Tuesday, June 18, 2019

SIMULTANEITIES VI : Affective labour and physical endurance

2019 is my year of reading Le Guin, and so far I'm on track, having covered nearly the whole of the first two volumes of the Library of America's four Le Guin books. Two topics of special interest have arisen in the course of my reading: 1. affective labour of simultaneities and 2. performative mapping of feats of physical endurance.

The first topic, affective labour in relation to Le Guin's SF novum of instantaneous (i.e. FTL to the extent that no time passes between being in point A and arriving at point B), was explored in great depth in "The Shobies’ Story", "Dancing to Ganam", and "Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea". The phenomenology of instantaneous travel across vast interstellar distances of space is treated metaphorically as a kind of initially seemingly insurmountable layering of images of points A (origin) and B (destination) within the minds of the individuals involved in the travel. These individuals are acclimated to a group setting subject to careful selection and crafting well prior to the travel in question, the reason for which is that the 'layering' problem, and its associated disorientation can only be overcome by a kind of collective will or decision-making process.

Thus, Le Guin, in these three stories especially, enacts a kind of dialectic of individual-collective the emotional labour of which is part and parcel of both performance of cognitive estrangement in the work of fiction; and of the the development of the (fictional) technology that itself instantiates its novum. Affective or emotional labour associated with long-term and spatial dislocations of Le Guin's protagonists is often intense and/or protracted due to the nature of the work being carried out. Often the main character is an ethnographer of some kind.  This is the case for Left Hand of Darkness; The Word for World is Forest; and The Telling.  In these novels, and the shorter stories mentioned above, the work of processing emotions within the dialectically intensional individual/group setting is mostly performed by women because men are often not quite capable of rising to the task. Or they are simply not part of the society being explored. In a couple of the stories male society has been expelled and women maintain the dominant or hegemonic position within the societal structure, choosing with whom to mate, when, and for how long.

These alternative, fictional, counter-narratives challenge, in turn, dominant notions produced by a patriarchal science fiction community that, until the so-called New Wave, seemingly dominated the genre.  Le Guin played a big role (alongside others like Russ and Delany) in changing all of that, and perhaps (more speculatively) in the survival of the genre in its present form as something more universally acceptable (i.e. not just for socially awkward white males). It may be apparent in this observation that I've been interweaving my Le Guin reading with some of the Cambridge History of Science Fiction.

The second topic, performative mapping of feats of physical endurance, arose after I had submitted the previous one to a conference from which I had subsequently to withdraw. Both might become papers.  I noticed that physical endurance complements the mental/emotional endurance noted above, to the extent that you get the feeling Le Guin had read accounts of explorers journeys to the poles, with quite detailed descriptions of the amount of food carried and consumed forming part of the fictional world, for example, of Left Hand of Darkness.  The latter part of that work is the account of an escape from the totalitarian/communistic society of Orgoreyn, to return back to the more anarchic Karhide. This escape can only be effectuated through passage by way of a massive ice/mountain field that takes several weeks to cross. The bodies of the ambivalent 'men' (one of whom is actually two-gendered) and the changes that take places within them are described very effectively. The novum of two-gendered beings comes down quite firmly here on the male-dominant (in our world) side of a kind of taoistic blurring of the boundaries of what it means to be a gendered human, and how blurry the lines between those genders can be.  But Le Guin (as she notes in a preface) caught flack for her (allegedly male-centric) treatment of gender, as epitomised in part by the language (specifically pronouns) she used in reference to it. 

This is all tied, I think, to how Le Guin sees the mental and the physical in relation to social constructions of the male and female genders.  Each of the dichotomies is proven, in the fictional treatment, to be false, almost binary, in construction, and this I would posit, this breaking down of dichotomies, especially in relation to both gender and to physicality, is the primary impetus for Le Guin's work as a whole. I don't think what I'm referring to counts as novum specifically, because I feel it is much bigger than that, to the extent that I might call it a novum-assemblage that amounts to a kind of speculative anthropological philosophy.  If I have time I'm going to try to develop both of these points into a paper (or two?)....

Saturday, February 23, 2019


I'm a few weeks into my year of reading Le Guin, and I'm thinking I'm in better shape than if I'd chosen some drastic new fitness program as my new year's resolution.  400 pages into the 'big book of Earthsea' (a volume that includes the first four books) I'm having no problems moving along and staying interested.  My thoughts on Le Guin are evolving too.

Earthsea is a work written for young adults, as far as I know.  It has an 'overall' map that begins the volume and that would have (I assume) been included with the first work (A Wizard of Earthsea).  Each of the subsequent three books of Earthsea also has its own map, and each focuses in on an 'area' of Earthsea.

The book, I would argue, 'performs' the map, in the sense that it adds detail in the form of names, descriptions, and actions that enrich and augment its virtuality.  There is a very well worked-out philosophy of names/language that evidences Le Guin's spatial anthropological knowledge, and that becomes a 'wizard ethos' and toolkit.

By which, of course, I mean the casting of spells.  The naming side of things in Earthsea is really well worked out. In fact, it is central to the whole endeavour.  But what is actually going on in Le Guin's world? We are pulled ineluctably and delectably into Earthsea through a kind of emotional buy-in, and therefore enter the moral world of its environs. In offering us the 'true' names of its wizards, dragons, and 'regular' folk (if there can be said to be any Earthsea), we become privy to the secret knowledge of spell-casting and magic.

It is about the magic of names. Naming and language are, in fact, the launch-pad for all good works of science fiction and fantasy as Ciscery-Ronay has argued in an early chapter of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, and as Le Guin herself argues in Words are My Matter.  But in Earthsea, the matter is much deeper than a simple parallel with, for example, the invention of Klingon in Star Trek.

Klingon is clearly a well worked-out thing, but it is not as fundamental a thing as having an entire philosophy of language forming part of a virtual world like Earthsea.  I would argue that this makes the latter a much richer thing (though Trekkies might surely disagree).

It's that fundamental philosophy that, I think, drives Le Guin's life-worlds forward and that can draw so many kinds of reader, of all ages, in.


In a previous post (the first of this SIMULTANEITIES series) I said I thought Le Guin had a bit of latent racism, but this was in reference to one of her earliest published short stories.

The anthropological aspect and mid-twentieth century timing of Le Guin's oeuvre and the fact of that preceding 'K' in her name lead me to believe I'm not far off in my earlier assessment. But this doesn't count against Le Guin, per se. It counts against the genre, I think, because as many (especially Rieder in his Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction) have pointed out by now, the whole SFF genre has a bit of a problem in this regard (post-colonial SF notwithstanding).

Earthsea is more sophisticated and if I had children I would most certainly be urging them to read this book, but it does of course fall into some of the same traps as Tolkien's great trilogy.  However, Earthsea is peopled with beings that are not quite as clearly delineated by racial features, in my opinion, as LOTREarthsea contains (unless I'm missing something) beings that are all, essentially, one species (except, of course, the dragons). Race appears, for example, only with reference to varying skin colours that people have in different parts of Earthsea.

But there isn't that kind of hard-bounded separation and territorialization of racial characteristics into speciation.  In this, I think Earthsea is 'less racist' than, at least, some of Le Guin's early short stories.

The map might be the reason. It is a very well crafted, and thought-through thing. The virtual world it enables is mostly water, which serves as a liquid boundary between the different 'nations' that compose this, essentially anarchic, world.  Anarchic in a political, Le Guinean, sense.  This sense, and reference, are tenuous, ephemeral, and ever-changing things.

Monday, January 7, 2019

SIMULTANEITIES IV: The Wind's Twelve Quarters

There's a paradox in Le Guin. One the one hand, she was seemingly an ardent believer in the communitarian ideals of anarchism. On the other hand, she was a libertarian-exemplifying individualist. 

The first assertion might be false in the realm of belief. Perhaps she did not believe in anarchism, but wrote about it as a fictional ideal in which her characters did the believing (but not her).

The second assertion might be factually false. On the other hand it might be borne out by a gap between actions and words.

Writers are a pretty self-reliant lot, on the whole. The writing of fiction requires loads of self-directed time through the fog of which no boss looms; there's no external cracking of the whip except that which, perhaps, the paying of bills and generally bringing home the bacon provides.

So she was one of those. That doesn't make her a right-winger. Look at all those writers on twitter: they're a bunch of lefties, creating an online non-hierarchical community both like-minded and supportive (at least the ones I follow are).

But Americans are a pretty individualistic lot. Le Guin's ancestors, alluded to both in stories like The Dispossessed, and in her non-fiction, where she describes her settler grandmother out on the frontier in the late 1800s, they had to be self-reliant. At the same time, none would've made it on their own.

There's a dialectic at the heart of Le Guin's fiction, epitomized in her stories of Martian settlement, of weird sentiences in far-flung solar systems, of pyschologies abnormalized by isolation, fear, and God (in the case of the excellent "Field of Vision").

Where, before, reading Le Guin I was reminded of how much her anthropoligist father must have influenced her world-view and by extension her writing; now, in reading the short stories, see the influence of Le Guin's psychologist mother.

These stories are really disturbing. I do mean every single one of them, as well as the volume taken as a whole. It is truly a story made of stories, a short-story collection that surpasses both congeries and fixes to excel at a whole other level of discourse.

The discursive psychological function of these stories is to present the dialectic of the individual against God, the universe, and the whole; and to break it down. Once broken down, the revolution can occur, as it does in the dual-story structure of "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" and "The Day Before the Revolution", both award-winning stories. 

I can't say a lot more beyond the existence of the individual/communitarian dialectic Le Guin performs in this collection; but I can say that naming performs a key function. One of the stories is explicitly about names. It is a fantasy story. The naming aspect has to do with not being able to tell others your real name (if they know it they know it, and that is fine), because to use the real name is to control the person/thing named.

An individual exists in this (fantasy) community for whom no-one else knows his real name. As it turns out, this should have been the first sign that something was amiss. Reading this story I am not surprised that Le Guin had rubbed shoulders at one point with Derrida. Her grasp of philosophy of language is unparalleled in what I have read so far within the SF genre.

The second set of stories immediately picks up this language-game thread, presenting a series of 'writings' by animals, as presented in a fictional academic publication "Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics." It's fascinating. I'm going to go read more now.

Thursday, January 3, 2019


This story evokes, for me, both Aldiss and Tolkien; it makes me wonder if the basis for SF is racism; if, at the same time, SF is inherently post-colonial. Le Guin, Aldiss, Tolkien, all from 'dominant' societies: none subaltern, except in the case of Le Guin (her gender).

So is this her advantage in the end; is this why she can get away with casting her obvious anthropological knowledge of different cultures, peoples, races in terms of different species? Characters within this story correct each other when 'derogatory' terms like 'troglodyte' are used, but does this get the author off the hook?

Helliconia is somehow present here, in how a gaze, looking from outside, uses ideas of scientific classification to present the life-forms being observed. I don't know enough SF lore to know which way the fertilisation goes.  But clearly both Aldiss and Le Guin were writing 'social'/anthropological science fiction.

The approach makes it automatically feel a lot more like fantasy than science fiction, though clearly there is a spectrum. The sections containing 'reports' on the species, on the progress of their civilisations and their technologies would seem to be the only 'scientific' part about these stories.

Telekinesis, telepathy, these are present in the life-forms, in how the Gdemiar and the Fiia peoples communicate, and these 'technologies' present a stronger cognitive challenge that constitutes for the reader the 'novum' of the story.

The protagonist is chasing down a piece of jewellery that is 'on loan': "All the Exotica are technically on loan, not our property, since these claims come up now and then. We seldom argue. Peace above all, until the War comes..."

And the tone is pacifist, as are the actions taken by various characters. The fantasy flows from strength to strength, though we can tell it is an 'early' Le Guin, an adumbration glints within. There is a post-colonial sensibility to the critical commentary produced in and through the actions and objects herein, and we would expect no less of any stage of Le Guin.

She is a genus unto herself, her technology post-colonial, advanced. She has no ax to grind, but her strength lies in projecting a moral economy through story, a sense of doing what is right in the face of challenge, threat, men.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019


Words Are My Matter (WAMM) is a book about writing, with a wide variety of pieces included. At first it resembles one of those 'how to write' books, but it's not.  

WAMM is a story told in stories. That story WAMM tells is 'about' a life in writing, but also about a woman around whom many myths and stories have grown. 

Le Guin has a certain reputation to defend "[w]hen critics treat me -- even with praise -- as a methodical ax-grinder..." but I would say she has a didactic intention in all of her fiction.

Her essays and talks even more so. But thankfully, for the most part, I'm very sympathetic to Le Guin's politics, her takes, her stances. 

For example, in a long review of the novels of Saramago the latter's moral backbone forms the basis of her praise. She stops very early in her reading of Blindness because of a very real concern around the representations of violence that recur in that story. 

After reading a few other books, and here The Cave is singled out for praise, Saramago's ability to convey the appropriate message is confirmed, and she returns to Blindness. It subsequently receives only her highest praise.

This is in very direct contrast to her comment, on page 244 about "Cormac McCarthy, and others, [who use] essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially." While this comment does not address violence directly, it is implicit, and telling the McCarthy is mentioned in this text.

Le Guin reviews an edited collection with sole focus on The Dispossessed, and objects to its portrayal of the latter as a political tract with an ax to grind. This prompts much soul-searching, a digging back into her past, the architectures of her thinking. We get a lot about her reading habits growing up.

It is a strength of the whole volume, and it is why this book is the starting point for my 'year of reading Le Guin.'  It's not just how she approaches Saramago.

The introductions to Wells are illuminating, as with the whole lot, and shine light upon the place of Wells early novels taken as a whole, as a turning point, as the starting point for what was to become science fiction.

Throughout, we have a defence of genre writing against those who would disown it: Wells downplaying, diminishing, the importance of The Time Machine in relation to the later, realistic, fiction, lest the latter be contaminated by the former's less serious intent, its infection as 'scientific romance.'

Or Margaret Atwood's insistence that she doesn't write science fiction, which Le Guin points out makes it a lot harder to apply the right critical tools and thus repay the justice deserved in return. Jeanette Winterson does the same thing. 

Le Guin presents her hesitations about other writers: those she adores, admires, likes. I adore Le Guin and apply her logic to the work at hand: what are my hesitations about Le Guin as I head into the bulk of her work?

That she might have an ax to grind, for sure, especially in The Dispossessed. But her writing overcomes any didacticism; and besides her politics tend to agree, even if (or perhaps because) they occasionally tend towards the libertarian/individualistic side of the anarchist spectrum/ethos she espouses.

All her books are undoubtedly political, satirical, serious in intent. This could become a negative, if I wasn't in fact in the market for her product, ready to agree, primed with my own sympathetic politics of non-conformism, more anarchism than anything as rigid or consistent as Marxism. 

She reviews Mieville in a way that makes me want to read him: everything by him, to become a follower. 

Le Guin evokes Suvin in places, giving her own synopsis of SF definition: "one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near future that's half prediction, half satire." It's her own: there's no novum there, this from the woman who 'invented' the ansible.

Any other hesitations? Perhaps, I might think, maybe she's dated, part of a golden age past. But Le Guin's work ages better than just about any other writer I've tried to re-read from that time. Its literary quality, well-crafted imaginative exactness, and human capability all are timeless, and these pieces equally so.

In a final piece, a journal of a time spent at a writer's retreat, we get the story of a week in which Le Guin wrote a 40-page short story, a wonderful meditation on just how lovely the woman's approach to life could be. 

Perhaps we are seeing her only at her best moments. Or perhaps she was, unusually capable of maintaining her poise even when no-one was looking. 

I'm excited by this project, and have just received another title in the mail, one that I'll add to my list for this year's reading project. It's The Lathe of Heaven printed in a copy of Amazing Stories, sent to me as a Christmas present from my mother, all the way from Oklahoma. It's a blast from the past for me, straight from my grandmother's cupboard, where my aunt used to stash her books:

Next, I'm diving, this very evening, into The Wind's Twelve Quarters & the Compass Rose.

SIMULTANEITIES I: A Year of Reading Le Guin

Here is the running order and rationale for my year of reading Le Guin:

I will only read what I currently have in the house, in the following order, and without any real regard for chronology, comprehensiveness, and coherence:

1. Words Are My Matter (Small Beer)
2. The Wind's Twelve Quarters & The Compass Rose (Gollancz)
3. Earthsea: The First Four Books (Penguin)
4. The Left Hand of Darkness (Gollancz)
5. The Dispossessed (Gollancz)
6. The Complete Orsinia (Library of America)
7. Always Coming Home (Gollancz)

The above represents ~3000 pages of material, more than enough to keep me going for a few weeks at least. If I find that I have extra time at the end, or still want to read more, I'll acquire more titles (possibly covering poetry and non-fiction in more depth) and blog about them.

I have made the title for this set of blog posts deliberately much broader than just Le Guin, because I'd also like to expand the reading into geography (Massey), anthropology (Levi-Strauss), and post-colonial studies.

SIMULTANEITIES is a larger story about stories, genres, and decolonising the mind.

Initially, I want to use a 'complete' reading of Le Guin as a way of improving my own writing (academic, creative, and otherwise). It will inform my thinking generally, and will most likely appear in some form in future works beyond this blog.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

CYBERPUNCTUM: Metaphysics of Cyberpunk

Notes delivered at the Sublime Cognition conference 14 September 2018 at Birkbeck, London:


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.