Friday, February 29, 2008

Cybergrunge Revisited

I had to miss class Thursday--my older daughter had a stomachache (or so she's been complaining for the past week) and with my wife in Buffalo for work/school, the only doctor's appointment I could get was right in the middle of it (doc couldn't find anything physically wrong with her--yay! boo for how easily manipulated I am by a 4-year-old). So I gave out a silly little handout based on my Cybergrunge post here and and failed to explain it well on our course ANGEL space, and most people mostly didn't know quite what to do with it. What I was hoping would happen was that people would analyze the setting, characters, plot, and style of China Mountain Zhang and Neuromancer, not just describe them. What I was hoping would come out of that analysis is the recognition of features of the novels that could be related to the musical movements of punk and grunge. But a 8 1" x 1" boxes on an 8" x 11" piece of paper don't really lend themselves to that, even if I had explained the task well in handwriting that was halfway legible. (My apologies, but my daughter got bored while I was making it and wandered out of the office to the downstairs front entrance of the building before I noticed she was gone. Yup, another father of the year moment. So in my defense I was a bit freaked out and rushed while finishing it up. And, yes, I did find her, ok?)

Still, those who could read my handwriting and took the time to comment on my proposed distinction between cyberpunk and cybergrunge had some neat ideas. Here's the neatest one so far (people are still dropping them off in my mailbox):

Gibson and McHugh took their basic settings and ideas based on popular culture of their decade. The '80s is about punk and going against the man which Gibson shows in Neuromancer. The '90s were a bit more depressed and introverted; it was the decade of grunge and Kurt Cobain. I expect China Mountain Zhang to be about that.

Yeah, this is my basic idea, too. Think Johnny Rotten vs. Kurt Cobain and you get something of the contrast between Case and Zhang. Think the loud and fast DIY aesthetic of punk of the Ramones and the Clash vs. the slow and sad/loud and angry dialectics of Nirvana and Pearl Jam (and, for that matter, early Radiohead) and you have something of the contrast between the plotting and pacing of Gibson's and McHugh's writing.

You can do more with this--like point out that the '80s were also the era of elite as well as "underclass" drug use (think cocaine and crack epidemics), urban crime and government corruption (even by supposed anti-big government "revolutionaries"--anyone remember Iran/Contra?), the heightening and then end of the Cold War (although the line from "evil empire" to the fall of the Berlin Wall is less direct than many today would want to convince you), and the culture wars--in order to complicate the contrasts between the decades and the movements. (Yes, kids, the '80s weren't just about "going against the man" and punk was one of many musical/political responses to the events and tensions of the decade. I can tell you because I was there! Now I feel like Ish. And not in a good way.) And if you go far enough you might also find interesting similarities between the decades, musics, writers, and subgenres I wanted to get you thinking about. Feel free to do that on your own!

As for my analogy proposed in my update, Beeblebrox is right to suggest it stinks, but mostly, I think now, because I got it backwards. It's not:




. (Made you nostalgic for the SAT, didn't I? Or did you not take them before they got rid of analogies?)

Wait, maybe it's both. I'll just lay out both ways of thinking through these analogies and let you decide if they help at all!

For the first, I was thinking of how dramatic and exciting Gibson makes Neuromancer and linking it to the excitement that early existentialist writings sparked among mid-20th C intellectuals. A kind of despairing, desperate excitement, but one that was self-consciously challenging the big ideas of the West (God, rationality, metaphysics, ontology, yadda yadda yadda) and writing in the heroic mode about becoming over being and making meaning over finding it and challenging dogma and authority and yadda yadda yadda. Whereas their successors, the postmodernists, took that kind of yadda yadda yadda/"been there done that" blase attitude to all that, taking a kind of cool, ironic pleasure in demonstrating that we live in a world characterized by various instabilities (of language, meaning, identity). Which to me captures something of the difference in the tone and atmosphere of McHugh's writing when compared stylistically to Gibson's.

For the second, though, I started thinking about characterization and quickly realized that Zhang is going through a fairly fundamental existentialist crisis, as the "Baffin Island" section dramatizes and thematizes quite well (just think of his response to the Arctic landscape as akin to the existentialists' crises of meaning and metaphysics). China Mountain Zhang really is a classic bildungsroman--it really does tell the story of Zhang's becoming, even as it interweaves it with other characters' lives and developments. On the level of characterization, Gibson is much more postmodernist--it's hard to tell what, if anything, Case and Molly have learned about themselves at the end of Neuromancer; the biggest character development is the merging of Wintermute and Neuromancer, and Gibson leaves for the rest of the Sprawl trilogy an exploration of what they become.

So it's no wonder why the analogy isn't clarifying, although I wouldn't go so far as to say it's complete b.s. (A little joke there for those who know my initials.) Would you?

Is that zeitgeist I smell?

Well in response to Dr. Simon's Cybergrunge movement, I have to say, you really freaked out my morning. Envoking the spirits of Sid Vicous, Kurt Kobain Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard in a smoke (or is that zeitgeist?) filled room discussing whether "Cogito ergo sum" or because everyone else does, got me stumbling through philosophy text books and burning myself on "too weak for philosophical thinking" coffee. Well, here's what came out of my brain. Postmodernism, without totally frying the minds of non-philosophy taking classmates with Kant's Copernican Revolution, et. al., is according to allabout " difficult to define, because to define it would violate the postmodernist's premise that no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truths exist." ( Wheres as (shamelessly copied from the evil Wiki-Gods)"Existentialism tends to focus on the question of human existence — the feeling that there is no purpose, indeed nothing, at the core of existence. Finding a way to counter this nothingness, by embracing existence, is the fundamental theme of existentialism, and the root of the philosophy's name. Given that someone who believes in reality might be called a "realist", and someone who believes in a deity might be called a "theist", therefore someone who believes fundamentally only in existence, and seeks to find meaning in his or her life solely by embracing existence, is an existentialist."( Now, if somebody could please tell me where I was going with this, I'd sure appreciate it because I've just imploded. Oh, take that, my prettys, and apply them to the texts, see if they fit and get back to me...PLEASE...I need another pot of Coffee cause Derridas drank it all. And yeah, Bruce you didn't clarify anything for me. In fact, I tried to clarify it myself and got even more confused. But like one of my favorite teachers once said "you don't go to Philosophy looking for answers". I guess I should have listened.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


No time to elaborate on this idea, but reading the opening of China Mountain Zhang for class tomorrow prompted this attempt to coin a term to counter the attempt by one of McHugh's blurbers to enlist her in the cyberpunk movement....

[Update: This analogy will probably not clarify anything for anyone, but it works for me: cybergrunge is to cyberpunk as postmodernism is to existentialism.]

Monday, February 25, 2008

I was thinking recently of the way identity is approached by Gibson, thinking specifically of the desperate need to escape or transcend it that seems to have taken hold of Mankind in his novel Neuromancer. Though this desperation seems to have manifested itself in many forms within the novel's society, for example, with inorganic prosthetics, the one that I believe to be the most central to its story is the incorporeal experience of jacking into The Matrix. Jacking in essentially removes the limitations that physicality creates. The Matrix shares the idea of an examined, edited, and perfected persona made possible by the modern day Internet and makes it a living, breathing reality. One goes online and, temporarily at least, no longer has to live confined to a solitary existence. They coalesce with this gargantuan world of information data and can technically be anything that they desire. This could be interpreted as a sexual thing. All of these people becoming a commune to elevate themselves from their restrictive forms certainly sounds a bit like intercourse to me. I may be way off, what do you guys think?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Significant Distortions?

Today I have seen two websites that really made me think, are Gibson and Bradbury really distorting the present or are they just writing a contemporary fiction piece?

When we think about distorting something in class we rarely think about distorting animals. However i was browsing the internet today and came across something quite interesting. You remember the metal hound that attacked Montag in 451, right? Well take that concept one step further and you have this:

Also i found something that related to the Gibson's concepts of feeling through the direct interactions of two people's nervous systems. Introducing iCyborg:

If you look at all four of the distorted animals you'll find that some of them are really quite shocking, and that one of them actually has moving parts. Even thinking about the possibilities Warwick has presented is shocking and awe inspiring. While looking at this some of you might seem a little uneasy or even angry. This then begs the question, is the technology that Bradbury and Gibson present in these novels really that far in the future? While it is impossible to find a working mechanical dog that functions in the ways that Bradbury's does, we do have a blueprint for a creating one in Lisa Black's artwork. And while we cannot currently interact between computers in our current state, Warwick believes that we do have the ability and the technology to interact with them if we only try.

Interesting stuff, huh?


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hey Kids, Warren Ellis Is Giving out a Free Post-Apocalyptic Comic Book Online

Freakangel. 'Nuff said.

Gibson's Chiba, My Chiba: On the Image of Japan in U.S. Cyberpunk

Reading the first chapter of William Gibson's Neuromancer made me nostalgic for Chiba. Not the Chiba of Night City and Ninsei--a kind of "historical park" to the origins of the Yakuza, a "deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself" (11)--but the Chiba of my wife's parents, of the 5-square-block area around their home my children and I know as well as anywhere we've ever been. The Chiba of the Don Quixote department store, the Tsutaya video store, the Book-Off secondhand store, the grocery stores and the combinis, the play parks and the elementary schools; the Chiba that's connected to the downtown bus and train station/shopping district by a ten-minute bus ride or half-hour walk, that's even closer to the Yamada Denki discount electronics store and the public library and a little farther from the discount shoe store--and that's even a long walk from the shrine we go to for New Year's and the cemetery we visit to clean the gravestone of my wife's grandmother, our older daughter's namesake. While it's true that there are areas still basically controlled by the Yakuza, and that the relationship between Chiba and Tokyo might well be analogized to the contrasting images of Jersey City and New York City, I don't need the excellent analysis by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in Control and Freedom of the related orientalisms of Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell to convince me that Gibson's Chiba--and his Japan in general--is quite significantly distorted from its reality in the 1980s, much less today.

In a sense, though, I'm not just nostalgic for the real Chiba, but also for the image I got of it from Neuromancer, many years before I ever visited Japan. Nostalia is weird.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Across the Pond

As we move from Stewart and Bradbury to Gibson this weekend, it's probably a good thing to reiterate the U.S.-centricity of my course and attempt to contextualize it with this review essay from The Times Literary Supplement and its focus on British sf. It picks up on and runs with many of the central concerns of the opening of the course.... So reading this and thinking about your experience in the course so far, what do you see as the strengths and limits of my design?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Notes on Fahrenheit 451

Here's something I posted at Citizen of Somewhere Else not too long ago. To make up for monopolizing the panel I was on with Professor Parsons, I've encouraged him to consider the first hour of class tomorrow all his!


My university is participating in the Chautauqua/Cattaraugus counties' version of The Big Read, with their focus on Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. As the last person in the department to teach our Science Fiction course, I'll be contributing to a panel discussion on "Fahrenheit 451 as Novel" with my colleague Dustin Parsons early this afternoon. The goal is to get the audience thinking and talking, so I'm aiming for short and sweet.

Here's my talk's outline (with page numbers keyed to the 50th Anniversary Edition):

I. Where It Comes From

  • A. History: Fascism, McCarthyism, The Great Depression (132, 150-154), the Bomb (158-162)
  • B. Literature: Dystopias, American Pastoralism (140-145, 157), World Literature (150-153), The Martian Chronicles (Grand Master Edition 31, 108, 180)

II. How It Is Relevant Today

  • A. Postmodernism and New Media: Entertainment (81-82, 84, 87), Information (61), Knowledge (105-108), Wisdom (75, 82-86, 163-165)
  • B. Democracy and Capitalism: Mass Culture (54-55, 89, 108), Diversity (57-60), War (73-74, 87, 158-162)

Here are some suggestions for further reading. First, a few novels:

  • Samuel R. Delany, The Einstein Intersection (1967)
  • William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
  • Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (1991)
  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993)

Then, a few links:

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Significant Distortions of the Present in Earth Abides

If you google "significant distortion of the present," the Samuel Delany idea that I'm using to structure the first half of my science fiction course this semester, you'll come across two provocative review essays from Science Fiction Studies that analyze Delany's SF theorizing. They provide two slightly different perspectives on it, reflecting the evolution of Delany's own thinking from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s:

Patrick Parrinder: science fiction "uses the future as a convention to present a significant distortion of the present."

Kathleen Spencer: the function of SF is to create "a significant distortion of the present that sets up a rich and complex dialogue with the reader's here and now."

For more--and more recent--considerations and extensions of Delany's idea, check out Jeffrey Tucker's A Sense of Wonder and Madhu Dubey's Signs and Cities. What I'll do here, though, is start a list of the ways in which it is relevant to George Stewart's Earth Abides. Feel free to add to it!

  • Connie Willis, in her 2005 introduction to the edition of the novel we're reading in class, argues that all the post-apocalypse novels and short stories of the early Cold War years "were at least partly prompted, if not by 'nuclear dread' as Thomas M. Disch believes, then by an uncomfortable post-Hiroshima awareness that humankind's residence on Earth might be only temporary." She situates Earth Abides as part of a "vibrant, ongoing conversation among [post-apocalyptic] authors, not only being inspired by one another but also expanding on, arguing with, making fun of, going off on a tangent from one another."
  • I see the novel as also looking back to the immediate post-W.W. I era, literally (check out this PBS documentary, this Stanford University overview, and this recent book on the Great Influenza--and for a broader perspective, see William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel) and figuratively (from H.G. Wells's Outline of History to Madison Grant's Passing of the Great Race to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," many writers in the 1920s were speculating on the past and future of humanity and civilization), but through the lenses of new developments in the natural and social sciences, particularly in ecology and sociology.
  • Even more broadly, I would suggest that Stewart is putting his novel in dialogue with mid-20th C accounts of the "discovery of the New World" and the apocalyptic consequences of the Columbian exchanges for the descendants of the earliest settlers of the Americas.
  • I think you could find many places where the novel engages contemporary concerns about the effects of segregation and racism, urbanization and suburbanization, and capitalism and the culture industry on the American people, particularly through those who Stewart imagines would most likely survive not only the "Great Disaster" itself, but also the "Secondary Kill," not to mention the ways in which the community the SF-area survivors he focuses on develops over the generations.
  • It's worth looking into the characterization of Em over the course of the novel and more generally at the ways in which Stewart engages issues of race and cultural difference for insights into the strengths and limitations of early Cold War liberalism in America.

In class in a couple of minutes, we'll get into more specifics on these ideas. After class, we'll see if any students want to add to this list!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Pet Peeves

I have certain pet peeves when it comes to attempts to define science fiction. Here are a few:

1) Definitions that aim to exclude science fiction writers or subgenres you don't appreciate;

2) Definitions that aim to exclude your own works from science fiction just because you don't want to be labelled as a science fiction writer;

3) Definitions that seek to elevate science ficion over other non-elite genres; e.g., "science fiction is that branch of fantasy which does not suck (because it's so much more, like, rational, progressive, logical, systematic, relevant, etc.)";

4) Definitions that attempt to prescribe what future science fiction writers should attempt to do.

I have a few more almost peeves, but these are less about definitions than about origins and lineages, so I'll save those for another post.

What are your peeves?