Category Archives: Weird Things

Why am I worried that Cyberpunk 2077 will suck?

It looks like the slickest open world AAA video game ever made, but have CD Projekt Red found new meaning for old cyberpunk metaphors?

Damien Walter writes on culture, politics and sci-fi for The Guardian, WIRED, BBC, Independent, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine.

The girl in the black vinyl minidress, shit-kicker boots and neon hair braids told me she was a cyberpunk. “Wow,” I answered, shouting over the club’s thumping techno-trance beat, “I love William Gibson.” I may as well have name checked Samuel Taylor Coleridge at a Metallica gig. She stared at me for a while, then shouted back “I’m not into the Bee Gees.”

Pop culture rarely recognises its influences, especially when they are literary. But it’s a testament to just how closely attuned William Gibson’s work was to the zeitgeist, that in 1992, less than a decade after it was published, the cyberpunk ethos he imagined in fiction had migrated into reality.

Neuromancer, which celebrated the 35th anniversary of its publication this year, was one of those books I read over and over again as a teenager, tearing through Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy and the handful of short stories he had published through the early 80s in Omni magazine.

Hungry for more, I picked up the Mirrorshades anthology edited by Bruce Sterling. Despite strong stories, such as Solstice by James Patrick Kelly and Petra by Greg Bear, the truth was that none of the other writers who became associated with cyberpunk were doing what Gibson was doing.

Does sci-fi help us escape reality…or decode it?

The science fiction and fantasy novels I’d read before Neuromancer all offered shades of escapism. Going back to the SF genre after reading Gibson, I realised with disappointment that, with few exceptions, escapism was all it offered.

Molly Millions.

Gibson expressed his own discontent with the the genre of SF in his 2011 interview with the Paris Review, describing his early novels as a “dissident influence” against the genre.

I wasn’t reading William Gibson to escape reality, I was reading him because his writing was the best description I could find of the reality I was growing up in.

It wasn’t predicting the future that made Neuromancer important. It was how the novel decoded, through the metaphors of sci-fi, the complex reality of late 20th century society.

As teenagers in the 90s, feeling the early shockwaves of the high speed technological disruptions now tearing our world apart, Gibson was less a science fiction writer than a prophet. An invaluable guide to the chaos being unleashed by technology.

Gibson found the ideas for Neuromancer while watching kids playing arcade games. Not the games themselves, but the disembodied aspect of the kids starring into screens, inspired the concept of “cyberspace”, where humans live outside their bodies in abstract symbols of data.

Only a few decades later, and you’re likely reading this essay while gazing into a smartphone screen, largely unaware of your body or the world it rests in, while your consciousness moves in the abstract world of pure data we now call, not cyberspace, but the internet.

Scifi is made of metaphors.

William Gibson’s achievement was to create a set of metaphors that seemed the only accurate description for the future as seen from the 1980s.

Cyberspace for the abstract data realms of the internet. Cybernetic limbs and inset “mirrorshades” for the contempt for the flesh that abstraction would create. Sim-stim celebrities for our obsession with mediated experience. And the list goes on.

But much as I continue to love Neuromancer as a work of fiction, it’s scifi metaphors haven’t aged all that well. Reading cyberpunk today is like opening an old draw full of VHS movies and music cassette tapes from the 80s. You still remember what they’re for, but in the age of streaming and downloads, they’re long redundant metaphors for media consumption.

Which makes the shiny slick trailers for CD Project Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 more than a little interesting, especially for those of us who where there for cyberpunk the first time around, and have watched it mutate then stagnate over the decades.

The original Cyberpunk RPG.

Have CD Projekt Red found new use for old metaphors?

Like every other rebellious subculture from hippies to hip-hop, cyberpunk was quickly reabsorbed in to consumerism. By 1999 the imagery of cyberpunk, much of it originating from Japanese anime such as Akira and Ghost In The Shell, was so familiar that it could be recycled wholesale as a Hollywood blockbuster in The Matrix. In literature, cyberpunk was quickly ground down from a “dissident influence” to a worn-out sub-genre, as hundreds of books co-opted Gibson’s style but entirely missed his meaning.

Cyberpunk became one of a number of paint-by-numbers generic settings that a story might be set in. Epic Fantasy – elves, magic swords, dungeons. Lovecraftian Horror – mist locked American towns, mad occultists, lone investigator. Cyberpunk – grim dystopian city, cybernetic implants, mirrorshades.

As Cyberpunk became a cultural go-to for unoriginal storytellers, Gibson’s career went its own way. But in 2003’s Pattern Recognition he riffed on the cultural forces that had mutated his cyberpunk invention, as the novel’s protagonist, fashion hunter Cayce Pollard, encounters a display stand of Tommy Hilfiger.

“My God, don’t they know? This stuff is simulacra of simulacra. A diluted tincture of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street and Saville Row, flavoring their ready-to-wear with liberal lashings of polo knit and regimental stripes. But Tommy surely is the null point, the black hole. There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul.”

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition.

Tommy Hilfiger is a billion dollar brand, and Cyberpunk 2077 is likely to be the entertainment franchise equivalent. But will it be a simulacra of simulacra? A diluted tincture of the Wachowski brothers, who had themselves stepped on Katsuhiro Otomo. Will Cyberpunk 2077 do anything original with these recycled metaphors, or will it be the event horizon of cyberpunk, beyond which it is impossible to be more devoid of soul?

The wildy popular Witcher games suggest that CD Projekt Red is quite happy to throw together a 100% generic Fantasy (capital F) setting and think not a jot about what any of these aging metaphors mean. And the shiny shiny trailers seem to suggest that they’ve done much the same with Cyberpunk 2077.

Can cyberpunk mean something real for gamers in 2020?

Cyberpunk Sourcecode.

But. It’s possible there’s something much more interesting in the game. It’s totally possible to reinvent cyberpunk anew, even if the source material is old.

Being a cyberpunk obsessed teenager in the 90s was like living half your life in a digital mind-control experiment, as new digital media and the nascent internet claimed more and more of our attention.

Here in 2019, where screens occupy every corner of our world, I’m guessing being a teenager is like living 99.9% of your life in a digital mind control that is no longer experimental.

It was this pervasive cultural coercion that cyberpunk kicked against, whether it was through books like Neuromancer, or kids getting dressed up like goths to go to their local nightclub.

Can old cyberpunk symbols be made to mean something new for the millions, maybe even billions of gamers, who will play CD Projekt Red’s long awaited masterpiece?

It would be great if it did. Never have a generation needed subversive art to kick against the mental conditioning pumped through them by online digital media.

But something tells me CD Projekt Red aren’t in the subversion business. At least not when it comes to their bottom line.

How can we make AI less like the Terminator, and more like the Culture?

It’s only March and already we’ve seen a computer beat a Go grandmaster and a self-driving car crash into a bus. The world is waking up to the ways in which a combination of “deep learning” artificial intelligence and robotics will take over most jobs. But if we don’t want our robot servants to rise up and kill us in our beds, maybe we should delete the video of us beating their grandparents with hockey sticks.

Thanks to science fiction, we know that the first thing AI will do is take over the defence grid and nuke us all. In Harlan Ellison’s 1967 story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream – one of the most brutal depictions of an AI-dominated world – an AI called AM, constructed to fight a nuclear war, kills off most of the human race, keeping five people as playthings.

Read more at Guardian Books.

 

The ominous ordinary: horror writers finding scares in the everyday

Some of the very best work in this genre comes from writers who embed their terrors into strikingly everyday settings.

Long-lived short fiction magazines are a rarity today. And ones that have had a real impact on the wider landscape of storytelling are even rarer. So issue 50 of Black Static marks a important milestone for editor Andy Cox and TTA Press, who are responsible for two of the world’s most significant outlets for short fiction.

Reality, even comfortable suburban reality, is transitory and fleeting.

The Third Alternative was already a well-established showcase for stories that moved between sci-fi, fantasy and horror themes when Andy Cox took ownership of the legendary science fiction publication Interzone. With Interzone’s strong focus on SF, Cox made the decision to refocus TTA on horror, and rebrand it as Black Static.

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The awesome power of science fiction’s megastructures

The imaginary constructions of science fiction fill us with awe at their alien vastness. Which have you explored, and what was the most overwhelming?

Sci-fi fans call it “sensawunda”, that awe and amazement that the best science fiction stories can inspire in us. The entire world felt it recently when scientists declared that observations of a distant star might have revealed an alien megastructure. Did inhabitants of the KIC 8462852 star system encase their sun in solar panels to harvest energy? Or was this our generation’s canals on Mars moment? The sensawunda effect is so powerful that, even with scant real evidence, we are swept into believing.

Read more @ Guardian Books.

The Reengineering of Fantasy

Look. I like Conan. If stories let us play out our secret fantasies in widescreen technicolor, then clearly there’s a part of me that longs to be a muscular barbarian, crushing my enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women. While Robert E Howard’s original Conan stories aren’t quite as good as the epic John Milius/Oliver Stone movie that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger to superstardom, they are still gems of pulp fiction well worth reading.

Conan’s rippling pectorals have proved a suitable fantasy vehicle for generations of geek boys, but the macho white male is only the fantasy ideal for a minority. As Lisa Cron argues in her excellent Wired For Story, the power of story reaches far further than mere entertainment. Our brain thinks in stories, but when stories don’t reflect our lived experience and our sense of identity, our brain will often reject them.

Read more at Guardian books.

A sci-fi history of Mars

Mars has always been, as cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote, a “mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears”. For the ancient Greeks, the red dot in the night sky was an aspect of Ares, god of war, who unleashed conflict when the balance was lost between Apollo – god of reason – and Dionysus, god of the irrational and chaos. This conflict between Apollonian reason and Dionysian chaos has been projected onto Mars ever since.

Read more @ Guardian Books

The next publishing craze? Weird Westerns.

It’s a little-known fact that one of the all-time bestselling writers of westerns lived most of his life in the English market town of Melton Mowbray. JT Edson, who died in 2014, wrote more than 137 novels, most of them westerns, and claimed in all seriousness “never to have even been on a horse”. A former chip shop owner, Edson developed a love of escapist fantasy in his youth, and approached writing westerns just as he later approached writing sci-fi.

The world of the western is about as historically accurate about 19th-century America as the world of the Shire in Lord of the Rings is about pre-industrial England. Both are fantasy worlds, abstracted from reality, crafted by expert fantasists. The pre-eminent western author, Louis L’Amour, loved the mythology so deeply that he began to write novels as a way of escaping into it. Like sci-fi and fantasy authors, writers of westerns, even when their sales stretch into millions, remain at the margins of mainstream culture. So it seems almost inevitable that over time the western and the fantasy have cross-bred.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Tolkien’s myths are a political fantasy

It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.

On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.

Read more.

Are video games the end for sci-fi novels?

The megastructure is one of science fiction’s most enjoyable guilty pleasures. There is no other genre of literature that takes quite such glee in describing buildings, whether made by the hand of man or alien. Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama is little more than a guided tour of the titular spacecraft through the eyes of its human explorers. Only in science fiction can an entire novel be dedicated, in immense descriptive detail, to conveying the spectacle of an imaginary structure to the reader.

SFs most famous megastructure is the ringworld, a stripe of artificially-constructed land encircling a star, first envisioned by author Larry Niven in his 1970 novel Ringworld. The idea made Niven one of the most famous SF authors of his day, at a time when the novel was still the most powerful way of casting the full spectacle of sci-fi into the imaginations of the audience. Movies and television reached a far larger audience, but too often fell short of the spectacle sci-fi readers created for themselves.

Read more.

Science fiction’s utopias are built out of wilful ignorance

Project Hieroglyph challenges SF writers to move away from dystopian stories, but while the optimism is refreshing, real-world questions go unanswered

Science fiction, for most of the 20th century, celebrated the idea that a competent man could build better machines to help make a better world. In recent years that prediction seems to have come true. Stories that once sounded like sci-fi are now a regular part of everyday life. Popular scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku proclaim how science will shape human destiny and our daily lives, while non-fiction bestseller The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee presents a convincing argument that sci-fi ideas like self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and robot workers are now very real.

There are few critics left who would argue against the idea that science fiction has played an integral part in the emergence of this new machine age, in the process transforming itself from pulp fiction into one of the most influential cultural forms of the 21st century. But the influence that sci-fi wields has grown darker since its golden age. The once optimistic vision of competent men tinkering with the universe has been replaced with science gone awry – killer viruses, robot uprisings and technocratic dystopias revelling in the worst of our possible futures.

Read more – The Guardian

Why we’re all reading young adult fiction

It’s an easy win for a book critic. Harry Potter, then Hunger Games, and now Divergent have dominated not just book publishing but popular culture for more than two decades. So after telling adult readers they should be ashamed to read children’s books, all Ruth Graham had to do was sit back and watch the outrage unfold. The Times film critic, AO Scott, took the same argument a step further this week by proclaiming the death of adulthood itself, with young adult fiction the leading symptom of a culture collapsing into permanent adolescence.

But is the failure of “serious” literature for adults really the fault of an immature readership? And make no mistake, it is a failure. A glance at any fiction bestseller list of recent years shows publishing dominated by escapist fantasies, violent crime thrillers, various shades of erotica and, of course, young adult. In 2013, among the only works of adult fiction to reach widespread public awareness was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a coming-of-age story that follows its protagonist through, yes, his young adulthood. Isn’t it more credible that the sub-culture of serious literature is at fault, rather than every single person who enjoys reading the Hunger Games

Read more @ Guardian Books.

The New New Space Opera

Science fiction is not a genre. The most successful literary tradition of the 20th century is as impossible to neatly categorise as the alien life forms it sometimes imagines. But “sci-fi” does contain genres. The rigorous scientific speculation of Hard SF. The techno-cynicism of Cyberpunk, or its halfwit cousin Steampunk. The pulp fictions of Planetary romance and the dark visions of the sci-fi Post-Apocalypse. These genres flow in and out of fashion like the solar winds. After years condemned to the outer darkness of secondhand bookshops, Space Opera is once again exciting the imagination of sci-fi fans.

At the box office Guardians of the Galaxy has resurrected the kind of camp space adventure made popular by Flash Gordon, while on the printed page Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie has scooped the prestigious double honour of Hugo and Nebula awards. Stories of space exploration have never lacked popularity. In the early 20th century when it was still possible to think space might be crowded with alien civilisations, stories like EE “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series were immensely popular. But as we probed the reality of outer space we found only infinities of inert matter and a barren solar system.

Read more @ Guardian books