association-list a veritable mint for dunning-kruggerands

(My) Problems with Post-cyberpunk work

The earliest and most famous of cyberpunk novels, the endlessly famous Neuromancer concerns the actions of a few marginal, violent people being manipulated by forces larger than they can comprehend. True, they have some agency; indeed they’d be useless as agents for their operators if they did not have some special skills and talents that make them the best tools possible in the situation. Ultimately, though, they are merely tools. Gibson’s interest is, for the most part, on the vast forces at work, rather than the tools themselves. His protagonists (who grow less marginal and less violent as the sprawl series progresses), are more or less a lens through which the world is seen. The culmination of each of these novels is the reveal, in which the tool-protagonist is made aware of the full scope of the drama in which they have played a small part.

This form, which of course has antecedents in older SF, detective and spy novels, and numerous other forms, tends to be what people take away from cyberpunk, second only to its window dressing of augments, street-wise tech-ninjas, and decades-old visual symbols of bad-assery (leather jackets, dark sunglasses or mirrorshades, dusters, ass-kicking boots, that sort of thing).

When Gibson first wrote his novels, deep into the Reagan-Thatcher years, things really did look pretty bad (almost thirty years ago, now). It wasn’t entirely whacked out to picture a world run for the profit of massive corporations who’d suborned the nation-states of the world (one could argue that that is in fact what happened, although it didn’t turn out as badly as it could have). Things really did suck, and it wasn’t insane to imagine marginal people being empowered by some mystical countervailing force being the only way that a little good could be done in the world.

But as time wore on and things got at least a little bit better our noir-loving doomprophets seem to have doubled down on the spit and the muck, and have moved the lens from the physically ineffectual Case to everyone’s favorite sexy ninja badass, Molly Millions.

While there has been some updating of the socio-political concerns that animate these books, their protagonists have gone ever more retrograde, evincing ever more cartoonish moralism and special pleading, while simultaneously growing ever more stimulatingly violent. At times, it seems as if their worlds have to be darkened and violent in order to enable any sort of engagement with their brutal, near-psychotic protagonists. Nyx and Takeshi Kovacs would, if introduced into a future that was anything like the present that we or their authors inhabit they’d swiftly be arrested or killed.

In literature, form and function are intimately linked. Sticking so hard to a genre form birthed in an extremely dark moment limits the effectiveness with which you can navigate the gray time in which we find ourselves now. The easy violence may sell books, and I am loathe to deny anyone their consolatory narratives in hard times, but I feel that these sort of novels are not doing the kind of work that’s pushing the genre forward or doing the sort of adaptive thinking and imaginative investigation which I consider to be the main work of SF.

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