The Horror of Direct Experience: Cyberpunk Bodies and “The Machine Stops”
Here is a list of the quotations / sources cited in the presentation:
“the bodiless exultation of cyberspace” (Neuromancer)
“swaddled lump of flesh”, “a face as white as a fungus”, “the sin against the body”, “white pap” (“The Machine Stops”)
“He lost all awareness of the meat that had been his prison for close to fifty years, and the relief he felt at having laid his burden down was as great as himself.” (Synners)
“belonged…to the meat”, “infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read” (Neuromancer)
“good enough”, “horror of direct experience”, “barbarically” (“The Machine Stops”)
“washed out and blurry” (Ready Player One)
“Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit.” (Ready Player One)
Cadigan, P. (1991). Synners. New York: Bantam Spectra.
Cline, Ernest (2011). Ready Player One. New York: Crown Publishers.
Forster, E. M. (November 1909). “The Machine Stops.” The Oxford and Cambridge Review. London: Archibald Constable & Co.
Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Ace Science Fiction Books.
Lanier, J. (2017). Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
Seegert, A. (January 2010). “Technology and the Fleshly Interface in Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’: An Ecocritical Appraisal of a One-Hundred Year Old Future.” The Journal of Ecocriticism. University of Northern British Columbia.
Stephenson, Neal. (1992). Snow Crash. New York: Bantam Books.
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.
Lars: I wanted to thank you for your talk, first because it so nicely ties us back to the early 20th century and how proto-cyberpunk it is … and then because it has this really great personal note, how we all feel, you are articulating so much of our current cyberpunk viral reality … really loved it, thank you so much. If I ever get to teach the story, I will use this video.
Rachel: Thanks for your kind note! Cyberpunk has been a source of solace during these difficult days…
Lars: irritatingly, both solace and anxiety … so much happening is warned against in cyberpunk and we haven’t listened
Rachel: True. Perhaps better articulated as something familiar (for better or worse) amidst so much uncertainty?
Lars: I find the mirror and me parts really powerful. you quote Wade in RPO … how he has a fitness regime and looks in the mirror. I usually go to the gym, but couldn’t for the time of the lockdown and wanted to order in a treadmill – the seller told me that he has been rushed by people getting machines for their home, to stay fit … technology keeping the human body in shape so we don’t become pap
Rachel: Yes, I’ve had a similar (and similarly sorry) experience to Wade. Bought a little trampoline and forced myself to jump on it before hunkering down at the computer each morning…
Emily: It’s interesting the heavy reliance on physical exercise during this time for many people. Much of it mediated through technology – online yoga classes, etc.
Rachel: This was already trending due to climate change. Runners doing quasi-VR workouts to videos of remote natural wonders on treadmills, because it’s too hot to go outside…
Joseph: I’ve always felt that a lot of the typical cyberpunk attitude was hyperbolic. All the cavalier attitudes toward the body are punk, yes, but in practice, how often do people really not care what happens to their bodies?
of course, punishing the body has a long history, whether we’re going for weird pleasure a la the marquis de sade or we’re talking a faith-based approach to making penance for sins, like monks wearing hairshirts and cilices.
Rachel: I’m not sure that people don’t care what happens to their bodies. These days, a lot of people don’t feel like they have control over what happens to their bodies.
Pawel: On that note, I think Anne Balsamo has a great essay on 4 types of cyberpunk bodies. She uses Synners as one of her texts.
Rachel: Thanks for the reference!
Joseph: that’s my thought exactly, but that’s not the typical cyberpunk attitude. the typical cyberpunk attitude is “who cares”
and part of the “who cares” attitude about the body is that the future contains technology to fix the body, nanotechnology perhaps. If miniature robots can fix me and tamp down pain, it really doesn’t matter anymore.
Rachel: Right, which makes Wade’s vanity in RPO stand out. Right, the robots are anout that was not part of Forster’s fable.
Joseph: I think Wade stands out because Cline isn’t writing cyberpunk
Cline raided some of the themes, used virtuality, didn’t really think about the connotations for future healthcare interventions
Rachel: Cline raided some of the themes, used virtuality, didn’t really think about the connotations for future healthcare interventions
True, but the larger setting in which Wade frets about his physical body feels strongly influenced by cyberpunk.
Joseph: i think it’s more a reflection of adolescent fantasy
he’s controlling the image of his body inside and outside of the OASIS
Esko: Thank you for a visceral talk on a text that doesn’t get as much attention as it should in SF discourse, Rachel! I taught it for a course the other year and mentioned its advocation of Protagoran humanism – man is the measure and all that. Later, I learned it also relates to British eugenics ideas at the time when concerns were on the rise about young men getting weak after the defeats in the Boer Wars. Sooooo my question is, finally, if you could incorporate these aspects – both “man is the measure” humanism and “must build muscle to keep the imperial conquest up” – aspects of Forster’s story to the connections to cyberpunk fiction you so elaborately chart?
Rachel: Such an interesting point. These and other tensions are rife in Forster. Perhaps imperial conquest is one of the Machines of that time.
Emily: Hi Rachel – thanks so much for your intriguing and engaging paper. I wanted to clarify – are you arguing that Vashti in the Machine stops represents the prophetic reality of cyberpunk’s disembodied ambitions? Is cyberpunk a doomed fantasy? And how does this relate to our present time – the end of your talk seemed to simply we could head in Vashti’s direction but my experience of the pandemic personally has been seeing overconfidence with physical interaction rather than caution – many people don’t seem to see social distancing as a necessity, but that often social distancing seems to fail because people are on their phones and not paying attention… so contradictions abound! Would love to know your thoughts!
Rachel: Thanks for the great questions! During the pandemic, I have identified more with Vashti than Case, Mark, Hiro, or the other classic cyberpunk heroes. I see Vashti as one (of many) prophetic realities of cyberpunk’s ambitions, and she is certainly doomed. But Forster frames the story as a warning, not a fait accompli. I agree that I see others flouting social distancing, which makes me shrink even further into my shell.
Emily: Interesting – I think the reactions of many to the pandemic have made me feel the same desire to retreat! Which is an interesting comment perhaps on the nature of human relationships – some have shrunk away in horror while others are itching to rejoin the world, so much so that they are negligent in terms of their own and other’s safety.
Steven: Thanks for a great talk. I really need to reread “The Machine Stops”, it has been a good while. – Also, as my own paper was about Pat Cadigan, I am glad you cited her here, she deserves more attention
Rachel: Yes! Did you catch Maria’s talk on Synners?
Steven: Yes, I liked her talk about Synners.
Joseph: I am thinking about how viruses and bodily fears do play into cyberpunk–you think about “Johnny Mnemonic”–it’s not that it’s impossible to fix the body, it’s that access to medical interventions is only for the wealthy
richard k morgan explored that in altered carbon
you can live forever, provided you have the cash
similar to the narratives around cryonics
Adam: And in a much more heavy handed way, Elysium too.
Rachel: True, the body’s vulnerability runs throughout. The class dimension you’re bringing up is very important! Something interesting about “The Machine Stops” is it is a classless society, and everyone is equally dependent on the Machine.
Joseph: I like the idea of a classless society, but we’re quite far away from it now
Rachel: Agreed. That’s another connection between our moment and the references you’re naming. The ability to adopt a cyberpunk body to avoid the pandemic is completely linked to privilege.
Carmen: ok, what about “the cyberpunk body” as a body politic
is that headed toward the idea of classlessness?
Rachel: Cyberpunk seems so tied up with individualism though?
Joseph: I’m thinking about Ursula K Le Guin’s belief that political science hadn’t reached its apex
there’s something beyond democracy
something better for human societies
Rachel: Aha, given democracy’s relationship to capitalism, I do hope so.
Joseph: and i’m not convinced it has to do with classlessness
Neuromancer was all about liberating information. that cyberpunk individualism is about making information open, tearing down the walls built up by the commercial sector, the banks, military systems
Rachel: But by cowboys!
Joseph: console cowboys!
i’d love to know what William Gibson thinks about the democratic-capitalistic state. I imagine he’d make a joke and then curse the present establishment.
Rachel: Like any good Canadian transplant
Joseph: thanks for your presentation, Rachel! So many good thoughts here.
Rachel: Thanks for the great discussion! Take care.
Carmen: Lovely discussion!
Sumeyra: Hi, Rachel thank you for your great talk that I like the body-meat interrelation
Rachel: Thanks Sumeyra!
Graham: I really enjoyed your presentation (I’ll never look at milk the same again), but I’m sorry I missed your Q&A.
Rachel: Glad you enjoyed it! Yes, it’s possible I’ve talked myself into considering veganism!
Graham: I realize the Q&A is technically over, but … I’m wondering what you might say about RP1’s ‘politics’ compared to TMS and Neuromancer. Specifically, it seems Forster has (among other things) a very specific point to make about “authenticity” — I’m thinking Vashti’s whole ‘don’t read the original text or have an original idea, just quote the person who quoted the person who quoted the person you quoted…” that seems to be clearly critiqued by Forster. Neuromancer seems, imho, to be torn between the ‘authentic’ experience, evidenced in Case who may proclaim that elite stance that the meat is contemptible, but in the end keeps being reminded that the meat can’t simply be shucked off as easily as he thinks. But … it’s been awhile since I read RP1 and my only memory is now the movie adaptation, but where you would place RP1 in this kind of dialogue with the other two texts? Is Cline simply relishing in the transhumanist visions of cyberspace? Or is there something more intelligent going on?
Rachel: My sense is Cline is trying to have it both ways. For 99% of the book, Wade wallows in the glory of cyberspace, and then has second thoughts for 1% when he realizes he’s chubby and has a crush on someone IRL.
Joseph: I used the term “raided” to describe how Cline appropriates cyberpunk material
because I don’t see RP1 as consistent with cyberpunk ideology–i see it as an adolescent fantasy
you have this massive OASIS cyberspace, now what do you do with it? You go play Pacman and Joust of all things
Graham: I remember enjoying the novel in the same way that I enjoy a chocolate bar once in awhile: it gave me a rush, but there is no nutritional value (but maybe I’m just being overly harsh). It just seems to me that Kline kinda did the Wachowski thing … raided the buffet table and got everything onto the plate and, voila!, gorge on. But I do think the Wachowskis did a better job pulling it off with Matrix, whereas it just seems to the thrill of gorging that drives RP1. Unless my memory is totally off (which is common for me).
Lars: The film is visually cyberpunk (so Pawel’s argument about CP as visual mode) but not thematically
Rachel: I also could not bear to watch the movie, having heard that “wasn’t as good as the book,” which is already of dubious quality.
Joseph: right, it looks good
and, yes, it’s chocolate fiction. you eat it fast and then you’re hungry after
I enjoyed reading it myself
But you know, RP1 brings back up everything we love about the Internet
you could be in a trailer park
but if you are connected, suddenly you’re in a cyberpunk conference
Rachel: Yes, RP1 does pull us back into the earlier conversation around class and access…
Graham: But (again based on my memory of the film) the politics seems appalling: win the game and control Oasis, but how the heck is that going to solve the problem of the vertical trailer park? It seems like there is a big disconnect (or maybe it’s just obvious and I’m getting hung up on such annoying things like socio-economic geo-politics).
Joseph: yes, exactly
no, you’re on it entirely. cyberspace allows you to be anyone you want in RP1, but on the other side you’re still you, only fatter
Lars: the book is really one of this 90% trash kind of things
Josh: the persistance of the meat is the 10% in RP1 for me.
Joseph: haha, yes. i do love ’80s nostalgia
but it’s not like some kind of literary masterpiece
Graham: Damn! I wish I had remembered it…especially since I dropped my little dig at RP1 into my roundtable speech. #missedchances
Lars: oh absolutely, I taught it … and one of my students mentioned they could not finish it because their mom was reading it and not giving it back
Rachel: The ’80s references are literary clickbait!
Joseph: I’ve never bothered watching the movie. I read the book: I get it.
Steven: I have to say that I violently hated RP1 (the novel; I couldn’t bring myself to see the movie because of my dislike of the book). The basic reason is because I think what’s great about picking up bits and pieces of the past is that it allows for recombination, which in culture as in genetics generates novelty. But the book is all about the young hackers replicating exactly and without any change stuff from the founder’s boyhood, i.e. from before they were even born. I felt it was a ghoulish version of hacker culture, which at its best (or as it is romanticized in other novels) can be exciting and fresh.
Graham: So … sci-fiberpunk. Nostalgia is no substitute for a plot. Or characterization.
Joseph: Oh, good analysis there. Going back to the media of the ’80s winds up creating nothing new at all. It’s a return for the sake of returning rather than the psychological benefit of return, which is to rethink one’s experience in light of maturation, experience
Alexander: I found the film actually a far more interesting object than the book, precisely because it was even more staid and re-iterative about the cultural references. The elongated sequence where it turns The Shining into a videogame level was so bizarrely conceived, it almost made the whole thing worth watching
Rachel: Thanks for giving me a scholarly excuse to indulge!
Joseph: spielberg actually strengthened the narrative as well
the quests in the book don’t make Wade better in any way, other than a sharpening of his video games skills
Joseph: I am a little afraid that Ernest Cline is going to find this thread and get depressed.
Ernest, If you find this, I still buy your books!
Rachel: I would guess he has a healthy sense of self esteem.
Joseph: So, a half dozen academics throwing rotten tomatoes should be ok
Alexander: Having listened to his fairly retch-worthy ‘nerdy porn’ slam poetry video I have very little sympathy left for ol’ Ernest
Joseph: oh, didn’t know about that. I guess fortune favors the random figure now and again, right?
Alexander: I suspect he was very much in the right place at the right time