By M. Stephanie Murray
Bethke crashes the cyberpunk system
Once, when the world was young, a bunch of young turks decided that the science fiction world of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein was old, boring and no fun at all. They began writing apocalyptic, computer-centered fiction which took place not too far in the future. There were no robots, no spaceships, no starship troopers. Just a really depressing vision of the near-future of humanity and an expanded version of what, at the time, was a geeky academic computer network - the Internet.
William Gibson unleashed Neuromancer, which introduced the world to the virtual reality version of the Net. Others followed, including Bruce Sterling and Walter Jon Williams, but Gibson was the king of this new genre.
And that genre was named "cyberpunk."
Bruce Bethke coined that phrase and lived to regret it. Now he's released the final nail in the coffin of cyberpunk: a snotty satire of the genre, Headcrash (Warner Books, $10.99).
One of the great inside jokes of cyberpunk was that the console cowboys (and there were a lot of characters named Cowboy) depicted in the fiction were, in real life, the original computer geeks.
Bethke exploits this joke and many other cyberpunk conceits in this story of the young and deeply geeky Jack Burroughs. Fired from his job as an MIS consultant for playing a "Doom"-style game featuring his boss as the main monster, Jack soon finds himself in a web of online deceit. Only online, Jack is a black-leather-clad hipster named MAX_KOOL who hangs out at a virtual-reality club called Heaven, while in real life, Jack lives with his alcoholic mother and the explicably named Psycho Kitty.
While the plot of Headcrash is engaging, the main joy is the digs that Bethke gets in at the now-tired cyberpunk genre. Perusing a hall of chat rooms dedicated to fans of liquid nitrogen (cryopunks), "wankers who are pathologically into code-breaking and math puzzles" (cipherpunks) and fruit-based-beverage brewers (ciderpunks), Jack comes upon a "place full of young guys with no social lives, no sex lives and no hope of ever moving out of their mothers' basements ... They're total wankers and losers who indulge in Messianic fantasies about someday getting even with the world through almost-magical computer skills, but whose actual use of the Net amounts to dialing up the scatophilia forum and downloading a few disgusting pictures. You know, cyberpunks."
A couple of years back, Neal Stephenson wrote Snow Crash, a novel which many critics and readers considered to be the closing bookend to this type of science fiction. (Gibson's last couple of books certainly haven't reached the level of his first three. Idoru? Please.) Headcrash owes a debt to Snow Crash, reading like a cross between Stephenson's book and the general silliness of the Hitchhiker's Guide series by Douglas Adams. For instance, there is an ongoing bit involving Jack's dilapidated car which, having been parked in a bad section of St. Paul, keeps getting improved by street thugs. At one point, the mismatched Montgomery Ward tires are replaced by matched mag wheels; later, the primer-gray quarterpanel is repainted a glossy blue.
In addition to his sarcastic treatment of the genre, Bethke experiments with narrative technique and format, providing hard-copy versions of what, in an online document, would be links. Calling them "infonuggets," these asides allow Bethke to insert exposition and explanation easily and unobtrusively, sidestepping the long paragraphs of technical explanation which plague most science fiction novels.
Originally published in 1995, Headcrash has been honored with the Philip K. Dick Award for the best novel published in original paperback format. Other awards and Headcrash news are on the Headcrash home page, www.spedro.com/headcrash/frame.html.