Sunday, January 27, 2013

Review of "Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology" Edited by Bruce Sterling

There are a handful of people who have/had their finger on the pulse of cyberpunk.  Love him or hate him, Bruce Sterling has perhaps two.  In 1986 he decided to pull together a collection of stories he felt were representative of the sub-genre.  Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology the result, it is both broad in scope yet delimits the idea of what cyberpunk, or at least can be.  Sterling’s agenda his own, some stories will be immediately recognizable for their mood and voice, while others will require more thought toward determining just how they fit into the sub-genre, if at all.  The following is a brief introduction to each.
"The Gernsback Continuum" by William Gibson – A connoisseur’s piece, this story requires an understanding of the evolution of science fiction to fully appreciate.  Commentary on modernism’s influence, this is Gibson’s first published work.  It is also perhaps his most overtly ideological work, the result an iconoclast opening salvo.

"Snake-Eyes" by Tom Maddox - George Jordan, a soldier who has been cybernetically altered to fight a war that never happened, is now looking for employment.  Where he finds it may take advantage of George’s alterations in ways he never wanted. 

"Rock On" by Pat Cadigan – A semi-paean to classic rock, it’s the future and junkies live out rock fantasies by jacking in to the memories of the elderly who were around when classic rock was popular.

"Tales of Houdini" by Rudy Rucker – An escape artist calling himself Houdini is followed by a television crew for one escape act after another.  Sterling targeting the story's register and pace rather than tropes and mood, the story will not fit everyone's idea of what cyberpunk is.

"400 Boys" by Marc Laidlaw – Government and social infrastructure have collapsed and a city is at war.  Inner city gangs battle metal giants as the city crumbles around them.  More an art piece envisioning a blackened, war torn city of the future, filling this story in original fashion are a potpourri of weapon details, fashion statements, and techy neologisms.

"Solstice" by James Patrick Kelly – World famous drug artist Tony Cage is having trouble dealing with the growing up of his daughter/clone, Wynne, while searching for the most sublime effects of psychoactive chemicals possible.  A well structured story, vignettes from Tony’s life are interspersed with chronological windows into Stonehenge’s history, most particularly modern man’s contact with the mysterious ring of stones.   A well-developed story, this is one of the longer in the collection and examines the effects of drugs on the individual, and as a result, society in a way Gibson never did.

"Petra" by Greg Bear – A gargoyle comes to life in a cathedral, and his resulting life in the rafters is strange and eerie.  The symbolism obvious, Bear examines the death of God and its effect on society.  Not cyberpunk from the most stereotypical of approaches, Sterling is using the ideological aspect of the story, i.e. its fantasy examination of scientific and theological elements, to highlight the cyberpunk agenda

"Till Human Voices Wake Us" by Lewis Shiner – A man diving with his wife catches a strange visage out of the corner of his eye and snaps a quick picture.  The visage returning in his day to day life, developing the photo may be the only way to answer the resulting questions.  Wonderful mood...

"Freezone" by John Shirley  While other stories in this collection may not strictly fit the parameters of the subgenre, there can be no doubt of Shirley’s contribution being cyberpunk.  The story set in 2017 on a post-war fictional island called Freezone off the coast of Morrocco, an ageing rocker tries to find purpose in life. Egos tripping over one another, he and his band play one last gig, hoping to revive the rock n roll spirit they once lived for.  But its in the aftermath of the concert where the story finds its meaning.  A delicious vignette, Shirley’s imaginative powers are in full bloom in this novella.   The futuristic drugs, the fashion, rock scene, the evolution of the music all have a plausibility that emphasizes the effort’s integrity.  This is the cyberpunk most imagine the sub-genre to be.

"Stone Lives" by Paul Di Filippo – A poor, blind man living at the bottom of society has the opportunity of a lifetime.  Major surgery necessary, the resulting assignment places him in a position he never dreamed.  Greg Egan would later borrow a major premise from this story (intentionally or not) for his novel Distress, making it a quality selection.

"Red Star, Winter Orbit" by Bruce Sterling, William Gibson - This story of the cycles of societal and technological power that Russia and the USA have had, have, and most importantly, perhaps will have is another which must be examined for elements other than imagery or mood if the cyberpunk elements are to be discovered.  Purely ideological, this is amazingly one of the more simplistic and overt stories of the collection given the names authoring it.

“Mozart in Mirrorshades" by Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner – Technically time travel, Mozart, Thomas Edison, Marie Antoinette, and Thomas Jefferson appear on the scene as necessary to front Sterling and Shiner’s social commentary.  A one-off with pure roots of rebellion--surely how Sterling wanted to cap the collection by putting the 'punk' in 'cyberpunk'. 

In the end, Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology is not a treasury of cyberpunk stories.  It is an oriented collection which defines Bruce Sterling’s vision as to what the sub-genre is within the sci-fi field, but also what it may be to society as an art form.  Each story, whether wholly or in part, present a tenet, theme, or form of artistic expression he sees as identifying the sub-genre, including its liberal, borderline-anarchic political leanings, its moods, its details, etc.  From counter-culture to individual isolation, post-humanism to outright sex, drugs, and rock and roll, a little bit of something can be found even if not all of the stories fit the stereotypical cyberpunk image.  Along with a multi-page introduction by the editor, each story is preceded by a brief biographical synopsis of the writer, what they’ve published, and an insightful note into their particular style or take on cyberpunk.  Though some may not seem suit the collection, each story is of high quality and was obviously selected with care, making it one of the best available anthologies on cyberpunk.


  1. I guess my subjective notion of "cyberpunk" didn't match the objective one of Sterling. I felt the collection was loosely tied together by, perhaps, mere fancy on Sterling's part... time travel, goth, space, computers, etc. This summarizes my opinion.

  2. Believe it or not, I referenced your review as I was reading the stories. And as you see, I generally agree. Yes, not every one is what most consider cyberpunk, leaving me to believe Sterling obviously had his own agenda. If you haven't already, watch a few interviews or presentations on youtube. The man's a unique individual, to say the least, so it doesn't surprise me that Greg Bear or Rudy Rucker's tales made the collection. Given the intro is heavy on the artistic side, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that something lurks in those stories related to cyberpunk even if it is not readily obvious.