Monday, 2 June 2014

Cyberpunk Appendix N Part 4: The Magical Realists

This series is all about novels to inspire your cyberpunk games. The last entry was all about spies and spooks! This post is going to cover the magical realist tendency in cyberpunk, and traverses some strange territory.


Science fiction has alternated between inner space and outer space for decades now. In the 1960s the British New Wave - Moorcock, Ballard, etc - reached for the inner space of the mind, accessible through drugs or fringe psychiatry. Twenty years later, a new more technological inner space provided the backdrop for Cyberpunk: cyberspace. The British New Wave and Cyberpunk achieved their final synthesis in the Vurt.

I'm just going to come out and say it. Jeff Noon's Pixel Juice is my favourite short story collection ever, above Burning Chrome, above Cyberabad Days and Vermillion Sands and Ribofunk and even the unjustly ignored Mammoth Book of Future Cops. I read it when I was 15, when half my friends were into rave music and hour long electronic mixes shared over MSN Messenger, when I was discovering all pop culture in a rush, soon after I discovered Cyberpunk 2020 and most of the other nonsense on this blog. I brought it along with a copy of Naked Lunch in a railway station in Prague or Dresden or Berlin or somewhere else mitteleuropean, because the English language sections of foreign railway station bookshops are the best fiction bookshops anywhere.

I've made a semi-conscious decision never to read it again, because it can't possibly be as cool now as it seemed when I was a teenager. 


Pixel Juice is a companion piece to a novel called Vurt and its follow-ups, Pollen and Nymphomation. They all share a future Manchester as a setting: a chemical soaked, liminal Manchester reshaped in mythological ways by a hallucinogenic virtual reality called the Vurt. The archetypal inner space of the Vurt has begun to seep into objective reality, making the world strange as advertisers embrace the magical properties available to them. In Vurt, a teenager and his crew have to save his sister from becoming lost in the Vurt, while Pollen follows the story of a police officer doing... actually, I forget. It's been more than ten years! Whatever it was, I loved it at the time, and snatches of imagery still remain fresh in my brain even if the plot entirely escapes me. Pollen is that kind of book.

Vurt could only have been written in Britain, and probably only during the 1990s. It exists at the point where cyberpunk meets the sort of fiction written by Irvine Welsh during the same era. These stories take place in shabby council estates, placing teenage criminals and drug dealers at the centre of proceedings. Addiction is a central emotional driver and thematic chain through the entire series. A few months ago I wrote a piece arguing that Neuromancer continues to appeal because it serves as a gateway into transgressive fiction - I think Pollen and Pixel Juice held the same fascination for me.

Pixel Juice contains fifty short (short!) stories in less than three hundred pages. The subject matter is a druggy, poverty stricken landscape of council estate tenements made strange or alive by the intrusion of the Vurt and music, or the mythical collusion between the two. If you're the sort of person to lionise the early 1990s rave thing, this is a collection for you. Teenage criminals abound, pimping, whoring, appropriating technology to their own ends. One story turns the criminal "game" into a literal boardgame. Everything is sordid and drenched in drugs and sex and electronic music. 

These stories will always divide opinion. Certainly a lot of militaristic, "hard science fiction" purist techno fetishists were deeply, personally offended when Vurt - the first book put out by the publishing house, let alone the author - won the 1994 Arthur C Clarke award!

"You had to become the monster in your own maze, as brutal and devious as the fate you sought to escape."


From the most British of stories to a novel that could have only come out of post-Vietnam America.

Life During Wartime was one of the most celebrated science fiction novels of the 1980s and it's criminal that it took me so long to get around to actually reading it. I finally finished it a few months ago, days before Lucius Shepard died. 

I find myself struggling to describe this novel.

Life During Wartime is set during a Vietnam-style conflict between the United States and local communist forces for control of Central America. Despite the widespread deployment of dehumanising cybertechnology the war is going badly, with heavy casualties for both sides. 

This is a novel all about dehumanisation. The American army has embraced the use of combat drugs on a wide scale, with bestial overdose cases pit against each other in underground fighting rings. Helicopter pilots plug themselves into insectoid helmets for the duration of the conflict. We learn very little about the soldier's life in peacetime, and their encounters with that world only serve to alienate them further. The soldiers embrace superstitious ritual: indeed, the entire war seems to take on a ritualistic aspect, which the protagonist Mignolla is driven to explore.

The most immediate comparison with this book is the film Apocalypse Now. As Mignolla deserts the army and heads towards Panama - apparently the centre of the ritual - he encounters the psychic casualties of a war of symbols. There's a literal psychic war in progress, and Mignolla is destined to become a operator in the PsiCorps. 

This is a restless, paranoid novel, drenched in incompetent conspiracy, mental violation and casual cruelty. The jungle encampments, prison camps and mind-blasted barrios of the story could all become emotionally resonant locations in a game. As Mignolla becomes more alienated from these environments by his training and his increasing abilities, the sociopathic tendencies engendered by his dehumanisation begins to drive the plot. It's perfect inspiration for the kind of cyberware stories I've been trying to explore with the Alienation ruleshack.

This is a long, dark story, sometimes weighed down by dense semiotic speculation worthy of a later Philip K Dick novel. The opening sequence - an award winning short story turned into the introduction of the novel - is incredible and the rest of the novel sometimes fails to live up to it. People who demand their protagonists be likable will find little to inspire them here. For my part, I consider it one of the best cyberpunk novels ever: a brutal, narcotic book to get lost in.

"Russia was always notorious for the gap between culture and civilisation. Now there is no more culture. No more civilisation. The only thing that remains is The Gap."

One of the reasons for writing this series is that I love the reading lists in the back of game supplements (Ken Hite's appendixes are often worth the price of the book!). I would never have come across Victor Pelevin's Babylon if it hadn't been tagged in GURPS Transhuman Space: Broken Dreams

Babylon is the UK edition title of a novel published as Generation "П" in Russia and Homo Zapiens in some early English translations. Dating from 1999, it's a tale of early 1990s Russian capitalism laced with zen buddhism and drugged up satire. Babylen Tartarsky is a former poet who becomes an advertising copywriter immediately after the fall of communism. His friend explains it like this:


   'Most of the time,' said Morkovin, 'it goes like this: a guy borrows money on credit. He uses the credit to rent an office and buy a Jeep Cherokee and eight crates of Smirnoff. When the Smirnoff runs out, it turns out the jeep's wrecked, the office is awash with puke and the loan is due for repayment. So he borrows money again - three times more than before. He uses it to pay back the first loan, buys a Jeep Grand Cherokee and sixteen crates of Absolut vokda. When the Absolut...;
   'Ok, I get the picture,' Tartarsky interrupted. 'So what's the ending?'
   'There's two endings. If the bank the guy owes to is one of the mafia banks, then some time or other he gets killed; and since there aren't any others, that's what usually happens. On the other hand, if the guy's in the mafia himself, then the last loan gets shifted on to the State Bank, and the guy declares himself bankrupt. The bailiffs come round to his office, inventorise the empty bottles and the puke-covered fax, and in a little while he starts up all over again. Nowadays, of course, the State Bank's got its own mafia, so the situation's a bit more complicated, but the basic picture's still the same.'
   'Aha,' Tartarsky said thoughtfully. 'But I still don't see what all this has to do with advertising.'
'That's where we do the most important part. When there's still about half the Smirnoff or Absolut left, the jeep's still on the road and death seems a distant and abstract prospect, a highly specific chemical reaction occurs inside the head of the guy who created the whole process. He develops this totally boundless megalomania and orders an advertising clip. He insists his clip has to blow away all the other cretins' clips. The psychology of it's easy enough to understand. The guy's opened up some little company called Everest and he's so desperate to see his logo on Channel One, somewhere between BMW and Coca-Cola, that he could top himself. So just as soon as this reaction takes place in the client's head, we pop out of the bushes.'

Tartarsky stumbles through the new world guided by the Buddhist spirit of Che Guevara and a lot of mushrooms, dodging the violent attentions of the Caucasian Friendly Society and delving into the secrets of media-era capitalism, all the while creating Russian-culture specific advertising copy for established western brands. It's chaotic and messy and very uneven, and often very funny (frankly, it's worth reading for the bit about the aesthetics of fascist security guards alone...). It probably won't appeal to people with no tolerance for philosophical digression. 

Babylon captures an air of psychological and political chaos that seems very appropriate to what we're talking about here - there's never been a better novel about sudden culture shock!

There are more stories that could have gone into this post - Mick Farren's The DNA Cowboys and Ernest Hogan's High Aztech come to mind, along with a dozen different graphic novels. I'd also like to devote some time to Kathy Acker. Her most relevant novel is Empire of the Senseless, which presents a practical problem: namely, I haven't actually read it yet. I will get round to it, but only after approximately 5000 pages of A Song of Ice and Fire, 800 more pages of Mary Gentle's Ash, and two Richard Morgan novels (another 800 pages!). So it'll be awhile... that being the case, the next Appendix N article will probably cover something different: cyber war!