Saturday, September 30, 2006

Through a Mirror Shade Darkly: The subtle sublime of cyberpunk Part 02

While it might be assumed that the goal of cyberpunk is to deconstruct mainstream science fiction, since its writers are “Steeped in the lore and tradition of the SF field” (Sterling, viii) it would be more accurate to say that the creators of that earlier lore and tradition built a house, and cyberpunk writers decided it was time for a renovation. It is this restructuring that simultaneously houses and obscures the spirituality of cyberpunk. As David Porush notes, “the intersection between the transcendent world and this one has always created or required an architecture that ultimately restructures society itself…” (556). He cites the destruction of Solomon’s Temple as the catalyst for the creation of the Jewish Talmud. Both were receptacles for the transcendent, but related that in very different ways.

The Jewish Temple contained the Holy of Holies, where heaven and earth intersected in a physical sense, but was ultimately a symbol of the complete otherness of God. The Talmud wasn’t simply a portable temple, but was rather “a new sort of invitation to transcendence: Come inhabit this world, not through the architectonics of material, but through a dynamic architecture of interpretation, dialogue, a never ending symposium. The most portable altar of all is in your head and in your words” (560).

Like Jewish temple worship, classic science fiction was concerned with finding transcendence in an exterior fashion; in some distant galaxy, on another planet, within the customs or powers of an alien race. The keys to whatever step the human race was going to take next were in outer space, beyond the confines of this world. Cyberpunk reverses the direction of this exploration. The settings are earthy; an alternate, dystopian version of earth to be sure, but earth nonetheless.

This change of direction necessitates a restructuring of the “architecture” of science fiction. The “saucer people” and “Art Deco futuroids” of Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” (10) are replaced by demons and avatars in virtual reality. The materials of “white marble and slipstream chrome, immortal crystal and burnished bronze” (5) give way to “symmetrical sheetrock shitholes with vinyl floors and ill-fitting woodwork and no sidewalks” (Stephenson, 191).

And instead of blasting off into outer space, we discover that “Canaveral is in ruins” (Sterling & Gibson, 214) and the orbit on our metaphorical space stations are decaying. To escape this dark future requires not astronauts, but cybernauts, who play in the fields of cyberspace rather than outer space. As Sterling states, the technology of cyberpunk SF is “not the bottled 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” (xi).

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. Thanks for teasing out that bit I'd forgotten about. Bruce -as usual - said it much better.