Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
Futuristic Flu, or The Revenge of the Future
First published in Fiction 2000. Cyberpunk and the Future of Fiction. Edited by George Slusser and Tom Shippey. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
Cyberpunk. What are we to make of a style whose supposed practitioners consistently distance themselves from the term? Cyberpunk often seems to live mainly in commentary about some absent text, a Borgesian or Lemian gloss constructing its own foundation from the roof downward. It doesn't inspire confidence that the most recent novel by its most articulate and passionate polemicist, Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net, contains nary a trace of cyber or punk. Musicians and performance artists believe cyberpunk has no meaning in literature any more (if it ever did); but here we are, the artificial intelligentsia discussing a literary punk elite.
As for the shape and nature of future fiction, I am very uncomfortable talking about the future of anything. A conference with a name like "Fiction 2000" makes us all, literally, pretentious. We cannot know what the future will bring, but we get to pretend that we know its "possibilities." We pretend to know something about the future of fiction because we pretend to know what cyberpunk is. But our knowledge of cyberpunk depends on a view from the future, that is, that cyberpunk is a significant enough paradigm for fiction to take off from or to react against. We are pretending to know what it feels like to be post-cyberpunk when we don't know whether cyberpunk is finished, or even whether it ever was.
The gracious millenialist organizers of this conference are suffering from a mild case of the very condition I wish to discuss, namely retrofuturistic chronosemiitis, or futuristic flu. More about that later. For now let me say that this is a retrochronal semiovirus, in which a time further in the future than the one in which we exist and choose infects the host present, reproducing itself in simulacra, until it destroys all the original chronocytes of the host imagination. Dante devoted the Eighth Circle of The Inferno to the flu's earlier carriers: the fortune-tellers eternally condemned to walk with their heads under their asses for pretending to see too far ahead. I have my heart set on another circle, so I will try to avoid exposure to the flu by misunderstanding my instructions. Instead of discussing the future of fiction, I will discuss fictions of the future.
Postmodern Time Zone
Whatever postmodernism ultimately turns out to have been, the culture of postindustrial societies after Hiroshima and Auschwitz has been marked by two profound transformations of the sense of historical time. One is the marginalization of the past; the other is what the feminist theorist Zoe Sofia calls "the collapse of the future onto the present" (48). Since the living population of Earth now surpasses all previous human generations combined, the historical past has become, in a genuine sense, a minority report. The experiences of those ancestors, thinly distributed in space and time, represent a library of legends and exemplary tales told by tribes and families in their struggles against physical and human nature. In this sense, even the perspectival time view of liberal empiricism (in which the species moves toward a vanishing point on the horizon, a future ever closer and yet ideal and unattainable) and twentieth-century modernism's time of simultaneous parallel worlds and critical junctures can be seen as versions of a single story of the human species balancing, correcting, and equilibrating itself vis-a-vis a temporal nature external to the human project.
The scientific-technical revolution after World War II created a new relationship between the possessors of high technology and nature, a change we might call immanentization or artificial immanence; that is, through advanced technology human beings have appropriated powers that all previous cultures considered transcendental or heteronomic. The victory for the forces of technoevolution has been Pyrrhic, of course. For once transcendence has been assimilated, no transcendental values can enforce discipline on these new powers. As a result, our imaginations are increasingly determined by the problems and technical solutions latent in the social application of the given technologies.
In his introduction to the French edition of Crash, J. G. Ballard gives a vivid account of the psychological fallout of the new situation:
Increasingly, our concepts of past, present, and future are being forced to revise themselves. Just as the past itself, in social and psychological terms, became a casualty of Hiroshima and the nuclear age (almost by definition a period in which we were all forced to think prospectively), so in its turn the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present. We have annexed the future into our own present, as merely one of the manifold alternatives open to us. Options multiply around us, we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for lifestyles, travel, sexual roles and identities can be satisfied instantly. (4)
This polymorphous perversity is the opposite of Marcuse's harbinger of the utopian liberation of affect; in it Ballard sees the fulfillment of Freud's fears in Civilization and Its Discontents, the "diseases of the psyche" which "have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect" (1).
The demise of feeling and emotion has paved the way for all our most real and tender pleasures-in the excitements of pain and mutilation; in sex as the perfect arena, like a culture bed of sterile pus, for all the veronicas of our own perversions; in our moral freedom to pursue our own psycho-pathology as a game; and in our limitless powers for conceptualization. What our children have to fear is not the cars on the highways of tomorrow but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths. (1)
I take Ballard's quote as an exemplary text because it makes explicit the implications of viewing the future as merely one of infinite alternatives available to postmodern humanity, equal in status with psychopathic fantasies, dreams, commercial reveries, political propaganda, drug trances, car crashes, situation comedies, and home movies. One implication is that the priority of the imagination to the Real has been reversed. "The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent the reality," writes Ballard (5). A more important implication is that the present generation's relationship to its posterity is profoundly destructive. "What our children have to fear is not the cars on the highways of tomorrow but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths."
I take as a countertext a paragraph by Bertrand de Jouvenel, writing in the same year as Ballard, representing a view I take to be a hopeful and committed orientation to the future-a view not surprisingly underrepresented in postmodernism in general, and
cyberpunk in particular.
An oak tree that offers little profit in the short run but will shade people a century hence bears witness of the efforts and spirit of past generations and is a message of friendship from ancestors who wanted to increase the human heritage. We owe to people who disappeared long ago the lasting beauties that are the source of our present pleasures. I hope that we will do as much for the people that come after us. (Cornish, 140)
It is this state of the future that I consider the healthy host condition that the retrofuturistic virus undermines.
The Collapsed Future
Ballard is surely right that the present's society of spectacles has tried to "annex" the future; theorists of postmodernism appear to agree at least on this: that the dominant culture has been occupied with spatializing time and history-conflating time and deflating space, as Fredric Jameson puts it. This is nothing new for science fiction: it dates back at least to H. C. Wells's time traveler's discovery that history is a sort of European railroad carriage, with ages in contiguous compartments linked by an autonomous corridor called time, in which time travelers can bicycle up and down in their time machines. Arguably, this easy travel in space and time is the essence of the science fiction culture, with its ideology of the human project as a technological autoevolution, in which nothing will remain irreversible and whose privileged temporal mood is the collapsed future.
Zoe Sofia has identified this postmodern time as a future indentured to the present-a future compelled by the self-fulfilling prophecies of the present's technosocial powers.
The collapsed future tense . . . is the "bound to be" of the ideology of progress, operative in the discourse of those who tell us that since nuclear reactors, deep-sea mining, Star Wars and space colonies are inevitable parts of the future, we might as well quit griping about their bad side-effects and get on with making the future happen; after all, there's no time like the present. Trouble is, the collapse of the future leaves the present with no time, and we live with the sense of the preapocalyptic moment, the inevitability of everything happening at once.
The perversity of the collapsed future lies in its ability to invoke and deny the future at once. For if the future is already upon us, we have no need to consider the survival of future generations: we are the future generations. (57)
If the future has been indentured to the present psychologically, the present has also been indentured to the future. Our narcissism is under compulsion to adapt to technologies ostensibly for the improvement of our own lives. In fact, they are driven by the imperatives of breakneck production and circulation of commodities and information, governed by forces we inspire and encourage but which also constrain our destiny, not only in deterrence and the prospect of high-tech wars but also in deskilling and the manipulation of our desires. The narcissism of the futureless present is actually a disguise for a presentless future, an uninhabitable world created out of the consequences of our bad bargains.
In the postmodern time zone, it is never now. The present moment has always already gone toward something new in the future. "If it works, it's obsolete." When we look at the images of the late twentieth-century future conceived by our precursors and compare them with our own representations of the present, the past's anticipations seem grotesquely naive and thin. Postmodernism involves the sense that our present historical moment is so radically different from the past it emerged from that it could have never been imagined by that past. From the commonplace that traditional social and ethical norms give little guidance in situations in which children might be born ex utero and a single nation can disrupt the biosphere, it seems reasonable to conclude that the future will be just as unimaginably different from the present and hence will evolve largely outside the control of present institutional powers, even as it dominates the course of social organization and action in the present.
Paradoxically, this inaccessible and unintelligible future is actually now; the rules of the future are beginning to unfold now. And hence there is no real present; there are no norms sufficient for the here and now, only perpetual starting points of the future. We always come too early. Furthermore, since the only legitimating anticipations remotely similar to our present came in the past's science fiction, the present we inhabit is really a form of exteriorized science fiction, before the letter.
The role of science fiction in a culture that represents itself as futuristic is complex and not a little ironic. Fredric Jameson considers this self-undermining irony the true essence of SF. Science fiction's
deepest vocation is to demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future, to body forth, through apparently full representations which prove on closer inspection to be structurally and constitutively impoverished, the atrophy of what Marcuse called the utopian imagination, the imagination of otherness and radical difference, and to serve as unwitting and even unwilling vehicles for a meditation which, setting forth for the unknown, finds itself irrevocably mired in the all-too familiar, and thereby becomes unexpectedly transformed into a contemplation of its own limits. (153)
In the present-as-science fiction the future does not recede infinitely so much as it resists intractably. Narrative in this time constantly swerves away from the future, using a variety of detours and highly self-conscious tropes-recursion, strange loops, inversion, replication, dedimensionalization, and so on. Put less nicely, postmodern narratives show the splatter of consciousness against a window it did not, and even now cannot, see-a glass so brightly lit by the glare of interlocking extrapolations from the present's technologies that it has become a grotesque mirror reflecting our own image. An "overlit" image, as Ballard might say. "The future's so bright I have to wear shades."
At the same time, the futuristic allows a recombination of elements from the present without an ethical dimension. For if the values and norms of the future are the same as the futuristic present's, then these too would have to point to their future. The charge and attraction of the futuristic in the present are justified by the promise of an ethical horizon to be determined later. The tools are given in the present to enjoy and experience, but their legitimating values are deferred, the social norms and obligations to which they are oriented have not yet been experienced. Now we get the pleasure, what comes later, we'll see . . .
The Revenge of the Future
One need not be a Bergsonian to feel that the lived sense of the future is that of a path constantly in the process of being constructed, the horizon toward which all action tends-in any organism, the source of hope. To conceive it in terms of a bounded territory that can be annexed, a food that can be devoured, a weight that can collapse, or a set of instructions is already the sign of disturbance, a form of despair. The future cannot be devoured. Our future as agents capable of changing our arrangements, projecting our desires and balancing them against the past's experiences-this might be devoured. This is one way of conceiving paranoid derangement and the temporal deflation of schizophrenia. But even then it is devoured by something else, an Other Future of mysterious intentions and agents uncannily resembling our own, who live off our desires and life energies until we are depleted. In this sense, the collapse of the future is not our narrow restricting of our own possibilities but the hostile return of an alien future, one we did not choose, but which requires our present as its origin. It is the future we produce, not the one we desire.
If the historical past has truly been cut off, the future projected by technoevolution enters the present more like an infectious virus than like a metabolized food or an annexed territory. In the Latin, the future bears infecta, that which is imperfect, unformed, incomplete, into the completed facta of the past. So I propose this alternate model of the postmodern time zone: in the present of postmodernism, the projected image of the technosocial evolution returns like an emanation to influence the present's decisions. The future acts on its own past like an influenza, attaching itself to and diffusing through its host, imitating its chronocytes.
This retrochronal influence is not always destructive. The influenza can preserve some of its old Neoplatonic meaning of an inflow of spirit, a hope-giving assurance from the future that inspires the present to complete its task of reaching beyond itself. In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in science fiction about social problems solved through time travel, especially the future's aiding of the present. Chris Marker's La Jetee is perhaps the best known and most respected. In Eastern Europe the best example is probably the Strugatskys' story "What You Will Be Like," which closes the influential Noon: 22nd Century, a collection published at the height of the 1960s thaw in the Soviet Union. The tale tells of a meeting between the star pilot Gorbovsky and a mysterious young man in deep space. The young man first repairs Gorbovsky's seriously damaged spaceship, then reveals to him that he is a representative of future human generations, sent to give their ancestors confidence and encouragement. Perhaps even the Teilhardian noocytes of Greg Bear's Blood Music, reconstituting the biosphere to enable the Omega Point they are the retrochronal emanations of, might be included here.
More frequent is the depiction of the future's influenza in the modern sense, as the "futuristic flu," the disease that attacks its own past by undermining the morale and freedom necessary to create an open, "conditional future," free of technological determinism and constructed through conscious and free social choices. These are tales of a destructive, pathological future, which, far from treating the present with filial love or grudging respect, seeks to subvert it and, like a viral parasite, to destroy the conditions that simultaneously ensure its own reproduction.
Several of the most interesting recent SF works play changes on this theme: the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic, Gibson's Neuromancer, Stanislaw Lem's Fiasco, and David Cronenberg's Videodrome are ones I wish to discuss in the remainder of this essay.
The retrofuture is an invention of our own age. It is unprecedented in earlier literature because the future has never before crowded into the present as much as now. The notion of a vengeful or viral future returning through time to destroy or infect us is not unlike the world catastrophe syndrome characteristic of many schizophrenic episodes. But more interesting to me is the ethical dimension of such fiction. For these tales of the futuristic flu are not mere world catastrophe syndromes (as Ballard's most definitely are) but expressions of the vengeful aggression of future generations against the past that sent them no "messages of friendship," no "lasting beauties." By not thinking about "increasing the human heritage," the past-ourselves-dams up the flow of cultural time and deprives future generations both of their birthright as participants in the life struggles and attainments of the species and the very notion of history as an irreversible flow encompassing generation, maturation, and the transference of wisdom and trust from parents to children, teachers to students. The futuristic flu is a weapon of biopsychic violence sent by psychopathic children against their narcissistic parents.
"What You Will Be Like"
It is instructive to see how the futuristic flu behaves in the science fiction of Eastern Europe. Of all SF writers, the Strugatsky brothers have been the most occupied with the flu. They have returned again and again to the problem of whether the flu is a destructive infection or beneficially mutagenic. Their fiction is populated by carriers of the flu, beings who interfere with the past ostensibly for the benefit of a more or less advanced future: the Time Wanderers, a superintelligent extraterrestrial species that intervenes in the evolutionary selection process of the galaxy's intelligent species; the Progressors from the terrestrial Institute of Experimental History who attempt to alter the historical development of feudal- protofascist planets as a sort of "sterile virus," correcting the flow of history without doing any harm; the slimies of The Ugly Swans, a mutant race of scientists who create the conditions for an apocalypse that overthrows the tyranny, philistinism, and boredom of the present; the Maidens of Snail on the Slope, a race of parthenogenetic Amazons with mysterious powers, bent on destroying the. hyperrationalized and impotent present.
Of all the Strugatskys' tales of countermovers and time travelers, the most important is Roadside Picnic. The central problem of the story is the identity of mysterious extraterrestrials who land in a small Canadian town, stay for a few hours, and then depart, leaving a blasted but sharply circumscribed zone behind them. The zone is littered with unintelligible artifacts and phenomena bearing witness to an incredible technology. The United Nations immediately quarantines the zone, but the Visitors' artifacts are constantly smuggled out and sold to the military industrial complex. The landing, moreover, although it killed no one, has created entirely new syndromes, stochastic diseases, zombielike "moulages," and the genetic deterioration of some children into apelike animals.
The extraterrestrial Visitors did not leave operating instructions for the artifacts; indeed, for an intelligent species with some inferential similarity to human beings (the artifacts appear to be on a human scale), they showed a singular lack of interest in humanity. In this they are a match for human beings, who also quickly lose interest in the identity and origin of the Visitors, occupying themselves instead with assimilating the sometimes beneficial, and sometimes catastrophic, alien technology into their daily lives.
The lack of encounter between humanity and the extraterrestrials is unnerving in its own right. But the effect of the alien artifacts is to break down human affectional relationships -- not because of some deep malevolence emanating from the objects but because post-Visitation culture has become fixed on the exchange, acquisition, and deployment of the "treasures." Several hypotheses are proposed about the intentions of the Visitors, but no one can get past their apparent indifference to the effects of their technology on the Earth. Ultimately, the Visitation cannot be understood, not because the Visitors are too alien to comprehend but because their behavior is essentially motiveless.
And yet, altogether familiar. In fact, the Visitation is an image of our own scientific-technological explosion, a process that increasingly appears to be "subjectless"; an impersonal, indifferent, objective evolution blindly operating according to its own runaway feedback, autonomous of the human desires that created its conditions. The tale's "roadside picnic" hypothesis -- that the Visitors, on some galactic journey, stopped on Earth for a roadside picnic, leaving their cosmic trash behind when they left-refers less to the extraterrestrials' landing than to the way contemporary humanity uses its own technology, as if humanity itself were an alien species that might wish to fly away sometime in the future from a blasted Earth "zone" of its own making. So the Visitation is a catastrophic intervention of humanity's own future into the present. We witness the destruction of affect and value and care as we observe a hypertrophic technological rationality externalized in a world of objects, dominating and enervating the subjects that once created them.
Where one finds the Strugatskys, one usually also finds Stanislaw Lem, and vice versa. In his serious works Lem has avoided the theme of the retrofuture ingeniously, considering how close he comes to it in several texts. The epistemological uncertainty of Lem's human characters and their singular isolation in the universe has, as it were, acted as a natural quarantine from any harm their future might do to them. However, in his most recent novel, Fiasco, Lem invents a characteristically complicated and devilish version of the futuristic flu.
Fiasco tells of an expedition by utopian adventurer-scientists to the distant planet Quinta, which is deemed to be within the "window of contact," the historical interval within which a technological civilization is already capable of interpsychozoic exchange and not yet suicidal or isolationist. The human explorers are driven by the most altruistic motives and the most advanced technology-sidereal engineering, which permits them even to transform a black hole into a temporal harbor. Contact with the Quintans, however, they cannot produce.
In one interpretation, the flu carriers of Fiasco are human astroheroes who bumble into the war sphere of a planetary civilization apparently engaged in destroying itself. We know nothing about the Quintans' works and days, yet they seem quite familiar-nightmare traces of "what we will be like" once the synthetic viruses of SDI become active. Filled with the most benevolent intentions and cast in the neoclassical ethical mode of Eastern European SF, these male scientist-adventurers, who lack venality, greed, pettiness, doubt, families, the companion ship of women, and indeed perhaps even sex organs not linked to their flowstream rockets and solar lasers, come bearing good tidings and sidereal engineering. The utopian future of human science comes to share its wisdom with an equal other. To its surprise, it discovers a self-annihilating, perhaps already completely automatized, world that signifies its own dark alternative history, an evolution from our present down another ethical and technological path.
The utopian future encounters the dystopian. The utopian future is not only ethically superior, it is technologically superior as well. It has the power to determine the future of the Quintans: whether they should be enlightened, quarantined, or destroyed. The utopians are completely unprepared, however, for their powerlessness in the face of the Quintans' insistent, aggressive rejection. The impotence of utopia leads them into war, fought first in decision-theoretical models and ultimately with killer satellites, synthetic viruses, and solar lasers.
In the end, it is unclear who is responsible for the destruction of Quinta. Is it the utopians, whose fury at the Quintans' obstinate refusal of a shining potential future leads to the liquidation not only of another planet but of the raison d'etre of the Knights of the Enlightenment? Or is it the Quintans, who in their hatred for intelligence and civilization induce their own destruction at the hands of utopia-and by turning utopia into a cosmic murderer, destroy its only basis for superiority?
Whichever way one looks at it, a cruel and murderous future has destroyed a version of its own past.
Gibson: Dialects of the Future
The explicit ethical problematizing typical of Eastern European SF often strikes North American readers as overly abstract and dull. At the other extreme the fear of being seen as tedious moralists often leads U.S.science fiction writers to contortions; they try merely to hint at the ethical questions lying behind the power and thrill in the foreground. U.S. writers frequently assume that a relationship between human beings and technology that would entail tremendous ethical dilemmas already exists as an unproblematic fait accompli. The dominant feeling in the United States, as opposed to the more traditional attachments of Eastern Europe, is that enormous technological changes are inevitable, and will inevitably bring ethical changes largely without
the conscious participation of the subjects involved. And it is obvious to anyone comparing the two SF cultures (I cannot speak about Japanese SF) that Eastern European education openly, indeed perhaps obsessively, harps on philosophical ethics versus pragmatic problem solving.
Eastern European writers write about the retrofuture, but their historical sleeplessness has so far given them an immunity to the flu itself; their ethical education seems to produce futurophages that defend them against the condition, while also, of course, blocking all hipness. In North America, the futuristic flu does not attack the categorical imperative directly; it goes for the nerves. And North Americans not only take the flu as their subject, they are prone to be infected themselves.
Case in point: Gibson and Neuromancer. Gibson's first novel stands as a masterpiece of cyberpunk because it exemplifies the poetry of the retrofuture, the linguistic texture that dazzles the host consciousness, inspiring it with a dizzying sense of power-derived from the illusion that it is fluent in the dialects of the future before they have even emerged.
The language of Neuromancer surpasses that critical density beyond which a futuristic language merely intimates new conditions, and actually composes a "world." In SF, a dense futuristic language can deconstruct its own universe of discourse, leading to a symbolist SF or fantasies of the far future and parallel worlds that are too excessive to allude to the thinness of realistic anticipation. Such a language then reconstructs its own context and internal relations in opposition to the codes of critical realism. (Hoban's Riddley Walker and Burroughs's whole corpus are obvious examples.) Alternatively, a futuristic language of sufficient density can create the illusion of realism-indicating real things and relations that do not exist yet, but whose inevitability feels incontestable and immediate.
Gibson's poetry is the latter kind. It is a form of visionary realism that finds adequate language for a future we can already feel, albeit only in the language itself. (Recall Ballard: "The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent the reality.") Neuromancer's narrator assumes that the reader is almost there, perceiving the futuristic objects and emotions in the same, hence consensual, way, near enough to the cyberspace future so that the recognitions and adaptations to future discourse create
a sense of the almost seen.
Very little in Neuromancer needs to be explained to a reader sufficiently hip, knowledgeable about drugs, subcultures, and consumer technology. Gibson rarely invents new words-except after the method of low-riding bricolage that generates the poetry of slang. The electronic metaphors, Japanese loan words, cyberslang-meat toys, neural cutouts, simstim, ice, Turing heat, the Kuang-hint deftly at drastically changed conditions that the reader should delight in reconstituting. Julie Dean "affected prescription lenses"; Wage's eyes "were vatgrown sea-green Nikon transplants"; "travel was a meat thing." The reader is expected to figure it out: no one wears corrective lenses anymore; artificial lens implants are the norm; cyberspace cowboys
find the real world gross and pedestrian compared with the mental traveling of cyberspace.
Through understatement, ellipsis, and the lyrical piling on of allusions to pretended common knowledge, Gibson creates a neon epic style always crackling between the poles of concrete naming of nonexistent things and the delirious lyricism of mental states already quite well known to familiars of drug tension, overwork, and insomnia.
This is not the language of parable, depicting "what we will be like." Gibson's retrofuturistic poetry doesn't come in easy fragments over a large temporal space, like impulses over a telegraph wire. It creates rather the sense of words moving at high velocity in an enclosure, a linguistic accelerator warping the distinction between now and soon. If you get it, it makes the future seem irresistible. Brooks Landon observes: "The real message of cyberpunk was inevitability-not what the future might hold, but the inevitable hold of the present over the future-what the future could not fail to be" (245).
I suspect Gibson's success with readers not otherwise sympathetic to SF comes from this brilliance of linguistic texture, this attempt to magically conjure up a "consensual hallucination" through language. His manipulation of texture seems appropriate, moreover, for a future in which all relations have been conflated into a single glimmering surface, embodied in cyberspace's shining grid of information circulation that can absorb and replicate anything outside it. Gibson's language also refers constantly and vividly to recognizable feelings of stress made futuristic by their density, making currently unacceptable feelings of stress seem normal, central, and universal.
This affectively powerful (albeit spiky and cold) poetry is nonetheless organized and subsumed by a plot-Wintermute's plot. And this plot acts on the characters precisely as the flu acts on the readers, taking their emotions and transforming them into functions and commands: Case's and Molly's hate, Case's longing and grief, Armitage's guilt, Maelcum's courage, and 3Jane's perversity have no significance other than their function enabling the completion of Wintermute's master plan. Extraneous feelings mean nothing. If Case and Molly share love, it vanishes after the job is done. No matter how nervous and active the characters are, they are "wired" to the inevitable transformations of the real that were latent in Marie-France Tessier's original construction of the artificial intelligences.
In Neuromancer, civilization and human relations are intense but passive reflexes. They are not even molded by techno-evolutionary forces; they acquire their shape in the chaotic turbulence left by the wake of those forces. Like the Strugatskys' Visitors and Lem's Quintans, the source of Gibson's futuristic flu cares nothing about its hosts. Wintermute, and to some degree Neuromancer, treat all of human technological civilization as a host. And why not, when all human activity is linked through the telectronic web-from the direct linkage of cranial jacks, global computer webs, biosoftware, and ROM-consciousness constructs to the bank of public telephones that Wintermute rings in sequence as Case passes them by.
By striving for its "self-fulfillment" while subjecting to its power the human selves that created its conditions of freedom, the unified Wintermute/Neuromancer depletes the source of its freedom. Gibson is wise enough to know that such a being must fall apart; and it does in the seven years between the action of Neuromancer and Count Zero. So Gibson appears to have recovered from the flu after the completion of his first novel. But then there's the problem of Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, in which Gibson turns the dry Cartesian patrix of cyberspace into a sloppy swamp and the high-tech future is colonized by the retrofitted archaic gremlins from the anima mundi, exemplifying an altogether new chronic disease:
Videodrome: Catch the Flu!
Of all the representations of futuristic flu, I find none as interesting as David Cronenberg's film Videodrome. Though Gibson is touted as the definitive cyberpunk artist, for me it is Videodrome that captures the essence of cyberpunk: existence twenty minutes into the future; nostalgia for five minutes ago; form-determining ambivalence about cyborgization; marrow-deep malaise about the usurpation of transcendence by information technology, and of freedom by sinister technoconspiracies; and a moral universe defined by sex, drugs, and violence.
Videodrome also has the advantage of not being a book. It is difficult to imagine Lem and the Strugatskys in a medium other than literature (Tarkovsky's tedious film versions of Solaris and Stalker prove the point). Gibson is more attuned to film and video, but his powers as a writer are distinctly literary. No matter how you look at it, it is hard to imagine a futuristic book. Writing, a relatively slow process that is always about interpretation whatever its foreground subject, cannot help but engage thought and allude to tradition; it cannot help but open models to moral as well as aesthetic consideration. The words it uses are the same words used to formulate precepts and articulate thoughts; and the reader, unlike the viewer, cannot help but establish his or her own personal pace.
This is why Brooks Landon has determined that cyberpunk has little future as writing: "What integrity can cyberpunk fiction possibly have in a cyberpunk world?" (248). The future lies with visual media, which can "enact the cyberpunk epistemology," constructing self-reflexive narratives of the very technology doing the representing. This is certainly true when one views Videodrome. Cronenberg's film depicts the transformation of everyday reality into a battle between two rival mystico-technoevolutionary powers, both of which contaminate the real by breaking down the fundamental distinctions of rational cognition: between observer (the voyeur) and observed, real and imagined, "live" and recorded, inside and outside, artificial memory and authentic experience, the reversible and the irreversible, the human mind and television.
The film also involves the viewer in the fiction, in a devilishly subtle way. In a structural pun at once concrete and abstract, the film subjects the viewer to the same contamination by the Videodrome signal that transforms Max Renn into a murderous VCR cyborg. The Videodrome signal can come via any emission, even a test pattern; it is especially effective on nervous systems excited by the spectacle of sexual violence. Cronenberg has rigged the trick so that the film's viewer cannot help but watch the same mysterious sadomasochistic spectacles that snag Max. If such a signal did in fact exist, its most ingenious channel would be the videocassette of Videodrome. One should therefore take precautions. Watch it only in movie houses or perhaps on indirect projection screens. Otherwise, one would have to catch the flu simply to understand the tale.
Videodrome's action begins, one might say, at the moment the flu breaks out of latency, as if voyeuristic participation in telematic media had reached critical mass, inducing a storm of temporal and spatial derangements. As in Neuromancer, the whole of society is at the Edge; there are no solid citizens, no traditional codes. Max's soft-porn cable station is called Civic TV (a howling oxymoron); Nikki Brand hosts the "Emotional Rescue Show," a popular on-air hotline for psychotic breakdowns; the homeless are welcomed in the Cathode Ray Mission to a glass of orange juice and a TV cubicle, ministrations to their deprivation of the life-giving cathode ray. Conditions are otherwise barely displaced from our own present. The warp becomes
noticeable when we learn that Brian O'blivion, who appears on talk shows to discuss the cognitive changes brought about by watching television, is in fact dead in body; his appearances are all on videotapes. The fact that no one notices this indicates that behavior has become so predictable and orderly within the social field determined by television that there is no significant difference between a live person and a recording.
Videodrome differs from the other texts I have been discussing in that it attributes the collapse of the future to a single technology. Instead of a more or less realistic picture of several technologies converging to coordinate a new, nonhuman rationality, Videodrome has television represent the whole of techno-evolution. Implicit in all tales of the retrofuturistic flu is the notion of an evolutionary mutation and crisis, in the course of which the species becomes something incomprehensibly, but subtly, different than it was. Because the mutations come from human-produced technologies, they are self-induced; but they are not consciously chosen, and so appear to happen from outside, from an autonomous technology or alien supertechnologues. Where the Strugatskys, Lem, and Gibson depict their protagonists going out to meet the source of the contamination -- to the zone, to Quinta, to Villa Straylight -- Cronenberg depicts the flu as a direct influence on the perceiving mind, undiffusable by social institutions or conventions once technology has pervaded the whole of existence. Television becomes, first, the mediator between personal cognition and externally produced images, and then the tool of their confusion.
Videodrome captures the essence of the containment of the future inherent in futuristic flu as no other cyberpunk work does. The whole is governed by a relentless drive to enclose, to prevent everything in its world from getting out. The Videodrome signal itself beams inward, of course, and the mysterious transformations occur either inside the characters' bodies (Brian O'blivion's tumor, Max's murderous VCR vent, Barry Convex's monstrous interior) or inside televisions. The "Videodrome" program itself never leaves the bare torture chamber, which, although it is originally said to be in Malaysia (a definitive exotic else where), proves to be in Pittsburgh, deep inside the center of American normality. And most encompassing is the containment of the viewer within the experience of Videodrome, given the premise that the TV Videodrome signal affects anyone who observes it.
The hallucinatory horror of observing the breakdown of the real, or rather the normal relation between the observer and the spectacle is not that things are enclosed in a larger, inscrutable, but recognizably hostile entity. It is that the Videodrome infection can effect an implosion of perception so complete that it is impossible to think in terms of rational dualities like containment and openness any longer. The signal affects the basic perception of object relations; with the logic of psychotic derangement, it substitutes perception instigated by affect for critical perception. Because the signal or the Videodrome tumor includes within it the breakdown of rational distinctions, Max's hallucinatory "warps" reveal no value hierarchy in the source of his emotions, and no human purpose. And like Max, the viewer is "warped" from one place to another, trying to understand the way things are at the very moment they are being changed by the presence of Max himself, the viewer's surrogate. The "good" behavior of the Video Church of the New Flesh is indistinguishable from the "bad" of Videodrome and Spectacular Optical. The world is no longer for the "old flesh."
In Landon's view, images have the advantage for postmodernism in general, and cyberpunk in particular, that they can carry much more information much more quickly than words. The speed of information transfer has no connection with the reflective judgment or wisdom of the perceiver. Indeed, following Jouvenel's observation that in a rapidly changing society, knowledge of the future is inversely proportional to the rate of progress (Cornish, 136-37), we can say that in personal cognition the ability to judge wisely is inversely proportional to the rate at which complex images are processed. Videodrome is remarkable for the way it embodies this problem entirely in imagery without naively reproducing it and creates a critical position without consciously articulating it. Videodrome is indisputably about the effects of violent pornography, but it embeds this problem into a larger one: the transformation of all meaning into pornography in a technological culture dominated by images of humans being dominated in order to create images. Narrative connections are not necessary for Max's role in the struggle between Videodrome and the Church of the New Flesh. The struggle has nothing to do with reason, or choice, or movement toward future human generations. In Videodrome, time -- time relevant for human beings -- stops now. Thus the flu, which began its gestation with the invention of technologies of image production, completes its mutagenic work when it transforms the human
world into a field of images with no future and no autonomous significance.
If the futuristic flu works by breaking down fundamental categorical differences, one difference it leaves untouched is that between male and female. The contaminating technological world of these tales is, after all, primarily a male world of hard high tech, high adventure, high profit, mental traveling, and sexual violence-all privileged arenas of masculinity. Women are completely absent from Lem's novel -- to the degree that the male scientist-adventurers have usurped some of their biological functions. The preferred technology for hibernation on long spaceflights entails lying in artificial wombs, submerged in artificial amnium, fed by artificial milk. In the Strugatskys' novel, the only important female character represents traditional nurturing, as if she were in another universe than that of the zone and the Visitors.
Neuromancer's and Videodrome's situations are more complex, but they are strikingly similar. In both works, women are used by the infiltrating powers to seduce the male protagonists into their projects: Linda Lee for Case, Nikki Brand for Max. In both, the seduction involves the murder of these women, their absorption, and the reproduction of their simulacra by the new mechanism. At the same time, in each text there are technical muses (Molly and Bianca O'blivion), women who help the male protagonists complete their jobs technically but who are ultimately in the service of a powerful invisible force whose human incarnation is male. (Brian O'blivion is not problematic in this regard; more interesting is the question of why Wintermute and Neuromancer both appear only in male masks.)
I'm not sure what this reveals. Perhaps that the literature of the retrofuturistic flu, of the collapse of the future on the present, represents deep anxieties of the postindustrial masculine imagination as it contemplates the extent to which the techno-evolution it has fostered has abandoned interest in the continuity of human culture, and perhaps even human existence, in the future.
Whether the futuristic flu will remain an attractive problem for writers remains to be seen. Plausibly, a feminist futurism -- in SF, in discursive writing on technology, and in a greatly increased work force of women scientists and readers-can act as an antidote. Works like Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue novels and the books of Octavia Butler may already be offering models for doing it. There are also signs that some of the most influential cyberpunk writers have turned away from this anxiety and are trying to reenvision a habitable human future by adopting something approaching a feminist perspective. Sterling's and Gibson's most recent novels are at least attempts to make women the central, value-carrying agents. Whether these and similar developments are signs of a lasting remission, only the future will reveal.
Ballard, J. G. Crash. New York: Vintage, 1985.
Bear, Greg. Blood Music. New York: Ace Books, 1985.
Cornish, Edward, with members of the World Future Society, eds. The Study of the Future. Washington, D.C.: World Future Society. No date.
Gibson, William. Count Zero. New York: Ace Books, 1986.
-----. Mona Lisa Overdrive. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1988. .
-----. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.
Hoban, Russell. Riddley Walker. New York: Washington Square Press, 1980.
Jameson, Fredric. "Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?" Science Fiction Studies 9 (1982).
Landon, Brooks. "Bet on It: Cyber/Video/Punk/Performance." Mississippi Review 47/ 48 16 (1988).
Lem, Stanislaw. Fiasco. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.
Sofia, Zoe. "Exterminating Fetuses: Abortion, Disarmament and the Sexo-Semiotics of Extraterrestrialism." Diacritics (Summer 1984).
Sterling, Bruce. Islands in the Net. New York: Ace Books, 1989.
Strugatsky, Boris, and Arkady Strugatsky. Noon: 22nd Century. New York: Collie Macmillan, 1978.
-----. Roadside Picnic. New York: Pocket Books, 1978.
-----. The Snail on the Slope. New York: Macmillan, 1980.
-----. The Ugly Swans. New York: Macmillan, 1979.
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