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Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology
edited by James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel
Tachyon Publications, 420 pages

Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology
James Patrick Kelly
James Patrick Kelly has been a full-time writer since 1977. He has won Hugo Awards for his stories "Think Like a Dinosaur" (1995) and "1016 to 1" (1999) and a Locus Award for short story "Itsy Bitsy Spider" (1997). He has also published four novels, the latest being Wildlife (1994). He lives in Nottingham, New Hampshire, with his wife and children.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Strange But Not A Stranger
SF Site Review: Feeling Very Strange
SF Site Review: Feeling Very Strange
SF Site Review: Strange But Not A Stranger

John Kessel
Multiple-award-winning writer and scholar John Kessel is the author of Another Orphan, Freedom Beach (with James Patrick Kelly) Good News From Outer Space, Meeting In Infinity, and The Pure Product, as well as many short stories, articles and plays.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Corrupting Dr. Nice
SF Site Review: The Pure Product

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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"Cyberpunk," we are told, was a term coined by Gardner Dozois to refer to fiction by Bruce Bethke. It very quickly came to be applied more commonly to the early novels of William Gibson, to Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan and a handful of their confreres and imitators. As a movement (for a while it was known as "the movement"), it had its propagandist in the shape of Bruce Sterling through his alter ego, Vincent Omniaveritas; it had its house organ, the keynote anthology Mirrorshades (though that included a number of writers who were not otherwise counted among the cyberpunks); and within a decade it was dead. By the mid-90s, the movers and shapers of cyberpunk had all moved on to other things, while the inevitable imitators had wrung so many minute variations on a fairly limited set of tropes that it had begun to seem tired and predictable.

We have been, therefore, in a "post-cyberpunk" period for longer than cyberpunk lasted. At least, we have if you take a strictly chronological understanding of the term. But "post-cyberpunk" has only really been bandied about for the last year or so, and the closest we have to a definition of the term is this particular anthology. Looking at this, I think we might say that "post-cyberpunk" bears pretty much the same relationship to "cyberpunk" that "postmodernism" bears to "modernism." That is, although certain themes and ideas might be traced from one to the other, it would be wrong to see one as the starting point for the other, and indeed just as there are precursors of postmodernism that predate modernism, so there are precursors of post-cyberpunk that predate cyberpunk. Not that this is necessarily clear from the anthology, since the editors punctuate their selection of stories with extracts from an exchange of letters between John Kessel and Bruce Sterling that date back to the 80s. Their relevance to the particular stories they bracket is tenuous at least (and gets more so as the anthology progresses), but their presence suggests that James Patrick Kelly and Kessel feel that what could be said about cyberpunk a quarter of a century ago can equally well be said about post-cyberpunk today.

Cyberpunk, let us remind ourselves, was a mode which made use of the possibilities of the computer as a basic narrative device. We entered the world of computer data; but also our world was transformed by that data. We opened a second world, "virtual reality," in which the computer offered an escape or at the very least an alternative to this world. That is pretty much all we remember about cyberpunk; if you were asked to say what it was about off the top of your head, that is probably what you would say: computers and VR. But there was more to cyberpunk than that. The "cyber" part may have been glitzy and full of astonishments, but that is to forget the "punk," the fact that these stories were largely about an underclass in a world gone sour. There had been American disaster stories before, tales of nuclear catastrophe, but they had simply presented a dramatic contrast to the wealth and confidence of the nation. Cyberpunk was something different, set in the midst of a slow decline (the economic or cultural ascension of other lands, usually Japan, was a common background image in these works); they were, in other words, the first American fictions of loss of Empire. (Perhaps that is why British writers were so inept in their attempts to imitate cyberpunk: we had been there before.)

Since then, our ideas about the possibilities of a digital world have advanced even more quickly than computer capabilities; virtual reality has transformed into very different things; and global economic and political realities are vastly different. In contrast to all that typified cyberpunk, therefore, what does post-cyberpunk have to offer?

Virtual reality, for instance, in the sense of an alternative landscape to be explored, enjoyed, but not inhabited, has just about disappeared as an area of interest. It crops up in "Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland" by Gwyneth Jones as a form of psycho-sexual therapy, though even here you sense that there is less interest in the idea of virtual reality and more in the possibilities of recapitulating old swashbucklers with a veneer of contemporary relevance. But more often when characters enter a computer construction in these stories it is not as an alternative to life but as an alternative to death. "Daddy's World" by Walter Jon Williams is a land of eternal bright sunshine for young Jamie, but as the visitors to his world change he comes to realise that he is dead and this changeless preservation is a form of hell. There is another form of unchanging hell in David Marusek's "The Wedding Album" in which the preservation of a moment, the simulacra recalling the wedding day, are contrasted with the changing nature of the real world outside the simulation.

But we no longer need to enter a computer for it to simulate hell, as Christopher Rowe suggests in "The Voluntary State" in which the citizens of Tennessee are locked within a police state that controls even the way they see the world. For cyberpunk, the world was going to hell and the computer offered at least the potential of a way out (as we see in Jonathan Lethem's "How We Got Into Town and Out Again," a relic of old cyberpunk stranded amid an ocean of its descendants, in which They Shoot Horses Don't They is recast as a journey into computer space in a post-apocalyptic setting). For post-cyberpunk it seems to be the other way round. The borders between the real and the digital have become porous, each now infects the other and each therefore becomes open to doubt. As Pat Cadigan shows in her comic piling of confusion upon confusion, "The Final Remake of "The Return of Little Latin Larry," what is preserved digitally is as mutable as what is preserved in memory. And in so far as our identity is tied up with our memory, that opens our very being up to doubt and uncertainty. No, not just our being, our world: what if everything we see around us can be altered by an enemy, what if all that we rely on starts to tell lies, how then can we trust anything? That is the basis for Paul Di Filippo's noir comedy, "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" The Cadigan and Di Filippo tales might be comic, but they have a grim understanding of the un-ease, the peril to our very sense of self, generated by exactly those oppositions of real and digital with which the cyberpunks once played. Post-cyberpunk tales are no longer the bold forays into a brave new digital future that cyberpunk seemed to promise.

Well, not all of them. If virtual reality offers a digital landscape we might inhabit, with the option of reshaping our bodies as we please to suit that landscape, might we not also carry those digitally reshaped bodies out into reality, use them to extend life, cope with harsh environments, enhance other beings? So it is that the cyberpunk mainstay of virtual reality was transformed into the mainstay of post-cyberpunk fiction: post-humanity. Though that aspect of post-cyberpunk is strangely underrepresented in this anthology, and then in the two most predictable stories included here, the already overly-familiar and over-anthologised "Lobsters" by Charles Stross and "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" by Michael Swanwick. If talking dogs acting as confidence tricksters and voyages across the universe as motes of digitalised information seem like a glorious vision of the future, then here we have a post-cyberpunk heaven.

But more commonly, it is a post-cyberpunk hell. In many ways the most lasting legacy of the cyberpunks is that aspect of their fiction which was perhaps least appreciated at the time: their vision of a crumbling future. If there is any work that represents a moment of transition from cyberpunk to post-cyberpunk, it is "Bicycle Repairman" by Bruce Sterling, which appropriately opens this collection. The digital technology is still here, but it is in the end irrelevant, pushed away from centre stage by the simple struggle for existence in a world of economic decline. It is, if you like, the survival of the ordinary person, the non-geek, which provides a fitting contrast with the story that bookends the collection, "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" by Cory Doctorow, which is very much the survival of the geek. If "Bicycle Repairman" represents the transition into post-cyberpunk, "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" represents its apotheosis, the absorption of all we have learned in the digital world that has grown up in the quarter-century since cyberpunk as a survival strategy in the new catastrophe.

Though it has to be said that most of the stories here don't assume you need to be a geek in order to make it through the next catastrophe. Actually, to be honest stories as varied as "Yeyuka" by Greg Egan, "Two Dreams on Trains" by Elizabeth Bear and, one of the two or three best stories in a high-quality collection, "The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi, leave it open whether survival is much of an option at all. Whether any of these actually count as "post-cyberpunk" is also open to debate. In simple historical progression, they come after cyberpunk, that is true, and they do pick up on the sense of decline that was a mark of cyberpunk, but in what other way they relate to the earlier form is not at all clear. Bacigalupi, for instance, has described his story as "agri-punk," but the suffix no more betokens a relationship than the suffix "gate" implies that every political scandal is direct descendent of Watergate. And the editors note that "The Calorie Man" features "a hacker of sorts," though that is to stretch definitions somewhat. The story itself is built upon two contemporary concerns -- whether global warming will leave the world able to feed itself, and whether the multinational companies behind genetically modified crops exercise a disproportionate political power -- neither of which is actually relevant to the cyberpunk enterprise and both of which are the sorts of issues any sufficiently aware SF writer is likely to pick up on. In other words, while this is an excellent SF story, it is not at all clear why it should be considered a specifically post-cyberpunk story.

And that same point applies more generally to the entire collection. Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology is, one of the best reprint anthologies I have encountered in a long time, judged purely on the quality of the stories contained within it. But if we are to take it as in any way defining or illustrating some new sub-category of SF called "post-cyberpunk," it falls woefully short. Because there is no argument about what post-cyberpunk might be; and no consistent quality, tone, subject matter or approach about these stories that makes us think we can see what links them. In historical terms, fiction inspired by or developed out of cyberpunk has shot off in many different directions, which is what always happens in the history of literature. Some of those directions are represented here, and if we can trace a route back from, say, "Lobsters" or "The Calorie Man" to forebears in cyberpunk, that does not mean that we can trace any direct link or continuity between these two stories. Cyberpunk fed its particular tropes and concerns into the wide maw of science fiction, and the whole of the genre since then has digested and regurgitated aspects of that movement without in any way making itself cyberpunk. Sometimes without even making itself science fiction. If William Gibson was the archetype of cyberpunk he is also the writer who has come the furthest since then, and his contribution to this anthology is the most interesting and revealing story here. Revealing both because it counters one of the most familiar tropes of his cyberpunk days and because I am not even sure it is science fiction at all, let alone something as nebulous as "post-cyberpunk."

"Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City" clearly references Hokusai, which would place the story in Japan even if there weren't enough hints to that effect within the text. But this is not the ascendant economy we glimpsed throughout his cyberpunk novels, rather it is a place in economic and social decline. We see this not in plot or character, both of which are entirely absent from this fiction, but in the slow patient portrait, from different perspectives, of an empty living space, the impoverishment of a home in Cardboard City. When this might be is not clear, but there is no reason to assume it is the future. This is the world now, as it is experienced today by an awful lot of people in the wealthy West as much as in the poorer parts of the world. It is, in other words, social comment upon the sort of urban living presaged in the Sprawl, it is also a continuation of the central interest he has displayed throughout his career. It could as well be pre-cyberpunk as post, a statement of exactly the concerns that fed into his cyberpunk. It bears perhaps the closest connection of all the stories gathered here to that brief heyday of cyberpunk, but in and of itself it seems to make the very idea of "post-cyberpunk" redundant.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.


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