Book Review: “Rewired” edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

Rewired edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

This 2007 collection is subtitled “The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology”, and features many of our favorite “Cyberpunk” authors, plus some interspersed decades-old material about “the meaning of Cyberpunk”, including decades old correspondence between Kessel and Sterling.

The stories themselves are very good, and still very readable after all these years. I’d read some of these stories before, but they were worth reading again. These are excellent stories, and they have aged well, even as the specific technologies and cultural projects fall flat. It goes to show you that good writing matters more than anything, no?

But, as someone who never cared one whit about the “true meaning” of Cyberpunk or its critics—actually I never even read any of this stuff at the time—I really, really don’t care about it more than three decades on. That dreck was a waste of perfectly good pixels, as far as I’m concerned. Kind of like arguing about the true meaning of rock and roll—if you are arguing about it, you have missed the point entirely.

On the other hand, this collection was very interesting to read in 2016.

Of course, there are stark, glaring problems with some of these “future worlds”. Many of the stories date from the late twentieth, so, for instance, they don’t have smart phones or social media. They have equivalent technologies, of course, so their world can be seen from here, but is isn’t the way we really live.

But it isn’t the technological details that stand out, or even matter much. There are some very interesting cultural anachronisms, and these are at the core of “cyberpunk” itself.

For one thing, the Internet has penetrated everyday life now far, far more broadly than the CP dream imagined it. Cyberpunk is all about “the street” appropriating the technology of the elite. But today, that technology is everywhere, including the street. There is nothing especially “punk” about online networks, flash crowds, or posting viral videos. Everyone can and is doing it, including, quite possibly your grandma. This is not the stuff of teen age rebels anymore.

Similarly, hacking is not exactly heroic these days. The technology of hacking is a business, and a pretty nasty one. Mafias, contrabandists, extortionists, and cyber terrorists are “punk”, but not in an attractive sense. Online trolls and bullies are scarcely brave freedom fighters. Spam is a plague, and identity theft a horror.

In short, narratives about “the kids” versus “the man” bear no resemblance to contemporary cyber life. Tyrants and bullies abound on the net, the little guy faces not just “the government” and “big corporations”, but many governments fighting each other and many companies fighting each other. And the net abounds with hackers little and big, offshore mafias, trolls, as well as a variety of monopolistic “platforms” that are increasingly wired in to everyday life.

For that matter, the great plague of our age is “distraction”, as digital screens have shredded ordinary conversation and with them family, love, and civil society. What most of us need, more than anything, to turn off the damn phone, and just be here, now.

These days, the notion that one smart punk can out smart “the man” seems like romantic twaddle—there are millions of smart punks out there, and “the man” has plenty of hacker power. In any case, we are all cybercitizens now, so “punking” the network is, well, mostly punking the little guy.

Clearly, we are in a “post cyberpunk” age—assuming cyberpunk ever was a thing—but this anthology isn’t much of a guide.

Still…

Those of us of a certain age still remember the thrill of the first time we encountered CP, and with its spirit of fearless personal commitment, and personal ownership. “Lean in”, hell. CP taught us to wade right in and make the technology ours. That spirit must never die.


  1. Kelly, James Patrick and John Kessel, eds. Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology. Tachyon: San Francisco, 2007.

 

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