Thursday, May 27, 2010

Book review--Ultimate Cyberpunk

Edited by Pat Cadigan
Publisher: ibooks
Available on

This is a good anthology of an SF subgenre whose death knell has been tolled many times  before but never got around to kicking it.  And that’s a very good thing.  There is much to like in this collection that Cadigan has cobbled together.  It gathers the pivotal authors of the genre and shows off just how diverse the stories can be.  No, not every cyberpunk narrative takes place in a gritty urban setting with characters in black pvc and technology that looks like it fell off a stealth bomber.  Here are a few of the highlights:

Alfred Bester, “Fondly Farenheit”—an android and a dialogue between ego and superego?  You make the call.  A prototype for the genre that would be cyberpunk.

Philip K. Dick, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”—are memories as good as the real thing?  This is a great entry by the legendary man of ideas that has none of the action movie tropes of its film version, Total Recall.  Sorry Bernard, no Michael Ironside.

Rudy Rucker, “57th Franz Kafka”—a new take on The Metamorphosis.  Disturbing and inscrutable, but did you expect anything else from Rucker?

William Gibson, “Burning Chrome”—fine work by the Master, a story of a cyberspace double-cross.  Gibson could probably make a tuna salad recipe sound like science fiction.

Greg Bear, “Blood Music”—could be one of the more realistic of the collection.  The time for this kind of nano-enhancement is upon us.

Lewis Shriner, “Till Human Voices Wake Us”—for me, this entry strays rather far afield from cyberpunk and enters the realm of biotech.  But that’s okay, it adds to the diversity of the collection.

John Shirley, “Freezone”—not much of a plot here, just Shirley taking us on a punky meandering through a dystopic future.  And I loved it.

William Gibson and Michael Swanwick, “Dogfight”—twisty.

Bruce Sterling, “Green Days in Brunei”—probably my favorite and the most satisfying of the pieces.  Strong and endearing characters.  A world not too far removed from our own.  A nice tale for illustrating the rise of the “developing world.”

If I have any overall criticism of the stories, it has to do with style.  Except for Gibson and Sterling, none of these writers compose with any thought to description.  They just lay everything out there, violating that cardinal rule of literary writing, “show, don’t tell.”  As I’ve grown sick of that phrase, I’m actually kind of ok with the so-called “transgression.”  But then I read the work of Gibson and his descriptions and phrasing absolutely blow me away, making the other stories look like amateur hour.  Character development is another issue.  Except for Bruce Sterling, the authors spend maybe a page on it.  With protagonists so thin, it’s difficult to cultivate much of an attachment to them, so you better hope the scientific principle that is being explored keeps you hanging on.
Oh and why Neal Stephenson wasn’t included is beyond me.  Maybe he’s never written in the short form before.  I don’t know.
All in all, Ultimate Cyberpunk makes for fine reading.  Plus, you get an 11-page insert of a “lost” comic book version of William Gibson’s classic, Neuromancer.  I’ve heard there is a film adaptation on the horizon.  Let’s hope not.  The book is amazing but I just don’t think it translates well to other media if this comic is any indication.

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