Cyberpunk Science Fiction: Literary Fiction and Media Theory
At the conference „Philosophy of new Technology“ which took place in Linz in 1988 Jean Baudrillard stated:
„The whole of the human being, his biological, muscular, animalic physicalness has merged into the mechanical prosthetics. Even the brain did not remain within us but is floating within the countless Hertzian waves which surround us. By no means is this Science Fiction but the generalization of the theory of McLuhan about the ‘extension of man’’’.
In the mid 1970s, Jean Baudrillard started developing his theory of simulation which began with the assumption that modern societies experienced a drastic disruption through the appearance of new media technologies. In this context, Baudrillard proclaimed the dissolution of the subject, of political economy, of meaning, truth and the social formations of current societies. In order to describe and analyze these processes, new theories, terms and narrations were needed. So, Baudrillard’s own contribution to the theory of media started with the statement: “The real radical alternative is somewhere else.”
Indeed, this alternative approach, one which asks to reflect on the implications of new media and technology, is to be found somewhere else: In Cyberpunk literature.
I argue, that Cyberpunk should be seen as an important companion to media theories, both in terms of artistic expression and in terms of a method of knowledge production by itself, including its theorization.
When I speak about Cyberpunk literature I refer to a specific body of works written by authors who gathered in the late 1970s in Austin, Texas. Thus Cyberpunk literature implies a body of works which revolutionized science fiction writing. This revolution was spearheaded by authors such as Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner, Rudy Rucker and Pat Cadigan. The group published their criticism of science fiction of their time in the Fanzine Cheap Truth which could be seen as the Cyberpunk Manifesto – the discursive foundation for the newly-forming movement.
At the time, ‘technical culture’ began sprawling into the everyday with advancement made in computer, media, bio and medical technologies. This formed the base for this movement: “Technology […] has slipped control and reached street level”, states Bruce Sterling. “Hightech isn’t some bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins”, he continues, but rather “pervasive, utterly intimidate […] not outside us, but next to us”.
The aim of Cyberpunk was to reflect on these technological advancements in an artistic way, and on the way they alter the human being and the society at large.
These kind of thoughts and observations are also at the base of many media theoretical approaches. Marshall McLuhan, who is seen as one of the founders of media theory, claims in his writings that media and technology are interfering with our perception, senses, psyche and identity. By doing so they are changing our behavior, our culture, our societies and our politics. The basic architecture of electronic media mimics our own central nervous system, and hence technically extends it. Now it is very interesting to see that Cyberpunk is incorporating this idea when drafting their future worlds and by doing so it is pushing it further.
By designing fictional virtual worlds which are accessed through an interface with the human brain the extension of the human nervous system by an electric central system becomes as much a reality as the by McLuhan postulated dissolving of the subject-object-relation between man and machine.
Also McLuhan’s category of implosion plays a big part in the extrapolated worlds of Cyberpunk. Virtual realities as a „medium for the meeting of our minds“ do not only allow its users to take part in the dreams, memories and phantasies of others. The connection between the human mind and the machine is also used to create entertainment devices, such as, for example, Gibson’s ASP, Cadigan’s madcap or Effinger’s moddy, which make it possible to experience the neurosis and psychosis of others. This way seasonal bestsellers allow societies to experience all kinds of collective madness. This inability to comprehend the difference between the inner world and the outer world, the sense of time and space and between you and me which comes with the madness of a collective psychosis is a manifestation of McLuhan’s term of implosion in the electronic age.
Furthermore, the main categories of Jean Baudrillard’s theory – hyperreality, simulation and implosion – are omnipresent symbolizations in the worlds of Cyberpunk. This is especially the case in the superimposition of reality by simulation. In Cyberpunk, physical presence has lost its relevance. Instead, the virtual worlds frame a new realm of hyperreality which offers a new home to mankind. In this context, Greg Bear’s Eon is a very impressive example. In the world of Eon, Bear describes an asteroid from a parallel universe which found its way to our world around the turn of the millennium. The holed asteroid contains various artificial chambers which used to be the habitat of a future mankind. In each chamber we can find a future city from a different era of the future mankind. Interestingly, the change of the interiors and architectures of the cities of the different eras demonstrate the different states of the Baudrillardian simulation. The advanced media technologies in one of the older future cities enables the contemporary peoples of Eon to immerse into a virtual world which creates a simulation of the abandoned city in its former state with its inhabitants that can’t possibly be distinguished from reality
“She called up a student’s basic guide to the second chamber city. In an instant, Alexandria surrounded her. She appeared to be standing on the portico of an apartment in the lower floors of one of the megas, looking down on the busy streets. The illusion was perfect – even providing her with a memory of what “her” apartment looked like. She could turn her head and look completely behind her if she wished – Indeed, she could walk around, even though she knew she was sitting down.”
The sequence unfolding before the eyes of the user shows recordings from a future which did not take place in the users reality and which probably also will never take place in her future but still insists to represent history that already passed by. Hence, we have here a model which is both true and illusive – in both cases truth dissolves into simulation. In this mediated reality, the sensual experiences are perfectly superimposed by the virtual, as shown by the divergence between real and simulated experiences of space and body. Digital signs replace the tactility of reality with a field of tactile simulations.
In the final city of the future there is no longer a medial environment but a humankind that became itself a simulation: The whole of mankind is digitalized and lives in a computer called City Memory.
Death and natural birth are no longer present in this digitized world. A new person or subject is created by the merging of various parts of digital personalities – which means that every new being is a simulation based on a code of already existing models. While these models in the analog world used to be DNA codes in the digitalized world of Eon the models consist of bits and bytes. Nevertheless, it is still possible to live outside the City Memory. The “outside” environment of the city memories’ virtual world is composed by a space without contours so that landscapes, apartments, objects and even climate features can be projected into it. If you want to move in the outside parts of the city simulation, bodies could be created and used.
However, these bodies have nothing to do with a “natural” human body. These bodies are equipped with an implant that records all experiences and memories, just in case something might happen to it. Hence, even death does not have a significant impact on the physical or the virtual existence of a person. In Baurillard’s words, this means that in the world of Cyberpunk, even the event of death fails to serve as a distinction between the real and the imaginary.
The simulation of the digital as well as the to a body uploaded people of the future shows, that the difference between illusion and truth lost ground to the play with reality. The Baudrillardian dictum of self-referential sings is radicalized here: A mankind based on digital bits and bytes that merged into the endless circulation of signs referring to themselves had become a model without an origin and eventually a sign itself. In its latest stage the future society of Eon could be understood as the ultimate reign of the technical as humankind itself becomes the most radical form of simulation.
Now the question arises – is Cyberpunk simply a literarization of the media theories of McLuhan and Baudrillard, or is there more to it? A close reading of Baudrillard’s lecture Videoworld and fractal subject (the same one I quoted from in the beginning) and William Gibson’s short story Fragments of a Hologram Rose – which can be seen as the prelude to Cyberpunk – might reveal an answer to this question.
Baudrillard describes the subject in the simulacra of hyperreality as fragmented and disintegrated into its component parts. Hence, difference does not mean the difference from one subject to another but the differentiation of the subject from itself – the subject became fractal and is held together by a network of body prothesis. In his own words:
“transcendency disrupted into thousands of fragments, which are like pieces of a mirror, in which we fleetingly can grasp our reflection before it disappears completely. As in the fragments of a hologram each piece of the mirror contains the whole universe […] The others have practically disappeared as a sexual or social horizon […] Humankind itself became ex-orbiton, a satellite. There is nowhere to be local anymore, he is crowded out of his own body and his own functions.”
The similarity to the imagery drawn by Gibson in his short story Fragments of a Hologram Rose is striking. In this story, the protagonist reflects on the events of the day on which his relationship has failed after he shredded a postcard with a hologram rose that was sent to him by his ex-girlfriend:
“Parker lies in darkness, recalling the thousand fragments of the hologram rose. A hologram has this quality: Recovered and illuminated, each fragment will reveal the whole image of the rose. Falling toward delta, he sees himself the rose, each of his scattered fragments revealing a whole he‘ll never know – stolen credit cards – a burned out suburb – planetary conjunctions of a stranger – a tank burning on a highway – a flat packet of drugs – a switchblade honed on concrete, thin as pain. Thinking: We‘re each other‘s fragments, and was it always this way? That instant of a European trip, deserted in the gray sea of wiped tape – is she closer now, or more real, for his having been there? She had helped him get his papers, found him his first job in ASP. Was that their history? No, history was the black face of the delta-inducer, the empty closet, and the unmade bed. History was his loathing for the perfect body he woke in if the juice dropped, his fury at the pedal-cab driver, and her refusal to look back through the contaminated rain. But each fragment reveals the rose from a different angle, he remembered, but delta swept over him before he could ask himself what that might mean.“
Not only it is remarkable that Gibson uses the hologram as a metaphor for a world steeped by hyperreality and it’s fragmented subjects, as well. Also, he did this already in 1977 – eleven years before Baudrillard. Hence, we can see that Cyberpunk writers such as Gibson not only made similar observations about their current world as theorists as Baudrillard but also the terms, symbols, metaphors and aesthetics they use are practically superimposable. These writers use these concepts as a framework to illustrate their own understanding of the paradigm shift which took place at the end of the twentieth century. Although the concepts of McLuhan and Baudrillard appear in a mediated way, the future worlds described in Neuromancer, Mindplayers or Schismatrix, show understandable prognoses of futures based on these somewhat complex theoretical ideas. This goes to show that Cyberpunk is especially capable to decipher media theoretical concepts and hence shift them from the realm of theory into a world imagined.
Cyberpunk offers more than a mere fictionalization of media theoretical concepts, it opens up new perspectives enhancing and expanding the theoretical ideas. The fictional worlds of Cyberpunk are as much a speculation about the world to come as the theories themselves. But while Baudrillard was accused of having lost his focus as he began to draw a rather dystopian image of the technological future – an apocalyptic version of “Western civilization” – Cyberpunk can be seen as more dynamic and differentiated. While Baudrillard’s postmodern world seems plain, rational and without surprises, the worlds of Cyberpunk seem alive, mysterious, adventurous, full of risks but also opportunities. That said, Cyberpunk is not naively technophile, but manages to show both sides of the age of media technology, the negative and the positive. The acceptance towards the postmodern environments as exposed in Cyberpunk literature is hard to come by in academic circles. Cyberpunk created a platform where the potentialities of a society strongly influenced by new technologies can be reflected and thought through. In this sense, writers like Gibson, Sterling, Shirley and Shiner did not only fulfill the McLuhan’ demand for artists to elevate consciousness into life. Rather, they went further than the theories as such. This is why Cyberpunk should be seen as an important companion to media theories in the context of postmodern thinking – both as an artistic expression and as a method of knowledge production by itself, including its theorization.
 Translated from BAUDRILLARD, Jean: “Videowelt und fraktales Subjekt”; In: Ars Electronica (Hrsg.): “Philosophie der neuen Technologien”; Merve Verlag, Berlin 1989, S. 114
 Translated from BAUDRILLARD, Jean: “Requiem für die Medien”; In: BAUDRILLARD, Jean: “Kool Killer oder der Aufstand der Zeichen”; Merve Verlag, Berlin 1978, S. 83
 In: McCAFFERY, Larry (Ed..): “Storming the Reality Studio. A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science-Fiction”; Duke University Press, Durham und London 1991 (first 1986), S. 346
 CADIGAN, Pat: „Mindpayers“; Bantam, New York 1987, S. 243
 BEAR, Greg: „Eon“; Tor Books, New York 2015 (first 1985)
 Translated from BAUDRILLARD, Jean: “Videowelt und fraktales Subjekt”; In: Ars Electronica (Hrsg.): “Philosophie der neuen Technologien”; Merve Verlag, Berlin 1989, S. 114 f
 GIBSON, William: „Fragments of A Hologram Rose”, https://icem.folkwang-uni.de/~born/wrk/parker/gibson-hologram_rose.pdf
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.