Posted January 23, 2014
From time to time, old folks like myself ask themselves, “whatever became of cyberpunk?” It was a strange…subgenre? Literary style? Lifestyle? Some awkward combination of all those things that grew from a collection of writers who, working independently of one another and often with wildly different approaches, tapped into a zeitgeist that could have only emerged in the 1980s. Thematically, cyberpunk was a mish-mash of topics: computer technology and hacking, the emergence of powerful multinational corporations, industrial espionage, shadow wars, nylon pants — pretty much a distillation of all the hopes, fears, potentials, and catastrophes of the 1980s. Writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and John Shirley gave cyberpunk its nebulous form, and among fans emerged a rarely agreed upon subculture whose primary concern, as is the case with most subcultures, was arguing about what was and was not cyberpunk.
By the middle of the 1990s, the term had been co-opted by marketers and the mainstream, many of the authors had moved on, and society had sort of caught up with and passed by the sorts of stories they had been telling. Potential became concrete; conjecture about the future was overtaken by the realities of the present. No subculture can survive Billy Idol making a concept album about it. Cyberpunk was forced to become a retrospective because too many people mistook its point, and the point of science fiction in general. Cyberpunk was not there to “predict the future.” It was not meant to have a scorecard applied to it, to be subjected to shallow analysis of “what it got right” versus “ha ha, William Gibson thought we’d still be using FAX machines.”
But for me, cyberpunk wasn’t about accurately predicting what technology and pant styles we would favor in the near future. It was about exploring how humans interact in an increasingly technological, increasingly global, and increasingly complex society — how they interact with that technology, how they interact with each other, and what sort of psychology might arise from these situations. And that aspect of cyberpunk needn’t have been relegated to the dustbin. It’s as relevant now as it was in the 1980s, and in fact if society has indeed “caught up with Neuromancer,” then such explorations become even more important. Yet, by and large, cyberpunk remains a dormant subgenre seemingly transformed from daring and speculative works of science fiction to Tom Clancy-esque techno-thrillers.
Every now and again, like I said, those of us who grew up with cyberpunk wonder if there might be something new, something that isn’t just a “hackers versus a shady conspiracy” adventure novel. Usually, the books that are suggested to me as examples of “new cyberpunk” don’t really fit what I want from the genre. Plenty of them were good, but few of them grappled with the same big ideas that made me fall in love with Gibson’s “Sprawl” and “Bridge” trilogies, or Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net (still my favorite of all the books to emerge from the cyberpunk movement, and one of my favorite books of all time).
And then I found David Louis Edelman’s “Jump 225″ trilogy.
Edelman’s three books — Infoquake, MultiReal, and Geosynchron — were exactly what I wanted from modern cyberpunk. They maintained a similar style (more Sterling than Gibson) to the works of the 1980s, and they explored many of the same questions about the intersections of humanity, technology, and government, but they weren’t nostalgic rehashes or “love letters to.” They understood that guessing the future was pointless and inconsequential, that they needed to be about now. The trilogy is very much a thematic and spiritual continuation of Islands in the Net, with renegade corporations, political revolution, and the unpredictable role of Third World countries. The story is set in the future, with futuristic technology, but it’s very much about the present.
In the world of Jump 225, human society has been destroyed and rebuilt. Most of the world is governed by corporate enclaves, and while there is technically a government, the real power lies with the corporations and a shadowy global police force. The frontier in technology revolves around human biochemistry — apps for your body, basically. To make you better at something, to correct some short-coming, to deal with stress, or any number of things. Most human interaction takes place in a hyper-realistic virtual world. An unscrupulous entrepreneur named Natch (the most accurate portrayal of a late 90s dotcom CEO I’ve ever read) and his small group of developers rocket to fame overnight with the release of a particularly good, but not great, app. Actually, mostly he does it by gaming the system that ranks new releases.
But it is enough to turn Natch’s company into a major player. Before too long, with the assistance of one of the most powerful technology clans on the planet, he and his scrappy crew of developers (all interesting, and believably, humanly flawed) have written an application that is so enormous, so important, and so threatening that rival companies and the suspicious military police want to either steal it or eliminate it. They’re not sure which, because no one knows exactly what this product — called MultiReal — is capable of. It could revolutionize human society, or destroy it. Possibly both. Through the three books, Natch and his programmers struggle to define, then build, then comprehend MultiReal. And then they must survive the consequences as their product throws the entire world into disarray.
Although we as readers eventually get a handle on what MultiReal is, Edelman is wise to keep it a little vague — less likely we will collapse into meaningless nitpicking about how he got storage mediums and processor speeds wrong, or whatever it is people pick on. Instead, The Jump 225 trilogy is a book about what happens to humans when much of their critical functions are performed on a network that turns out to be much less stable and much more vulnerable to a threat than anyone wants to admit. What sort of people emerge from a society governed primarily by businesses and subjected to the all-seeing eye of a nigh omnipotent surveillance state? This is not a tyrannical, dystopian 1984 nor the product of conquest; this is simply the society that evolved, with good and bad, and most people are happy to putter along in it obliviously until something starts to go horribly wrong.
Aside from the incredible feat of making software development seem thrilling, Edelman has pulled off the seemingly impossible task of being 1980s cyberpunk evolved for the new millennium. Tech specs come and go, but the questions about who we are and who we might become remain. In the past few years, we’ve seen the ascension of a truly above-the-law billionaire businessman class. We’ve seen the revelation of the NSA as an organization that attempts to spy on everyone, everywhere, and at all times without any regard for constitutionality or law. Beyond spying, we’ve seen the emergence of voluntary abandonment of privacy, as we all become 24/7 broadcasters of every aspect of life. We’ve seen the biggest security breaches of personal and financial data, exposing just how vulnerable the internet is to exploitation and attack. And we’ve seen uprisings and revolution and governments overthrown via Twitter and Instagram.
It seems to me that in such a world, the old cyberpunk books, and new ones like Edelman’s trilogy, aren’t relics, throwbacks, or ghosts drifting through the mist of nostalgia. Cyberpunk hasn’t been passed by. The questions it asked (OK, not the one about “dude, is Mondo 2000 cyberpunk or just poser cyberpunk?”) still need to be asked and debated and discussed. Jump 225 isn’t about the eye-rolling ennui of “won’t humans be lonely if they just talk online?” That’s been settled, and more important things need to be addressed. It doesn’t matter whether or not humans are ready for such a world. Ready or not, it’s already here. When cyberpunk was born, this world of globalism, business, technology, fear, and potential was just beginning to emerge from the tumult of the 60s and 70s. Now it’s here. We’re in the middle of it. When you live in a thoroughly cyberpunk society, cyberpunk seems more important than ever.
Keith Allison is the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.