English 192
Science Fiction
Spring 2002
Professor William Warner

Course Overview



Study Materials

Course Policies

'I'm a very technical boy':
Cyberpunk and Test of Masculinity"

In the shift from traditional s/f and cyberpunk, science changes

  1. From top-down 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. Now humans live embedded in techno- science

Result: from the idealism of make the world perfect to the realism of life ordinary people living in a tech enhanced world.


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)


Reading Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic"

3 moments of the plot:


1: Johnny arms himself
" I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you're crude, go technical; if they think you're technical, go crude. I'm a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible. These days, thought, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness. I'd had to turn both those twelve-gauge shells from brass stock, on the lathe, and then load then myself; I'd had to dig up an old microfiche with instructions for hand- loading cartidges; I'd had to build a lever-action press to seat the primers -all very tricky. But I knew they'd work."(1)


2: Molly appears in the Dome to save Johnny
'You have no idea,' said Ralfi, suddenly sounding very tired, 'the depths of shit you have just gotten yourself into.' 'No kidding? Mystery. I get real excited by mysteries. Like why your friends here's do quiet. Frozen, like. Or what this thing here is for,' and she held up the little control unit that she'd somehow taken from Lewis.
Ralfi looked ill. 'You, ah, want maybe a quarter-million to give me that and take a walk?' A fat hand came up to stroke his pale, lean face nervously. 'What I want,' she said, snapping her fingers so that the unit spun and glitterd, 'is work. A job. Your boy hurt his wrist. But a quarter'll do for a retainer.'
Ralfi let his breath out explosively and began to laugh, exposing teeth that hadn't been kept up to the Chriatian White standard. The she turned the disruptor off. 'Two million,' I said. 'My kind of man,' she said, and laughed. 'What's in the bag?' 'A shotgun.' 'Crude.' It might have been a compliment.' Ralfi said nothing at all. 'Name's Millions. Molly Millions. You want to get out of here, boss? People are starting to stare.' She stood up. She was wearing leather jeans the colour of dried blood. And I saw for the first time that the mirrored lenses were surgical inlays, the silver rising smoothly from her high cheekbones, sealing her eyes in their sockets, I saw my new face twinned there. 'I'm Johnny,' I said. 'We're taking Mr face with us.' (5-6)


3: On the killing floor where the tech fights Molly

Why Johnny is not safe from Yakuza: the information system
"We're an information economy. They teach you that in school. What they don't tell you is that it's impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information. Fragments that can be retrieved, amplified…."(16-17)

Self-realization. Johnny realizes he's clueless:
"I held the useless shotgun under my jacket. Its hardness and heft were comforting, even thought I had no more shells. And it came to me that I had no idea at all of what was really happening, or of what was supposed to happen. And that was the nature of my game, because I'd spent most of my life as a blind receptacle to be filled with other people's knowledge and then drained, spouting synthetic languages I'd never understand. A very technical boy. Sure." (18)

Making eye contact with the tech assassin, Johnny has a memory flash about power

"And then I noticed just how quiet the Lo Teks had become. He was there, at the edge of the light, taking in the Killing Floor and the gallery of silent Lo Teks with a tourist's calm. And as our eyes met for the first time with mutual recognition, a memory clicked into place for me, of Paris, and the long Mercedes electrics gliding through the rain to Notre Dame; mobile greenhouses, Japanese faces behind the glass, and a hundred Nikons rising in blind phototropism, flowers of steel and crystal. Behind his eyes, as they found me, those same shutters whirring." (20-21)


Gibson's literary technique/ technology

Geographical and social ecology:

  • urban noir
  • going into a hyper-dangerous urban space (the pit in Nighttown)

Agents and action:

  • Castrated protagonist: struggle to survive, but doing it in a cool, appropriately masculine fashion
  • Woman serves as protector or goal
  • Action: a "run" to safety and/or wealth

Technology that's far out enough to make an alternative world

  • Exotic new weapons: "neural disrupter";
  • Inventive prosthesis for human bodies:
    • Johnny's brain implants
    • Molly's surgical inlays (silvered glasses for eyes);
    • the assassin's thumb weapon (bot 6);
    • [in "Burning Chrome"] Jack's "myoelectronic arm";
  • Advanced visualization:
    • "playback on full recall" of Ralfi's assassination
    • the computer decks for entering cyberspace
    • simstim deck: for "simulated stimuli"; it offers access to the recorded sensorium of a simstim star [~Being John Malkovich]
  • Decryption devices: "Squids" (9)
  • Drugs as enhancers and/or escape: another way to modify the body
    • Vasopressin: brings back the memory so they become hyper-real (Jack in the Blue Lights in "Burning Chrome").
Techniques of Writing
  • Opacity and difficulty
  • Expressive literalism in naming: "Johnny Mnemonic"; "Molly Millions"; "Dog"; "Chrome"; "Jack"
  • Neologisms and acronymns: "watergate"; tech", squid, I.C.E.
  • Pervasive and caustic irony: "Mystery. I get real excited by mysteries."

Language is concise, difficult, fragmentary and poetic… but it has general significance

  • Of Nighttown graffiti: "The concrete walls were overlaid with graffiti, years of them twisting into a single metascrawl of rage and frustration."
  • Of the Yakuza desire to kill Johnny: "Wouldn't they be happier with something to sell back to Ono-Sendai, happier than they'd be with one dead Johnny from Memory Lane?"(17)
  • Approaching Chrome's fatal dark ice: "Fear of that cold Word waiting, down there in the dark."
  • Of drug at the House of Blue Lights: "so popular that it's almost legal."(187)

Similes that work like smart thrusts:

  • [Of the squids:] "Even the primitive models could measure a magnetic field a billionth the strength of a geomagnetic force; it's like pulling a whisper out of a cheering stadium."(9)
  • Jack negotiating with Finn: "Getting a bargain from the Finn was like God repealing the law of gravity when you have to carry a heavy suitcase…"(172)
  • Breaking through Chrome's defenses: "Ice walls flick away like supersonic butterflies made of shade" (177)
  • Of the Russian program: "I felt like a punk who'd gone out to buy a switchblade and come home with a small neutron bomb."
What is the effect upon the reader of this style? "Coolness"?

Lead critical question for reading "Burning Chrome": is the "coolness" at the level of style a compensation for threatened masculinity at the level of the plot?

"Burning Chrome" (1985)
Main actors in the story:
  • the hacker partners, Bobby Quine and Jack (who narrates the story)
  • Chrome: wealthy female owner of the House of Blue Lights
  • Rikki Wildside: girl friend to Bobby and wants to become a simstim star like blue eyed Tally Isham

Narrative technique: cross-cutting between the "run" into cyberspace to 'burn" Chrome, and the back story that explains how the characters came to this crucial 8 minutes


Cyberspace: here is the way a UCLA critic named Katherine Hayles explains matrix:

"Cyberspace is created by transforming a data matrix into a landscape in which narrative can happen. In mathematics, "matrix" is a technical term denoting data that have been arranged into an n-dimensional array."(Post Human, 38)


Opening situation

  • Bobby and Jack are hot shots but also losers
  • They risk everything for "that one big score"
  • Their fate is entangled with two women, Chrome and Rikki


Scene of betrayal and sex (?)

  • Jack's analysis of why Bobby wants women
  • Rikki touches Jack's prosthetic arm in a thunderstorm
  • Narrative censorship?

Story's ending

The metamophosis of Rikki

  • Works as a prostitute at the House of the Blue Lights
  • She's changed her eyes to "Blue, Tally Isham blue"
  • Rikki asserts her autonomy by leaving Bobby for Hollywood

Jack's response:

  • Supporting Rikki's escape: buying a ticket to Chiba City, and a return ticket
  • Goodbye kiss as deathly:
    "A sudden stopping of the breath, in a place where no word is."(190)
  • Visualizing Rikki's prostitution
    "her body and a bundle of conditioned reflexes took care of business. The custormers never got to complain that she was faking it, because those were real organisms. But she felt them, if she felt them at all, as faint silver flares somewhere out on the edge of sleep."
  • Jack's compensation: final paragarph (191)


Question: Where are we left on the question of the hackers' masculinity?

Comparison question:

  • How does Dorsey's (Learning about) Machine Sex change the formula?
  • How is it different than Gibson?
  • How does this text challenge the sexual politics of cyberpunk?

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.