Alternative History and Afrofuturist Bricolage in N. K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”



Alternative History and Afrofuturist Bricolage in N. K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”

Emily Lange


N. K. Jemisin has received well-earned critical attention for her novel-length works of speculative fiction, especially after her Hugo Awards triumphs in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Her collection of short fiction, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month (2018), brought together pieces of several genres, both previously published and unpublished materials. The collection includes “The Effluent Engine,”[1] which follows a Haitian spy through New Orleans in an alternative history adventure. Jemisin’s heroine must negotiate the new ideals of a liberated Haiti and the internalized norms of New Orleans’ Creole society as she attempts to garner vital strategic information. The story highlights intersectionality on a personal as well as a group level in a nuanced exploration of how we can change our worlds. As argued by scholars such as Sofia Samatar, alternative history itself can be a powerful tool of Afrofuturism. Alongside the concept of bricolage—a process of merging, reshaping, and redefining—alternative history highlights the confluence of individual and group identities within Jemisin’s story. Applying Samatar’s reading of alternative history and bricolage foregrounds how Afrofuturist techniques in “The Effluent Engine” explore the identities of intersectional characters, their community relationships, and their connection to place.

“The Effluent Engine” presents an alternative history where dirigibles and access to other technologies changed the course of Haitian struggles for independence. The main character, a Haitian spy named Jessaline, must enter the slave state of Louisiana to seek an engineer who can further refine the fueling mechanisms for these powerful airships. While Jessaline’s contact is unwilling to help lest it risk his position in New Orleans’ Creole society or prompt backlash from the white leaders of Louisiana and the United States, his sister, Eugenie, proves her knowledge of chemistry can help develop a dirigible engine powered by the effluent, or waste product, of sugarcane processing. Pursued by white supremacists hoping to steal the plans and sabotage Haiti’s independence, Jessaline and Eugenie flee to Haiti intent on developing the engine as well as their romantic relationship.

Speculative fiction as a broad category embraces alternative histories like “The Effluent Engine” for their ability to reimagine both the past and the future. Indeed, Sofia Samatar points out in “Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism” (2017) that alternative histories engage with both points in time simultaneously: “To propose an alternate history is to propose that history can be altered, to change directions, to inaugurate an alternate future.” (Samantar, 187) One cannot imagine an alternative past without carrying forward the implications of such changes. In picturing a new history for Haiti, readers are inherently asked to apply these changes to the arc of history. A rich alternative history crafts space for readers to question how such alterations would affect their present time. While some references to the arrest of Toussaint L’Overture place the action of the story in the years following 1802, the lack of dates overall points to their middling importance to the narrative; Jemisin does not need to offer a blow-by-blow account of the changes to history to tell a compelling story that prompts readers to think about large-scale shifts in society. Jemisin emphasizes the transformative aspects of alternative history through characters who are invested in imagining new futures.

At the core of the changes to history in “The Effluent Engine” are Haitian airships, which allowed them to fight back against French colonial forces. Jessaline’s mission is an attempt to find a scientist who can turn the by-product of rum, the titular effluent that produces methane, into a cheaper and plentiful fuel source. Innovative use of by-products and discarded materials is a theme within many pieces of Afrofuturist media, which Samatar evokes in her discussion of the terms bricolage and bricoleur. (177-178) Initially coined by Claude Lévi-Strauss, bricolage was used to distinguish (white) Western invention and what Lévi-Strauss deemed the lesser reinvention, “proceeding in a haphazard fashion and working with second-hand materials, the leftovers of various civilizations”. (Samatar 177) Samatar aligns herself with creators such as Nnedi Okorafor, who uses the phrases bricolage and bricoleur in her novel Who Fears Death. Bricolage celebrates the process of excavating history: “it is from these historical fragments that the data thief or bricoleur constructs visions of what is to come…the bricoleur detaches objects from time, making them available for the creation of new histories.” (Samatar 178) The process of reclamation and reformation is paralleled, for Samatar, by the formation of cultural independence and positive engagement with technology, as she argues that “Afrofuturistic bricolage asserts black people’s right to use whatever is at hand, to enter the technologically enhanced future through whatever door is closest and to do so without assimilation into a global monoculture.” (Samatar 178)[2] Haitian use of effluent as a fuel source repurposes the by-product of a process that itself was intimately connected to colonization. The economic benefits to France from rum and sugar production are re-integrated into the new, independent Haiti as something which has the potential to preserve the nation’s survival. Jessaline’s mission, therefore, is not only espionage but tied up with the process of bricolage.

Beyond the genre of the story itself, “The Effluent Engine” engages with personal uses of alternative history and bricolage as well as collective or group uses of the concepts; Jessaline is a notable character who uses these tools to create disguises and false histories for herself in her role as a spy:

She was indentured, she told the captain, and he had waved her aboard without so much as a glance at her papers (which were false anyhow). She was a wealthy white man’s mistress, she told the other passengers, and between her fine clothes, regal carriage, and beauty – despite her skin being purest sable in color – they believed her and were alternately awed and offended. She was a slave, she told the dockmaster on the levee; a trusted one, lettered and loyal, promised her freedom should she continue to serve to her fullest. He had smirked at this, as if the notion of anyone freeing such an obviously valuable slave was ludicrous. Yet he, too, had let her pass unchallenged. (Jemisin 78)

With every movement, speech, and look, Jessaline creates an alternative history for herself which both protects her and her nation while simultaneously eating away at the solidity of her own identity. In a single journey as described above, Jessaline navigates the elision between identities with practiced ease. Later, when she must change hotels to avoid the pursuit of white, anti-Haitian independence spies, she uses padding which “rendered her effectively shapeless—a necessity, since in this disguise it was dangerous to be attractive in any way”. (Jemisin 99-100) The disguise is meant to make her appear both older[3] and poorer; it includes alterations to her walk and a patched dress. The implication that appearing attractive and poor would make her a target comes across clearly; when she dresses better, Jessaline references a white owner or takes the guise of a white man’s mistress. Through her disguise, her attempts at anonymity are successful: “She was, for all intents and purposes, invisible”. (Jemisin 100) In both of these alternative histories of herself, it is not her class that provides protection, but the implication that she is under a white man’s control. But what effect does this constant construction of alternative histories have for Jessaline herself? Her identity itself is fluid as her goals change and she comes across different challenges. While her disguises can act as a shield, the necessity for a shield itself takes a toll.

Jessaline’s assumed surname for the start of the story, Dumonde, offers a hint at her attempted invisibility. The French du monde, meaning “of the world,” obscures a sense of specific nationality or community. As a spy, Jessaline must attempt to be a member of any and every nation where her mission might take her, and as such, she cannot risk solidifying her identity. Jessaline embodies the bricoleur in her relationship with the names she uses. Her true name, which she reveals to Eugenie in an attempt to gain her trust, does not seem to resonate with her personally. She explains “My name is Jessaline Cleré. That is the name of the family that raised me, at least, but I should have had a different name”. Her actual name does not provide her with a sense of identity, because she feels that she “should have had a different name, after the man who was my true father”. (Jemisin 92) Jessaline is the illegitimate child of Toussaint L’Overture, one of the best-known leaders of the Haitian Revolution. Jessaline’s attempt to identify with her father through his family name is frustrated by her status as the daughter of his mistress, revealing yet another source of liminal fluidity at the core of Jessaline’s identity. Her family, we are left to interpret, is itself a collection of pieces, and Jessaline is the bricoleur attempting to bring the disparate elements into harmony.

Jessaline embodies the use of alternative history and bricolage as an individual, but when considering the group identities at play in “The Effluent Engine”, New Orleans provides a key example. Jemisin’s depiction of New Orleans emphasizes this assemblage of identity, narrowing in on the liminality of the free Creoles such as Norbert and Eugenie Rillieux. Caught between social strata, Jessaline describes the Creole class as “a closed and prickly bunch, most likely because they had to be: only by maintenance of caste and privilege could they hope to retain freedom in a land which loved to throw anyone darker than tan into chains.” (Jemisin 78) The retention of hierarchical structures in the relative freedoms of Creole society stands as a question for Jemisin’s alternative Haiti, whether internalized norms have persisted after revolutionary change. Creole society’s retention of strict hierarchical boundaries is one example of normative class division making itself known, as the social group ostensibly outside of hegemonic control reconstructs the same or similar categories of division and power. The tensions between the norms of Creole society, particularly regarding feminine sexuality, come to the forefront as Eugenie begins to vocalize an imagined life with Jessaline in Haiti.

Even though the alternative history of Haiti shapes the entire story, “The Effluent Engine” never directly engages the alternative space. The fact that readers never see Haiti itself in the story encourages the perception of Jemisin’s Haiti as a potential utopia. Jemisin inverts the contemporary narrative of Haiti as a disaster-wrought refugee nation, especially as Eugenie and her brother Norbert are forced to flee their home in New Orleans. In “The Effluent Engine,”Haiti as a nation embraces the method of re-examination of that which is cast aside, a nation of bricoleurs. Airships function as more than the trappings of a steampunk-influenced alternative history here; rather, they are the site of a collective bricolage. “Producing rum is a simple process with a messy result; this effluent, namely, and the gas it emits, which until lately was regarded as simply the unavoidable price to be paid,” Jessaline explains to Norbert Rillieux. “We wish you to develop a process by which the usable gas—methane—may be extracted from the miasma you just smelled.” (Jemisin 81) The production of sugar and rum has decimated the landscape in parts of Haiti, Jessaline affirms, hinting at the ecological impacts of colonial production methods. Even when independent Haiti builds upon its relationship with sugar, not completely discarding it, but reframing the ecological relationship such that the country may have a more balanced impact on the landscape and fuel their airship engines. Jemisin’s Haiti engages with bricolage not only in the use of effluent as a fuel source but through examining how elements of the colonial past can help form an independent future.

Part of this imagined future for Jessaline and Eugenie comes from the alterations Haitian society has already undergone in its own history and accepted ways of being. By creating an alternative history for Haiti, Jemisin as an author has opened the door for greater representation of sexual preference. Jessaline explains to Eugenie that the revolution changed circumstances for women in Haiti, and that “it is not uncommon for a woman to head a family with another woman, and even raise children if they so wish”. (Jemisin 96) The word “wish” becomes operative here; couples have agency in choosing whether or not to have children, rather than a sense of responsibility to reproduce. But Eugenie’s eventual enthusiasm does not seem to acknowledge the radical potential of changes in Haiti; rather, she still relies upon the norms she finds familiar, such as the fact that one partner would provide for the family as in the typical heterosexual couples in New Orleans. Eugenie declares her concern for Jessaline’s work as a spy, “I’m not fond of you keeping up this dangerous line of work. My inventions should certainly earn enough for the both of us, don’t you think?”, and seems more than willing to step into the breadwinner role which she has seen enacted during her life in New Orleans, “there’s no reason for you to work when I can keep you in comfort for the rest of our days”. (Jemisin 111) Going to Haiti means that Eugenie can follow her passion for science both openly and lucratively, but she does not pause to ask whether Jessaline’s work as a spy provides her with similar fulfillment. Since Eugenie has only recently acknowledged her sexuality, one could interpret this as a part of a newly accepted identity trying to retain some of the structures of socially acceptable relationships, i.e. heterosexual, patriarchally-organized couples. Jessaline, as an individual, is once again caught in between, this time between the social openness of Haiti’s new society and the stricter norms of New Orleans Creole expectations. On the level of group identity, Haitian society allows for alternative ways of being, the crafting of alternative histories, but individuals such as Jessaline and Eugenie must still navigate the internalized norms embedded in their conceptions of possible futures.

Jessaline’s personal liminality reflects the transitions taking place around the main characters in “The Effluent Engine” and the resulting tension between new ideals and internalized norms. Both individuals and larger societies must negotiate such tensions to survive. Jessaline must create alternative histories for herself to be a good spy, but these take a toll on the solidity of her identity, which she must then attempt to reassemble in her role as a bricoleur. On a larger scale, the society of both Haiti and New Orleans must deal with different types of bricolage to make sense of their histories and strive for alternative futures. “The Effluent Engine” captures the struggle for socio-cultural survival and the balance between persistence and change. Jemisin’s short story is not only an example of richly imaginative Afrofuturism but a beautiful example of how authors and scholars can use tools of alternative history and bricolage in their writing to highlight both personal and group identity.


[1] Also published in Lightspeed Magazine in 2011.

[2] Divorced from the racially-charged comparisons of Lévi-Strauss, one might see how bricolage infuses the work of Black artists throughout history. The collages of Romare Bearden (1911-1988) are just one example of the work of African American collagists who reconstruct images out of seemingly disparate pieces. Visual artist Kara Walker’s installation piece Fons Americanus (2019) in the Tate Modern highlights this fusion of forms, echoing the Queen Victoria memorial, the Trevi Fountain, and Confederate statues in the United states while depicting images of slavery and black resistance (Bakare). Walker reclaims forms historically used in white European and American contexts to critically engage with historical and present harms and trauma.

[3] In order to make herself “disappear”, Jessaline chooses to make herself seem older, another layer of armor alongside the pillows she uses to make herself appear shapeless. With her obvious desire to avoid sexual violence, Jessaline ages herself in an attempt to seem sexless. Her strategies for personal survival rest upon the perpetuation of a belief that older people, and older women in particular, cannot be attractive. While not imperative for the argument of this article, acknowledging the intersectionality of both character identities and the identities they intend to evoke in the imaginations of others requires an understanding of the problematic character of essentializing conceptions of age.

WORKS CITED

Bakare, Lanre. “Tate Modern Fountain Tells ‘Jarring’ History of British Empire.” The Guardian, 30 Sept. 2019. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/sep/30/tate-modern-fountain-tells-jarring-history-of-british-empire. Accessed 16 Feb. 2020.

Jemisin, N. K. “The Effluent Engine.” How Long ‘Til Black Future Month, Orbit, 2018, pp. 75-112.

Samatar, Sofia. “Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 48, no. 4, 2017 Winter 2017, pp. 175–91.

Emily Lange is an undergraduate student at Elon University studying English Literature and Philosophy. She is completing her two-year thesis on representation and intersectionality in contemporary speculative fiction. She has an article in FEMSPEC and a forthcoming piece in The Journal of Popular Culture. Her research interests include the pedagogical uses of speculative fiction, work at the intersection of philosophy and literature, and archival ethics.

Egypt as a Test Case for Gender in Arabic Science Fiction



Egypt as a Test Case for Gender in Arabic Science Fiction

Emad El-Din Aysha


The status and portrayal of women in Arabic science fiction is at a precipice in the post-Arab Spring era. Using Egypt as a test case, it emerges that the number of women contributing to the genre is on the rise, and that the presentation of women is generally positive, if not very in-depth and challenging. The politics and economics of literary production is the greater issue, holding back all authors regardless of gender.

Like many literary and cultural imports from the West such as women’s literature and feminism, science fiction is new to the Arab world. Nonetheless, the record of Arab SF is generally good, given that one of the first writers of science fiction in Algeria was Safia Ketou (1944-1989), with her short story “La Planète Mauve” (1969). One of the first authors of SF in Kuwait, likewise, was Taibah Al-Ibrahim (1945-2011), author of a trilogy published in the 1980s-90s on cloning and cryogenic freezing, where it is the men who lose their sexuality thanks to these modern technologies (see below). One of the first and most distinguished SF authors in the UAE is Noura Al-Noman, with her award-winning Ajwan trilogy, beginning in 2012. The problem, however, is continuity. There haven’t been any distinguished women SF writers in the entire Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya) since then, while countries like Kuwait and the UAE are latecomers, with only a handful of SF authors, the bulk of whom are men.

Then there is the ever-tricky issue of content. Are female characters portrayed in a positive light? Do they share equally with men in the building of the future, and what is the status of gender in these imagined future worlds, as illustrated through family, sexual relations, love and intimacy? Modern Egyptian literature and pop culture certainly has its own species of gender-related prejudices, and in many cases has actually imported stereotypes from the Western world. One oft-cited case is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, adapted into an Egyptian black and white classic film Beware of Eve (1962), with the ‘modern,’ educated, assertive woman portrayed as the unfeminine shrew. (Zeyada, 2020; “Shakespeare’s Day”, 2007) Watching Egyptian black and white cinema, you feel like you’re watching cowboy epics, with a polarised separation of women either into the god-fearing, conservatively dressed housewife or the scantily-clad saloon girl. The older species of fantasy, fairy tales, is often captivated by this same polarised perception of the feminine—or Snow White and the Evil Witch, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar famously put it. (Eid, 2020; Tatar, 1999: 23, 28, 36-44; Gilbert and Gubar, 1984: 36-43) Such stereotypes emerge in modern SF guise via the vehicle of toxic male and female characterisations, as SFF author and literary instructor Christina ‘DZA’ Marie[1] has amply documented. (Marie, 2020; 2019) One particular trope we shall touch on below is the mad male scientist inventing the seductive female robot on the Pygmalion model, to cite AI expert Stephen Cave (2019). There is the added problem of the appropriation of science by men, relegating women to the realm of magic and superstition; I Dream of Jeannie being a classic example used by John Carlos Rowe (2011) and Marie Lathers (2009).

Syrian researcher and author Muhammad al-Yassin insiststhat female characters in Arab SF works are generally portrayed in a positive light, regardless of the gender of either the author or the protagonist. The problem, however, he explains, is making effective generalisations, given the small number of Arab SF authors, let alone the even smaller number of female authors. (Al-Yassin, 2020) Egypt as a test case helps solve this problem, since Arabic SF essentially began in Egypt and has been hampered by much the same problems as the rest of the Arab world. Having spoken to many an Arab author, I found repeatedly that the first examples of Arabic SF they ever read were Egyptian, often inspiring them to become authors in the genre themselves. Comparisons are called for with other Arab countries, no doubt, but Egypt is still leading the pack quantitatively and qualitatively.

Making sense of the Egyptian experience can be helped through periodisation. What were the major concerns of the genre as a whole, not just individual authors, and why and how has this changed over time? How did these authors look at gender and how did this change over time, and was the presence or absence of female writers a contributing factor to this? These are the questions that will be answered in the section below, followed by a critical appraisal and set of final remarks on the future direction of gender in Arabic SF, post-Arab Spring.

BETWEEN CONTEXT AND CONTENT

Egyptian science fiction goes essentially through four phases. (El-Zembely, 2018) The first in the 1950-60s was helmed chiefly by playwright Tawfik al-Hakim and Islamic thinker Mustafa Mahmoud, with some mainstream authors trying their hand at SF. The second in the 1970s-80s began with the ‘dean’ of Arabic SF, Nihad Sharif, since he was the first to specialise in this genre, along with some other mainstream authors. The third critical phase stretches from the 1990s to 2011 when the Egyptian SF scene was dominated by the pocketbook (pulp sci-fi) series led by Nabil Farouk, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik and Raof Wasfi; the beginning of mass readership of SF in Egypt and many other Arab countries that read these pocketbooks. Finally, the fourth and current phase, from 2011 to the present, begins with the January revolution and the launch of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF) in 2012 by Dr. Elzembely, a friend of Nihad Sharif, Nabil Farouk and Mustafa Mahmoud.

There are several layers of context lying behind this periodisation, some more unique to Egypt and some more general to the Arab world. Generally, there is little to no institutionalisation of SF in the Arab world. There are few associations and print magazines and little to no attention from the Ministry of Culture at the level of organising conferences or translating SF into Arabic,[2] with the small exception of Syria, thanks to the diligence of Dr. Taleb Omran, the country’s top SF author, who began writing in the 1980s. Institutionalisation in Egypt only began in part thanks to the Arab Spring, starting with the ESSF and then the Nihad Sharif Cultural Salon and some advocates in the Egyptian Writers’ Union. Another common problem across the Arab world is the state of the publishing industry, with a lax intellectual property rights regime and outdated business model when it comes to distribution and profits, (Maklad, 2014) along with the usual political restrictions. (Qualey, 2013) The situation is more pronounced in Egypt, in fact, since authors often have to shoulder the burden of proofing their own texts and contributing financially to publication costs. Editors only enter the picture when it comes to academic texts, and literary agencies are almost unheard of, a common problem in Arabic-speaking countries.

Another problem more peculiar to the Egyptian marketplace is the format for SF and other genre publications, a pattern that took root during the third phase thanks to pocketbooks. Full-length novels are making their way onto the bookshelves, but most novels are within the 20,000 word range, while short story collections are still more popular—and the shorter the short story, the better. This places undue restrictions on you when it comes to plot and character development. Ahmed Khaled Tawfik only began writing full-length novels, beginning with Utopia (2007), later in life, mainly to please the critics and only after gaining a huge following among young readers. (Aysha, 2018)

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik is emblematic for another reason entirely, since most of what he wrote was horror and adventure. A generation of readers-turned-writers came to emulate him, which is why most SF writers in Egypt do not write only SF. Horror, detective fiction, dark fantasy and Young Adult are the more popular genres. All Arab authors traditionally have to make ends meet by having a regular job elsewhere: as a civil servant (like Naguib Mahfouz) or a medical profession (Yousef Idris), schoolteacher, IT expert, translator or graphic designer. In short, the potential out there for SF is huge, but the market is holding everything back, while the literary establishment takes little to no interest in SF.

Women only enter the picture in the second phase, with Dr. Omayma Khafagi’s classic novel The Crime of a Scientist (1990), but no other female authors emerge after that until the fourth phase, with novelists like Basma Abdel Aziz, Asmaa Kadry, Sally Magdy, Dr. Kadria Said and Dina Hekal. This is a deceptively short list of names, as the number who have written short stories is much, much larger, indicative of a swelling of the numbers of female writers attracted to this genre. We can use the ESSF’s anthology series Shams Al-Ghad [“Sun of Tomorrow”] as an example. The number of stories by men compared to women is: Volume One, 4:1; Volume Two, 8:4; Volume Three, 9:5; Volume Four, 15:8; Volume Five, 14:9; Volume Six, 21:9—a slow but steady increase. Admittedly, Volume Seven was 23:2, but this was an exceptional issue dedicated to resistance literature and military SF: some stories by female authors designated for this volume went into other contests, so the numbers aren’t as representative as they seem. While progress has been incremental, the prospects are good, as far as the female contribution to Egyptian SF goes: one of the most critically acclaimed, and internationally recognised, Arab dystopian novels published is none other than Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (2013). Equally important is the fact that women writers in Egypt testify to no discrimination upon entering the world of SF, despite the economic and institutional constraints we all face, men and women. (“In Conversation”, 2019) Even newcomers like Asmaa Kadry, an Egyptian writing and publishing in the UAE, have confirmed this. (Aysha, 2020) She also feels no need to have female protagonists only leading her storylines and is proud to write about men accurately. When queried as how to improve the status of Arab women in SF, she answered: “To just think of them as ‘writers’ not ‘women writers’, you know what I mean? The written word is an expression of the human soul, not the human body, and souls have no gender.” (quoted in Aysha, 2020)

This statement is illustrative of the experience of early Egyptian SF, since gender concerns were conspicuous by their absence. Khafagi’s The Crime of Scientist, purportedly a story about a scientist who makes a human-ape hybrid, has shades of Pygmalion in it, since the guilty scientist in question is a man while the victim is his wife, and the hybrid child is their daughter. Nonetheless, the focus here wasn’t gender, but fear of progress in the form of a searing condemnation of genetic engineering. The novel shocked many critics, because the author herself was a geneticist and trained in the Soviet Union. (Al-Sharouni, 2002: 75-81) The first two phases in Egypt were characterised by a persistent problem shared by many SF works in the Arab world, namely, a profound hostility, fear and mistrust of modern science. There was no hostility to science and technology as such, but to the way they were employed by Western modernity. The classic statement of this in Arabic SF, often cited by Western academics themselves, were the two dystopian Moroccan novels The Blue Flood (Campbell, 2017) and The Elixir of Life. (Campbell, 2015) This was even more pronounced in Egyptian SF works. Mustafa Mahmoud praised mysticism and the world of the soul in the face of science in his novels The Spider and Out of the Coffin, while A Man Below Zero is almost a dystopian novel set in a cosmopolitan future world of material plenty but spiritual aridity and emotional emptiness.

To clarify how gender fits into this, we have the example of Tawfik Al-Hakim’s In the Year One Million (1947), set in a future world where people live forever,  so there is no longer any sex, procreation, love or major biological differences between men and women. There is no awareness of change at all. People live indoors under artificial lighting and never sleep and aren’t aware of the distant past, forever living in the here and now. No art or poetry exists. Then, a scientist makes an archaeological discovery, the bones of an ancient man; he becomes aware of the possibility of death and nothingness and that their world could come to an end. A movement forms around him, it is quashed but persists nonetheless, and with that, death becomes a possibility again, so biological urges and procreation begin to return. The soulless world of the present, where humankind worships and is ruled by machines, gives way to the belief in God the creator. (Al-Sharouni, 2002: 106-110) It is not so much gender that is at issue but modernity and the fear that technological bliss will unmake humanity; with no difference, there is no creativity, art, passion or emotion. Gender is incidental. Anxieties about modernity are expressed in gendered terms but no more. Similar themes abound in Sabri Musa’s The Master from the Spinach Field (1987), with the value of the traditional family upheld by the rebel heroes in the face of the hedonistic, impersonal dystopian world they live in. (al-Yassin, 2009: 32)

For a more contemporary example we have “Love in the Year 2060” (1993), by Syrian author Mohammad Al-Hajj Saleh. The text is set a future world where reproduction and love are forgotten memories. Existence is bland and boring, only regaining colour and vitality once the male hero cures the infertility problem that has been hoisted onto humanity by a malevolent alien race. (al-Yassin, 2009: 51) This isn’t too different, in principle, than Taibah Ibrahim’s works, since cloning and freezing became alternative conduits to immortality, so men lose their sex drive. (Al-Sharouni, 2002: 255, 259-262)

The only examples of gender as a central theme or motif in early Egyptian SF are in Mustafa Mahmoud’s work. In A Man Below Zero, (1966) the hero is a scientist and university professor, an avowed atheist. His wife, formerly his student, is religious, and there is a love triangle of sorts with another male character who is envious of the professor and helps him with a dangerous experiment so as to take him out of the picture. Fortunately, his machinations come to nothing and the erstwhile hero of the novel, while heading on a collision course with the core of the sun, realises that the only truth is that of God and that his wife was right all along. She is left to try and propagate the faith afterwards, symbolically, through their offspring. Still, gender is not that high up on the priorities of the novelist.

In the next two phases, from the 1990s to the present, things begin to change, and for the better on all fronts. The level of hostility and anxiety towards modern science is less pronounced, with technologically bright futures portrayed in the pocketbooks of Nabil Farouk’s Future File series, accompanied with ample male and female heroes as scientific defenders of the realm. Ahmed Khalid Tawfik’s Fantasia novellas are led by a woman. The important things are that women were not denigrated and that science came to be seen as something Arabs and Muslims could use on their own terms to advance themselves and recapture their civilisation. The classic statement of this came in a trio of novels by Dr. Elzembely – The Half-Humans, The Planet of the Viruses and America 2030. (2001) They do owe a lot to the pocketbook series, particularly in the action-packed scenarios of America 2030 and The Half-Humans, but even here, the women are active participants in the action: The Planet of the Viruses is about a global pandemic of extraterrestrial origin, with women scientists and doctors playing a key role in solving the riddle of the viral threat.

In The Half-Humans in particular, we have a female android that the male hero falls in love with not only because she saves his life more than once, or because of her beauty, grace and intelligence, but also because she is presented as someone who has a ‘soul’. She is part mechanical, true enough, but also made of reconstituted human tissue, and the author deploys spiritual interpretations of the Qur’an that denote all things, even inanimate objects, as having some form of consciousness. To recollect the male-dominated gender stereotypes listed above, the Pygmalion and Jeanne stereotypes, Dr. Elzembely’s female android passes this with flying colours. Moreover, the early hostility to science run amok in Arab SF can be chalked down to fears of cultural colonisation in the early post-independence days. Not to forget that the very first science fiction novel, Frankenstein (1818), itself was hostile to scientific advancement, because Mary Shelly’s generation of writers and poets romanticised nature as a refuge from the faithless, materialistic and imbalanced world of early industrialisation and urbanisation. (Eid, 2020)

SF following 2011 is still more complex. The conflation of Western modernity with science is essentially gone while a whole new swath of subgenres has emerged, from post-apocalypse to steampunk, along with more distinctive Egyptian brands: conspiracy theory SF and spiritual or Sufi SF. For an example of the place of gender in all this, we have “The Rebels”, a short story by one of the ESSF top female authors, Lamyaa Al-Said. Here, a group of young intelligent reptilians from another planet escape their rigidly controlled world and come to Earth to wreak havoc and become disguised overlords. The aliens are particularly interested in ruling ‘the East’ given its slavish devotion to superstition and worshiping their leaders, or so they think. Fortunately, a young Egyptian couple, scientists, expose the aliens and save the world. The reptilians are even charged with driving Egyptians against each other, after the January revolution, and the young couple are also political activists. There still are worries about the misuse of science, but its proper use is deployed as a solution that can reassert the natural balance of things. Hence, Muhammad Ahmed Al-Naghi’s dystopian short story “Eugenics”, where world peace reigns through genetic engineering. The bulk of the population is female, given the warlike instincts of men, and people have limited lifespans and predetermined careers. Nonetheless, a scientific resistance movement forms. The heroine, who is the spitting image of Nefertiti, with resurrected ancient Egyptian genes, gives birth to a boy to help repopulate the eart. The reassertion of the natural order of things is exemplified by the closing scene, where the mother and son are tilling fields with the wind on their brow, unlike the beehive world of urban civilisation.

Dr. Elzembely has described this latest phase as one of “cultural authentication”. (Cultural Salon, 2019) Young authors are searching for their own answers as to what they want the world to look like, whether it be the relationship between religion and science, or matters like equality, minority rights, religious pluralism, democracy and free speech, etc. Muslims want to stake their claim to modernity, to their position in the world, and the portrayal of women by and large is positive and expanding. The only remaining question is, will they be allowed to continue in this path?

REMAINING CONSTRAINTS AND FUTURE PROGRESS

SF literature, always plagued by many a problem in Egypt, is now facing a charged political atmosphere. A translator friend of a friend of mine was arrested, inexplicably, while another fellow SF author was arrested after participating in a protest march. It turned out the police chief in charge of the district needed to make his quota of arrests and this particular protestor hadn’t been pulled in for questioning. Another young author was arrested, along with his father, for posting a photo of a protest march on Facebook. Yet another friend confessed to me that he had to praise a former Egyptian president in one of his stories to make sure it didn’t spook any potential publishers. When I applied to join the Writers’ Union, I found I had to hand over my fingerprints, something I’ve been told they didn’t ask for before. There’s a lot of bad blood and cherry-picking out there too, with select books and authors being sued or having their works banned for sexual content, while other authors that are much worse get off scot-free. Egyptian publishers positively encourage lurid literature and many an author deliberately writes about controversial topics, as free advertising.

The limiting word lengths publishers insist on continue to create problems and in some cases problems the authors are unaware of. Dr. Kadria Said and Muhammad Naguib Matter’s Adam without Eve (2020) owes much to the pulp series mentioned above—specific pocketbooks are mentioned by name in the novel—and characters as a consequence lose their sense of volition. (Cultural Salon, 2020) The novel is also captivated by that strain of hostility to science and modernity that animated the initial phases of Egyptian and Arab SF. The story is about cloners using their technology to either steal military secrets from Egyptian nuclear scientists, or steal the secrets of the ancients by cloning ancient Egyptians. It is also noticeable that one of the evil characters is a foreign-educated Egyptian women with blue eyes (of mixed descent) whereas another woman that fights against her is also well educated, relying on technology to evade capture, while thoroughly Egyptian in her upbringing and appearance.

The younger generation of authors is a bit luckier. One of the most interesting examples of this is SFF author Ahmed Al-Mahdi, a literary translator and also an Arab Spring protestor. In his post-apocalyptic, steampunk novel Malaz: The City of Resurrection, (2017) the male hero, Qasim, falls in love with a girl named Jihad, the daughter of Muhab, leader of the so-called Outcasts, a warrior clan that live in the mountains. He meets her for the first time while scavenging the ruins of Cairo for scrap metal and she saves his life from a wolf on the prowl. When he joins the Outcasts, Muhab takes it upon himself to teach Qasim swordsmanship and chivalry. Qasim almost gives up, until he sees Jihad close by and he forces himself to keep practicing and practising till he becomes an expert and all in an effort to impress her. For all his disdain of the corruption and tyranny of the Sayydin (hunters), the warrior class that run the city-state of Malaz, he is an intellectual and doesn’t busy himself with rebellion or righting the wrongs of the past. Jihad also insists on going to battle when the southern kingdom of Abydos goes to war with Malaz, despite Qasim’s protestations.

The bandits, or ‘outcasts’ as they’re known, were originally part of the warrior caste that ran Malaz, in its golden age when it was a safe haven for all; malaz in Arabic means haven or sanctuary. Querying Ahmed, he insisted that female participation was part of this ideal, older order, something he wanted to revive through the character Jihad:  jihad really means “effort” or “struggle”, but is often mistranslated as “holy war” in English. Querying Ahmed further he explained: “I try to give women more roles than just being passive watchers, and not stick to stereotypical gender roles”. Even more intriguing is the kingdom of Abydos, where the old gods of ancient Egypt are worshipped again, including: “Sekhmet is the Egyptian goddess of the sun, war, destruction, plagues and healing. She is one of the oldest deities and one of the most powerful. She is a member of the Memphite (cult center in Memphis) triad together with husband Ptah, the god of creation and wisdom and son Nefertum, the god of sunrise” (Mahdi, 2020). The boy prince of Abydos, Sia, overthrows his father and declares war on Malaz, reviving the old technologies of the pre-apocalyptic world to build a giant war machine to destroy the walls of Malaz; the machine is modelled on a lioness and named after the Goddess of War. The men of Malaz, including the Sayyadin, are terrified of the goddess, and it is only Qasim and Jihad that can take it on with his own retrofitted ancient technologies. Ahmed added that this was just out of historical accuracy, but it is noteworthy, one of the few instances when gender and male insecurities are tackled head on.

On the plus side, from all of the ESSF volumes listed above, I’ve only encountered two short stories that portrayed women in a negative light. Sex specifically is absent. There are romance stories in Egyptian SF, stretching as far back as Mustafa Mahmoud, but the relationships in question tend be innocent, platonic and cerebral. Nihad Sherif’s “The Woman in the Flying Saucer” (1981) has female humanoid aliens coming to Earth, asking help from an astronomer. There is a romantic atmosphere in the air but nothing more (Snir, 2000: 275-276). This pattern is repeated in many of our ESSF stories, not least one of the most interesting stories in our resistance volume. Mahmoud Abdel Rahim has a love story running parallel to an armed resistance movement, and it is the romantic story that inadvertently leads to an intifada that finally ends the occupation. Love is designated as the ultimate weapon, not the parallel-worlds mirror that allows the resistance to anticipate the enemy’s next moves.

This air of innocence is all the more amazing, given how mainstream Egyptian literature is captivated by sexualised stereotypes. Still, avoiding bad stereotypes is not the same thing as providing an alternative that isn’t didactic and flat, and that demands the kind of depth of characterisation and thematic controversy not allowed for in Egypt. Religious scruples are part of this hesitancy, no doubt. There is also the literary upbringing of the authors. Ahmed Al-Mahdi once noted how shocked he was at the rape scene in Utopia, given how he’d grown up reading Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s highly sanitised pocketbook series (Aysha, 2018). Still, the bigger problems are the constraints placed on writers, women and men, as outlined above.

Where things will go from here is anybody’s guess, but I’m personally optimistic. To cite Muhammad al-Yassin again, the onus is on the critics to highlight what is missing in Arabic and Egyptian SF and to help the genre gain the kind of notoriety and acclaim it deserves (2020). If this critical piece can help in any way in this regard, then there is hope at the end of the tunnel.


[1] DZA stands for Dragons, Zombies & Aliens.

[2] This sort of governmental involvement is standard practice for literary fiction in the Arabic-speaking world – ed.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Special thanks to Rebecca Hankins, Ahmed Al-Mahdi and Marcia Lynx Qualey.

WORKS CITED

Al-Mahdi, Ahmed. (13 August 2020). Facebook communication.

Al-Sharouni, Yousef. (2002). Science Fiction in Contemporary Arabic Literature: Till the End of the 20th Century. Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization. [Arabic].

Al-Yassin, Muhammad. (26 February 2020). Facebook communication.

Al-Yassin, Muhammad. (2009). “Egyptian and Syrian Science Fiction: Novels and Novelists”. Science Fiction, 10–11: 30-53.

Aysha, Emad El-Din. (2 April 2020). “Splicing and Dicing: interview with Fantasy-SF author Asmaa Kadry”. The Levant. https://the-levant.com/splicing-dicing-interview-fantasy-sf-author-asmaa-kadry/.

—-. (21 November 2018). “In Memoriam: Ahmed Khalid Tawfik, the Man and the Mission”. Arab Literature (in English) Blog. https://arablit.org/2018/11/21/in-memoriam-ahmed-khalid-tawfik-the-man-and-the-mission/.

Campbell, Ian. (2015). “Science Fiction and Social Criticism in Morocco of the 1970s: Muhammad Aziz Lahbabi’s The Elixir of Life”. Science Fiction Studies. 42(1). March: 42-55.

—–. (2017). “False Gods and Libertarians: Artificial Intelligence and Community in Aḥmad ‘Abd al-Salām al-Baqqāli’s The Blue Flood and Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”. Science Fiction Studies. 44(1). March: 43-64.

Cave, Stephen. (14 October 2019). “Imagining the Future with AI”. Paper delivered at Artificial Intelligence, Innovation and Inclusion: What Prospects for the Middle East and Africa?, Ninth Annual Workshop of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D), held at the American University in Cairo.

Cultural Salon for the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction. (31 January 2020). Nasr City, Egypt. [Arabic].

Cultural Salon for the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction. (27 December 2019). Nasr City, Egypt. [Arabic].

El-Zembely, Hosam. (28 March 2018). “The Director of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction on Arabic SF’s Past, Present, and Future”. Arab Literature (in English) Blog. https://arablit.org/2018/03/28/the-director-of-the-egyptian-society-for-science-fiction-on-arabic-sfs-past-present-and-future/.

Eid, Nariman. (29 February 2020). “Igor and Eva: A Deeper Relation than Frankenstein and His Monster”. Paper delivered at the International Graduate Student Conference: Transmedia Explorations: Literature-Film-Media Formulations, held at the American University in Cairo.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. (1984). The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP.

“In Conversation: Passing the Baton of Egyptian Science Fiction, Post-Arab Spring”. (24 August 2019). Vector: British Science Fiction Association. https://vector-bsfa.com/2019/08/24/in-conversation-passing-the-baton-of-egyptian-science-fiction-post-arab-spring/.

Lathers, Marie. (31 March 2009). “Arabs, Aliens, and Women: The Colonization of Outer Space in Popular Culture”. Talk delivered at the American University in Cairo.

Maklad, Ashraf. (25 February 2014). “Major New Arabic Ebookstore Could Be Publishing Game-changer”. Arab Literature (in English) Blog. https://arablit.org/2014/02/25/major-new-arabic-ebookstore-could-be-publishing-game-changer/.

Marie, Christina ‘DZA’. (27 February 2019). “Superhero Movies that Fight Toxic Masculinity”. Luna Station Quarterly. http://lunastationquarterly.com/superhero-movies-that-fight-toxic-masculinity/.

Marie, Christina ‘DZA’. (5 July 2020). “Top 10 WORST Female Character Tropes”. Dragons, Zombies & Aliens. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dFhzy7W_lo.Qualey, Marcia Lynx. (23 October 2013). “Muhammad Aladdin: ‘The Central Problem Was – And Is – Book Distribution’. Interview of Egyptian Novelist Muhammad Aladdin”. Arab Literature (in English) Blog. http://arablit.wordpress.com/2013/10/23/novelist-muhammad-aladdin-the-central-problem-was-and-is-book-distribution-2/.

Rowe, John Carlos. (1 November 2011). “Edward Said Memorial Lecture: American Orientalism after Edward Said”. Talk delivered at the American University in Cairo.

“Shakespeare’s Day”. (18 April 2007). Bibliotheca Alexandrina. http://www.bibalex.org/en/news/details?documentid=1540&searching=1&related=center_9&page=19.

Snir, Reuven. (2000). “The Emergence of Science Fiction in Arabic literature”. Der Islam. 77(2): 263-285.

Tatar, Maria. (1999). The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Zeyada, Nada. (29 February 2020). “From Stage to Screen: A Cross-Cultural Examination of Gender Stereotypes in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the Egyptian Movie Beware of Eve”. Paper delivered at the International Graduate Student Conference: Transmedia Explorations: Literature-Film-Media Formulations, held at the American University in Cairo.

Emad El-Din Aysha is an academic researcher, freelance journalist and literary translator currently residing in Cairo, Egypt., He is a published SF author, in English and Arabic, and a member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction and the Egyptian Writers’ Union.

The SF in Translation Universe #10


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Features / SFT Universe


The SF in Translation Universe #10

Rachel Cordasco


Welcome back to the SF in Translation Universe! Thankfully, it’s a new year, which means a whole new stack of exciting SFT to read. Korean SFT, in particular, is continuing to make a strong showing (thanks to publishers like Honford Star and Kaya), plus we’ll be getting the very first anthology of Greek SFT, thanks to Francesco Verso, Francesca Barbini, and Luna Press Publishing.

The first three months of 2021 are bringing us several tantalizing novels and collections (as well as the aforementioned Greek anthology). In terms of science fiction, Galileo Publishers is offering us Mountains Oceans Giants: An Epic of the 27th Century by German author Alfred Döblin (tr Chris Godwin). In this far-future dystopia, the elites of the world try to melt Greenland’s icecap in order to make room for the Earth’s growing population. Of course, their plan to tap into the planet’s heat via Iceland’s volcanoes doesn’t work out and…well, you’ll have to read to find out what happens. Other science fiction includes Robot by famed Polish science fiction author Adam Wisniewski-Snerg (tr ?), in which BER-64 tries to figure out if it’s man or machine; and Bug by Italian author Giacomo Sartori (tr Frederika Randall)–a wild story about family dysfunction, robots, bees, and more.

If you’re looking for fantasy (broadly defined), look no further than The Route of Ice and Salt and Eleven Sooty Dreams. Translated from the Spanish by David Bowles, Route is Mexican author José Luis Zárate’s unique reimagining of Dracula’s journey to England. Eleven Sooty Dreams is the latest book in English from one of Antoine Volodine’s post-exotic heteronyms—Manuela Draeger. Translated from the French by J. T. Mahany, it’s set in a burning building in which a group of young leftists is trapped and moves between their minds and memories about their childhood and struggle to survive in a dystopian world.

Turning to collections, we can look forward to two by Korean speculative fiction authors and one by the multi-talented Brazilian author, translator, and editor Fabio Fernandes. Tower by Bae Myung-hoon (tr. Sung Ryu) is made up of interconnected stories set in a 674-story skyscraper that is also a sovereign nation. We learn about how the people living in the tower navigate the complex power relations of this particular society. Out a month later is Bo-Young Kim’s On the Origin of Species and Other Stories (tr Sora Kim-Russell), which moves freely between science fiction, fantasy, and myth, focusing on how humans and non-humans try to survive via biological, technological, and social evolution. Fernandes’s collection (tr from the Portuguese by the author)—Love: An Archaeology—includes fourteen stories that span space and subgenres but ultimately focus on love and its discontents.

Both Love: An Archaeology and the anthology of Greek SFT will be out from Luna Press Publishing, which has been bringing us an exciting array of SFT for the past few years. Nova Hellas: Stories From Future Greece, edited by Verso and Barbini, includes fiction from some of Greece’s most acclaimed authors, including three who have published in English before (Stamatis Stamatopoulos, Natalia Theodoridou, and Michalis Manolios). This is a wonderful chance for Anglophone readers to learn more about Greek speculative fiction and its intersection with contemporary Greek social and political concerns.

In terms of short fiction, the anthology Ab Terra 2020, which comes out in January from Brain Mill Press, includes my translation of the Italian story “Chronotope” by Raul Ciannella. Set in a future data entry center, “Chronotope” imagines how a group of individuals, who have become subsumed by their digital work, might escape by combining their human senses.

Hopefully, we have much more short SFT to look forward to this year from magazines like Future Science Fiction Digest, Samovar, Clarkesworld, Mithila Review, and new publications like Constelación and Eita! Magazine.

Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading now and what you’re looking forward to: rachel@sfintranslation.com.

Until next time in the SFT Universe!

Pants Scientists and Bona Fide Cyber Ninjas: Tracing the Poetics of Cyberpunk Menswear


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference


Pants Scientists and Bona Fide Cyber Ninjas: Tracing the Poetics of Cyberpunk Menswear

Esko Suoranta


A translucent plastic raincoat on the streets of a futuristic Los Angeles. A long leather jacket, swinging into an austere foyer just before a gunfight. Mirrorshades. Spiky hair, colored neon green. Chrome. The tropes of cyberpunk fashion are well established, and it is easy to see how the mode’s general aesthetic has always influenced and been influenced by personal expression in various subcultures through clothing and accessories. The tokens of anarchist self-images, like piercings and leather clothes, readily lent themselves for cyberpunk at its inception as a new movement in SF, where a dystopian, unevenly distributed future would be played out not on spaceships or distant planets but in the urban realm, the streets of the sprawl, the megalopolis. For that struggle, the cyberpunk (anti-)hero needed the clothes to boot.

In this paper, based on my presentation at the Cyberpunk Culture 2020 conference, I provide a sporadic tour of men’s fashion in cyberpunk art, from literature to film to games, and read it in relation to examples of real-life cyberpunk-inspired menswear. I argue, somewhat uncontroversially, that changes in dress as part of a mode’s poetics reflect changes in its politics over time and between works. I focus on menswear, rather than cyberpunk fashion in general, in the interest of uncovering a specifically male-coded, and cis-heteronormative, relationship with fashion: as I hope will become clear, much of cyberpunk-influenced menswear justifies itself with function and utility as if such features were necessary for men to participate in fashion movements. I detect a change from the lone-wolf outlaws of original cyberpunk to militarized super-hero enforcers of the current mainstream, but also present a counterpoint to both in the guise of the cool, gray cyberpunk man: a “pants science” enthusiast who combines the fantasies of individualism and a low-key presentation to the hidden, almost science-fictional, functionalities of his clothing.

These three figures emerge as male cyberpunk archetypes with their distinct looks and politics with counterparts both in fiction and on the streets today. Where the original cyberpunk man wanted his aesthetic to scream counter-culture and opposition to “the man” of Reagan’s United States, the futuristic cyber-superhero needs form and function to aid him in militarized quests on mean, dystopian streets. Finally, the contemporary, unobtrusive cyberpunk wants his outfits to be techwear of the highest quality, but without drawing too much attention to himself. As such, all three point toward what Stina Attebery calls “fashion [as] a speculative practice: a future-oriented, constantly shifting set of speculative assumptions about the future of social expression and posthuman embodiment” (“Chrome and Matte Black,” see also “Fashion” in The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture). Cyberpunk menswear experiments with expanding the scope of masculine self-expression and does in ways that can be both problematic and emancipatory, as I hope becomes clear from the examples addressed below.

To get started, let us consider a spoof image from Mondo 2000, the cyberpunk culture magazine (figure 1.). With the tongue-in-cheek query “R.U. a Cyberpunk” it showcases many of the features of classic cyberpunk menswear, providing an itemized list of what a stereotypical cyberpunk should have in his inventory from spy equipment to 1990s computer paraphernalia and media devices. The model is clad in all-black-everything, wears heeled leather boots and a pilot jacket, but notably the items of clothing are not on the numbered list of essential gear. They are to be read as incidental details, as self-evident, but they naturally betray the debt cyberpunk owes to punk and heavy metal cultures. In addition, the clothes ossify the look of a cyberpunk beyond his gadgets.

Fig. 1

Despite being a parody image, the figure of the model is aspirational: standing out and standing up against abstract control and oppression is possible if one projects an in-your-face attitude, possesses everything in gadgetry the early 1990s have to offer, and makes that clear to everyone who dares look into the cold reflection of mirrored shades.

Importantly, the shades are the one exception where a fashion accessory is marked as part of the cyberpunk’s essential gear. They are mentioned in entry number seven, where one meaning of “cyberpunk” is given as “someone who maintains mirrorshades never went out of fashion.” It is indeed mirrored sunglasses to which the bad-ass counterculture ethos of cyberpunk fashion can be traced. Their significance is summarized by Bruce Sterling in his preface to the Mirrorshades (1986) anthology of cyberpunk stories: “By hiding the eyes, mirrorshades prevent the forces of normalcy from realizing that one is crazed and possibly dangerous. They are the symbol of the sunstaring visionary, the biker, the rocker, the policeman, and similar outlaws” (38). It is clear in retrospect that Sterling should have problematized this vision of visionaries outside the law as history keeps revealing how the lone rebel is rarely a force for progress or good, but the visionary individual against the “forces of normalcy” is central to the popular understanding of the cyberpunk hero. To look like a cyberpunk is to tell onlookers that one is a misfit, a potential threat to the status quo.

One later example emerges in The Matrix (1999), arguably the most successful cyberpunk movie to date. The outlaws of Nebuchadnessar face a force of totalizing normalcy, as machines seek to keep humanity lulled in virtual battery-acid dreams. The thematic resonance of the mirrorshades is clear in figure 2. Neo, making his choice between the red and blue pill, sees his possible futures and potential reflected back at him from the outlaw guru Morpheus’s lenses. As such, the Stoic, mysterious, black-clad counterculture man with shades to hide his dangerousness remains a cyberpunk archetype.

Fig. 2

It is no surprise that the fringe-character Sterling describes, and, in a sense, Morpheus epitomizes is easy to co-opt for militant power-fantasies. Adam Jensen, the hero of the Deus Ex franchise of games and related products, is a case in point (figure 3.). Starting out as a security officer, he is ripped apart by explosions and gunfire and fitted with a fully cybernetic body by his employer Sarif Industries, becoming a RoboCop with free will in a dystopian near future. In the games of the franchise, he works for Sarif Inudstries, gray-ops counter-terrorism units, and seeks to uncover actions of the Illuminati. His cybernetic augmentations allow him to see and punch through walls, employ hyper-reflexes, blades in his forearms, and invisibility, making him a Swiss-army-cyber-knife with only the most dangerous villains able to oppose him. Jensen is thus the cyberpunk as superhero, a vigilante fighting against terrorism with his incredible augmentations. He is part of the militarized world of enforcers, embodying extra-legal justice and distributing it through degrees of violence (it is possible to complete the games almost completely without killing, but Jensen still remains very much embedded in networks of violence).

Fig. 3

In such a line of work, clothing and a functional style are essential. Jensen has sunglass implants in the style of William Gibson’s Molly Millions from Neuromancer (1984), he speaks with a low growl, and wears a long dark coat worthy of any character from The Matrix. His trench-coat is adapted to stay out his way: his sleeves retract to make room for hand-cannons and arm-blades and the design is no haphazard accident. The launch trailer for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016) shows, in a sequence lasting some two seconds, that Jensen has an ACRONYM coat (figure 4.). ACRONYM is a real urban techwear brand, based in Berlin, expensive, and aiming for the highest degree of functionality possible for clothing. Its founder and head designer Errolson Hugh (figure 5.) appears at times almost indistinguishable from cybersuperhero Jensen.

Fig. 4
Fig. 5

Speaking of the design process for Jensen’s coat for Gameinformer, Hugh said ACRONYM approached the project like any other, asking who is using the garment, for what purposes, and what specific challenges they might encounter (Cork). Focusing on function is a departure from the more detached aesthetic of mirrorshades and leather in classic cyberpunk discussed above. Jacked into the matrix, one’s success is not dependent on what one wears, and virtual avatars can look like anything at all. Meatspace is thus always secondary to cyberspace and the leather-clad look mainly transfers a counter-cultural message rather than responds to functional needs. For the futuristic cyberninja, like Jensen, however, the street is his primary haunt and fashion choices must reflect that.

The ultra-functional cyberpunk like Adam Jensen remains, for most intents and purposes, a fictional character, but the influence of the archetype leaks into the everyday. It should not come as a surprise, then, to find William Gibson and Errolson Hugh side by side in near-identical outfits (figure 6). Gibson is a self-proclaimed ACRONYM fan and his fiction from Pattern Recognition (2003) onward is laden with the author’s fascination with brands, fashion, and techwear. The novel even prompted Buzz Rickson’s to launch a product line in his name, inspired by a fictional jacket of theirs appearing in it (figure 7.). In an interview for The Guardian’s “The look I love” column, Gibson wore an outfit comprised entirely of ACRONYM clothes. In the headline, he is quoted saying that he is always striving not to be noticed (Marriot). The statement follows one Gibson made for the lifestyle site Heddel’s, citing “gray man theory” as one inspiration for his choices in clothing. According to the theory, allegedly from the security industry, dressing in unremarkable clothes, like chinos, is a must for security personnel as anyone with combat pants will be shot first in any hostile encounter (Shuck).

Fig. 6
Fig. 7

Deb Chacra, professor of engineering at Olin College, makes a connection between Gibson’s attempt to remain unnoticed and the so-called Great Male Renunciation of late 18th-century Europe, during which flamboyant designs and bright colors stopped being features of men’s clothing (“Metafoundry 30”). The image of the dandy born then, seemingly uninterested in self-decoration and hence invested to black and white in his outfits, continues to inform much of men’s fashion even to a fault. Gray cyberpunk men can be seen as contemporary takes on the dandy ethos: Beau Brummel, the chief architect of the Great Male Renunciation, and Gibson both wear outfits that appear unmarked, but are never coincidental.

The continuum from Adam Jensen to Errolson Hugh to William Gibson shows the paring down of the cyberninja outfit to the more quotidian streets of today. While the classic leather-clad cyberpunk screams counterculture with his fashion choices and Adam Jensen needs his retractable function-sleeves to blast future terrorists, the gray cyberpunk man remains unobtrusive, but knows in his heart of hearts that he is donning the most functional, technical, and exclusive gear known to mankind.

Fig. 8

To illustrate this further, let us take a look at some brand-writing from the Brooklyn-based clothing company Outlier. Consider the following quotes and figure 8.:

Ultrafine Merino T-Shirt

A near perfect t-shirt made with a Mackenzie 17.5 micron Merino Jersey, nature’s finest performance fabric. Beautifully soft and remarkably dry to the touch, merino’s hygroscopic properties help cool you in the heat and insulate you in the cool.

Injected Linen Blazer

An unlined blazer that wears like air. The Injected Linen fabric combines industrial warp-knit weft-insertion techniques with natural linen to create a material that is incredibly open and breathable while holding an elegant opacity.

To me, that is the sound of science fiction and, more precisely, the poetics of estrangement applied to clothing. Outlier garments give a very ordinary impression and they are without visible logos or texts that would reveal their brand identity, but they are described so as to make them unique and strange, to have consumers know there is more than meets the eye. They thus combine the cyber-ninja ethos of functionality, hidden in patterns and materials, to the gray man aesthetic of unobtrusiveness.

There is a connection to be made between the Outlier product descriptions and Gibson’s Bigend trilogy of contemporary novels. Specifically, the poetics of Outlier can be read as what Jaak Tomberg calls the “double vision of SF” where text registers as realism and science fiction not side by side or a passage after the other, but at the same time, “both plausibly everyday and plausibly cognitively estranging” (263). Tomberg’s principal example is the following description of protagonist Cayce Pollard’s outfit in Pattern Recognition:

[…] for the meeting, reflected in the window of a Soho specialist in mod paraphernalia, are a Fresh Fruit T-shirt, her black Buzz Rickson’s MA-1, anonymous black skirt from a Tulsa thrift, the black leggings she’d worn for Pilates, black Harajuku schoolgirl shoes. Her purse-analog is an envelope of black East German laminate, purchased on eBay—if not actual Stasi-issue then well in the ballpark.

8

In addition to the information-laden nominalization of articles of clothing, it should be noted that Cayce shares in the novel Gibson’s attempts to be unnoticed, clipping logos and other brand-markers off her clothes, favoring black, simple garments. As a result, she emerges as the fictional counterpart to the cool, gray man in favor of Outlier. Lee Konstantinou discusses her as an archetypal cool character (Cool Characters 240–269) and finds in Pattern Recognition’s “coolhunting aesthetics” an attempt to “reconnect the free-floating brand to the hidden supply chains that make brands profitable in the first place” (“The Brand as a Cognitive Map” 95). As such, Cayce appears as a central inspiration for the gray cyberpunk man aesthetic (and it should be noted that much of what she wears can be construed as gender-neutral). Both are less interested in instant recognition of the excellence of their garments through brand semiotics, but rather in an insider knowledge of fabrics, technologies, and details of production.

The science-fictional poetics of a brand like Outlier coincide with the latest developments in cyberpunk literature that is not all too keen to focus on superheroes like Adam Jensen, but rather concerns itself with more naturalistic struggles under accelerating digital capitalism – a theme I deal with in my dissertation in preparation. Such fiction questions the possibility of fighting and winning against the powers that be, showing that, under contemporary capitalism, different means of resistance than those of the superhero vigilante are needed (for examples of analyses pointing to this direction, see Suoranta 2014 and 2020). The realization that transhumanist augmentation or the vigilantism of loners does not guarantee progress or resilience of any kind can be seen in the fairly toned-down characters of authors like Malka Older, Annalee Newitz, and Tim Maughan, among others.

To conclude, I want to point out how the techwear enthusiast who is into brands like ACRONYM or Outlier has already reached the archetypal, stock-figure status of the mirrorshaded hacker, emerging as an object of parody, specifically in the 2019 CRPG Disco Elysium. Here is an exchange between Cuno, a street kid, and the amnesiac cop protagonist. Consider the following, keeping the Outlier blurbs in mind:

“YOU — ‘Alright, entertain me — what’s so great about these pants?’

CUNO — ‘Pig, these are FALN *Modulars*! Liquid fit, performance crotch, urban survival shit! Made in Mirova… by scientists. *Pants* scientists.

‘Believe it, you *need* this shit…’ He unzips his jacket to give you a quick peek at the plastic-wrapped pants. They are graphite-black and look brand new.’’

In Disco Elysium, players can naturally collect a whole FALN outfit in the course of the game, ironically role-playing the pants scientist aficionado, functioning optimally in his tactical urban environment with the clothes giving various bonuses and penalties to different skills. In fact, the skills of the player-character comment what goes on in the game as various inner voices, provided the relevant skill checks are successful:

SAVOIR FAIRE [Trivial: Success] — These could drastically improve your chances of survival in the urban wilderness.

PHYSICAL INSTRUMENT [Easy: Success] — Coach Physical Instrument endorses these pants. […]

CONCEPTUALIZATION [Medium: Success] — They will also make you look like an idiot.

The FALN aesthetic hinges on as-visible-as-possible branding on the products themselves and the designs hark to ACRONYM’s futuristic gear (figure 9.). At the same time, the language of “pants science” aligns them with Outlier’s SF poetics. Teenage Cuno’s enthusiasm and Conceptualization’s judgment take a gentle piss out of the speculative promises cyberpunk menswear can be seen to make. They let slip that, in fact, leather jackets do not make one a visionary, ACRONYM performance clothes do not make one a superhero, and wearing the results of Outlier’s pants science does not make a man special. Or further, whatever aesthetic or functional effects these clothes might endow one with, they are easily overshadowed by disproportionate hype or aggrandizement. Still, like Attebery points out, the expression they afford does the speculative work of fashion, hinged on cyberpunk ideas.

Fig. 9

I hope this smörgåsbord of pants, coats, and people real and fictional has shown that cyberpunk menswear flows in and out of fiction in various interesting ways and that its changing poetics are connected to the mode’s politics over time and between works in different media. My examples chart a shift from Sterling’s visionary outlaws to superhero fashionistas, and, finally, to the toned-down protagonists of contemporary cyberpunk literature and, in a natural dynamic, their parodies. Further explorations could be done with the help of the impressively curated Cyberpunk Clothing wiki on Reddit, where the brands featured here appear alongside suits, cybergoth wear, milspec, and high fashion. In a sense, the wiki appears as a similar contemporary inventory of essentials as the Mondo 2000 parody image we started with, this time for the expanded, contemporary world of cyberpunk that we inhabit, for better and worse. As with all aesthetic choices, cyberpunk fashion also engenders both toxic and wholesome politics from militarized looks that border on fascist insignia to unobtrusive normcore ideals home at a cozy startup. Both designers and consumers employ its semiotics and design ideals to strive toward the various potentials of expression associated with cyberpunk. It thus appears clear that of all science-fictional modes, cyberpunk is well on its way of influencing fashion and aesthetics.


WORKS CITED

Attebery, Stina. “Chrome and Matte Black: Cyberpunk’s Speculative Posthuman Fashions.” Cyberpunk Culture 2020, 10 July 2020, Virtual Conference. Conference Presentation. cyberpunkculture.com/cpcc20/program-friday/%C2%A732-stina-attebery/. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.

Cork, Jeff. “Haute Future: How Fashion Designers Improved Deus Ex.” Gameinformer, 24 Apr. 2015. http://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2015/04/24/haute-future-how-fashion-designers-improved-adam-jensen-s-deus-ex-coat.aspx. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.

Chachra, Deb. “Metafoundry 30: Confusion Matrices.” 29 March 2015. tinyletter.com/metafoundry/letters/metafoundry-30-confusion-matrices. Accessed 29 Oct. 2020.

“Cyberpunk Clothing.Reddit Inc, 27 May 2008, http://www.reddit.com/r/Cyberpunk/wiki/clothing. Accessed 29 Oct. 2020.

“Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – Announcement Trailer PS 4.” YouTube, uploaded by Playstation, 8 April 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvSs5b6y-YM.

Disco Elysium. Written by Robert Kurvitz, ZA/UM, 2019.

@ersln. “THE MOST KNOWN UNKNOWN™ … ΛCRИM … J1A-GT … Now … https://acrnm.com/products/J1A-GT_NA #acrnm.” Twitter, 13 Dec. 2015, 3:42 a.m., twitter.com/erlsn/status/675853241482129408. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

@ersln. “Uncle Bill. https://instagram.com/p/BQ6ydbyldrR/.” Twitter, 25 Feb. 2017, 7:45 p.m., twitter.com/erlsn/status/835546317065707523. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. Viking, 2003.

“Buzz Rickson William Gibson MA-1 Flying Jacket, Tailored Cut.” History Preservation Associates, 2000, http://historypreser-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/ma1_wg_slim_mont.jpeg. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

Konstantinou, Lee. “The Brand as a Cognitive Map in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition.” boundary 2, vol. 36, no. 2, 2009, pp. 67–97.

Konstantinou, Lee. Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction. Harvard University Press, 2016.

Luo, Jiaqi. “Why Is Post-COVID China Embracing a Cyberpunk Aesthetic?” Jing Daily, 7 Oct. 2020, https://jingdaily.com/china-luxury-trends-cyberpunk-covid-louis-vuitton/. Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.

Marriot, Hannah. “William Gibson: ‘I’m always striving not to be noticed.’” The Guardian, 16 June 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/jun/16/william-gibson-im-always-striving-not-to-be-noticed. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.

Outlier Incorporated. OUTLIER Simple Innovation and Wild Experimentation in Clothing, 2008, outlier.nyc. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

Shuck, David. “William Gibson Interview: His Buzz Rickson Line, Tech Wear, and the Limits of Authenticity.” Heddel’s, 5 March 2015, http://www.heddels.com/2015/03/william-gibson-interview-buzz-rickson-line-tech-wear-limits-authenticity/. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.

Sirius, R. U. “R.U. a Cyberpunk? Well? R.U? … Punk.” Mondo 2000, 30 Aug. 2017, http://www.mondo2000.com/2017/08/30/r-u-a-cyberpunk-well-r-u-punk/. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.

Sterling, Bruce. “Preface to Mirrorshades.” Science Fiction Criticism, edited by Rob Latham, Bloomsbury, 2017, 37–42.

Suoranta, Esko. “Agents or Pawns? Power Relations in William Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy.” Fafnir – Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, 19–31.

Suoranta, Esko. “An Ever-Compromised Utopia: Virtual Reality in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge.” New Perspectives on Dystopian Fiction in Literature and Other Media, edited by Saija Isomaa, Jyrki Korpua, and Jouni Teittinen, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020, 101–18.

The Matrix. Directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, Warner Brothers, 1999.

Tomberg, Jaak. “On the ‘Double Vision’ of Realism and SF Estrangement in William Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy.” Science Fiction Studies vol. 40, no. 2, 2013, 263–85.Verhaaf, Michaël. Deus Ex Universe: Children’s Crusade #1 Game Cover. 2016.

“The (Cyber) Center Cannot Hold”: Futures, Bodies and Minds in William Gibson’s The Peripheral


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference


“The (Cyber) Center Cannot Hold”: Futures, Bodies and Minds in William Gibson’s The Peripheral

Carmen M. Méndez-García


In The Peripheral (2014), William Gibson revisits in a dystopian, or maybe utopian, mode issues such as alternative communities, the possibilities that technology offers for transcendence (not least importantly that of the body itself), and the effect on individuals of hyper-technologized post-late capitalist societies. Gibson goes back to the familiar space of the über-modern city as a locale for his fiction, while also advancing ecological concerns and hypotheses on the effects of an environmental, economic, and political apocalypse. The move “from a predictive style of science fiction to contemporary fiction” in Gibson (Griffith 44) emphasizes the connection in his writing between the present and imagined futures, since as he has declared, “[w]ithout a sense of how weird the present is—how potentially weird the present is— it became impossible for me to judge how much weirder I should try to make an imagined future” (Dayal).

This move seems to contradict Gibson’s association with cyberpunk,1 a genre which carries with it a “bleak perception of the possibility of agency” (Wilson 91). I would like to argue, however, that Gibson is still writing within the genre, and that the potential for connection between privileged and under-privileged individuals through technology is at the core of Gibson’s novel. In this sense, The Peripheral does use what has been called the “sentimental endings” (Elias) preferred by Gibson, and as Paul Graham Raben suggests, it is a “standard Gibson . . . suggesting a benchmark of quality, certainly, but also that trustworthy familiarity of form that accrues to any consistently reliable brand.” This familiarity, however, also suggests the possibility of change by allowing the disfranchised to be in charge of their own bodies and destinies.

The Peripheral is set in two different future times, seventy years apart, the first of which is the second’s past. In the later one, early 22nd century London is an extreme late-capitalist society, a mixture of “post-humanism and globalized military-industrial technological complex ruled solely by the logic of finance capitalism” (Elias), after the apocalypse known as the Jackpot has taken place. This Jackpot is a combination of “unchecked climate disaster, worldwide financial collapse, rampant disease outbreak, and ubiquitous social breakdown after the crackup of all nation-states” (Elias), and it has wiped eighty percent of the Earth’s population. Those who have survived did so by using “assemblers” (advanced nanotechnology bots) to rebuild cities, which has provided for efficient, eco-friendly cities which are, nonetheless, mostly empty. In this 22nd century future, “peripherals” (remotely controlled enhanced cyborgs avatars) can be used as protection or disguise. These surrogate bodies are a commodity, and the most advanced models can only be afforded by the wealthy. Personal security can be ensured by using the peripherals to interact from the safety of a distant location.

In the second future we find a piece of rural America in the 2030s, which Gibson has defined as a “a more fully corrupt, third-worlded version of contemporary America” (“William Gibson”). There, bodies are less a commodity than a burden, with impoverished army veterans suffering constant neural pain from malfunctioning haptic implants or having very limited control of their bodies due to permanent physical disabilities. The inhabitants of this timeline (or “stub”) are “dependent upon (and highly proficient using) advanced technology, but under-educated and futureless, scraping a living by working in tech-industry workshops, low-end merchandise superstores, and illegal black markets” (Elias). A so-called “singularity” temporarily allows both timelines to interact, but not reciprocally. The 2100s future can talk and listen to, but not physically manipulate, their past, while inhabitants of the past, projecting their minds into the peripherals and inhabiting them, can physically interact with the future. The control of the bodies of the future by the minds of the past promises to be of benefit to both. The people in the future can profit from mental capabilities (knowledge, information and skills) of the characters in the past, while the successful use of the peripherals allows disabled veterans both the exhilarating opportunity of escaping their own limited bodies and a hefty financial reward.

My argument when it comes to what I consider a recent shift in Gibson’s texts will be two-fold: first, I will explore what Gibson does to the bodies in the book, beyond Cartesian traditional divisions of body and mind, as bodies can be analyzed as commodities to be used, bought, sold, or hired in the unequal economies of the two time-lines in the text, and secondly, I will analyze how the tension between center and peripheries works, and the potential for political and social change at the end of the book.

 I SING THE BODY PERIPHERAL

The Cartesian divide between body and mind is one that has worried Gibson during his entire career. His work makes us reconsider the existence of the divide itself, and also the preponderance, dependence and/or equilibrium of one and the other.

The ambivalence of cyberpunk as a genre towards the body (“its integrity, its vulnerability, even its possibility as an idea” Gutiérrez-Jones 71), and more specifically Gibson’s apparent rejection of the body as “dead meat” in Neuromancer, where we are presented with “characters who seek to reject the body” (Wilson 132) seems to stage the virtual world as one of exhilarating possibility, celebrating the “bodiless exultation of cyberspace” (Gibson, Neuromancer 3). However, as Sherryl Vint points out, Gibson’s “critics and his imitators have overstated [his] rejection of the body” (107). The rejection or, rather, transcendence of the body often carries social and political commentary in his work, and this is the case with The Peripheral.

In the book, the bodies of people in the past, especially those of veterans, are a burden due the failed use of technology. Malfunctioning haptic tattoos are a constant source of pain and an example of how useful technology can go awry when it goes from being useful to the machinery of war to being abandoned inside the individual. Disabled veterans, maimed by technological violence and war, are constantly reminded of their subordination to economic and political spheres and also of the government “owning” their bodies, either for sacrifice, or by leaving invasive technology in them. The relationship that people in the future have with their bodies is, however, radically different: bodies are used as “art” based on “complex embodiments of technological accumulation” (Griffith 45). Bodies are also commodified instruments for protection. Peripherals can be operated remotely, while the mind maneuvering them stays safely elsewhere but is in complete control of the peripheral’s physical surroundings, a combination of ultimate safety and total control of the environment for those who can afford it. The encounter of both timelines, with minds from the past being invited to inhabit cybernetic bodies of the future, allow those in the past the thrilling liberation of their constricting bodily “meat” into apparently limitless athletic shells.

While not in such traumatic or violent ways as in Cronenberg’s films, there is in Gibson a constant menace of technology entering and transforming/transcending the body. In his texts, technology can enhance and liberate the mind, but it can also destroy the body, create addictions to different drugs that desensitize the body to specific technology, or produce constant pain. Technology can also, however, fix bodies (such as the use of medical nanobots which travel through the body repairing tissue and internal organs in The Peripheral), even if that body-repairing technology is connected to its origins in military operations.

The use of different bodies and avatars in The Peripheral seems to eventually be mostly positive, as they ultimately serve each character’s original timelines and their communities, i.e. their reality. The poor and disabled characters in The Peripheral whose minds are being projected into other bodies are able to access abilities they no longer have, and environments they could never walk in. But they do know, no matter how exhilarating the experience may be, that this is temporary and serving a specific purpose: the time inhabiting another body may be pleasurable, but eventually, it is their own temporal “reality” that they are responsible and accountable for.

People in the future in The Peripheral use these cyborg bodies as tools, but they are also willing to use the minds from the past (and their skills and knowledge) as a commodity. The people from the past enter this pact, this disembodied rental of their selves, knowingly and expecting to get something in return. What they are initially hoping for is money, something they are in dire need of, but towards the end of the book they get more than they bargained for, in the form of agency given to them by the ones apparently with the power, by the future.

PRESENT CENTERS, PERIPHERAL PASTS

Even if the peripheral in the title makes reference to the cyborgs avatars in the book, there is another way in which the title of the text could be analyzed: the 22nd century future could be constructed as the center, both economically and in the sense of power and agency, with the 21st century future being the margin, the periphery. The center has wealth and technology that are not available to the periphery, and said periphery is initially only given access to technology insofar it serves the center’s interests. As Gibson has noted, in The Peripheral the past is “third-worlded” for the profit of First-World cities (“William Gibson”). As Amy J. Elias signals, in a way this relationship could be seen as a replication of “the Colonialism that gave First-World Nations their early-modern economic hegemony . . . now located not only in space but in time” (Elias). But while this “lending” or “outsourcing” of technology to the peripheries is a reality in our world and in literary texts, there are a number of things in The Peripheral that complicate the relationship between center, margins and how outsourcing technology works.

First off, in The Peripheral the “Other,” post-colonial subjects pose no physical risk, i.e. there is no danger of their uprising or taking over the center, since the only way they can communicate with the future is by the future allowing their using the technology they provide them with. Secondly, the relationship of center and periphery is not really one of exploitation, but one of collaboration, where the periphery is given notable agency both in how they use their (borrowed) bodies and in the reward for their help. In opposition to traditional constructions of center/periphery relations, the periphery that the past is in the book is given notable agency, by providing them, “the precariat that will be wiped out when the Jackpot is unleashed” (Elias) with both money and technology. They also get knowledge in exchange for their work: all of these things could potentially help them elude the Jackpot apocalypse. One could argue that there is deception initially as to the people in the future’s interests (the protagonist, Flynn, thinks that she is just being paid to play a first-person videogame, while she is actually part of a real-life surveillance program), and that some rich people in the future do “use the past as a playground and hiring pool, soliciting people from the past to work for them as an underclass labor fare” (Elias). However, in the end, giving knowledge and power to people in the past could be considered to be an entirely selfless act, since due to time-travelling paradoxes (what Gibson has defined as “forking paths” (“William Gibson”), changes in the past’s reality will not affect the future we see in the book.

Gibson understands that technology itself is neutral, and it is the use of it that makes it destructive or “a universal tool for countering hegemonic power structures” (Moorwood 178). As Esko Suoranta points out, Gibson does require that we think beyond the promises of these “embodied technologies of transhumanity,” and to realize that “they themselves do not dismantle oppressive systems” (18). People in the past in the book are given access to these technologies and thus to using them to try and avoid the Jackpot, but Gibson himself has expressed his “alarm at the ending . . . [where] a situation is set up such that the fate of the world literally rests on the goodwill of a very few people who can easily be corrupted by the power they yield” (Elias). Since both futures are “caught on singularities,” Elias seems to side with Gibson in seeing how the potential for improvement seems not to depend on “collective action or democratic representation,” and points out the visible tension between Gibson’s “rather old-fashioned humanist ethics—for which the success of social structures depends upon private, ethical decisions by self-determining individuals—and his cyberpunk vision, which implicitly asserts that human ethics is irrelevant in a world of capital” (Elias).

It is possible, however, to present Gibson’s ending and the agency given to the margins in the text under a slightly more positive light, focusing not on the lack of systemic changes that Elias seems to be distressed by, but on how systemic changes may start with individuals being given the agency and responsibility to implement singular, incremental changes. I would like to emphasize the possibility of a deep empathic connection of the two humanities in their respective social context that motivates the final mutual understanding of both futures. This can be achieved by applying the change in the idea of kinship suggested among others by Judith Butler, where kinship needs not be merely biological, but rather constituted by “a sense of relatedness, mutual responsibility, and collaborative creativity, all growing out of a presumption of shared origins” (Gutiérrez-Jones 72). Gutiérrez-Jones recovers ideas by Donna Haraway, N. KatherineHayles, and Butler to talk about the performativity of kinship, i.e. kinship seen as a process of creation of relations that exists in a material context and therefore “entails some aspect of embodiment” (72). Butler also identifies in her redefinition of kinship a “shared responsibility . . . a potential for coalition, and shared performance, which generates significant creative potential” (Gutiérrez-Jones 73).

In his analysis of Gibson’s Neuromancer, Fredric Jameson asserts that “the utopian drive [can be] an impulse of collectivity and the human being … a collective animal, perhaps something of a biological origin might be adduced for it too” (306). Jameson also signals that characters in Gibson’s text “complete each other,” pointing out the “collective (and thereby utopian) act” at work in Neuromancer. Jameson immediately qualifies this collective effort by emphasizing that in that text the need for collaboration is “a ruse devised by . . . two mega-computers in the service of their alliance and transfiguration” and that therefore the “utopian dimension” is displaced (Jameson 307). There is not such a ruse at work, however, at the end of The Peripheral: the act of “giving” the past a better future could be seen as a factor of a re-imagined notion of kinship that is recognized in the time (dis)continuum, and as such, the ending could work as a powerful deconstruction of the center/periphery or metropolis/colonies configuration set up at the beginning of the text.

Timo Siivonen has signaled Gibson’s tension between “technological developments and the future of humanizing,” often moving in between “two opposing forces, with one expressing pessimism regarding the future of the human race, and the other evincing a certain optimism regarding the possibility of the existence of intelligent life on some level facilitated by technological development” (231). I would like to argue that, by deconstructing traditional constructions of the periphery’s minds and mostly bodies as being “used” by the center, and by providing the weakest part of the equation with technology that seems to promise a better future, Gibson seems to be moving towards a certain utopian optimism. I find this assertion to be in line with Jameson’s argument that literature “can serve as a registering apparatus for historical transformations we cannot otherwise empirically intuit” (Jameson 312). In The Peripheral, there is the reality of those on the margins finding their corporeal suffering temporarily reduced through technologies of virtual labor, but also the possibility of a better future once the work has been done, by being given agency and knowledge by the center. This is a testament to how non-realistic literature, such as the cyberpunk mode Gibson uses, can be political by allowing us to imagine new configurations of kinship as the first step systemic changes beyond traditional models of center v. periphery.


WORKS CITED

Dayal, Geeta. “William Gibson on Why Sci-Fi Writers Are (Thankfully) Almost Always Wrong.” Wired, 12 Sept. 2018, www.wired.com/2012/09/interview-with-william-gibson/. Accessed 23 June 2020.

Elias, Amy J. “The Futureless Future.” American Book Review, vol. 36, no. 5, 2015, p. 12–13.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Harper Collins, 1984.

Gibson, William. The Peripheral. Berkley, 2014.

Griffith, Michael. Visualizing Virtual Space in Modern and Postmodern Literature. 2014. Tulane University, PhD Dissertation.

Gutiérrez-Jones, Carl. “Stealing Kinship: Neuromancer and Artificial Intelligence.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 41, no. 1, 2014, p. 69–92.

Jameson, Fredric. The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms. Verso Books, 2015.

Moorwood, Nicholas. Sovereignty, the State of Exception and Counter-Culture: Toward a Transnational Critique of State Power in 20th and 21st Century Anglophone Fiction. 2013. University of Toronto, PhD Dissertation.

Raben, Paul Graham. “The Spectacle of Disintegration: Lessons from a Peripheral Utopia.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 27 Oct. 2014, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/spectacle-disintegration-lessons-peripheral-utopia/. Accessed 28 July 2020.

Siivonen, Timo. “Cyborgs and Generic Oxymorons: The Body and Technology in William Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 23, no. 2, 1996, pp. 227–244.

Suoranta, Esko. “The Ironic Transhumanity of William Gibson’s The Peripheral.” Fafnir—Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 7–20.

Vint, Sherryl. Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction. University of Toronto Press, 2007.

“William Gibson: The Complete io9 Interview.” io9, 27 Sept. 2012, https://io9.gizmodo.com/william-gibson-the-complete-io9-interview-5946779. Accessed 26 June 2020.

Wilson, Robert Glen. You Can’t Get There from Here. 2014. University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, PhD Dissertation.

Ontology of the Hologram: Gothic Tropes and the Ontological Transgressions of Technoscience


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference


Ontology of the Hologram: Gothic Tropes and the Ontological Transgressions of Technoscience

Anastasia Klimchynskaya


 Science fiction often provides the lexicon through which we make sense of the novel and the unfamiliar. Damien Broderick has expertly written about science fiction “icons,” such as the robot or the spaceship, which recur frequently in science fiction but whose valences change with each appearance. These icons also enter into popular culture, where they serve as reference points for the unknown, and cyberpunk has furnished some of the most recognizable images among them: its futuristic cityscapes, neon lights, and holograms are among the most familiar of visual aesthetics.

It has been striking, then, to trace the discourses around modern-day hologram technologies in light of this fact. Today, holograms proliferate swiftly in the music industry to bring musicians back from the dead and send them on tour. Or, rather, what is created in this way are simulacra: motion-capture photography is used to record the movements of a body double that forms the basis for a 3D digital model, which is then overlaid with a likeness of the artist in question taken from videos. During a “live” performance, this simulacrum goes through a set of pre-programmed motions, lip-synching to recordings of the artist’s voice. Science fiction, and cyberpunk in particular, offers no shortage of reference points to describe this technology; Star Wars, Star Trek, Altered Carbon, and Blade Runner are but a handful among dozens. So why is it, then, that contemporary media tends to speak of holograms in terms of ghosts and resurrections, describing, for example, the “uneasy pallor” of a hologram “insubstantial like a ghost struggling to fully materialize”? (Binelli) That is, why are the registers of the Gothic, rather than allusions to science fiction, drawn on?

While the absence of science-fictional references in texts about such an “obviously” cyberpunk technology at first seems incongruous, historically the Gothic has often offered a set of conceits and tropes for exploring the distinctions between the categories of life and death, presence and absence, identity and imitation, which cyberpunk continues to interrogate. Scholars have noted that the similarities between Gothic and cyberpunk fiction go “far beyond the perceived surface aesthetics of both narrative modes to the core questions of being human and becoming posthuman,” (Heise-von der Lippe 265). But more than just a shared interest with cyberpunk in metaphysical questions and the production of emotional affect, however, the Gothic also has a history of engaging with these metaphysical questions specifically as a response to new technologies or scientific discoveries that challenge the distinctions between fundamental ontological categories of life, death, and identity. And holograms, in creating the illusion of bringing the dead back to life with perfect precision, seem to transgress our most fundamental ontological categories, pushing against the boundaries between life and death, and the idea of the unique self, that form the foundational truths of our reality. Modern-day coverage of this technology that mines Gothic tropes of ghosts and hauntings, grotesque reanimation and soulless revenants, then, inscribes itself into this history. In this article, I’m interested in more brightly illuminating that history and, in the process, shedding light on another facet of Gothic’s close relationship with cyberpunk, and the sources of the significant intersections between the two forms.

FRANKENSTEIN

I begin at an obvious beginning: Frankenstein, which has been heralded as the text that invented science fiction and given the genre a number of its fundamental icons and tropes. It forged these, however, by drawing on the Gothic to deal with metaphysical questions on the nature of life and death. Gothic monsters, by their very nature, push against neat ontological categories: ghosts and revenants of all sort challenge the neat delineations between life and death, while doubles and doppelgangers challenge distinctions between self and other, presence and absence, and the uniqueness of human identity. Frankenstein’s monster fits into this lineage: the genesis of the fiction goes back to a storytelling contest among Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Claire Clairemont at the Villa Diodati – a contest in which they were challenged to write a ghost story, a popular genre in the nineteenth century.

Of course, Frankenstein’s monster is no ghost, but he is something of a revenant, and Shelley’s inspiration was the question of the source of life; as she recounts in an introduction to the novel, at the Villa Diodati “many philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life” (293). She alludes, too, to galvanism, a scientific practice of the day that explored the source of life by pushing at the boundaries between it and death. At its simplest, galvanism refers to the stimulation of muscles with pulses of electrical current. Supposedly, in the 1780s, Luigi Galvani discovered that he could make the muscles of a dead frog twitch by applying electricity. This discovery took off, with many scientists replicating Galvani’s experiment upon the corpses of both animals and humans, including a famous public demonstration by Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini in 1803, during which he electrically stimulated the limbs of the executed criminal George Foster at Newgate in London. The application of electrical current made the cadaver move and twitch, giving an impression of life and vitality where there was none. Through such experiments, Galvani, Aldini, and their followers were raising the question of the vital force that animates human beings by pushing at ontological boundaries and creating uncanny visions of corpses animated by some kind of unearthly force.

This was Shelley’s first vision for the novel: a “student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” which stirs “with an uneasy, half vital motion” (293). Consequently, like the surgeons and galvanists of the period, and like the group discussing “philosophical doctrines” at the Villa Diodati, Frankenstein investigates the source of life. He “collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame,” (80) and upon discovering that secret, the monster is literally animated by that knowledge. The creature thus incarnates – again, literally – Frankenstein’s transgression, through science, of the boundaries between life and death, and is defined by his duality. He is technically a cyborg, an organic body artificially brought to life through scientific practice, a fact made explicit by Shelley’s extensive references to the discoveries of the day and which situate Frankenstein as a scientist, not a magician, and render his creation an enduring icon of science fiction. But the creature is also a Gothic monster. He has the grotesqueness of one: “dull yellow eyes,” a “shriveled complexion,” and pearly teeth that form a “horrid contrast with his water eyes,” such that Frankenstein, “unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created,” is filled with “breathless horror and disgust” (85). But mostly, the creature is monstrous because he is a corpse brought to life, a walking and breathing transgression of the categories of life and death, not unlike the bodies that populate Gothic fiction, which are “intrinsically uncanny…threshold phenomena precariously suspended between materiality and immateriality” (Cavallero, 270).

In other words, the original cyborg is a Gothic monster, and with this lineage in mind, we might read cyberpunk as a high-tech Gothic – as a kind of translation into a different mode of a gaze already turned onto the scientific investigation of questions of life and death.1 In fact, Veronica Hollinger has argued that Frankenstein “has been transformed into a precursor text of cyberculture” (192); it “draws attention to how the infinite possibilities of technoscientific creation tend to destabilize human individuality and our sense of self, origin, and purpose” (270). Cyberpunk, with its visions of uploaded, downloaded, and duplicated consciousnesses, artificial intelligences, fragmented identities, holograms, and interchangeable bodies, deals with the transgression of normative categories and ontological boundaries that the Gothic has long investigated with its ghosts, its hauntings, its resurrected corpses and reanimated beings. To upload a consciousness is another form of animation, in the literal sense of the word: to breathe life into a being, to ensoul it, and just as Frankenstein became “capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter,” (77) the question of whether an artificial, uploaded, digitized, or copied consciousness possesses a “soul,” or something of the essence of the original, is a metaphysical question cyberpunk frequently wrestles with.2

This lineage illuminates the rhetoric used around holographic technologies today; the ghosts and revenants we find in it are like Frankenstein’s monster, a reaction to metaphysical questions raised by technoscientific discoveries. The New York Times Magazine article quoted above, titled “Old Musicians Never Die. They Just Become Holograms,” bluntly acknowledges this fact, stating that “using technology to blur the line between the quick and the dead tends to be a recipe for dystopian science fiction.” This is the one reference to science fiction throughout the article, and it draws attention to the transgression of ontological categories inherent within holograms, a transgression that also resides within Frankenstein’s creature. Later in the article, Mark Binelli describes the process of creating holograms: “motion-capture photography records the performance of a body double, which becomes the basis for a three-dimensional digital model, a block of clay animators proceed to modify.” “Animator” of course refers here to the digital animation industry, but the word’s original root is the Latin anima, meaning soul; to animate is then to ensoul, or, more metaphorically, to breathe life into. This is Frankenstein’s original power: he describes his ability to bring a being to life by stating “I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation,” (78) and he proceeds to “animate the lifeless clay” (80). The word clay, of course, has multiple religious connotations, harkening back to the creation of Adam; it casts Frankenstein in the role of a man playing god, attempting to ensoul an inanimate being.  As Binelli refers to the “block of clay animators proceed to modify,” then, he harkens back to this lineage of Gothic monsters and re-animated corpses responding to galvanism’s transgressive practices.

Another evocative description is that of “the lifeless eyes of a corpse propped up between living people,” offered by Binelli to describe a holographic Frank Zappa concert. Again, the reference to a lifeless corpse recalls both galvanism and Frankenstein’s creature, as a cadaver is forced to move and act unnaturally through electricity (though, in this case, it is not electric current stimulating the muscles, but it is electricity enabling the projection of the hologram). But it is also reminiscent of the fictions of Edgar Allan Poe, who was familiar with the practices of galvanism and mesmerism and drew on them for his Gothic fictions of reanimation and resurrection. A handful of years after Frankenstein’s revised edition (1830), he published “The Fall of the House of Usher,” (1840) in which the dead Madeline Usher literally rises from her coffin, and “Ligeia,” (1838) in which the spirit of the narrator’s eponymous beloved appears to animate the corpse of his second wife; in “The Strange Case of M. Valdemar,” (1845) meanwhile, a dead body is kept from decomposing for months through mesmerism. Poe, who struggled with death and loss throughout his tragically short life, was obviously fascinated by the distinctions between life and death, and his fiction repeatedly pushed at those boundaries with hypotheticals that toed the line between scientific and supernatural. Contemporary rhetoric around holograms reveals a similar oscillation between technical explanation and Gothic modes of description in its interrogation of similar boundaries.

The Castle of the Carpathians

The second text I examine is not a work of science fiction, but a Gothic one with close ties to the genre. Penned in 1892 by Jules Verne, who by that point had gained widespread fame for his Extraordinary Voyages, which laid the groundwork for much science fiction to come, the Castle of the Carpathians is one of those tales in which supernatural effects turn out to have rational explanations – not unlike Frankenstein’s monster, whose grotesque and uncanny being is made possible by scientific research. And in this novel, as in Frankenstein, a Gothic trope – this time of the ghost in a haunted castle – is used to explore what was understood at the period to be an ontologically transgressive technology: the phonograph.

Invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison (though Charles Cros has also been given credit, but he did not provide a working model), the phonograph was articulated as a technology that could allow the dead to speak. The New York Sun, for example, upon a demonstration of the phonograph published an article titled “Echoes of Dead Voices,” writing that “Nothing could be more incredible than the likelihood of once more hearing the voice of the  dead, yet the invention of the new instrument is said to render this possible hereafter….” In other words, the phonograph was an ontologically transgressive medium, giving voice to the dead and thus allowing them to appear and speak as if alive, and The Castle of the Carpathians realizes this vision of the new medium. The story begins by fully embracing Gothic convention, with Count Franz de Telek finding himself in a mysterious, secluded castle, where he first sees the apparition of his former lover, the dead singer La Stilla, and then hears her voice with “all of its inflections, its inexpressible charm, its modulations – in a word, her voice that was the instrument of that marvelous talent that seemed to have died with the artist herself” (179).3 Her first appearance is described as a “vague form,” (161) then an “apparition,” (162) dressed in the same clothes she wore upon her death. Consequently, Franz is convinced that Stilla is somehow, inexplicably, alive, but as it turns out, the inventor Orfanik has been projecting her image and playing a high-quality phonograph recording of her voice. In other words, in a tale that participates fully and explicitly in the conventions of the Gothic, the phonograph is used to realize the genre’s trope of the ghost and the haunting; moreover, because the illusion is so realistic that Franz believes that Stilla is alive, the phonograph is able to explode the distinction between alive and dead.

This, again, strikingly resembles how holograms are represented today: just as the New York Sun wrote of being able to speak “long after we have turned to dust,” the New York Times describes artist Ronnie James Dio’s preparations for his first tour in a decade even though he “has been dead for almost 10 years” (Binelli). Rolling Stone writes of a hologram of Frank Zappa that “the apparition truly looked like an otherworldly version of Frank” (Grow); The Guardian titles their article on the subject “Back to Life,” and NPR uses the similar title “Raising the Dead – and a Few Questions – with Maria Callas’ Hologram.” Wired, in a lengthy piece on bringing celebrities “back to life,” uses the word “resurrection” nine times. There is an obvious history here: as the Vox piece on the hologram “controversy” about bringing dead artists back details, modern-day holograms are really a version of the “Pepper’s Ghost” technology, which uses a sheet of glass and reflections to create a spectral-looking figure which was used to add a ghost to a nineteenth-century staging of a Dickens play. As Wired points out, this technology “provided a vehicle for the Victorian-era obsession with the supernatural” (Famurewa) at a time when Spiritualism was at its height, but I argue that the story behind the rhetoric used in these pieces goes far beyond the explicit allusions to this tellingly named technology. It is, once again, an attempt to call on Gothic tropes to theorize a medium that explodes ontological categories and distinctions, as was done a century earlier to articulate the uncanniness of the phonograph.

CONCLUSION

Today, recorded sound (and its twin, photography, which in the nineteenth century was seen as uncanny for its ability to produce a perfect double of an individual) have seeped into our lives so profoundly as to become unremarkable. Neither old photographs nor vinyl recordings provoke extreme feelings of existential anxiety. This is due, in part, to technical improvements: shorter exposure time in photography, for example, means there is no longer the appearance of ghosts due to motion blur. But it is also familiarity: we inevitably adapt to the transgressive ontologies of new technologies and mediums even as we maintain a commitment to the distinctions between fundamental categories such as alive and dead. So, as we wrestle with what it means to reincarnate someone via hologram, I suggest that this technology, too, will one day cease to seem so uncanny, and soon enough, Gothic registers will fade from mainstream discussions of it to be marshalled, instead, in service of articulating the newest ontologically transgressive technology or medium – such as, for example, brain implants that replace our smartphones. In this sense, cyberpunk is already ahead of the curve (as science fiction often is), drawing on the Gothic to engage with technologies and mediums that are far ahead of our present capabilities: cloned bodies, uploaded consciousness, and copied minds are its uncanny doubles and ghostly resurrections.


NOTES

[1]  In this respect, scholars have suggested the term posthuman Gothic, or alternatively cybergothic, to describe cyberpunk fictions that “destabilize ingrained readings and patterns, challenging our understanding of what it means to be human” (Heise-von der Lippe 265).

[2] There are other ways this translation might be seen as occurring: the duplication of consciousness and its insertion into multiple bodies is a high-tech version of the Gothic double. And, if posthumanism is about decentering the human, then nineteenth-century monsters, representing anxieties of atavism and evolutionary throwbacks to our more animalistic selves, are a lower-tech decentering of the human.

[3] All translations of Verne from the French are mine. 


WORKS CITED

Binelli, Mark. “Old Musicians Never Die. They Just Become Holograms.” New York Times Magazine, 7 January 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/01/07/magazine/hologram-musicians.html. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Broderick, Damien. “Reading sf as a mega-text.” Science Fiction Criticism, edited by Rob Latham, Bloomsbury, 2020, pp. 139-148.

Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture. Athlone Press, 2000.

“Echoes from Dead Voices.” New York Sun, 6 November 1877.

Famurewa, Jimi. “Inside the bitter war to bring Tupac and Michael Jackson back to life.” Wired, 8 May 2018, www.wired.co.uk/article/tupac-michael-jackson-billie-holiday-dead-celebrity-holograms. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Grow, Cory. “Live After Death: Inside Music’s Booming New Hologram Touring Industry.” Rolling Stone, 10 September 2019, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/hologram-tours-roy-orbison-frank-zappa-whitney-houston-873399/. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Heise-von der Lippe, Anya. “Gothicism.” Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Lars Schmeink, and Graham Murphy, Routledge, 2020, pp. 264-272.

Hollinger, Veronica. “Retrofitting Frankenstein.Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives, edited by Graham J. Murphy and Sherryl Vint, Routledge, 2010, pp. 191-210.

Huizenga, Tom. “Raising The Dead — And A Few Questions — With Maria Callas’ Hologram.” NPR, 6 November 2018, www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/11/06/664653353/raising-the-dead-and-a-few-questions-with-maria-callas-hologram. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Selected Tales. Oxford, 1998. 

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited with a foreword & notes by Leslie S. Klinger, W.W. Norton and Company, 2017.

–. “Author’s Introduction to Frankenstein.Science Fiction Criticism, edited by Rob Latham, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 291-294.

Thorpe, Vanessa. “Back to life, back to virtual reality as music stars return to stage as holograms.” The Guardian, 25 May 2019, www.theguardian.com/music/2019/may/25/virtual-reality-music-stars-stage-holograms-whitney-houston-jeff-wayne. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Tiffany, Kaitlyn. “No industry is weirder than the dead celebrity hologram industry.” Vox, 23 October 2018, www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/10/23/18010274/amy-winehouse-hologram-tour-controversy-technology. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Verne. Jules. Le Chateau des Carpathes. Hachette, 1970.

Cyberpunk in the Modern Museum: Actuality, Future, and the Challenges of Exhibiting Movie Memorabilia


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference


Cyberpunk in the Modern Museum: Actuality, Future, and the Challenges of Exhibiting Movie Memorabilia *

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz


The young market of movie memorabilia is continuously growing, expanding on new thematic areas related to genre cinema and animation. A relatively short overview of this market highlights the lack of complete comparative price reports, as well as detailed academic analyses. The reports keep focusing on the most profitable auctions, such as the ones featuring the Delorean from Back to the Future (1985) or Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956) (Nevins, n.p.). Most of the accessible academic publications cover the initial wave of interest in movie memorabilia around the world, which was at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s (Chaneles; Heide and Gilman). However, it is possible to assess the scale of the success of the market browsing through soft data, for example by juxtaposing the prices of movie memorabilia with fine art auctions over the years.

Together with increasing sales of memorabilia, the collectors organize exhibitions, aiming at reconsidering the notions of art and the possibility of introducing popular culture to the museums and galleries. Also, the exhibiting movie memorabilia raises the question of the aesthetic value of popular-art-related objects. An example of such an exhibition is the  DC Exhibition: Dawn of Superheroes, which was shown among others in Łódź, Poland, and London, UK. In this context, it is symptomatic that the objects connected to film and animation changed their functions. Once, they were parts of scenography and popular culture, but now, they are displayed in the museums, considered as legitimate art. I leave the question on the sources of interest in movie memorabilia open, as the answer needs thorough sociological research, which exceeds the subject range of this article.

This paper stems from the experience of designing a concept of cyberpunk movie memorabilia exhibition that I developed together with Marek Kasperski, the owner of the Art Komiks gallery located in Warsaw, Poland (Kasperski, n.p.). Art Komiks administers the collection of over 300 objects classified as cyberpunk art, gathered by Polish collectors from auctions around the world. The collection contains objects related to cult titles, such as Ghost in the Shell (1995-2017; both animation and live-action film), as well as less-known titles from world cyberpunk – among the plethora of titles – New Hurricane Polymar (animation, 1996), Magnus, Robot Fighter (comic books franchise; 1963-2014), or Eat-Man (1997).

In this article, I am going to present the substantive issues related to the process of designing a cyberpunk movie memorabilia exhibition, as well as comment on the intermedia relations between the objects in the context of the overall concept of the display. It is worth adding that some of the ideas related to the exhibition narrative path were based on the findings presented in my book Japanese Cyberpunk: From Avant-garde Transgressions to Popular Cinema.

NEW MUSEOLOGY AND CYBERPUNK MOVIE MEMORABILIA

Modern museums search for unusual objects to gain a contemporary audience’s attention and, at the same time, create an interactive experience with (potential) educational values. It creates a situation in which the exhibitions are planned under measurable factors, such as potential income from tickets sold, attendance, and media response (i.e., journalists’ or bloggers’ reviews, number of views of the photo galleries published on Facebook and Instagram). Barron and Leask observe that museums are significant elements of cultural tourism, designed to be effective in gaining recognition and publicity. Researchers underline that institutions often ensure their future by, among other factors, enhancing the viewer’s engagement (Baron and Leask, 1-2). The value of novelty and shock, as well as the visible and easily recognizable connections to popular culture, diversify the audience, inviting to the exhibition space those who are not usually engaged in fine art displays. This wave of interest in expanding the notions of traditional art opens up an opportunity for movie memorabilia, comic art, and popular culture-related objects, such as bootleg art.

In this context, cyberpunk movie memorabilia and other art (comic book sketches, animation frames, photos, bootleg art, etc.) once perceived only as parts of cyberpunk narratives, changed their function. Now, away from the film scenography, the objects can be recognized by the contemporary viewer as sources of prophetic memory about the future and simultaneously  gaining cult status because of their universal message. Movie memorabilia depicted in an art gallery can also be considered as a legitimate art, encouraging philosophical reflections about social development. It opens new research perspectives on the functions and objects exhibited in modern museums, expanding the definition of contemporary museology.

Fig. 1. Tetsuo: the Iron Man bootleg, Jaibantoys

COLLECTING CYBERPUNK OBJECTS

Situating cyberpunk objects in the broader context of popular culture art collections, it should be noticed that they can be classified as movie memorabilia, comic art, game art, video games, books, autographs (i.e., autographed objects) and bootleg art. The collectors can reach a variety of forms through obtaining the objects from several different sources, such as auctions, directly from the authors, or the other private collectors. The uniqueness of the collection administered by Art Komiks stems from the model of support of the project, which is based on the contributions of the Polish private collectors, willing to lend the objects for the exhibitions.

As Marek Kasperski pointed out in a podcast about popular culture recorded for Deloitte (Kotecki), the process of building a collection of cyberpunk objects is related to a broader trend of collecting movie memorabilia, which is connected to the dynamics of income distribution between fans of popular culture narratives. Popular culture artifacts associated with nostalgia and trending superheroes universes for younger generations are gradually replacing the need of collecting fine art. Also, in the case of popular culture art, the act of building one’s own collection is less associated with gathering valuable possessions and increasing one’s material status. Instead, obtaining such objects is related to the need for the embodiment of passion towards particular narratives, heroes, or themes. Accordingly, the interest in the specific kinds of memorabilia varies – from the higher interest of the foreign customers in transnational cyberpunk narratives to the lower interest in local cyberpunk (for example the comic art created by Polish artists brings most attention from Polish fans and collectors).

CYBERPUNK EXHIBITION DESIGN

While designing the exhibition on cyberpunk, we found it essential to group the objects according to themes they covered, to provide the viewer with a clear, understandable path. Consequently, we  divided the objects according to three main themes that reappear in cyberpunk narratives.

The first one revolves around the depictions of machines, androids, and cyber bodies, focusing on the protagonists under and after transgressive body metamorphosis. The impact of technology on human life, both in the context of the physical changes and the possibility of mental immersion in the virtual world, was the issue reappearing in the first literary cyberpunk narratives. The connection of the body to the machine, which became the basis of the intermedia genre, took various forms: from mechanical prostheses, replaceable organs, and under-skin hardware to interference in the brain. Cyborgizations were also a perfectly personalized, fancy arsenal of weapons attached to the user. In cyberpunk, the fusion of the body with the machine exceeds the limitations imposed by the imperfection and instability of biological tissue. The user strives for the ultimate defeat of death by improving physical capabilities or diving into cyberspace, thus leaving the imperfect body behind. Cyberpunk’s technology penetrates the biological tissue and leads to the disappearance of what the viewer recognizes under the concept of humanity.  The protagonist of cyberpunk narratives uses the benefits of technological development, knowing that by bonding with the machine at the same time, he moves away from society, alienates from reality, and becomes the Other. An integral element of the fusion of man and machine is the terror of metamorphosis, the pain that accompanies the act of attaching the technological extensions to the biological organism. The appearance of an android reflects the possibility of comparing the determinants of human and machine existence, i.e., recognizing the features that distinguish an organic being from a mechanical one. This comparison also arouses  the obsessive desire of conscious androids to confirm their existence by understanding what the soul is and whether an artificial creature can discover it.

According to the specter of works we (ArtKomiks gallery) have in the collection, we mostly focused on the terror of connecting biological tissue with mechanical cyber-improvements, at the same time discussing the new possibilities and powers gained by the characters. In this section, we also highlighted the place of the mechanical Other (android) in society. Here, among the objects we displayed, there is the head of the post-exploded android from Ghost in the Shell live-action film (2017) and animation art referring to this universe (i.e., the frames depicting the main character, Major Kusanagi’s mechanical body disintegration), Eric Canete’s covers from Cyborg comic books,  Genocyber (1994) animation art or Tetsuo the Iron Man bootleg art created by Jaibantoys.

Fig. 2. Cyborg, Eric Canete, comic art/cover, 2017, 23,5×35,5 cm

The second thematic area is focused on cyberspace and the world inside the computer. Here the narrative path followed such themes as the escapist nature of virtual surroundings or the moment of entering cyberspace and separating an imperfect biological body from an immaterial personality, thus introducing the dilemma of the existence of the soul and the Absolute. The division of the world into real and virtual has its roots in Jean Baudrillard’s reflections on a society immersed in simulations, wandering in hyper-reality, and manipulated by the media. The cyberpunk concept of cyberspace, inspired, among other things, by Baudrillard’s thoughts, was formulated and presented for the first time in the story True Names (1981) by Vernor Vinge. Since then, the vision of a cyber-world inside the Net has evolved, being successively developed with new plots showing the immaterial existence of a future man. The objects displayed in this section are, among others, photos from Johnny Mnemonic (1995) signed by Keanu Reeves, photos and the Atari game from TRON (1982) or comic art related to such titles as Magnus Robot Fighter (1963, reintroduced in 2010), Barb Wire (1994-1995), Godzilla: Cataclysm (2014) and Gall Force (1995).

Fig. .3. Magnus Robot Fighter, Jorge Fornes, comic art/ variant cover, 29,5×42 cm

Furthermore, the third section was dedicated to the depictions of a dystopian, futuristic city, including interior design. We underlined that a cyberpunk dystopia is a place of confrontation of corporations, subcultures, and residents of the criminal underworld. Despite technological development, a large proportion of the city’s future residents exist under challenging conditions, struggling with addictions and poverty. It turns out that advanced cyber implants only improve the lives of the privileged. Postindustrial dystopia, in which governments have fallen, and corporations have gained most of the decisive power, shows visible similarities to the reality behind the screen. As the plot of cyberpunk narratives takes place in the near future, the viewer recognizes fashion, architecture, and digital solutions, which they know perfectly well. The fall of order and social structures frightens, but also attracts with the mysterious beauty of the dark streets inhabited by the future man. The design of dystopia is a combination of space settlements, underground cities, and a vision of post-apocalyptic Earth after an atomic disaster, which is perfectly depicted by Severio Tenuta in his comic art from Heavy Metal, Dublin 2077 or by Syd Mead’s art.

Fig. 4. Blade Runner, Syd Mead, signed photo/ movie memorabilia, 15×10 cm

Those three themes can be found in most cyberpunk narratives, though they function as a core for further thematic developments in the context of more prominent exhibitions. For example, the section about future landscape can be accompanied by insight into a dystopian fashion, not only highlighting film costumes from Ghost in the Shell, which we have in the collection, or weapons (i.e., a machine gun from Aeon Flux), but also depicting the comic sketches of the inhabitants of future cities.

Fig. 5. Aeon Flux, 1991-1995, animation art (left) and film prop (right)

CYBERPUNK BRANDS AND EXHIBITION PATH

On the level of recognition, cyberpunk artworks can be divided into those classified as big names, such as Ghost in the Shell or RoboCop, and less-known cyberpunk TV series or local comic art. Having in the collection examples of both categories, it is crucial to successfully merge the interest that the viewer will express towards the recognizable names with the artistic value that less-known narratives often offer. However, the big names will bring the most media attention and can serve as an incentive for potential media partners.

The appearance of big cyberpunk names should be considered while designing the narrative path based on the relations between the chosen objects and highlighted themes. For the viewers with partial knowledge about the genre, the media narratives (or the plots) associated with particular objects seem less important than the overall aesthetics of cyberpunk and the balance between the recognition of big names and the act of discovering less-known objects. Analyzing the practical implementations of exhibition design in several new media museums (i.e., in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany, and Poland), we contend that it could be discouraging for the viewer to read and learn every narrative separately and with a detailed plot. In this case, we adopted the approach in which the objects themselves tell the stories according to their placement in relation to each other.

INTMEDIA RELATIONS

It is worth underlining that media franchise titles such as Ghost in the Shell are accompanied by various kinds of objects (costumes, photos, drafts and sketches, props), whose presence underlines the intermedia relations within cyberpunk productions. Accordingly, we suggest that a narrative path should be based on clear connections, revolving around the variety of forms. For example, a cyberpunk weapon (accessory) and a sketch depicting this weapon or a frame showing a scene of using it can be showcased together.

We listed two elements that can underline the intermedia character of cyberpunk narratives, at the same time fulfilling the need for a clear exhibition path and creating a unique ‘cyberpunkish’ atmosphere. The first one is the influence on the audience and recognizability of a particular object. Mostly, it is the costume or a prop that appeared in the well-known film, which can be associated with the viewer with cult status. Also, the presence of 3-D objects (together with sketches and photos) draws attention to the production process. Furthermore, the second element is the meaning of the prop and its actual value, often enriched by an author’s signature or a certificate of authentication. We for example have Blade Runner‘s script signed by Rutger Hauer in the collection.

Fig. 6. Blade Runner‘s script signed by Rutger Hauer

THE VIEWER

We are aware that the contemporary viewer, if they are not a fan of the cyberpunk genre, may not recognize all the authors, connections, and themes presented at the exhibition. Therefore, more than focusing on teaching people  about cyberpunk’s visions in different media, we count on building a unique mood.

In this case, the cyberpunk movie memorabilia exhibition becomes a physical implementation of the conception of media diffusion in cyberpunk discourse. The variety of the gathered objects encourages the meditation on the character of modern times and the futuristic visions that became a palpable reality. For the viewer, cyberpunk narratives will function as the points of reference to fulfilled prophecies about the future. Entering the exhibition space filled with the artifacts from the cyber-world, the observer experiences the embodied futuristic dreams, or, referring to Baudrillard’s terminology, a heterotopia – an area on the verge of reality and imagination. In the optics of cyberpunk narratives, the technological solutions and aesthetics familiar to the viewer through their daily experiences are distorted, monstrous, and derived from their original context.

Cyberpunk movie memorabilia exhibitions show the manifestation of various names and media in cyberpunk discourse. The diversity of the collected objects allows the viewer to reflect on the nature of our times when visions of the future became a tangible present. Entering the exhibition, the observer gets familiar with films, comics, and game narratives currently functioning not only as a record of the creators’ imagination but also as a reference point to the prophetic visions of the development of modern societies. Futuristic objects and mechanical creations appropriating the body and perception of the individual reflect the everyday experiences of the observer, creating comparisons between the contemporary world and cyberpunk narratives. The exhibition of film memorabilia allows the viewer to confront the designed shape of futuristic visions by comparing it with what is known and familiar to them. Emphasizing the terror of transformation into a mechanical being, or recalling the post-apocalyptic character of the future, the creators of cyberpunk narratives are forcing the observer to verify contemporary social changes. Approaching cyberpunk aesthetics, we are balancing between technophobia and technophilia, unable to free ourselves from the need for creating comparisons.

CONCLUSION

The objects gathered within the collection, once treated as integral elements of cyberpunk narratives, have become records of the memory of the futuristic visions, striking the viewer with their universal character. At present, the fact of viewing the cyberpunk set of objects in the art gallery allows us to perceive them as a legitimate part of contemporary culture.

The successful merge of the exhibiting patterns reserved for fine art with popular culture objects opens a new field for discussion about the archiving and preservation of memory about contemporary media products. Also, the actuality presented in cyberpunk narratives, together with the excessive interest in the genre, expanded by the upcoming premiere of the Cyberpunk 2077 digital game, creates a need for revising the exhibition concept. The fact of showing cyberpunk movie memorabilia on display is a proposal addressed to two generations of viewers: those who seek for a nostalgic journey into the narratives from the beginnings of cyberpunk and those who have already started discovering the genre, encouraged by the newest productions.


NOTES

*All pictures used in this article come from Art Komiks’ archive.


WORKS CITED

Barron, Paul & Leask, Anna. “Visitor engagement at museums: Generation Y and ‘Lates’ events at the National Museum of Scotland.” Museum Management and Curatorship, vol. 32, 2017, pp. 1-18.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation, edited by Mark Poster. Stanford UP, 1988.

Castro, Adam-Troy. “Blade Runner Gun Auctioned for $270,000.” SYFY Wire, 2012, https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/blade_runner_gun_auctione. Accessed 5 November 2020.

Chaneles, Sol. Collecting Movie Memorabilia, Arco 1979.

N.a. DC Exhibition: Dawn of Superheroes Website. 2020, http://www.switsuperbohaterow.pl/. Accessed 3 November 2020. [in Polish].

Extended Museum in Its Milieu, edited by Dorota Folga-Januszewska, Muzeologia, Vol. 18. Universitas, 2018.

Holmes, Mannie. “Empire Strikes Back Stormtrooper Helmet Fetches $120,000 at Auction.” Variety, 2015, https://variety.com/2015/artisans/news/stormtrooper-helmet-sells-for-120000-at-auction-1201611983/. Accessed 3 November 2020.

Kasperski, Marek. ArtKomiks Website, https://artkomiks.pl/en/.

Kiejziewicz, Agnieszka. Japoński cyberpunk. Od awangardowych transgresji do kina popularnego [Japanese cyberpunk: from avant-garde transgression to popular cinema]. Kirin, 2018.

Kotecki, Wiesław. “Podcast: Człowiek Biznes Technologia by Wiesław Kotecki; #38 Marek Kasperski o sztuce [Podcast: Human, Business, Technology by Wiesław Kotecki; #38 Marek Kasperski about art.” Deloitte, 2020, https://www2.deloitte.com/pl/pl/pages/deloitte-digital/podcast-czlowiek-biznes-technologia/38-Marek-Kasperski-o-sztuce.html. Accessed 10 September 2020.

Lapin, Tamar. “Rare props from ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Batman’ and other classics up for auction.” New York Post, 2019, https://nypost.com/2019/08/20/rare-props-from-star-wars-batman-and-other-classics-up-for-auction/. Accessed 12 September 2020.

Lasiuta, Tim. Collecting Western Memorabilia, McFarland, 2004.

Oliver, Richard W., Lowry, Glenn D., and Terrence Rilely. Imagining the Future of the Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Modern Art New York, 1998.

Nevins, Jake. “The world’s most expensive film props and costumes – in pictures.” The Guardian, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/film/gallery/2017/nov/27/the-worlds-most-expensive-film-props-and-costumes-in-pictures. Accessed 5 September 2020.

Vinge, Vernor. True Names, Penguin Books, 2016.

The Fractal Subject and the Hologram Rose: On Baudrillard and Cyberpunk as Media Theory


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference


The Fractal Subject and the Hologram Rose: On Baudrillard and Cyberpunk as Media Theory

Jiré Emine Gözen


At the conference “Philosophy of new Technology,” which took place at Linz in 1988, Jean Baudrillard stated:

The whole of the human being, his biological, muscular, animal physicality has been transferred to mechanical prostheses. Not even our brain has remained within us, but is now floating in the countless Hertzian waves and networks that surround us. This is by no means science fiction but merely the generalization of McLuhan’s theory about the ‘extension of man.’

Baudrillard 1989, 114

In the mid 1970s, Jean Baudrillard started developing his theory of simulation, which began with the assumption that modern societies experienced a drastic disruption through the appearance of new media technologies. In this context, Baudrillard proclaimed the dissolution of the subject, of the political economy, of meaning, of truth, and of the social formations of current societies. In order to describe and analyze these processes, new theories, terms, and narrations were needed. Baudrillard’s own contribution to the theory of media thus started with the statement: “The real radical alternative is somewhere else.” (Baudrillard 1978, 83)

Indeed, this alternative approach, one which asks to reflect on the implications of new media and technology, is to be found somewhere else: in cyberpunk literature.

I argue that cyberpunk should be seen as an important companion to media theories, both in terms of artistic expression and in terms of a method of knowledge production by itself, including its theorization. When I speak about cyberpunk literature I refer to a specific body of work written by authors who gathered in the late 1970s in Austin, Texas (Gözen 2012). Thus cyberpunk literature implies a body of work that revolutionized science fiction writing. This revolution was spearheaded by authors such as Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner, Rudy Rucker, and Pat Cadigan. This group published their criticism of the science fiction of their time in the fanzine Cheap Truth and in the preface of the cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades, which could be seen as the cyberpunk manifesto – the discursive foundation for a newly forming movement.

At the time, ‘technical culture’ began sprawling into everyday life due to advancements in computers, media, and bio- and medical technologies. This formed the basis for the movement. “Technology […] has slipped control and reached street level,” states Bruce Sterling. “For the cyberpunks […] technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins,” he continues, but is rather “pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds” (346).

The aim of cyberpunk was to reflect on these technological advancements in an artistic way, and to engage with the way they alter the human being and society at large.

These kinds of thoughts and observations are also the basis of many theoretical media approaches. Marshall McLuhan, one of the founders of media theory, claims in his writings that media and technology are interfering with our perception, senses, psyche, and identity. By doing so, they change our behavior, our culture, our societies, and our politics. The basic architecture of electronic media mimics our own central nervous system, and hence technically extends it. It is now very interesting to see that cyberpunk  incorporates this idea when drafting future worlds and, by doing so, pushes it further.

By designing fictional virtual worlds that are accessed through an interface with the human brain, the extension of the human nervous system through an electric central system becomes as much a reality as the McLuhan-postulated dissolution  of the subject-object-relation between man and machine. 

McLuhan’s category of implosion also plays a significant role  in the extrapolated worlds of cyberpunk. Virtual realities as a “medium for the meeting of our minds” (Cadigan 243) not only allow its users to take part in the dreams, memories, and fantasies of others; the connection between the human mind and the machine is also used to create entertainment devices, such as, for example, Gibson’s ASP, Cadigan’s madcap, or Effinger’s moddy, which make it possible to experience the neuroses and psychoses of others. This way, seasonal bestsellers allow societies to experience all kinds of collective madness. This inability to comprehend the difference between the inner world and the outer world, the sense of time and space and between you and me that comes with the madness of a collective psychosis is a manifestation of McLuhan’s implosion in the electronic age.

Furthermore, the main categories of Jean Baudrillard’s theory – hyperreality, simulation, and implosion – are omnipresent symbolizations in the worlds of cyberpunk. This is especially the case in the superimposition of reality by simulation. In cyberpunk, physical presence has lost its relevance. Instead, virtual worlds frame a new realm of hyperreality that offers a new home to humankind. In this context, Greg Bear’s Eon is a very impressive example. In the world of Eon, Bear describes an asteroid from a parallel universe that found its way to our world around the turn of the millennium. The hollowed out asteroid contains various artificial chambers that used to be the habitat of a future humankind. In each chamber, we find a future city from a different era of the future humankind. Interestingly, the change of the interiors and architectures of the cities of the different eras demonstrate the different states of the Baudrillardian simulation. The advanced media technologies in one of the older future cities enables the contemporary peoples of Eon to immerse themselves within a virtual world that creates a simulation of the abandoned city in its former state with its inhabitants that can’t possibly be distinguished from reality

“She called up a student’s basic guide to the second chamber city. In an instant, Alexandria surrounded her. She appeared to be standing on the portico of an apartment in the lower floors of one of the megas, looking down on the busy streets. The illusion was perfect – even providing her with a memory of what “her” apartment looked like. She could turn her head and look completely behind her if she wished – Indeed, she could walk around, even though she knew she was sitting down.” (Bear 1998, 339)

The sequence unfolding before the eyes of the user shows recordings from a future that did not take place in the user’s reality and which probably will also never take place in her future, but still insist in representing a history that has already passed by. Hence, we have here a model that is both true and an illusion – in both cases, truth dissolves into simulation. In this mediated reality, sensual experiences are perfectly superimposed by the virtual, as shown by the divergence between real and simulated experiences of space and body. Digital signs replace the tactility of reality with a field of tactile simulations.

In the final city of the future there is no longer a medial environment, but rather a humankind that has itself become a simulation: The whole of humankind is digitalized and lives in a computer called City Memory.

Death and natural birth are no longer present in this digitized world. A new person or subject is created by the merger of various parts of digital personalities – which means that every new being is a simulation based on the code of already existing models. While these models in the analog world used to be DNA codes, in the digitalized world of Eon, the models consist of bits and bytes. Nevertheless, it is still possible to live outside the City Memory. The ‘outside’ environment of the city memories’ virtual world is composed of a space without contours so that landscapes, apartments, objects, and even climate features can be projected onto it. If one wants to move in the outside parts of the city simulation, bodies could be created and used.

However, these bodies have nothing to do with “natural” human bodies. These bodies are equipped with an implant that records all experiences and memories, just in case something might happen to them. Hence, even death does not have a significant impact on the physical or the virtual existence of a person. In Baurillard’s words, this means that in the world of cyberpunk, even death, fails to serve as a distinction between the real and the imaginary.

The future shows that the difference between illusion and truth lost ground to the play with reality. The simulation is omnipresent; even if there is a body, it only contains digitalized and uploaded minds.   The Baudrillardian dictum of self-referential signs finds itself radicalized here:  A humankind based on digital bits and bytes that have merged into the endless circulation of signs referring to themselves becomes a model without an origin and eventually a sign in and of itself. In its final stage, the future society of Eon could be understood as the ultimate reign of the technical as humankind itself becomes the most radical form of simulation.

In his novel Halo, Tom Maddox not only processed aspects of Baudrillard’s idea of simulation, he even opens his book with a quote from America by Jean Baudrillard: “Everything is destined to reappear as simulation” (8).

Similar to Gibson in Neuromancer, Maddox describes an omnipresent and almost omnipotent artificial intelligence. This artificial intelligence, known as Aleph, has used its inherent potential to control all transmission systems to build a city in orbit, whose reality it will henceforth simulate. The initial reality of the dark orbital city without contours and atmosphere disappears through Aleph’s simulation behind a constantly repeating spring and a media-generated blue sky. In Halo City, therefore, the technically mediated experience of the world has quite obviously become a new reality, and the entire system created by Aleph represents a gigantic simulacrum in the Baudrilliardian sense.

In many cyberpunk worlds, the advanced merger of technology and nature also shows itself in the fact that natural phenomena can no longer be perceived and conceptualized separately from technology. Gibson opens his debut novel with a highly significant sentence: “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel” (Gibson 1984, 9).

With this description of a technical condition, used as a metaphor to describe nature, the reader is introduced to a world where a total implosion between nature and technology had taken place.  In the highly technical worlds of cyberpunk literature, nature is understood as part of the technologies surrounding man. The American literary scholar Lance Olsen describes the  frequent use of technological images as a metaphor for describing nature as follows: “If the romantic metaphor makes nature familiar and technology unfamiliar, these postmodern metaphors make nature unfamiliar and technology familiar.” (Gözen 293)

Now the question arises – is cyberpunk simply a literarization of the media theories of McLuhan and Baudrillard, or is there more to it? A close reading of Baudrillard’s lecture “Videoworld and Fractal Subject” and  William Gibson’s short story “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” – which can be seen as the prelude to cyberpunk as a genre – might reveal an answer to this question.

Baudrillard describes the subject in the simulation of hyperreality as having been fragmented and disintegrated into its component parts. Hence, difference does not mean the difference from one subject to another, but rather, the differentiation of the subject from itself – the subject becomes fractal and is held together by a network of body prostheses. In his own words:

transcendency disrupted into thousands of fragments, which are like pieces of a mirror, in which we fleetingly can grasp our reflection before it disappears completely. As in the fragments of a hologram each piece of the mirror contains the whole universe […] The others have practically disappeared as a sexual or social horizon […] Humankind itself became ex-orbiton, a satellite. There is nowhere to be local anymore, he is crowded out of his own body and his own functions.

Baudrillard 1978, 114

The similarity to the imagery drawn by Gibson in his short story “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” is striking. In this story, the protagonist reflects on the events of the day, during  which his relationship has failed after he shredded a postcard with a holographic rose that was sent to him by his ex-girlfriend: 

“Parker lies in darkness, recalling the thousand fragments of the hologram rose. A hologram has this quality: Recovered and illuminated, each fragment will reveal the whole image of the rose. Falling toward delta, he sees himself the rose, each of his scattered fragments revealing a whole he‘ll never know – stolen credit cards – a burned out suburb – planetary conjunctions of a stranger – a tank burning on a highway – a flat packet of drugs – a switchblade honed on concrete, thin as pain. Thinking: We‘re each other‘s fragments, and was it always this way? That instant of a European trip, deserted in the gray sea of wiped tape – is she closer now, or more real, for his having been there? She had helped him get his papers, found him his first job in ASP. Was that their history? No, history was the black face of the delta-inducer, the empty closet, and the unmade bed. History was his loathing for the perfect body he woke in if the juice dropped, his fury at the pedal-cab driver, and her refusal to look back through the contaminated rain. But each fragment reveals the rose from a different angle, he remembered, but delta swept over him before he could ask himself what that might mean.“ (Gibson 1977)

Not only is it remarkable that Gibson uses the hologram as a metaphor for a world steeped by hyperreality and its fragmented subjects, but also remarkable is that he did this in 1977 – eleven years before Baudrillard. Hence, we can see that cyberpunk writers such as Gibson not only made similar observations about their current world as theorists such as Baudrillard, but also that the terms, symbols, metaphors, and aesthetics they use are practically  superimposable. These writers use these concepts as a framework to illustrate their own understanding of the paradigm shift that took place at the end of the twentieth century. Although the concepts of McLuhan and Baudrillard appear in a mediated way, the future worlds described in Neuromancer, Mindplayers, or Schismatrix show understandable prognoses of futures based on these complex theoretical ideas. This goes to show that cyberpunk is capable of deciphering theoretical media concepts and  of shifting them from the realm of theory into a world imagined.

Cyberpunk offers more than a mere fictionalization of theoretical media concepts; rather it opens up new perspectives capable of enhancing and expanding theoretical ideas. The fictional worlds of cyberpunk are as much a speculation about the world to come as the theories themselves. But while Baudrillard was accused of having lost his focus as he began to draw a rather dystopian image of the technological future – an apocalyptic version of “Western civilization” – cyberpunk can be seen as more dynamic and differentiated. While Baudrillard’s postmodern world seems plain, rational, and without surprises, the worlds of cyberpunk seem alive, mysterious, adventurous, and full of risks but also opportunities. That said, cyberpunk is not naively technophile, but instead manages to show both sides of the age of media technology, the negative and the positive. The acceptance of postmodern environments as exposed in cyberpunk literature is hard to come by in academic circles. Cyberpunk created a platform wherein the potentialities of a society strongly influenced by new technologies can be reflected and thought through. In this sense, writers like Gibson, Sterling, Shirley, and Shiner not only fulfilled McLuhan’s demand for artists to elevate consciousness into life; rather, they went further than the theories as such. This is why cyberpunk should be seen as an important companion to media theories in the context of postmodern thinking – both as an artistic expression and as a method of knowledge production by itself, including its theorization.


WORKS CITED

Baudrillard, Jean. Kool Killer, Oder, Der Aufstand Der Zeichen. Merve Verlag, 1978. 

Baudrillard, Jean. “Videowelt Und Fraktales Subjekt.” Philosophien Der Neuen Technologie, by Ars Electronica, Merve Verlag, 1989, pp. 113–131. 

Cadigan, Pat. Mindplayers. Bantam, 1987. 

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Penguin Group, 1984. 

Gibson, Willian. Fragments of A Hologram Rose, 1977, icem.folkwang-uni.de/~born/wrk/parker/gibson-hologram_rose.pdf. 

Greg, Bear. Eon. Vista, 1998. (First published in 1985)

Gözen, Jiré Emine. Cyberpunk Science Fiction: Literarische Fiktionen Und Medientheorie. Transcript, 2012. 

Maddox, Tom. Halo. Legend, 1991. 

Sterling, Bruce. “Preface from Mirrorshades.” Storming the Reality Studio: a Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction, edited by Larry McCaffery, Duke University Press, 1991, pp. 343–348. 

Fabulation of Alternative Parallel Universes: Queertopia in Turkish Science Fiction


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference


Fabulation of Alternative Parallel Universes: Queertopia in Turkish Science Fiction

Sümeyra Buran


INTRODUCTION: FEMINIST CYBERPUNK

What if there are other universes just like ours where we can meet uncountable versions of our beloved ones who have passed away from this world? A mirror or a reverse version of our reality is not so far and may, in fact, be right here. In recent times, interdimensional travel and alternate reality have gained increasing prominence in science fiction film series like Stranger Things, Travellers, The OA, Black Mirror, and Fringe. However, the parallel universe or multiverse concept traces back to Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century The Blazing World. It reached its peak with the cyberpunk tradition in the 1980s. Cyberpunk’s white masculine and heterosexual forms are reimagined by a parallel universe of feminist cyberpunk writers like Pat Cadigan, Kathy Acker, Melissa Scott, and Marge Piercy, all of whom focus on diverse forms of feminist and queer perspectives. Feminist cyberpunk writing focuses on queer communities, reproduction, motherhood, mythology, and religion. Feminism’s political notions meet with science fiction’s narrative concepts such that feminist sf authors explore non-binary gender-fluid identities. Queer theory “converge[s] with science fiction’s imaginative production of ‘sometimes-utopian futurities’” (Lothian, 17), and we can regard such feminist utopian novels as queer utopias (queertopia) with their non-binary single-sex female relations and asexual reproduction by women like in Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s Herland or Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite.

Şeyda Aydın (Sheida Aiden) is the first Turkish feminist and queer science fiction author who speculates neo-futuristic utopia and cyberpunk anti-utopias/dystopias. Her novels cannot be considered in the category of lesbian separatist utopian fiction but, rather, fall under the umbrella of utopian queer fiction. Aydın’s The Woman in the Other Universe (2019) initially begins in a green queertopian techno-universe called Netta (meaning “worth”), a peaceful utopic world, but eventually shifts to a retro cyberpunk dys(queer)topian parallel universe called Antero (meaning “male”), which is a dangerous reversal of Netta. As Wendy Pearson claims, “sf and queer theory frequently share both a dystopian view of the present and a utopian hope for the future” (59), so Aydın portrays both dystopian and utopian views of queer sf in her novel.

Departing from Donna Haraway’s note that “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion” (148), I argue that science fiction explores “queer worlding” by offering alternate sexuality in the utopian portrayal of gender-friendly universes. As Lisa Yazsek claims, “feminist cyberpunk reject[s] the alienation, isolation, and nihilism typically associated with masculinist cyberpunk and replace it with an emphasis on creative self-expression, community, and sociopolitical change” (32). In this respect, Aydın’s novel depicts tgenderless eternal love by queer women who travel between parallel universes through opening a gate portal with a triangle machine as a social norm.

My aim is to discuss the intersections between feminist cyberpunk and queer theory to explore how queer Turkish science fiction speculatively represents alternate constructions of gender identity in cyberpunk future by breaking sexist walls in a culture constructed around gender. Aydın focuses on the impact of gender on the lives of women by rethinking the problematics of Turkish science fiction’s straight heteronormative discourse. Thus, I examine how queer sexualities and homonormativity in a genderless utopian universe challenge racial and discriminative orders constructed by the homophobic and transphobic society represented in a dystopian cyberpunk universe. Aydın’s novel demonstrates how non-Western alternative feminist futures offer new forms for bothfamily and gender by questioning the importance of what it means to be a genderqueer human being in a utopian universe, as well as its reversal in a reflected dystopian parallel universe.

GATEWAY TO A PARALLEL CYBERPUNK UNIVERSE

The novel starts with film writer Veera Virtanen’s mourning for her partner of 13 years, Eeva Van Rooyen, who died due to cancer in Netta, where non-sexist, queer, transgendered individuals and all other sexes live together in peace. Vera searches for the reflection of Eeva, who continues to exist under another identity in a place called Antero. So, to find her lover, Veera travels to Antero, where people are accustomed to living in a capitalist and imperialist world filled with viruses, contagious illnesses, homophobia, femicide, child sexual abuse, animal torture, hunger, anger, hatred, wars, environmental and economic collapse, and gender inequalities. In this other dimension, a different reflection of Eeva continues to exist as a famous actress and a movie star dedicated to saving children from AIDS.

Şeyda Aydın explores what would happen if we could open a portal to a parallel universe that is completely opposite to our reality. The novel echoes Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, which offers four different parallel universes centered on the same woman (professor Joanna and Jeannie are the closest to our world, with Janet hailing from an alternate future all-female world of no men and Jael from a world in between ours and Janet’s in which men are killed as a result of a war between men and women). Aydın’s novel, in fact, makes a harsh criticism of our own world, portraying it as a dystopian parallel universe in which queer people fight to survive. So, we can say that by creating a dystopian cyberpunk parallel universe in tandem with a utopian one, she depicts how pure and genderless love can overcome all struggle and rage.

A group of scientists in the novel tries to open a Stranger Things-style gateway to a parallel universe. Physicists open “a triangular door hung in the air on the front of the three-meter machine; it was floating like a sea of mercury, it was like a mirror when it appeared completely, and when Veera looked at the door, she could see multiple fluctuating reflections of her” (Aydın 132). The novel depicts the fact that “[f]or some reason, the person who will pass through the door must be women; the door only allows if a woman is standing in front of it, and it works like that and the door only opens to a single world dimension” where the person does not exist (105). This shows that, like in science fiction movies, we are not likely to sit and chat with our reflection in another universe (108).

The gate resembles a pyramid that allows the transition to the alternative dimension, which is dark and dangerous. Veera deeply feels sad when she meets her lover, Eeva, who is oppressed, repressed, and changed by the patriarchal society. Eeva is able to upload her previous memories and identity from the Netta universe through a consciousness transfer when she falls in love and remembers Veera again. However, in homophobic Antero, the media and news start a defamation campaign against Eeva for her lesbian affair. Eeva is on the verge of losing her career and even suffers from harassment and violence perpetuated by the public. Veera can’t stand seeing her successful Eeva like this and decides to return to Netta in order to save her life from society’s lynching attempts. Then, thanks to Veera, who provides a curative vaccine that she brought from Netta, Eeva devotes her life to protecting children from AIDS. The couple lives in separate universes until they reunite in Antero on Eeva’s 60th birthday with their daughter, EB.

CYBERQUEERTOPIAN AND DIS(QUEER)TOPIAN PARALLEL UNIVERSES

Following Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto and the cyborg world it describes, Aydın’s queertopian universe is itself a kind of cyborg world “about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of the joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (Haraway 154). So, as Hollinger comments, “queer marks a utopian space, which is, perhaps, also an ironic space, inhabited by subjects-in-process who are not bound by reifying definitions and expectations, and in which bodies, desires, and sex/gender behaviors are free-floating and in constant play” (33) Thus, Haraway’s cyborg figure offers queertopian potential. Aydın, by creating such two opposite parallel universes, a cyberqueertopia and a dis(queer)topia, criticizes the homophobic attitudes of our world by creating a beacon of hope with her queertopian Netta, which resembles Haraway’s own cyborg world in which “gender might not be global identity at all” (180). So, Aydın depicts a queertopian future in which we become “fluid, being both material and opaque” (Haraway 153).

Also similar to Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Aydın’s queer utopian Netta welcomes gender equality where there is no sexism, racism, homophobia, or transphobia. Like in Le Guin’s The Dispossed: An Ambigious Utopia, Aydın contrasts two universes: Antero—an oppressive and exploitative dystopian universe ruled by the worst of capitalism and patriarchy—and its parallel universe, Netta—a perfect genderqueer utopia ruled by peace and equality. The inhabitants of Netta call each other by non-gendered words such as “Dear” or “Beloved.” Aydın also anticipates a counter-alternative future in Netta in that the most culturally and economically developed country is “the State of African Continental Integrity” which, with its best doctors, finds treatments and cures for all diseases and viruses (Aydın 73). She also locates futuristic alternatives in the fact that this universe ends world wars by closing the last “arms factory” in the world (73). That is, Aydın’s queer future is no longer “curtailed, whether through death from AIDS or via the policing and delegitimization of deviant desires” (Lothian 5). However, the depictian of Africa in the Antero universe depicts Africa much worse than now, surrounded by AIDS (which is identified with homosexuality and other diseases) and having been witness to four great world wars, ecological collapse, and economic collapse.

As Lee Edelman says, “queer is a zone of possibilities” (114), and as a third-wave feminist and cyberpunk writer, Aydın offers “another discursive horizon, another way of thinking the sexual” (de Lauretis, iv) with her lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters. Aydın creates genderqueer families without a nuclear family bond: Veera and Eeva neither have a heterosexual family unit nor live under the same roof, and in fact inhabit totally different universes. Eeva’s egg transportation allows Veera to have a daughter in a more beautiful, modern world, where transgender, gay, lesbian, and other kinds of queer people can have children by technologies that free women “from the tyranny of their sexual reproductive roles” (Firestone 31) and also free men from their boundaries of reproduction within the nuclear family unit. That is, Aydın’s queertopian alternative world offers a beacon of reproductive hope for queer and transgender people. Meanwhile, however, in the homophobic and transphobic Antero, where sex-change surgeries were banned years ago and homosexuals and transgender people are excluded, beaten, and even killed if they do not hide their sexual orientation, Veera’s manager, Siiri, a black transgender woman, is reflected in an unhappy male body (98). The novel depicts the fact that, in a dystopian cyberpunk universe, gender equality cannot be achieved until the “one-sided domain of power ends in all spheres of life” (Buran 2020).

CONCLUSION: FROM MYTH TOWARDS A GODDESS-LIKE POSTHUMAN

Feminist cyberpunk writing focuses on queer communities, reproduction, motherhood, mythology, and religion. As Carlen Lavigne claims, women’s cyberpunk novels reflect “the problematic positioning of mythology and folklore with feminist thought— feminists, in general, do not seem happy with either mythology or religion, but no alternative language has yet been produced; the cyborg has not yet truly risen as an iconic image, and within cyberpunk there is little room for the goddess” (130). Aydın criticizes patriarchal mythologies by creating her own mythological figure, a giant raven that represents a goddess of nature, the universe, and memory who watches over the two mourning queer lovers, Eeva and Veera, and changes the rules of physics in the universe to reunite them at the end of the novel.1

The novel concludes when the couple reunites and begins to live in Netta with their posthuman daughter, EB who, like a mythological goddess Lofn, a Norse goddess of forbidden love, reunites the couple. Born from the two eggs of two mothers from different universes, EB becomes a time- and dimensional traveler and, like a goddess-like posthuman, changes the ugly consciousness of human beings. In Aydın’s third novel, Fragmented Reflections (2019), she even ends the gender bias in Antero forever.

Aydın shows that, until the divisions between different sexes end,  women, lesbians, gays, queer and transgender people cannot escape from the constructed binary conflicts of gender even in alternative universes in the future. Thus, I conclude that in order to live in a borderless, gender-free future, we should recognize new kinds of gender and identities outside the binary gender markers of women/men.

1 The genus Corvus represented by the raven preserves all its mystery throughout the story. The raven was inspired by the raven goddess Muninn⸻the memory in Norse-Scandinavian mythology, and it protects the love of queer women throughout the novel. According to the old religion of Turkish Shamanism which includes the 500 years of journey from Central Asia to today’s Turkey, the past, present and future are related to the stars in the universe. After converted to Islam, some Turks continued to believe in extraterrestrial life and highly intelligent creatures from the other stars in different multiple layers of the universe. One of the mythological creatures in Turkic-Shamanic Myth is raven which symbolizes healing and protection.


WORKS CITED

Aydın, Şeyda. Woman in the Other Universe (Diğer Evrendeki Kadın). İstanbul: İkinci Adam, 2019.

Aydın, Şeyda. Fragmented Reflections (Parçalanmış Yansımalar). Istanbul: İkinci Adam, 2019.

Buran, Sumeyra. “Violence against Women in Science: The Future of Gender and Science in Gwyneth Jones’s Life.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 18 August 2020. https://doi.org/10.1080/00111619.2020.1803195.

De Lauretis, Teresa. “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 3, no. 3, 1991, pp. iii–xviii.

Edelman, Lee. Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory. Routledge, 1994.

Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex: A Case for Feminist Revolution. William Marrow and Company, 1970. 

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991, pp. 149-181.

Hollinger, Veronica. “(Re)reading Queerly: Science Fiction, Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender Author(s).” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, 1999, pp. 23-40.

Lavigne, Carlen. Cyberpunk Women, Feminism and Science Fiction: A Critical Study. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing, 2013.

Pearson, Wendy. “Science Fiction and Queer Theory.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 149-160.

Yaszek, Lisa. “Feminist Cyberpunk.” Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane et al., NY: Routledge, 2020, 32-40. 

The Horror of Direct Experience: Cyberpunk Bodies and “The Machine Stops”


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 4

Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference


The Horror of Direct Experience: Cyberpunk Bodies and “The Machine Stops”

Rachel Berger


1. MACHINE

“The Machine Stops,” E. M. Forster’s masterful science fiction novella from 1909, has long been lauded for its prescient descriptions of electronic communications technology. With its early vision of the allure and danger of global, networked communication, the story is in direct conversation with classic cyberpunk literature. 

Cyberpunk culture and the critical discourse that surrounds it tends to be concerned with the interface between technologies and bodies. The following paper largely leaves technology to the side to meditate on the cyberpunk body itself. When a person pursues “the bodiless exultation of cyberspace,” who or what is left behind (Gibson 6)? How is their relationship with the empirical world changed? Today, as coronavirus sweeps the globe and citizens everywhere struggle in and out of pandemic-imposed lockdowns, such questions take on fresh urgency.

2. MILK

“The Machine Stops” is Forster’s only overtly science fictional story, sandwiched in time between A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910), two better-known masterpieces. Though “The Machine Stops” is undoubtedly a work of science fiction—set in a distant future and brimming with descriptions of hypothetical technologies—it is redolent of Forster’s favorite themes: the struggle for human connection and the tension between freedom and restriction. It also represents Forster’s rebuttal of the euphoric view of science and progress espoused by contemporaries like H. G. Wells, as well as his critique of aestheticism, a late-nineteenth century art movement that promoted experiencing the world through the mediation of art (Seegert 34–35).

Forster’s narrative hinges on a future humanity’s radically changed relationship to the body. He imagines a world where technological advancement and environmental necessity have caused people to isolate themselves in underground cells, communicate via videotelephony, and rely on a giant machine for all their needs. 

The story focuses on a woman named Vashti and her wayward son Kuno. The Machine provides Vashti with everything she needs, so she rarely leaves her chair, much less her room. She lives a life of “pure mentality” (Seegert 37), using the Machine to study obscure subjects and keep up with thousands of friends. Forster’s descriptions of Vashti’s body dehumanize her and emphasize her sunless, stationary existence. In the story’s opening paragraph, the narrator describes Vashti as a “swaddled lump of flesh” (133), before identifying her as a woman. Scholars have variously interpreted Vashti’s swaddling to suggest infantilization and straightjacketing (Seegert 40) and cocooning and mummification (Caporaletti 35 and 41), but such analyses don’t go far enough. She’s not a baby, she’s a lump. Her Machine-worshiping body has transformed into a doughy, boneless bundle of cells. 

Whether one considers Vashti’s transformed body to represent evolution or devolution depends on where one situates the boundaries of her body. In her foundational “Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway asks, “Why should our bodies end at the skin” (61)? N. Katherine Hayles answers, “The boundaries of the autonomous subject are up for grabs” (2). Anne Balsamo connects this line of inquiry to cyberpunk’s “vision of posthuman existence where ‘technology’ and the ‘human’ are understood in contiguous rather than oppositional terms” (136). Alf Seegert applies it directly to Vashti: “Vashti’s mechanically-mediated body is… extended through such external prosthetics and becomes thereby enhanced, not diminished” (43). Vashti never claims the Machine as an extension of her body, but she does view herself as highly evolved. She is “civilized and refined” (Forster 139) and an “advanced thinker” (148). She has no use for the “clumsy system[s]” of previous civilizations (136).

It seems, however, that Forster aims to cast Vashti’s body as devolved, particularly in contrast with her son Kuno. Forster describes Vashti’s physical ugliness: she is toothless and hairless, with “a face as white as a fungus” (133). He emphasizes her frailty—she “tottered” rather than walked (138)—and her primitivism—she “fed” rather than eating (136). In the age of the Machine, Vashti’s physical weakness is not disadvantageous. Instead, “it was a demerit to be muscular,” and infants “who promised undue strength were destroyed” (142). 

Vashti’s son Kuno, cursed with physical strength, is his mother’s opposite. If she is pure mentality, he is pure physicality. He repudiates the Machine. He exercises until his flesh aches, until he can run and jump and climb. Kuno dreams of a humanity free of the swaddling garments of the Machine. He believes the “body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong” (142). Vashti’s son disgusts and saddens her. When she notes the hair growing above his lip and fears it signifies his descent into savagery, Forster’s text suggests she considers her own hairlessness a sign of evolutionary advancement.

In the story’s closing scene, the Machine breaks down, wiping out humanity. Vashti’s spirit reunites with Kuno’s, and together they mourn their society’s dependence on the Machine at the expense of the body. Their fate is a warning: in the pursuit of evolution, humans “sin[ned] against the body,” allowing their muscles, nerves, and sense organs to atrophy (153). In a final, damning image, Forster equates humanity’s abandoned body with “white pap” (153). Pap is a soft food, fed to infants and invalids. Forster couldn’t have chosen a more offensively inoffensive and emasculating substance. That pale lump from early in the story has transformed still further into a bland, milky mush. In Forster’s dystopian view, the cyberpunk body isn’t just a baby, it’s baby food.

3. MEAT

Vashti’s body is a forward echo of the cyberpunk body. Like Vashti, cyberpunk heroes find freedom and fulfillment in the virtual realm. Like Vashti, their physical bodies pay a price. Due to the affordances of the Machine, Vashti seems largely unaware of her physical body. This sets her apart from cyberpunk heroes. Because they move between the real and the virtual, they are more conscious of the limitations of the flesh. They view their bodies as prisons tethering them to the physical world. 

In Neuromancer (1984), cyberpunk’s urtext, William Gibson famously refers to Case’s cyberpunk body as “meat” (6). This has become an enduring and indelible metaphor in cyberpunk culture, perhaps reaching its fullest expression in Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991). In Synners, the character Visual Mark gets brain implants that enable him to achieve total immersion in cyberspace. After Visual Mark’s consciousness abandons his body, “He lost all awareness of the meat that had been his prison for close to fifty years, and the relief he felt at having laid his burden down was as great as himself” (232).

Meat and pap are both foods, but their resemblance ends there. Pap is feminine. Meat is masculine. Meat is heavy, dark, bloody, animal. It is a dead, inert thing. Meat is carne, carnage, carnal. To call the body meat is to reify the crude appetites of the flesh. In Neuromancer, Case’s sexual desire “belonged…to the meat;” his lust is an “infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read” (Gibson 239). Forster would agree. In A Room with a View, published the year before “The Machine Stops,” he opines, “Love is of the body; not the body, but of the body” (189). Case’s bodily urges are so strong that they supersede vision, the sense that predominates in the virtual realm (Lanier 127). Meanwhile, in “The Machine Stops,” Vashti is sexless. Her sense organs are blunted, not by her corporeality, but by her reliance on the Machine.

In Technologies of the Gendered Body, Anne Balsamo uses four characters from Pat Cadigan’s Synners to map “four different versions of cyberpunk embodiment: the marked body, the disappearing body, the laboring body, and the repressed body” (140). Visual Mark represents the disappearing body. The repressed body is Gabe, a character who is addicted to the safety of cyberspace simulations and fearful of the consequences of embodied experience. Gina represents the marked body. She is marked by her Blackness, her doomed love for Mark, and her wrath. The laboring body is Gabe’s daughter Sam, a hacker who builds a chip reader that runs on her own bodily energy. Balsamo argues that the four types of cyberpunk embodiment are gendered. The male body is repressed or disappearing. The female body is marked or laboring. She then invokes Donna Haraway’s “cyborgian figuration of gender differences, whereby the female body is coded as a body-in-connection and the male body as a body-in-isolation” (144).

Vashti and Kuno invert the gender roles Balsamo identifies in her analysis of Synners. Vashti displays both Mark and Gabe’s versions of cyberpunk embodiment. Materially, she is the disappearing body, disregarding her physical form in favor of complete immersion in the Machine. Behaviorally, she is the repressed body, disgusted by her son’s physicality and terrified of direct experience. Conversely, Kuno has more in common with Gina and Sam. He is marked by his physical strength and his hair. He labors to escape the bonds of the Machine. 

Whether Vashti and Kuno confirm or confound Haraway’s own cyborgian coding of gender is another matter. Which of them is more connected? Which is more isolated? According to Seegert, “The Machine Stops” is fundamentally about the battle between rival modes of connection: “that of machinery and tele-technology” and that of “gross bodily connection through the flesh (34). By virtue of her connection with the Machine, Vashti is in constant contact with thousands, yet lives alone in a featureless cell. Kuno seeks and finds physical connection outside the world of the Machine, yet he is a social pariah.

The gender subversion of “The Machine Stops” does not end there. As a woman, Vashti is an unlikely cyberpunk progenitor. Andrew Ross describes classic cyberpunk as a “baroque edifice of adolescent male fantasies” (145). Fred Pfeil argues that most cyberpunk literature is “stuck in a masculinist frame” (89). According to Veronica Hollinger, cyberpunk fantasies primarily speak to “young white males with access to computer hardware” (126). Classic cyberpunk heroes are marginalized, alienated loners who live on the edge of society. In that sense, Kuno is more cyberpunk than his mother, who is achingly mainstream. Yet Kuno spurns all things cyber. Silvana Caporaletti notes that the character of Kuno has been credited with inspiring a different science fiction archetype, that of the alienated hero who rebels against a totally mechanized or automated society, as in Logan’s Run, THX 1138, and Metropolis (44).

4. MIRROR

Forster’s descriptions of Vashti’s body and physical environment are much more vivid than the images conveyed by the Machine. When Vashti speaks to Kuno through the Machine, his image is not clear enough for her to discern his emotions. The Machine mediates everything Vashti sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches. It provides a “good enough” but unnuanced facsimile of the real. Her cell is “flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons”—buttons for food, medicine, clothing, music, and calling friends. She has a “hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid” (135). Vashti can access everything she wants without leaving the comfort of her room. Living this way, she develops a “horror of direct experience” (138). She finds the prospect of actually seeing, hearing, or touching another person unbearable. In a pivotal scene, she loses her balance, then angrily scolds a woman for “barbarically” putting out a hand to keep her from falling (140).

Classic cyberpunk stories like Neuromancer and Synners brim with drugs, sex, and danger. Their real worlds are comparably hypersensory and hallucinatory to their virtual worlds—if less consensual (Gibson 51). In Ernest Cline’s post-cyberpunk book Ready Player One (2011), the veracity gap between the virtual and the real in “The Machine Stops” is inverted. Cline’s protagonist Wade finds the real world “washed out and blurry” compared to the virtual (299). Wade is more self conscious than a true cyberpunk hero. Anxious that spending so much time in virtual reality is negatively impacting his physique, Wade avoids mirrors and adopts a punishing fitness regimen. He reflects:

Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture-obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame.

309

Pale and alone, jacked into a virtual reality from a small, brightly lit room, Wade is a neurotic after-image of Vashti.

5. ME

When I first read “The Machine Stops,” I found Forster’s notion of a future humanity’s radically changed relationship to the body to be less credible than his visions of videotelephony and the internet. I could not relate to Vashti’s horror of direct experience. Of course this was before the coronavirus pandemic. 

Today, reeling through the endless autumn of 2020, I identify with Vashti all too well. As I absorb and enact shelter in place orders and epidemiological guidance, I find my relationship to my body and the bodies around me changed, perhaps forever. A stranger’s proximity, let alone touch, has become intolerable. I can’t bear the thought of resuming my packed commute. When I go grocery shopping, I shy away from anyone who comes near. If someone were to touch me, even by mistake, even to help, I might scream. To protect my body and those of others, I have blunted my senses, by wearing a mask and gloves, by maintaining social distance, and of course by machines. 

Writing about “The Machine Stops” in 1997, Silvana Caporaletti describes the fluidity of utopian literature’s connection to reality: “The relation of the utopian text to reality can vary, indeed, with time, because human history and science may develop in directions that narrow the gap between imagination and reality” (32). She then asserts that “The Machine Stops” has become more relevant and significant with time. Writing in the same year, Marcia Bundy Seabury observes that totalitarian dystopias like 1984 now seem “less imminent than Forster’s of satisfied individuals sitting before their personal computers” (61). Of course, this was before the coronavirus pandemic. 

Cyberpunk and virtual reality arose a generation ago, during a period of extreme anxiety about our bodies’ vulnerability to the “unprecedented threats of AIDS, cancer, nuclear annihilation, overpopulation, and environmental disasters” (Springer 27). In the 1980s, techno-utopian “beliefs about the technological future ‘life’ of the body [were] complemented by a palpable fear of death and annihilation from uncontrollable and spectacular body threats” (Balsamo 1–2). In such a moment, the opportunity to escape into Vashti’s world, with its absence of discrimination, crime, hunger, illness, labor, and injustice, might have seemed tempting.

In the real world of 2020, the gap between Forster’s imagination and the reality of those with privilege has narrowed considerably. In small, wired-up rooms all over the world, the fortunate have donned cyberpunk bodies. They have abandoned the hazards of meatspace in favor of cyberspace. At the touch of a button, they can summon a delivery service to bring anything they want without leaving the comfort of their room. They continue their work and life by virtual means, attending virtual meetings and happy hours and lectures and birthday parties. They have learned the profound unsexiness of a day spent jacked into endless video conferences. They are increasingly pale and physically weak. They have the illusion of control. And they would do well to remember that their minds belong to the meat, not the Machine.


WORKS CITED

Balsamo, Anne. Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. Duke University Press, 1996.

Cadigan, Pat. Synners. 1991. Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001.

Caporaletti, Silvana. “Science as Nightmare: ‘The Machine Stops’ by E. M. Forster.” Utopian Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 1997, pp. 32–47.

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. Broadway Books, 2011.

Forster, E. M. A Room with a View. 1908. Penguin, 2000.

Forster, E. M. “The Machine Stops.” 1909. The Science Fiction Century, Volume One, edited by David Hartwell, Tom Doherty Associates, 1997, pp. 133–154.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Ace Science Fiction Books, 1984.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto.” 1985. Manifestly Haraway, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp. 3–90.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Hollinger, Veronica. “The Technobody and its Discontents.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, 1997, pp. 124–132.

Lanier, Jaron. Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality. Henry Holt, 2017.

Pfeil, Fred. Another Tale to Tell: Politics and Narrative in Postmodern Culture. Verso, 1990.

Ross, Andrew. Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits. Verso, 1991.

Seabury, Marcia Bundy. “Images of a Networked Society: E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops.’” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 34, no. 1, 1997, pp. 61–71. 

Seegert, Alf. “Technology and the Fleshly Interface in Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’: An Ecocritical Appraisal of a One-Hundred Year Old Future.” The Journal of Ecocriticism, vol. 2, no. 1, 2010, pp. 33–54.

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