Ooo-Tah!

“Brigham Young led his band of social outcasts to the old bed of a drying desert sea and proclaimed, “This is the place!” This was the place? Someone in that first group must have felt that Young had become unhinged by two thousand horribly arduous miles.”

Marc Reisner
Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water

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Did Hollywood Kill Cyberpunk?

In 1995, cyberpunk as a cinematic genre was attempted, desiccated, mutilated, and forever laid to rest. There are many potential culprits behind its demise, but really: who is to blame?

1995: The Year That Killed Cyberpunk”
C
layton Purdom

Paste Magazine
December 15, 2014

I am a longtime fan of Cyberpunk, the subgenre of science fiction that deals with a near-future dystopia suffused with technology, virtual worlds, massive global corporations, and the desperados living in the seams where these forces intersect. In 1989, after years away from any kind of fiction, I read stories by the likes of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in my tiny room above a godown in Taiwan, and in so doing reinvigorated my interest in the novel and short stories.

The stories had great power and more relevance than almost any other sort of science fiction. Almost a rejection of the majesty and melodrama of space operas like Star Wars, the Cold War allegories of Star Trek, or even the deep space horrors of Aliens, cyberpunk was happening in a future no more than a decade or two away. It felt real, immediate, and urgent, and it told us (long before cyberwar and the rise of corporate oligarchies were real things) that the Cold War was not the end of history: it was the beginning of the real nasty shit.

The Hollywood Whodunit

And yet today, three decades after cyberpunk’s birth, Clayton Purdom has scribed an interesting whodunit in Paste in which he laments the demise of cyberpunk as a subgenre of science fiction.

Our literary coroner determines the time of death to be sometime in 1995, where the Summer of Cyberpunk offered up, in succession, Robert Longo’s soul-crushing take on William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic; Danny Cannon’s misbegotten Judge Dredd; Irwin Winkler’s The Net*, which Purdom acknowledges is probably the best of the bunch; and Brett Leonard’s gawd-offal** Virtuosity.

When I read the article through the first time, I shrugged, discarding it as an interesting idea. And then I stopped myself, and realized that the reason that I was discarding it was that the idea was probably so much nonsense.

Now, it is a treasured meme among literary circles that good writers, good writing, and good stories go to Hollywood to die. Purdom probably buys into that meme, and I am loathe to discredit it. But in the case of cyberpunk, Purdom stretches the point.

Movies Don’t Kill Genres

After all, film has screwed up speculative fiction in the past without destroying it. Every adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit prior to the advent of Peter Jackson were mediocre at best. Yet people never stopped reading either fantasy or Tolkien despite an entire decade of bad big-budget fantasy films like Excalibur, Krull, the Conan series, and Willow.  Likewise with hard science fiction: Frank Herbert is selling books three decades after his death despite two attempts to bring Dune to the screen, and Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov titles remain backlist performers after predictably bad adaptations of their own stories.

No, Hollywood did not kill Cyberpunk: the genre died of maladies baked into its very code.

First, Cyberpunk makes for bad cinema. Like bad acid trips, cyberpunk narratives are really hard to film well because so much of the action takes place inside the heads and computers of the characters, making it almost impossible to convey the plot and drama with any kind of accuracy. It’s all contrived video effects, and since nobody actually knows what it feels like to wire yourself into a deck and go totally VR in a world that looks nothing like our own, those effects quickly devolve into a lot of context-free eye candy. Alternately, you wind up with scenes like Hugh Jackman’s laughable under-the-gun 60-second DoD hack in Swordfish: a lot 0f spasmodic twitch-finger keyboarding accompanied by unsynchronized high-speed playback graphics on a computer screen. The real drama is contrived and too often forced to rely on awkward narration. No fun. Bad movies.

Perhaps more important for film, cyberpunk defied happy endings. Both dystopian and noir, the genre was populated by anti-heroes or protagonists just trying to save their own skins, all in a world that was doomed and getting worse. It was as if the most depressing parts of film noir and post-apocalyptic fiction were combined. There were only so many ways to tell that kind of story, and by the time Hollywood even read Johnny Mnemonic, the proverbial shark had been jumped.

Death by Abandonment

Filmability aside, the more likely killer was, to steal a phrase from Blade Runner, accelerated  decrepitude. The more avid readers of the works in question will acknowledge that cyberpunk as a subgenre had run its course long before the summer of 1995, hitting its apogee with Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in 1992 before evaporating. Indeed, it was almost like there had been a secret meeting of cyberpunk authors in some little Idaho hotel where everyone quietly conferred, agreeing that it was time to move on.

By the 1993 premieres of Lawnmower Man and Freejack, the early and lousy cyberpunk movies that screened and disappeared long before Purdom’s Summer of Denouement, Stephenson, along with pioneers Gibson, Sterling, and most of their contemporaries, had left Cyberpunk to sow more fertile fields. Sterling went first: his excellent 1988 collection Islands in the Net was his last major work in the genre. After Snow Crash, Stephenson moved beyond cyberspace and into nanotech and cryptology. Gibson, perhaps most reluctant to leave behind a genre he all but created in 1981, took a half-step away from cyberpunk with his media-obsessed Virtual Light in 1993, and then never looked back.

So cyberpunk may not have been dead by 1993, but it was sufficiently close to deaths door that even its creator had moved on. In truth, Hollywood didn’t kill cyberpunk: if anything, the studios engaged in an ill-timed effort to revive the subgenre long enough to suck a buck out of it. The attempt was every bit as bad as Purdom relates, and it failed.

Life in the Old Girl Yet

Yet if cyberpunk died of its inherent cinematic and dramatic limitations, there are occasional works that suggest a revival might be possible. Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One returns to the formula that made cyberpunk so powerful and appealing, yet substitutes a true hero for the noir antiheroes favored by Gibson et. al. Sadly, Cline does not appear inclined or able to carry the cyberpunk banner much further.

Nonetheless, the success of Ready Player One makes an important point. There remains a latent audience for speculative fiction wherein a hero triumphs in a dystopian near-future facing down massive networks of data and artificial intelligence. (Think The Matrix, but without the over-choreographed fight chases substituting for plot and the heavy-handed messianic archetype.†) And little wonder: thirty-five years after “Burning Chrome,” we are all still trying to figure out the relationship between the individual, humanity, and the machines we are creating to think for us. The network is the ultimate villain, and neither Hollywood nor the authors who outed the nemesis have destroyed it or the latent fear it inspires.

Cyberpunk will return, and when it does it will be far more relevant and terrifying than it was two decades ago.

 

Notes

* Full disclosure – I worked on The Net as an uncredited member of the crew, and I owe Irwin and Sandy and playback supervisor Todd Marks a debt of gratitude for supplying the paychecks that got me through a very rough patch in my life, so I will cop to the potential for some implicit bias.

**I know, it’s supposed to be “G-d awful,” but my spelling is no less appropriate.

† No joke: I remember walking out of the theater after seeing Matrix Revolutions feeling like the Wachowski siblings had just spent the last 25 minutes beating me over the head with a copy of the New Testament. There’s nothing wrong with the messianic archetype, but like all literary devices and most condiments, a lot of a good thing isn’t always better than a little.  

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Books as Mind-Altering Substance

I love books for a lot of reasons, but the erudite Rod Dreher has just given me another. Fiction does not just entertain and engage with narrative, it crafts our minds and changes the way we think. He quotes Elizabeth Svoboda‘s superb Aeon essay “The Power of Story:”

When story is at its best – as yarn-spinners like [Newberry Award-winning author Shannon] Hale can testify – its effect is expansive rather than nakedly persuasive. Narratives that tell us point-blank who we should be, how we should behave, are better described as dictates or propaganda. The most enduring stories, by contrast, broaden our mental and moral outlook without demanding that we hew to a certain standard. Whether they describe a young nurse risking her life to smuggle children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, a meek older woman who shows grit and selflessness after a surprising tragedy (Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs), or a hotel manager who shelters refugees marked out for death (Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda), they present us with an arresting alternative to the way we see the world.

She goes on at length to explain how neurobiologists have discovered that stories are actually capable of making the same changes to your brain that would have been made had you actually experienced the events described.

I’m going to ponder that as I decide what to read next. There is, buried within all of this, a hidden call for us all to avail ourselves of not only more reading, but better stories.

Biblio-materialism

What does it mean when what you own is essential to who you are? In our everyday grasp of owning things, we tag it materialism, consumerism, consumption. But I trust you’ll agree that the possession of books is not identical to the possession of shoes: Someone with a thousand books is someone you want to talk to; someone with a thousand shoes is someone you suspect of belonging to the Kardashian clan. Books are not objects in the same way that shoes are objects.

via A Bibliophile’s Defense of Physical Books | The New Republic.

Reclaiming Literature for Its Own Sake

Losing the Ability to “Lose Oneself” | The American Conservative.

This superb piece by Gracy Olmstead explains how the academicization of the study of literature has placed a barrier between us and fiction. Quoting William Geraldi from VQR, she notes:

Literature will not be harnessed for any cause, no matter how an academic distorts it, and literature that harnesses itself in the service of a cause is not literature at all but agitprop.

Bravo, cubed. I want to read Grapes of Wrath, The Last Tycoon, Black Boy, and The Color Purple as stories about people, not political tracts on workers rights, the corruption of Hollywood, civil rights, and homosexuality. If there are messages on those themes, fine, but ease up: the author managed to avoid pedantry, so why throw it back in?

While we’re reclaiming literature, let’s rehabilitate Dead White Guys. Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dashiell Hammett happened to have been male and caucasian but were culpable for neither, and to deny ourselves a vast chunk of the Western Canon simply because the authors were masculine palefaces is as stupid as ignoring great works of people of color because they were, in fact, people of color.

We can argue about what makes a book great, good, mediocre, or awful. But please, let us stop using the author’s race, religion, color, sexual proclivities, gender identity, slave ownership, personal foibles, or country of origin as a means of either elevating or ignoring a great work.

If we could just remove politics from our study of literature, then maybe we could all feel good about losing ourselves in great books again.

 

A Hard Rain

I am a longtime fan of noir pulps, and reading this is like a hardcore sci-fi fan picking up Hitchhikers Guide: a complete pisstake on the genre, but fun because of that.

Not to mention it was written by Dean Wesley Smith, who was kind enough to spend an hour last Spring in Boise coaching me on the finer points of the writing life.

The Noble-Minded Hoarder

“The committed bibliophile is cousin to the obsessive, an easily seduced accumulator frequently struck with frisson. Cram your home with books, and you’re lovingly called a collector; cram it with old newspapers, and you’re derisively called a hoarder. But be honest: The collector is a hoarder, too—a discriminating and noble-minded hoarder, perhaps, but a hoarder just the same.”

via A Bibliophile’s Defense of Physical Books | The New Republic.

Yep. That’s me.