relationship between the mind and the body, the artist as outlaw and the outlaw as artist.

Neuromancer also is distinguished by its style. Lance Olsen, in The St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, writes that Gibson “places a premium on information density, detail and inventory, syntactical flash and burn, that remains foreign to much SF, and on a surreal poetic intensity enhanced by the use of narrative jump-cuts fast as those found on MTV, striking juxtapositions, frequent use of metaphors anchored in an art of the unpleasant, and a fertile ambiguity generated by writing about the future as if it were the present. . . . The outcome is that several pages routinely pass after the first mention of an object or term before the reader can fully piece together its function and meaning.” Brooks Landon has said that Gibson’s prose aspires to the information density of film and thus may be doomed to failure.

These qualities and their subject launched a movement popularized by Bruce Sterling in his mimeographed newsletter “Cheap Truth” and his anthology Mirrorshades and picked up by other writers including such unique talents as the late George Alec Effinger and Pat Cadigan. In the introduction to Mirrorshades, Sterling summarized the ways in which cyberpunk borrowed from and departed from long-running currents in science fiction:

The cyberpunks as a group are steeped in the lore and tradition of the SF field. Their precursors are legion. Individual cyberpunk writers differ in their literary debts; but some older writers, ancestral cyberpunks perhaps, show a clear and striking influence.

From the New Wave: the streetwise edginess of Harlan Ellison. The visionary shimmer of Samuel Delany. The free-wheeling zaniness of Norman Spinrad and the rock esthetic of Michael Moorcock; the intellectual daring of Brian Aldiss; and, always, J.G. Ballard.

From the harder tradition: the cosmic outlook of Olaf Stapledon; the science/politics of H.G. Wells; the steely extrapolation of Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, and Robert Heinlein.

And the cyberpunks treasure a special fondness for SF's native visionaries: the bubbling inventiveness of Philip Jose Farmer; the brio of John Varley; the reality games of Philip K. Dick; the soaring, skipping beatnik tech of Alfred Bester. With a special admiration for a writer whose integration of technology and literature stands unsurpassed: Thomas Pynchon.
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Science fiction--at least according to its official dogma--has always been about the impact of technology. But times have changed since the comfortable era of Hugo Gernsback, when Science was carefully enshrined--and confined--in an ivory tower. The careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control.

For the cyberpunks, by stark contrast, technology is visceral. It is not the bottle genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds. (Sterling. "Preface." Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. New York: Ace Books. 1986.)

Today, no one claims to be writing cyberpunk, but the subgenre’s characteristics have been absorbed into the larger body of science fiction, as the New Wave was before. Charles Stross’s Accelerando is an example of what James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel called “post-cyberpunk,” in a 2008 anthology by that name. It also has been called, by its author among others, “post-human.” Certainly the characters who move through the information-dense world of the future imagined by Stross are sufficiently different from us that a new term seems appropriate.

Accelerando echoes the “cyber” portion of cyberpunk. It is saturated with data and crowded with computers and even artificial intelligences. Some of these are a further development of existence in cyberspace, or even transformation into digital form of life-forms such as lobsters (the subject of the first section, published separately as an award-winning novelette). But Acclerando’s sensibilities are not punk. Manfred Macx and his offspring are riding the information explosion, not victims of it, and the corporations that these post-humans sometimes encounter seem less able to cope than individuals.

The problem, instead, seems to be the hyperbolic ascent of the innovation curve toward the point of no return, which author Vernor Vinge has called “the Singularity”—the point when computer intelligence will outgrow human ability to control or even understand. Decades earlier, R. A. Lafferty had described in “Slow Tuesday Night” a near-future in which (by removal of what he called “the abebaeous block”) people could experience several careers in eight-hours. Lafferty’s story was a satire of the way life is speeding up; Accelerando deals with how people have to accelerate their ways of processing information in order to keep up.

Where Neuromancer seemed like the imagined near-future reality of a writer with a good imagination, Accelerando seems more like the imagined near-future reality written by a “nerd.” Gibson had never used a computer when he wrote Neuromancer; Stross has degrees in pharmacy and computer science, and worked as a computer programmer. He has been categorized with “a new generation of British science-fiction writers who specialize in hard science fiction and space opera,” and Accelerando has been called “the rapture of the nerds.”

Here is how Stross describes his novel: “Accelerando is a family saga that follows three generations of a dysfunctionally postmodern lineage right through a Vingean singularity, as recounted by the family's robot cat. It's much, much weirder than that, though.”

The chapters of Accelerando were published separately and to great acclaim as short stories. In all, the stories earned a total of four Hugo nominations, one Nebula nomination, two Sturgeons, one BSFA, and a Seiun shortlisting—before the book was even finished! The complete novel was shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association Award, Arthur C. Clarke, and Hugo awards, and won the Locus Readers Award.

Incidentally, a curious parallel exists between Manfred Macx’s behavior and Stross’s: Macx doesn’t believe in ownership and gives his inventions away; Stross, like his some-time collaborator Cory Doctorow, believes in posting his fiction for free downloads.
Writing Assignment
Consider some or all of the following questions and submit a brief (approximately 500-word-long) writing assignment. Your assignment need not be formal, but it should demonstrate comprehension of the required readings and a well-developed understanding of how this lesson's material relates to the development of the science fiction genre.

  • How would you describe the near-future imagined by Neuromancer?
  • Another term for “cyberpunk” was invented by editor Gardner Dozois: “the New Romantics.” Is cyberpunk “romantic”? Is there a fundamental contradiction between its premises and its fictional expression?
  • H. G. Wells’ science fiction was called “scientific romance.” In what sense was it a development of romanticism? On the other hand, science fiction also is a descendant of naturalism—the fantastic considered naturalistically. How does Neuromancer exemplify these tendencies? How would you expect science fiction to evolve from Neuromancer?
  • What is significant about Accelerando? In terms of the Singularity? In terms of language? In terms of the density of information? Compare with Neuromancer.
  • Explain the sentence: “You’re still locked into a pre-singularity economic model that thinks in terms of scarcity.”
  • What does Stross mean by “We carry the seeds of a singularity within us, and if we try to excise these seeds we cease to be human”?
  • What is the impact of Singularity fiction and where do you think it is going from here?

Submit your assignment following the email instructions.