Feersum Endjinn: Iain Banks Dabbles in Cyberpunk (sort of)

Feersum Endjinn, by Iain BanksEven though his work was split about fifty-fifty between literary fiction and science fiction, Iain Banks considered himself first and foremost a science fiction writer. He cut his teeth on space opera, writing several novels in the seventies that went unpublished for decades. By 1984 he had shelved his earlier work and focused his attention on the world of literary fiction—what he referred to lovingly as “Hampstead” novels—hoping for better luck in the mainstream. The Wasp Factory, his first published novel, was a breakout hit that same year. He followed it with a string of successful mainstream novels in the mid-to-late eighties, publishing one nearly every year.

Iain BanksAt this point his publisher was hungry, Banks was hot and readers wanted more, so in the late eighties he began rewriting his earlier rejected science fiction work. These novels would become the first three novels set in the Culture (Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), and Use of Weapons (1990)) and a standalone space opera Against a Dark Background (1993). They were published pseudonymously as Iain M. Banks and timed for release between his mainstream novels.

In conversation with Andrew Wilson, with regards to Against a Dark Background, Banks noted: “Against a Dark Background was the last of the old books to get redone, so it seemed like the end of an era to me.”

It was the end of an era in more ways than one. In the years since Banks was first published, cyberpunk had taken the science fiction world by storm and eventually given way to post-cyberpunk with Snow Crash in 1992, Neal Stephenson’s deconstruction, reinvention, and nail in the coffin of the genre as it existed in the eighties. By 1994, the cyberpunk literature bubble had mostly burst and wouldn’t see a real resurgence for another twenty years. If I may speculate a bit, I think that Banks looked at cyberpunk—a genre he missed out on participating in while working in the mainstream and rewriting his earlier work—and thought, hmm… I wonder what I could do with that?

Speaking with Andrew Wilson about what he wrote to start this new post Against a Dark Background era, Banks spoke of his desire at the time to write something entirely different, something not related to the Culture or his earlier work:

“I had wanted to write something I could cut loose on, something that wasn’t the Culture…

…I [ ] had the idea that what virtual reality would become eventually would start to resemble myth and legend.”

Feersum Endjinn grew from this “myth and legend” angle, and what a departure it was from his earlier space operas. Computers, nanotechnology, virtual reality—all mostly absent from his first four science fiction novels—are woven into and through every aspect of the societies illustrated in Feersum Endjinn. Far from a space opera, the story is entirely grounded on Earth and addresses themes common to cyberpunk (identity, oppression, etc).

I think the most important aspect of Banks’ storytelling was his tight grip on the differences between theme and setting. Something that is not as common among science fiction writers as you might think. Cyberpunk stories are primarily known for two things: 1. Themes of isolation, paranoia, and self-identity in an oppressive world grown out of control. 2. A dirty, high-tech setting full of seedy characters. The themes of Feersum Endjinn are cyberpunk through and through, but the setting—even in the entirely virtual Crypt—is much closer to that of epic fantasy. After all, it wouldn’t be a Banks novel if genre tropes and conventions weren’t completely turned on their side. Splitting cyberpunk themes from their usual counterpart setting, shows a terrific understanding of the genre and the unique power of the different storytelling tools available to writers.

Instead of the usual cyberpunk mega-corporations and seedy streets filled with high-tech low-lifes, Banks set Feersum Endjinn sometime in the far future after most of humanity has abandoned Earth, their tech becoming a somewhat mythical element to our point of view characters, themselves descendants of those who chose an Earth bound existence. A somewhat modified Feudalistic society now exists in the ruinous mega structures built by their ancestors. Underlying all of this is the Crypt—a virtual reality maintaining a near one-to-one relationship with the real world. In the dark corners of the Crypt lurk strange digital societies: monstrous chimeric beings, artificial intelligences, and the digitally migrated dead of the corporeal world. Some privileged corporeal characters have the ability to access the Crypt at will, and some Crypt lifeforms are able to force themselves into physical reality, terrorizing humanity via what is perceived as apparition and animal possession.

Little is known about the ancient human society that built the Crypt inhabited by our POV characters—their history thoroughly corrupted by time into the realm of myth. We’re thrown right into the world to find our way as the characters find theirs. You can tell Banks is having a blast using the cyberpunk toolbox to tell the story he wants in the way he wants to.

There are four main POV characters in Feersum Endjinn, including one who never properly learned to write. Banks represents these first person chapters in a phonetic style. Initially they were difficult for me to read or comprehend. The somewhat fantastical terminology written in a phonetic Scots prose made for a difficult reading experience. I ended up listening to the audiobook while reading those chapters in order to get a better idea of how the words were supposed to be pronounced, and just what the hell was going on. A strategy I’ve used often for Irvine Welsh novels written in Scots. After a few chapters of simultaneous reading and listening I was right as rain and could continue forward with just the physical book.

My favorite moment in Feersum Endjinn is a beautifully written chapter in which a character is psychologically manipulated through a series of increasingly elaborate digital environments designed to make it easy and even preferable for her to divulge the information her interrogators are attempting to extract. The section takes place entirely inside the virtual construct of the Crypt, and on its own makes little sense without the context provided in previous chapters. The way in which these scenarios are presented to the reader is a thing to behold.

Each situation is introduced in turn, without resolution, then each resolution is presented one after another after another at which point the narrative curtain is lifted and the impact is demonstrated for us in the physical world. The combined effect, presented in series like this is breathtaking to read, and speaks to the courage and singular sense of purpose present in this character. It’s a fantastic moment.

“She was the only speaker in a tribe of the dumb, walking amongst them, tall and silent while they touched her and beseeched her with their sad eyes and their deferent, hesitant hands and their flowing, pleading signs to talk for them, sing for them, be their voice.”

Of course not all of the story works flawlessly; there are a handful of plot-lines brought up that never resolve, the story drags somewhat through the middle chapters, and the phonetic writing style is sometimes extremely difficult to read. I wouldn’t suggest going into this anticipating a Culture novel. This is Banks in full on experimentation mode, and in retrospect, the book is odd, maybe too odd. It isn’t my favorite SF/F, it isn’t my favorite cyberpunk novel—I’m sure that several would argue it isn’t cyberpunk at all (is post-post-cyberpunk a genre yet?)—and it definitely isn’t my favorite Iain Banks novel, however…

If you’re a Banks completist, or up for something wild, something different, something completely left field, something so out there I initially assumed it was written under the influence of some sort of psychotropic, I’d highly recommend checking out Feersum Endjinn.

Burning Chrome, by William Gibson: Cyberpunk as an Alternate Now

Burning Chrome, William GibsonWilliam Gibson blew the Science Fiction world wide open in the mid eighties with his cyberpunk novels, particularly the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick award winning Neuromancer. Ridley Scott gave us the visual aesthetic with Blade Runner, but Gibson firmly established Cyberpunk as a literary movement. As a genre it would go on to live a fairly short life, plateauing in the late eighties, followed by a handful of peak post-cyberpunk moments in the nineties (Snow Crash, Ghost in the Shell) culminating in The Matrix and then almost immediately fading into relative obscurity.

Burning Chrome collects Gibson’s short fiction, mostly published in OMNI magazine in the early eighties. Unlike a lot of short fiction collections, this one isn’t a totally mixed bag, most of the stories ranging from “good” to “great”. Three of them, (Johnny Mnemonic, New Rose Hotel, and Burning Chrome) are set in the same universe as Gibson’s Sprawl series (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive), with some of their characters and events mentioned or referenced in the main novels.

William GibsonAs a rambling aside, I was born in 1984, making me much too young to have experienced cyberpunk when it was new and revolutionary. When I read cyberpunk now, nearing the third decade of the twenty-first century, it’s hard to think of it as anything other than a form of retrofuturism. The technological tropes of the genre were one possible direction for things to head. In reality, they didn’t. Instead of the cumbersome and clunky virtual reality user interfaces, and “jacking in”, we went with the more boring, economical methods: a little white search box on a screen, and fingers on keys or key analogs. Just as space opera was written back before anybody knew the realities of space travel, cyberpunk was written before anyone knew the realities of the internet. All we knew was that it was going to change everything, no one knew how exactly.

There are of course still giant multinational evil corporations, another trope of the genre, but instead of inspiring monolithic dread, they have friendly, marketable faces. We all know that Amazon is terrible to their employees, and drives small businesses into the ground, but it’s just so.. convenient. We all know that our devices are made by slaves, but those new animated emoji are just so cute. In the twenty-first century we adore the giant evil corporation. We buy their devices to put in our homes and listen to our conversations, so it’ll be easier to order things with our voices. Convenience kills us, slowly but assuredly.

“It was hot, the night we burned Chrome.”

This current drowning-in-technology age has brought with it a sort of resurgence in, not specifically cyberpunk, but a more modern interpretation of its core theme: alienation among ubiquities connection. Being alone together. Television shows like Black Mirror embody this better than anything else currently around. There has also been a cyberpunk resurgence in pop culture, specifically music, visible primarily in the retrowave / synthwave / “outrun” genre of electronic music. Retrowave is a Baudrillardian simulacra of eighties electronic music usually created by those too young to have first-hand experience of eighties culture. It’s created with postmodern sensibilities, as an idea of what eighties culture could’ve been, not what it actually was. A sort of copy of a copy of some collective idea that never existed, except in the imaginings of its purveyors. Highly influenced by multimedia created in the eighties, specifically science fiction and horror films and books, it’s dark and menacing, and accompanies with it a mental image of dystopic science fictional landscapes. It’s the aural version of cyberpunk.

I say all of this because I think right now, with all of these elements converging, is the perfect time to read cyberpunk literature. Our temporal distance from its inception gives us the perspective to appreciate it as retrofuturism, and the relational closeness of the technological and emotional aspects of our lives to its themes, creates this nebulous landscape that makes it highly relatable to our modern moment. Our technology makes us chrome and neon and dark inside, but externally we’re living it up on social media while we collectively experience a sort of soul-death alone behind our screens, our modern day mirrorshades.

It’s a weird ass world, and these stories give us a glimpse into a stranger one that could’ve been, had just a few things played out differently. Cyberpunk is an alternate now.

High points: The Hinterlands, New Rose Hotel, and Burning Chrome

Low Points: Johnny Mnemonic, Red Star, Winter Orbit

Johnny MnemonicJohnny Mnemonic: 2/5
I find Gibson’s writing very difficult to digest here. The structure of the writing is unlike anything else I’ve read, and I think it’s safe to say that no one quite saw the world the was that he did. Weird concepts, weird execution. Set in the Sprawl universe. This was adapted into the not-so-great Keanu Reeves film in the mid nineties.

The Gernsback Continuum: 4/5
A man gets stuck in an idea of a future 1980s that never was. Built out of the retrofuturism of 1930s design. Great little paranoid Philip K. Dickian story.

Fragments of a Hologram Rose: 3/5
A melancholy take on lost love and being out of place in the world. The ASP tech is a cool idea, and it seems to be the analogue of reading someone’s journal, in a sense.

The Belonging Kind: 3/5
Nice analog for social anxiety, it was fun but nothing special.

The Hinterlands: 5/5
This is a new personal favorite. It’s written in exquisitely beautiful prose, and has such a unique story, like nothing I’ve ever read. I actually read it twice in a row, because I was initially confused by the first few sections. It all became much clearer with the accompanying context of the rest of the story. A great little tale about loss, alien contact, and psychology. I loved it.

Red Star, Winter Orbit: 1/5
Very difficult to follow, kind of boring.

New Rose HotelNew Rose Hotel: 5/5
A great corporate espionage noir. For me, this is the definitive high-tech low-life story. It was adapted into the eponymous Christopher Walken/Willem Dafoe film by Abel Ferrara in 1998. Set in the Sprawl universe.

The Winter Market: 4/5
Entertainment in an age where we’ve moved beyond the audiovisual form, and into something much stranger. I enjoyed the existentialism.

Dogfight: 3/5
A drifter on the way to Florida picks up a competitive VR game, and befriends a college student.

Burning Chrome: 4/5
The most ‘Cyberpunk’ story in the collection. Set in the Sprawl universe.

Escapology, by Ren Warom

Escapology, by Ren Warom

This novel changed my perception of what modern cyberpunk could be. I have to apologize in advance because this is going to be a little long-winded and meandering for a review. In order to approach my feelings on Escapology, I first need to share some thoughts about genre and how it can inform expectation.

Modern cyberpunk stories are operating in an interesting retro-futuristic narrative space these days. Cyberpunk had its big moment in the mid-to-late eighties, right at the convergence of rapid technological growth, reaganomics, corporate overreach, and heightened cold-war tensions. In addition to this collection of odd ingredients, the world had a general ignorance regarding computers and micro-technology, but had the knowledge that these things were coming toward us at breakneck pace. Tech was a sort of magic – in the Clarkesian sense – that was unknowable to the general public. Cyberpunk was a reactionary genre to all of this, and an extrapolation of a possible future that we might soon all be subjected to – shadowy mega corporations, invasive rampant technology, and the value of human life plummeting as a result. High-tech low-life was the general idea.

Of course, these things did eventually come to dominate our modern lives, but in entirely different ways than cyberpunk predicted. Because of this, most modern cyberpunk feels like it takes place in this “future of the past” that is firmly rooted in misunderstandings about technology. It’s more alternate history than plausible future at this point. I could go on and on about the woeful inefficiency of wasting CPU/GPU cycles in order to render an overly complicated GUI for every user’s interaction with a system while “jacked in”. Don’t get me wrong, I love that concept, it’s such a wonderful visual way to describe digital actions, but it just doesn’t make a lot of sense in a real world context. I would, however, be missing the point if I pushed this, a point which I didn’t realize until reading this novel: modern cyberpunk is no longer science fiction, but fantasy, because we’ve passed the point where it’s scientifically plausible.

This might not be an important distinction for most readers, but I think we subconsciously allow genre to inform the expectations that we have when we approach a piece of fiction, so let’s take a step back and define the differences between fantasy and science fiction by paraphrasing the simple terms John Joseph Adams laid out in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015: In fantasy, the impossible happens. In science fiction, the currently impossible but theoretically plausible happens. Cyberpunk as a genre was theoretically plausible to the world of the eighties, mostly because we misunderstood how computer technology functioned. Today, we understand quite a bit more, and I think that some aspects of the genre may no longer be. I think it operates under the umbrella of fantasy now, and therefore allows a lot of interesting possibilities and growth.

Ren WaromWarom gets this, but I didn’t at all going into this book. Something happened about halfway through Escapology that broke my suspension of disbelief. It was something that just isn’t scientifically plausible and I had an atavistic reaction against it, initially not understanding why; it just bothered me at a deep level. It took a while to realize that I felt like it broke the genre rules I had imposed on the story. It was then that I realized I had been mistakenly approaching the novel with a narrow angle of allowances. Warom wisely approached this story from a wider angle, or rather approached it without those rigid genre rules regarding what can or can’t happen in a story. The plausibility rules of science fiction do not apply here. When I realized this, it all clicked and I was able to get out from underneath my expectations and just let the story take me along for the ride. That was when I started to enjoy it for what it could be: a much needed stretching of the boundaries that readers have imposed upon cyberpunk as a genre. Of course, it would be much better to just approach all fiction without any thought of genre expectations beforehand, but I have a very difficult time doing that. It’s something I’m working on.

Escapology has one of the more interesting representations of avatars in a shared virtual world (the “jacked-in” state) that I’ve seen in while. It seems that Warom took inspiration from underwater earth life to represent this element of the story; the world that exists below the surface. I think it’s a fitting analogy, especially considering the protagonist’s dual avatars, each representing an element of his sexual identity and/or history. I also liked the land ships and the concept of the world literally having its crust broken apart at some point in the past. I’m hoping there’s more info about that in the sequel.

Conceptually, Escapology is a breath of fresh air for the genre, and I have a lot of respect for what it accomplished in the genre stretching/meshing department. It also had a strong weird fiction vibe going, which helped inject a heavy sense of wonder. It feels like Warom is trying to shock some new life into a genre that has long been stagnant, and I commend her for it. I thought the characters were a little thin, and the narrative got a little overly melodramatic for my taste, but all in all it was a fun story.

I guarantee you haven’t read a cyberpunk novel like this. Just remember to go into it with an open mind, as I didn’t. We all need a good mind fucking now and again. Escapology definitely filled that quota for me.