Monday, 27 January 2014

Cyberpunk Appendix N Part 2: Spooks!

"The Intersection of Paranoia and Technology"

(This series is all about cyberpunk literature and how it can inspire games. The last post covered Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy and 1950s noir. This one is all about espionage!)

The difference between a cyberpunk novel and a technothriller is the social dimension - the awareness of how technology filters down to the streets and is re purposed and reinvented by the society that uses it.

Or to put it another way, imagine the story after Dale Brown's superbombers have landed, been stripped for spare parts, their ECM systems reused in videogame software, the copper wiring ripped out and used to string illegal power connections between slum houses in the bomb craters...

Many - most, even - of the most famous cyberpunk stories are essentially espionage thrillers where the state-funded Bonds and Ryans have been retired or replaced by freelancers. Inspired both by the wave of corporate espionage stories in the 1970s and noir archetypes, these characters possess a very similar skill set to earlier spy characters, but drop the patriotism and jingoism in favour of punk cynicism (in the earlier stories) or a damaged idealism.  

William Gibson's Blue Ant Trilogy starts with a literary game: Pattern Recognition. A character with a name pronounced "Case" pursues Marly's subplot from Count Zero using a version of Colin Laney's nodal sense seen in All Tomorrow's Parties.  The major elements of 1980s science fiction fit seamlessly into a present day narrative. Gibson wasn't the first cyberpunk writer to write an almost doctrinaire genre story outside the science fiction genre, just the most prominent. 

Pattern Recognition also introduced the coolhunter into common parlance, and was one of the first books to really deal with viral marketing. The coolhunter relates to the modern pop culture landscape like an adventurer in a dungeon. One day I would love to run a game around the concept, although i'm not sure how it would work in practice. Certainly the GM shouldn't be the arbiter of "cool!"

Spook Country follows a group of spies and journalists through a dangerous search for a maguffin of deep political significance. The characters in Spook Country are older and wiser than Neuromancer, or else more conditioned. The centrepiece of the novel is an intricately described collision between underground factions, where rival ideologies express their differences through tradecraft. I've always been attracted to fanatical or highly trained characters, and Tito's group of interstitial "illegal facilitators" provides wonderful inspiration.


Zero History enters the liminal space between fashion and the military industrial complex, pitting freelance spies against each other in a battle over paramilitary fashions. It provides a neat way of legitimizing all the fun nonsense about "edgerunner style" in the CP2020 Chromebooks and a new world for characters to interact with. Once again, detailed tradecraft makes this book come alive. In my opinion the book loses some of its tension in the last third, when the main character brings together a group of hyper-competent operators to take down the criminals and spooks that have been tormenting them.


Desolation Jones, a comic written by Warren Ellis, covers the same sort of territory. The titular character is a burnt out spy living in a sort of reservation for failed experiments in early-transhuman technology - Los Angeles, naturally. His enemies (and friends!) are perverts and pornographers and the human trash left behind by Cold War spy programmes. It's a real pity the series didn't carry on far beyond the first trade paperback.

Neal Stephenson's Reamde is another book which takes cyberpunk characters and puts them into the real world without blinking. I read the 1040 page monolith of a novel in 4 straight days, enjoying every minute, but the experience left me a little cold - it strays too far into techno-thriller plot territory for my taste, with its Islamist enemies and CIA agents. That said, the tsunami of little details about weapons, architecture, history, drug smuggling... all of it went into my mental file, to add some verisimilitude to my games.

After decades of reading very little outside the science fiction genre, last year I decided to launch a concerted assault on the lofty towers of "literature". One of the greatest surprises to come out of that project was Don DeLillo's Running Dog. Dating from 1978, it predates the Cyberpunk movement by half a decade. A writer for a magazine pursues a rumour of Hitler's pornographic home movies - oddly, the macguffin in Desolation Jones as well - on a chase across the United States, pursued herself by the Mafia and a private security company called Radial Matrix. 

Aside from the fact that several Radial Matrix operators are outcast survivors of the fall of South Vietnam and nobody uses a cellphone, Running Dog could be part of the Blue Ant trilogy. It enters the same landscape of decadent financiers, ambient violence and amoral industrial espionage. Spies and operators descend into terrorism in the pursuit of efficiency or else stick to codes that no-one else acknowledges or understands. The action seems inevitably to lead to a cleansing in the south western desert. 

It's also pretty funny.


Ken MacLeod deserves a post to himself and he'll probably get one, but this seems like the place to talk about the Execution Channel. This is a near-future novel - reminiscent of the film Children of Men in its atmosphere - about terrorist violence and collapsing society. Like many MacLeod books, it presents members of the old British hard left, obsolete in their own time but still possessing networks and activist skills, and plunges them into an emerging dystopia. Here the characters are peace activists, conspiracy theory bloggers and soldiers lost in imperialist warfare. It's a taut, scary thriller with a decidedly odd - wonderful, in my opinion - science fictional twist at the end. 

Almost of these books share a common theme: ideological assumptions bleeding through into operational techniques. Ex-CIA types abound, bringing with them institutional paranoia and a casual attitude to routine violence. This serves to turn relatively ordinary affairs - the pursuit of journalistic scoops, usually - into a terrifying nightmare for the ordinary writers or media types, simply because the spies don't know any other way to act. 

The old guard

It's funny how, as he gets older and further in time the movement, Gibson has become more vocal (and honest?) about crediting John Le Carre and (especially) Len Deighton for their influence on his writing. Genre is all about swagger and it was important to give Ballard and Burroughs all the props early on, just for ideological reasons, but the two master spy writers deserve their due as well. Le Carre's protagonists are older (and much wiser) than the usual Cyberpunk character, but the careful trade craft and shifting loyalties of the Karla Trilogy provide lots of inspiration. 

Len Deighton is most famous for the books he wrote about "the unnamed hero," a working class, paranoid operator immortalised by Michael Caine in The Ipcress File (where he receives a name, Harry Palmer). Deighton was an early proponent of computer technology - he was apparently the first person to write a novel on a word processor - and his 1960s spy stories cover super computers and psychological conditioning. His novels are all about intricate plots that double back on themselves or twist in strange directions.

Waaay back in the 1930s Eric Ambler wrote a string of five crime thrillers that changed that genre forever, and the spy genre with it. Novels like The Mask of Dimitrios took the detective story out of the bourgeois parlour and into the real world. Cluedo-style murder plots were replaced with international intrigue, corporate violence and global banking conspiracies. The Mask of Dimitrios presents a very self-referential, meta character - an author of parlour mysteries searching for some reality, no less! - and sends him in pursuit of a shadowrunner across a Europe convulsing with political chaos. It still feels completely fresh, except that Graham Greene was such a fan he stole the central twist for one of his most famous works. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, i'll avoid telling you which one!

 Coming up next in this series: smugglers and charlatans: an extended love letter to Leggy Starlitz!