Home Contents Previous Chapter Next Chapter Previous Page Next Page

The explosion of mass media and communication systems, and the subsequent dispersal of power which accompanies new technologies, finds its fullest projection in the antagonistic expressions of science fiction (SF). It is this genre which has largely influenced my iconography when reflecting on communication systems.

The growth of SF has paralleled the development of mechanical cybernetic systems. Out of this development, four interrelated issues seem to be pertinent: the Cartesian mind-body dualism; the question of free will; the relation of human and mechanical systems; and the relationship of animate and inanimate matter. A further phenomenon of SF is that it can be divided into two categories. The first category of SF is positive in its attitude towards technology often describing Utopian worlds. Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627) was the first work to propose an ideal society achieved through the efforts of science. The Utopian dream, born of scientific logic in the seventeenth century, was nurtured by mechanical inventions (such as the steam engine in the eighteenth century). The dream came to full flower during the nineteenth century, a time of optimistic faith in progress. In America these Utopian aspirations were summarised in Edward Bellamy's book Looking Backwards (1888), while in England, Wells wrote A Modern Utopia (1905). [Figure 23]

Figure 23: New Atlantis , Francis Bacon, 1627.

The second category of SF is Dystopian in its outlook. The twentieth century brought an avalanche of Dystopian despair into SF literature, although cracks in the Utopian vision had appeared long before. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) questioned the value of science, and Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground (1863) rejected the concept of humans as creatures of reason. The earliest twentieth-century dystopia is E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (1909), wherein he created an image of a mechanised society and its collapse.

The first Dystopian fictions picturing a cybernetic future, were written in 1952. Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano and Bernard Wolfe's Limbo both focused on the automated world that was the product of World War II. Vonnegut explored the social implications of automation and industrial bureaucracies that developed, while Wolfe commented on humanity's aggressive nature and on whether or not a nuclear holocaust could be prevented.

Figure 24: Blade Runner , 1982. Directed by Ridley Scott,
based on the novel by Philip K. Dick,
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1969.
(Bukatman 1993: 130)

Out of all the Dystopian, cybernetic science fiction that was written after World War II, I wish to focus on the work of Philip K. Dick. [Figure 24] Underlying Dick's fiction is his fascination with the analogy between intelligent machines programmed to perform in a certain way, and humans programmed with a certain view of reality. It is for this reason that parallels can be drawn with the situation described in the introduction of this study in which the National Party programmed the Afrikaner with specific life and world views. Dick's SF deals with military, political and economic structures. These structures are portrayed in wasteland settings crawling with electronic constructs and animated objects. A feature of his later work, which was in turn influential on my own SF iconography, is that his settings move from outer space to earth. The robots are no longer aliens sent by enemy forces to attack humans, but become the capitalistic-Fascistic-bureaucratic structures that lock the individual in a prison of false illusion created through electronic constructs. In Second Variety (Dick 1953) warfare has reduced earth to a slagheap of ash, dust and radiation. The remaining humans agree to a truce, but the machines cannot be halted; nor can they be identified as robots since they've adopted the features of humans. They 'look like people but they're machines ... the beginning of a new species. The new species. Evolution. The race to come after man'. (Dick 1953: 37) In the short story, If There Were No Benny Cemoli (1963), the power of the electronic media to manipulate reality is dramatised. In keeping with Baudrillard, the news media no longer describe the real world, but instead media images replace actual images (actuality), thereby creating a fictional reality more powerful than the real.

Figure 25: Neoromancer , William Gibson, 1984.

Contemporary reaction to the post-industrial world's hyper-reality manifests itself in the subculture of cyberpunk. The central concern of this genre is how to face, understand, and come to terms with information as the dominant scientific metaphor of today's world. The cyberpunk artists' vision is that the technological dreams and nightmares spoken of in SF literature are already part of reality. A collapse of the future on the present has occurred with the advent of post-industrialism.

The real advent of cyberpunk was the publication of William Gibson's book, Neuromancer (1984). [Figure 25] Shortly after its appearance, Gibson and other writers such as Bruce Sterling, John Shirley and Rudy Rucker were labelled 'cyberpunks' by the media. The name stuck and now covers a broad range of music, art, psychedelics, and new technology.

Cyberpunk is the product of the 1980's milieu, but its roots are sunk in the sixty-year-old tradition of popular SF literature. Of special importance are the 60s and 70s New Wave writers such as Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, and J. G. Ballard, as well as the postmodern fragmentations of William Burroughs and apocalypticism of Thomas Pynchon. Other noted influences are movie and video producers (Ridley Scott, David Cronenburg), musicians and punk bands (Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, U2 - notably their album Zooropa ) [Figure 26], and performance and installation artists (Karin Finley and Johanna West, Mark Pauline and the Survival Research Laboratories). Films such as Videodrome, Blade Runner , and TRON had a profoundly formative impact, and led to cyberpunk classics such as Robocop, Terminator 2 , and The Lawnmower Man . [Figure 27]

Figure 26: U2, Zooropa, 1993.

In America, cyberpunk culture's image has been improved by the Clinton administration with its support and promotion of the proposed 'data highways' that will create a national electronic fibre-optic 8 network delivering a plethora of information services to offices and houses. The strength of cyberpunk science fiction lies, not so much in its projection into the 'future', as it does in its metaphorical evocation of the hyper-real world. 'What's important to me', says Gibson, 'is that Neuromancer is about the present'. (Elmer-DeWitt 1993: 39) Referring to these influences, Bruce Sterling, a prominent spokesperson and writer of cyberpunk, states: 'The cyberpunks are perhaps the first SF generation to grow up not only within the literary tradition of science fiction, but in a truly science fictional world. For them, the techniques of classical "hard SF" - extrapolation, technological literacy - are not just literary tools, but an aid to daily life.' (Sterling 1986: 5)

Figure 27: Robocop , 1987. Directed by Paul Verhoeven.
(Bukatman 1993: 309)

Cyberpunk work is marked by its visual intensity. The manic fragmentations reminiscent of Burroughs's 'cut up' style, techno-surreal images influenced by hallucinogens, and punk's street level anarchy, are edited together to create 'crammed' prose equivalent to music videos and the hard rock 'wall of sound'. [Figure 28] The cyberpunk landscape tends to be choked with the debris of objects as well as that of language. An attention to detail - a compulsive use of brand names and throw-away street slang - replaces more conventional narrative that would strive to get to the 'bottom' of issues; there is a shift from symbolic to surface reality. In a discussion of Neuromancer , Gregory Benford observes that 'Gibson, like Ballard, concentrates on surfaces as a way of getting at the aesthetics of an age'. (1988: 19) The approach is similar to what architecture historians call 'historicism', namely the random use of all the styles of the past. Gibson states: 'I see myself as a kind of literary collage artist, and SF as a marketing framework that allows me to gleefully ransack the whole fat supermarket of twentieth-century cultural works.' (McCaffery 1993: 299) Another 'Gibsonian' term to describe this approach is 'cultural mongrelization'.

This highly-stylised narrative form can be read as a reflection of the information overload that characterises today's urban societies, and McLuhan's metaphor of the implosion of the media. (Expansive SF was based on historical analogies of colonialism and exploration.) The implosive SF of cyberpunk is based on analogies of the invasion and transformation of the body (prosthetic limbs, cosmetic surgery) and mind (brain-computer interfaces, neuro-chemistry) by the 'alien' technologies of our own making. It unveils how these technologies are redefining the nature of humanity and the nature of self.

Figure 28: William Burroughs, 1993.
(Burroughs 1993)

The relevance of the punk label stems from the artists' association with punk's subversive nature. Formally punk music aimed to return to rock's original sense of power and menace by creating a deliberately 'crude' sound, emphasising surface level 'noise' and stupid lyrical content at the expense of technical virtuosity and verbal complexity. Paranoia, sexual and psychic violation and manipulation, the desire to achieve transcendence through drugs or religion, and a life characterised by the bewilderingly frantic pace found in modern urban life, are all themes connecting these two art forms. [Figure 29]

The shared formal and thematic features of punk and cyberpunk can be summarised as an artistic vision of urban despair, confusion and victimisation rather than a gleaming Utopian vision of progress. It is a rejection of rationalist technocracy in favour of SF set on street, if not on gutter, level.

In their worlds, the technosphere has slipped away from rational, human control, and instead an imploded version of urbanism is described. 'Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button.' (Gibson 1984: 7)

Figure 29: The Velvet Underground
Velvet Downunder, 1992.

In cyberpunk literature 'urban space' depicts more than just a realistic milieu in which punk heroes play their parts. It is the central metaphor used to describe the phenomenologically relevant 'other space' of information circulation and control, coined by Gibson as cyberspace. 'Urban space and cyberspace become reciprocal metaphors - each enables an understanding and negotiation of the other.' (Bukatman 1993: 145) Gibson provides his own definition in Neuromancer : 'Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.'(1984: 51)

Cyberspace is thus an abstraction that provides a narrative compensation of McLuhan's idea of the loss of visibility and space in the technological, cybernetic world of today. In this way, cyberpunk becomes the defining movement / element of contemporary society. Indeed, as Frederick Jameson puts it, 'cyberpunk is the supreme literary expression, if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself'. (Jameson 1991: 419)

Home Contents Previous Chapter Next Chapter Previous Page Next Page