Before Cyberpunk: Science Fiction and Early Personal Computing (for the 13th City Tech Poster Session)

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For the New York City College of Technology, CUNY’s 13th Annual Research Poster Session, I created the poster embedded above to illustrate my current research on pre-cyberpunk science fiction (SF) about computing and personal computing. The poster discusses my focus and provides a timeline with SF about computing matched with key technological innovations that made the personal computing revolution in the late-1970s possible.

What I am interested in is the fact that William Gibson’s “cyberspace” captured the popular imagination about the metaphorical place where computing, processing, navigating, interacting, and communicating occurs, but some of the very good SF about computing that predates Gibson’s coining the term cyberspace failed to leave an indelible impression. Certainly, these stories were read and circulated, but the reach of their images and metaphors seem to have been limited in scope as compared to Gibson’s writing.

One of the ideas that I have had since creating the poster is that the idea of hidden computing or outlaw computing is something central to Vernor Vinge’s “True Names.” This, of course, features large in Gibson’s fictions, and it is the image that I am looking for in other SF of this transitional era.

At the poster session, I will carry my Raspberry Pi-based touchscreen-computer-in-a-Suntory-box-from-Japan to demonstrate the idea of hidden computing. I will post a step-by-step instruction post soon about assembling the Raspberry Pi-based computer and offer some additional thoughts about how I would like to use them in my technical communication classes.

In this post, I want to provide some of my notes and links to relevant resources as a record of the initial research that I did in preparation of this poster. It is my hope that it might lead to conversations and collaborations in the future.

 

Fiction Sources

Murray Leinster’s “A Logic Named Joe” (1946): Home computers connected to a large scale network. [Couldn’t fit within poster dimensions, but a significant work that needs mentioning.]

Isaac Asimov’s “The Fun They Had” (1951): Children discovering a print book are agog at what it represents while their classroom/desktop teaching computers flash mathematical fractions at them. [Couldn’t fit within poster dimensions, but another important work in this genealogy.]

Poul Anderson’s “Kings Who Die” (1962): Human-computer interface, according to Asimov and Greenberg in The Great SF Stories #24, “one of the first stories to address this question” (69).

Daniel F. Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964): Also published as Counterfeit World. Adapted as Welt am Draht/World on a Wire (1973). Simulated reality for artificial beings programmed to believe (except in the case of one character) that they are real and living in the “real world.”

Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death (1970): A crew in a disabled spacecraft while awhile their remaining lives in a computer generated virtual world.

John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider (1975): Computer programming and hacking. First use of the term “worm” to describe a type of self-propagating computer program set loose on the computer network. Protagonist as outlaw.

[Five year gap during the personal computing revolution. Were the SF writers playing with their new personal computers?]

John M. Ford’s Web of Angels (1980): The “Web” is a communication and computing network connecting humanity. “Webspinners” are an elite group of programmers who can manipulate the Web in unique and unexpected ways. Protagonist as outlaw.

Vernor Vinge’s “True Names” (1981): Computing power hidden from view of a watchful government–literally under the floor boards. Early MMORPG/virtual reality experience of what was later called cyberspace. Protagonist as outlaw.

Damien Broderick’s The Judas Mandala (1982): First SF to use the terms “virtual reality” and “virtual matrix.” Protagonist as conspirator/outlaw?

 

Nonfiction Sources

Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson. New Brunswick, NJ: Athlone Press, 2000. Print.

Ferro, David L. and Eric G. Swedin. Eds. Science Fiction and Computing: Essays on Interlinked Domains. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print.

Kay, Alan C. “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages.” ACM ’72 Proceedings of the ACM Annual Conference – Volume 1. New York: ACM, 1972. n.p. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Mowshowitz, Abbe. Inside Information: Computers in Fiction. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1977. Print.

Murphy, Graham J. and Sherryl Vint. Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Slusser, George Edgar and TA Shippey. Eds. Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992. Print.

Stableford, Brian. Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Timeline of Computer History. Computer History Museum, 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Warrick, Patricia. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. Cambridge: MIT, 1980. Print.

 

 

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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Posted in City Tech, Computers, Science Fiction
One comment on “Before Cyberpunk: Science Fiction and Early Personal Computing (for the 13th City Tech Poster Session)
  1. […] about my work on proto-cyberpunk and the hidden nature of computing, which is an idea explored in my previous blog post about the poster that I created for the 13th annual City Tech Poster […]

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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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