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Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson

Author: Dani Cavallaro
Publisher: London, UK: Athlone Press, 2000
Review Published: May 2003

 REVIEW 1: Samir Chopra

Surrounding terms such as 'cyberpunk' and 'cyberculture' is a bewildering constellation of references, allusions, and languages. There is cyberspace, that strange entity which serves as the repository for a great deal of wishful theorizing. There is popular cyberculture, cyberculture studies, and critical cyberculture studies. There are cyberpunk films, theorists, TV shows, music pieces, essays, authors and books. What characterizes cyberpunk? Is it a mood -- half content/mood and half associated technical features -- like film noir or something more fundamental? For someone not discouraged by this diversity, there is a course of action. Pick a book that aims to exegize texts -- or one author and his or her work -- supposedly representative of the genre found to be mysterious and let the author unpack for you the mysterious term's resonance and connections with associated texts.

This is the approach followed by Dani Cavallaro in Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson. The book prima facie is guilty of false advertising: Gibson's work, while covered in greater detail than any author in the book, is not the central focus in the way that some readers might have anticipated in light of its subtitled appearance. Yet there is focus on Gibson, and unfortunately too much attention given to plenty of other writers and theorists as well. Cavallaro has a difficult task at hand, and the author's success at it is an inconstant entity, afflicted by the difficulty of making much sense of the bewildering variety of cultural products taken to be representative of cyberpunk and cyberculture.

Following an introduction, in which the historical background to cyberpunk via science fiction is discussed, Cavallaro splits up the textual treatment into a series of chapters that explore connections between cyberpunk and cyberculture in some detail. But the focus is on cyberpunk. The opening lines of the first chapter remind us of the varied characterizations of cyberpunk due to, amongst others, Michael Heim and Pat Cadigan who come the closest to classifying it as a genre. Cavallaro then moves on to the connections to be explored. Some connections include cyberpunk and the body, gender and sexuality, the city, virtual technologies, mythology and memory, and so on. Also included is a chapter where Cavallaro argues that cyberpunk shares Gothic traits. This is perhaps the most original part of the book in that in it Cavallaro offers some sort of theoretical framework of her own rather than simply exegising others.

Within each chapter is a treatment of how those terms are associated with cyberpunk: we learn how cyberpunk writers, artists, and theoreticians write, represent, and theorize about the connection in their works. And of course, how does Gibson do it? There is plenty here to be explored. One thing Neuromancer did well was to render it necessary to think in very different terms about the topics that these chapters cover. So in the chapter on sexuality, Cavallaro asks how a cyberpunk writer, say JG Ballard or Gibson, handles sex? How do cyberpunk theorists construct theories about sex? How does cyberpunk discourse organize itself around the issue of sexuality and change our take on sex? Has the body really disappeared in cyberpunk? In the chapter on mythology and technology there is even a brief foray into the science wars, as Cavallaro examines the issues arising out of a mingling of scientific and mythological discourses present in cyberpunk.

Cavallaro's own writing, with its frequent nods to string, chaos, and catastrophe theory, is reflective of this mingling: a style that serves as the lightning rod for scientists’ ire at seeing scientific language used in such contexts or scientific theories invoked on, for them, the flimsiest of grounds. In the chapter on the body, the fluidity of the body is a key question: cyborgs, prostheses, virtual bodies, and the relationship of bodies to the technologies which nurture and perhaps, come to supplant them, all play a role in illuminating the role of the body in cyberpunk. In the chapter on the city, the contrast between the immateriality of cyberspace and the hyper-materiality of cities serves as a starting point for discussing commonalities in cyberpunk and postmodern treatments of space. In arguably the best chapter in the book, Cavallaro clearly states the distinguishing features of 'Goth': “a fictional genre” encompassing diverse strands such as historical romance, horror and tales of obsession and a “discourse of wider resonance utilizing images of horror and monstrosity that embody cultural anxieties about the disintegration of traditional western values and social formations” (164-165), and then persuasively argues that cyberpunk is similar and is Gothic. Goth brings with it of course, its own set of writers and culture producers (right down to Tim Burton) and the attempt to show that these could be slotted into cyberpunk's historical antecedents and sharers of an aesthetic is fairly entertaining.

Unfortunately, Cavallaro's writing often rambles; at times, the book comes dangerously close to being a series of seemingly disconnected quotes from different authors -- or just one invocation after the other of one author after another -- to illustrate whatever facet of cyberpunk happens to fall under her wandering gaze. This gives the book a disjointed feel and makes it difficult to settle in for the ride. There is the familiar cavalcade of cultural theorists, philosophers, writers, and culture producers that are normally invoked in such contexts: Giles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Donna Haraway, Arthur Kroker, Samuel Delany, Jean Baudrillard, William Burroughs, Kathryn Bigelow, Don DeLillo, and so on. These discussions invariably touch upon the borrowings and interchanges present between these authors. Once done reading this book, an undergraduate in a cultural studies program will understand why some writers and theorists are invoked in talk about cyberpunk and cyberculture and perhaps understand the background to their obsessions.

But there are problems aplenty, not just with form but also with content. The attention paid to theorists is selective and there is no attempt made to embed cyberpunk or cybercultural discourse into broader frameworks or to notice resonances with other strands of theorizing. When talking about meaning being a matter of use and not one of semantical theories there is no mention of Wittgenstein. Is Wittgensteinian theorizing not worth mentioning if other more explicitly or avowedly cyberpunk types are available? But why cannot cyberpunk be connected to a wider theorizing range? Cyberpunk would come across as richer were its myriad connections with a broad range of theorizing made clearer. There are enough shades and echoes of radical indeterminacy of translation, the inscrutability of reference and ontological relativity to name but only a few viewpoints expressed in post-analytical theorizing to warrant reference to a broader range of philosophical discussion in a book on cyberpunk. How about notions of indeterminate identity, ambiguous authorship, and memory alteration? Are these not the subjects of alternative philosophical theorizing as well? Is there nothing that a discussion on the absence of the theory-observation distinction could contribute to cyberpunk discourse?

A loose style of making philosophical references plagues Cavallaro's writing throughout. Take sentences like "Some theorists have adopted the rationalist approach that the mind is superior to the body" (35). If this is attempting to make a distinction between rationalism and empiricism, then it fails badly. I often found, mysteriously enough, that Cavallaro often seemed to be on the thinnest ground when referring to computer science jargon - a strange weakness in someone writing about cyberculture, given that its technology underlies so many cybercultural discourses. On page 13, the description of Turing Machines is notable for its skimpiness. Cavallaro also falls prey to that most irritating of afflictions: the tendency to over-italicize text, leading to a situation in which the reader reads with bated breath, waiting to see what dramatic surprise awaits him or her in the next sentence. Often I sensed a throwaway line lurking beneath sentences as in the tautological claim that "[a]ny structure of meaning and desire entails as a corollary the possibility of unpredictable change" (81). Not just any structure of meaning and desire, but just about anything in this world, surely?

Cavallaro's book is a reasonable introduction to cyberpunk with enough pointers to primary and secondary sources as well as a slim list of movies. I suspect someone really interested in the primary theorists will have to chase them down anyway and find the snippets and allusions here to be too brief and fleeting. The reader already familiar with cyberpunk will find this book simply too confusingly and superficially written.

Samir Chopra:
Samir Chopra is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Prior to taking up his current position, he completed a Research Fellowship in Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales. Samir did his BA (Mathematical Statistics) from Delhi University, MS (Computer Science) from NJIT and PhD (Philosophy) from the CUNY Graduate Center; his research interests include logics for artificial intelligence, foundations of cognitive science, philosophy of science (physics and biology in particular), social choice theory, and non-monotonic reasoning. 

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