Cyberpunk literature emerged as last week’s weak signal. Sonya Mann posted The Cyberpunk Sensibility at Venkatesh Rao’s Ribbonfarm blog. William Gibson turned up in the new Adam Curtis documentary Hypernormalisation. Hachette Book Group reissued Amazon Kindle versions of Gibson’s influential novels Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive.
Whilst browsing this media I realised that Cyberpunk themes influence some of my post-PhD thesis research. Gibson’s transnational corporations reflect today’s networks, tax havens, and rising powers. Gibson’s databases and computer networks anticipate today’s hedge fund and wealth management platforms. Gibson’s characters foreshadow the sadder ethos of David Foster Wallace’s novels Infinite Jest and The Pale King.
This insight exemplifies how literature can inform research programs.
In 2029, the ongoing Third World War has left Europe in ruins, and Russia is rumored to be threatening a final nuclear strike. America is recovering from a depression caused by Arab-terrorist computer “hacktivists.” The Second Alliance International Security Force, a NATO-hired private peacekeeping force, is secretly using the geopolitical conflict to implement apartheid in Europe. Only the New Resistance knows the real agenda: Project Total Eclipse, a global eugenics program.
John Shirley’s millennial revision of the 1985 trilogy, A Song Called Youth, far surpasses its original cyberpunk label in creativity and gritty neorealism. The complex multistrand narrative chronicles the New Resistance’s mission to topple the Second Alliance by sabotage and guerrilla media warfare, or “culture jamming.” Meanwhile, Senator Henry Spector’s iron-fisted Public AntiViolence legislation spawns live televised executions of dissidents by public lottery contestants. In the decade and a half since the trilogy first appeared, Shirley’s premonitions of post-Mafiocracy Russia and a broadband internet (the Grid) have come true. God help us if his vision of ready-for-prime-time exevcutions proves prophetic for the increasingly privatized “prison-industrial-complex.”
Shirley gives credible descriptions of current mind-control psycho-technologyies, fundamentalist militias, and the way in which social Darwinism might become a dangerous sociopolitical tool. Throughout, he questions the Enlightenment notion of eternal progress: the aging space colony FirStep’s utopian promise ends in hierarchical warfare.
Likewise, Shirley’s ensemble cast features unpredictable, irrational, and deeply flawed characters, including a shadowy social Darwinist, a brainwashed assassin, a rogue CIA operative, and battle-weary guerrilla fighters. Unlikely alliances are formed and individuals betrayed, and Shirley doesn’t hesitate to kill off several major characters during assassination attempts and skirmishes.
Jettisoning high-tech hyperbole for hard-core ideas, John Shirley reaffirms his influential status as cyberpunk’s firebrand political conscience. A Song Called Youth is a wake-up call, urging us to prevent the 21st-century holocausts that could spring from the nightmare coupling of genetic and social engineering. Now, who will fight the future?