I lay on a hospital trolley, with morphine—or maybe it was just saline—dripping into my veins, reading Neuromancer for the first time. There was still a Soviet Union and I did not own a computer; few of us had ever heard of the possibility of the Internet and global warming was something that happened in John Brunner novels. The book was something new, but not all that surprising; you had to have led a life more sheltered than I had to find it a very sharp cutting edge.
The idea of cyberspace was intuitively fascinating, but only in the way that telepathy had been fascinating when I read Bester and Kuttner for the first time twenty years earlier. The mean streets of Gibson's world even then seemed to me considerably cosier than mean streets that in real life I had strutted down in platform heels. It was all gorgeous exciting stuff, but as far as pity and terror went, it was all fee-fi-fo-fum nonetheless.
When, a little while later, I started to see the communiques Bruce Sterling was issuing under various Maximum Leader pseudonyms, I enjoyed the prose and the malice, but treated them with the scepticism that long exposure to political sectarianism has made my default reaction to manifestos, artistic as otherwise. I was never quite sure back then whether cyberpunk was ultimately an aesthetic, a slightly boysy clique or a way of arguing with reality about possible futures; that uncertainty continued even when, a few years later, I took for a while to black leather and mirror shades.
Yet that period in the history of my personal style was only one of the ways in which the Sterling manifestos came to seem prescient—much that had seemed monolith solid melted into air around us and new orthodoxies turned up in their place. And the internet is not yet, nor probably ever will be, the cyberspace Gibson thought of, but it is something with an intense cousinhood with it.Our time was not the end of history—it never is—but Gibson and Sterling turned out to have been more plugged into the zeitgeist than I thought at the time.
And yet so were the writers at whom Sterling had sneered in those manifestos—the so-called New Humanism of Robinson and Fowler was just as relevant to the times we lived in and often more humane. There were no heroes and villains here—different ideological manners perhaps and a somewhat different way of confronting the problems of story. You can overstate even there—there is no sense in which the moment when one of Robinson's characters falls off the Martian space elevator is any less thrillingly melodramatic than the various points in Gibson where someone comes through the door with a Chandleresque gun. Sterling had a nifty line in sloganeering where Robinson's characters were more likely to sit down for forty pages of discussion of constitutional law, but both spoke to our condition.
And now the war is over (but it never began.)
Rewired is a chastened collection of stories that inhabit a science fiction that is penitential in tone; guessing the worst that might happen is no longer a game when all too often you kind of got it right. Assembled from recent magazines by a hard-core New Humanist (John Kessel) and James Patrick Kelly, who never clearly affiliated, it is dominated by people who were part of cyberpunk in its glory days, but who have been paying attention to gloomier matters.
As Sterling says in one of the letters between him and Kessel that punctuate the stories here :”it is neccessary to give up pointing at potholes and instead attempt to search out whatever is left of the road.” Sterling is also more sceptical of the sense of wonder that was part of what made him so in love with the possibilities of the future: “What's the real motive behind 'sense of wonder'? Is it the benevolent urge to reveal cosmic mysteries, to act as the Jungian Wise Old Man to the innocent hobbits of the world? Or is it closer to the tangily malignant motives of pranksters and conjurors, the kinds of guys who'd spike your coke with angel dust...?” The boy could always turn a phrase...
Sterling is represented here by the often reprinted, but nonetheless excellent “Bicycle Repairman” which is one of a number of stories here set in the improtech shantytowns of an impoverished world where things have gone to hell, but most people keep on keeping on in a small way. Like many of the stories here, it assumes scarcity and immiseration—unlike, say, Gibson's “Thirteen views of a cardboard city,” its mode is quietly optimistic rather than bleak with implicit tragedy. In the end, how you feel about all this depends on how you feel about that loss of First World Middle-Class privilege which was one of the things about the future about which both schools agreed.
Sterling's protagonist has skills which keep him useful but also give him access to sheer style- a surprising number of these stories deal with artists of a technological bent, or technologists whose flair makes them more or less artists. Charles Stross's Max in “Lobsters” (one of the stories fixed-up as Accelerando) is more or less benevolent in his dealings with quasi-intelligent downloads but more because kindness appeals to his sense of himself than because of actual moral positions deeply held. Similarly Bash in Paul Di Filippo's wacky “What's Up, Tiger Lily?” is less interested in saving the world than in saving himself the embarrassment of his ex- girlfriend's hack of his invention; these are stories in which the imperatives of pulp have been reconfigured as good manners.
Good manners are, indeed, part of what keeps us human and humane and part of right dealing with those of our technological creations which might have some claim to human identity. The downloaded bride in David Marusek's “The Wedding Album” or the child in Walter John Williams’s “Daddy's World” may not be human, or even fully autonomous, but are shown as possessing the qualia of pain and humiliation to an extent that makes them the rightful beneficiaries of human kindness.
If the producer narrator of Pat Cadigan's “The final remake of The Return of Little Latin Larry with a Completely Remastered Soundtrack and the Original Audience” finds himself out of pocket and baffled by the mystery at the heart of things, it feels right because he has been insufficiently respectful of the fragments of genetic memory from which his age reconstructs lost art. These are often morality tales, but the moral is about respect rather than more traditional virtues—the sadness that results from the virtual love-making in Gwyneth Jones’s “Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland” results from the difficulty of maintaining trust and respect behind the masks of cyberspace.
Often, in their bleak way, these are comedies—DiFilippo is making a point about the complex relationship of the noir that was cyberpunk's default cinematic reference and the wacky comedies of the emotional life that were in cinemas at the same time. Cory Doctorow's “When Sysadmins ruled the earth” turns the collapse of everything and death of millions into a dark comedy of geeks fighting turf wars as they keep enough of the world together for there to be some hope. Michael Swanwick's “The Dog Said Bow-wow” is a reconfigured picaresque variation on Puss-in-Boots in which technology and its loss and aberrations have become indistinguishable from magic, not because they are advanced so much as because they are no longer understood. One of the assumptions of the stories in this book is that much will be lost, and much remain, and that cheerfulness is more useful than hope. These are not perhaps the stories we would have expected to be reading almost thirty years after cyberpunk started with flashes and bangs, yet their sad sweet often witty wisdom is probably the best we deserve.
Roz Kaveney is a writer and reviewer living in London. Her most recent book is Superheroes!; other titles include Reading the Vampire Slayer, From Alien to The Matrix, and Teen Dreams.