The following is a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago and never got around to editing and polishing up. In the interim, the site Public Books published an excerpt from Fredric Jameson’s most recent book, where he discusses Neuromancer and touches on some of the same issues I have with the term “cyberspace.” I haven’t read the whole article, which is long and uses jargon, and quotes from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which I find only sometimes helpful. I’ve inserted one comment about the Jameson piece within this one.
I actually read this book last summer, though it appeared thirty years ago, in the year I graduated from high school. It’s Gibson’s first novel, the book that initiated the idea of cyberpunk, and defined the term “cyberspace.” The main character is a former hacker—surgically altered in order to connect to the necessary equipment—who’s become a drug addict and is offered the chance to do one last job and win his freedom, and get clean and sober in the process. Actually, he isn’t given the choice. He’s been surgically altered again, by force, so that recreational drugs will have no effect on him, and so that if he doesn’t get an antidote, when the job is over, he will die. He has to complete his task and persuade his employer to allow him to live.
I didn’t like it a whole lot. I’m pretty much always irritated by the depiction of “cyberspace” as a space in which people can move around and operate as if they were in some kind of physical reality. In the case of cyberpunk fiction, the idea always seems to be of everything beyond the screen and keyboard as existing in a kind of hallucination, some deeper vision or understanding of the world, the kind sometimes mimicked by drugs. You get jacked in, doncha know, and then you can see everything, man! In reality, depending on the level you’re focusing on, what’s on the other side are databases and books, or people, or software code that was written by people, or application interfaces that were designed by people for other people to use. It’s cool, when you think about what it is, and it’s cool when you first encounter it, but after you get used to it, it’s just ones and zeros. But that makes for good fiction, and destroys the fiction that turns coding and hacking into manly pursuits on the order of flying a fighter jet.
On the contrary, in my experience, which I admit consists of a very small data set, women are more likely to anthropomorphize software, to think of stepping through a program as physically walking a path, than are men.
(At the same time, I think Jameson overstates things when he says, “[C]yberspace is a literary invention and does not really exist, however much time we spend on the computer every day. There is no such space radically different from the empirical, material room we are sitting in, nor do we leave our bodies behind when we enter it.” Cyberspace—in my opinion—I have no idea whether it’s Gibson’s—does represent something different from the “empirical, material” that can be described using the techniques of realist fiction. Cyberspace as a literary device suggests the difference but doesn’t so much explain it.)
Anyway, it’s possible to see the interface Gibson describes—a physical set of nodes, attaching a hacker to his computer terminal, and a three-dimensional virtual reality interface that depicts the sites to be hacked as physical structures, with their defenses depicted as elements of video games—as a metaphor for the computer equipment (and the thought involved in thinking about the network) as “affordances,” in the sense Matthew Crawford describes in The World Beyond Your Head.
The other thing that irritated me about the book was its intense downmarket cool. To me, this always plays as a romanticizing and exoticizing of criminals and poor people (along with a refusal to distinguish between the two, and often to distinguish among working class and poor and downright dangerous). It’s appropriate to noir and to some other genres, but when it’s used in a science-fiction setting—especially when it becomes techno-cool—it seems too often to be making a point that the scenery can’t really support. When Margaret Atwood describes high-speed rail lines that stop only in secured upper-class enclaves and leave the middle-class and poor behind, in Oryx and Crake, the reader sees immediately that her point is to expose the inequality of our society, and suggest that we’re very, very close to being there already. When Gibson describes involuntary servitude enforced by recourseless kidnapping and the surgical insertion of medical devices, there’s no clear and immediate application to our own world, but the reader feels there should be. While whether or not you like reading this sort of thing will depend on whether you want to read that kind of physically explicit noir.
I’ve only read three books by Gibson—Zero History, Neuromancer, and Peripheral—and this was the one I liked least. It shares many of (what I assume are) the Gibson trademarks: clever, problem-solving men, ass-kicking women, and subcultures of both poor—space Rastafarians, among others, in Neuromancer—and rich—a private space station run for the benefit of super-oligarchs. These are what made the novel worth reading for me. I like, too, the way he handles the boring spaces of de-ruralizing and suburbanizing America—Raymond Carver country without the excessive nostalgia (when these aren’t again suffering from the over-romanticizing and techno-hyping of the slum-based sections). It’s a classic of SF, and when I can get my hands on the sequels, I’m sure I’ll read them.