This essay was written for a class I took called “Science Fiction and American Culture.” It was in response to reading several stories in Mirrorshades, edited by Bruce Sterling, as well as assigned readings from Storming the Reality Studio, edited by Larry McCaffery.
If you would like to read Mirrorshades, still considered an excellent introduction to the cyberpunk sub-genre, or Storming the Reality Studio, you should be able to find it at your local library. If not, you can purchase both Mirrorshades and Storming the Reality Studio from Amazon.com.
I drove all over Hollywood looking at the stars
First I ate my Milky Way and then I ate my Mars
But sucking on a Galaxy I noticed something pretty bizarre
There’s not a lot of people there, just an awful lot of cars.
- “Pulp Culture,” Thomas Dolby from the album Aliens Ate My Buick 1988, Lost Toy People, Inc. (ASCAP)
I had no idea what “postmodernism” was when I came to this class — I’m still not sure that I do now. The readings for this week have given me an idea — if postmodernism and cyberpunk are similar.
Before this week, I thought cyberpunk was science fiction dealing with the human-computer interface. But it seems to be more than that. It is a dissociation of reality, a shattering of what is often taken for granted and a confusion of boundaries between the self and the other. Reading cyberpunk feels like reading James Joyce on drugs (James Joyce is the one on drugs — not the reader). The stream of consciousness is warped by an LSD mentality. Seemingly trivial details take on great import, if only for a moment. The vulgar, the horrific, the exotic and the intense are forced at the reader in bits and pieces like ice cream thrown in a blender with the lid open, spattering what was going to be a milkshake all over the ceiling.
I felt lost most of the time while reading the stories assigned from Mirrorshades. Of course, I felt the same way reading James Joyce — I never did finish A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There was a difference, though. The referents in cyberpunk are at least remotely familiar — 1950’s futuristic visions (“The Gernsback Continuum”), rock clubs with the drug scene swelling around it (“Freezone”), Mozart and Marie Antoinette (“Mozart in Mirrorshades”).
I guess being a native Californian, I also understood the scattered, eclectic reality that makes up Californian life. Thomas Pynchon describes a “typical” Calfornia city: “Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts — census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway.”
I grew up in a county that blended Yuppies, country hicks, and hippies without blinking. One town is really nothing but a business park, while another is a county tourist stop. This all leads me to my opening quote from Thomas Dolby.
The readings this week kept reminding me of lyrics from the songs on Aliens Ate My Buick. The album is sort of a commentary on L.A. life. One song (“The Key To Her Ferrari”) tells the story of a man who only wants to date a woman so he can drive her car:
“I don’t want your love
I don’t want your money
I just want the key to your Ferrari.”
The album is a postmodern — if I’m using the term correctly — a mix of music from salsa, techno, new wave and swing.
Another thing I noticed about the cyberpunk we read was the raw language. Even the essays used profanity. The sexuality comes at you hard — “And when I get you alone I’m going to batter your cervix into jelly” (“Freezone”), “and Case’s psychological motives center on his desire to seek revenge against the forces who fucked him over” (“Introduction: The Desert of the Real,” Storming the Reality Studio) and the sadomasochism of Videodrome.*
Such raw language and imagery stop my reading. I’m not expecting it, so when it comes up, my mind jumps the track of my reading. Cyberpunk seems to take reality and turn it upside-down and inside-out, using hallucination, drugs or direct link up to a computer as the tool to do so. The narrative is internal. The omniscient narrator does not exist in the cyberpunk world. Everything is subjective. Where reality ends and something else begins becomes a fuzzy line, and, in the course of the story, may never become clear.
* Even Dolby’s song “The Key To Her Ferrari” assaults you with surprise, raw imagery: “And then I saw her … she was a bright red ’64 GTO with fins and gills like some giant piranha fish, some obscene phallic symbol on wheels … little rivers of anticipation ran down my inseam as I kicked those five hundred Italian horses into life and left reality behind me: fifty, sixty, seventy miles an hour … my hand slipped inside the belt of my trousers as we passed eighty, ninety miles an hour … and as we hit the magic 100 my love exploded all over her bright pink leather interior…. And at that moment, I thought of my mother.” (sic.)