Illusive Mind

The Unquestionable should be questioned

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Cyberpunk Narrative


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Various critics have touted Cyberpunk Science Fiction as a post-modern genre. Whether or not this is an attempt to keep the genre relevant or elevate it from the low-brow associations of Science Fiction generally is unclear.

“As an exploration of human experience within the context of media-dominated, postindustrial, late capitalist society, cyberpunk is in many ways quintessentially postmodern.”

Sponsler, Claire “Cyberpunk and the Dilemmas of Postmodern Narrative: The Example of William Gibson”, Contemporary Literature 33 (1992) p.626-7

However a common rebuke from literary critics is the narrative of the majority of Cyberpunk is hopelessly non-postmodern. That in fact the postmodern aesthetic has been grafted onto a tired romantic adventure story structure. The cowboy/samurai loner battling against the forces of evil, colonizing a new unexplored territory.

“Clearly the difficulty Gibson faces is one of finding a way of treating plot and agency so as to mesh with the implications of his post-modern aesthetic. While the surface world of his novels convincingly simulates or replicates the technological and cultural changes whose impact he wishes to explore, the plots and protagonists do not. Gibson tries to insert what we might think of as three-dimensional characters and cause-and-effect actions onto a flat plane populated by free-floating, random, and decentered objects and people. This conflict between the scene and the agents who are made to move meaningfully through it toward a resolution marks the impasse Gibson has reached.

In his novels, first human agents, then machines and finally cyberspace itself are invested with a heroic and romantic power that ultimately undermines the resolutely unromantic surface world he has set up. What Gibson has not been able to do, making his novels after Neuromancer increasingly unsatisfactory, is derive from his postmodern, two-dimensional scene a similarly two-dimensional agency that can be manifested not merely through realistic cause-and-effect, diachronic action but through something Gibson has not yet found.

Gibson’s predicament in the end is paradigmatic of the problem all cyberpunk faces: it seems doomed to play out old plots people by old characters within a scene that calls for a radically different formulation of human agency and action.”

Sponsler, Claire “Cyberpunk and the Dilemmas of Postmodern Narrative: The Example of William Gibson”, Contemporary Literature 33 (1992) p.639-40

Whilst I agree there are structures that are hackneyed I am not sure if I would go as far as Sponsler in criticizing the ‘old’ stories. I don’t profess to by overly familiar with post-modern narratives but using non-realistic, non cause and effect devices aim to confuse and provoke the reader. Whilst this would seem to go hand in hand with science fiction as the genre of ‘cognitive estrangement’ it also risks making the story impenetrably strange. Important philosophical and political questions are likely to get lost in the narrative games played by the author. With the story devices already aimed at bending and testing the reality of the reader, what hope would we have in reading the text when the narrative devices are doing the same?

Sponsler does not focus on narrative exclusively however and goes on to make very salient points about the poverty of imagination in Science Fiction in crafting stories that merely tweak the already familiar, specifically the failure to “narrate an antihumanist , nontranscendent future.”

It is safe to say that the genre of Cyberpunk has its roots in the late-capitalism excesses of 80’s America. The technology of personal computers and cyberspace could only have come about through this process, it is unsurprising to me then that this genre would be so inept at criticizing its precursor.

However, we are no longer in the 80’s and films like ‘One Point O’ demonstrate that cyberpunk fiction is only limited by the imaginations of it’s authors. The film not only does away with the romantic-hero structure it also is a critique of capitalist forces doing away with the ambivalence of the old literature.

I agree though that Cyberpunk still relies far to heavily on the credibility of the narrator. Whilst utilizing themes pioneered by Phillip K. Dick et al. in questioning reality and our ability to know what is real, why would authors choose such a realist prose so that we are never in much doubt ourselves in terms of the story?

I can only hope that as I understand more clearly just what postmodern literature is supposed to be, I can understand how cyberpunk can do away with old clichés and remain fresh in a world that hasn’t answered any of the questions it has been raising for the last twenty years.



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