Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Red Hot Flower of Hysteria

Fat's just finished Gibson's latest, Spook Country, + is following it up w/ a complete re-read of the entire Gibson werks.1 I have most recently rolled through Sterling's Globalhead & Shiner's Lost Cities of the Heart2, & currently need to resupply the unread book pile & am trying to figure out how to dispose of my copy of The Confusion w/o resorting to book burning. A'yup. We're those motherfuckers - sitting in the corner of the bar, talking about fucking SCIENCE FICTION, in front of everyone, OUT LOUD.3 Maybe its clear from previous writings, & maybe not, but we're kinda passionate about the subject. If anything, our hero-worship of the original 'cyberpunk' literary movement fuels a general critical eye towards a lot of stuff.4

I'm a bigger fan of Bruce Sterling than most, I gather. I thought Holy Fire was intriguing, and I think Islands in the Net is fantastic.5 I think I appreciate Sterling a bit more because I've read Last and First Men (1931) by Stapledon & I've read (& love) the Cheap Truth propaganda from 1983-86. Both lend a lot to Sterling's writings - not that there's a secret code or anything, but more of a "oh, I know where this guy is coming from here" kind of thing.

So. When me & Fat get to rappin' about the skiffy, I almost inevitably end up referencing Cheap Truth. I do this frequently but since I don't carry my printed version w/ me ALL the time, I usually end up getting something I said about CT quoted back at me by Fat & realize I may have mis-represented the source. So, partially as an exercise to piece together what are some of the more influential parts of CT, for me, & also to give Fat some real bonafide quotes, I provide the following bibliographic/annotated Cheap Truth.

CHEAP TRUTH 5: Exploring a 21st Century Pop Ideology

Issue 5 includes the humorous "mom + dad really like..." piece. It gets indirectly quoted & referenced by me frequently for the bits about made-up swear words & lack of sex &, indirectly, made-up drug names.
This year Mom and Dad really like STARTIDE RISING by David Brin and Greg Benford's AGAINST INFINITY. STARTIDE RISING especially; I mean, this is the kind of writing that Mom and Dad grew up on, full of "Golly's" and blushes and grins. And aren't those dolphins cute? They talk in poetry that sounds like it came right out of READER'S DIGEST. They'd rather hear that somebody "muttered an oath" or came out with some made-up word like "Ifni!" than be told that they really said "shit" or "shove it up your ass, motherfucker."

No sex, of course, or maybe just a noise in the night in somebody else's tent. And it has a nice moral, too -- something Mom and Dad have always known, though it hasn't always seemed that way these last couple of decades -- that WE are better than THEY are, and that's enough to pull us out of any trouble, particularly when THEY are slimy alien scum.

The Benford book is scary in spots -- this Ganymede place they're trying to fix up seems almost REAL in places, and this terraforming isn't anything like the way Uncle Frank went about fixing up his cabin by the lake. But everything's okay, because the hero, Manuel (isn't that a foreign name?) is everything they would want a son of theirs to be: a perfect neutered little adult. He doesn't curse or masturbate or even THINK about girls.


Nothings really fundamental here, for me. But a nice commentary, nonetheless, on the state of the sciffy ghetto, drawing comparisons between the more-read authors & junk food. Then, the 1st reference to Gibson's Neuromancer (before it won everything) as REAL literature that tastes like junk food.
There's a saying: "REAL programmers don't eat quiche... they eat Twinkies and Szechuan food." This kind of junk-food mentality is true of your typical SF fan, too. Your REAL SF fan doesn't read Priest. He doesn't read Dick or Ballard, either. He reads David Brin and Larry Niven and Anne McCaffrey. Junk food for the brain.
Certainly they like the taste of NEUROMANCER (by William Gibson, an Ace Special, $2.95 (Gollancz L 8.95)). I mean, this is high-tech enough to satisfy the most acned sixteen-year-old hacker whose only sex life is getting his modem on-line with an X-rated bulletin board. Never mind that it shows you how the future may very well BE, never mind the political issues, this guy knows what it's like the be plugged IN, man.

CHEAP TRUTH 10: Son of Kent State.

Here's a fun one: a breakdown of the 1985 Nebula award nominees. Includes a funny crack about Heinlein. More interestingly, further mention of Gibson's Neuromancer. Great joy at it being on the ballot, IN ADDITION TO Shiner's Frontera, a Sterling short story & others. A sort of moment of victory for these skiffy upstarts.
The 1985 Nebula Awards will be handed out on May 4, fifteen years to the day from the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio.

Once again the armed might of conservatism faces the radical vision of a new generation, this time across the distance of a ballot. The voices of repression range from the senile babblings of Robert Heinlein to the California vapidity of Larry Niven to the moist-eyed urgency of Kim Stanley Robinson; arrayed against them are William Gibson, Lewis Shiner, and Jack Dann. Can they prevail?

Every year Heinlein cranks out another volume of brain-dead maunderings; every year the sycophants cry "Heinlein is back!"; every year they lie. Even if JOB (Del Rey, $16.95) were a good book, or even a readable book, which I assure you it is not, why would anyone want to give this man a Nebula award? Plenty do, and it's for the same reason they gave Henry Fonda an Oscar for a movie as wretched as ON GOLDEN POND -- because he was no longer dangerous.


You've already heard about Gibson's NEUROMANCER (Ace, $2.95), and if you've got any sense you've already read it. This book had half again as many recommendations as its closest competitor to get on the preliminary Nebula ballot, and its brilliant depiction of a credible future has appealled to the sense of wonder in even the most hardened of intellects.

CHEAP TRUTH 12: Punk Postures

This is prob the issue that gets misquoted/misrepresented by me the most. I figure by this time Neuromancer had wom the triple crown (Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick awards) & the 'movement' is starting to get attention & press which its not really used to. The standard move, of course, is to knock yourself down a few notches, so what follows is an attempt to critique Neuromancer.
Now that NEUROMANCER has garnered so many accolades, maybe it's time to sit back and see just what heights have been climbed. The book has, yeah, STYLE -- that gritty fascination with surfaces signalled by the opening line, "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." Wonderful! TV as symbol for numbed reflexes, anomie, pollution, savage commercialism. And that slick style carries us forward on a garbage-reeking tide for... about a hundred pages.

Gibson, like Ballard, concentrates on surfaces as a way of getting at essences. All those brand names, Braun coffee makers, quilted consoles, obsessive attention to what everyone wears, glistening green ice cities...

But then you become uncomfortably aware that Gibson doesn't actually KNOW much about computers beyond brand names, and you are enmeshed in a standard pulp plot. The last third drags terribly, suspense hissing out like a puncture in a bald tire. (Indeed, all the guff about penetrating computer defenses depicted as a field of sensations -- this has become an instant freeze-dried cliche, a far cry from the actual experience and complexities of machine intelligence. Pretty, but not convincing.)

The tough characters never gain depth. The protagonist's inability to change, or even to shake his drug habit, creates a feeling of immobile futility. The promised confrontation of the artificial intelligences occurs virtually offstage, and we get no sense of their alienness.

Is this "punk SF" as Ellen Datlow keeps calling it? There are uncomfortable resemblances between the punk rock style of the '80's and the duckass ambience of the '50's, to be sure ... a sense of postures struck for rebellion, but without any emotional foundation deeper than distaste. Other than adolescent rebellion, soon to be quenched by the ebbing of hormones, there seems little heft to all this.

There is little true anger in NEUROMANCER or in punk rock. The rest is posturing, and finally rings hollow. Even NEUROMANCER's last sentence, "He never saw Molly again," echoes the older tough-guy postures of Chandler, whose first novel, THE BIG SLEEP, concludes, "All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again." Uh-huh. Gimmie a sim-stim, Fred. And double on the ennui.

If SF is to give us new lands, it will have to try harder than this. NEUROMANCER has little thought in it -- surely the shabby old corporate-run future, with Japanese electro-dominance, can't be counted as a new idea? -- but much attention to the cosmetics of a time only slightly beyond our own.

So -- punk WHAT? Actually, what do the purported punk SF writers have in common? Stylish Gibson, antic frazzled Sterling, the pure-hearted and liberal Robinson, hot-eyed Shirley -- all over 30, perhaps, but what else? I see no commonality of vision. Vague similarities -- bedazzled by technology, fond of street-savvy brutality, some preference for ravaged landscapes -- also link them with a horde of other SF writers.

But to become a movement demands some generational agreement, a narrative thrust... and something new. Only our habit of roping writers into eras makes us unite them. NEUROMANCER's dominance of this rather weak year for novels does not herald a revolution or a revelation.

CHEAP TRUTH 15: Report on the Sophomore Dress Code.

Really getting into that "how do we keep this raw energy going?" thing, now. More of what we saw in CT12, but more drawn out, more skeptical that anythings really "new" at all. You should prob just read this one in its entirety.
Sure, kids. We all want to think we're the first to discover sex and dissolution and good writing. The truth is that the wonderful new IDEAS that we're always trumpeting as the justification for SF High School's revolutionary edge over boring Mainstream Central High are available three for a quarter in your local pop science magazine; even better, try PARADE, right after the "Personality Profiles" and before the cartoon about the dog. What we call a revolutionary idea in SF is usually something like Del Rey's "Helen O'Loy" or Godwin's "The Cold Equations" or Gibson's "Burning Chrome." "What a novel idea -- instead of having the robot be an emotionless machine, make it neurotically emotional, like a real woman, only better! Have it be THE PERFECT WOMAN!!" "What a neat idea -- instead of having the stowaway be a criminal, make it a young girl! And have the spaceship pilot throw her out the airlock instead of saving her, to prove that THE UNIVERSE IS INDIFFERENT TO PEOPLE!!!" "Wow! -- instead of having the computer expert be a nerd, make him a glamorous, existential criminal! He acts like Humphrey Bogart and loses the girl in the end! Not only that, he PLUGS IN INSTEAD OF USING A KEYBOARD!!!"


Ah, the last CT. By this point, 'cyberpunk' is the new black, &, I gather, CT got a mention in RollingStone. So, editor Sterling does what any self-respecting DIY-type would do, & kills CT to save it. Lots of good stuff in this one, but I count the faux interview between CT & Sterling's alter-ego Vincent Omniaveritas as one of my faves.6
CT: Vince! Heard you were dead.

VO: (grunts) Not a scratch on me. CT, though, is definitely history.

CT: How come?

VO: (with a heavy sigh) A lot of reasons, really... First, Sherry and I have a kid on the way.... Yeah, thanks, we're thrilled about it too.... I have a book to do... And we bought a house. I had to change addresses, so it's a proper time to put an honorable end to this phase of operations. We don't want the next 12th Street tenants to be deluged, and possibly mentally harmed, by CT's twisted mail.

CT: Why on earth stop now? When the stuff you've been touting is really taking off?

VO: That's the very reason. I mean, when CHEAP TRUTH was mentioned in ROLLING STONE I knew the end was near. For CT to be cultural currency for those clapped-out yuppie breadheads... Jesus, what's next? The WALL STREET JOURNAL?

CT: But wasn't publicity the point?

VO: The whole point of CHEAP TRUTH was that anyone can do it. All you need is something to say, and a xerox. You don't need a clique or a bankroll or PR flacks. But now I've got crap like that, so I've changed. CT was a garage-band effort and looked it, deliberately. But I'm not a garage-band guy now. I've taught myself how to play, I got my own label and recording studio, I'm even big in Japan. I could lie about it, and pretend I was still really street-level, but it would be bogus. It would betray the who le ethos of the thing. Truth plus lies always equals lies.

Besides, a lot of the original freedom is gone. People know who I am, and they get all hot and bothered by personalities, instead of ideas and issues. CT can no longer claim the "honesty of complete desperation." That first fine flower of red-hot hysteria is simply gone.

CT: You sound bitter about it.

VO: Fuck no, man, the thing did exactly what I wanted it to. It was a successful experiment and had a big pay-off for all concerned. But it has limits. It's too small to get into the really heavy issues, at length. And it's okay as a straight propaganda broadside, but it's not much use as a forum for balanced discussion.

The work has to come first. The publicity can handle itself now. It's already a fucking juggernaut, so I don't see much point in getting out to push. I got better things to do.

CT: So you're saying you've cut a successful niche for yourself, is that it?

VO: The skiffy establishment, such as it is, still doesn't have the foggiest idea what we're up to. They think we're a bunch of PR hustlers, an inch deep, all candy-flake and chrome. They read CT and think, "gosh, what a hip publicity stunt, this year's model, they can't mean it, though." (Pauses, then bursts into sinister laughter)

CT: What about your readers, though?

VO: If they miss what CT offers, let 'em start their own zines. It's easy!


But for now I'm hanging up my shoes. I did what I wanted and I'm quitting while I'm ahead. Could be THE COMPLEAT CHEAP TRUTH will appear as a retrospective, with a copyright and everything. Oh, and everyone shoul d buy the new Arbor House collection, MIRRORSHADES: The Cyberpunk Anthology ($16.95). It's a solid memento of the scene and has the best single summary of Movement ideology.

Someday I may try another zine. But CT's too big now and people lean on it too much. I wanted to point at the mountaintop, I don't want to be the mountain myself.

CT: I guess I see... Any final words?

VO: I hereby declare the revolution over. Long live the provisional government.

CT: Same old Vince... Goodbye all.

"First fine flower of red-hot hysteria?" Love it!

This final faux-interview reminds me that the other influence is bits & pieces of John Shirley interviews. That though, I suppose, is a bibliographic project for another day.


1 If I understand correctly, this is the big 8 novels, including the Burning Chrome short story collection, but not The Difference Engine.
2 Globalhead's the weakest of Sterling's short story anthologies (that I've read). I rate A Good Old Fashioned Future as best followed by Mirrorshades. Shiner was fantastic. Highly recommend that one.
3 Science Fiction, aka "skiffy."
4 Its very important to recognize cyberpunk as a literary movement, which as most literary movements go, lasted only 3-5 years, &, also like a lot of literary or artistic movements, as Fat pointed out once, really boils down to a few writers demanding that people write better books. The other important half of the cyberpunk movement, I think, was a reaction of Reagan's America.
5 I find Islands in the Net to be a brilliant criticism of traditional sciffy protaganistic figures: 1. the super-science outlaws (Granada), including a super-science assassin; 2. the tiny super-science futuristic nation-state (Singapore), a tired trope, really, dating back to Spartans defending their fellow drunken homosexual pedophile Greeks from the educated new world order of oriental pan-nationalistic not-as-white-as-us people; 3. Rogue ex-military types, complete w/ their own nuclear submarine! this one boils down to G.I.Joe & Megaforce-type shit; and, finally, 4. the super-educated ex-reporter now romantic w/ chiseled features roving around the desert in his dune-buggy as the now uber-rebel/revolutionary. The fact none of these people/nations "win," but instead the the ideas/forces personified by a small-business entrepreneur married mother-of-one from Texas brushes w/ brilliance for me. Everyone else prob thinks its boring. DUHHHHH.
6 You can maybe see some of that style aped a bit in the style of the Transformers piece I did way back.

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