Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Cyberpunk Appendix N Part 5: Hardwired!

Another season, another instalment of the Cyberpunk Appendix N, all about cyberpunk, post cyberpunk and sorta-maybe-inspiring-perhaps-maybe? cyberpunk. Once again, the subject of this column isn't what I claimed it would be at the end of the last Appendix N post. I've decided just to give up on making plans for this series. 

The last Appendix N post covered the magical realist tendency in the genre. Today we return to hard, burnished chrome.

This post is about two novels that concern pilots and their futuristic machines. If you're a fan of Shadowrun's rigger class, you want to know all about Hardwired. If your rigger came into eight million nuyen and used it to buy bleeding-edge drones, making you and the rest of the team utterly obsolete, Yukikaze might reflect your mood. Either way, this post is going to be all about jet turbines and heat seeking missiles.

"But he's called himself a citizen of the free and immaculate sky too long to accept the notion that his world of air has bars on it."

When people talk about the Cyberpunk genre - the 1980s literary movement, that lasted roughly a decade from Neuromancer through to Snow Crash - they tend to discuss a canon of classic novels. Neuromancer, Pat Cadigan's Synners, Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Walter Jon Williams' Hardwired (and Rudy Rucker's Software and John Shirley's unjustly forgotten Eclipse and George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails, before I get angry emails...).

Hardwired even got a classic (some people would argue the best) Cyberpunk 2020 sourcebook, written by the same author. It's a great gaming resource. It put me off reading the novel for years.

The sourcebook made Hardwired seem generic. It had a lead character called "Cowboy" who teams up with a cyber'd up female assassin. The cover made them look like extras in Cherry 2000. In my head I built up Hardwired to be the ur-source of every generic B-movie and bad cyber-hacker-samurai novel to crowd the second hand bookshop shelves where I spend too much of my time. 

The sourcebook had all sorts of neat stuff in it. New "realistic" firearms and armour rules. New "realistic" hacking rules. Some interesting adventures. And maybe a page about Panzerboy smuggling, the subject matter that makes Hardwired into something really special.

Hardwired takes place in an America balkanized by a military defeat at the hands of orbital corporations. Now the Midwestern states are squeezing the economic life out of the East Coast with massive tariff barriers, creating a class of smugglers. Cowboy and his ilk use stealth aircraft and Ground Effect Vehicles - the clear inspiration for Shadowrun's T-Birds - to evade the corporate "privateers" hired to stop them.

I knew I'd made a mistake about the novel within a few dozen pages. Cowboy is introduced in a delirious sequence that takes him halfway across the American continent, plugged into an armoured "panzer" GEV. The prose is immediate, driving sensory overload territory, the most ferocious evocation of human and machine working in tandem I've yet read. The terrain couldn't be more different to the Sprawl - rural, expansive, described in the clear-sky traditions of the American west. Aside from being a clear inspiration for ruralpunk, the landscape doesn't really have any clear companion in the genre. Cowboy's name isn't a random piece of future slang but a statement placing him in a continuum of American heroes - Walter Jon Williams takes the time early on to place his roots very specifically in New Mexico, archetypal ground for a certain type of hardbitten frontier protagonist.

I don't really remember the plot, except that it's fast paced thriller stuff, the kind that sets up a sequence of air combat scenes and the obligatory betrayals, assassinations and intrigue one wants from a cyberpunk novel. A jaded observer might even call it a little "generic" (it doesn't help that some of the twists have been imitated lifted by later, better remembered cyberpunk media) although not so much that it ever gets boring. More so than most cyberpunk novels it actually has "cyberware" and takes the time to consider its operation; gamers ought to enjoy it just for that.

Hardwired didn't spawn a true sequel, which is a little unfortunate; I would have loved to see more stories set in that smuggling milieu. Walter Jon Williams did return to the same universe with a novel called Voice of the Whirlwind: another genuine classic, that will have to wait for another day.

"Given the psychological strain of having to watch their comrades die while still remaining emotionally unengaged, the pilots who perform this duty need hearts as cold as a computer. [...] What we do know is that what's necessary to the SAF is not that these men and women have past combat experience but rather than that they be machines that are, through some accident of fate, in human form."

Chōhei Kambayashi's Yukikaze (1984) doesn't literalise the mental compact between pilot and aircraft like Hardwired. Neither does it romanticise it. Yukikaze is a novel about the limits of understanding between human and machine. In Hardwired, Cowboy plugs into a panzer, which becomes an expansion of his human idealism. Yukikaze is too profoundly alienated for anything like that.

It's surprisingly difficult to find readable novels about jet era air combat, particularly if you aren't especially interested in the kind of late Cold War airport paperweight produced by Dale Brown et al (not that Silver Tower wasn't great when I was 12). Yukikaze was the first place I went looking after Hardwired. It also remains the only Japanese science fiction novel I've read; otherwise my exposure to Japanese literature has been predominantly limited to Yukio Mishima books in which aristocratic teenagers contemplate each other from a safe distance (and occasionally commit mannered atrocities). 

So I have no context in which to place Yukikaze. Japan's contribution to the cyberpunk genre has been measured in anime (which I've seen) and movies (which I haven't, because people always compare Shinya Tsukamoto and Shozin Fukui to early David Cronenberg and I hate body horror...). I know almost nothing about Japanese literary science fiction, cyberpunk or otherwise. If you do, I'd love to hear about it - or put up a guest post telling everyone else about it (shameless request...)!

The novel I end up comparing Yukikaze to is James Salter's classic novel of Korean War air combat, The Hunters. Both are profoundly lonely, introspective books. Yukikaze takes place in a world where the nations of Earth have driven an alien attack back through a portal to a world called Fairy. Now the Fairy Air Force defends a ring of bases around the portal from attacks by the - very alien - aliens known as the JAM. 

Rei Fukai flies Yukikaze, the most advanced human fighter available. Given that fact, you might expect him to be a Big Damn Hero, dogfighting the alien menace. Instead, his orders are simple; to observe battles, collect data on the evolving alien threat and come back alive. His orders prohibit him from engaging the JAM at all. The other FAF pilots, fighting and dying below, despise him and his colleagues. Fukai was selected for this role because of his utter disinterest in most social interaction, which makes him a very unusual protagonist.

This is a meditative novel, concerned with the role of technology. Fukai's personal isolation only makes it more so. The novel is structured into a series of incidents exploring the nature of the JAM, Yukikaze and the fighting machines employed by the FAF. The human war effort is becoming increasingly dominated by drones, and some wonder whether the JAM is at war with "humanity" at all...

The intelligence behind the machines in Yukikaze is always hinted at, never made explicit. I admire the way the novel refuses to anthropomorphise either the aliens or the intelligent FAF machines, even when the characters are attempting to do so themselves. It also refuses to provide elaborate description of the aliens - I wonder how I would have imagined their aircraft had I not seen clips from the anime beforehand. Kambayashi manages a rare trick, creating aliens who feel genuinely mysterious but also consistent.  

Yukikaze has a sequel I have yet to read, published almost fifteen years later. I'm not sure it needs one. There is also an interesting anime that remixes the plot somewhat, while retaining key incidents. Japanese animation might be the only form of media outside the novel that could portray a plot that meditative and insular - the form isn't afraid of moments of quiet introspection (and, y'know, great air combat sequences...).


One quick thought brought on by Yukikaze

Isn't it strange how jet fighters already feel obsolete, completely unsuited to the world of illicit drone wars fought by covert agencies? Yukikaze itself now looks as futuristic and fantastical as a steampunk spaceship. It's what the jet fighter would have evolved into had the Cold War continued. Instead, the Berlin Wall came down and the era of Big State Big Tech came to an end. By the time anyone builds a jet fighter with the capabilities of Yukikaze, drone technology will have made the pilot obsolete.

People playing cyberpunk games are probably more likely than most to have gone searching for futuristic weapons technology, and come across all sorts of research programmes that ended with the fall of the Soviet Union - electrothermal-chemical guns being the most prominent example to reach Cyberpunk 2020.

Just like there's a Steampunk devoted to the forgotten futures of the Victorian era, and a Dieselpunk inspired by the weird weapons of the 1940s and 1950s, will there ever be a subgenre stirred by the last gasps of the Cold War? Ataripunk? Spectrumpunk? Dale BrownPunk? 

Maybe just Cyberpunk...


  1. "Remember, you must, think, in Russian."

    Remember Firefox? The mind-controlled Mach 5 fighter-bomber stolen by a Clint Eastwood posing as a drug dealer? It even had Humphrey Appleby as a Jewish scientist working for the evil Soviets. It was so much Cold War all at once.
    And the plane...it was sooooo cool.

  2. I do remember Firefox. How could I not ;)