Cyberpunk Not Dead

08/15/2007 12:00 AM |

My first copy of William Gibson’s Neuromancer was
given to me in exchange for contraband, payment for a debt incurred on
a small vial of flammable magnesium strips I’d squirreled away from the
American Embassy School’s chem lab. I can still see the thin-lipped
wince of disappointment on the face of the young British diplomat who
gave it to me.

He was a rube, a rookie, new to India, new to the New Delhi American
Embassy School and unaware of how valuable little fragments of
subculture could be in a country that back then, in 1996, was still
under an embargo. The Indian government was levying massive tariffs
against imported goods in an effort to protect domestic industry and,
in a place where Pringles sold for $10 a can, few, if any, genuine
articles of counterculture managed to wriggle their way through
government controls.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” read the first line of Neuromancer.
Here was this intoxicating vision, an entirely technological view of
the world that was both entertaining and terrifically addictive.
Cyberpunk fiction is a hybrid of dystopian science fiction and
hard-boiled detective novels. It’s punchy, but dense with imagery and
bogus technological jargon.

Burying myself in Neuromancer, I could forget the lepers
smearing stumps up against our windshield glass every morning, the
braying beggars drying cow patties by the side of the road, and the
endless expanses of gray and brown cardboard slums. I read the thing
more than 40 times.

I was stuck in a country teeming with almost a billion people and 6,000
years of civilization, a place already crowded with history, culture,
kings and empires — while back at home in the United States this
crystalline high tech was emerging. The Internet, the World Wide Web —
I’d only glimpsed these things on summer holidays or read about them in
tantalizingly brief articles in Newsweek or Time Asia. I was being left
behind, but by reading Neuromancer I could cling to it somehow, even if it was just fiction.

By the time I received my own grubby copy of Neuromancer,
the book had been around for over a decade. The story is generated
between two poles. It is both an attempt to visualize the place where,
as Gibson’s fellow cyberpunk Bruce Sterling put it, “You are when you
talk on the telephone… the place between telephones,” and an attempt to
capture the germination of consciousness from a cluster of networked
computers. Imagine the Internet suddenly evolving into something akin
to a massive brain, with each networked computer linked to it
functioning like a neuron.

Neuromancer takes place in the not-too-distant future — the
Internet exists, as do hackers. Gibson’s description of the Internet is
considered by many to be the progenitor of the term “cyberspace” and
perhaps even the metaphor of second space formed between users and
their machines:

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions
of legitimate operators…  A graphic representation of data abstracted
from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable
complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters
and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

In Neuromancer, what we would now call the Internet is far
more visceral than an endless series of pages navigated by a search
engine and browser. It’s a frontier. Accessed via a deck that plugs
directly into a user’s brain, Gibson’s cyberspace can kill an unwary
“Console Cowboy” who strays too close to data encrypted by intrusion
countermeasures electronics (ICE).

I won’t ruin the plot, but suffice to say the machines win. This seems
to confirm what I heard Gibson say at a reading in 1999, during the
release of his novel Idoru: that he is a technological determinist,
convinced that technological change determines the pace of history.

Now, more than 20 years after Neuromancer’s release, the
technological future that Gibson envisioned seems hilariously naïve.
Take computers, for example: given how many software crashes and
hardware glitches we endure on a daily basis, why would we willingly
plug ourselves into something that might decide to kill us?
The Internet, too, has become something far less visual than the
“consensual hallucination” Gibson anticipated. Although it has
certainly become as ubiquitous as he thought it would, its form is far,
far different than the virtual reality of Neuromancer. It isn’t so much a place as a presence: a thing, a non-space that you can tap into almost anywhere at any time.

Gibson has backed away from technological determinism. September 11th
blew apart that hypothesis, proving just how intense forces of
religious faith and globalization have been in recent history. He now
claims that his science fiction has always been about the present, and
his past two novels have both taken place in the present day. His
latest, Spook Country,
is a serious attempt to visualize the Internet that has arisen, and to
properly contextualize the technological realm as one factor among many
shaping history.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the book’s title is meant to encapsulate what Gibson envisions as the virtual realm. If it is, Spook Country
is both an atmospheric description and a literal place within the book,
a reference to the uncanny underworld of spies and government agencies
and a metaphor describing the weird non-place that cyberspace has

While the stakes are a little lower in Spook Country, or at least more realistic than they are in Neuromancer, the plots are very similar — so similar that Spook Country feels like a conscious redeployment of Neuromancer. Given the complex back-stories informing Spook Country’s characters, it would make sense if it were.
 The protagonist is Hollis Henry, a popstar turned journalist hired by
Blue Ant, an ad agency appearing in other works of Gibson’s. Hollis is
assigned an article about artists who “geo-hack” — meaning they attach
their artwork to specific GPS coordinates.

One artist lovingly recreates celebrity death scenes around Los Angeles
— River Phoenix’s body slumped outside the Viper Room, Helmut Newton’s
car crash outside Chateau Marmot. His images are virtual, visible only
by linking to a website at the precise map coordinates; a layer of
information draped over the location.

As Hollis probes deeper into the story, she realizes her article is
pretext for Blue Ant to gather intelligence on the mysterious producer
arranging the technological component of the artwork. This producer
also works for another shadowy entity who’s tracking a shipping
container through the ocean.
Realizing the potentially sinister implications of this rogue container
(i.e. nuclear terrorism), Hollis confronts her boss, who claims his
agency is simply indulging in the advertising equivalent of REM sleep.
“Secrets… are the very root of cool, he says.”

While Hollis chases the producer from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Gibson
follows two more factions squabbling over the container. One is a
government contractor and his Russian-speaking, drug-addicted hostage.
The pair stalks the next group, a family of former Cuban intelligence

The Cubans, under contract to yet another shadowy entity, have
intercepted information about the container. Again, I won’t reveal the
rest of the plot other than to mention that all three parties converge
on the container and, again, the ambiguously good team manages to
prevail. It’s really the same thing that happens in Neuromancer, only set in the present with technology that could actually work.

Neuromancer uses classic film noir elements: its protagonists are the dregs of society, the femme fatale has a hot
bod, and the enemy is rich, corrupt, and at the center of power. Spook Country,
on the other hand, seems to reflect a much more mature view of society,
and the story takes place among middlemen, all of whom are clued in a
little bit, but none of whom is in complete control. None of the new
technology on display is completely reliable (even the gadgets of
Hollis’s billionaire boss require separate adapters) and all the actors
are smaller fish. No faces you’ve seen on television. Functionaries.

Things get done in Spook Country the way they’re usually
done in real life — a friend of a friend knows somebody, by
bureaucratic incompetence, or by sheer luck. It’s the opposite of the
heroic outsider dismantling the bad guys with his godlike skill. This
muddy realm of links and exchanges, this weird netherworld of
middlemen, is precisely why I delved into the world of Neuromancer as a teenager.

Around about my tenth read of Neuromancer, during the
summer vacation before my junior year at the American Embassy School in
New Delhi, a family friend of ours was kidnapped while hiking in
Kashmir. He was the son of a famous British journalist, snatched up by
a group of wannabe militiamen calling themselves the Hazrat Mujahadeen.

The Hazrat Mujahadeen said they were holding the boy hostage until the
Indian government released political prisoners in Kashmir and the
former Yugoslavia. Naturally, because of who the boy’s father was, the
entire foreign press corps flew up to Srinagar (the capital of Kashmir)
along with a number of British diplomats and mysterious American
bureaucrats. My parents were journalists too, and I came up with them. 

We spent nearly four weeks holed up in a ‘houseboat hotel’ floating
alongside the banks of Dal Lake with the rest of the press corps. At
night we would hear AK-47 fire echoing through the city, and there were
constant rumors. Some nights we’d be pulled ashore, with everyone
convinced that the militants were planning to drive a motorboat into
the hotel and shoot everybody. Sometimes blustering Indian officials
would appear, insisting that the militants had killed him or that he
was about to be released. The entire ordeal, at least on our end, was
conducted through bribery, threats and terse discussions over cups of

This is the atmosphere that Gibson channels in Spook Country.
And there is something within this setting, something about the
flickering back and forth of rumor and innuendo, of half-truth and
suggestion that also speaks to something fundamental about the
strangeness of technology interacting with people’s everyday reality.
Toward the end of Spook Country,
there’s a scene between the kidnapped Russian translator and the rogue
contractor. The two are driving through downtown Vancouver, trying to
find a wireless Internet connection that will let them log on to the
Internet without a password: 

“Milgrim had had no idea that people had these networks in their houses
and apartments, the sheer number of them were amazing, nor that they
extended so far beyond the owner’s actual property. Some people named
them after themselves, some were simply called ‘default,’ or ‘network,’
and some were named things like ‘Dark Harvester’ and ‘Doomsmith.”

While reading Spook Country, I decided to set up a wireless
network of my own. When I fired up my modem, I was suddenly confronted
with offers to join networks named, “prius,” “Team Vindaloo,”
“fuckbush,” and “isitreallysostrange” (after a lyric by the Smiths).

What was so uncanny about this was that I could more or less identify
which of my neighbors each network belonged to, simply by looking at
the bumper stickers on the cars parked outside. Prius belonged to the
owner of the gleaming Toyota Prius, fuckbush to the Subaru spattered
with Vote for Obama stickers, isitreallysostrange to the purple Civic
with the Smiths vanity plate — each of my neighbors was beaming out his
or her own network, not to mention broadcasting a tiny nugget of
information about themselves. 

In Spook Country, cyberspace, once a different ‘place,’ is
being enfolded onto real space. Information floating around cyberspace
is becoming a part of the environment, a fragment of perception no
different than a ‘real’ memory someone might have attached to specific
place. “Would it all be like this, in Alberto’s new world of the
locative?” asks Hollis, observing a virtual ruined Statue of Liberty
poking out of a Malibu Beach à la Planet of the Apes. “Would it mean
the untagged, unscripted world would gradually fill with virtual
things, as beautiful or banal as anything encountered on the web

Gibson uses real, identifiable locations for his scenes in Spook Country
— real restaurants, streets and squares. This, plus the potent
back-stories he’s included with each character, suggests that Gibson is
demonstrating that any information someone has about a location — their
past, their memories, their religion, their gender, their celebrity
status, their ethnicity, their training, even their addictions — will
inform the way that he or she perceives a location.

Stretching this new metaphor for cyberspace a little further, of
information tethered to a particular location, Gibson also introduces
the idea of being able to select between different channels. Of being
able to pick and choose what information is attached to a particular
location. This was in effect what I was attempting to do in India by
reading and re-reading Neuromancer
all those years ago, attempting to assimilate its chilly, high-tech
aesthetic and overlay it onto the fetid viscerality I experienced every
day in New Delhi.

Gibson’s attempt to introduce feeds of information into his new
metaphor for cyberspace points to a fairly serious flaw in it. Namely,
where are these feeds coming from? While information is unquestionably
beginning to be attached to specific locations, at the same time, the
idea of cyberspace as a thing, as a mass consensual hallucination that
is ‘elsewhere,’ doesn’t seem likely to disappear anytime soon.

The corporate strongholds that console cowboy Case and his cyborg
assassin lover Molly tore into continue to exist as enterprise-level
corporate intranets. An underworld of illegal file-sharing networks and
areas where people can meet and chat back and forth continue to thrive.
Still, Spook Country is unquestionably on its way, if it hasn’t already arrived.