Sean McMullen's
with Terry Dowling

A Lateral Leading Edge: Australian SF and Cyberpunk

Tomorrow has arrived, and it is not a pretty sight.
David Manasian, The Economist, 27/2/93

Cyberpunk by itself is difficult enough to write about. Not only is it ill-defined, but often it means contradictory things to different people. Writing about cyberpunk in Australia is harder still, because there has been so little of it. Thus we are going to have to define the term itself, both inside and outside science fiction, as well as explain just why it had such a poor following among Australian SF authors. Let us start with the technical side.

Sean - Cyber:
We will start with . . . not so much a definition as an exploration of cyberpunk culture. Cyberpunk is not just a literary movement; it covers a much larger phenomenon and it did not arise overnight. Early in this century amateur radio enthusiasts pioneered the practice of exploring the world without leaving the comfort of one's home. The most primitive form of computer hacking began in the '60s, when students began experimenting with ways to crack security on early multi-user operating systems. Then, in the early '70s, the phone phreaks appeared, dedicated to the practice of cracking telephone network security for fun and adventure.

Science fiction took its time adjusting to computers. For a time they were room-sized electronic brains that would suddenly become super-intelligent and try to take over the world until some square-jawed hero got to the Central Processing Unit with an axe. In the early '70s the stories began to reflect more subtle aspects of computer design. After hearing a scientist describe a self-replicating program as behaving like a virus, David Gerrold wrote When Harlie Was One (1972), featuring that scourge of modern Information Technology, the computer virus. The computer worm slithered into being in John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975), nearly fifteen years before the night of the dreaded Internet Worm, when America's primary academic and military research network was brought to a standstill.

All through the '70s university students had been hacking out of their restricted mainframe accounts and into more exciting areas of academic computers, yet the really fundamental breakthrough was the advent of cheap telephone modems. A hacker could now sit at home with a telephone, modem and terminal, screen phone numbers for the tell-tale warble of a computer connection, then attempt to hack through the machine's security measures. Whether for fun or (illegal) profit, a hacker culture began to evolve. William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" (Omni, 1981) was published just when the hacking craze was gathering pace and a year before the notorious Inner Circle hacker group was formed. By the time Gibson's Neuromancer came out in 1984, the Inner Circle had reached the public eye as a result of FBI raids, and the movie War Games had popularised hacking amongst a large section of the adolescent population. Hacking was real, hacking was fun, hacking was in. Punk was also fashionable around then. Napoleon might not have caused the French Revolution, but he made good use of its circumstances. In the same way, Gibson hit the scene just as the frontier opened up.

Terry - Literary:
Just as Star Wars brought SF to a larger popular consciousness, and Jurassic Park gave us dinosaurs again, so cyberpunk shows us that sometimes the tail wags the dog so well it's taken for the whole animal. Dynamic but hardly original works like Star Wars and Star Trek have come to represent the sci-fi phenomenon for many, leaving a major imbalance in how science fiction is viewed in relation to mainstream literature and popular culture. Thus there is a reverse tendency: to identify trends, even movements, which don't amount to all that much when taken with larger literary standards. The contrast makes them seem self-important, even parochial and contrived.

The New Wave, for instance, was an appropriate and exciting watershed for the genre, reflecting the same questioning of forms that marked the '60s generally, yet it was hardly fresh when ranged against the explorations of form achieved by the likes of Woolf, Joyce and Beckett earlier in the century, or by Laurence Sterne as early as the Eighteenth Century. Contemporary social relevance rather than originality provided its dynamic, and the question remains: was it reflecting a consciousness that was new or did it merely represent catching up?

So too cyberpunk, as a subgenre and taken in the larger view, may be seen as little more than a carefully reified storm in a chipped and retro-fitted teacup, coming as it did on the heels of Blade Runner, film noir and Sam Spade - those things given a timely, high-tech spin, but self-caricaturing and limited, and difficult to regard as a movement. Neuromancer (increasingly anomalous with every novel that Gibson has published) has more affinities with Bester's The Demolished Man (1953) and Tiger, Tiger (1956) in form and flavour than any narrow definition of a cyberpunk 'movement'. The works which have come to characterise the sub-genre actually changed perceptions. Most cyberpunk tales don't. They simply imitate, and are actually quite limited, ordinary, jumped-on-the-bandwagon-but-missed-the-train stuff.

Sean - Cyber:
Cyberpunk and hacking are quite closely associated in the popular consciousness. One problem with SF and hacking is the mysterious, seemingly miraculous methods required to crack computer security. In practice most intrusions are the result of lateral thinking. Remember the 1983 film War Games? The schoolboy hacker hero got unauthorised access to the school computer by sneaking a look at the password, not by magic. Back in the real world a hacker was driven into such a vindictive frenzy by a Cray supercomputer's tight security that he hacked the Unix workstation controlling the Cray's cooling system - causing it to crash and bringing the supercomputer down as well. Once again, lateral thinking, not magic. Greg Egan describes a quite plausible hacking job in his story "Blood Sisters" (Interzone, Feb 1991), and it gives the story considerable strength. Note however that neither War Games nor "Blood Sisters" could be described as cyberpunk.

So much for hacking, but what about the hackers themselves? They are about as diverse a group as one could imagine, except that they tend to be male. Real-world hackers have a class structure and pecking order, and this is reflected in SF. To use Gibsonian paradigms again, the character Case in Neuromancer was one of the elite, whereas Bobby Newmark in Count Zero (1986) was a mere wannabee. Most hackers are in Bobby's category, and by their very incompetence they amount to little more than nuisance value. Some specialise in writing virus programs, and some prefer worms, but most seem to go in for the traditional intrusion method. Many are company insiders with a position of trust, some do it for money, and some just want the adventure.

What do I personally think of hacking? It doesn't appeal, I have to confess. If I'm working on a system and I see a hole in the security my inclination is to leave a README file for the administrator along the lines of "I managed this unauthorised intrusion by doing such-and-such. I would strongly advise you to plug this hole in the system."

So that is the cyber part of it. Punk probably needs no explanation, so what happens when we put the terms together? As far as the public is concerned, the result looks horrible. Punk conjures up the image of a large, malevolent psychopath with weirdly cut and coloured hair, dressed in clothes that look and smell like they have been dredged out of a sewer - and is liable to beat the daylights out of you if you stare at him for too long, and who is likely to give you AIDS if you hit back and cut your fist on his teeth. Cyber tends to be associated with some nondescript, daggy kid who bats away at his PC for 72 hours at a stretch, eating cold turkey stuffing out of a packet and relieving himself in a coke bottle while he mysteriously charges a telephone call to Los Angeles to your account so he can do unauthorised things to nuclear missile launch computers - and who is liable to trash your PC with the latest computer virus and transfer the contents of your bank account to the Roger Rabbit Appreciation Society if you dare complain.

Terry - Punk:
Analyse what is behind the popular misconceptions and we find that we are dealing with nothing more than convenient icons. To use an analogy, there was only one mass bra-burning incident in the early Women's Movement, yet that image became an icon in popular consciousness. Most punks are making more of a cultural, artistic or fashion statement, and most cybernerds are more interested in games and mucking about with email than cybernetic mayhem. Put CYBER and PUNK together, however . . .

Sean - Cyber:
. . . and a slavering, unstoppable, computer-raping offspring is taken for granted by the general population.

Real-world cyberpunk covers a large and ill-defined area - an area so large that it is actually meaningless. There is the Sydney cyberpunk band, Bass Age, for example, which consists of three humans and several computer-based instruments. In full costume the sight of Bass Age's humans is enough to make respectable citizens cross to the other side of the street, yet they are polite, friendly and well-spoken on a personal level: cyberpunk is only the image. The science magazine Helix has run two articles on hackers, "Attack Of The Cyberpunks" (Aug/Sept) and "Hacking The Cyberpunks" (Oct/Nov), yet the only suggestion of "punk" in the articles is the suggestion of anti-authoritarianism as a motive. In SF cyberpunk becomes even more of a problem. It often means speaking a convincing street-language of high tech while telling stories that are apolitical yet anti-authoritarian.

Real-world hackers do seem to read SF cyberpunk, and often they even try to write it. Judge any SF short story competition, which I do from time to time, and you are sure to encounter several examples where the theme revolves around some cocky young kid who hacks about on "the Network" until he (remember, they're nearly always male) comes to the attention of some secret organisation that either recruits him or has his head blown off. In the USA in the mid-'80s it got so bad that some editors introduced the ABC (Anything But Cyberpunk) policy. Cyberpunk in SF is probably so popular with real-world "cyberpunks" because it is the stuff of their dreams. The real-world hacker, like the real-world scientist, spends a huge amount of time on boring legwork, with only an occasional exciting breakthrough. The SF story puts all the excitement into one package, and a totally safe one at that.

Terry - Literary:
If we are going to discuss cyberpunk fiction by Australians, we need to identify it. Like good art, people tend not to be able to define it particularly well, but they think they know it when they see it. Nonetheless, even this intuitive approach has its problems. How is it that people can consider Bruce Sterling's Islands In The Net (1988) to be cyberpunk, but not Greg Bear's Queen Of Angels (1990)? Gibson's Neuromancer is generally taken to be the archetype, featuring a fast moving, language driven, technically orientated tale from the future underculture, so it will have to do as our yardstick.

Although Neuromancer won the Hugo at the World SF Convention in Melbourne in 1985, Australians were slow to follow in its wake and cyberpunk took its time getting established with Australian authors. Interestingly, Melbourne was also the city of origin of the Tessier side of the Tessier-Ashpool family in William Gibson's first three novels, and in general Australia and Australians often feature in cyberpunk works from overseas.

Sean - Cyber:
Australia's publishing industry of the 1980s was partly to blame. There was a large market for short fiction, yet it had to be short fiction with a strong academic/literary orientation. The market favoured stories of around 3000 words with a leaning towards themes and issues that would be considered 'significant' or at least 'worthy'. Clearly SF in general, and cyberpunk in particular, had a hard time in such an environment. In spite of all the difficulties, however, opportunities did arise which seemed to favour cyberpunk being published locally. Between November 1987 and November 1988 eighteen stories were published in the local computer press - namely The Australian newspaper's weekly computer supplement and the weekly magazine Computing Australia.

Terry - Literary:
Of all places to find cyberpunk, one might have expected that it would be most likely to surface in fiction appearing in computing magazines, but only one story even came close to resembling cyberpunk. The twelve Computing Australia stories were finalists in a $5,000 short story competition, and the author of the winning story was serving a sentence in a Victorian jail for theft. Surely one could not hope for more conducive conditions for cyberpunk to appear, yet the themes and styles that he used were very conventional. The single story that might be identified as cyberpunk was a finalist in the competition, but not the winner - and the author has definitely not been in jail. Comparing "Just A Company Man" (7/12/87), by Perry Morrison with, say, William Gibson's early short works, is rather like comparing the Wright Brothers' Flyer with the Concorde: they both fly, but the latter does it a lot better. Morrison attempts to make use of pace, language and technology to get the reader involved, but basically he has written a pacy, simple crime story. Some fairly archaic forms are employed in order to construct streetwise language: "Sorry mister, he said, but ain't nobody allowed ta have blasters in the Lizard. So gimmie it or else I gotta bust ya." Not quite Ratz in the Chatsubo. Morrison, a computer professional, tries hard to evoke real life, futuristic high-technology by the use of slang yet the result comes out either too stilted or too polite to be convincing.

Of the six stories in The Australian, five were comic pieces, and were very conventional in style, structure and language. The last was Fredlein's "A Biassed Symbiosis" (21/6/93), in which a covertly totalitarian government recruits a young hacker to help rig elections. As a story it seems to borrow more from Orwell than cyberpunk, and is basically a conventional work of SF.

Many of the eighteen stories were well written, many were good SF, and a few even managed to be both, but stylistically they could have been written in the 1950s. Gibson's concept of a futuristic skid row is beyond the interest of these authors, whose characters are, without exception, middle class and bland.

Sean - Literary (. . . just to prove that there's more to me than a fast CPU and a couple of hundred Gig. of storage):
At this point it is necessary to say a few words on language. Its role in cyberpunk is crucial, yet it is an aspect of creating futuristic ambience that is most often neglected or misinterpreted in Australia. Within years, sometimes months, most new and trendy terms will have become "establishment", if not actually obsolete. Remember that it takes around fourteen months for a story to reach the newsstands from the actual date of submission. Clearly then, one needs the freshness and excitement of a new term without being dependant on a real-world vocabulary that can become obsolete while the story is still at the printers. Authority can compensate for this unstable foundation, and an examination of the better overseas cyberpunk supports this.

Gibson's use of a type of latter-day Japanesquery is one example of terminological authority. Japan's current domination of a large section of the world's economy and overall technological excellence are long term, so that companies, brands and products whose names are structured to produce associations with contemporary names are able to carry the illusion of being state-of-the-art. The Ono-Sendai decks in Gibson's novels are sufficiently attuned to the contemporary computer industry language to sound 'real', yet the name is sufficiently removed not to be affected by the speed at which the industry is evolving. It is much the same with the pop component of cyberpunk language, in that one must convey a sense of the latest fashions in terms that do not age.

Going back to the early 1980s, there are a few examples of Australian SF with more strongly defined cyberpunk characteristics. In May 1982 Terry Dowling had "The Man Who Walks Away Behind The Eyes" published in Omega Science Digest. The story is surrealist in structure and content: a man is to be executed within his own mind, but when his executioner comes stalking him he flees, hides and fights back within himself. While the story incorporates most of the stylistic features that one would expect to find in cyberpunk (including virtual reality), the style is cerebral rather than streetwise. The story was Dowling's first, and it won the Ditmar Award the following year.

In mid-1985 Russell Blackford's "Glass Reptile Breakout" was published in the anthology Strange Attractors. Blackford's setting is much closer to cyberpunk than in any of the other stories. Blackford is an admirer of overseas cyberpunk authors, and both the language and setting of the story are identifiably cyberpunk. Set some decades into the future, the story features fashions in punk body modifications, and discos that have such entertainment features as self-mutilators. Well, some contemporary Tokyo clubs feature live enema shows, so why not? The language, setting, and technology are all convincing, and it is definitely cyberpunk. It is interesting to note that Blackford has a Doctorate in English.

Thus two authors well grounded in the study of language, but without strong backgrounds in computing, were closer to getting cyberpunk's language right than those writing for the computer press - as one might expect. Cyberpunk's most important characteristic is its language, and while it is vital, even crucial, to get the technology right, without language there is no cyberpunk.

Other Australian authors have also made use of the computer culture in their SF writing. Gillian Rubenstein is one of Australia's best known children's authors. Two of her novels, Space Demons (1986) and Skymaze (1989) incorporate the familiar cyberpunk of computer games but the style and prose are quite conventional. Space Demons is a prototype computer game imported directly from Japan, and has the effect of forcing the players to confront the darker sides of their own natures. Hate initiates the game, quite literally, and the players participate by generating aggression. Unknown to the players, one wins by conquering hate, and putting one's gun down. Space Demons has had several print runs, and has won a number of awards - all of them non-genre. Note yet again that Rubenstein has an academic background in language, having studied Modern Languages at Oxford before coming to Australia. She is only one of several authors who have evoked the pace and excitement characteristic of cyberpunk without making a commitment to the style itself.

There is evidence that other Australian SF writers have been experimenting with the cyberpunk form, but have not been lucky enough to see their work reach print. In 1990 the local representative of the Writers of the Future competition estimated that one story in fifteen submitted in Australia was cyberpunk in both style and content. Remember that one story in eighteen amongst the computer press SF was cyberpunk, and we can conclude that there was a small groundswell of cyberpunk writing in Australia by 1989. Where did it go from there? I was recently a judge for a short story competition where one entry in six was cyberpunk, and other works have made it into print. Some authors certainly have embraced cyberpunk as it is generally understood. For example Paul Collins, a prolific and stylish Australian author, has made use of the form consistently in his short stories, particularly the Calloway series. Damien Broderick is another fine Australian SF author, some of whose works seem to come close to the sub-genre: "Coming Back" (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Dec 1982) and The Judas Mandala (1982), for example. In cases like these, one has to apply the "I'll know it when I see it" principle. Broderick writes SF, and - unlike many authors - he very sensibly keeps up with current trends. This might give his works a particular flavour from time to time, but it does not force them into any specific basket.

Terry - Literary:
Remember that the best cyberpunk work (like the best surrealist work, for example) has probably been produced independently of any movement, often produced obliquely to it and in spite of it. In other words, original, synthesising, ground-breaking work often proceeds tangentially and is at odds with the followers, imitators, joiners and marketeers who seek to honour, emulate and enshrine it as a real social force. Gibson himself was pre-cyberpunk! His own original lack of computer literacy is the ultimate irony in this regard -showing that it is a perceptual shift, a streetwise hipness of viewing trends to which computer knowledge is incidental, merely part of the enabling decor. Like most movements, cyberpunk is a reactive thing - a social perception, a different way of seeing and ordering reality. Computer knowledge and language are its hallmarks, not its driving force: that is why being a computer wizard or hacker, or even a gifted linguist are not enough. You have to have the intuitive consciousness, the correct second-nature intention, something quite hard to identify among all the imitators.

So what is going on in Australia today? Is Australian cyberpunk booming and winning awards, or is it just a minor style that never really took off? Let's check overseas for a benchmark. Bruce Sterling is widely known as a Mister Cyberpunk by reputation, so how does his current work look? Islands In The Net is said to be cyberpunk because of the author's reputation, but it is really something more than that. Some dinosaurs might have evolved into birds, but it is stretching the point a bit to refer to birds as dinosaurs. They have built on some characteristics of their ancestors, but they have become something different. The same applies to such problematic works as Queen Of Angels and Islands In The Net in their relation to cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk has given way to . . . let's call it realtech, a type of rigorous, hard SF. Realtech is not dehumanised technophilia, it is the provision of the firmest possible technical basis for the characters to play their roles upon. Statements on the human condition require an accurate depiction of the human environment, and there are plenty of mainstream literary works with little basis in fact. Make the environment fanciful and the statement is weakened as well.

In Australia Greg Egan and Sean McMullen are clearly two realtech naturals. While Egan's SF is about as high tech as one can get, it is marginal as cyberpunk. The story that many consider to be Egan's finest, "The Caress" (Asimov's SF Magazine, Jan 1990) featured bio-engineering, computer technology and high-tech criminals, and had it been published in the mid-'80s it might have been called cyberpunk. In the 1990s it is something else. His Ditmar Award winning novel Quarantine (1992) makes extensive use of cyberpunk backdrops and icons, but it reads as very sophisticated science fiction. Sean McMullen's near-future story "Alone In His Chariot" (Eidolon, Mar 1991) was another Ditmar Award winner, but while it dealt with the underground drug culture, high tech medical research and a type of virtual reality, the author admits to writing it without consciously thinking of cyberpunk. Its language is definitely not that of the sub-genre.

Sean & Terry - Cyberpunk In Australia:
When Cyberpunk in its 'classic' form arrived on the scene in the mid-'80s, it was a bad time to get established in Australia. Many local authors were still experimenting with New Wave styles better suited to the late '60s, those authors willing to try their hand at cyberpunk were often inexperienced newcomers who had a hard time selling their work at all, and the local SF publishing industry was about to go into a temporary decline. During Neuromancer's first decade of life, Australian authors did not manage to jack in to the overseas cyberpunk market before it waned, yet it was not for want of trying. Perhaps cyberpunk's legacy in Australia is that by the early '90s some Australian SF authors had noted its strengths and built on them very successfully to create a different type of leading edge.

Originally appeared pp. 14-21, Eidolon 14, April 1994.
Copyright © 1994 Sean McMullen and Terry Dowling.
Reprinted by kind permission of the authors.