Cyberpunk after 9/11: ArmadilloCon 2004 panel

Synopsis from ArmadilloCon program book: Why have the cyberpunks abandoned the future? Do William Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition” and Bruce Sterling’s “The Zenith Angle” evidence a trend? (And don’t forget the pre-2001 “Cryptonomicon” of Neal Stephenson and “Zeitgeist” of Sterling) Are they science fiction? What makes them different from more mainstream techno-thrillers? What does it mean for the future of SF?

Panelists: Chris Brown (moderator, who was then known as Chris Nakashima-Brown), Lawrence Person, Kurt Baty

My impression: most science fiction panels are a lot more interesting when there is a technologist on the panel. This discussion had a lot of what the slipstream discussion lacked: direction and focus on ideas, rather than ramblings about publishing and book marketing business — mostly thanks to Kurt.

Lawrence Person reiterates the statements of his 1999 essay “Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto”. “Cyberpunk was originally thought of as this sort of alien ideology invading the genre, because “Neuromancer” was the last book that really pissed lots of people off, that really violently offended people, you know, readers of the Analog, because it was very, very different from anything they’ve experienced.

A person in the audience. The “high tech lowlifes” subverted the technology for personal ends, instead of using technology to solve the official problems in official ways.)

Lawrence Person. Cyberpunk future was the one where you had characters that were alienated loners, fighting against, or working within a corrupt power structure, and their world was dense with information sphere and impacted by rapid technological change and pervasive modification of human body.

What was being written in the post-cyberpunk era looked a whole lot like cyberpunk — people like Greg Egan and Ian McDonald — but actually in many ways was oddly optimistic, whereas most cyberpunk was pessimistic; post-cyberpunk characters, rather than being alienated loners, were integrated into their societies. They had things like jobs and families, which tended to be most conspicuously absent in canonical cyberpunk.

Science fiction writers ignorant of science and technology?

Chris Brown to Kurt Baty: Kurt, you are a reader and a technologist…

Kurt Baty. Yeah, and I know William Gibson and could tell you a whole bunch of stories, but I’m really convinced that cyberpunk is gone; there isn’t any out there. I think most science fiction writers lack a complete understanding where technology is at, because I read better science fiction in the trade and technical journals than I read in science fiction. Most science fiction writers do not even have a grasp of what’s currently done, let alone, extrapolated like I’d like to see. As a reader, I’d like to see where could this go, where could this be. Engineers ask me all the time what I could recommend them to give them that sense of wonder that they used to get before, and I have just two recommendations and they haven’t changed in years, which is really very sad. I recommend “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson and “The Long Run” by Daniel Keys Moran.

“The Diamond Age”, in my mind, is the best reasonable extrapolation of what nanotechnology could really mean. And I’ve read a number of nanotechnology novels. I just read a novel called “Nano”, and technology-wise it’s pretty good. It isn’t very good as a novel, but technology-wise it’s pretty good. A little too positive for my taste, but… But the “Diamond Age”, really, I mean… And there were places where “oh, I haven’t thought about it that way!” We had a bunch of technologists arguing over, in “The Diamond Age”, they had a cube 3 feet on the side that was a nanocomputer, and of course, if you understand anything, you realize that that’s unbelievable amounts of computing power, when you compute on an atomic level. And he [Stephenson] understood that it was unbelievable amounts of energy, and he understood the fundamental problem of computing, which was generation of heat, and heat removal.

He cooled this 3-foot on the side thing by a hypersonic stream of ice. The nano-disassemblers were tearing the ice apart to dissipate heat from the computing process, generating water. So what were the group of technologists, including myself, arguing about? The Carno harvest from turning ice into water isn’t as good as from turning water into steam — we thought that he made a major mistake there. There was more energy to be harvested from turning water into steam in terms of extracting heat from the process. But we allowed that the hypersonic stream of ice probably sounded cooler. (Panelists giggle)

Chris Brown and Lawrence Person at ArmadilloCon 2004
Chris Brown and Lawrence Person at ArmadilloCon 2004

The good and the bad of William Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition”

Chris. Let’s talk about some of what those guys are writing now: have you read “Pattern Recognition”?

Kurt. Yes, yes. I’ll speak a little bit about “Pattern recognition”.

Chris. Can you summarize the plot for those who haven’t…

Kurt. If you haven’t read it, it’s William Gibson’s latest book. For those of you who really love William Gibson, you will be disappointed in it.

Lawrence. Here’s my one sentence description of “Pattern Recognition”: in “Pattern Recognition” William Gibson has come perilously close to writing an exquisitely written novel of excruciating tedium. (Audience laughs) Cause “Pattern Recognition” is a wonderfully written the prose is so unbelievably well-crafted and beautiful, and there’s absolutely nothing happening.

Kurt. Carrie Richerson (a science fiction writer living in Austin — E.) sat in our reading group some time, and she wrote 4 pages for the reading group on what she thought about that. For her it was a religious experience, because the quality of the writing — she said “This is the novel William Gibson hoped to write when he first started”. And the rest of us just disintegrated it, you know?… Although the readability and the crafstmanship is very high, the story line and what’s it about is just nonexistent.

William Gibson’s bardic, recordable memory

Kurt. But Willie provided a key insight. And the key insight of “Pattern Recognition” is “William Gibson is a bard”. An honest-to-God, in the tremendous tradition of bards. He listens to people. People who read his cyber-novels thought that he was completely facile with computers, when in fact he did all on a typewriter, never had a computer in his life and never been close to a computer in his life. People figured, he had to be deep inside the bowels of the operating system and hardware in order to write novels like that, when in fact he listens, he hears conversations, he records them and can play them back in his prose.

I’ve stood there and been part of his tape recording. I can relate that experience. But he has a daughter who is now in her high teens, and I am certain this was a revelation: he heard his daughter talk about fashion and brand names and that stuff; he recorded it in his bardic fashion and that’s where “Pattern Recognition”…

Chris. This book is the ultimate brand-name… extended brand fetishization of the media…

Kurt. And he got this from his daughter!

Chris. And he loves this stuff. His character is this cool-hunter, a brand marketing consultant who goes around and finds […] gomi no sensei — a teacher of junk.

Kurt. My wife didn’t like the book, but she said, you’ve got to read the first chapter even if you won’t like the book, because in the first chapter he goes so brand-name-intensive, that you have the reaction the key character has in the beginning of the second chapter: she is allergic to brand names, and by the time you’re done reading the first chapter, you are too! Cause he synthesizes…

Chris. This is where the novel treads dangerously close to self-parody.

Lawrence. I thought the point of self-parody was the part where her big cool-seeking breakthrough is that she found the first person in Z-town, the first guy who wore his cap backwards. (The audience laughs) [You would think it was] the guy who invented penicillin, right?

Chris: And the plot is basically like one of the plot lines in “Count Zero”, where this intelligent aesthetic woman is hired by a mysterious European tycoon to go find some bizarre work of art. And in here it’s some mysterious footage that’s being posted on the internet, these little squigs of ambient film.

Lawrence. There’s another facet of Gibson’s approach that explains a lot why Carrie liked it and all the rest of you hated it, and this is also a big difference between that and Bruce’s [Sterling’s] book [“The Zenith Angle”], is that it is the most rarefied, elitist of the elite of bluest of the blue states in the socio-political spectrum. It is strictly concerned with very fashionable, very rich, very East Coast cultural fashion […]

Chris. It’s the global bourgeois. It’s the people in London and Tokyo who are really into accoutering themselves with the most beautiful objects created by the consumer-[…]

Lawrence. And here’s the thing: it’s not a novel about people who wear Prada. It’s a novel about people who look down on people who wear Prada as declasse.


At one point she flies to Tokyo, and she in her hotel room and thinking about something. I said to myself: “She thinks about going downstairs!” And I went “Oh shit, she’s gonna go downstairs and look at things some more”. (Audience laughs) Cause that’s all she had done throughout the novel is look at things. And then, sure enough, she goes down and looks at things for, like, 30 pages. Cause Gibson is so infinitely fascinated by shiny surfaces.

Chris. Her security blanket throughout the book is a perfectly constructed Japanese simulation of a World War II aviator jacket.

Bruce Sterling’s “Zenith Angle”

Chris. What about “Zenith Angle”, Bruce Sterling’s new book?

Lawrence. To get back to the Bruce thing and surfaces, the biggest thing I’m reading in “Zenith Angle” novel (I haven’t finished it yet), the biggest difference, is that Gibson is fascinated by things that are exceptionally smooth and Bruce is fascinated by things that are exceptionally spiky. Which really gives him a much more interesting texture, because it’s really all fucked up in Bruce’s book.

His main character is an ultimate code geek…

Chris A networking guy.

Lawrence. Networking guy who’s security code uber-master, going around trying to fix the government’s…

Chris. 9/11 makes him go join the fight: our cellphones versus their death-[something].

Lawrence. Here’s the interesting thing: halfway through the novel he ends up hooking up with this special forces guy and he goes out to a firing range because he thinks guns are so supremely cool as a technology. And this is the big signifier difference: a tiny thing that’s an emblematic difference between “Zenith Angle” and “Pattern Recognition”: in “Pattern Recognition” guns are not only such an evil thing but such an unquestionably evil thing that he would never think that someone could find guns cool. Anyone who finds guns cool must automatically be evil. In fact she comes out and says she dumped her last boyfriend because he had a gun.

Chris. The Gibson protagonist can barely stand to interact with the real world. Whereas Bruce’s character is an action hero who twice in the novel changes diapers. This really sort of grabbing into the fecal material of the world, whereas Gibson’s character does Pilates. In Gibson’s [novel] we have a business class jet-setter who goes from London to Tokyo to Moscow on an expense account.

Lawrence. Which is actually more like Bruce Sterling’s life right now.

Chris. Whereas in the “Zenith Angle” they spend half their time driving on the freeway across the country and stopping at truckstops.

More on Bruce Sterling’s novels “The Zenith Angle” and “Zeitgeist” in another ArmadilloCon 2004 panel, “The Year’s Half Over: What Should I have Read?”

Where does Neal Stephenson fit into post-9/11 cyberpunk picture?

Chris. Let’s talk about Neal Stephenson and what he’s been doing since “The Diamond Age”. He is another sort of iconic, canonical cyberpunk, and who’s sort of abandoned the future in “Cryptonomicon”, and then we’ve got the “Baroque Cycle” — I don’t know if you guys tried to penetrate that step yet…

Lawrence. I haven’t tried it yet.

Chris. But this is where he’s going back to Enlightenment Era in Europe, and trying to uncover — if anyone’s read economic history, there this guy Fernand Braudel, a French guy who wrote this very important, sweeping social history of that period of Europe, where he drilled down to every detail of social and economic life, and how trade was emerging — Stephenson seems to be trying to do that with the emergence of math and science…

Lawrence. What’s the name of that book?

Chris. “The Structures of Everyday Life.” It was the first in the series “Civilization and Capitalism: 15th – 18th Century)”.

So Stephenson seems like he’s trying to uncover mathematical underpinnings of modern life. I am partway through Quicksilver, and it’s tough. It’s tough slogging.

Kurt. Why isn’t he writing about an important book that’s very recent, like “Guns, Germs and Steel”, which is a wonderful revelation of anthropology extended into… made a bestseller list. That’s something a science fiction writter ought to tear into. It almost reads like science fiction and it’s got cutting edge. It’s written so that you and I can understand it, but it’s the cutting edge of modern anthropology and a realization that Western civilization is simply lucky.

Why have the cyberpunks abandoned the future?

Chris. So why do you think these guys have given up on writing about the future, near or far?

Kurt. I think that what science fiction fans found in cyberpunk was extrapolations of technology, which is, I think, what science fiction has always, always been about, at least for me. Real science fiction is taking technology to the next level, so that you can get a grasp of where the future could be, and what the future could be like.

We seem to not have the education in the writers that we are looking for. So obviously there’s gonna be a new crop of writers to come up with a better set of education to be able to write the next batch of novels that we will all be talking about in 10 years.

What about new post-cyberpunks that are well-versed in technology?

Chris. What about Cory Doctorow? Have you read Cory’s work?

Kurt. I think so, but give me a title.

Chris. “Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom”, “Eastern Standard Tribe”. Then he’s got a bunch in Asimov’s…

Kurt I read “Down and Out in Magic Kingdom” and I didn’t find it amazing.

Lawrence. I think cyberpunk did one thing very differently, by and large, than what had been done before, and I think it’s not emphasized enough when we talk about cyberpunk’s black leather and chrome surface gloss, is that what cyberpunk did that hadn’t been done so much before, was taking extrapolating technology into the fabric of everyday life in every paragraph, the way it wasn’t done in Robert Heinlein […]. You had a gadget, you had a gizmo, and Heinlein had touches of it, like you know, where the door “irised open”. But cyberpunk was having those different impacts of technology in every paragraph. That’s the really really cool thing, and also a really really hard thing to do right.

Chris. And it’s here, you know? “I’m gonna go check my Blackberry.” That’s sort of 80s virtual reality stuff…

Kurt. Yes, but cutting edge technology in science fiction — not to use the cyberpunk label — should not be about Blackberries now. It should be about what’s going to be around you 20 years from now.

Chris. Is “Pattern Recognition” about …

Kurt. There’s nothing in Pattern Recognition” that’s set in the future! The novel is at very best a near-future fiction, if it’s science fiction at all.

Chris. Is it? That’s a good question.

Lawrence. “Zenith Angle” — I don’t know…

Kurt. Both of them are at best near-future fiction.

Chris. Set in the near past.

Chris. Set in the near past.

Chris. Gibson is totally embracing the consumer outgrowths of contemporary technological society, lovingly in a very bourgeois kind of way. And Bruce is all about joining the government establishment and going to fight the stateless necromancers…

(Here Chris’s voice and manner becomes an imitation of Bruce Sterling. I don’t know if he is parodying Bruce Sterling or if he “lovingly embraced” the phrase “stateless necromancers” Bruce bandied about a year ago in ArmadilloCon 2003, referring mostly to Osama bin Laden. — E.)

Science fiction idea: transition from labor-based society to labor-free society

Kurt. But why can’t… So let’s say, you are an author. Maybe there’s one in the room, or two, or three. (Giggle in the audience.) You can say, I don’t know the cutting edge computer technology, but there are so many fascinating problems that exist right now.

For example, productivity rose so high during the nineties, it didn’t curtail the expansion. Normally, what curtails an expansion, as Greenspan talked about, is the fact that you suck up all the labor market and the job prices go too high and that curtails the expansion. Well, computers added so much productivity, that the pay rates weren’t rising, and the expansion collapsed when the dot-coms exploded and everything else, and then of course, buildings collapsing in the New York city did not help the expansion to come out of it. We are still not recovered from it.

But as I said to several fans, you’ve been reading books all your life about a future that exists where machines do everything. Can’t you imagine that there is a transition between where everybody’s working for a living, and so much productivity where everybody isn’t working for a living, because there’s so much productivity, not everybody needs to work in order to provide for everybody to get by on?

Chris. Liberation from work…

Kurt. I understand, but the social implications of going from a society where only if you work you get money and income, to a society where there’s so much productivity that nobody will be required to work, and that’s the glorious Star Trek future — but right now the economy is downturning and everybody is suffering from it. Well, why are you so unhappy? You projected in your own mind, you’ve read in your own fiction and you believe in your own hard that there’s gonna be a future where people don’t have to work, and you’re suffering through the transition. And you’re finding it weird?

Chris. The characters in “Pattern Recognition” don’t really work, they don’t engage in any productive activity other than producing things that exist in kind of an imaginative super-structure of society, right? Of consumer goods and so on …

Kurt. So there’s a challenge there. As it gets worse, as productivity increases higher and higher, as automatization increases higher and higher, what happens to a normal income-based financial society? 5-10 years from now, if the productivity continues to rise… What happens if AI succeeds and suddenly there’s machines as intelligent as a dog, which in theory, if you plot computing power against artificial intelligence results, we’re almost at the dog level.

Lawrence. Now we’re getting into the Vernor Vinge singularity panel

A person in the audience mentions John Brunner.

Kurt. “Shockwave Rider” [by John Brunner] was a seminal cyberpunk novel.

A person in the audience mentions a snippet of conversation between Brunner and someone else: when the “someone else” said that the future man will have the leisure and will use it on nothing but art or literature, Brunner replied “No, we’ve got it today, and we call it unemployment”.

Kurt. So, there’s this strange situation that’s gonna go on: the economy where you only get to spend money if you earn it, versus the economy that […] higher and higher productivity, to the point where there will be fewer and fewer people that are paid…

Chris. [As in] J. G. Ballard’s “Vermillion Sands” stories — sitting in this resort, exploring the darkest territory of their subconscious, while they’re making cloud sculptures to entertain themselves during the long day…

Kurt. But you have to admit, it’s a pretty wonderful world, when the author of Harry Potter novels makes more money in a year than the queen did. That’s kind of cool!

Lawrence. You see some novels set in the post-money economy, but no one ever writes about people going through that transition. It’s always: “here we are, in a socialist utopia! Have fun!”

Kurt. I’m just saying it could be a challenge. You don’t have to know about technology to visualize what the impacts of it are. You could write a very good novel…

Chris notes that slipstream writers who are doing suburban surrealism are for the large part writing about life in this wealthy leisure-driven society, and how people existing in contemporary society retreat to their imaginative worlds, and the things they do to escape the boredom.

Chris But I don’t think you can accuse Bruce of not trying to deal with issues of today that are real issues. It’s more about geopolitics, and taking sides…

Open source: a theme underutilized by cyberpunks?

Kurt. Let’s… let’s… I’m trying to spout forth themes that people could explore, and that was my agenda for getting up here [on this panel]. One of the other things I would like to promote is another fascinating thing that’s occurring in technology, and technologists are well aware of it, is the fact that some of the best programs are the open source programs. Linux is… I switched to an all-Linux environment, and I’m building my own machine, which you can build incredibly cheaply. I built a 2.6 GHz PC for 200 dollars, running Linux. You can’t argue with that!

The best database program in the world right now is MySQL, which is the open source version of SQL, which is what Oracle’s based on; and all those big multibillion dollar corporations are based on software that’s been superseded by MySQL which is open source. It turns out, it’s not the underlying engine that’s valuable. It is all the application infrastructure.

Post-cyberpunk writers dedicated to open source philosophy

Chris. Cory Doctorow…

Lawrence. Or Charlie Stross… Charlie Stross is aaaaaall about open source. It’s post-cyberpunk for people who read Slashdot.

If open source philosophy is extended to other areas of technology

Kurt. But this conflict is clearly growing up: as everything that’s important enough to need a wide base of users, open source support will eventually produce a product that’s better and more debugged and more solid than anything any company could do.

So the challenge going forward is what does that do to the world and technology as more and more things become open sourced? What does it mean if we have nanotechnological assemblers? And we are long ways from that: I don’t want anybody to say “Kurt said something like ‘nanotechnology’s around the corner'”, but…

Lawrence: You just heard Kurt say: nanotechnology’s around the corner! (Laughs)

Kurt. … but this month’s Scientific American is about bucky tube-[something] and with scanning tunneling microscope pictures of a bucky tube. This is science fiction, people, I’m sorry! This is better reality than science fiction I read!

Chris. Yes, I know some guys who are figuring out, lawyers who are working on the issue of some people getting ready to export bucky tubes and trying to figure out what the export control regimes should be.

Kurt. I keep going to “The Diamond Age”, because “The Diamond Age” was a really clear extrapolation, and Neal Stephenson understood, by talking to some technologists, and recorded it and played it back in his novel, the idea that everybody could have a small appliance that only consumed electricity and sucked carbon out of the air and built everything they needed to. Because with just carbon you can build things that are transparent, you can build any color you want, you can make the surfaces iridescent, it could be stronger than steel, it could be essentially light as air, because all you have to do is make bucky tubes, make a grid system, and you could make this chair weigh a fraction of an ounce, and it would be stronger than this chair is (points to the chair he’s sitting in).

And the realization, the thing that really struck me in “The Diamond Age” was, that real things are heavy. Things that come out of assembly are featherlight. Cause nothing out of the assembler is any heavier than it needs to be for the strength of pointed bucky tubes and diamond-matrixy corners (?). It’s gonna be foamed carbon. That’s probably the best term for what that could be like. And so the realization that “oh, it’s a real glass!” as opposed to something that came out of your assembler that would weigh…

Chris. […] to that point, the reason why Bruce [Sterling] isn’t here, is because he’s becoming Mr. Material Science Design Professor. He’s at some material science conference in Europe.

Kurt. Good! Maybe he’ll record it in his bardic talents and play it back in his novels, and that’s a good thing!

Why should we believe science fiction has abandoned the future?

Lawrence. I think that the topic of this panel itself creates a false dichotomy. We’re basing [the conclusion] that science fiction has abandoned the future on three guys having written 4 or 5 non-science fiction novels.

Chris. Right, and they’re all, I mean, Bruce’s working on a late 21st (?) century novel about stateless Eastern Europe or something like that. He’s got fantasy coming out…

Kurt. That’s not what I wanna read! I wanna read …

Is scientific/technological extrapolation more important in SF than political issues?

Chris… these issues in geopolitics… Some of us are interested in things other than technology.

Kurt. Blasphemer!

Chris. … like what the fuck is going on in the world right now, am I going to be blown up next week?

We live in a very interesting science-fictional world. Sick geriatrics are being arrested for trying to smuggle life extension drugs across the Canadian border. We have medieval necromancers in stateless kind of post-Mad Max societies out to get us; it’s a very cyberpunk world we are living in.

Kurt. The reality is, we never would have thought that Michael Moore would make an enormously successful political impact movie this year.

(A short while later Kurt talks about an author whose name I missed, who cleverly extrapolated the idea of intelligence-augmenting brain implants, or something like that. — E.)

Kurt, talking about an author who extrapolated the idea of intelligence-augmenting brain implants. “The author understood enough to realize that when you have that kind of computing power lying right over the top of your brain, the extra things you could do with it. In terms of, for example, your vision, you could probably see at night. The extra hardware could do some digital signal processing and edge detection and bring it back down again and enable you to see differently at night. It’s just a wonderful extrapolation of not the imaginary future beings like ghosts on computers, but what you could do near term with technology that’s almost there. Even though the blood-brain barrier, if you think anybody’s…

Lawrence. Now we’re back to Stross again.

Bruce Sterling’s own (non)answer to the panel’s main question

Whether it’s an answer to this question or not, Chris announces that since Bruce Sterling couldn’t be on this panel, he put his opinion on whether and why the cyberpunks had abandoned the future, in writing. Chris suggests Lawrence should read it.

Chris. So the question was, why did the cyberpunks abandon the future?

Lawrence reads Bruce Sterling’s answer. Audience’s laughter accompanies almost every sentence.

“The future is already here, it’s just not well distributed yet. The future is history that hasn’t happened yet. The future is a verb, not a noun. Obsolescence is innovation in reverse. Tomorrow now: a good old-fashioned future. Steampunk, cyberpunk, nowpunk. The future itself has a future. One of these days people are gonna get that cyberpunk is not Judeo-Christian, and propagates a genuinely different basic concept of the relationship of people and [something]”

Chris. Can you translate that?

Lawrence, vaguely: … a bit of blurbs here…

Is cyberpunk hiatus a result of 9/11?

Lawrence: I think the interesting thing is that Bruce is, in his next novel, going back to science fiction. 9/11 was, of course, one of those generational changes, like atomic bomb in 1945: you can’t NOT write about it. It’s the terminator event for an era in history. There is no way to extrapolate [beyond it].

Chris notes that during the late nineties and early 00s, as the US and, to some extent, global, economy tanked, and then the 9/11 attacks occurred, reality was borrowing from the cyberpunk, at least in terms of the language used to describe what was going on. So maybe it was time for a pause. The view of the classical/canonical/whatever cyberpunk writers is: “it happened, let’s explore what happened, and then we can perhaps go on to the next thing.”

Chris. Bruce seems to be very afraid of [stateless necromancers?]. That’s what his future book is going to be about. Some of us have seen pieces of it: it’s about 30 people on some island of Croatia in the 2050s.

Lawrence This, of course, ties back to what Neal Stephenson was writing in “Snow Crash” and “The Diamond Age” in terms of these meta-distributed states and the disintegration, which is also a concern of Ken MacLeod.

Someone from the audience. That it would be a scary perspective.

Lawrence. Dammit, I want my garbage picked up!

Chris. Aren’t those settings the same as the post-apocalyptic settings that we’ve all enjoyed so much? There’s something alluring about it, it’s kind of a frontier setting, almost like a Western element. Like the setting of Mad Max.

Kurt. I figured cyberpunk was closer to the “Bladerunner” dark, overcast, perpetually rainy super high tech future — that was the visual vision of the key cyberpunk thing, the “Bladerunner” movie, which had very little to do with “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” story, but it certainly had the cyberpunk vision of the future, this totally gloomy (?), overcast, incredibly techy place.

Chris. That’s kind of what “Pattern Recognition” is set in: it’s set in the wealthy, industrialized part of the manifested cyberpunk world. But then there’s this other world, of the people who make all that stuff, the dispossessed of that new geopolitical milieu that’s equally interesting. And those guys [cyberpunk writers] counterpose those two things against each other.

Bucky tubes

Tammy, a woman in the audience. What’s a bucky tube?

Lawrence. A bucky tube is carbon-60…

Kurt. Do you know what carbon-60 is? […] You can take a piece of carbon and fold it back to itself and it makes little… it’s just hexagons. It looks like a roll of chicken wire.

Tammy. Are they really doing that now?

Kurt. Oh, honest to God.

Lawrence. The question is, how long can you get it? And how do you industrialize it?

Kurt. Inches. They can do inches right now.

Lawrence. But if you build it hundreds of miles long, you can do things like build an orbital elevator that actually works.

Kurt. It’s probably only a matter of time before they can make a machine that will just assemble a continuous bucky tube and spit it out.

Lawrence. Like fiberoptics now. It used to be incredibly hard to do, and now it’s incredibly easy, when you know how to do it.

Kurt. They are at that level already, but we only have one machine like that right now. And that machine was so important that it was achieved long ahead of anything else like it, and that is the machine where computer can [read] a stream of four letters and it can assemble a DNA train with those molecules on it. That machine was built way ahead of the time because it was needed so badly for recombinatorial DNA. It took so many lab steps to […] one end of the DNA, they had to reduce it down to […] Now they have a machine smaller than the corner of this dekstop, and as fast as you can send letters to it it can make a chain.

In theory everything of that stuff can be assembled, especially carbon — you ought to be able to pull out carbon continuously from a small machine. But it’s not been achieved yet. But it will happen, I’m sure. As soon as there’s plenty of application for bucky tubes, there will be processes that [make bucky tubes].

Lawrence. Have you read Drexler’s “Engines of Creation”?

Kurt. No.

Lawrence. That’s the canonical [popular science book on] nanotechnology.

Chris. So what are “street” uses of bucky tubes?

Lawrence. To make knives that you can get on planes, with bucky tubes.

No “now” to extrapolate from — things change too fast

Chris. John Clute answered your question why aren’t these guys doing more extrapolation from what’s going on now. This is in his review on of “Pattern Recognition”. What he argues is that to be able to do quality science-fictional extrapolation, a predicate is having a “now” that’s identifiable, and not so ephemeral and elusive that it would slip out of your fingers every time you try to grab it because things are changing so fast. Contrasting that with Campbellian world of the fifties that he comes from, and saying “there is this “now”, and we can imagine 21st century future that’s really distinct from now…

Are things really changing all that fast?

Kurt. Being immersed in technology, I can assure you things don’t seem to change very fast from my viewpoint. But that’s because it takes years and years and years of work to move each one forward.

Lawrence. But there are two thousand different things that are moving forward.

Kurt. That’s right, there are two thousand different things that are moving forward. So several times a year a nifty new thing pops off the end, and even though it’s been in the queue, the fact that it got done… I can tell you some neat things that had just occurred, if you wanna know some cool things. Last month the very first flat LCD display that truly does 1920×1080 was a 42-inch flat LCD display. Why is this important? Because that’s the resolution of HDTV. Prior to this point they [HDTV?] have been throwing away information. The LCD displays that do flat panel didn’t have enough pixels on them! They really weren’t as big as that. They were tossing the information away. This panel last month that was shown at a show was built by an LCD manufacturer in Taiwan and it won the best awards, because it’s truly a 1920×1080 and it’s truly full, all the digital bits that are recorded on the HDTV are actually coming out and show up as pixels. No loss.

Lawrence. But that’s technogeek…

Kurt. But it’s a very important.

Can we please try to find some philosophical implications in HDTV?

Chris asks, poking light fun at Kurt’s impassioned monologue: what are the social implications of high definition TV?

Kurt. I have not a bloody clue.

Lawrence. Actually, porn industry is scared to death of HDTV. They loved videotape, because videotape would hide an awful lot of flaws and it was cheap to crank them out. But now you’re gonna see all those pores much bigger, you’re gonna tell where all the makeup is. So they are scared!

Kurt. So where is the technology extrapolation? The obvious technology extrapolation is that we are really close with complete plastic LEDs. If you have a complete plastic LED, and you can already fab semiconductors on paper with ink — there was an article in last month’s Scientific American about that the same subject, or no, actually it was Spectrum, but anyway, it doesn’t matter — the point is, you could, with plastic-making technology, make the electronics and display for Kmart to sell a 24 inch, 1/8th of an inch thick plastic television, and when it breaks, you’ll throw it away, because it won’t be fixable.

Kurt. It predicts the future where content becomes even more important. Where you could be making a living by making fake virtual wall decorations. Why pay for real, physical wall decorations, when you can cover your walls with plastic material and project wall decorations on it?

Chris. Maybe there’s a nexus (?) with what’s going on with all of these virtual worlds. I went to a conference last fall where a bunch of lawyers and legal academics tried to figure out the legal issues of virtual worlds. You get into these displays that are hyper-real, I suppose, for those people liberated from work, so that they could truly inhabit some kind of virtual cyberspace.

Kurt. You wonder why US currency is changing so fast? It’s the damn high quality of color photo-litography.

Chris, sarcastically: “The medieval necromancers in those stateless geopolitical locations have colored photocopiers and scanners, and they are using our technology against us, right?”

Lawrence. The weapons of the mundane.

Chris. That’s how the street’s finding its own uses for things.

Kurt. Who would have predicted that copy machines would force US government to change its currency not once, but twice in less than 10 years?

Lawrence. In many ways, 9/11 was the ultimate cyberpunk disaster, cause here’s some guys with fucking box-cutters who took down the New York financial system for a week.

Chris. ATMs, and internet connections…

Lawrence. And Microsoft flight simulator.

Relevance of cyberpunk today: to keep the government looking for future threats?

Kurt. The lesson that 9/11 teaches is the lesson that you’re prepared for is not the one that you’re gonna have. They were prepared for sneaking nuclear weapons in. I’m sure there were all kinds of discrete radiation detectors in numerous places. They were perhaps prepared for some sort of biological [weapon], but using regular commercial aircraft as flying bombs was not something they were really braced for.

Chris. See, I’d be worried that people like the Army War College and the guys in the Pentagon are inviting Bruce Sterling to give them advice… Does he have a security clearance, for God’s sake?

Lawrence. I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.

Kurt. The joke is, the US military is always prepared to fight the last war. This statement is probably true of every military. And perhaps our security organizations are always prepared to handle the last threat. The challenge for them is probably out-thinking the people who can threaten you, to find a thing that’s a possible threat, ahead of it being used as a threat. And that’s a very, very difficult challenge, because people are inventive and clever, and the more pressure you put them under, the more inventive and clever they might get.

Chris, with a touch of sarcasm: And the only people who might save us are cyberpunks.

Lawrence. Help me, Bruce Sterling, you’re my only hope! (Audience laughs.)