We don’t quite know where we’re going, but we’re getting better at knowing that. This back half of literary studies demonstrates the blossoming global awareness of our strengths and weaknesses, of both the nearing personal omnipotent melding of man and machine, as well as the catastrophic consequences of our arrogances. From visions where technology gives man limitless potential, or requires the involuntary retreat to primitive life, futuristic literature serves to demonstrate there is no set course for mankind, or even a guarantee of a future.
Gibson compares cyberspace to the Wild West and with good reason. Through the use of extended metaphor of cowboy and hustler, second story men and cracksmen, Gibson is painting the lawlessness of the digital frontier and its inability to guarantee any tangible safety uncharted technological abstract. “Burning Chrome’s” “colorless non-space” evokes mental images of wastelands and prairie, flat green wireframe deserts lacking any civilization. Like the Wild West, authority dares not tread these open fields where law is arbitrary and unknown, where the “corporate galaxies and the cold spiral arms of military systems” are distanced to an apathy that cares not for the actions of civilian individuals. Gibson’s cyberpunk futures embody the ‘punk’ mentality in the way described by the term page: “disaffected by either hope or fear.” For Gibson, the future with its complexities and technological disparities will leave those able to game the system open to game it, completely unaffected and free of repercussion. But Gibson could not imagine SOPA, or the necessity of Congress to structure the informational superhighway, and where he imagines the rampancy of cyber babes and highwaymen, the internet now is as commonplace and bureaucratic as an application for a marriage license. Gibson’s futures do not fathom repercussion, but characters acting in the immediate; Gibson’s slick and cool futures feature beautiful dreamlike stereotypes getting away with murder, robbery, prostitution, even treason and espionage. Neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but not grounded in any form of reality either, Gibson writes as if the expansion of technology allows for all possibilities to take hold, or rather, that no fantasy can be overturned of confined. Like the images of Billy the Kid in the Wild West, “Burning Chrome’s” protagonists are partners, one hothead, one lookout, besting the blackhat villain and making off with the loot; “Johnny Mnemonic” has the Ugly upped to eleven with cybernetic implants, electrocoil enhancements with razor thin murder thumbs that follows without thirst or hunger to worry for. It’s “Stone Lives” in its filth and obsolete humanity further exemplified. The Killing floor “miked and amplified” is a setting possibly only in the teenage fantasy, and “The Belonging Kind’s” shapeshifting sexual mistress is too. The future in the eyes of Gibson has humans, technology, and aliens all intermingling in unseen, unbeknownst ways that fall completely out of the eyes of public view, in the hidden crevices of humanity. Neither wrong nor right, Gibson isn’t writing for society at large, but for the specialized niche, an impossible to dismiss future in the dark alleyways that no civilized mind would hope to venture. His writing is not impossible, and that’s the most credit you can give; in technical terms it could exist, but who’s voluntarily checking? Gibson’s cyberpunk futures are fantastical adventure romps through the unknown, but don’t have the sufficient gravitas to feel possible.
The High Tech “Logical Legend of Heliopause and Cyberfiddle” can also be disregarded as fantastical reimagining, but shares a deeper philosophical inquiry with “The Onion and I” that “Burning Chrome” sets in motion. Whereas Gibson builds a virtual world, and further takes it for granted, “Heliopause” and “Onion” deconstruct the concept of synthetic life and ask the question of its validity against the tangible real of analog. “Heliopause” goes so far as to emulate the breakdown of language, with future speak emulating grunt like patterns into purely conceptual speak, devoid of linking verb formalities and bridging slang with emotion. “So Pryer dandles backlook databits, seeking some ancient text.doc to fulfill Carmen Memoranda’s dreams” helps illustrate the idea that convention dies without use, and when submerged in the immediate data synthesis of thought, the cleanliness of speech serves no purpose in the real. ‘Databits’ and ‘text.doc’ shows the evolution of data slang as people become immersed and detached from society, comparable to the colloquial uses of ‘LOL’ and its variants. Deeper than that, we can see the growing distancing of humanity from the analog. In both “Onion” and “Heliopause,” there is a desire to returning to the impractical of “resource wasting” reality. “Nonsane,” replies the computer, “Sim one. Synth one. Holo one. Why fabricate?” The ease of the future allows one to imagine and recreate anything of one’s desire, but the superficial line of society does not seek the reality of it. The father of “Onion’s” protagonist reveals “if they cannot make a decent Cyberonion…then they cannot make a decent Cyberboy.” Whilst Gibson can readily have his characters abandon themselves to the omnipotent false, these authors ask the questions of why, why bother, and how readily can you abandon the real for the pretend? The future of Gibson is so embedded with fantasy that it does not begin to comprehend the existential repercussions of a reality where anything is possible, and therefore meaningless.
“Onion” dives into the quandary by questioning the meaning of reality itself. “No matter what’s inside, it’s the layers that’s important,” shedding light on our own reality, based on fragile chemical and biological layering of atoms to molecules to cells to organisms. Peel back far enough and we’re all false constructs of reality. This is the ultimate solace of the narrator, who learns to live in the dual realms of “learning and pretending,” acknowledging both artificial layer structures and making the best of it. “Heliopause” acknowledges and discards the artificial, despite the immediate practicality, finding a beauty in the sweat and work of physical construction. All life and media when digitized loses a semblance of itself (compare the reemergence of vinyl) and the protagonist sheepishly defends his interest as data collection but desires instead to rekindle his physical form with the aesthetic beauty of his ancestors. As Alejandro queried during the singularity presentation, wouldn’t we still insist on recording on strands of silver tapes due to its higher fidelity? “Heliopause” understands that same central question, that despite the ease and access of digital media, wouldn’t we still rather have the original analog media for greater appreciation? Why value the effortless reconstruction, why appreciate that which can be generated without a thought, constructed not from millions of years of evolution but simple man made algorithms? It’s an existential crisis that only holds argument under the shade of the apple tree, but nonetheless asks a fundamental question of the human experience; what is worth, what are the means and fruits of effort? If all of life can be synthesized, why even try? For “Onion’s” protagonist, it is the imperfection, that can’t be patterned and expected, that defies convention and gives worth to the particular and chaotic. Ultimately, these novels diverge from Gibson’s unsustainable lifestyles to one of absolute sustainability, questioning the value of effortlessly synthesized reality.
“Heliopause” begins the question of appreciating the real, and “Onion” further questions what it means to be real, but the lowtech literature stories of “Drapes and Folds” and “Speech Sounds” move away from the question of physical worth to emotional, laying a stronger emphasis on the familial bonds and societal relationships. The conflict of “Speech Sounds” starts from a disagreement, or as the narrator explains, “more likely, a misunderstanding.” Without the common technology of language (spoken or written) society unravels at the seams, and even the smallest altercation can spiral out to chaos. It’s through the common guttural gestures that the main characters can not only communicate, but commiserate, and lose themselves in a passion despite the post apocalypse. The feeling of companionship is more evident in the femininely charged “Drapes and Folds.” The climax of Xera’s reveal to have held on to Pearl’s treasured article of Cloth and Diane’s small act of rebellion in aiding to hide it can be seen as lowtech romanticism, not only as a nostalgia for bygone era, but the triumph of Pearl’s will to be remembered through her art, her devotion to the beauty of fabric. In this one shred of cloth these three women (two and a half) are reunited as one familial unit, with Xera, the newone, admitting an acceptance of her heritage as never before, and ingesting the trace of Pearl’s work and legacy to save it. Each of the lowtech stories revolve around the absence of technology, of reality, of one and the individual, and the reflexive social contraction to fill the vacuum. The power of these three stories is the implied duality between the digital and the analog, and of the progression of the species through technology at the cost of conventional life: “Onion’s” flight to cyberspace, “Drapes’” analogous procreation of Pearl’s artistic seed handed down, and “Speech’s” implied death of society with the inability to pass down one’s knowledge through language.
Where this fear of the technologies encroachment brings us is to its eventual downfall, past the point of arrogance in ourselves and towards a more humble sustainability. “Chocco” imagines society after our fall, kindly deriding our civilization as that of ‘the machine people,’ and “House of Bones” puts an existential bow on our idea of ‘primitive.’ Though both stories are heavily dependent on community and reconnecting with nature, “Chocco” is a more sentimental in its advocacy for climate control, though well deserved, treating the narrative as a future point past a climate apocalypse, and written from a point of self-reflection. Climate change, societal negligence, overpopulation and capitalism all contributed to the great ‘Die-Off,’ humanity’s tipping point. By having two competing voices and two competing observations, the author vents frustration without seeming preachy, equal parts understanding and worried. The goal feels not to advocate a purely nomadic lifestyle, but presenting the only sustainable alternative to our actions, a regression from that which caused our demise. “House of Bones” on the other hand plays it all as cyclical, returning to the actual past to relativize our present. “These Ice Age folk don’t see themselves as primitive,” writes the time traveler, “They know, they absolutely know, that they’re the crown of creation.” Might we find ourselves 30,000 years in the future, wouldn’t we remark this current age as similarly primitive? The story itself is about strength and cunning humanity displayed in its infancy, and its ability to overcome the brunt of nature singlehandedly. But where “Bones” differs from “Chocco” is the lack of condemnation or advocacy for simpler living. Instead, “Bones” is a fun romp through simpler times, saying ‘wouldn’t that be fun?’ instead of ‘I told you so.’
What this ultimately brings us to is beyond ourselves. Literature of the future is not concerned with the ‘if,’ but the ‘when,’ of society’s end, and nothing questions are sensibilities of sustainability and reality greater than reality of facing a civilization above our own. Our four texts of alien contact follow the same beats as the previous stories, from Gibson’s slick “Hinterlands” and “Belonging Kind,” to the lowtech “Poplar Street.” “Belonging” follows the narrative of alien assimilation through Gibson’s grungy prose, with contact following a mutually symbiotic relationship that lies hidden but exposes nothing new; money for life sustaining alcohol, a good produced for another good produced. Trippy but ultimately harmless, abnormal but what isn’t, this narrative of alien life is tame in comparison, offering that life will simply go on. “Poplar” follows a more traditional dynamic between species of different intelligences, relegating the human race as little more than rats in a cage under observation. Demoralizing but true, a perverse metaphor for our own tendency to take advantage of other species for personal growth and knowledge. “Poplar” treats aliens as just higher extensions of humanities own curiosities, and humans as lower extensions of Animalia, hierarchically repetitive in both directions.
The disparity between them and us is most prevalent in “Hinterlands” where the presence of higher intelligent life renders the observer so overwhelmed as suicidal or insane. The disconnect is so great, Gibson presents the higher lifeforms as godlike, offering gifts of such knowledge as new branches of science and cures for cancer. Gibson extends the metaphor by having the returning explorers settle in an artificial, specially designed ‘heaven’ to acclimate them back from such extremes of beauty and knowledge. Gibson imagines a man-made heaven, a fully innocent yet hedonistic pleasure zone with freely flowing stimulants and opiates and sexually similar organs or homely cultural signifiers. But this is insufficient to soothe the returning, the rejected by the higher powers. The unsaid truth of this heaven is the underlying falsity, and beyond that, the similarly artificial human agreement of cooperation between rival superpowers. “Hinterlands,” or ‘the undeveloped portion of the milky way,’ makes understood the crippling depression of our current civilization, still so backwards from arbitrary political standoffs and abysmally inferior from our neighbors. The narrator’s security in the closing darkness is the comfort of ignorance, of knowing his place in the backseat of the cosmic vehicle, himself and his civilization safe as children under the invisible watchful eyes of the truly responsible.
In “Hinterlands,” the higher lifeforms pick and choose worthy travelers, but “They’re Made of Meat” doesn’t even give humanity that much benefit of the doubt. The truth is, for all our worth and accomplishments, we deserve no reason to think ourselves “the crown of creation.” We should feel similarly depressed as the returning cosmonauts in “Hinterlands,” and as similarly concerned as the future tribesmen of “Chocco.” A society intent on escaping into the virtual realm at the expense of appreciation for the real, and self-centered enough to burn through resources for the immediate gratification versus the long term, should not expect contact from civilizations humble and driven enough to have the means to establish contact, nor should they deserve it. “They’re Made of Meat” feels human not because of the down to earth dialogue between two lackluster specimens on the job, but because it reflects humanity’s own ability to be prejudiced against the less fortunate, and to abandon the desperate and lonely simply out of convenience.
The future can’t be told. It can be warned against, and joked about, but with society moving at an exponential rate, the stories of tomorrow are obsolete by the day after. These future narratives serve not to try and determine a future for us, but to guide a civility no matter what unseen paths we may unknowingly follow, and that despite the lurking terror of the unknown, there will always be a humanity hopeful and yearning to bring a better future for those that will follow after us.