Starting with Jules Verne and 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea all the way to the Star Trek franchise, science fiction has generally given us an empowering view of our relationship to technology. Yes, there are problems and hiccups, but mostly it’s men doing amazing things with incredible machines. Journeying to the stars, fighting off alien invasions and getting the girl. The technology is all very impersonal and outward-focused: Submarines, Starships, laser guns and robots. You kind of get it when you remember what was going on in the world at the time: great canals being built, skyscrapers, dams, airplanes and rockets. The last of the unexplored places like the Arctic and Everest being conquered. Easy-to-understand wars being fought and won.
But there was another strain that took hold in the 60’s and 70’s when writers led by people like Philip K. Dick, Paul Linebarger (Cordwaner Smith) and I’d even argue Ursula K. Leguin decided to use the lens offered by this genre to look inward at how the explosion of new technologies was changing us and our perceptions of society and reality. In the 80’s this broke out into a sub genre called “Cyberpunk.” Where most sci-fi took place in space, plots in Cyberpunk revolved around the ultimately mutable concept of virtual reality powered by networked computers. In 1984 cyberpunk author William Gibson coined it “Cyberspace”.
Perhaps you’re familiar?
Cyberpunk is a lot like the Internet, it’s not clean and neat like the work of the old masters like Asimov. Themes weave in and out. The societies depicted are almost nominally functional with huge corporations and insanely advanced tech right alongside massive poverty and the consequences of an increasingly weak central government. You will recognize this world, even thought it was envisioned two decades ago.
I’ll be honest, a lot this genre hard to read. Unless you love computers, code, endless references to Japanese pop culture and dense writing in general (which I do) it’s tough on general audiences.
But then along came Neil Stevenson with Snowcrash. Intended as more of a parody of cyberpunk, this book started out as a graphic novel until he and his illustrator realized that doing it in comics form would be an impossible task. It rolls through themes technological, sociological, anthropological, the nature of consciousness itself and has some amazing action scenes including a villain who rides around on a motorcycle of which the sidecar is a stolen Russian nuclear bomb set to explode if he is ever killed.
Stevenson is, in general, a blast (pun intended). He’s kind of like Dan Brown on acid. You can imagine that if you were ever stuck next to him on a cross-country bus trip he’d be amazing till about Ohio, then you’d want to kill him from about there till Seattle. This book takes us to Cincinnati.
I have it on good authority from a first-time cyberpunk reader that it’s totally accessible and she recommends readers “Keep at it till page 70 when it all starts to make sense.”
So, on Sunday March 22 at 5pm we’re going to discuss the book and some of the ideas therin at Duckworth’s. It’s 45 bucks, but if you’ve been to one of these things before you should know Ken and Nichole (Ken is a huge Cyberpunk nerd, btw) go to town with the spread. The last one I did I’m pretty sure about 30% of the people there hadn’t read the book and were just down with an exclusive Duckworth’s meal and were like, “Yes, yes, Jim, do go on about how the idea of the ‘Fool’ character in science fiction has migrated into technology like C3PO and…what? Is that more lamb? Bacon-wrapped figs? Yes, please…”
So make a reservation, read the book and come join us.
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