Jan 232009

I’ve mentioned it some times, you may know, I have a science fiction phase right now. I am quite through with Ursula LeGuin’s classic novels, only two books with short stories left, and at the moment I read William Gibson’s “Count Zero”, the second part of his “Sprawl” trilogy.

I guess most of you who are interested in science fiction will have read the trilogy a long time ago, but for me it fell into my 25 years of abstinence, thus this is another series of books where I have the pleasure to see how they withstood the test of time.

Boy, that’s interesting. Gibson published the first part, “Neuromancer”, in 1984, two years after the Disney movie Tron. Interestingly enough, Wikipedia lists neither one as an influence to the other, and when you know both, this is hard to believe.

What the trilogy and the movie have in common, that is a very naive and, in hindsight, rather stupid model of networking and computing, but in a way it is excusable. Tron happens in a mainframe world, and although in Gibson’s creation there is networking, it is as far as can be from what we know as the Internet.

The idea of “Artificial Intelligence” was the dernier cri then, and this is obviously the reason why both, movie and novels, anthropomorphize computer programs. The concept was popular but not well understood at the time, and like always in such cases, it was greatly inflated in fiction. Heaven knows we have reduced our expectations to humble dimensions by now.

I began to read English books with the “Lord of the Rings”, something about 25 years ago, today I read much more English literature than German, I have written my master’s thesis in English, I write daily, so I guess I am quite capable of finding my way around in the English language, but “Neuromancer” was hard to read. This is for two reasons:

The book describes a world that should be familiar to me as a computer scientist, but in fact it is not at all. The idea of a “matrix” (Gibson didn’t invent the term, but he popularized it greatly) where you step around from node to node, using a “cyberspace deck”, this is utterly meaningless. Obviously Gibson himself had no real idea what the intellectual contribution of his “cyberspace cowboys” (basically hackers and crackers) would be, because when he describes what they do, then it’s almost exclusively using some magic intrusion software that solves their problems, but that they seemingly don’t remotely understand. Regarding the real nature of those programs, his elite cyberspace cowboys are left just as clueless as the reader.

The other reason why “Neuromancer” was hard, is the slang he uses. According to Wikipedia (Danger: spoilers!!),

the novel’s street and computer slang dialogue derives from the vocabulary of subcultures, particularly “1969 Toronto dope dealer’s slang, or biker talk”.

And that’s obviously a slang of people who don’t need to express complicated concepts. The language is oversimplified, greatly reduced in context and redundancy, to the point of extreme ambiguity, and the combination of these two things makes the book hard to comprehend, at least for me.

Well, I’m through now, and either I have managed to accomodate, or “Count Zero” is a very different book. To me it seems a much better book anyway, less simplistic, weaving more of a believable pattern of this fictiuous reality.

You know, most of the time science fiction is not very creative when it comes to future developments. Authors normally extrapolate what they know, and you instantly recognize it in the role that arcade games play in “Neuromancer”. Arcade games were the kind of computer games played at that time. They completely lost their importance with the advent of the personal computer, but when the novel was written, personal computers had been just invented, were still expensive and not big in graphics anyway.

The other interesting thing is always how science fiction deals with future politics. It is quite safe to assume, that at one time in a more or less remote future, we will have overcome the concept of national states, but not all science fiction goes that safe road, and although Gibson only drops some hints, it is clear that his future still has a Soviet Union, and that there has never been a reunion of the two German states. He hints at “the radioactive ruins of old Bonn”, so Germany has seemingly been battlefield in a nuclear war, but nothing decisive is ever said.

Not all of Gibson’s inventions have been obsoleted though, and all in all the fabric holds. His world is consistent and believable, partially also because much of what he has invented has defined a cliché, familiar through movies like “The Matrix” or “Strange Days“, through cyberpunk role playing games and a host of computer games. Whatever its weaknesses, especially those of “Neuromancer”, the Sprawl trilogy has become a genre-defining classic.

Well, that’s it so far. I won’t tell you anything about the storylines, I myself hate nothing more than literature reviews where every single sub-plot is explicated, but I can definitely recommend Gibson’s novels as a case of science fiction that has mutated into the genre of “alternate reality” much sooner than its author may have intended or expected.

If you’ve made it down here, you may ask yourself where the connection with photography and this particular image is. Well, if at all, it’s the concept of subculture. Just as Gibson’s characters, the subcultures in our own society all have their own language, their own rituals, and it is sometimes hard to understand what they do and in which way they do it.

This particular hydrant has been featured in “377 – I Should Have Taken It As A Warning” and “657 – Here We Go Again“. The bright yellow on black never fails to attract me, but the ritual of smearing tags on everything is absolutely alien to me, as alien as the typographic peculiarities of graffiti themselves, as alien as the ritual of writing “Boys” as “Boyz”. Well, Boy #1 will probably know.

The Song of the Day is “Beautiful Boyz” from CocoRosie’s 2005 album “No
ah’s Ark”. YouTube has a video.

  4 Responses to “833 – Beautiful Boyz”

  1. Your remarks on science fiction were rather interesting. During the last few years I have slowly lost interest in the genre. I feel that our society has become a scientific society in such a manner as make science fiction mostly obsolete in the popular meaning.

    Your observations on thinking about science fiction books (Gibson et al.) as “alternate reality” are one way of coping with this change.

    Only certain authors – in whose work the science is only a pretext for discussion – still have some interest. But I keep hoping that the genre reinvents itself and once again becomes interesting.

    A recent exception was “The Android’s Dream” by John Scalzi. In a way the book is an extended science fiction joke (making fun of a lot of previously written story lines), but still I liked it. Perhaps it is a bit like dancing around the corpse of science fiction, though.

  2. “but I can definitely recommend Gibson’s novels as a case of science fiction that has mutated into the genre of “alternate reality” much sooner than its author may have intended or expected.”

    You might be interested in Gibson’s more recent novels, namely Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Both are more alternate reality than sci fi, but Gibson himself has said that the real world has finally caught up to the one he has always been writing about.

  3. Obviously the real question seems to be: What is the reason for the demise of science fiction? Gibson’s reply is nonsense. Nothing has changed at all. Of course we could imagine futures just as we did 30, 40 years before, of course all the techniques of interpolation would be readily available, now just as they were, but the question is, why don’t we use them?

    It’s not that science fiction is not written any more. LeGuin’s last Hainish novel, “The Telling”, is from 2000, and it’s a fantastic book, though probably not typical science fiction, but that’s true for most of her work. I also just read Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” and “Children of God”, written in 1996 and 1998. Science fiction, yes, but more the anthropological and philosophical branch 🙂

    I guess the real problem is the downfall of positivism along with the realization that science not only solved many of our problems, but created a big bunch of them as well. When I began reading sci fi and fantasy in the 1970s, fantasy was the little brother and sci fi ruled the bookstores, at least in Austria. In the meantime it has tipped, fantasy takes a much bigger part now, along with a general trend into escapism and the esoteric.

    Basically there are two kinds of science fiction: the utopian “positive” science fiction and the apocalyptic negative variant. The positive is probably coupled to strong ideals and a general feeling of direction, and the negative, well, people may have lost their interest in apocalypses after 9/11 and how the Bush government handled the situation.

  4. @Andreas: Just I was starting the read your comment, there was a ring at the door, and two Jehovah’s Witnesses were there with their magazine. On the cover was a picture of a water tap. One of the men said that they wanted to discuss how water will run out in the world – a science fiction theme if any.

    When Jehovah’s Witnesses are starting to use science fiction themes I guess we are quite far advanced in the scientific society.

    As to the reason for the downfall of science fiction and rise of fantasy – escapism is certainly one possible explanation. Another such escape mechanism might be computer games, where you can disappear in artificial worlds, many of which are built around science fiction themes.

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