The Matrix: Tomorrow May Be Different
By David Brin, Ph.D.
Cyberpunk: Just Another Rebellion
Back in the 1980s, the field of science fiction was all afroth over a movement that proclaimed itself as cyberpunk. Reviewers both inside and far outside the genre went into paroxysms over this new movement, crediting it with everything from 'gritty, sharp-edged realism,' to 'high-gloss textures,' to inventing the trope of an angry tomorrow, symbolized by the angry young man of the streets.
Setting aside egregious exaggerations and heaps of heavy-breathing hype, this literary movement surely made the field more interesting for a while. Haughty literary mavens, who normally snub sci-fi condescended to discover these daring writers of dark, heroic, slashing prose, including William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, a tale filled with stark, vivid imagery about a future dominated by oppressive corporate structures. A future in which control over access to information outweighed the importance of political or military power.
It was a heady time, even for those of us who were shunted, willy-nilly, into the category of 'the opposition.' I was happy to grant interviews to reporters from national magazines, seeking quotes from critics of the cyberpunk movement. Whatever. I dutifully played my part, double-teaming the establishment. Hey, free publicity is fine!
In retrospect, the Cyberpunk Movement was probably the finest free promotion campaign ever waged on behalf of science fiction. Brilliantly managed, and backed by some works of estimable value, it snared and reeled in countless new readers, while opening fresh opportunities in Hollywood and the visual arts. True, the self-important rhetoric and whines of persecution sounded ironic -- at times even hilarious. However, the CP rebels did shake things up. We owe them a debt.
Ah, but were they original?
Name any point of interest in the history of Western culture, and you'll likely see a similar pattern. In retrospect, the trial of Socrates was all about a "punk" of sorts, with a reputation for extravagant behavior, satirizing standard values, and spewing unconventional new metaphors. The young writers of the Enlightenment, back in the eighteenth century, saw themselves toppling a stagnant order, using the fresh light of scientific reason to dispel superstition. Indeed, the followers of Locke and Jefferson rattled the world.
When these men grew older, and mighty in success, along came the romantics -- typified by Shelley, Byron and others, young men who derided Reason as an oppressive cudgel wielded by fogeys and old farts. Science was portrayed as a chain that aimed to shackle the vaulting ambitions of the human soul. Indeed, science fiction was born amid this tussle, with Mary Shelley's seminal Frankenstein, emerging literally in the middle of the Romantic movement, containing within it SF's perpetual answer to romanticism -- that progress will happen and the only way to deal with it will be wisdom.
The Romantic movement was more, of course, than simply cultural recidivism -- more than a grandson allying himself with his grandfather in common hatred of papa. Predictability would take all the fun out of being a rebel! Still, there is a certain inevitability about these cycles. There will never be a shortage of young men and women, eager to announce new revelations. No matter how fine the accomplishments of their parents, bright newcomers will always be ready to proclaim themselves prophets of a new age.
[image from wikipedia.org]
All the more so for the loose confederacy of genres known as Speculative Fiction! After all, SF is the literature of change -- in the human condition and in the universe as a whole. By its nature, it must encourage fresh ideas or perish. So SF had the "New Wave" authors of the sixties -- Ellison, Zelazny, Silverberg -- who decried the prior emphasis on gadgetry and plot, proclaiming the discovery of something called style. Language became their palliate. Their colors would be passion, stirred in the reader's soul.
Naturally, the Old Farts thought a lot of this was straight bull. They had spent half a lifetime ardently fighting for the freedom to speculate about mankind's relationship with technology and space and time -- and now these young whippersnappers were just taking that freedom for granted. Worse, they were strutting about as if they were the true innovators!
Indeed, the best New Wave writers were wonderfully inventive, contributing something vital to our genre, just when it was needed most. They raised new issues, posed new quandaries, precisely because those prior battles had been won. The best of the old guard did not grouse when the newcomers came by, flaunting new, gaudy plumage. Rather, they smiled, remembering what it was to be young. And they said, "Come on over here, son. Sit down and tell me all about it."
To continue reading, please see THROUGH STRANGER EYES, a collection of my book reviews, introductions and essays on popular culture, which was released in the Western Hemisphere by Nimble Books and in the Eastern Hemisphere by Altair (Australia). Included are those infamous articles about Tolkien and Star Wars, sober reflections on Jared Diamond's Collapse, and Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows, scientific ponderings on Feynman and Gott, appraisals of Brunner, Resnick, Zelazny, Verne, and Orwell... all the way to fun riffs on the Matrix and Buffy!