Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Paper 1, Mega-text and the Cyberpunk Subgenre, Nov 13, 2006

This is the sixth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

As I remember it, Professor Andy Sawyer led the Genre Definitions module of the MA in Science Fiction Studies program, but we had some seminars with Professor Peter Wright. This is the first of two major essays from the Genre Definitions module. It allowed me to begin my research in an area that I was very interested in (i.e., cyberpunk) but that I had not yet seriously researched.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Andy Sawyer

Science Fiction Studies Core Module 1: Genre Definitions

13 November 2006

Mega-text and the Cyberpunk Subgenre

In Bruce Sterling’s preface to Mirrorshades:  The Cyberpunk Anthology, he sets about constructing a definition of cyberpunk. Sterling points out “the Cyberpunks as a group are steeped in the lore and tradition of the SF field” (x).  However, cyberpunk authors changed traditional science fiction (SF) vectors by “overlapping…worlds that were formerly separate:  the realm of the high tech, and the modern pop underground” (Sterling xi).    Therefore, cyberpunk is arguably a subgenre of SF, because its practitioners build on earlier SF works while writing stories based on a new fusion of ideas.  Additionally, the dialog between works of cyberpunk and other works of SF provide a connection to an overarching meta-text.  This connecting dialog is accomplished by the sharing of language, terminology, and situations.  I would extend this argument by saying that cyberpunk operates within its own mega-text that is particular to works decidedly cyberpunk in orientation.

Two works of cyberpunk in mega-text dialog with one another are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  Gibson’s early work is said to be the foundation of cyberpunk[1], and Stephenson’s work is equally considered essential to the movement.  I argue that there exists a dialog between the works of Gibson and Stephenson that forms the basis of a cyberpunk mega-text that is also connected to the larger SF mega-text.

Christine Brooke-Rose first put forth the concept of a mega-text, or megastory.   She writes, “The realistic narrative is hitched to a megastory (history, geography), itself valorised, which doubles and illuminates it, creating expectations on the line of least resistance through a text already known, usually as close as possible to the reader’s experience” (Brooke-Rose 243).  SF authors, unlike mimetic authors, have to rely on anchoring their stories into ideas, concepts, and language that have been employed in previous works by other authors.  Essentially, SF is reliant on its situation within a network of texts including both non-fiction (e.g., science and technology) and fiction (e.g., SF, detective fiction, and other genre fiction).

On the one hand, SF’s central theme is that it’s extrapolated from real and theoretical scientific and technological concepts of the here-and-now.  This means that authors draw on the large body of scientific works and technological developments that SF readers may be acutely or tangentially aware of.  Additionally, SF, like science itself, is based on building upon prior works.  This is not to say that subsequent SF works have citations pointing back to passages and data contained in other works, but it does mean that SF is not written within a vacuum.  SF authors build on ideas that they have received from reading works within and without the genre.

Damien Broderick extends Brooke-Rose’s concept of the megastory by a closer reading of its importance to SF, and in so doing, he coins a new term, the mega-text.  His concept of the mega-text refers to the overlay of SF texts, themes, and ideas as, “the mutually imbricated sf texts” (59).  SF stories, for the most part, are an imbrication of texts in a three dimensional space where concepts and terminology float freely between the layers formed by the many stories thus arrayed.

The mega-text is a double-edged sword that represents the shared space of terminology, ideas, and themes that serve to both familiarize, as well as defamiliarize the reader.  He goes on to write, “But that familiarity, so necessary in alerting trained readers to the appropriate reception codes and strategies for concretising an sf text, maintains at its heart a de-familiarising impulse absolutely pivotal to the form’s specificity” (Broderick 60).  The SF mega-text is a shared space of concepts and terminology that many SF writers draw upon in the crafting of their stories.  SF readers rely on authorial use of the ideas contained in the mega-text in order to situate themselves in an otherwise (more or less) overwhelmingly fantastic place.  However, it is the shared elements of the mega-text that form the “de-familiarising impulse absolutely pivotal to the form’s specificity.”

The shared elements, or as Gary K. Wolfe labeled them, icons, are built-up “using a strategy of semiological compensation, or redundancy and overcoding…[The] sf mega-text works by embedding each new work…in an even vaster web of interpenetrating semantic and tropic givens or vectors” (Broderick 59).  The mega-text serves as the “text tube” where ideas react with one another and form new compounds and substances, as well as reveal litmus colors that indicate how one text is related to another across the mega-text network.  Reagents in the SF mega-text include computers, spaceships, robots, and solvable problems.  Cyberpunk icons include networked computers, the network, multinational corporations, virtual reality, disembodiment facilitated through technology, and problems sans solution.

Gibson’s Neuromancer is widely accepted as the foundational cyberpunk work, and it first lends itself to the SF mega-text by the author generating cognitive estrangement[2] through the establishment of setting in its opening sentence.  Gibson begins, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (3).  The description of the sky is estranging from the way in which one would normally characterize the sky, and it is rationally described through the language of technology (i.e., television).

Also, Gibson employs terminology that connects to a shared SF terminology that reinforces this text’s membership in the SF mega-text.  For example, Gibson’s description of the protagonist, Case, is densely packed with powerful descriptions and technologically-oriented words that elicit the feel of an SF story:

Case was twenty-four.  At twenty-two, he’d been a cowboy, a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl…He’d operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high…jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.  A thief, he’d worked for other, wealthier thieves, employers who provide the exotic software required to penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data (5).

Gibson re-envisions a cattle ‘rustler’ with the future occupation of a data ‘thief.’  Future corporations that protect their data behind ‘bright walls’ instead of fences, replace the ranches of the past.  And most importantly, Case ‘jacks’ into ‘cyberspace’ using a ‘custom deck’ that leaves him ‘disembodied’ within the ‘consensual hallucination,’ which is an artificial construct of reality known as the ‘matrix.’  Old becomes new and therefore, estranging.

In addition to Gibson’s use of computer technology in this narrative, he also conjures other images in crafting Neuromancer.  The style of the novel is distinctly noir.  Case’s world is ambiguously not dualistic and there is no apparent resolution at the end.  Also, he features the female cyborg Molly, the AI Wintermute, who wants to engage in the capitalist system, the near-immortal Tessier-Ashpool S.A. family/mega-corporation, and the spiritually positive Zion cluster Rastas.

Neal Stephenson extends these cyberpunk icons through the use of language and narrative style in his novel, Snow Crash, published eight years after Gibson’s Neuromancer.  Again, from the opening lines of the text, the reader is thrown into a world that is recognizable, but subtly different than the here-and-now:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order…Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night.  His uniform is black as activated charcoal…A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest.  Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel…[that] protects like a stack of telephone books (Stephenson 1).

‘The Deliverator’ has a ‘Terminator’ ring to it, and the name is capitalized.  He’s on his ‘third mission,’ wearing a black uniform that is protected by ‘arachnofiber weave’ and ‘sintered armorgel.’  All of this protection and militarized language (e.g., mission, bullet, napalmed forest, and armor) is established for “pizza delivery” (Stephenson 3).  Thus, today’s mundane is rendered tomorrow’s exotic.

In addition to the dense and destabilizing openings to these cyberpunk stories, Stephenson relies on a shared set of terminology to describe the computer-based-scapes in which his character, Hiro Protagonist, shares an affinity with Gibson’s Case.  Hiro writes “microcode (software)” (Stephenson 3).  When he uses his computer, he wears “shiny goggles that wrap halfway around his head” that “throw a light, smoky haze across his eyes and reflect a distorted wide-angle view of a brilliantly lit boulevard that stretches off into an infinite blackness.  This boulevard does not really exist; it is a computer-rendered view of an imaginary place” (Stephenson 19).  The ‘imaginary place’ that is projected onto Hiro’s eyes from the goggles is another description of Gibson’s “consensual hallucination that was the matrix” (Gibson 5).

Following Stephenson’s technical explanation of Hiro’s goggles, he best makes the connection to Gibson’s Neuromancer when he writes:

So Hiro’s not actually here at all.  He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones.  In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse.  Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse.  It beats the shit out of the U-Stor-It (22).

This passage establishes another characteristic of cyberpunk:  the desire to leave physical reality and escape into a computer generated world.  Gibson describes Case’s crisis over losing the ability to disengage his body and enter cyberspace when he writes,  “They damaged his nervous system with a wartime Russian mycotoxin…The body was meat.  Case fell into the prison of his own flesh” (6).  The ‘meatspace’ is undesirable to the computer jockey.  Cyberspace and physical disembodiment is the desired space in which to work and live.  In the lives of both Case and Hiro, they live in a dirty and harsh world that doesn’t compare to the beautifully rendered and clean spaces found in their respective cyberspace or Metaverse.

Other icons in Stephenson’s novel that engage the discussion began by Neuromancer include:  a noir style, cyborgs (the mixed race Hiro, the mixed education of Juanita, and the gargoyle information gatherers), language as a programming language, media conglomerates, Cosa Nostra pizza delivery, Burbclaves, and the negative spirituality of the Reverend Wayne Pearly Gates franchise.

Gibson’s groundbreaking novel, Neuromancer, founded what became to be known as cyberpunk, and Stephenson extended cyberpunk by adding to its mega-text through his work, Snow Crash.  These novels engage in a dialog between themselves, as well as in a wider network of SF texts and real-world science and technology. [3]

SF constitutes a mega-text based on historically established terminological and stylistic icons that SF writers are free to draw from, as well as add to, in their own writings.  Cyberpunk is a literary movement that came about in the 1980s as some SF writers decided to strike off in a new direction by remixing historical tropes from SF and detective fiction, as well as bringing together new technology and pop iconography.  Therefore, cyberpunk is connected to and in dialog with the SF mega-text, but it has its own mega-text founded on icons unique to the cyberpunk movement.

Works Cited

Broderick, Damien.  Reading by Starlight:  Postmodern Science Fiction.  London:  Routledge, 1995.

Brooke-Rose, Christine.  A Rhetoric of the Unreal:  Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Gibson, William. Burning Chrome.  London:  HarperCollins, 1995.

—.  Neuromancer.  New York:  Ace, 1984.

Nicholls, Terry.  “Cyberpunk.”  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  Eds. John Clute and Terry Nicholls.  New York:  St. Martin’s, 1995.

Oshii, Mamoru.  Ghost in the Shell.  Manga Video, 1996.

Scott, Ridley.  Blade Runner.  Perf. Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer.  Warner Brothers, 1982.

Stephenson, Neal.  Snow Crash.  New York:  Bantam Books, 2000.

Sterling, Bruce.  “Bruce Sterling’s Idea of What Every Well-Appointed ‘Cyberpunk SF’ Library Collection Should Possess.”  EFF Publications–Bruce Sterling Archive August 1996.  5 November 2006 <http://www.eff.org/Misc/Publications/Bruce_Sterling/cyberpunk_library.biblio&gt;.

—.  “Preface.” Mirrorshades:  The Cyberpunk Anthology.  Ed. Bruce Sterling.  New York:  Ace, 1988.  ix-xvi.

Suvin, Darko.  “Estrangement and Cognition.”  Speculations on Speculation:  Theories of Science Fiction.  Eds. James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria.  Oxford:  Scarecrow Press, 2005.

Wachowki, Andy and Larry Wachowski, dirs.  The Matrix.  Perf. Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne.  Warner Brothers, 1999.


[1] Gibson first coins the term  “cyberspace” in his short story, “Burning Chrome.”  However, he gives it a more thorough treatment in his novel, Neuromancer.  Cyberspace is arguably the element that solidified the cyberpunk movement.

[2] Darko Suvin writes in “Estrangement and Cognition,” “SF is, then a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environments” (27).  Suvin introduced the idea of cognition to SF studies when he paired it to the notion of estrangement.  This resulted in an explicit division between fantasy and SF, thus further solidifying SF as a distinct genre.

[3] This survey of two cyberpunk novels offers only a glimpse of the dialog between texts that generates the mega-text definition of the cyberpunk subgenre.  Other cyberpunk mega-text contributors include Greg Bear, Greg Egan, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, Paul Di Filippo, and Pat Cadigan.  Cyberpunk oriented films include The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell.  Furthermore, there are, to borrow Peter Nicholl’s phrase, “cyberpunk ancestors” (289).  These pre-cyberpunk authors were writing stories that share a cyberpunk orientation.  These ancestors include Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree, Jr., and J.G. Ballard and films such as Blade Runner (288-289).  Further cyberpunk mega-text works can be found in “Bruce Sterling’s Idea of What Every Well-Appointed ‘Cyberpunk SF’ Library Collection Should Possess.”

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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