Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Remembering the Future: Cyberpunk

I'm exceedingly pleased to report that a high school in Florida now uses Cyberpunk as required reading. Hence this post.

Dear Mr. Rhodes,

Thank you for forwarding your students' comments and questions regarding my novel, Cyberpunk. I'm glad to hear that they enjoyed reading it. To be perfectly honest, when I wrote that book, more than twenty years ago, I never for one minute imagined that people might still be reading it or finding it interesting or relevant more than two decades later.

That's one of the strange little secrets of science fiction. While we sci-fi writers routinely set our stories in the future, no writer I know — at least, no sane writer — seriously believes that he or she can predict the future. We're entertainers, not prophets, and the whole point of beginning a story with "Once upon a time," "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," or "Sometime in the early 23rd Century," is to insert aesthetic distance. We set our stories in strange times and places, not because we're trying to foresee the actual events that will occur in those times or places, but because we're either, a.) playing the "what if" game, or more likely, b.) using that distance to hold a warped funhouse mirror up to contemporary reality, so that we can tell our readers a story that works better if it's not set in the readily recognizable here and now.

Any time a sci-fi writer makes a semi-informed guess about the future, then, and actually gets something right and creates a story that does not look downright silly twenty years later — well, yes, it's cause for celebration, but it's also more likely to be the result of luck than of brilliance.

As a case in point: back in February of 1980, when I wrote the first rough draft of the original "Cyberpunk" short story, I was mostly interested in using the "what if" methodology to explore one question. To wit: given that children learn new languages more easily than do adults, given that this ability is not restricted to "organic" languages, and given that mastery of a new technology is often synonymous with power, what might happen when the parents and other adult authority figures of the early 21st Century come into conflict with the first generation of children who have grown up truly "speaking" computer?

This, in one very tiny nutshell, is the core idea behind this story. Everything else that you see here is merely a matter of working out the permutations on this idea, or else it's set-dressing, whose primary purpose is simply to establish that this story takes place in the future, but not the distant future.

The danger of writing fiction set in the not-too-distant future, of course, is that reality ineveitably catches up with your story. Ergo, given that Cyberpunk is my vision of life in the early 21st Century as seen from the vantage point of 1980, and given that we are now living in the early 21st Century, a new and (to me) completely unanticipated question arises: how does my vision from 1980 stack up against the reality of 2007?

Well, first off, as many people have pointed out, I completely missed the wireless revolution. That's a fair cop. There are no cell phones, satellite phones, or wi-fi hotspots anywhere in the world of this story, and that's a glaring failure of imagination on my part. In my defense, though, I'd like to point out that in 1980, AT&T was still the phone company as far as most Americans were concerned, and while mobile phones did exist, they were exclusively the toys of very rich jerks. In my wildest nightmares (speaking now as an AT&T shareholder), I simply never for a minute imagined that the Justice Department might actually win its anti-trust lawsuit against AT&T, or that the resulting court-ordered breakup of AT&T would result in the telecommunications industry chaos we saw in the late 1980s, followed by the explosive proliferation of new telephone technologies that hit the market in the 1990s. Above all, I never once imagined that the merging of telephony, "cellular" two-way radio, and digital data technologies would produce those things we now call cellphones and wi-fi networks — or at least, not on any kind of commerically successful scale, anyway.

On the other hand, if I have to take the hit for missing the wireless world, then it's only fair that I'm also credited for calling broadband right. In 1980, CATV was a fairly uncommon technology, but in it I saw the solutions to what I believed were the three biggest problems facing the Net: bandwidth, data security, and cabling topology. Consequently, while in Mikey's world there may be no cell phones, broadband is everywhere.

There are many other things that I think I got right in this book, and we could go into them in more detail, if you like. For example, if you were to take a survey of near-future sci-fi short stories published in the 1980s, you'd find an unnervingly consistent consensus that in the early 21st Century:

  • Japan would be the world's dominant economic power.
  • The Soviet Union would be the world's dominant military power.
  • The U.S. would be bogged down in a series of quagmire wars with various Central and South American narco-Marxist movements.
  • We'd all have really ugly haircuts.
  • Everyone would be taking fistfuls of designer drugs all the time.
  • We'd all have electronic chips and interface sockets surgically implanted in our skulls.
  • And, we'd all be living most of our lives directly jacked into virtual reality.

If, on the other hand, you're looking for the one book that took a somewhat different view and actually got all these things right...

In retrospect, there is only one prediction I'm sorry I missed in the book, and two that I'm very glad I did miss. The one I wish I'd had the wits to foresee was the idea that in the Spring of 2007, a movie about the last stand of King Leonidas and the Spartans at Thermopylae would be the Number One movie in America! If I'd only imagined this, I certainly would have given the Battle of Thermopylae a lot more thorough coverage than I actually did in this book!

The first prediction I'm glad I missed is one that's been part of Mikey's world ever since the first draft of the original short story, and this is the idea of using a network of subverted computers to create a virtual "grid" supercomputer, and then of using this grid for criminal purposes. In point of fact I actually nailed this one spot-on in the book, but right at the moment I would much rather have my genius be underappreciated than be known as "the guy who invented bot-nets."

The second prediction, however, is the one I'm really glad I missed, and it's also the reason why Cyberpunk was sold to a publisher but never released. When I finally finished the novel and turned it in, the publisher loved most of it, but absolutely hated the ending. He kept sending me back to rewrite the ending, and then rejecting my rewrites, until in the end he just flat-out told me that he wanted me to end the book with Mikey going postal inside the Academy and KILLING everyone who had ever insulted, annoyed, or offended him. Even ten years before Columbine, though, I found this idea to be utterly morally repulsive, and so I refused to write it — which is why the book ends when and where it does.

Anyway, that's the story of the story. I hope this answers most of your questions, but if you have more, I'll be happy to try to answer them.

Kindest regards,