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The Ultimate Cyberpunk
edited by Pat Cadigan
ibooks, 399 pages

The Ultimate Cyberpunk
Pat Cadigan
Pat Cadigan's other novels include Mindplayers, Synners and Fools; and three major short story collections, Patterns, Home By The Sea, and Dirty Work.

Pat Cadigan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dervish Is Digital
SF Site Interview: Pat Cadigan
SF Site Review: Tea from an Empty Cup

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

The title of this anthology makes a far-reaching claim so patently unlikely that its editor quickly dispenses with it. In her introduction, Pat Cadigan notes that:

The first thing many people might take issue you with is the title... The prime mover behind this anthology has put the rather grandiose word "ultimate" in the title. To tell the truth, I don't concur, but this is publishing and publishing has never been an easy business. The struggle to survive affects people in various ways; the tendency to hyperbole is one of the more innocuous, in that it's free, legal, and doesn't require lengthy stays in expensive rehab facilities. So, just deal with it, OK.
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Okay, sure, I can deal with that (though any publisher claiming an ultimate anything could at least do a better proofreading job). The question then becomes whether there is any need for another anthology some sixteen years after the famous original compilation, Mirrorshades, edited by Bruce Sterling. Characters in these stories frequently wore mirrored sunglasses -- a signifier of the outlaw, the renegade, the potentially dangerous -- as, in Sterling's words, "a literary badge," hence the collection's moniker and an early term for what eventually became known more widely as "Cyberpunk." Of course, Cadigan acknowledges Mirrorshades (to which she contributed), but her undeniable contention that it "is not all there is" doesn't quite explain the rationale for this particular collection, especially since two of the baker's dozen of tales here -- Lewis Shriner's "Till Human Voices Wake Us" and John Shirley's "Freezone" -- are repeated from Mirrorshades.

Nor does Cadigan contend this as an historical re-examination of the form -- indeed she outright rejects the idea even though she provide three "root" stories that have Cyberpunk qualities long before anyone thought to classify it as such -- or that she is offering some sort of revisionist approach. So, what's the point?

Well, as Cadigan implies in her slightly tongue in cheek introduction, evidently it's something a publisher thinks will sell. Cyberpunk is today an established sub-genre. Which is precisely why, in some respects, it may no longer be that interesting, and certainly not as radical, a concept as it once was. In light of the techno-bubble burst and the fact that most people I know have let their subscription to Wired expire, is there a justification for an "updated" (which, considering that the latest story dates from 1993, it seems hardly that) Cyberpunk anthology beyond the publisher's hope that people who liked The Matrix might buy this?

I think so, even though what was fresh and exciting about Cyberpunk has become a cliché -- The Matrix, for example, though a cinematic derivative (and, hence, further evidence that the revolution is over) applies Cyberpunk conventions that serve only to dress up what is essentially a trite "shoot-em up." However, just because Cyberpunk's time has perhaps passed, that doesn't necessarily exclude it from consideration. If that were the case, there'd be no reason to read, say, Hemingway.

First, a little history. The Cyberpunks were a loosely associated group whose work was distinguished by, if not outright acceptance, at least a neutral stance on technology in depicting a primarily computer-enhanced, bioengineered evolution of humanity. It often blurs the distinction between the human/machine interface. The technology itself is neither good nor bad; it is simply an extension of human tendencies for good or bad. That's the "cyber" part.

In this Cyberpunk parted company with the New Wave -- the 60s movement that, for the most part, depicted technology as evil, in contrast to the traditional Golden Agers who typically saw it as humanity's great future. However, it shared the New Wave's commitment to higher literary standards than traditional pulp; in particular, the Cyperpunks frequently adopted the "cut-and-paste" approach of the grand old man of the Beats, William Burroughs. Bizarre situations are presented as if the reader has -- or should have -- complete familiarity with the terminology or the situation and it is not until much later, maybe more than midway, into the story, where the reader might be able to figure out what the hell is going on.

The "punk" part relates to the musical punks of approximately the same era who revolted against bloated, navel-gazing art songs and insipid corporate rock with thrashingly loud and angry three-minute songs. Indeed, references to this kind of music and its associated druggie lifestyle are steeped in Cyberpunk. Again, as with technology, drugs are inherently neither good nor bad, they exist, and they are used.

(By the way, for a brief overview of Cyperpunk and the various SF movements which preceded it. as well as a suggestion of a new emerging vanguard that combines SF and fantasy in refreshing ways, see Norman Spinrad's excellent article "Movements" in the October/November 2002 issue of Asimov's.)

Probably the most famous Cyberpunk work is William Gibson's groundbreaking novel, Neuromancer, which seemed to anticipate the Internet and its associated hacker culture. The Ultimate Cyberpunk acknowledges this in its cover art and 16 page color insert from an abandoned graphic novel adaption (which, based on this admittedly short excerpt, fails to effectively duplicate its source material and possibly explains why the project was never finished). Also in keeping with the Cyberpunk ethos, Gibson projected a consumerist society dominated by Japanese controlled multinationals which, with the exception of the Japanese whose power has waned considerably since then, isn't all that far removed from current reality.

While the mega-corporations are hardly benign, they aren't cast solely in shades of black or white. As with the treatment of technology, the Cyberpunks recognize that they are what they are, and are not entirely without redeeming qualities. Consider this exchange from Shiner's "Till Human Voices Wake Us":

"We're building the future here," she said. A future we couldn't even imagine fifteen years ago... Plentiful food, cheap energy, access to a computer net for the price of a TV set, a whole new form of government-"

"I've seen your future," Campbell said. "Your boats have killed the reef for over a mile around the hotel. Your Coke cans are lying all over the coral beds. Your marriages don't last and your kids are on drugs and your TV is garbage. I'll pass."

"Did you see that boy in the drugstore? He's learning calculus on that computer, and his parents can't even read and write. We're testing a vaccine on human subjects that will probably cure leukemia. We've got laser surgery and transplant techniques that are revolutionary. Literally."

Those benefits notwithstanding, what happens to Campbell (and is it mere coincidence that the hero shares the surname of the famous Golden Age editor John W. Campbell, Jr.?) illustrates the fate of those who oppose the juggernaut of progress. While the ending might at first seem like some trite Twilight Zone twist, pay careful attention that the protagonist is swimming "for the fence." While some people may think the Cyberpunk worldview is a bleak techno-dystopia, the Cyberpunks often celebrate the human spirit, whatever changes technology may have wrought in the physical incarnation.

Towards this end, Cadigan collects the usual suspects. With the exception of Tom Maddox, Paul Di Fillipo, Marc Laidlaw, and James Patrick Kelley, the writers from Mirrorshades are here in The Ultimate Cyberpunk -- Sterling, Gibson, and Cadigan herself, as well as Rudy Rucker and Greg Bear, with different stories, but from the same era. The "new" stories aren't necessarily better or more emblematic than their contributions to Mirrorshades, they're just equally worthy variations on the theme. If I had to pick one story here that exemplified the Cyberpunk ethos, I'd pick Shirley's "Freezone," (Gibson's "Burning Chrome" would be a close second), which perhaps explains why Cadigan felt the duplication from Mirrorshades justified. Paul J. McAuley's "Dr. Luther's Assistant" is added as a canon author, as is Michael Swanwick as co-author of "Dogfight" with William Gibson. For a broader view, "Bruce Sterling's Idea of What Every Well-Appointed 'Cyberpunk SF' Library Collection Should Possess" provides a useful reading list for the uninitiated.

The one major difference between the two anthologies is that Cadigan includes some pre-cursors to the movement, stories by Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, and, significantly as one of the few Cyberpunk women other than Cadigan, James Triptree, Jr., the pseudonym for Alice Sheldon. From an historical viewpoint, it's interesting to note how Gibson acknowledges Triptree's preceding work by naming one of his characters "Isham" in "Burning Chrome" after a similar character in Triptree's "The Girl Who Was Plugged In." It is also somewhat startling to note that Bester's tale of a serial killer enmeshed in paranoiac machine mind-meld was written in 1954, way back at the start of the Eisenhower administration. A sober reminder to all of today's right wing conservatives who witlessly blame contemporary violence and child abuse on the excesses of the 60s counterculture, as if the human propensity for brutality were anything new.

But to return to the original question -- what's the point of another Cyberpunk collection, "ultimate" or otherwise? For one thing, there are some damn fine stories here. Stories that still speak to the human condition decades after they first appeared, which perhaps just goes to show that the higher literary ambitions of the movement were achieved. Although it is curious that Cadigan couldn't find anything written in the last nine years to demonstrate that the movement is alive and well, even if it has been co-opted by commercial hacks, after reading this collection you have to agree with her that:

Cyberpunk... has never shied away from asking The Next Question. That's why it still works. After two decades, the new may have worn off, and there's as much grey hair as chrome, but the energy is still there.
Copyright © 2002 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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