The cyberpunk movement that erupted in the 1980s is now long gone. In its place can be found only bland echoes of its visionary origins – predictable near-future dystopias devoid of any inventiveness or insight, and something else, stranger In many ways: a desire for these collisions between technology and body, computer and mind. This titillating fixation on the cybernetic moment, or union with the machine, deserves the label cyberfetish, a term which I intend to be derogatory as a profound betrayal of the ideals of the original cyberpunks.
Five authors stand out as the centre of what was at first simply called ‘the Movement’, and later ‘the Mirrorshades Group’. William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, and Bruce Sterling did not coin the term ‘cyberpunk’, like most artists their label was foist upon them by critics. But it stuck firmly, it had an irresistible appeal, and it seemed to link this movement with its predecessor, the New Wave of the sixties and seventies – John Brunner, Michael Moorcock and (perhaps more than anyone) J.G. Ballard were icons in this movement who went on to influence the nascent cyberpunks even more than the traditional science fiction writers.
Although William Gibson is the cyberpunk author most associated with the movement, Bruce Sterling did the most to try and rescue it from being perceived as mere dystopianism. His edited collection, Mirrorshades: the Cyberpunk Anthology, remains a definitive tribute to the first wave of cyberpunk authors, and its preface is the most illuminating presentation of what the movement was about. Sterling notes the importance of the rapid acceleration of technology to its ethos. Gone is the comfortable distance between an imaginary Science and a somewhat distant society that populated the pages of Amazing Stories, rather there is almost a trace of the monstrous products of technology foreshadowed by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – but no longer set aside in isolated laboratories.
Technology has collided with life and can no longer be prised apart. As Sterling puts it:
... the gap is crumbling in unexpected fashion. Technical culture has gotten out of hand. The advances of the sciences are so deeply radical, so disturbing, upsetting, and revolutionary, that they can no longer be contained. They are surging into culture at large; they are invasive; they are everywhere. The traditional power structure, the traditional institutions, have lost control of the pace of change.
Thus the origin of the movement’s name – high tech (cyber) fusing with counter-culture (punk). Sterling comments that for he and the other original cyberpunks “technology is visceral... it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.” The prevailing themes of those original cyberpunk stories found a horror and a fascination in this collision, epitomised in George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails, whose protagonist has great anxiety about the vast array of ‘add-ons’ and ‘moddies’ that everyone else is using to get wired. The ethical stance of cyberpunk was not in unequivocal support of this blind fusion between humanity and machine. Gibson lamented on occasion his fans inability to spot the irony that animated Neuromancer and its sequels – their fervent desire to be part of the fallen future he depicted was distinctly distasteful to him.
As it transpired, the original vision of resistance to institutional power against a backdrop of technological future shock quickly gave way in the fanbase to a fetishist fantasy about body modification, a desire for cybernetic limbs and mental union with the computer, epitomised by the nonreligion of The Singularity, whose future visions are so hilariously reminiscent of the eschatology of traditional religious mythology that their signature event was quickly dubbed ‘the Rapture of the Nerds’. Cyberpunk thus eroded down to mere cyberfetish. Gone was the grassroots rebellion, now substituted by fanciful dreams of trading flesh for tech – a reverie intimately connected with the vacuous hope of techno-immortality, the contemporary opiate that seeks to quell the fear of death in younger mythology. There is no ethical side to these phantasmagorical distortions of cyberpunk – this is simply a reflection of the base egoism that Gibson and Michael Swanwick had exposed in their short story Dogfight.
Cyberfetish is brazenly absurd in its longings, and a profound betrayal of cyberpunk’s roots. It is also deeply ridiculous in its iconic manifestations. Why desire cybereyes when your phone is forever at hand to snapshot your life and distribute it online to your friends? We are all trivially cybernetic now but more than this, as Donna Haraway shrewdly observed in 1985 (at the height of the cyberpunk movement) we were always already cyborgs. The distinctions we make between our bodies and our machines are contrived; our prostheses are as much a part of our lives now as they ever were, although their nature has changed and their diversity has skyrocketed. The surgical implantation of an artificial hip doesn't make your granny more cyborg than you – the bird was a cyborg the moment it built its first nest, the beaver’s dam profoundly reconfigured the world millennia before we began to fear our capacity to do so.
The cybernetic moment is not union with the machine, but its usage. Cyborg existence began with tools, long before humanity. Cyberfetish wants to narrow the gap between human and machine, flesh and metal, but this change is all but meaningless when measured against those original cybernetic moments, when animals began to explore the boundless realms of tools and technology. We have, without a doubt, accelerated the process immeasurably within the last century – and it was this that the cyberpunks alternately warned us about, or hoped we could use to change the world before it could change us. Cyberfetish abandons this dream, preferring instead to surrender. I had always hoped cyberpunk might serve as a timely warning, instead it has devolved into a fatalistic fixation with nothing to offer but escapism. Truly, cyberpunk is dead. Long live... well, that perhaps is the remaining question.
The opening image is from H.R. Giger’s The Trumpets of Jericho. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.