June 29th, 2005
When I was a sophomore in high school I had a friend named Jason Erwin. He was an oddball, computer nerd, and geek. I distinctly remember being driven to see _The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai_ with him. He was cool.
I don’t remember what the debt was, but in return for _some_ debt from him I got a copy of the book _Neuromancer_, by William Gibson. This would’ve been 1983 or 1984.
Whatever the original debt was, it was worth it. The paperback blew me away. It was this strange world, it was a “dystopia,” a word which I didn’t yet know. It had this “net,” this “cyberspace,” that was completely ubiquitous. It felt like the future.
I wanted to sign up for a cranial jack. I wanted to wear leather and have implanted memories, to “jack” into cyberspace and experience the combined space that constituted the collected sum of the computing space from the whole human system.
It’s strange that I wanted this. The characters in _Neuromancer_ are corrupt, venal, unlikable. I suppose Molly Millions and Case are likable, but they are also rather pathetic. Case is a junkie who is forced to give up drugs chemically, and gets his high simply by making “runs,” basically hacking jobs, on the net. And Molly is an assassin for hire.
I suppose The Dixie Flatline is the most likable “person” we meet, although he himself is an old hacker whose mind was imprinted into a box. Dixie is actually dead, and what we know of him is just the remnants of his mind that were flash loaded into a ROM. Dixie is helpful and wise, but his one ambition is that at the end of the gig, that someone wipe his memory. He’s not alive, but he wants to commit suicide.
I suppose Wintermute is a likable, the deux ex machina, an A.I. that has gotten smarter and at the end is a Vingean Singularity, an intelligence, a consciousness, beyond human understanding. Wintermute becomes a god.
So if it’s not the characters, what was it that compelled me about this book? I had always enjoyed science fiction, probably since Star Wars. I also vaguely remember conversations with a roommate, a friend of my dad’s, who had science fiction, and who once explained the importance of the difference between “SF” and “Sci Fi.” I was 8 or 9 years old and it made an impression.
The question remains, why was I fascinated by _Neuromancer_, and by extension, cyberpunk as a genre? Why did _Blade Runner_ and _Snow Crash_ and _Islands in the Net_ make such an impression on me?
I don’t have an easy answer.
One possibility is that it was a reaction to the postnuclear scenarios popular at the time. _Mad Max_ and _The Road Warrior_ were dystopias too, but they were ones where human beings managed to royally screw up the planet with nuclear weapons. It’s hard to remember, but I always assumed that before the end of the 20th Century, we’d have a nuclear weapon used in anger. I mean, we took it for granted that we’d get blown up. Or, if not blown up, we’d have to be running around in dune buggies with shotguns struggling for gasoline.
Cyberpunk was a future in which, well, we’re _there_, somehow. In 1989 I recorded a William Gibson interview on Fresh Air, and as he says:
“Well that’s a very optimistic little piece of trickery on my part because I wanted to be able to write about a future, and I wanted to be able to say ‘Well it’s there.’ So I posited as a piece of background information one very, very brief nuclear exchange that results in the whole world saying ‘Oh no we’ve got to get rid of these things’ and then it’s, you have a future. But we should be so lucky, probably.”
How’s that for optimistic? At the time, and heck, even now, this feels plausible. A nuke or dozen get used, people say “This technology sucks! We’d rather use economic/conventional/chemical/biological war. Anything but these stupid Chernobyl radioactive things!” Then, as Gibson says, you have a future.
And I definitely wanted a future. I had no idea what shape it would take, but I wanted one.
Anyway, so that’s how I end up with a drawing of a guy with wild hair, a computer input jack on the side of his neck, and a biker jacket.
Possibly this description, also from the Terry Gross interview, influenced me:
*TG:* “Well you’re books have added a word to the language in a way you’re books have been named `cyberpunk,’ what do you think of that new word?”
*WG:* “Well, that’s one I could’ve done without but that’s a very mysterious word, we’re still trying to find out who introduced it. It definitely wasn’t one of the participants in this alleged literary movement, or phenomena or whatever it is. But I suppose in a way, it’s reasonably descriptive, although I don’t know what people would think of it when they see it, I mean if I didn’t know what it was supposed to mean, I would think it would mean some guy in a mohawk, it’s like modems and mohawks, or something. A guy with a mohawk and a mac. A mac II, and though, I don’t know, that wasn’t what I had in mind I just thought, when I started out doing this stuff I thought I was trying to do what I thought of as being a slightly hipper kind of science fiction.”
And that’s all I have to say about that.