My reviews of Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology continue with “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City,” a story by cyberpunk author William Gibson that was originally published in New Worlds in 1996.
Be warned, dear readers: this is not a story with a linear plot. In fact, this story has no plot, no characters, and no conflict. But it is a story nonetheless. It is a story told through description, a literary snapshot of the kind of people who build and dwell within a homeless shelter made entirely of cardboard boxes and accumulated junk in the middle of a Tokyo subway station. It is a story that reveals a tragic life in a very indirect fashion. Pretentious, you might say, but it does its job well enough.
On the surface level, it can be a bit dull reading through endless descriptions of objects and impoverished living spaces. But if you keep an open mind, it’s more evocative, like reading a prose poem. You get to know a person by what he or she keeps and where those little things are kept.
It’s also fitting that it’s set in Tokyo, which comes up often in Gibson’s stories. The presentation of this life through images and the despair of homelessness makes a bit more sense if you consider the Japanese ideal of mono no aware (an awareness of the impermanent nature of things). The cardboard boxes are temporary containers, but their emptiness is useful for people whose lives are also empty. Through thirteen mini-narratives, Gibson captures their despair and the weight of their lives through what they still physically retain.
As I said before, this is not an easy story, but it’s rich and powerful all the same. It’s an experience of words rather than an experience delivered with words.
Bibliography: Gibson, William. “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City.” Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology. Ed. James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007.
Author’s Note: I know I’ve reviewed a lot of cyberpunk works on this site, so it was inevitable I’d get into an examination of the genre and its future at some point. I’ll try not to editorialize too much and get back to my usual sometimes sweet, sometimes snarky reviews as soon as possible.
It’s not 1984 anymore.
Corporations exist, but so does the Internet. The Soviet Union gave way to the Russian Mafiya and Vladimir Putin. The Arab World is in revolt and China is rising up alongside the US as a rival (state capitalism with no conscience). Fuel and energy sources are becoming precious. Climate and environmental change has to be addressed. Data access and media scrutiny are more widespread than ever before.
So what kind of literature can we expect in this era? The cyberpunk of Gibson’s time focused on rapid technological change with no positive change in society. The rich got richer, the poor kept getting screwed, and computer hackers were overtaking old-school mobsters as the hot new criminal occupation. Transhumanism became just another fad instead of the answer to all of humanity’s problems. What defined these stories was a sense of alienation, which was understandable if you were an author who’d just lived through the bleak Seventies.
But what about today? Are we still as alienated as the original cyberpunks felt and wrote?
In a way, it could be argued that, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and certainly cyberpunk is a response to that adage. Despite the proliferation of the World Wide Web and greater global exchange, we remain a fragmented and hostile world. Terrorism has overtaken Communism as the new grim specter, with religious extremists and insurgencies rapidly gaining ground through the Web and mobile technology. Scandals are more common occurrences thanks to carelessness with digital technology, along with increased scrutiny by both mainstream and alternative media groups. The news media itself has become more fragmented thanks to the rise of cable news networks and online journalism, as it becomes more profitable to pander to niche audiences than to garner a larger viewership.
We live in an era of fear. An era where everything happens fast. S/he who posts first and frequently gets to determine the course of the conversation. We also live in an era of commentary. There is almost nothing in the common media that can be taken objectively now. Everything deserves a comment from the audience, which may or may not devolve into yet another bitter Internet argument if the subject under discussion is even remotely controversial.
We live in a world that speaks up more than it used to. Protest movements can be organized within an hour in any place across the globe. Backlash against a movie, TV show, book, political campaign, or other product can be far more immediate and devastating. Good PR is critical in business.
The world is becoming more democratic. Corporations may still be insanely powerful and unchecked, yet consumers can band together and make their displeasure known fast. Political leaders may still be tossing out lies and deceiving voters, but there are plenty of sites dedicated to checking their claims and analyzing legislation from the moment of inception. We’re still cynical, but we also get passionate about causes and having a global perspective means we can more easily learn and care about stopping dictators in Sudan or backing protests in China.
The truth is struggling to make itself known, but it still has a chance–and that should be the rallying cry of the New Cyberpunk. Not “the truth shall set you free,” but “You must set the truth free.” Recognize the face behind the online avatar. Examine the lie within the celebrity’s statement. Call out your leaders and neighbors when they bear false witness. Truthful testimony could be the new currency. We can tell a lot about ourselves through Twitter and YouTube. We can learn a lot about each other from online journalism and Wikipedia.
Perhaps the characters of the New Cyberpunk must finally forego all claims of privacy in the World Wide Web. They must walk their own Via Dolorosa, accepting a crown of thorns from Internet trolls and being crucified for every inflammatory comment or false claim they make, however accidental it might be. Because once they learn to handle the emotional rollercoaster, they can conquer the fear and the fragmentation. They can conquer the little death of privacy and begin a new ministry: the work of upholding human interests and rights on the digital frontier. They’re gunslingers who become sheriffs (or rather, admins), helping tame the Wild Web one online forum at a time. They stand up for the right to share the truth of oneself, even if it means censure and shame. They will express themselves as they see fit, even if they have to put up with the idiocy and malice of their neighbors for the same reasons.
The antagonists of New Cyberpunk stories are not just corporations and criminal syndicates. The true antagonist is despair–the inability to comprehend what power we literally have at our fingertips, but spend only for the purposes of keeping ourselves occupied and entertained. It’s despair that drives people to become terrorists and trolls, to subvert rather than create, to become famous by being outrageous rather than inspiring. To counter despair, the new heroes must bring hope. To counter lies and fragmentation, the new heroes must bring truth and fellowship. The only monsters are the ones we create for ourselves. We don’t need swords to cut them down. We just need to plant a seed of truth and give it the chance to grow.
In retrospect, this isn’t really a manifesto or an attempt to speak on behalf of a movement. It’s just one writer’s opinion, trying to speak truth the only way he knows.
‘It’s an obsession with the idea not just of the right stuff, but of the special stuff. Equipment fetishism. The costume and semiotics of achingly elite police and military units. Intense desire to possess same, of course, and in turn to be associated with that world. With its competence, its cocksure exclusivity.’
‘Sounds like fashion, to me.’
‘Exactly. Pants, but only just the right ones. We could never have engineered so powerful a locus of consumer desire. It’s like sex in a bottle’ (Gibson 206).
And so, at last, we come to Zero History, the final installment of the “Bigend Books” series by science fiction author William Gibson. We see the culmination of a process begun in Pattern Recognition and refined in Spook Country.
Let’s get down to brass tacks!
The Story: What You’re Wearing Isn’t A Crime, Just A Matter Of National Security
Hubertus Bigend, giant of the Blue Ant advertising agency, has his sights set on a secret fashion label known as Gabriel Hounds. To sniff out this brand and its source, he calls upon his newest marginal employees, Hollis Henry and Milgrim. Along the way, they encounter ex-covert operatives and other adrenaline junkies, all tied to the same quest for the elusive Gabriel Hounds. It’s a quest that not only draws the wrong kind of attention from the US military, but from Bigend himself, who might not be as strong as he seems…
The Cast: Amateur Spies Vs. The Military’s Guys
Hollis Henry returns as the protagonist for our story, giving us her cynical take on working for Bigend. Her storyline is interesting because she slowly begins to grow independent of Bigend, trying to keep up with her boyfriend Garreth (introduced near the end of the last story) and wanting to know about Gabriel Hounds for herself.
Milgrim is the deuteragonist, coming off a little better than he did in Spook Country. For one thing, he starts off the story having come out of rehab at Blue Ant’s expense and tries to focus on doing the field work necessary to track down the Gabriel Hounds designer. It’s often noted that his ability to spot small details makes him a valuable field agent, although, like Hollis, he also begins to separate himself from Bigend’s circle and seek out his own view on the world.
The Theme: Drawing The Line On Security And Safety
The connection between military uniforms and fashion trends is one of the central themes at work in Zero History. It shows up in the Gabriel Hounds clothing line, which leads to a subtle jump on how the military and the security policies of the post-9/11 world are affecting us as a global society. Besides Milgrim and others trying to act like Special Forces operatives, we get to see civilian use of unmanned drones and interaction with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS). We see inventive uses of Twitter and smartphones as espionage tools and how the paranoid can both thrive and flounder in the modern era.
Final Verdict: A Gripping Read And Required Reading For Today’s Writers
Overall, this is a mature end to the trilogy. We get some good character development for Hollis and Milgrim, the introduction of Garreth from the second book and Voytek from the first was cleverly handled, and I’m impressed with the reveal of the Gabriel Hounds designer and just why the brand is so baffling yet alluring to Bigend.
Like I’ve said before, Gibson knows how to write about the present day. It’s easy to fudge details or make something up for the sake of a cool story, but he does his research and even collaborated with other authors like Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling to get some of the technology applications just right. It’s a testament to his creative vision and makes it easier to feel immersed in his stories.
Rhapsodist Edit: Happy Second Anniversary to this blog and its readers! Here’s to a third, a fourth, and however many more are in store!
Bibliography: Gibson, William. Zero History. Viking, 2010.
“Would it all be like this, in Alberto’s new world of the locative? Would it mean that the untagged, unscripted world would gradually fill with virtual things, as beautiful or ugly or banal as anything once encountered on the web already? Was there any reason to expect it to be any better than that, any worse?” (Gibson 142)
Last year, I reviewed Pattern Recognition, a novel by William Gibson that left his usual cyberpunk, sci-fi style in favor of a gritty and tech-savvy modern perspective. This novel was the first of what’s been called his “Bigend Books,” so now I’m looking into the first sequel, Spook Country, a story about the ever-changing paradigms in the twenty-first century.
The Story: Virtual Meets The Real, Meets Guys In Covert Ops
There are three storylines that occur simultaneously throughout the novel, all of which tie together at the end:
A former rock star-turned-journalist does a story for a fictional magazine called Node on “locative art” and pursues a shifty specialist on GPS tracking;
A young man from a Cuban Chinese crime family has to arrange a deal with a strange old man who has a connection to his deceased father; and
A Rize addict is held in custody by suspicious private contractors who want him to translate intercepted Russian text messages from said Cuban Chinese crime family.
All of this relates to a mysterious shipping container that the CIA was ordered to leave alone, whose signal disappears and reappears infrequently and whose location is ever-changing. The contents of this container are apparently valuable enough to bring in these ordinary people into the middle of an intense struggle between two sets of retired government operatives.
The Cast: Cubans, Spies, And Rock Stars, Oh My!
Hollis Henry is our protagonist, a former singer for the rock band Curfew and the most recent journalist to be on assignment for the enigmatic media magnate Hubertus Bigend. Much like Cayce Pollard from the last book, Hollis is a sharp-minded woman who has to deal with both the frustrations of her current assignment and her many hangups about her past (in this case, as a onetime celebrity).
Our deuteragonist is Tito, a young man whose family lives on the shadier side of the law in New York City. He’s just as alienated as Hollis, having grown up in Cuba and done everything his relatives ask of him, including learning the martial art of Systema and practicing Santería. In the meantime, he wants to know more about his family’s past and why he can’t feel a sense of home in either Cuba or the US.
And then comes our tritagonist, Milgrim, who I swear I thought was Russian at first, but turns out not to be. He does, however, speak and read Russian (more specifically, Volapuk-style texting), which makes him an asset to malevolent guys like Brown. However, Milgrim is not a malicious person. He’s mild, to put it plainly. When he’s not under the effects of Rize, he’s reading a worn-out paperback on twelfth-century Russian heretics, asking questions that get on his captors’ nerves, and wandering around to give the reader more insight into the mysterious villains in this story.
The Style: Oh, What We Can Do With The Web These Days!
This book really knows how to make the most of modern technology: virtual reality helmets for locative art pieces, iPods that can be used for data storage, texting interception devices as used by covert ops teams, and GPS tracking as done by amateur enthusiasts. To paraphrase one character, the digital world is no longer a separate entity from the “real world,” but rather the distinction between the two is getting more blurry with each passing year.
There’s also an emphasis on the nature of security in a post-9/11 world. It seems to go hand-in-hand with the emphasis on the Web: an encompassing network of agents and observation points, all sharing and encoding data at lightning speed. In some ways, there’s a subtle distinction between the heroes of the story, who use technology to confuse or conceal, and the villains, who use electronics for surveillance. The heroes are those who can live with the uncertainty of the new era, while the antagonists can’t accept a world that doesn’t revolve around them and their worldview (neoconservatism, much?).
Final Verdict: A Strong Follow-Up
In my mind, I can’t help but compare Spook Country to another Gibson sequel, Count Zero. There’s a similar three-POV structure to the story, all centered around a constantly moving target. And much like how I liked Neuromancer over Count Zero, I also prefer the first book Pattern Recognition to this one, but that doesn’t make this story bad. Honestly, if there was a bit less of, say, the rather useless character Milgrim, I might have liked it more, especially since Hollis Henry reminds me so much of Cayce Pollard. But regardless, the story is good for what it delivers, keeping us immersed in a fascinating new view of our present day condition.
When we think of sci-fi authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, we think of the cyberpunk genre they pioneered. But what you may not know is that they also pioneered a derivative genre known as steampunk. If cyberpunk looks at future technology through jade-colored lenses, then steampunk is a romantic view of technology for a historical period where it shouldn’t exist yet–specifically, modern technology in a Victorian era setting.
So what do you get when Gibson and Sterling pool their talents together to write a story that dares to put modern tech into the nineteenth century? Why, The Difference Engine, of course!
The Story: Things Are About To Get A Bit More… Radical
The year is 1855. The place is London. History as we know it has been changed forever thanks to the success and spread of the eponymous difference engines invented by Charles Babbage. What follows is a takeover of Parliament by the Industrial Radical Party under Lord Byron, a Luddite uprising, the fragmentation of the United States, and an upswing in the general quality of life for the British.
However, all that hard-earned progress will be jeopardized, as several plots circle around a mysterious box of punch-cards whose mathematical functions could spell disaster for the Radicals and their Engines. It is through the eyes of a politician’s tart, a respected paleontologist, and a Foreign Office spymaster that we see the chaos unfold, with only the slightest chance of thwarting what some sinister individuals have set into motion.
The Cast: Hackers Vs. The State “Clackers” Vs. “The Mob”
There are three protagonists to this story. The first sixth of the story goes to Sybil Gerard, the daughter of a famous Luddite agitator, who finds herself caught up in the intrigues surrounding an exiled Texan general named Sam Houston. The last sixth of the story goes to Laurence Oliphant, a diplomat and spy who hopes to serve his government by rooting out conspirators and getting to the bottom of a plot involving murder, theft, and a potential scandal with Lady Ada Byron, the Prime Minister’s daughter. And between these two storylines is the bulk of the novel, wherein we follow Edward Mallory, a fellow of the Royal Society and paleontologist credited with the discovery of the Brontosaurus, who becomes the possessor of the mysterious punch-cards for a time and joins Oliphant in getting to the heart of the conspiracy surrounding Lady Ada.
Although Mallory’s story covers most of the novel, I didn’t find him to be as substantial a hero as I’d hoped. Granted, he’s a classic British gentleman and a true man of Science, but beyond his earnest nature, I didn’t feel as deeply connected to him as I did with the other viewpoint characters. Sybil at least had a tragic backstory that she was always trying to overcome, while Laurence Oliphant has all the hallmarks of a professional, taking each development and challenge in stride while calculating his next move.
The Style: A Familiar Era In An Unfamiliar Light
Although this story is written in modern English, the words themselves bring to mind a true Victorian story, like reading the Sherlock Holmes tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What struck me most throughout this story is just how much research Gibson and Sterling have clearly done while writing. From telegrams to the Crimean War, from Victorian social etiquette to the principles of steam technology, they really make sure that the reader is immersed in what the 1800s were really like.
Having said that, they also show just how different everything becomes. The hard part about writing an alternate history story is that changing one thing won’t automatically change everything. In this case, it’s not just that Babbage’s engines become a success or that steam power becomes the new standard for energy production. There’s the Balkanization of America into five sovereign territories, the British expedition to Japan, the French conquest of Mexico, the prevention of the Great Famine in Ireland, and the surprising new career paths taken by historical figures like Babbage, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Marx, and Darwin. All these changes manage to work together, allowing us to see what kind of a world men and women like Sybil Gerard and “Ned” Mallory live in.
Final Verdict: A Great View Of The Future Through The Eyes Of The Past
In spite of what I said about Mallory’s role as a protagonist, the novel is quite good. Admittedly, it can seem a little dry, considering that there’s more intrigue and investigation than action, but that’s not the heart of the story. The heart is in Lord Babbage’s Engines and the “clackers” who run them, in the pollution of industrial London and the people’s agitation against endless reforms, and in the very altered nature of the Victorian era that we take for granted in our own modern time.
In looking at what might have been, Gibson and Sterling do a fantastic job of showing us our own issues, making us appreciate what we have to solve using the technology we now have and the lessons that our actual history has given us.
Bibliography: Gibson, William. Sterling, Bruce. The Difference Engine. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.