Through Black Glass: John Shirley on Reanimating Lost Cyberpunk for the 21st Century

Early 1980s, I was sitting in my West Hollywood apartment with William Gibson and a certain movie director who had some buzz going. More than one kind of buzz. We were talking about adapting a story from Burning Chrome for this guy — a story that was as cyberpunk as anything is — and my defining recollection is how frequently the director excused himself to the bathroom only to come back sniffling, trembling and talking with even more rapidfire megalomania than before. Besides adapting the story, I pitched him a script, which was then rather blandly called Macrochip, based on some idea sessions Bill Gibson and I had, and that Peter Wagg (producer of Max Headroom) had optioned. And I remember that this director, who enjoyed macho posturing, said, “Just as long as it’s got big fucking balls!”

He didn’t use our script, nor get back to us about Macrochip, and Gibson’s career became stratospheric (Gibson earned it, by dint of talent and hard work). He was soon occupied, say, helping “Mick and Keith” with their stage design for a major tour, and didn’t have a lot of time and… we never did anything else with the story. In the late 1990s I made a feint at turning it into a novel, which I called Black Glass, but by then my writing had sidestepped into a kind of urban fantasy and I wasn’t thinking cyberpunk.

But last year, gazing about me at the great wide world, I remembered Black Glass and was inspired to finish it — because Black Glass dramatizes technology as metaphor, a phenomenon coming clearer every day.

Not that technology as metaphor is new. Going way back, there was the symbol of the steam train chugging across the plains, literally the embodiment of industrialization imposing its badass steel wheels on the natural world. In Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s Modern Times, machines were metaphors for the mechanisms of plutocratic repression. But sometimes we miss the corollary, that real-world technology itself is metaphor, quite outside of drama, as much as that steam train was. Technology is an innately dramatic expression of our condition.

Thourgh Black Glass by John ShirleyThink back to when technologies were imposed on us that passed labor along to the consumer — when we all began doing unpaid work for corporations. Customer service personnel were replaced by programs that required us to press 1 if we wanted this, 2 if we wanted that, 7 if we wanted to scream. We now do the work of gas station employees, conducting the money transaction ourselves, filling our own tanks. Supermarkets started self-service lines where you and a laser scanner do the checkout person’s job, and airlines now make us check ourselves onto flights at a touch-screen station. It can seem like we’re serving the machines at least as much as they’re serving us.

But it’s the corporations we’re serving. All that technology is, itself, metaphor for our submissive relationship to the multinationals.

Recently a news story from Tokyo flickered through internet news pages: A 43-year-old Japanese piano teacher’s sudden divorce from her online husband in a virtual game world made her so angry that she logged on and killed his digital persona, police said Thursday. The woman has been jailed on suspicion of illegally accessing a computer…

The lady identified with the virtual world so thoroughly that her online reality had become more real to her than the “meat” reality. I know: happens every day. But how very metaphorical indeed…

Now, the underlying story and premise of Black Glass was conceived in an era when cyberpunk writing was more about the existential poetry of science-fiction, more about the sheer sociological drama of technological impact, than about the possibilities of technology or glorying in prediction. We took a step back from it all.

Late 1970s and well into the ’80s, Bill Gibson, Bruce Sterling and I used to correspond. (using physical “snailmail” letters, in those days.) Around the time Neuromancer was published, I wrote to Gibson speculating on how using a word processing program would affect prose writing. He wrote back to me, as always, on a manual typewriter:

Burning Chrome by William Gibson“If someone’s going to have style at all, they’ll reach a point where the recording medium is ‘transparent’ anyway… My aversion to the thing is pretty mild… computers per se bore the shit out of me, all that techtalk and the furious enthusiasm of the hobbyist… I think I’ll probably get one before I need to have one…I think a processor might affect my style for a little while…”

Yet he invented the word ‘cyberspace’ on a manual typewriter. We weren’t very deep into technology then — we were deeper into observation, and experience. Cyberpunk writers were influenced by James M. Cain as well as Alfred Bester, and Black Glass reflected that. Gibson was typically all about “the street’s uses for technology” and I was about two-fisted men and women struggling with repression in a near-future dystopia. But was that even relevant anymore, when I returned to Black Glass in the year 2007? My sensibility was more or less hard-nosed pulp, with surreally artistic overtones, the way that punk rock is largely structured noise elevated by the poetry of defiance. That’s not very Neal Stephenson or Cory Doctorow — guys who personified the 2007 paradigm to me.

technology is an innately dramatic expression of our condition

Yet when I looked around at the great wide world of 2007, I found Black Glass in it. The novel is a futuristic cyberpunk tale about a man emerging from the four-year dormancy of a special prison where his mind was shut down and his body was ordered to work for the state. On release, this ex-cop, Candle, gets embroiled in a fight with one of the 33 corporations that control the world, ’til both he and the corporate overlords are blindsided by an unexpected nemesis: a ‘mindclone’. More properly: this is a ‘semblant’ program — a program that sends an indistinguishable realtime animation of you to virtual conferences, say, or takes webcam calls for you. It knows what you’d say and says it for you, and no one’s sure if it’s really you or not. But a new ‘multisemblant mindclone’ composed of certain powerful men and women, combined into one program, degrades into a psychopathic personality that takes on a life of its own… and in the background street rebels allied with Candle operate a Black Stock Market using cloud computing.

The consciousness-suspension prison is an obvious metaphor with perpetual relevance; the struggle with the big guns of the Fortune 33 is everyman’s struggle in the 21st century; and semblants are an extension of the mind-state that woman in Tokyo was in when she got arrested. We shift our center of identity into digital representations. We overlap with our technology. And sometimes that’s a useful enhancement — other times it only magnifies what’s wrong with us, as with hackable e-voting machines.

NeuromancerAnd then there’s that Black Stock Market—what’s more relevant in the age of bailouts? So Black Glass was relevant. I just had to update its tech, environmental and cultural references and recognize that my pulp-inflected metaphor may be at the pop end of art, but it’s vitalized by the pointed honesty of its symbols. In the updated Black Glass, Candle stalks through the mordantly named “Autopia,” where people live in improvised structures composed of abandoned gasoline-engine cars. He negotiates “Rooftown,” a towering shanty complex populated by refugees from the great swamp of global warming. The street has its own uses for things, and Candle uses technology exclusive to the rich and powerful, a flying self-driving car, to infiltrate his enemy’s restricted skyscraper compound.

It all came together — because technology itself is metaphor, and when I look around at it, I find that technology is speaking to us. Technology itself is telling us stories. Only, you’ve got to have the nerve to tell them. And there’s one thing Black Glass has for sure…

It’s a “pulp novel of ideas”—with big fucking balls.


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