There was once a man who came to a Coleco Adam lover's fan meeting. He came to talk about the beloved machine's limited lifespan and how it would indiscriminately affect the computing habits of those who had held the faith for ten years, upgrading and maintaining their ancient, outdated machines. His speech, and I'm paraphrasing now, went something like: 'I'm here to say things which may upset you and my disturb you... but mostly, which will make you angry'.
Well, I'm here to say things which may upset you. And things which may disturb you. But mostly, I'm here to say things which will make you angry. I'm here to bury and to praise a topic which I'm sure many of you have an opinion on: the venerable science fiction sub-genre of Cyberpunk.
Wow... I can almost sense about fifty percent of you closing your browser windows right this minute. To the rest of you, the ones who didn't bolt and run at the first sign of this topic, let me thank you for your patience and beg you to remain until the end of this ramble. At which point you can go to my main page, find my email address and hate-mail me to your heart's content.
Lately, it's been fashionable to hate literary bents that have gone out of vogue; or to archly criticize things which have become too popular. I'truth, Cyberpunk has both been over-popular at one point in its ascension and also has lately gone out of style, almost completely. It's also the latest rage to claim that there's very little literary merit to Cyberpunk and that it's been crap from the very beginning. Well, I'm afraid I'm going to have to be dreadfully half-fashionable. You see, I do have some stones to throw against Cyberpunk's window; but at the same time, I read it raptly for years, so someone obviously did something right.
I think the biggest thing working against cyberpunk in this day and age is that the meaning of the term is all too incompletely defined. I've walked into cyberpunk RPGs where literary children who have no idea what science fiction, much less Cyberpunk, means are redefining the sub-genre to include picking each other's pockets, selling drugs, and splattering each other's brains across the walls of a bar, just for something to do. Which... sadly, is perhaps a correct interpretation of Cyberpunk, but not a valid implementation of it, as I shall discuss below.
To me, the heart of Cyberpunk is the 'punk' and not the 'cyber'. You can write a cyber story without ever running the danger of touching the entire 'Cyberpunk' genre... witness one of the least Cyberpunk authors in existence -- Fred Saberhagen -- and his few tales of man interfacing with machine in the Berserker wars novels (Yes, I use Fred a lot in my rants... he's an old favourite, and he's easily one of the most varied writers in the field, able to leap from genre to genre with distressing ease, even if he's gotten a bit dodgey lately). Far, far, far too many prospective 'bad Cyberpunk writers' believe that Cyberpunk beings and ends with the Man-Machine interface. So they go on, ceasing to be prospective bad Cyberpunk writers and become bad Cyberpunk writers as they craft a tale about how a human's mind infiltrates its way into an Atari 2600-derived virtual world and... yawn... subjects his or her readers to this crafting.
Really, what is punk, but a reaction to the world in which the punker has found him or herself? It's not necessarily about rebellion -- it can be, but it doesn't have to be -- instead, it's an attempt, consciously or not, to reflect the stark truth of the world through shock value or bluntness. "I am only a punk because you have made me one" is as true a statement as you'll ever hear from a supposed 'punk' character, even if they never state it outright (and perhaps never should). The punker isn't casting off society but allowing him or herself to be changed by it, accepting these changes onto him or herself in order to gain either a measure of control or respect or acknowledgement in the doing. And this, honestly, is where much Cyberpunk falls down.
Shall we begin with Gibson? Let's, let's. William Gibson wrote very good Cyberpunk. What he did not do, however, was write timeless cyberpunk; nor did he write terribly accurate cyberpunk. He full-out admitted that his virtual world was based upon the video games of the age; and what could be more perfect as a commentary than that? After all, didn't Laura in Sterling's Islands in the Net discover some rather shocking truths about the 80s when she encountered the video-games of that era? (I know, I know, timeout, foul, I used another cyberpunk author to talk about Gibson. Well... phooey on you, I'm a believer in the Dirk Gently Holistic method). Further, Gibson's early tales don't stand up today the way that they used to, but most people begin and end with Neuromancer. Really, the books read like a chronology or an evolution of Gibson's understanding of the world that he was writing about and 'punking' with his tales. Read Idoru sometime when you can. It's a brilliant realisation of Neuromancer updated to our society now. It's also almost exactly the same story he tried to tell midway through his Cyberpunk career. Got to admit, though, the guy's persistent...
Now let's examine the characters in Neuromancer, all right? And hopefully you can put up with my all-knowing and pedantic tone for a while -- since really it's meant tongue-in-cheek, as I'm expecting, and would welcome, people writing to me to tell me how wrong that I am. Everything I say here is opinion and I'd love to engage you in a discussion about how ours differ, so long as you don't begin your email with the words 'dear fellow who is already dead...' -- since it's not gonna go away! Look at Case. Good old Case, the 'hero', or perhaps 'protagonist' is a better word, of the story. You should not like Case. You should take one look at what he does to Linda, and at how he reacts to pressures throughout the book, and by the end of the novel swear to yourself that should you ever find yourself lost in the land of fiction and come across Case in a darkened alley, that you will depants him and give him an atomic wedgie faster than Japan can forget more about neurosurgery than China's ever known. Case is a rat in many senses of the word -- though he doesn't lack a personal code of honour, said code often gets put aside to better Case's self-interests and to allow him to position himself better in the future's under-society. Case is a perfect example of a Cyberpunk character; he is built by the uncaring, ceaseless future in which he lives, eeking out a life within it. He is a hero only because we have been trained in our ways to expect there to be one; in point of fact he rarely rises above enlightened self interest. He acts not to raise himself above the mire of society, but to burrow more firmly into its wainscoting.
If you're beginning to think that Cyberpunk is a lot like learning about a society by examining its shit, then you're on a similar wavelength to mine.
In Cyberpunk, a protagonist should find him or herself taking one of two stances in society: conformity or transformation. Case wavers between the two but in the end becomes transformed by the society into someone quite different. Note that Cyberpunk protagonists rarely transform themselves; they instead find themselves remade by conditions around them. In a sense, this is the 'punk' moment for the reader; we see society most starkly when it's made its mark upon someone with whom we are told to empathize, and either way, we see the mark clearly once the story is done. Conversely Marid from Effinger's When Gravity Fails series continually finds himself 'normalized' as time goes on and his society -- as well as religion, which is rare and consequently refreshing for Cyberpunk -- force a sort of conforming change upon him. Likewise, the protagonist from the Shapers-Mechanist novel (which I can't for the life of me recall the name of, owing to losing the book to someone who's since moved away, damn their oily hides!) is a perfect example of a protagonist who Conforms to the world around himself. He is forever reinventing himself according to the pressures of society, but doing so to remain below the radar of society. Brilliantly, Sterling manages to show us the limited lifespan of the transformed Cyberpunk protagonist: those who have transformed in reaction to society, such as our living wall of flesh, or the perfect societies, eventually crumble when pressures of the day change beyond their ability to adapt. Those who have transformed to oppose society cannot last long in it, as like many species on earth, they have over-specialized and will thrive only so long as society itself doesn't transform around them. This may indicate to you that Cyberpunk is long-term a very bleak genre since only conformity has any longevity at all to it: and to that, I say to you 'modern society's a bitch that way, ain't it?'. For another example, take a look at a book which is absolutely seminal and probably will get me burned at the stake for mentioning as Cyberpunk canon: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Examine the role of the androids for a few moments. Then ask yourself who in this book has transformed and who has conformed. The answer is truly saddening.
This lack of longevity of the transformed is one reason why continuing Cyberpunk series are not necessarily a good idea. Effinger's Gravity series worked because Marid burrowed deeper into society, and as he did, more and more strata were available to explore. But what's left for Case to do? He had his defining moment, what's next? To have another? That's pretty dull, which is why the stage was cleared for the next set of heroes. Why do you think Count Zero was transformed from protagonist to McGuffin between books? He'd had his defining moment... his definition showing how society had made its mark upon him... and now he could better serve as a shocking display of what the world had become than as a continuing hero. Similarly, what's there left for Cowboy from Hardwired to do that hasn't already been done? Smash evil? Great, sure, then you're writing Adrenaline fiction instead of Cyberpunk (which I wouldn't mind, should Walter John Williams want to go that way, but given that he seems content to bring us brilliance with fresh characters, like the eminently Cyberpunkable "Lethe", I'm happy he hasn't!). This is also one reason why many Cyberpunk books seem to end without quite the sense of closure that they should possess: many good novels (but not all, see Effinger for just one example) in the sub-genre realise that society itself doesn't give closure and thus, by subverting our expectations, demonstrate to us that really, life never wraps up neatly in little bundles. Or maybe the authors are damned lazy and missing deadlines. Either one works.
I once really and truly hated the Cyberpunk role-playing game. No more; I realised how to look at Cyberpunk 2013/2020/Cybergeneration and was able to enjoy it again! I realised that honestly, when someone said 'Cyberpunk' I should think to myself 'Modern Day AD&D'. Solos should be though of as 'fighters'... Fixers as 'thieves'... Netrunners as 'wizards'... and so on. R. Tal absolutely understood this perception when they released Cybergeneration: which is one of the most beautiful examples of self-deconstruction that any gaming company has ever done on its flagship line. Pity almost nobody cared about the end result, nor took the time to realise what a thing of beauty R Tal has given to us, sigh.
The problem with the RPG is that while it's absolutely set up to tell stories in a Cyberpunk Spirit, the average Game Master is not set up to tell stories in a Cyberpunk Spirit. Usually the Average GM (henceforth abbreviated as AGM) will 'get' that Cyberpunk is meant to be gritty. They might not consciously understand that it should reflect society, but they can generally intuit it on some level. So they throw Corporate Screwage at their characters. And have them cheated. And swindled. And shot at. And addicted to drugs. And so on. And so forth. And get all the pieces right. But absolutely keep missing the point!
To me -- and I reiterate that I am so in 'IMHO' waters right now that I'm barely keeping my head above the surface -- a Cyberpunk RPG game should be run like a Cyberpunk novel. There should be a beginning and an endpoint and the characters are responsible for making the choices that get them from A to B. Throughout this, they should be tested and forced to decide between an embrace of society or a transcendence beyond it, into a rebel state. These decisions should split up a party but good, possibly ripping its cohesion to shreds, which means that the moment of Choice should come around the time of the game's denouement. And once point B is reached, if it is at all, the game should stop. The players should be patted on the back. And everyone should roll up new characters.
Instead, these games get run like a dungeon crawl. 'You're in a bar, you're approached by a man who wants to hire you to do this week's pointless task'. 'You are given an anonymous note, you and your friends must run against this datafortress to MAKE_$MONEY$_FAST'. These can work, as commentary, but they just can't work in a Cyberpunk sense strung together like mismatched Christmas lights, can they? The characters played should really be matched up to the arc that they're playing in. They should be forced to decide their place in society and they should be given challenges which are appropriate to the commentary that the GM is trying to make. Otherwise, it's possibly a fun game -- and I have yet to say no to the offer of being in a Cyberpunk 2020 campaign -- but it's honestly just not Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk 2020 that's not Cyberpunk is not a bad thing. I'm not making a value judgment here. I'm just saying, politely, that if you run one and tell me that it's Cyberpunk, I will politely cough the word 'bullshit' into my hand. There are lots of exceptions to what I'm saying as well -- you could in theory run a continuing campaign in the Effinger style, but honestly, I don't know of many GMs and Players able to do such a thing. Still, if you have, great!
I have much more to say here, but I've already said most if it in one form or another above. I hope that if you have a difference of opinion with me, you'll email and say why!
So, I had a point to this when I started. Um... but I've forgotten it now. I think I'm going to haul out my old Sterling and read for a while...Back to ramblings
Back to the main page.