Friday, September 23, 2005

Beyond Cyberpunk! A decade and a half beyond...

From a vantage point here in the third-quarter of 2005, halfway through the first decade of the 21st Century, it's almost unimaginable to me that we all once lived without the Internet - without websites, online order fulfilment, blogs and podcasts and the ability to know absolutely anything, no matter how trivial or superficial, in a matter of moments. I can't begin to think how I'm going to make my son understand what life was like in the days before Google. What it meant to have a word or a song lyric on the tip of your tongue and not know what it was, and worse, to have to endure this state of not knowing for minutes, hours, even days on end. To ransack your own memory for hours to try and pull some needle out of your neural haystack. To have to ask other people, who themselves might not know. To have to get in a car, and finally, in frustration, drive to a library - a specific place, a physical location! - where knowledge was kept, and then have to hunt it up, a process that could take hours. The fact that you couldn't simply type in a string of nouns to a search engine and within seconds, if not minutes, be given any sought after fact you might desire will seem incomprehensible to my child. Even if he grasps the concept intellectually, he'll never understand, on a fundamental level, what a paradigm shift his old man's life spanned. Though, of course, in this age of information exponential explosion, he and I both should live across many more such singularities. But until we step out of our bodies or shake hands with E.T., this one will be the biggie for me.

Still, almost as intriguing to me as the Days Before Internet are it's early days - not of its conception and birth, but its emergence into popular culture. I had one of the first Apple Powerbooks, and steered by the very hip magazine Mondo 2000, I was downloading My Own Personal Jesus from the BBS, Private Idaho. Around that time, Apple came out with a hypermedia program called HyperCard, sort of a digital version of interlinked index cards. (Case in earlier point: for a moment, I couldn't remember the word "index card". I was thinking "post cards, note cards..." etc... I logged onto Office Depot, typed in "card" and...) Anyhow, Hypercard allowed you to publish a manuscript with hypertext, images, and sounds. I read William Gibson's Count Zero that way, in a program that could instantly call up the first, previous, or all appearances of any character. And I was hooked.

But my most cherished hypercard stack was Beyond Cyberpunk! A huge, sprawling, encyclopedia-cum-manifesto that sought to gather cyberculture, cutting edge tech, and science fiction under one cool interface. It was practically my bible for a few years running. This virtual tome was a major, major influence. My first screenplay, in fact, The Life and Times of Mondo Zark, was a directly derivative piece of drivel about a young hacker, whose murdered mentor survived as a distributed mind across a laboratory of various inventions, out to stop a madman from subsuming the world with nanotechnology, and aided by a tribe of technonomads who lived off the grid and traveled on computerized bicycles. Fortunately, I don't think there's a copy (soft or hard) existing anywhere of this mondo-monstrosity. But even more fortunate, the creators of Beyond Cyberpunk!, Gareth Branwyn and Peter Sugarman, have made the whole incredible thing, wonders, warts and all, available online! It's amazing to see how much of it holds up, and to discover how many people I know and work with today who were involved with it then (as if the future was all around me and I was unawares). Beyond Cyberpunk! is an invaluable piece of pop cultural history and an amazing resource, and now it gets to live again, in the very future it engendered so much enthusiasm for in me and so many others back in 1990. In many respects, we've moved quite a bit beyond it now, but it's vision stretches further.


Jon Hansen said...

To have to get in a car, and finally, in frustration, drive to a library - a specific place, a physical location! - where knowledge was kept, and then have to hunt it up, a process that could take hours.

Unless you asked a reference librarian, which could cut down considerable on time spent.

Lou Anders said...

Actually, when my writing partner and I wrote our first screenplay, about NASA astronauts blown back to the Jurassic Age, we went to the downtown Los Angeles public library, and did ask a reference librarian, and still spent 6 hours to come up with one book that described the flora and flauna of the era to our satisfaction. When we began our second screenplay, about a murder in the Vatican, we just logged onto the Vatican's website and downloaded pages of maps and descriptions in a matter of minutes. It was then that I first realized I'd crossed between paradigms.

A.R.Yngve said...

To me, the eye-opening moment was watching the movie DOUBLE JEOPARDY - not a particularly good film, but there's this paradigm-crossing scene:

Ashley Judd borrows a PC and Web-searches the location of her missing husband in a matter of seconds. I realized that a staple ingredient of detective fiction - the arduous search for the Missing Person - was now dead and buried.

Chris said...

I actually still have my set of Beyond Cyberpunk disks in the little plastic case it came in.

I still keep it loaded on an old PowerBook 145B to fire it up to check it out. It's one of the best pieces of nostalgia I have when the web was still mostly command-line.

I can't find the promotional comic book with Kata Sutra that Mark Fraunfelder and Peter Sugarman developed. If anybody has an extra they want to get rid of, contact me at my web site.

doggo said...

My introduction to Cyberpunk was entirely dead tree. A Whole Earth Catalog, Signal: Communication Tools for the Information Age Edited by Kevin Kelly. Page 181, Applied Science Fiction, Cyberpunk 101. This was 1987. How many times did I pass Neuromancer in the bookstore thinking "Neuromancer? What's that, some kind of sword and sorcery crap?" Man, I was so wrong.

And yes, I had to drive all the way to the other side of the city (Chicago's a big place) to the CPL branch library on 63rd Street. Which had the distinction at the time, at least to me, of having the best science fiction selection in the city. I always wondered about the librarian there that ordered their books.

Lou Anders said...

It was the techno-nomads in Beyond that really made me grok the relationship between science fiction and the emerging present. That's when I thought, "the world is really, actually, truly changing."