Posts Tagged ‘bruce sterling’
‘Preface’ by Bruce Sterling
‘The Gernsback Continuum’ by William Gibson
‘Snake-Eyes’ by Tom Maddox (Available online)
‘Rock On’ by Pat Cadigan
‘Tales Of Houdini’ by Rudy Rucker
‘400 Boys’ by Marc Laidlaw
‘Solstice’ by James Patrick Kelly
‘Petra’ by Greg Bear
‘Till Human Voices Wake Me’ by Lewis Shiner (Available online)
‘Freezone’ by John Shirley
‘Stone Lives’ by Paul di Filippo
‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson
‘Mozart In Mirrorshades’ by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner
Before reading Mirrorshades I had formed two impressions of the book: firstly, it was a classic anthology; secondly, it was the cyberpunk anthology. Neither of these turned out to be true. Let’s look at the second first since it is right there on the cover.
What the book should really be called is Mirrorshades: The Movement Anthology. As Sterling suggests in his preface, this is really just a bunch of writers who know and like each other and are involved in a loose creative web. This might remind us of recently proposed punk-suffix genre of Mythpunk and it might also make us question how useful it is to apply a genre label to a group of individuals.
At the same time, the term cyberpunk – which Sterling is clearly ambivalent about – has stuck (perhaps he got his revenge with the similarly stubborn label of slipstream). As Patrick Hudson commented:
I’ve been reading these with interest, because I think that “cyberpunk” is a less homogenized form than is typically imagined. I suspect it’s not a sub-genre at all, but just a group of people and a place in time, or perhaps there’s two cyberpunks, one describing people and place and another a bunch of genreric cliches.
Let’s dismiss the first cyberpunk, the Movement, as being of solely historical interest these days. That leaves the second cyberpunk, the bunch of generic cliches or, more charitably, the set of tropes. Sterling himself seems to acknowledge the existence of this second cyberpunk:
It’s possible to make broad statements about cyberpunk and to establish its identifying traits… Mirrorshades should give readers new to Movement writing a broad introduction to cyberpunk’s tenets, themes, and topics.
However, if you can find the unifying tenets, themes and topics in Mirrorshades than I take my hat off to you. Sterling continues: “To my mind, these are showcase stories: strong, characteristic examples of each writer’s work to date.” This brings us to the question of how good the anthology is as a bunch of stories. To which the answer is not very. By my count there is only two good stories: ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ and ‘Petra’. At this point I should acknowledge that I owe Pat Cadigan an apology, ‘Rock On’ is better than the two stars I gave it. My calibration was thrown out of whack by my expectations. (Incidently I have had Cadigan’s The Ultimate Cyberpunk put forward to me as a suggestion for the real definitive anthology.) Still, the Gibson and Bear stories are the only ones really worth reading and this is an abysmal hit rate for an anthology, even a relatively slim one like this. Not that I consider either to be cyberpunk.
So what is cyberpunk? This is a question Jonathan Strahan has been asking too. He’s asking because he is putting together a cyberpunk anthology. Inter Nova are also putting together a special cyberpunk issue. So cyberpunk obviously isn’t dead, it’s just that – like the rest of SF – no one can define it.
Sterling says: “This footloose time-travel fantasy emerged in a happy spirit of Movement camaraderie.” I guess a footloose time-travel fantasy is an appropriate as any way of ending an anthology which has nothing to do with cyberpunk. He continues (rather limply): “Its headlong energy and aggressive political satire are sure sign of writers who feel they have points to make.” It certainly has energy but what Sterling takes for aggressive political satire is merely feeble farce. This is the anti-‘Gernsback Continuum’ and is devoid of all merit. Bah.
I may be persuaded to look again at the work of John Shirley but let’s be honest, when you want cyberpunk, you want Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Or do you? It is possible they are sui generis of the very genre they created. As Sterling notes in the introduction, he was best known at this point for the Shaper-Mechanist stories, a body of work that essentially leapfrogged cyberpunk and rendered it irrelevant. Similarly Gibson’s cyberpunk novels are the least interesting thing he’s written.
Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev was the first man on Mars. Now he is disabled, pensioned off and rotting away on the equally rotten Kosmograd space station. Typical Soviet political shenanigans ensue. Sterling and Gibson then spring a surprise cyberpunk on the reader that is actually pretty reminiscent of all those up-by-our-bootstraps stories from The Ascent Of Wonder. It is also pretty naff.
Predictably Bruce Sterling opens his preface to Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology by gesturing towards the obnoxious nature of labels but he quickly acknowledges: “it’s possible to make broad statements about cyberpunk and to establish its identifying traits.” He then provides a historical, cultural and literary contextualisation for cyberpunk. For a subgenre often seen as revolutionary today, it is interesting for the contemporary reader to see it described in evolutionary terms. Sterling describes the cyberpunks as being “steeped in the lore and tradition of the SF field”. For example, here is his list of andecedent authors who were major influences: Ellison, Delaney, Spinrad, Moorcock, Aldiss, Ballard, Wells, Niven, Anderson, Heinlein, Farmer, Varley, Dick, Bester and Pynchon. That is as broad a church as you could wish for. It certainly doesn’t adhere to one specific stylistic or political persuasion.
From talking about the evolution of the movement – sorry, Movement – Sterling moves on to dicussing cyberpunk as a product of the decade. Here he suggests that, in fact, it is a revolutionary subgenre because the Eighties are a revolutionary period, specifically name-checking Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave which heralds the dawn of the information age. This is all just a bit too Eighties for me. It is interesting stuff but with a bit of distant it doesn’t necessarily seem like such a paradigm shift. It’s not that it is dated – although Sterling’s futuristic technology (“the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens”) raises a smile – rather than that it isn’t Now. Sterling’s preface is an insiders snapshot, extremely valuable for that reason but a bit too close to the action.
That passion whets the appetite for the anthology though. Let’s get onto the book itself; helpfully, Sterling clearly sets out his aims:
I hope to present a full overview of the cyberpunk movement, including its early rumblings and the current state of the art. Mirrorshades should give readers new to Movement writing a broad introduction to cyberpunk’s tenets, themes, and topics. To my mind, these are showcase stories: strong, characteristic examples of each writer’s work to date.
So that is what I will be measuring it on.
The future! It is strange to read a science fiction anthology and find plenty of spaceships and monsters and all the other toys from the dressing-up box but very little of the actual future. Actually, it isn’t strange at all but it is still disappointing. Luckily Sterling is congenitally unable to avoid the future. ‘The Beautiful And The Sublime’ is an interesting choice for a hard SF anthology since it is about the death of the hard SF dream – here art is ascendant over engineering – but I guess you can comment on something through its absence.
Niall Harrison is reading Nicholas Fisk: Fisk is a cornerstone for British speculative fiction readers who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties. As Niall say, it is interesting see how his work differs from contemporary children’s literature.
Adam Roberts will be reading 2666: I will be reading Robert Bolaño’s monsters novel at some point this year but I can’t face it yet. Think of it as five novellas, they say.
Casey Samulski looks back at a review of Schismatrix Plus: I keep meaning to re-read this and, indeed, the rest of Bruce Sterling’s back catalogue. My copy was picked up in a Borders in Phoenix since it isn’t published in this country and Sterling has had a tough time of it here.
I’m currently listening to Contra by Vampire Weekend, There Is Love In You by Four Tet and One Life Stand by Hot Chip. The first couple of listens suggest, respectively, a grower, a shower and an oh-no-er. we shall see.
The inclusion of a story by Sterling himself is interesting because in his orginal article he says:
I offer this list as a public service to slipstream’s authors and readers. I don’t count myself in these ranks. I enjoy some slipstream, but much of it is simply not to my taste. This doesn’t mean that it is “bad,” merely that it is different. In my opinion, this work is definitely not SF, and is essentially alien to what I consider SF’s intrinsic virtues.
As it turns out ‘The Little Magic Shop’ is not slipstream in any shape or form. Nor is it a particularly good story. It is a fairy tale told in the modern style in which a young man buys a immortality potion and then everything proceeds unexcitingly from there.
The irony is that Sterling did write one great work of slipstream: Zeitgeist. It certainly isn’t representative of his career, it isn’t even really representative of the Leggy Starlitz stories. To include him in the anthology at all and for this story specifically is baffling.