Zero History, Counter(cyber)culture, Atemporality, Network Realism…

Paul Raven @ 26-10-2010

Way to make me feel out of the loop, folks! Seems like everyone‘s talking about Gibson’s Zero History right now*, and yours truly still hasn’t even gotten around to reading Spook Country. *sigh*

Still, the vicarious thrill of other people’s intellectual appreciation will do for now – here’s Alex Vagenas responding to ZH, and to Adam Greenfield’s own response to such (which we mentioned here a while back):

Leaving all the references and knowingness aside, it can be read, like the rest of Gibson’s work and certainly much of the rest of the cyberpunks, as a lament for a certain counter-cultural ethos. It evinces a nostalgia for something that existed or might still exist in potentia perhaps, not fully achieved, but definitely a romantic idea of some sort of subcultural autonomy. It is a theme that can be traced from Burroughs straight down to Gibson, Sterling, Shirley and Stephenson, via Pynchon of course, and more famously theorised by Hakim Bey. In the past, subcultures were visible and exposed. They became monolithic. The web has provided ways in which subcultures can circumscribe “temporary autonomous zones” for themselves and become more diffuse on certain levels, but they still remain searchable and cannot avoid the inevitability of commodification and co-optation. Zero History describes an even more cryptic form of that, however. Gabriel Hounds is a truly secret brand. It has withdrawn into actual off-the-grid circulation. It looks like Gibson is alluding to an ideal that can be tentatively realised on those terms only.

As much as everyone seems a bit sniffy (in one way or another) about Bruce Sterling’s atemporality riff (including Vagenas, earlier in the piece linked to above), there’s a vindication of sorts in the observable phenomenon that even its detractors end up having to talk about it on its own terms. Vagenas simplifies it down to “old post-modernism in new bottles” (my paraphrase), but po-mo (to me at least) has always implied a knowing and conscious bridging of cultural time; by comparison, atemporality (altermodernism?) is instinctive, unavoidable, something we do almost in spite of ourselves.

And what better way to pretend to ourselves that we’re not doing a particular thing than giving that thing a more palatable name? “Network realism”, maybe [via TechnOcculT]?

Network Realism is writing that is of and about the network. It’s realism because it’s so close to our present reality. A realism that posits an increasingly 1:1 relationship between Fiction and the World. A realtime link. And it’s networked because it lives in a place that’s that’s enabled by, and only recently made possible by, our technological connectedness.

Zero History is Network Realism because of the way that it talks about the world, and the way its knowledge of the world is gathered and disseminated. Gibson seems to be navigating the spider graph of current reality as wikiracing does human knowledge.

What many people—including me—have been bothered about with Zero History is it’s lack of futureness. Matt took Gibson’s comment that “We have too many cards in play to casually erect believable futures” to mean that “Science Fiction is losing the timeline”. Russell is depressed by the lack of future in SciFi and much else. And I wrote, reading the book, “The problem is not that we don’t have jetpacks, but that no one is writing about jetpacks.”

I think these are misreadings of Network Realism. This writing exists on a timeline, but it’s not a simple line back-to-the-past and forward-to-the-future. It’s a gathering-together of many currently possible worldlines, seen from the near-omniscient superposition of the network. The Order Flow of the Universe. Speculative Realism, Networked Fiction: Network Realism.

Even when we quite deliberately stop calling science fiction by its original association-tainted name, even when we slice it up into stylistically and/or thematically disparate (or interrelated) subsubgenres, even when its authors are interviewed in serious newspapers and never once asked about their favourite rocket ships or whether they’ve met an alien… we still can’t agree on what it actually is, or how and why it works, or indeed whether it actually works at all.

And that, I’m increasingly convinced, is the true source of science fiction’s uniqueness and longevity. If we ever manage to define sf in a way that everyone can agree on, it’ll probably ossify and die within months. And you might even argue that it follows logically (in a way that Darwin might recognise) that sf has become interested in atemporality because atemporality is the best survival strategy available to it.

Just don’t ask me which came first, all right? 😉

[ * Yes, including this very blog. Honestly, I don’t plan these things; the Zeitgeist gods of RSS and email and Twitter just dump stuff in my lap every day, and sometimes it just so happens that the batch will contain two or three shiny little nuggets that happen to be the same colour or shape or texture. When it happens, I can’t help but pluck them out, make a set from them. Guess you might call it some sort of… pattern recognition?** ]

[ ** OK, I’ll get my coat. ]

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