Did you know that the movie Blade Runner is set in the year 2019? Do you realize this is only nine years away? My kids will be getting their driver’s permits in the year Deckerd falls in love with Rachael. I know this isn’t really that shocking. After all, eventually we come to all the years in which science fiction is set. But this one matters to me, because cyberpunk was my first really serious foray into science fiction.
I spent my childhood in fantasy books. Mythology and Narnia led to the Belgariad and Mercedes Lackey. I mean, sure, I read Anne McCaffrey’s stuff — all of it, including the overt romance novels — but I was never much attached to the science of the fiction. I read the Pegasus books because they had telepaths in them. I read the Pern books as if they were straight-up fantasy, dragons and spell-singers. I dabbled in Asimov but it didn’t stick. I read Heinlein, but I read it for the women. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I read but did not notice science fiction when I was a kid. Not until I read Burning Chrome.
“It was hot, the night we burned Chrome.” That line still gives me chills. It summons up the heated stink of a city in summer, baked asphalt and ozone and pollution, and the distant noise permeating the air. I devoured Gibson, then Sterling. It was in the anthology Mirrorshades that I first met the work of Pat Cadigan, the story “Rock On,” and it took me three or four more years to realize that Cadigan was not another guy. But it wasn’t until I read the anthology Future on Fire that my heart was truly won by this dark, painful vision of our science future. Future on Fire got to me for two reasons: First, six of the stories in it are by women. Second, this cyberpunk stuff was hopeful and optimistic.
I’ll wait until you stop laughing.
I understand your confusion. Cyberpunk is lauded as dystopian, as hopeless. So where do I get optimism from? Context is everything. In the late 80s and early 90s, the Berlin Wall had just come down. Communism was eroding or imploding. For the first time in my life, I began to believe that I might live past the age of thirty; that I might not be killed in nuclear holocaust. The science fiction of cyberpunk showed people living in the immediate next few decades. Living, in cities and towns, making dinner, playing games, earning a living (or failing to do so.) Committing crimes, often unsuccessfully. There was a vibrant, stubborn life in cyberpunk from which I could not turn away. I loved this stuff, with its dirt and drugs and these amazing women doing dangerous things.
The characters in cyberpunk were made of black leather and sweat and chrome, and for all of the deckers’ and netrunners’ insistence that the body is just meat, the stories are full of beard stubble and gnawing hunger and unwashed denim. The stories celebrate the physical world by fighting so hard against it. It was a future I could almost touch, smell, nearly taste. This was a future that could come from 1989, from the guitar licks of Prince, the idiocy of nightly television, the dominance of fast-food chains and their wars, the fabricated unnatural colors for clothes and cars. This was a future I could believe in, a counter to the empty radioactive snowdrifts of the rapidly receding nuclear future.
And this future, it was being built by women in addition to the white guys I had thought wrote all science fiction. I had known that women wrote fantasy books; now I knew that women wrote SF. And what SF it was. Pat Cadigan‘s “Pretty Boy Crossover.” Connie Willis’s “All My Darling Daughters,” a story that made me re-read it with nauseated fascination. Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love.” Susan Palwick’s “The Neighbor’s Wife.”
This one anthology led me both into feminist science fiction — Melissa Scott’s Trouble and Her Friends, Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall, more Connie Willis, Susan Palwick, Pat Murphy, Karen Joy Fowler (it is not an exaggeration to say that cyberpunk is what led me to attend Wiscon, once I’d heard of it) — and into my love of noir films and books. Chandler, Double Indemnity, The Long Goodbye, Phillip Marlowe — all those battered losers looking for the main chance.
I can’t remember when I saw Blade Runner, exactly. After I read Mirrorshades, before I read Mindplayers. I didn’t understand, the first time, that Phillip K. Dick was not writing cyberpunk. I didn’t realize that his work influenced later writers, that his noir-science-fiction helped the later folks do what they did. What I saw was a glorious movie, a masterpiece of mood and tone, light and shadow. I saw hard men and harder women, and people lying to themselves about the location and state of their hearts. After I saw this, after I saw Ridley Scott’s vision of PKD’s hallucination, I envisioned the future like this. Leather trenchcoats and plastic shoes and Asian fast food, nostalgia for a past that never existed combined with an unrealistic hope for the future — nothing but a weary contempt for the present.
This is so adolescent, my god.
“I did it on a dare. The type of thing where you know it’s a mistake but you do it anyway because it seems to be Mistake Time.” (Mindplayers, by Pat Cadigan) In 1987 I was fourteen years old and that line described about thirty percent of my decision-making. I was fourteen and I was wise, oh-so-wise, I assure you, to the ways of the world. I was wise like Walter Neff, I knew the score. I was also an idealist, blazing towards the unknown future that my friends and I would create — we were the leaders of tomorrow, after all. As for the present, well, adolescence is a time to forcibly create who you are, to divorce yourself from your past and family and prove to the world that nobody owns you and you owe no one. Which sounds astonishingly like both Phillip Marlowe and like William Gibson’s Molly.
I haven’t watched Blade Runner in years. I’m thinking it might be time to do so again. To watch it and try to spot how many things in the film have permeated my subconscious and become merely a part of the reality in my head. (Like the fashions Paul Smith put on the X-Men in the X-Men / Alpha Flight crossover.)
I’m looking out my window as I write this and the sun is shining. Plain old, honest sunlight, without looming arcologies. I look around and I see my phone — a technology never quite captured in cyberpunk — and I see the news story about Spirit in its grave on Mars. I kinda like this future just fine, thanks. But I owe cyberpunk an enormous debt. I owe it noir and feminist sf, I owe it the science fiction of gender politics and queer theory, I owe cyberpunk hours — months, honestly — of my life spent in those worlds. I owe it a vision of geek-girl that relied on skill and talent. I owe it a sense of future.
Yes, it’s time to watch Blade Runner again. I might watch it with a beer and some snack-edamame, and give thanks that its cyberpunk future hasn’t come to pass.