Cyberpunk Fiction: Information as God
by Milton Wolf (see also Milton Wolf's Cyberpunk Bibliography)
(grabbed from


The "consensual hallucination" about the deification of information began right after World War II when it became apparent that giant computers, like ENIAC, were instrumental in not only the successful war effort but also in the "Command, Control, Communi cations" process around which Big Brother and Big Government were organized. The advent of the microprocessor personal computer and the subsequent growth of the Internet dramatically democratized the exchange of information by liberating individuals from the centralized tyranny of mainframes—and their owners. Information freedom became an issue of cultural importance and a contested nexus for the New World Order.

The Global Information Business found itself at the focal point of this new "wired" world of digital technology where corporations, governments and plugged-in citizens were jostling each other for a piece of frontier territory in this newly created manife st destiny. Like the Wild West, many aspects of the cultural fabric were woven into a new social tapestry, including two heretofore diverse communities: librarian/information specialists and, science fiction writers/readers—who found they had much m ore in common than they might have thought.

Strange Bedfellows?
Like librarianship,
science fiction found itself at the center of things, sloughing off its traditional image of purveyor of galactic space opera and becoming a voice for a new mode of aware ness in an increasingly technological world of constant change. While many of us would admit that we are unable to stay abreast of the tremendous scientific discoveries and technological innovations of our time, we are far less prone to say that we are al so ignorant of advances in literature. Yet many would be surprised, if not disturbed, to learn that in the most recent edition (1988) of the Columbia Literary History of the United States under the section "The Fictions of the Present," it lists sc ience fiction as "arguably the most significant body of work in contemporary fiction," citing it "as a major literary genre" and one of the "most significant new directions in recent American fiction."

Science fiction shares with postmodernism a keen interest in the powerful, perhaps evolutionary, effects that computer technology and information systems (including biotechnology) are having on human beings. While most of the Industrial Revolution technol ogies expanded man's muscle power exponentially, the introduction of the computer, commercially available since 1951, enhanced the province of the human mind and significantly commodified data.

If, as some scientists and philosophers suggest, the fundamental materials of the universe are matter, energy, and information patterns (or intelligence), then the human race, once again, is not as unique as it purports to be. The idea that information, l ike energy or matter, is a quantifiable entity that can be manipulated at will forms the basis of cybernetic information theory. In fact, to many people in the artificial intelligence field, humans and computers are but two species in the genus of informa tion-processing systems. Digitally encoded information has become recognized as a resource like energy. It provides the matrix, like the philosopher's stone, for a brave new existence: a potential transcendence of the "biology barrier"!

Cyborgs Arise
Cyberpunk science fiction (SF) was quick to recognize the implications of this new Weltanschauung. It visualized information as the sea we swim (or drown) in, and it understood that huma ns are rapidly melding into their machines, that human destiny may well be that of cyborgs. (Cyborg is short for "cybernetic organism": a self-regulating human-machine system that can be mechanically or biologically enhanced—or both!)

Since many of us are already in the initial stages of cyborg growth, adding artificial limbs, breasts, pacemakers, implanted optics and biosensors at a steadily increasing rate, we should have little trouble understanding the cyberpunk term of "morphing" the body. The fusion of robotics and medical engineering with its bionic prosthetics is already here, so what role do we expect from our advancing cyborg evolution? Whether this intimacy with our technology is a boon permitting longer lives, perhaps even downloading minds and cloning new body parts, or whether humanity will become mechanized, unfeeling golems without souls is moot. The real horror of cyberpunk SF is not death or even mass destruction but dehumanization.

Jacking in the Meat
If we eventually do physically "jack in" to our computer enhancements and zip virtually down the digital infobahns, what part of our humanity do we gain? or lose? Liberated into an information matrix, will we spurn the physical all together, content to ex change pixels of a brave new cyberspace unfettered by the continuously decaying lump of protoplasm that brought us to "meat" consciousness? As we "disappear into our machines," to quote Hans Moravec, melding mind and machine and genetically morphing our b ody in order to overcome our "biology barrier," what remains human? if anything? Or, to paraphrase Pogo, perhaps we have met the enemy and the technology is us!

Cyberpunk SF attempts to address such questions. Taking cyber from the aforementioned "cybernetic organism" and splicing it to punk from 1970s rock music terminology, generally meaning "young, rebellious, and alienated," cyberpunk emphasizes technology's impact on gratifying human desires. Cyberpunk characters readily replace parts of their body, customize the color of their eyes, hair, and skin, and escape the "meat" reality by "jacking into" cyberspace where they can project their disembod ied consciousness into virtual reality landscapes inhabited by computer-modified simulacra as well as artificial intelligences whose only existence is in cyberspace.

New Bad Future
Cyberpunk tends toward the dystopian, utilizing the backdrop of a "New Bad Future" set often in a monstrous urban sprawl draped in a polluted natural environment. Easily extrapolating from the present social tensions and contradictions, cyberpunk posits a government/corporation that controls and monitors all (dis)information channels and cybernetic technologies, ruthlessly hunting down any infiltrators of its vast data banks. While information may want to be free to spontaneously mix and match, to express constantly changing algorithms of potential knowledge, bottom line outcomes prefer stable, patented, monopolized situations and passive consumers fat with bread and circuses!

The word cyberpunk first appeared publicly in the title of a story by Bruce Bethke in the November 1983 issue of Amazing Stories. The noted SF editor/critic Gardner Dozois then used it to describe a new subgenre of SF that was aborning in the early 1980s, but it was William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) that rightfully is c redited with popularizing the concept, especially of cyberspace as a "consensual hallucination," a merging interface between man and machine. Gibson was one of the first to recognize the vital importance of information to the New World Order, and the future global village(s).

Interrogating the boundaries of a near-future humanity that employs technological enhancements to the "meat" such as artificial intelligence, prosthetics, neural jack implants, and other intimate computer-driven accessories (including sexual ones), Gibson 's seminal book Neuromancer provided a dystopian futurology and the Big Brother conventions that have become the stock-in-trade of cyberpunk and provide the haunting atmosphere of such movies as Bl ade Runner, Robocop, Running Man, Outland, and Total Recall (which featured another cyberpunk computer technology: virtual reality).

Hacking the Dream
Aldous Huxley and George Orwell were star-class worriers more concerned with totalitarian governments, cyberpunk's turf becam e the mean streets and hacker underground where technology, especially computer/information technology, is wedded to the meat puppet in order to "crack" into the ill-gotten digital treasury of globalized (if not galactic) multinational-corporate capitalis m.

Technically augmented to surf the digital data banks, the cyberpunk hero/heroine generally lives in a moral vacuum created by a society controlled by the corporations, for the corporations and of the corporations. The Have-Nots far exceed the Haves, who t ruly see the Have-Nots as expendable meat puppets. The cyberpunk hero/heroine often dresses in leathers, wears mirrorshades, does tailored drugs and has a technically enhanced body, usually consisting of at least a neural jack which directly interfaces wi th the computer. The cyberpunk protagonist is basically a console cowboy or a cyborg appendage to a sophisticated computer deck, having a Hemingwayesque code of honor that creates its own private sense of duty.

Gum Shoe Progenitors
Harking back to the classic private eye detectives of
Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain, the cyberpunk hero/her oine gives the impression of a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe who, for all the sentimental finales, and the almost frenetic use of drugs, electronic highs, and the dazzling technology of cyberspace, lives a life of drab, quiet desperation, waiting for the ne xt information trip, the next out-of-the-body experience.

In cyberpunk (which is strongly influenced by Japanese products and culture) the console cowboy/ninja hacker surfs out onto the worldwide electronic net seeking "data," which can be put to use/sold. "Hacking" (breaking into information banks) is a metapho r for civil disobedience. Convinced that corporations and other power bases, legal and illegal, control the thoughtless dumping of technological innovation upon the masses, cyberpunk fiction posits that the street will find its own uses for technology, different and counterproductive to what the "Man" has in min d.

Given the current corporate worldwide downsizing, massive layoffs of workers, and government gridlock, cyberpunk found a ready market of paranoid anxiety about a "gentler and kinder" future. Unlike those who would, Luddite-like, attempt to return us to so me pastoral bliss, cyberpunk marshals the technology against the forces of social and environmental degradation, reminding us that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance—and a faster PC!

New World Plantation
Cyberpunk fiction has, in large measure, served as a blueprint for creating cyberspace by providing the vocabulary, the phrases and metaphors, and the inspiration. Fiction doesn't have to wait for scientists to prove theories and engineers to construct the tools. Imagination alone is sufficient to bring people together—even if it's only a dream or "con sensual hallucination." Many people understood that the world had changed socially and economically, that the old regime no longer represented the future, that in cyberpunk a new vision, not necessarily brighter but perhaps truer, was aborning. Internatio nal business was the new world order, for better or worse, and nationalistic governments everywhere were merely overseers, of different stripes, for the New World Plantation!

Proto Cyberpunk
Almost from its inception with Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein, SF has reported and extrapolated on the potential effects of science and technology upon the hairless ape, attempting to understand its evolution and destiny. The hybridization of man and machine has been a longtime concern of SF and the ancestors of cyberpunk SF are easily discerned in works like Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (1952) with its prosthetic ironies and body mutilations, the novels of Wil liam S. Burroughs, especially The Soft Machine (1966) with its drug-induced biological Fantasias, and the many pessimistic stories of Philip K. Dick, especially his! (1968). Do Androids Dream of Elect ric Sheep? (1968), which was made into the noire cyberpunk movie Blade Runner (1982).

Other cyberpunk prototypes can be found in John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975) which depicts a world manipulated and monitored by sophisticated high-tech surveillance communicat ions that makes privacy an almost antisocial act. Influenced by Alvin Toffler's Future Shock (who called SF the "sovereign prophylactic against future shock"), Brunner's main protagonist "worms" the worldwide network with a panache that would make a cyberpunk hacker proud indeed! And much of the Internet technology and its social impact had been extrapolated in SF long before its actual appearance in Vernor Vinge's True Names (1981) which depicts the world of MUDs (multiuserdungeons) and MOOs (multiuser object oriented) with perc! eptive cautionary warnings about Cyberpunk SF became a media event right after the publication of Neuroma ncer (one critic referred to it as "the romance of the neurons"), which Gibson subsequently made into a trilogy by continuing and expanding the saga with Count Zero (1986 UK) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). His novel The Difference Engine (1990 UK), coauthored with the unofficial cyberpunk spokesperson and political polemicist Bruce Sterling, utilized the SF trope of alternate history to examine what might have happened to Victorian England (and the world) if the computer had been brought to its present technical sophistication by Charles Babbage. Dubbed a "steam punk" novel, the outcome is no less dystopian than the near-future venues of the Neuromancer trilogies—perhaps because the "meat" can't be transcended weighted down with data!

Bruce Sterling, however in his own works, like Schismatrix (1985) outlines a future space-travelling post-humanity divided into two camps: the Shapers, who are bio-engineered, and the Me chanists who augment their bodies with robotics parts. The politics of a highly-computerized and networked future, where humans seek cyborg augmentations and/or bionic morphing, is a perfect platform for Sterling's rhetorical forays into social planning. Like Gibson, he can't seem to shake the suspicion that artificial intelligence may dominate people in the future, forcing us into a technological intimacy that ultimately absorbs our humanity and reduces us to bits and bytes. In a cosmic irony, the "couch potato" becomes the "mouse potato" becomes the "plug-slug," jacking away existence in an interactive environment that takes "virtual" to the philosophical level of "death-in-life"!

Bruce Sterling also assembled the first significant anthology of this SF movement: Mirror shades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986), and became of one of its more ardent expositors. While cyberpunk saw technology as both liberating and limiting, it also posited an extreme individualism that is at odds with centralization of authority. More importantly, cyberpunk stirred the SF pot, serving up new clusters of ideas, pushing the relevance of SF "right in your face." It also stimulated other respected SF writers like Greg Bear, Pat Cadigan and Orson Scott Card to produce works that took cyberpunk into account.

Cyberpunk Fertilization
Other fields felt the influence of SF cyberpunk as well. Music, art, philosophy and postmodernist fiction all were affected by it and returned the favor. The intersection of SF cyberpunk with postmodernism was indicative of the continued narrowing of terr itory between SF and mainstream literature and was the substance of the critical work
Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction edited by Larry McCaffery (1991).

Under the intense media eye of modern journalism and its concomitant commodifications, cyberpunk as a movement mutated quickly, so much so that the initial midwives and delivery room attendants (William Gibso n, Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, et. al.) quickly (by the beginning of the 1990's) pronounced the original patient dead. But the mutation(s) found fertile minds waiting and while the movement was dead, the central metaphors were alive and well—and breeding across both reality and literary lines like a pluralistic New Age virus.

The Cyberpunk Canon
The number of books and stories to utilize "cyberpunk" conventions is legion, for it became a booksellers' and media term more than a literary designation. Nevertheless, there have been an unusually high number of remarkable efforts to sustain the moment um, the inquiry, about the Age of Information and what it portends. Certainly
David Brin's Earth (1990) is a tour de force projection of the possible ramifications of our present information technologies, especially the social, political and economical o utcome(s) of a highly networked world where "neighborhood watch" takes on a whole new digital meaning. Countering the usual cyberpunk pessimism, Brin, schooled in astronomy and applied physics, believes that humans are capable of more wisdom than folly.

Although it was accused initially of being a "phallocratic" movement, many women have found cyberpunk a valuable forum to address gender issues. Pat Cadigan early on in Synners (1989) made the mean streets of our decaying "burbs" a place to rock the reader's neurons with the interface blues, suggesting that viral artificial intelligences may be even more immoral than their meat a ncestry. For artificial intelligence the sins of the fathers may be revisited with a vengeance indeed!

And former corporate lawyer, Lisa Mason, in Arachne (1990) made it clear that "getting with the program" calls into question the Progammer, particularly the self-generating, genderless ones of artificial intelligence. Ma son envisions a future where online becomes a time sump that drains away the "meat" trying to keep up with made-for-cyberspace agents who don't need to rest. Her digitally enhanced protagonists, diseased with information overload and data burnout, remind you of librarians trying to comprehend the newest in a never-ending line of software releases made by user-friendless nerds.

Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash (1992) creates a library, and a librarian (sometimes called a "knowbot") who inhabits only a sophisticated digital information world that peels back reality like a multilayered brain scan. Hacking in this future world is not an optional talent, it is a survival skill in a world where manipulation of info is everything! In a f uture where privatization of government is a Republican's dream, the Library of Congress and the Central Intelligence Agency are combined into the Central Intelligence Corporation, whose only business is Big Business. This is cyberpunk with tongue in com puter and cheek in reality!

In Mother of Storms (1994) John Barnes projects a near-future world (ala the TV miniseries "Wild Palms") where virtual reality media personalities deliver chills, thrills and spills right into the nervous system of a plugged-in worldwide audience of voyeurs whose passivity and appeti te for violence and sexual stimulation has been properly whetted by decades of television soaps, and the "under-the-counter" videos of media creations like John Wayne Bobbitt and Tanya Harding. And, of course, Barnes' black market provides a type of invasive "information wedge" that makes today's "snuff" films tame indeed!

For another good read about the possible implications of virtual reality technology check out Alexander Besher's Rim (1994) in which entire cities are trapped inside VR, where computer games literal ly suck you in, and where the hero attempts to save the world from its virtual self. This is cybernoir with a vengeance: consciousness-processing served up like sushi! And taking the dedicated "digiterati" one step further, Greg Egan in Permutation City (1994) reduces everything to the information common denominator where virtual clones live in virtual worlds reporting back like so many virtual Alices in Wonderland. In this fictional philosophical inquiry, Egan posits an information hall of mirrors that questions the reality of reality!

SF from its inception has been a disturber of the literary peace. In retrospect, it hardly seems coincidental that SF was born at about the same time as modern science. SF became a medium to examine and to extrapolate change, and to caution people. It emp hasizes alternatives and, most subversive of all, the imagination.

Technology is not the only concern of SF. It is the possible uses to which technology may be put. Technology is neither good nor bad, but humans are an uneasy mixture of the two. The human race with its tool-making proclivities has been constructing an "a rtificial environment" to protect itself from nature's indifference from the very first whimper. Any cry for a return to some idyllic pastoral scene of bucolic innocence and cosmic harmony fails to comprehend that, short of the mythical Garden of Eden, th e evolution of human life has largely been a violent struggle with the natural elements and each other.

Red in Tooth and Claw
SF has shown that harmony with nature, which is not congruent with culture, is neither desirable nor possible. The very essence of mankind, the toolmaker, is the birth of the "artificial," that is, that which did not exist before in nature. Whether this c onstitutes cosmic hubris (as depicted in
Frankenstein) or cosmic creation (as depicted in innumerable SF terraforming stories) is moot, but the cultural journey is exceptionally, per haps quintessentially, a "real" series of accomplishments in the "artificial" (both in art and science). Sentimental longing for some idealized pastoral existence is the mark of intellectual bankruptcy, slouching not toward Bethlehem but extinction. Human transcendence is not conditioned on rejection of technology! But our existence may well depend on the uses to which we put it.

Be assured, many of the now accepted explanations of reality will change. It may be that nature is a complicated message, an information algorithm about all manner of things. But if we agree with everything everybody else thinks, we risk not seeing a poss ibly critical perspective. Toleration of different ideas may be a survival strategy for the species. New ideas can erupt (and generally do) outside of convention and the sacred texts. If technology and science collide with dogma and doctrine, perhaps a ne w transcendental path is being cleared. Perhaps cyberspace, where data, facts, and information are all around us, is a new dispensation, a new time and space for the highly adaptive hairless ape.

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