4 years, 7 months ago
There are two main ways into cyberpunk, and which one you pick is terribly important to how the genre looks to you. The first option is to go via Neuromancer, William Gibson’s 1984 novel. This is not the first cyberpunk work - the term had been coined a year earlier by Bruce Bethke, and had been around unnamed for a few years previous, including in other works by William Gibson. But it is in many ways the definitive one, where it broke out into the mainstream. A year later we had Max Headroom, which we’ve already talked about.
The other way people approach the genre is Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash. This is an altogether more interesting way, since Stephenson’s next novel, 1995’s The Diamond Age, was self-consciously framed as a post-Cyberpunk novel. The first character it introduces, Bud, is a blatant parody of cyberpunk heroes (the first sentence says it all: “The bells of St. Mark’s were ringing changes up on the mountain when Bud skated over to the mod parlor to upgrade his skull gun.”) and, more to the point, gets spectacularly and ignobly killed forty-three pages into the book. And while Snow Crash itself is not so prone to aggressively deconstructing cyberpunk, there is a somewhat odd sense of things that comes from having one of the iconic novels of cyberpunk be a book by an author whose later career consists almost entirely of actively moving beyond the genre.
Obviously, given the stated topic of this post, I’m taking the latter, although in my defense I did talk about Max Headroom at the time, which is almost like talking about Neuromancer. Though for the most part this is just a matter of accurately tracking influences. The cyberpunk influences on 1980s Doctor Who are few and far between. Warriors of the Deep, somewhere in its bowels, has a cyberpunk story trying desperately to get out from under the Myrka. Vengeance on Varos has some cyberpunk attitudes, but they’re largely incidental - any attempt to do a sci-fi Play for Today in 1985 would have been about as cyberpunk as Vengeance on Varos. Actually, the most cyberpunk story of the 1980s is probably The Caves of Androzani, which is just kind of too perfect if you want to think about it.
The New Adventures, on the other hand, are mad for cyberpunk. The primary embodiment of this is actually Andrew Cartmel, who has a cyberpunk trilogy spread out over the course of the line, the first book of which we'll deal with on Monday. But scads of the books are heavily cyberpunk inflected. So we should probably, you know, actually look at what that genre was before we go too much further.
On a basic, factual level cyberpunk can be described as a sci-fi genre focusing on computers and digital technology (broadly construed), and with a gritty, street-level, punk aesthetic. Typically it’s set in a post-industrial and at least mildly dystopian future, and stars anti-hero hackers as its protagonists. And perhaps the first thing to ask is why these go together. Why is a dystopia-punk aesthetic and an interest in computers equivalent?
The answer, I would suggest, comes from the role that computers have in science fiction, or, more accurately, the role they don’t. An often-observed fact about the golden age of science fiction, when large swaths of our basic sci-fi iconography - rockets, ray guns, robots, et cetera - were laid down - is that they completely missed the Internet. It’s something that’s blatantly obvious to anyone watching 1960s science fiction, Doctor Who included. Everyone assumed that we’d have a substantial presence in outer space by the mid-21st century (depending on whether you want to believe About Time or AHistory, any of The Wheel in Space, Power of the Daleks, or The Seeds of Death are only twenty to thirty years in the future), but the idea of Facebook, or, heck, blogging is unimaginable.
It’s important to stress just how striking this is. It’s not just that most of the default sci-fi iconography of the 21st century proved to be an illusion, but that a completely different piece of massively socially transformative technology happened. There are two errors there, and the result is that computers are, in many ways, a spectre haunting science fiction - the future it failed to imagine.
As a historical accident the point where it started to be clear to people that computers and the Internet were the future was, chronologically, close to the point where the golden age of science fiction’s more generalized utopianism ran aground. We’ve tracked this thoroughly across the blog - the grand projects of a scientific utopianism that animated the 1950s and 1960s came into question in the 1970s before being largely rejected in favor of a more pessimistic view of the future in the 1980s.
So within science fiction - and really only within science fiction - there was a ready-made image for this. The golden age had called utopia wrong, and it had called computers wrong. And so within science fiction the one served usefully as a metaphor for the other, and cyberpunk became obvious. But crucially, this link is a very figurative. It’s a powerful figure, and cyberpunk’s success is hardly a surprise. But it’s still figurative. The figure of the computer hacker and the punk anti-hero are not, in fact, linked for anything having to do with the material reality of evolving digital culture.
And this split characterizes the split between Gibson and Stephenson in terms of approaching cyberpunk. Gibson freely admits that he knew nothing whatsoever about computers when writing Neuromancer, whereas Stephenson, although he makes some spectacularly wrong guesses in the course of Snow Crash, is a computer guy. Gibson, in other words, is first and foremost a punk interested in the utopia/dystopia debate, while Stephenson is interested in the question of how computers really might change culture.
That’s not to say that the novels aren’t similar. Stephenson is firmly in the general cyberpunk aesthetic, which can roughly be described as “badasses are cool.” The two canonical examples here are the opening of the novel - the single most epic description of a pizza delivery ever written - and the memorable and oft-quoted section, “Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial arts monastery in China and studied really hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I dropped out and devoted my life to being bad. Hiro used to feel that way too, but then he ran into Raven.” The book is suffused with a love of the cool, and it’s unequivocally a debt to cyberpunk that applies to Stephenson’s work even when he’s writing about 17th and 18th century mathematics and the history of currency. (And I’ll admit, the Baroque Cycle is my favorite of Stephenson’s works.)
In terms of the New Adventures it’s probably the Gibson tradition that carries the most weight. Coming off of the Cartmel era’s embrace of alternative culture the Virgin stable largely felt like they were embracing cyberpunk because it was punk sci-fi, and the computer stuff was largely incidental. This is, in practice, a bit unfortunate, especially coming as they did while cyberpunk was, within science fiction, starting to give way to other approaches (largely because the punk part could be just as easily affixed to other prefixes, while the computer stuff could be done with more nuance by people who know what they’re talking about). This left them in a kind of unfortunate position - right as the World Wide Web was launching and Doctor Who fandom was increasingly starting to organize around the Internet (via, initially, the rec.arts.doctorwho Usenet group, about which more in late September), the New Adventures were mucking around in a deeply non-materialist conception of digital technology that was useful only as a metaphor for other things.
And Snow Crash, in many ways, is interesting as the road not taken - the other sort of cyberpunk that the New Adventures, and really, to a big extent, Doctor Who as a whole failed to take. Because, as I said, Snow Crash is a novel that attempts to build a grand metaphor out of the materialism of technology. Even in the cases where Stephenson badly misses his future predictions about how computers will develop - and he does, frequently - there is, throughout Snow Crash, a sense that he has actually thought about the technology that underpins his fictional world as technology. It feels like real technology.
On top of this, Stephenson has a very solid trick up his sleeve as writer tricks go. His standard technique is to provide a stunningly detailed map of how a given technological innovation might impact human experience. Which is to say, he’s very good at taking his bits of quasi-plausible technology and then coming up with a user experience for that technology. He then parlays that into the usual sci-fi society-building games, but the fact that he stops off in user experience on the way to society stands out. Especially because he’s very good at tying the technology to big ideas.
In the case of Snow Crash, these big ideas draw from Sumerian mythology (clearly there was something in the air in the early 1990s - a legacy of the Gulf War, perhaps?), and the relationship between language and reality implied by various aspects of that mythology. Which is interesting - these ideas are ones that are usually more readily associated with the Alan Moore/Steven Moffat/Neil Gaiman end of the genre pool - an end characterized by a looser, more fantasy-inspired take on things than on the material focus on technology that Stephenson is coming from. And this gets at the real oddity of Stephenson - in a lot of ways, Snow Crash feels closer to what Doctor Who can do than the cyberpunk that actually proved an influence on Doctor Who in the 1990s.
But, of course, Doctor Who was never well-suited to the Snow Crash approach. It’s never been fond of hard science fiction. And even though Stephenson ends at a point that’s really Doctor Who-compatible - broad novels of ideas in which the material keeps intersecting in odd ways with the imaginative and the metaphoric - his approach is so far from what Doctor Who is historically good at that it makes for something of an odd bedfellow. But equally, it makes the cyberpunk that was influential on the New Adventures a strange bedfellow as well.
The problem is that Snow Crash really was, in a lot of ways, the end of that approach. Once you had really good cyberpunk that actually felt like it was written with an eye towards computers the purely metaphoric link that animated early cyberpunk started to evaporate. And you got the split where one end of the portmanteau went off and started mating with words like “steam,” “bio,” and “diesel” while the other realized that it was a bit silly to begin with and calmly retired itself to be replaced by what we might call the broader category of “computer literate science fiction.”
But with the perspective offered by twenty years of history since Snow Crash came out, it’s altogether obvious how to take the New Adventures. Because while they’re clearly influenced by cyberpunk, they’re also clearly on the end of that split that started attaching the “punk” moniker to other concepts. And though they feature cyberspace and digital technology type stuff left, right, and center, they are for the most part not all that invested in the material reality of computers or technology. But once you’ve got a history that lets you attach “punk” to other prefixes you can easily navigate a way out for the New Adventures. They’re not cyberpunk. They’re Gallifreypunk. And in that regard, it’s not the Cartmel novel we’re covering on Monday that’s the first real piece of Cyberpunk Doctor Who, it’s the Platt one we’re doing Friday.
But before we get there, we should nod at Snow Crash, an odd cousin to Doctor Who’s approach that is, in many ways, more like what Doctor Who eventually ends up being than anything in the Virgin era, and in many other ways something Doctor Who never came anywhere close to attempting - an influence that, strangely, never managed to influence the series.
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