Despite many of its shortcomings, I feel that Rucker's Ware trilogy constitutes an appropriate conclusion for our course. However predictable and at times tasteless the execution may be, the trilogy still manages to deal with many of the themes that have been integral to our course during the past few months. (Liz voices a similar opinion in her essay.) Some of the major concepts that Rucker's fiction deals with include artificial intelligence, artificial life, the role of evolution in information systems, information representation and retrieval, the idea of the cyborg, prostheses, individuality and consciousness, sexuality and gender roles, virtual-hyper-unreal-reality, religion within the context of dystopian technology, and the everchanging structure of society.
Although Rucker explores multiple societies across numerous decades to cover the above concepts, he ends up settling with conservative takes on even the most exciting ideas. (For instance, in his treatment of artificial life, Rucker acknowledges evolution as an essential tool in examining the enormous search space of individual identities of both humans and boppers; yet he ends up accepting an algorithmic view of identity, regarding personality as a static data construct that can be stored indefinitely and relocated at will.) At certain points, Rucker contradicts himself; at others, he resorts to humor in an attempt to gloss over issues he can't resolve. However, he ultimately covers a lot of cyberphilosophical ground, or at least skims over quite a bit of surface. Therefore, rather than criticizing Rucker's fiction (which has already been done, quite exhaustively, by various members of our class) I will attempt to use the Ware trilogy in order to draw together the numerous concepts that we have covered throughout this course.
The trilogy considers quite a few themes, although it fails to provide a cohesive infrastructure that binds them. Characters from diverse societies deal with their individual issues, sometimes completely ignorant of one another but still seemingly connected, somehow. Their problems, be it trying to come to terms with acquiring a new synthetic body, with joining a new cult or with being a cheeseball, have a similar feel to them. One instinctively suspects that the challenges that Rucker's characters face relate to one another, but the relevance remains obscure. Rucker himself offers little in the way of clues.
The following may be yet another way of posing the same question: What has our course been about? One could, of course, list the various topics covered by our syllabus; for example, telepresence, artificial intelligence, prostheses, and the like. Such an approach, however, would provide little insight. One could also try to express these themes using a vague, rather long, all-inclusive definition, such as the social, cultural, religious, medical, philosophical, psychological, artistic, literary, sexual and linguistic implications of the rising technological trends and of fictional and critical literary works concerning such trends during the latter half of the twentieth century. This second approach resembles a huge piecewise function and is hardly better than the first approach. Neither of the two answers provides any intuition as to why or how these themes are related. Perhaps they are ultimately irrelevant to one another, and the above is the best we can do. In case they're somehow related, however, the question still remains: What's the connection?
I will argue for the existence of an entity that embodies instantiations of all the themes that we have explored throughout this course.
It's called California.
Clearly, Baudrillard's definitions of simulacra and hyperreality form essential parts of everyday life on the west coast. Everything has to be 'better than the real thing', historical monuments, amusement parks, breasts, everything. After all, California is home to Hollywood, Disneyland and Baywatch, all of which pride themselves on outdoing reality in glitz, glamor and fun. For a more extensive (and less neurotic) treatment of the hyperreality of California, see Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality. Here's a brief excerpt:
"Two very beautiful naked girls are crouched facing each other. They touch each other sensually, they kiss each other's breast lightly, with the tip of the tongue. They are enclosed in a kind of cylinder; like a voyeur, one is tempted to circle the cylinder in order to see the girls from behind, in profile, from the other side. The next temptation is to approach the cylinder, which stands on a little column and is only a few inches in diameter, in order to look down from above: But the girls are no longer there."
Gibson's work contains numerous parallels to life in California as well, especially within the context of artificial intelligence. First consider Virek, an incredibly rich person who, motivated by his own financial power, goes on to use virtual reality and artificial intelligence technologies to aid him in his quest for the boxmaker, in Gibson's Count Zero. Next consider John Koza, who, having made an incredible fortune by inventing scratch-off lottery cards, then goes on to buy a chair at Stanford and finally invents the genetic programming paradigm. Strangely apropos, yes? It could only happen in California.
The changing structure of society represents another connection between Rucker's universes and the west coast. The Ware trilogy sees boppers and moldies as part of society, bringing with them a new set of ethical values whereby consuming meat cloned from another human doesn't seem like such a bad idea anymore. Unusual ethical values are also frequently evaluated and occasionally adopted in California, which remains one of the first places where the word 'nerd' has lost its negative connotations to become an empowering term, thanks to countless success stories from Silicon Valley. The Darwinian evolutionary principle - survival of the fittest - has preserved its essence in a society which has realized that possessing good hacking skills and technological savvy, rather than rippling muscles or attractive looks, appears to be far more advantageous. People who excel at virtual surfing have come to be envied, rather than those who indulge in the primitive version of the sport. Society has come to accept, embrace and respect nerds. It seems unlikely that such a change could have taken place so quickly on the relatively structured and uptight east coast and its Silicon Alley Manhattan. However, nothing is immune to change in the weird and wonderful California.
Linguistics represents yet another area where connections abound. In Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, the plot revolves around the story of the Tower of Babel, unique encodings of semantic content and the resulting inability to communicate. In Rucker's Freeware, the analogy is quite a bit more obvious: Monique "had modeled her speech on the bubbly, questioning Valley Girl slang of the late twentieth century." This kind of slang represents one form of unique semantic encoding that may inhibit communication among people from different backgrounds. Another, more fascinating, encoding protocol comes in the form of warezspeak, invented on Bulletin Board Systems on the west coast during the early 80s. Warezspeak is a form of writing whereby alternative characters from ASCII (a standardized group of 256 textual symbols commonly used on computers) are substituted for the regular letters in the alphabet. Epsilon or capital sigma is used instead of E, for instance (Both epsilon and sigma LOOK like E although they need not signify it.); the pipe, backslash, forward slash and pipe characters are put together to form an M; the infinity sign stands for two consecutive O's. Hackers use warezspeak in exchanging messages as well as in encoding their nicknames; some interesting examples include J£tFiGhT, va©µµ|\/|L§þ, a©| þµÆN, £al€©Æa©K, and my personal favorite, H€ÞεÆmAn. The Tower of Babel keeps haunting societal consciousness; warezspeak proves how cultural codes from one civilization can serve completely different purposes in another. The two cultures are inherently linked yet cannot communicate with one another.
Closely related to linguistic encodings of cultural messages are the aethetic representations of these very same notions. Historically, younger generations have tended to create an artificial boundary between themselves and the generations preceding them by adopting unique forms of self-expression. The fashion industry holds special importance within this context since many people associate their looks with their life philosophy in general. California resembles much of cyberpunk fiction in that self-expression through the use of fashion has ceased to function solely as a form of rebellion and has transformed into defining one's own territory in aesthetic space, much as lions do within their natural habitats. Nothing is tasteless, weird or preposterous - one's outfit simply represents one's individuality. Molly's leather attire, implanted shades and retractable blades define her as an efficient assassin, a Razorgirl, in Gibson's Neuromancer. Lupus Yonderboy, the leader of the Panther Moderns in the same novel, wears an image projecting body-suit that is able to emulate the textures in its surroundings or play prerecorded images. His critical position as the commander of a group hated by many requires him to blend into his environment as stealthily as is possible. Even so, Lupus feels that he should highlight his position as a leader - his hair is a worn in a bright pink hawk. Y.T., in Stephenson's Snow Crash, dresses for survival: Her RadiKS Knight Vision goggles adjust brightness and clarity on the fly, her coverall has countless ID cards attached to it to allow her convenient access pretty much anywhere, and a dentata (an automatic self defense system that injects a strong sedative into an attacker's bloodstream) has been embedded in her genitals. Her sense of fashion, as well as her use of slang, clearly define her as a Kourier, an identity she is proud to assume no matter how ridiculous she may seem to us. Rucker's fiction contains yet more fascinating outfits that help one assert one's individuality, my favorite being the Happy Cloak which interfaces with, and enhances, one's personality with its own. The same conception of fashion reigns in California - anything and everything can be justified in the name of style and individuality. People have been known to wear platform shoes to the gym; leather pants and knee-high boots under a formal-looking dinner jacket and bow tie; or even brightly colored plastic/imitation leather/polyurethane bodysuits that would not look at all inappropriate on one of Rucker's boppers. (This last outfit characterizes zippies, who identify themselves as spiritually-oriented ravers or techno-savvy cyberhippies.) In the land of the hyperreal, one has to try hard to stake out one's territory in aesthetic space - and try people do, both in cyberpunk literature and in California.
Religious themes, though seldom mentioned during class discussions, constitute an extremely significant portion of much of the cyberpunk fiction we have read. The voice of religion and cult psychology speaks through cyberpunk literature, in the form of the Rastafarians in Gibson's Neuromancer, the voodoo deities (loas) lurking in cyberspace and voicing themselves through Angie's body in Count Zero, the Biblical references and Reverend L. Bob Rife's cult which basically propel the whole plot in Stephenson's Snow Crash, Cobb's cult of Personetics in Rucker's Software, the Heritagists who end up changing Honey's and Randy's lifestyles beyond recognition in Rucker's Freeware, and even the moldie Andrea who transmogrifies into a Bible in order to pick up God-fearing Christian men and brutally kill them (all in good humor) in the same book. Cyberpunk environments represent flux, unpredictability, risk and a lack of societal memory; religions or cults therefore remain perhaps the only refuge of invariance, a haven where people can count on familiar and predictable patterns. Such emotional security may mean a lot to individuals who feel unable to cope with a life of constant change in a cyberpunk universe, thus the widespread existence of cults in much of (psychologically conscientious) cyberpunk literature. The same tendencies unfortunately exist in California as well. The Heaven's Gate cult mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, which made international headlines in 1997, goes to show just how much influence cults can have in people's lives, or lack thereof. Other contemporary examples include the Church of Scientology's specially funded Hollywood recruiting branch, which has added Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Mimi Rogers, Anne Archer, Sonny Bono, Chick Corea and even Nancy Cartwright, the voice of cartoon star Bart Simpson, to its ranks over the years; the Los Angeles Church of Christ, which specifically aims to recruit students on college campuses across California; and the Raelians who maintain a very active chapter in Los Angeles and believe that extraterrestrials will land on Earth if humans build a special embassy for them in Jerusalem. California has set the stage for such cults in the past as well, the most memorable instance from recent memory being Charles Manson's doomsday cult of the sixties called the Family. California may well be the only place in the known universe where a cult leader can blend into the general population rather comfortably. Nothing is considered weird or unusual on the west coast, it comes with the territory.
Let us not forget the incessant attempts of numerous civil groups in California to legalize marijuana. The widespread use of chemical stimulants and sedatives in much of Gibson's and Rucker's fiction seems rather appropriate within this context. This ties in well with the theme of altered consciousnesses; using simstim, taking amphetamines, decking, consuming alcohol, putting on philtres, or even visiting Disneyland (with a tip of the hat to Monsieur Baudrillard) means experiencing the universe from an alternate point of view. Even Cobb's personality being relocated from his organic body to a synthetic one and finally to the Mr. Frostee truck basically constitutes a form of tripping, receiving input through previously unavailable sensory channels. Drug-induced tripping represents one form of achieving an altered consciousness (albeit one which Sta-Hi strongly prefers), much of the literature we have read implies many other possible avenues towards this goal. Timothy Leary, the guru of altered consciousnesses, the inventor of the infamous Leary biscuit and the quintessential Californian of the eighties and early nineties, would certainly have been proud of Cobb and his out-of body experiences, pun strongly intended.
Last, but not least, we cannot help but mention prostheses as an essential part of life on the west coast. Donna Haraway defines the cyborg as the fusion of woman and machine, forming an entity which attempts to better survive the particular conditions of global, late consumer-capitalism societies. Although Haraway probably did not consider the female stars of the popular TV show Baywatch in finalizing her definition, her description seems particularly appropriate within this context. Human fuses with silicon to get higher Nielsen ratings, to secure better roles in big-budget productions, or simply to keep up with the glamorous hyperreality of California. In conclusion, this example represents a perfect instantiation of Haraway's definition of the cyborg.
Our course has dealt with numerous concepts that are poised to change societal structures and the way we interact with one another. California remains the only place where these changes are continuously evaluated and occasionally adopted without reservations. After all, even if something is really weird, it will hardly seem out of place in the land of the hyperreal.