Thursday, 16 January 2014

A Cyberpunk Appendix N (Part 1)

Appendix N was the suggested reading list in the back of the original D&D rule book, and my inner (and outer) obsessive book nerd is demanding I write something similar for cyberpunk gaming. This isn't going to be a list of cyberpunk genre novels - you can find that anywhere - but a list of novels which provide specific inspiration for the kind of games I've tried to run: urban, international, criminal... drenched in style and sweat.

Cyberpunk as an organised literary movement started with Bruce Bethke's Cyberpunk in 1983 and was introduced into the mainstream by William Gibson's Neuromancer the following year. That organised movement essentially ended with Snow Crash a decade later, and Neal Stephenson ritually executed the genre thirty pages into the Diamond Age. This Appendix doesn't aim to be a list of "pure" Cyberpunk novels - it includes at least a dozen post-cyberpunk and crime stories. 

The Sprawl Trilogy

Any discussion of the genre has to start with Neuromancer and the two follow-up novels in the trilogy, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Neuromancer provides the archetypal cyberpunk plot. In a world of faceless megacorporations, a burnt-out hacker assembles a team of elite criminal misfits to enter a mass consensual hallucination and steal from a dysfunctional dynasty of plutocrats. Yes, that's also the plot of the movie Inception. Yes, I think the makers of that film knew that. 

What I love about Gibson's early work is the density of the world he creates. His sprawl is endless but full of history - each individual building has a story, in a city stretching from Boston to Atlanta. I often find, in the heat of a game, that I describe things very quickly and too vaguely. Gibson's descriptions provide a way of loading meaning into short, clipped sentences which I can use, when I remember to. Some of it is so simple as to be cliched: his habit of giving every consumer good a place of origin (an East-German cyberarm, a Japanese cyberdeck, etc) lends everything a sense of place and a story in two or three words. 

I once read an interview in which William Gibson claimed much of the inspiration for the writing style in Neuromancer came from a line in Escape from New York in which a guard casually mentions Snake Plisskin's war service "flying a bomber over Leningrad", one sentence providing the entire future history of the setting without an info-dump. 

Count Zero provided the other half of the Cyberpunk 2020 setting equation: the poser gangs, the elite corporate spies, and the extractions. I've never actually run an extraction, in ten years of running cyberpunk games, but I will! I will! I promise! One day! It owes a huge amount to the spy genre - Turner could be a John Le Carre character - and provides an elaborate, tense planning sequence of the kind that came to define later Gibson work. Again, the description of the Sprawl is what really stays with me about that novel; the towers, the gangs, the concrete and the weird feudal isolation. 

A weird idea that just came to me is that Marly's subplot, pursuing the mysterious art objects, has a relationship with Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic. That novel, perhaps best known these days as the inspiration for the Stalker video games, concerns the creation of "zones" in which alien artifacts warp reality and social relationships alike. I'm not sure what that connection is, but i'm sure it'll bring about some great gaming insight when it clicks. I'll be sure to tell you guys if that happens. Or, you know, forget about it forever, making this entire paragraph and the time you spent reading it an utter waste.

Mona Lisa Overdrive concerns itself with identity, handles and avatars, the construction of identity in a connected world. One day I will reread Slick Henry's subplot and understand it...

Remembering the atmosphere of Kumiko's London in Mona Lisa Overdrive reminds me of a Gibson quote from yet another interview in which he half-trolled the audience by describing the Sprawl setting as utopian - humanity had survived the threat of nuclear annihilation, the superpowers were gone, the military industrial complex is defeated and balkanised. I sometimes feel that cyberpunk genre games go too far with the dystopian side of the setting, partly because dystopia makes for easier plots. Cyberpunk is about social change and technological advance, however. To paraphrase Bruce Sterling in the introduction to Burning Chrome, cyberpunk is bored with the apocalypse. Apocalypse is the easy way out. 

Talking of Burning Chrome... the classic short story collection is the final piece of the Sprawl Trilogy. I was going to cover it here, but I've realised just how long this post is going to end up if I do. I'll save that for a later installment. 

1950s Noir

If you want to learn how to express a person's entire character in one short sentence describing the ladders in her tights, you need to read Dashiell Hammett. Red Harvest is short, terse and super easy to adapt. One freelance operative. One town full of corrupt gangsters and crooked oligarchs. A few days to bring the entire rotten edifice down. (The Continental Op plays his enemies against each other with a glee only matched by the players in my Star Wars group)

Raymond Chandler gets a mention because he's credited as an influence so often, but since I've never gotten around to actually reading him I can't really talk about the man. A writer I can talk about is Jim Thompson. The Grifters presents a small cast of characters and a ton of classic detail about cons and con-men. That's what this kind of fiction is best for, in my opinion: providing lots of small tradecraft hooks and plots, particularly for characters who possess the roguish work ethic. Elmore Leonard is another good example, just because his books are so easy to get cheap. 

The classic 1950s era "shadowrunner" has to be Richard Stark's Parker, protagonist of the eponymous series. He's a professional thief and an utter bastard, for lack of a better phrase. The first novel sees him working his way up a pyramid of conspirators without any regard for consequences or other people, friend or foe. You can pretty much grab his plots for games wholesale. 

There's a school of GMing - i'm going to call it the JoeQ style, in honour of a long-lost VFTE poster - that takes a realistic gutterpunk approach, downplaying the cyberware in favour of small time crime stories inspired by this sort of fiction. Personally, I think this misses out on some of the themes and opportunities that make the genre fun (and lends it an escapist quality that frankly games need), but I have to admit I've seen it create some great games.

Coming next in this series: fashionable spies, paramilitary jeans, and a totally unexpected Don DeLillo novel about Hitler's erotic home videos!

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