Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Cyberpunk 101: The Anthologies

In a few weeks I am going to be starting up a Cyberpunk 2020 game on G+ Hangouts. In addition to boning up on the rules (I don't think that I have read the Cyberpunk rules in at least 6 years), I decided to dust off some fiction on my bookshelves and reread the source material. Ever since my first paperback copy of William Gibson's Neuromancer, I have been a fan of the genre. I remember getting it to read for my first ever airplane trip, when I went off to college in Indiana. I had read about the book in a Rolling Stone review and knew that I had to read it. The rest was history.

Today, in this post, I am going to talk about fiction anthologies. For me, the stories in these anthologies represent a cross section of Cyberpunk fiction from the orthodoxy (Bruce Sterling's seminal Mirrorshades anthology) to the revelatory (Larry McCaffery's Storming The Reality Studio) to the apocrypha (Peter Lamborn Wilson and Rudy Rucker's Semiotext(E) SF). Between these three books you get an excellent cross section and sampling of Cyberpunk literature, and some of the people who influenced it as well.

Since it is likely to be the one that people are least familiar with, I am going to start by talking about Semiotext(E) SF. Semiotext(E) is an underground publishing house (originally their books were distributed by the anarchist publishing house Automedia) that specialized in cutting edge cultural and political thinking that bleeds out into both fiction and non-fiction. The Semiotext(E) SF anthology looked at the science fiction of the time (a lot of which was Cyberpunk or similar in themes) and put out what they thought was some of the best representations. Assembled by mathematician and science fiction author Rudy Rucker and philosopher Peter Lamborn Wilson, their final product was not unlike Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, in that it showed a side of science fiction that had teeth to it, unlike much of the commercially available fiction.

Many of Cyberpunk's "usual suspects" are found in this anthology: William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley and Lewis Shiner. Other names, like Rachel Pollack, Hakim Bey, Kerry Thornley and Robert Shockley, may not be as recognizable to many science fiction fans, but they were doing some cutting edge work. Early instigators and influences like William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and Phillip Jose Farmer are also represented in this book.

Storming The Reality Studio is a bit different from the other two anthologies because it was meant to be a college textbook. For me, one of the nice things about this is that it has essays about cyberpunk and postmodern writing in addition to the fiction. For those without an academic bent, those can be skipped, but I think that they help to give a place and relevance to the Cyberpunk literature. This book also has the most non-fiction of the three anthologies, which might not be a selling point for everyone. It also has the usual suspects: Gibson, Rucker, Shirley, Shiner and Sterling. It also has Ballard and Burroughs, and mixes in Thomas Pynchon and Samuel R. Delany. Some of the reasons that I like Storming the Reality Studio is that it excerpts the often ignored Life During Wartime (the title influenced by the Talking Heads song) by Lucius Sheppard and has a (non-Crow) comic by James O'Barr.

The first Cyberpunk anthology, and one of the things that helped to "kickstart" the "movement" was Bruce Sterling's Mirrorshades. I saved this for last because it is likely to be the anthology that people already have. Many of these stories appeared in the issues of OMNI magazine, the Bob Guccione published magazine of science and science fiction. Obviously, the usual suspects are all here. Unlike the other two anthologies, Mirrorshades doesn't try to go wider than the "usual suspects," it was edited by one of them after all. This isn't a criticism. The stories in this anthology are some of the best out there, and for me, Pat Cadigan's Rock On and John Shirley's Freezone are seminal and important Cyberpunk stories. Ironic that they're both about musicians. I'm pretty sure that one (or both) influenced the Rockerboy in Cyberpunk 2020.

Now I will leave you to tracking down copies and reading. There will be a book club about these books (I may be kidding about that). Hopefully this starts a few discussions, now excuse me while I get back to my game prep.