The Second Wave of Cyberpunk Almost Isn’t Sci-Fi

Cyberpunk was a huge thing in sci-fi in the 1980s. It kind of took that style that was so purely 1980s and added a healthy dose of  noir, and threw it in a blender with extremely advanced technology involving a world wide computer network that connected everyone and everything. Of course, William Gibson’s Neuromancer started it all, but in recent years it has become clear that Gibson is some sort of other-worldly prophet, as his vision of the internet is essentially true.

That puts today’s cyberpunk (which we are calling second wave cyberpunk as opposed to postcyberpunk which unfortunately implies that the movement is over) in a weird place,  because what would have obviously been part of the genre in the 80s now just seems like real life. In novels like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, the setting is a near-future dystopia where climate change and economic collapse have left poor people with only the internet and an MMORPG called the Oasis as a way of getting away from the harsh realities of existance. In the real world, when you drive down the car, you are bound to see a poorly dressed teenager with a stupid haircut driving a 1992 Ford Tempo with his $600 iPad in his lap. High tech and low life is right. Cyberpunk isn’t really science fiction anymore—it’s just the real world.

That said, fiction writers are still dabbling in it. Aside from Ready Player One, there was also Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW series (the first installment of which was reviewed here last week), which heavily involves the internet in the story of a blind girl gaining sight through an ocular implant that ends up allowing her to actually see the internet. Sure, there are aspects in that story that are slightly beyond our own real technology, but it is not nearly as much of a gap as what was present at the time of Gibson’s original masterpiece.

So what is second wave cyberpunk? It no longer really has the implication of lowlifes whose only assets are their tech—it’s more about the general emphasis of technology with the typical science fiction veneer. If the internet is either the primary setting or actually a character in the story, that’s really what cyberpunk is now. Although all science fiction written in modern times dabbles in the internet, it isn’t always the primary setting (as in Ready Player One), or basically a living thing (as in the WWW series). Purists may criticize the explanation but it is what it is. Kids in mirrorshades and green mohawks was fun for a while, but every genre eventually transitions to a different phase. This is it.

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Review: WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer (2009)

WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer
Viking, 2009

Rating: B

Caitlin Decter is a pretty, young, highly inteligent high schooler who recently moved with her family from Austin, Texas to Toronto. It is the first time she has been at a regular public high school, as up until this point, she had been attending a school for the blind in Austin. Her father, a theoretical physicist, was offered a lucrative job in Canada, and Caitlin wanted so badly to go to a regular high school with regular kids, so the family went. Everything changes when a scientist named Dr. Kuroda from Tokyo contacts Caitlin via email about an experimental procedure that would use computer technology to give her sight. After the experiment, Caitlin begins to realize that she is starting to see is not actually the real world, but the World Wide Web, all around her in colors and light.

The thing about Robert J. Sawyer that perhaps makes him most endearing and yet probably will damn him to a lack of longevity of influence is that all of his novels feel definitively “of their era.” When cracking open a novel by Sawyer, who has won so many major science fiction awards that it is useless to try to list them all, it is always clear that what you are reading was written in the late 20th or early 21st century. WWW: Wake features heavy reference to current day artists, and more importantly to technology that even now in 2012 seems a bit outdated. Caitlin, the wonderfully spunky (though perhaps exaggeratedly teenage) protagonist writes a blog on LiveJournal, a website that wasn’t even hip anymore at the time the novel is set but now even moreso seems to be a fossil of a bygone era of the internet. Because of these aspects, it is hard to foresee novels like this aging well. Sawyer is a capable but not amazing writer, whose strength lies in his ideas and the quality and depth of his characters. Caitlin Decter is an immediately likable and memorable main character, and as in all of Sawyer’s work, his characters feel like real people.

WWW: Wake is sort of a modernist cyberpunk. There are definitely liberties taken, but it reads like the natural manifestation of what happens when you take the slightly optimistic technological prophecy of William Gibson’s classic Neuromancer, but set it in the now current era with technology that is closer to what actually exists in present day. The aesethetic isn’t the pure noir feel of the 1980s and early 90s cyberpunk; it feels more like young adult fiction by the basis of the fact that the primary character is a teenager and it sort of borrows what would be her natural narrative voice despite being third-person omniscient in terms of perspective.

Being that the novel is the first book in a trilogy, it has a lot of setup to do for what will come in the other two books in the series. Taken on its own merits, it is still a deeply enjoyable read, despite borrowing so heavily from its inspirations. WWW: Wake is basically a love letter to cyberpunk of old that reinvigorates the genre and makes it a bit more accessible for today’s science fiction reader. Although it is not indispensible reading, it is certainly an enjoyable look at the nature of the World Wide Web and today’s technology as a whole. It bodes well for the rest of the series.