Science Fiction, Cyberpunk, and Hyperfiction

Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash
Rudy Rucker's Live Robots
Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl

Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash

Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, among other themes, explores the notion of information as a commodity. Hiro appropriates seemingly useless information, uploads it to what would now be referred to as the World Wide Web.

He uploads it to the CIC database -- the Library, formerly the Library of Congress, but no one calls it that anymore. Most people are not entirely clear on what the word "congress" means. And even the word "library" is getting. It used to be a place full of books, mostly old ones. Then they began to include videotapes, records, and magazines. Then all of the information got converted into machine-readable form, which is to say, ones and zeroes. And as the number of media grew, the material became more up to date, and the methods for searching the library become more and more sophisticated, it approached the point where there was no substantive difference between the Library of Congress and the Central Intelligence Agency. Fortuitously, this happened just as the government was falling apart anyway. So they merged and kicked out a big fat stock offering.

Information has always been a commodity in one way or another. But with the ease and low cost of information reproduction/duplication that is alluded to in many science fiction and cyberpunk novels, an altogether new information market has been created. The commodification of private experiences.

The business is a simple one. Hiro gets information. It may be gossip, videotape, audiotape, a fragment of a computer disk, a xerox of a document. It can even be a joke based on the latest highly publicized disaster.

Videotape is cheap. You never know when something will be useful, so you might as well videotape it.

People make their living that way -- people in the intel business. People like Hiro Protagonist. They just know stuff, or they just go around and videotape stuff. They put it in the library. When people want to know the particular things that they know or watch their videotapes, they pay them money and check it out of the Library, or just buy it outright.

With the ability to store tremendous amounts of information at an extremely low cost, a crucial question comes into play:

Where -- or perhaps, why -- should we draw the line between what is relevant information and what is meaningless drivel?

Rudy Rucker's Live Robots

In Live Robots, Rucker echoes this theme of information replication/duplication with regards to the robot's memory:

Vulcan had insisted on taping Ralph's core and cache memories before he went out for the meeting. Once Vulcan put the hardware back together, he'd be able to program Ralph just as he was before his trip to Maskeleyne Crater.
So in one sense Ralph would survive this. But in another sense he would not. In three minutes he would... insofar as the words mean anything... die. The reconstructed Ralph Numbers would not remember the argument with Wagstaff or the climb out of Maskaleyne Crater. Of course the reconstructed Ralph Numbers would again be equipped with a self symbol and a feeling of personal consciousness. But would the consciousness really be the same? Two minutes.

Disregarding for a moment the fact that Ralph Numbers is a robot, Rucker touches on one of the themes of Memory, Inc. That is, to what extent do the two minutes erased from Ralph's memory affect his consciousness? To what extent is our identity defined by our experiences, even the most seemingly trivial actions?

In Software, the ability to decode the human brain is still difficult and dangerous. Simply recording information is one thing; copying the thought patterns, separating neuron link-ups and so forth, is quite another. Among the robots, there is already a blurring of identifies in that they can essentially access each other's thoughts.

What is to say that the same process cannot be mimicked in humans? In Snow Crash the CIC acts as a database of random, individual experiences. But such experiences, such information, is still external. What happens when such information can be purchased and appropriated as one's own? What happens when different people can have common -- that is, identical -- memories and experiences?

Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl

Re-reading Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl in the context of the works we had studied in "Cyberspace, Virtual Reality, and Critical Theory" was perhaps my most eye-opening experience of the semester. We studied her hypertext extensively last semester in EL111, but perhaps my interest, at that time, lied primarily in her use of the new medium, the manner in which she cleverly juxtaposed different stories and identities within one text.

In any case, back in November of '95, I missed the point. Or perhaps a point. Because after reading, watching, and hearing about the cyborg, cyberspace, and critical theory for a semester now, my read of Patchwork Girl is infinitely more enlightening and relevant to my study.

And perhaps more importantly, it was only after studying Patchwork Girl for a second time that I could piece together the various parts of English 112 and define it in my own terms.

(Of course, my take on the course is a rather narrow, personal one indeed, and casually leaves out a lot of what we studied. But I like it nonetheless.)