[Before I even begin, let me say this.
Honestly, if you’re not willing to drop $20 on a piece of pure, actual counterculture, get out of here. Semiotext(e) SF is an arcane book! Even in 2010, it feels like a relic from the future history of a parallel world where thieves, gnostic shamans, and cyberpunks were set free to run things. It’s like Again, Dangerous Visions, except instead of Harlan Ellison it’s Robert Anton Wilson (and Rudy Rucker and Hakim Bey/Peter Lamborn Wilson), and instead of “dangerous” it’s “probably against existing obscenity laws” and instead of Way Bwadbuwy and Tewwy Carr it’s William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Philip José Farmer at their weirdest. I hold Semiotext(e) SF in my hands and I can’t believe the authorities aren’t knocking down my ceilings and walls, flakes of plaster flying everywhere as the sun spills into my darkened room, to come take it away. Semiotext(e) SF feels the same way about itself. In its own pages, it lovingly refers to itself as a “fucking crazy anthology” exploring the “lunatic fringes” of science fiction.]
When I saw Transformers 2 last summer, I marveled at its visual complexity. The proportions were inconceivable: millions of shards of metal, each individually rendered in gleaming chrome, assembling at impossible speeds into loathsome erectile machine-men, whipping the sands of the actual world around them into fluff. I wondered, if I had trouble even identifying what was happening in front of me, what if some person from the 1800s were teleported into this movie theater? Would they even be able to see anything? Wouldn’t the overwhelming visual stimulus just be an undifferentiated slop to them?
I became somewhat obsessed with the idea of being blinded by modernity. To understand the future, you can’t just be transported into it without reference — it would be meaningless and terrifying. A man born in 1790 is no less neurologically equipped than I am to operate an iPad, but his lack of familiarity with the incremental developments in technology that led to such a thing would render him gaga. Most science fiction doesn’t alienate the hell us because it tends to have an extrapolative quality: we recognize the present day, strung through time to some strange conclusion. Good science fiction takes us far away while still leaving us crumbs of context; bad science fiction is fantasy.
a) I think Semiotext(e) SF would just be carbon-based runes on paper to someone without context for it.
b) This is a cyberpunk anthology, and as such is almost more about the present than the future.
Cyberpunk – which this book is all about — is science fiction that doesn’t point up, up, and away; rather, it’s science fiction that spreads out laterally, in layers of increasing density. The crumbs of context, if you will, are piled up into rotting mounds all around us. This is SF of the visceral now, the encroaching slums, the increasing integration of biology and technology, the degradation of flesh, vacuity, political corruption, the corporatization of the world, social disorder, dark alleyways, new drugs, etc, etc.
The earnest (and archaic) belief that science holds the keys to a rational future — which permeates “Golden Age” science fiction — was shattered by the cyberpunks, because they realized that technology was only getting more populist, more ubiquitous, and more personal. “Science,” in this anthology and in so much cyberpunk writing, doesn’t belong to authorities or professionals; it’s found in secret sex clubs and experimental drugs, abandoned artificial intelligences, personal software and filthy hacker warrens. It may still be the most viable framework for discussing our the dark perimeters of our world — the medium most fit for the moment.
In other words, as Bruce Sterling wrote in the introduction to his celebrated Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, “for the cyberpunks…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.”
Hence the Ballard story which details, with clinical precision, Jane Fonda’s boob job. And the stories about de-evolution, Frankenpenises, cyborg sex clubs, televisual grotesque, erotic space colonization, re-programmed minds, brain parasites, and techno-psychedelic scrying, too. Stories with titles like, “I Was a Teenage Genetic Engineer” and “Gnosis Knows Best.” If any one adjective could sum up this mad compendium, it might be “physical,” but the kind of physical that can’t exist without its opposite, transcendence — because that’s what a merger of technology and humanity is essentially about, wires that lead to abstract space. Hardware and software. Wet and dry.
There is a kind of fucked hope in this. Yes, modes of being are being profoundly altered by hacked software and unnatural invasion of machinery into the human body, but at least the individual has control over their subjective reality. It’s liberation through modification of the individual. Mind over matter, right? At least in Semiotext(e) SF, this is cause for joy because it’s truly and totally anti-authoritatian to refuse everything but your own cybernetic pleasure — and to build a literature of the future that is good and blinding for everyone but those living right in the middle of it.
“Science fiction is liberation. Reality in the old Aristotelian sense is a crutch for those who are afraid to walk alone on their own feet, above the Abyss that yawns when we begin to break our mental sets and pause to wonder–really wonder.”
–Robert Anton Wilson, “ever eager for new dimensions of insanity,” from the Introduction
Full text of J.G. Ballard’s Jane Fonda’s Augmentation Mammoplasty
Full text of J.G. Ballard’s Report on an Unidentified Space Station, a kind of Borgesian Big Dumb Object tale
Rudy Rucker’s envy-inducing recollection of the early days of cyberpunk
Full Archives of Bruce Sterling’s early cyberpunk zine, Cheap Truth
“The Future of Sex,” a 1975 article for Oui by Robert Anton Wilson
Book: Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology
Book: Semiotext(e) U.S.A.