Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, April 8, 2012

1986: Mirrorshades- The Cyberpunk Anthology (Sterling, Bruce)

1980s stories with diverse themes and tangents (3/5)

Call is noir, call is new wave... this is Cyberpunk because that's what it says on the cover! I guess I have some misconceptions about what cyberpunk exactly entails... my first thoughts are of Johnny Mnemonic, but with the cornucopia of stories found in this anthology, themes of time travel and gothic cathedrals can sit side-to-side with drugs, rock and roll, and computerization. If you have the same misconceptions as I have regarding Cyberpunk, then you'll be in for a disappointment.

The Gernsback Continuum (1981) by William Gibson - 4/5 - An architectural photographer is hired to snap pictures of derelict Californian gas station. On his trip to the west, he experiences time-era specific hallucinations on mono-winged luxury planes, metallic shark-finned cars, and sterilely-clad perfect American couples. (11 pages) ----- The dawn of the age of science fiction (alá early sci-fi publisher Hugo Gernsback) was more than a birthing of a new genre of fiction, but also an American affection for the future. The result of the futuristic projections onto everyday objects was the production of a series a sterile-looking and backward-functioning contraptions; hence the 1980s era exhibiting none of these technophilia creations. Fast-forward 30 years from the date of this stories publication through the sci-fi era of Cyberpunk and witness the growth of society's affection for digital technology. Can the two eras' scientific visionary be comparable? When the human-machine interface becomes a reality, we'll know if Cyberpunk technology was careless or crafty.

Snake-Eyes (1986) by Tom Maddox - 4/5 - George was trained as a cerebrally wired jet fighter for the war in Thailand, but has been pulled out at the last minute. His metallic connections through his human brain pierce the underlayers of his mammalian brain and reptilian brain. When the reptilian brain is in charge, his hunger for food becomes untamed. Seeking a solution for a symbiosis with the machinery within him, George travels to an orbital which is home to Aleph, a multi-sensory artificial intelligence, which aims to subsume the human sensory suite. (22 pages) ----- The Cyberpunk obsession with being "wired in" is, at times, repetitively annoying. The characters that are wired in tend to simply interface with a computer while exchanging data at the peril of other hackers on the loose. But this sort of external danger isn't as perilous as the internal dangers Maddox writes about. The over-riding theme of Snake-Eyes is our lack of ability to control the evolutionary parts of our brain and how these same parts can be hijacked by an influencing force. The intrusive nature of the attack is commonplace in Cyberpunk, but the internal influence to this intrusiveness is what sets it apart from much of the sub-genre.

Rock On (1984) by Pat Cadigan - 2/5 - Gina is a runaway "sinner" for the big time rock band Man-O-War. When the small time Misbegottens get a hold of Gina, they plug her in to experience the organizational rock she synthesizes. At the ripe age of forty, Gina wants out of the synthesizing altogether. (8 pages) ----- What's supposed to have a punk feel to it, Rock On comes off feeling more like grunge, which sprung to regional fame a few years later. I don't see rock or punk music as an attribute to Cyberpunk, but when listeners socket into the music which is produced from a human synthesizer who sockets in to produce the music, then both sides of music production takes on the distinctive Cyberpunk feel. Music aside, the story also has a very loose writing style to it, sort of like grunge fashion--slapped together and baggy. Where most Cyberpunk offers an awing element to the digital divide, Pat Cadigan misses the point of highlighting and expounding upon humanity's place in the digitization of their culture and their being--too short for its own good.

Tales of Houdini (1983) by Rudy Rucker - 2/5 - Houdini is kidnapped by a rabbi, a priest, and a judge before being put to an escapist attempt by falling from a plane while being wrapped in Ace bandages. Of course he lives... to only be kidnapped again, and again. True to Houdini form, he escapes and worries his mother. (7 pages) ----- Not sure how this is Cyberpunk at all, but I guess the looseness of Cadigan's writing style can be stretched to encompass the looseness of Rucker's short story theme. Rucker, too, is guilty of shooting from the hip with his grungy writing--snippy, odd, and wandering. Bruce Sterling described this story as "brief but perfectly constructed fantasy" and yes, it is brief... thankfully.

400 Boys (1983) by Marc Laidlaw - 1/5 - Hidden in a basement, a group of boys are sheltered from the rampage of destruction the giants are throwing in the bloc above. Once free of their reign of terror, the group seeks other groups in the city to challenge the tyranny of the four hundred giant boys. (16 pages) ----- Taking the term "noir" to the next level, how exactly this is cyberpunk is beyond me. If Cyberpunk acts an umbrella title for weird fiction, then this would fit perfectly, I guess. The gritty city full of gritty groups composed of gritty boys, so while the dark element of cyberpunk is there, the whole "cyber" part of the story is as absent as it was in Rucker's previous story. I've always hated the term "noir" as it's simply a stick that you can wave at any story and, presto!, you have yourself an artistic sub-genre of fiction.

Solstice (1985) by James Patrick Kelly - 3/5 - Tony Cage designs psychotropic and other radical drugs for the international consumer market. After spending a few years in cryogenic suspension, he reunites with his adult female clone self to experience the summer solstice at Stonehenge along her his clone's boyfriend. Cage has plans to expose the boyfriend's ill-intended attention upon his clone by sharing some of his new drug with them, Share. (39 pages) ----- Introducing a gothic theme in parallel with psychopharmacology, Sterling keeps introducing new themes from each story under that wonderfully broad 1980s umbrella theme of Cyberpunk. Somnolent, hallucinogenic, stimulant, or analgesic additives to Cage's cornucopia of specific state drugs adds contrasting or heightening effects to each of his drugs, which have a scientific basis for altering reality, something which the cyberpunk genre is interested in through virtual reality, but not so much drug-induced reality.

Petra (1982) by Greg Bear - 3/5 - The flesh and stone son of a cathedral statue and a nun considers himself to be a historian. The flesh children below are school by the self-proclaimed bishop while the flesh and stone hybrids are given the sanctioned off rafters above. Nimble enough to navigate the numerous crevices and tunnels, the boy knows the cathedral better than most, and is the only one to have met the bridge playing Stone Christ is the basement. (20 pages) ----- Continuing with the obvious gothic theme, Sterling includes Greg Bear into this anthology for posterity, as he was one of the better science fiction writers during the 1980s and this was, oddly, one of his more esoteric and fantasy-like short stories. No computers and no drugs, this story is about life within a cathedral after the night when statues started to come alive... how this is Cyberpunk, I haven't a clue.

Till Human Voices Wake Us (1984) by Lewis Shiner - 3/5 - Campbell is diving with his wife of 18 years near an isolated island owned by a global company. He witnesses what he thinks is a mermaid, snaps a photo, but doesn't mention it to anyone. Later that night, he sees a woman who looks remarkably like the mermaid. When he sends his film for processing, he wonders if the biologist woman has ties to the creature under the sea. (14 pages) ----- A slow, minor mystery with a slight fantasy element turns into a not-so-surprising conclusion with a biology twist... just enough to render it Cyberpunk in the undiscerning eyes of Sterling. This is much more of a mainstream story unbridled to any sub-genre, let alone a break through 1980s sub-genre such as Cyberpunk. Decent, but of minor interest.

Freezone (1985) by John Shirley - 4/5 - Rickenharp's band plays rock music... real, honest to god rock music. It's not a trendy and it's not generally liked, but on the night the band decides to call it quits they also play their last gig... and it rocks. Rickenharp sits on the cusp of idleness and greatness as he spies a luscious chick with a "blue mesc" line. Yearning for the flesh attached to the line, Rickenharp befriends her two male companions who are eager to escape the pursuit of unnamed enemies. (39 pages) ----- THIS is the cyberpunk I was looking for! Combining the flavors of rock music, drug-infused adventure lust, and exotically dressed denizens aboard a floating platform off the coast of Morocco, the infusion is lush but a tad too long. With a collection where stories average 18 pages each, this lengthier 39-paged story feels drawn out, regardless of its perfect composition of cyberpunk elements.

Stone Lives (1985) by Paul Di Filippo - 5/5 - Stone lives in abject poverty in the Bronx Jungle (the Bungle) without sight, after having his eyes ripped from their sockets by organ thieves. He's succumbed to a life of misery and destitution, but a chance encounter with Immigration has his world spun around when he is offered a Rating-1 assignment rather than the lowly Rating-10 assignment which his fellow slum dwellers despondently accept. The promise of a new set of digital eyes with varied capabilities enthuses Stone, who is assigned the task of recording life in situ. (24 pages) ----- Sloughing off the cyberpunk association with gothic and rock themes, Sterling delivers the reader a beauty of a story through the enhanced eyes of a poverty dweller--combining the themes of gritty urban life with biomechanical improvement. Where most cyberpunk stories peripherally include these themes, the author has tightly woven these two threads into a story which not only captures the essence of Cyberpunk, but also sculpts a humanistic character within the confines of a society bent on disassociation and inequality.

Red Star, White Orbit (1983) by Bruce Sterling & William Gibson - 4/5 - Colonel Korolev is the famed Soviet cosmonaut who first walked on Mars but is now aging in the micro-gravity of Soviet orbital; his bones decalcified and his superficial injuries from a blowout layer his skin. His legacy to the space program lines his own walls and his life, as he knows it, is within the orbital. When rumor of the orbital's decommission spring forth, Korolev leads a small resistance against the military's plans. (21 pages) ----- A story which should be a supernova of cyberpunk considered its two authors, but it's actually a simple tale of decommission in space, space weapons, and solar power technology. The additional element of American atmospheric solar balloons is greatly left without detail, something which definitely should have been a major focus.

Mozart in Mirrorshades (1985) by Bruce Sterling & Lewis Shiner - 3/5 - A portal to the 18th century of a parallel earth is established so petrochemicals and works of art can be sent forward in time. Some of the historical citizens, like Mozart and Marie Antoinette, are happy with the newly fangled contraptions, ideas, music, and food of the 20th century, but others, like Thomas Jefferson, are distrust the futurists' meddling in their affairs. (17 pages) ----- I guess if a silly story like Tales of Houdini can be included in a cyberpunk anthology, then why not a time travel story? With time traveling as its only link to the science fiction genre, Mozart in Mirrorshades focuses on how the meddlesome time travelers change the lifestyle of the people residing in the 18th century. It's quirky to see how the characters shrug off their noble ways for the freedoms found in Turkish hash, rock and roll music, mopeds, radios, and color television.