English 192
Science Fiction
Spring 2002
Professor William Warner

Course Overview



Study Materials

Course Policies


Toward a Genealogy of Cyberpunk

Lecture outline: from traditional s/f to cyberpunk:
  • the visual style of 2001 and Blade Runner
  • a dystopia of instrumental control: "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" (1961)
  • Gibson's cure for s/f
  • Characterize the shift between traditional s/f to cyberpunk:
    • Where it happens (places and spaces)
    • Hero's character
    • The science and technology in the s/f
  • 1984 novel, Neuromancer: hero, cyberspace, action

The aesthetic shift in science fiction

The leap from traditional science fiction through Blade Runner to cyberpunk entails an aesthetic shift from (the "Hilton" and "Clovis Base" in 2001: A Space Odyssey) the modernist austerity, purity and control of s/f utopias and dystropias :


Sabastian's apartment in Blade Runner: this thick dark place appears as an uncontrolled hodge-podge of textures and styles, technology and junk, machines, manikins, humans and replicants:

Critical question: what lies behind this shift in aesthetic style of s/f?

Traditional science fiction's critique of instrumental rationality

Alpha Ralpha Boulevard (1961), Cordwainer Smith

Overview: Paul and Virginia are humans freed from the full control by the Instrumentality: they are given a historical culture, language, the ability to die at any time. However, because of an old prediction, Virginia has doubts about whether they are really acting on their own feelings and thoughts. With the help of Macht, they go on a pilgrimage, along the forbidden zone of Alpha Ralpha Boudevard, to find the answer through an old machine/ computer, named the Abba-dingo.

Features of this sort of dystopian narrative

  • Non-human or super-humans control this world completely; here utopia = dystopia
  • Those who are inside this world don't know they are in it
  • Humans become much less then human; they are mere objects of control
  • Something causes a "break in control"
  • Heroic investigation of the limits of control requires going to the physical boundary
  • Action: the "run" to the edge of the world

Addicted to the Future: Gibson's rehab program

Gibson, "The Gernsback Continuum"

  1. Narrator as photographer for The Airstream Futuropolis: the Tomorrow That Never Was
  2. "Elaborate props for playing at living in the future"(458)
  3. Images of the future: the cover-art of Frank R. Paul
    1. Space ships
    2. Cityscapes and Wright's Johnson's Wax Building
  4. Drugs and a vision, 463-465
  5. Base reality as antidote to dystopian utopia

Question: does Star Wars II: the Attack of the Clones take us into the Gernsback continuum?


From traditional science fiction to cyberpunk

Place where it happens

  • Clean well-lighted sythetic spaces
  • Uncontrolled, layered, dirty
  • Paradox: the dystopian as a site of freedom
  • Final frontier: from outerspace to cyberspace

Hero through whom we follow through the action

  • Scientist: upright, rational, serious, doing "good" for humankind
  • Detective of film noir: alienated, cynical, "castrated"
  • Hacker: an outlaw, a drifter, and 'tripping'

Science changes

  1. From grand stategy to bottom up tactics
  2. From hard science (of rockets, nuclear reactors, etc.) to the soft sciences of software and bio-engineering
  3. Humans are more embedded in techno- science

Bruce Sterling summarizing the 'new' science of/in cyberpunk
"Technical culture has gotten out of hand. The advances of the sciences are so deeply radical, so disturbing, upsetting, and revolutionary that they can no longer be contained. They are surging into culture at large; they are invasive; they are everywhere. The traditional power structure, the traditional institutions have lost control of the pace of change....Times have changed since the comfortable era of Hugo Gernsback, when Science was safely enshrined -- and confined -- in an ivory tower. The careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control. For the cyberpunks, by stark contrast, technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds." (Introduction to Mirrorshades: the cyberpunk Anthology xii-xiii)


William Gibson, Neuromancer

The down on his luck, hacker hero named Case

"I saw your girl last night," Ratz said, passing Case his second Kirin. "I don't have one," he said, and drank. "Miss Linda Lee." Case shook his head. "No girl? Nothing? Only biz, friend artiste? Dedication to commerce?" The bartender's small brown eyes were nested deep in wrinkled flesh. "I think I liked you better, with her. You laughed more. Now, some night, you get maybe too artistic, you wind up in the clinic tanks, spare parts." "You're breaking my heart, Ratz." He finished his beer, paid and left, high narrow shoulders hunched beneath the rain-stained khaki nylon of his windbreaker. Threading his way through the Ninsei crowds, he could smell his own stale sweat. Case was twenty-four. At twenty-two, he'd been a cowboy a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl. He'd been trained by the best, by McCoy Pauley and Bobby Quine, legends in the biz. He'd operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix. A thief he'd worked for other, wealthier thieves, employers who provided the exotic software required to penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data. He'd made the classic mistake, the one he'd sworn he'd never make. He stole from his employers. (Neuromancer, 5)

Conceptualizing cyberspace as a locus of adventure

"The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games," said the voice-over, "in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks." On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spatial possibilities of logarithmic spirals- cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...." (51)

Jacking in and getting "off" in cyberspace

"Please, he prayed, now-- A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky.Now-- Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding-- And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distance less home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach. And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face. Molly was gone when he took the trodes off, and the loft was dark. He checked the time. He'd been in cyberspace for five hours." (52)


Assignment for Thursday, May 23rd:

Read and outline two short stories from the same Sprawl series as Neuromancer and a short story that uses the cyberpunk formula from the vantage point of a female hacker:
Gibson, "Johnny Mnemonic" (1981)
Gibson, "Burning Chrome" (1985)
Dorsey, "(Learning About) Machine Sex", 746-761

This page was composed by Professor William Warner. Last changed 4/2/02. This course is part of the Transcriptions Project of the Department of English at UC /Santa Barbara.