At the heart of (post)cyberpunk lies a puzzle about belief. The Lockean belief in self-as-punctum (0-D object) from Taylor’s book Sources of the Self is here the origin of the concept; and the Lockean belief in the blank slate theory of human nature and property from the latter’s treatise on government. The self-as-map, invested in reductive Lockean philosophies (and to some extent critical of them), is bolstered by cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk sensibilities. Where Frankenstein is deeply critical of the Lockean paradigms of self and property, (post)cyberpunk in many ways capitulates or gives in to Lockean impulses that drive the paradigm. Exceptions tend to be schizoanalytic, as when Kovacs bifurcates, or is copied into two bodies. This represents progress over monolinear (but still bifurcated) Neuromantic cyberspace, that tends to leave the essential Case intact (or hardwired as Foster might put it).
This slide uses Kripkean categories to map out a hypothesis on the evolution of cyberpunk to its post-sensibilities. Case’s identity is maintained retroactively over the course of Neuromancer. Case remains essentially the same in every possible world (contra Butler’s shaky reading of how this works in her otherwise excellent Bodies That Matter). Kovacs, on the other hand, is essentially the same, but with a repetitive difference, especially after the bifurcation or copying of his ‘stack’. That copying introduces a new kind of contingency that transcends death and troubles the very idea of possible worlds. I here term this (the more difficult) a priori necessity, a schizoanalytic term derived from Butler’s performative sense of naming.
“…history, I’ve since come to believe, is the ultimate in speculative narrative, subject to ongoing and inevitable revision…Science fiction tends to behave like a species of history pointing in the opposite direction, up the timeline rather than back. But you can’t draw imaginary future histories without a map of the past that your readers will accept as their own…The less you think your map of the past imaginary (or contingent), the more conventionally you tend to stride forward into your imaginary future. Many of the authors I read as a boy [Bester, Lieber, Sheckley] possessed remarkably solid maps of the past. Carved, it seemed, from doughty oak. Confident men, they knew exactly where we were coming from, exactly where we were, and exactly where they thought we were going. And they were largely wrong on all three counts, at least as seen from this much farther up the tracks”
(from the Introduction to William Gibson’s 2003 collection Burning Chrome (page xv))
The question with which this paper is concerned is: what do Gibson’s and Morgan’s maps of the past, as mapped in Neuromancer and Altered Carbon, say about them as writers and seers into the future?
My thesis is that, on the one hand, Gibson is a synchronic writer who, in Neuromancer, was primarily concerned with the rise of unchecked corporate power; and on the other hand, Morgan is a diachronic writer who, in Altered Carbon, is primarily concerned with the fate of the individual after the consolidation of corporate power. Both writers propagate ideology through the strategic deployment of names and blank slates.
I will address the question and build towards confirming the main thesis through the use of philosophical theory combined with evidence from Neuromancer and Altered Carbon. I then evoke Kripke’s puzzle about belief and apply it to the ‘problem’ of cyberspace in cyberpunk. That problem is, to what do we refer when we talk about cyberspace. I posit here that we talk the problem of reference itself, and in the philosophy of language we are talking about names. Here I stick mostly to proper names rather than the more generalised sense of names as noun-phrases referring to things in the world.
Csicsery-Ronay’s techno-evolution, anthropology, and memetics saturate every pore of the synchronic work of Gibson, especially Neuromancer (Gibson’s first and greatest published novel). Hinting at a singularity to come (both in genre and in the world), cyberspace, like its protagonist Case, proceeds iteratively, recursively, and incrementally (almost cautiously despite the cowboy junkie quality of Case) as a self-made (virtual) map. Synchronic in the sense that identities (both real and virtual) retain necessary qualities that gain in rigid designation a posteriori. Case, like Kripke’s Aristotle, would still be (the) Case, now described as brain-dead, or as a musician, rather than the role Gibson has him perform in Neuromancer. The a posteriori necessity of the novel applies equally well to two further rigid designators: cyberspace, and cyberpunk.
Though of a different kind, the class designators (like Kripke’s ‘gold’ and ’tiger’) are equally subject to both the strictures and freedoms of the ‘communication chain’ paradigm for naming adopted by Kripke, and modified by Butler in Bodies That Matter (however crudely). These stipulate that names, from their original (and probably mythical) baptismal moments, are communicated without causality in the enchaining. Thus drift in the actual name is inconsequential, but the fact of enchainment and communication is essential. Called by other names, cyberspace and cyberpunk hit the same referents, things-themselves-in-the-world that may not have changed in essence. The mere existence of evolving references, a la Butler, may in turn change our opinion, as the difference behind repetition begins to sway belief. Whence thus the ‘Stack’ of Altered Carbon, the lurking singularity of Harkaway’s Gnomon, the hack of Levy’s Rig, going back, from whence Frankenstein, his grotesque, his sublime?
The fictional UN resolution 653 is part of the novum-assemblage of Altered Carbon, serving, alongside the idea and implications of the ‘Stack, to structure the plot of the novel. In this sense, “a minimal novum produce[s] a fictive change of perspective into a new perspective” (Csicsery-Ronay, 2008, page 124) in an SF thought experiment. Without the UN resolution, the Stack is not nearly as interesting or new. It is less novum, more philosophy, one that posits complete separability of body and mind, with the latter constructed as software, the former (the body) hardware. The resulting memes could be straight out of Gibson or Dennett. The human and social (and socially implicated) parts of Altered Carbon are what gives it both interest and impetus.
I posit here that Altered Carbon uses an a priori contingent construction of identity that relies on repetition with a difference (and thus Butlerian naming structures) with a schizoanalytic bifurcated tail. This evolutionary structure is certainly unique, and represents a tail-end of (post)cyberpunk, as well as a key reference point for larger emerging biopunk sensibilities that, alongside Anthropocenic explorations of climate-change induced SF thought experiments, will continue to become the century’s SF dual-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox.
A prior contingency of repetition-with-a-difference means there is an inherent rigidity and analyticity to the SF proceedings that might emerge: there may be two heads, but there’s still one name – this has implications -- do we still call this beast SF, or is it now a branch of philosophy, an inexact but necessary science, dedicated to working out variously possible scenarios with tightly constrained empirical climate and genetic data firmly in mind?
In a nutshell, Kripke’s puzzle about belief is concerned with the statement “London is pretty,” and the precise sets of conditions, subject-positions, and referential quantifications under which the truth of the statement pertains.
“Cyberspace is pretty” – when one enters cyberspace (or cyberpunk) one enters a reified form of consciousness, one that is about property in/properties of mind/consciousness.
The truth of each parallel statement, about London on the one hand, and about cyberspace/cyberpunk on the other, depends upon which part of London/cyberpunk one is in, but does not necessarily change its value or axioms
Evidence for these claims (as stated above) lies in examining how names lie along spectrums of value resulting in axial truths produced by narratives in/of cyberspace that are, essentially, maps of the mind. These names are posited as memes – discrete, particulate, essential aspects of mind unique to cyberspace/cyberpunk.
The Kripkean puzzle about belief about where we are in cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk is confounded by Butlerian repetition with difference both within and between cyberspatial productions (and this now includes novels as disparate as Gibson’s Spook Country, Harkaway’s Gnomon, Allan’s The Rift, and Levy’s The Rig). This has to do with both individual works and the genres to which those works contribute and are comprised. Ghosts (of genre) are made out of stars (of individual works) that in turn form medial and structuring constellations that overlap and blur, just like the manifold names that comprise Neuromancer do for that originary work of cyberpunk (and I might argue provocatively, an origin point for science fiction itself). Ontogeny (of the work) in this way recapitulates phylogeny (of the genre/system) that nonetheless retains a ghostly character and cognition.
To take just two examples of how patterns of evolution and transmission are produced and evoked in cyberpunk (Neuromancer) and post-cyberpunk (Altered Carbon), we look at the name “Case” in the former, and “Kovacs” in the latter. Case has a singular death-drive that is essentially self-referential, endlessly rejuvenating itself in and through juxtapositions of cyberspace and the ‘real world’ of BAMA (the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis that retains much of the actual character of late-twentieth century west coast cities like Vancouver, Gibson’s home city). The self-referential Case is a repetition-with-difference unto death of the body that maps one-to-one between body and mind, despite the blurrings between cyberspace and the real world. By contrast, in Altered Carbon, Kovacs could be read as ‘two emptinesses’ (of body and mind), a name that changes bodies in a repetition-with-difference that pertains to the body only, keeping the ideal copy of consciousness intact through time, to infinity. This takes place in a more vertical setting that evokes the class hierarchies the underpin Altered Carbon’s social world.
[Dual-aspect theory: when you get too close to a ghost/genre it disappears/blurs. Of what is it composed? Different answer whether zoomed in or out. If a name/genre is a punctum, then it becomes much easier to see in isolation, though it is deceptive, because when manifested as this kind of representation (a point) its zero-dimensional objectivity provides a false sense of provision. In fact its essence is very dispersed (and ghostly, in the case of ‘dead’ genres like cyberpunk), as one sees when one zooms out. If the ‘punctual’ genres are represented as points, then one sees a shifting constellation of points in relation to each other. As ghosts, one begins to see their (dead) forms, and how they can overlap and interact in an assemblage of ghostliness]
[But when one zooms in, one can add another ‘layer’ by opening up the genre-point to access the constellation of works that make up the genre. Within each individual work (itself yet another ‘third’ layer) is a constellation of names, primarily proper (person) names, but also place- and category names. Once we’ve zoomed in to the level of the individual work (the third zoom-level down) one can still experience the dual-aspect noted above, such that when one pulls back from the novel (e.g. Neuromancer) it can be seen to have a ‘ghostly’ form or aspect, associated both with its datedness, and in terms of its outline and overlap with other works (e.g. Vinge’s True Names)]
[The thing about ghosts is: they act, and they are acted upon (Rieder, 2017, page 34), they may even interact. Genres, people, texts, mediations, and representations must be allowed to do the same, to haunt us in their various ways, even as we react. Cyberpunk offers an especially appropriate example for exploring the idea of ghostly genre, because it is rich with names and categories ‘all the way down’, and therefore as metaphorical and metonymical driver of much of what comes after (see Luckhurst, 2018 on the current state of play in literary science fiction)]
Locke’s theory of the ‘punctual self’ (Taylor, 1989), as a zero-dimensional mappable object, plays out in synchronic and diachronic ways in cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk respectively. Furthermore, the punctum of (post-)cyberpunk applies to both fictional selves and subjectivities in particular works like those examined here; as well as to the works themselves and the genres to which they belong (however blurry and overlapping). Mapping genre as constellation and ghost (‘ghosts are made of stars’) has brought forward the dual-aspect of self, cyberpunk, and larger structures of genre (and origin stories of same).
To take the Kripkean line again, (post-)cyberpunk is indeed pretty, in both its aspects – from its smooth outer surfaces to its constellated interiors. There really is no puzzle, as (post-)cyberpunk’s gritty-prettiness is part of its enduring appeal (just like London in fact). But its experience its punctuality, will appeal variably across subject positions, times, and spaces (this has been pointed out by Foster in The Souls of Cyberfolk, in which Locke is only very briefly mentioned, a brevity that was part of the impetus for this discussion); and in sensibilities more in tune with embodiment, other genres may appeal more (though we have Cadigan’s Synners for example and other cyberpunk works that emphasise embodiment, and thus diminish the ‘punctal’ aspect, to greater or lesser degree). The critical function of seeing (post-)cyberpunk as a puzzle is to highlight its map-like (and thus blank-slate and name-dependent) dual structure and, with Gibson, to attempt to see how effective its maps have been at teaching us about the present’s potential future(s).
Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. 2008. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Wesleyan UP.
Foster, Thomas, 2005. The Souls of Cyberfolk. U Minnesota Press.
Luckhurst, Roger. (ed.). 2018. Science Fiction: A Literary History. British Library.
O’Brien, Michael Kvamme. 2018. “Post-cyberpunk and the potential ontological emancipation of cyberspatial education in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age”. Fantastika.
Rieder, John. 2017. Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System. Wesleyan UP.
Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self. Harvard UP.