Critical Essay by John Fekete
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Critical Essay by John Fekete
SOURCE: "The Post-Liberal Mind/Body, Postmodern Fiction, and the Case of Cyberpunk SF," in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, No. 58, November, 1992, pp. 395-403.
In the following essay, Fekete reviews the volume Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction, providing a brief overview of the cyberpunk movement.
We see through eyeglasses and contacts; we eat with dentures. We remove cataracts and replace the lenses. We insert video cameras inside our bodies to aid in "keyhole" surgery; we remove our gall bladders and throw them away. We replace our hearts, kidneys, and livers with other organs: human, baboon, or manufactured. By diet or surgery, we change the shapes of our breasts, faces, torsos. We transform inoperable brain tumors genetically into things we can destroy chemically. We abort fetuses, and create new life in vitro. And these are just the medical interventions. We also time-shift our simulation programming on television, put disembodied interlocutors on hold on our telephones, and post messages in electronic space through our computer modems. We jog through our cities acoustically jacked into our Walkmans.
We live through our technologies, as McLuhan says, mythically and in depth, everywhere and everywhen. Technologies are us. But we keep under control our anxieties about how close to our bodies and inner lives our technologies have gotten by keeping fragmented our awareness of an amplified new interface between machinery and the human body. By the same token, we also keep reduced and under control our sense of the transformative or transgressive technological potentials available for our minds and bodies. Nevertheless, many of us are still uneasy even with answering machines, and many of our most heated social debates and control initiatives have increasingly to do with technological interventions into our minds and bodies: pharmaceuticals, abortion, pornography, film and video, youth music, electronic games, programming: sex, drugs, rock and roll, and software.
Cyberpunk SF in the 1980s made a striking vision out of the tendency in our culture to program our mental lives and to mutate our bodies--out of the spreading designer phenomenon whose extrapolation is often described as body invasion (prosthetics, implants, genetics) and mind invasion (neurochemistry, neurosurgery, brain-computer interface, artificial intelligence). Most of us spend our time at work, in shopping malls, or at home on the telephone or in front of the video screen, continuing to process reality through ego-identity and personality, and absorbing the new technical options on an ad-hoc basis into personal style. But when the technological interface is foregrounded, in the way that SF typically foregrounds a whole novel environment, then it can become much more striking, engaging, and unsettling. As an environment, technology can be fearsome, satisfying, sublime, responsive, or enigmatic--a second nature that is ready made, which solicits our constant response, and which, because it is made, can be potentially remade over and over again.
Cyberpunk SF was not the first SF writing to incorporate technological mediations of mind and body. A long line from Mary Shelley to Shepherd Mead in the 1950s, David Compton and Philip Dick in the 1960s, and, most prominently and influentially, John Brunner, Joanna Russ, and Sam Delany in the 1970s, though mainly unacknowledged in cyberpunk discussions, has experimented successfully with the ingredients of...