Friday, April 25, 2014

Review of Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology ed. by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

Bruce Sterling’s 1986 Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology was an anthology explicitly quantifying the science fiction movement, as much as William Gibson’s Neuromancer made its existence implicitly clear.  A portfolio of sorts, Sterling approached cyberpunk as one does an art movement, couching its emergence more in artistic than literary terms.  An intentionally varied mix (not all of its stories fit the stereotype of a net-running, noir sub-culture), some spoke to ideological import, while others stylistics or attitude.  Fast forward to 2007.  Editors John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, looking to take stock of cyberpunk in the twenty intervening years since Sterling’s anthology, perused the field and collected stories they felt remained representative.  Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology is the result.

The surface: where Mirrorshades contained twelve stories, Rewired expands itself, incorporating sixteen in all (only four of the original authors make repeat appearances).  Appearing between 1996 and 2006, the stories are organized in order of publishing date.  Copying its predecessor’s format, Kessel and Kelly likewise introduce each story with notes aiming at locating the author/story within the field, as well as identifying which elements uphold the sub-genre’s tenets.  Rewired increases gender representation.  Where only one story in Mirrorshades was written by a woman, there are four in Rewired.  But, the most interesting item is the inclusion of correspondence between Kessel and Sterling circa the mid-80s.  Appearing at the end of each story, excerpts from the two’s letters (yes, letters!) discuss the future of cyberpunk while questioning the qualities of its existence.  Neither knowing their words would someday be included in an anthology, the candid thoughts prove informative.

So where indeed had the sub-genre evolved to in 2007?  Did it continue to adhere to the creed laid down in Sterling’s manifesto?  Did it still explore sub-cultures and underground ideas from a technological and personal perspective?  Did the subversive ‘punk’ in ‘cyberpunk’ still apply ideologically?  Given the manner in which sci-fi has evolved, it’s difficult to answer these questions in a simple fashion—and I certainly won’t attempt it in this review.  Thus it’s to the stories selected for Rewired one must look.

The anthology opens on a suitable (honorary?) note: Bruce Sterling’s “BicycleRepairman”.  K & K believing it to be a story which continues to foster cyberpunk’s principles and policies, it is indeed a representative sample most would cite as core/classic.  About an average guy living in a run down block in Tennessee chipping out a living as a repairman because he doesn’t want to work for a big bike conglomerate, he gets into a bit of trouble when an old piece of cpu hardware comes his way.  Later Sterling stories (like “The Lustration”) significantly more obtuse and hazy in the context of cyberpunk, this novelette is a straight-forward read.  “Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland” by Gwyneth Jones uses the tropes of fantasy (Conan and The Worm Ouroboros) to tell a story about a woman trying to deal with life and herself through therapy in virtual reality—the story’s ending containing Jones’ commentary on the environment.  “How We Got In Town and Out Again” by Jonathan Lethem is a story which plays off the traveling carnival motif.  When a boy and his companion are lured in with promises of food and shelter, they agree to participate in virtual reality games.  The contestants’ experiences displayed on monitors for the audience’s pleasure, the boy learns some important lessons in life.

“Yeyuka” by Greg Egan is a look at the disease problems of Africa with the possibility of medical relief hanging on the wings.  No entrance exam of mathematics or physics needed to enjoy, this is one of Egan’s more direct tales, its humanism benefiting.  “The Final Remake of The Return of Little Latin Larry, with a Completely Remastered Soundtrack and the Original Audience” by Pat Cadigan is wholly within the author’s niche: cyberpunk nostalgia for classic rock.  Like “Rock On” from Mirrorshades, this story deals with virtual experiences recreated from memories, and provides the most direct link to Sterling’s anthology. “Search Engine” by Mary Rosenblum is likewise a conventional cyberpunk story in its detective noir leanings via technology’s imposition on autonomy.  It makes data scary, Orwellian scary.

When the reader arrives at William Gibson’s “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City”, the stereotypes of cyberpunk starts to crumble, or least turn inward: the Sprawl has evolved.  Structured like a photography exhibit, Gibson puts his detailed-oriented style to work expositing scenes from a Japanese subway station, the humanity emerging between the lines.  Like shards of a mirror lying on the floor, the virtual copies of Ann and Benjamin prove anything but a coherent whole in David Marusek’s The Wedding Album.  Natural successor to Greg Egan’s Permutation City, memory and personality go to chaos in virtual reality.  “Daddy's World” by Walter Jon Williams is a “charming” little story about a boy who is raised in a virtual playground, but when told the reality of his situation, takes on a whole new mindset.  If Marusek’s story smudged the line, Michael Swanwick’s first Darger and Surplus story “The Dog Said Bow-Wow” abandons reality.  Fully absurd, it nearly ends up in comedic territory as a dog and his servant attempt to foist a ruse on the Queen of England.  “The Voluntary State” by Christopher Rowe is likewise a story that exceeds reality to numerous degrees.  The story of a Totalitarian Tennessee being infiltrated by Kentuckian rebels, the symbolism and imagery is anything but mimetic.  Anthropomorphic cars, singing flowers, massive bear balloons, etc., etc., everything about the Crows kidnapping Soma to take down Tennessee is surreal Zamyatin.

With Charles Stross’ “Lobsters”, however, the anthology returns to semi-familiar territory: near-future dystopia, yet not distinctly of the noir variety.  Stross’ story a radical idea embedded (thankfully) in some of the most realistic speculation on business and daily life in the future, the premise can be ignored in favor of savoring the imagination conjured for this mini tour de force.  (Stross truly is like sci-fi cocaine: a jolt to the brain that leaves you reeling.) “What's Up, Tiger Lily?” by Paul Di Filippo is a semi-sardonic look at a scenario wherein computers have been rendered paper thin, and the personal problems which result for the inventor.  More contained but no less inventive than Stross, I’m still curious whether Di Filippo’s story can be superimposed over either Allen’s eponymous film or the Japanese original.  “Two Dreams on Trains” by Elizabeth Bear is not what the reader expects based on the title.  A brief look at the underprivileged in a rain drenched, space flight New Orleans, it uses the palette of noir but achieves something more. Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Calorie Man” is set in an America people recognize, but one wherein GMOs, corporate rights, and currency have new values and denominators.  A first look at the concepts that would underpin The Windup Girl, on the surface this is the rescue story of a geneticist but goes deeper from a agricultural and environmental point of view.  And lastly is “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” by Cory Doctorow.  An empty story that attempts to highlight the internet and terrorism, the result is ‘emotions’ bandied about in immature fashion, housed in a conventional tale.  Felix, a system administrator, is called in late one night to fix a server.  What he discovers is a James Bond style world takeover scheme that fails to approach plausibility—precisely like the emotional content.  Not a positive note on which to close the anthology save the joy of a nerd's dream.

In the end, Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology is a welcome look at what effect Sterling’s declaration in Mirrorshades had on the field twenty years later.  Where Mirrorshades contained a scattering of stories stuffed in a can and the cap slammed shut to prevent any of the material from being construed otherwise, Rewired presents stories which radiate from that conception, in particular authors which have taken the core concepts and motifs and embedded or spun them into creations of their own.  Thus, most of the stories exhibit characteristics most readers consider relative to cyberpunk, making Kessel and Kelly’s effort more of a survey of the state of the sub-genre and less of an artistic statement.  While I personally enjoyed the manner in which Sterling included ideological stories (i.e. those not ostensibly cyberpunk), there were the detractors.  With its adherence to so-called core concepts and motifs, it is these people who will perhaps enjoy Rewired most.  Almost all the stories of good quality, it’s also possible any fan of science fiction can pick up the collection and enjoy it.  I am left wondering about the state of cyberpunk in 2027…

The following is the anthology’s contents:

“Hacking Cyberpunk” (essay by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly)
“Kessel-Sterling Correspondence” (essay by John Kessel and Bruce Sterling)
“Bicycle Repairman” by Bruce Sterling
“Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland” by Gwyneth Jones
“How We Got In Town and Out Again” by Jonathan Lethem
“Yeyuka” by Greg Egan
“The Final Remake of The Return of Little Latin Larry, with a Completely Remastered Soundtrack and the Original Audience” by Pat Cadigan
“Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City” by William Gibson
The Wedding Album by David Marusek
“Daddy's World” by Walter Jon Williams
“The Dog Said Bow-Wow” by Michael Swanwick
“Lobsters” by Charles Stross
“What's Up, Tiger Lily?” by Paul Di Filippo
“The Voluntary State” by Christopher Rowe
“Two Dreams on Trains” by Elizabeth Bear
“The Calorie Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi
“Search Engine” by Mary Rosenblum
“When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” by Cory Doctorow

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