This week on Reviewers Go Punk, we have Warren C. Bennett with his review of the classic anthology Mirrorshades. Warren’s story, A Town Called Hero, appeared in Sound and Fury: Shakespeare Goes Punk anthology. It is his take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
(A little disclaimer before going on: Warren is the brother to Brian Bennett who reviewed Snow Crash last week. Warren is also the one that keeps the site updated and runs the WriterPunk Twitter feed. He is also the one writing these words right now.)
By Warren C. Bennett
Ask a ‘punk’ genre fan what it means to be punk and you’ll inevitably get as many answers as there are people. Some will mention the style while others will mention the attitude. One group will cling to their steam powered, Victorian era trappings with a mechanical hand while others want only to deal with hacking and pocket sized super computers. To say that the genre known as punk has grown and diversified since the beginning is an understatement. “Whatever” Punk is no longer just an offshoot of science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you prefer) but an entire ecosystems unto themselves.
Sometimes this boggles the mind of someone like me that grew up in the 80’s and was exposed to early cyberpunk masters. I went from five years old to fifteen during those years and read everything I could that was labeled ‘sci-fi.’ Without realizing it, I had mentally ingested many books that are now considered classic punk. Thinking back to my early days as a reader, I can’t help but wonder if the current genre has strayed a bit from those early tales. Although I was a part of this early movements as a reader, mainly through such authors as Greg Bear, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and the like, I can’t say that I understood every nuance of the pieces I read. That is just an artifact of growing up as a reader. The stories and books often contain more information than a mind is ready to absorb. So I decided to explore the past a bit and read the much lauded and often talked about short story anthology called, in a very 80’s fashion, Mirrorshades.
This is a book for anyone wanting to understand what one fork of the cyberpunk movement was like in its formative years. Bruce Sterling edited this anthology and pulled stories that he thought were the cream of the crop, showing the world his idea of what it meant to be a “cyberpunk.” I’m not sure I always agree with his selections, but this anthology is, at least, an interesting time capsule. For the record, I do recommend anyone that is interested in the history of literary punk to read this anthology. It really shows how far we’ve come and how different early cyberpunk is from what is commonly produced in this modern era.
The beating heart of this anthology can be found in the opening preface. Bruce Sterling does his best to lay out the (at the time) short history of cyberpunk as he knew it. He writes about how cyberpunk is an especially 80’s form of science fiction. He explains about how the digital monstrosities that had become everyday items, such as portable music players and cable TV, mixed with the chaotic nature of modern society helped mold the minds of younger writers. He differentiates the cyberpunk movements from the different sci-fi movements that have come before, such as the new wave and the golden age. I came away from reading this preface with two different thoughts. I wondered if Sterling liked any of the older sci-fi stories and wanted to rebel just for rebellion’s sake. I also wondered what Sterling of the 80’s would think of our current modern era. Some of the worst predictions of those long ago punk writers seem to have come true.
The rest of the anthology is filled with a mix of stories. Some of the writers I’ve heard of and read, like the aforementioned William Gibson and Greg Bear, but some of them I didn’t know or only have vague memories of reading. I found the stories in this volume refreshing, if for the simple reason these cyberpunks didn’t seem to care about modern ideas like political correctness or the politics surrounding such ideas. These stories often reminded me of the punk culture from which the idea of cyberpunk is derived. The stories are often raw and emotional, full of the loud and obnoxious screaming at a society the writers find both fascinating and repulsive. There is an edge to stories like the 400 boys and Solstice, ones that scream into the darkness and expose the true foundations of cyberpunk.
Yet, I wouldn’t consider all the stories in this anthology to really be cyberpunk. The opening salvo, written by one William Gibson and titled The Gernsback Continuum, isn’t really what I’d consider cyberpunk. I believe this is because there is a longing for the thirties and forties that never was in this piece. It seems to be that this is more of a foundational story for what would become known as dieselpunk than cyber. This story centers on the protagonist and how he sees the perfect future as projected by the art deco stylings of yore. The second story of the anthology, titled Snake-Eyes and written by Tom Maddox, also seems less like cyberpunk and more like a traditional sci-fi yarn to me. When I read Snake-Eyes, I immediately thought of Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith. Both stories have the same type of context and both have a person that is losing his humanity because of what is plugged inside of him.
The rest of the stories in this collection seem to vary between being traditionally cyberpunk and not-quite-punkish. Or, I should really say, what we of this modern era consider cyberpunk. This anthology makes me think that our ideas of what is cyberpunk and what isn’t may be a bit too narrow now. It seems there are so many punk genres, with term “punk” being added to a wide variety of thoughts and ideas, that what really made cyberpunk great is now watered down a bit. Mirrorshades, despite its mixture of very cyberpunk stories to no-quite-punk, reminds me that there was a time when cyberpunk wasn’t just about style over substance. This anthology left me wondering if we need more of that in the modern cyber/diesel/steam/etc punk era.