Friday, 18 February 2011

Tron Legacy - a cyberpunk comeback?

I saw the Scifi movie Tron Legacy (let's call it TL) last night in Paris (we’re a bit behind America on film releases), and it got me thinking – is cyberpunk making a comeback?

Before some of you rush to Wikipedia, cyberpunk is a genre of science fiction whose origins are usually attributed to William Gibson’s ground-breaking novel Neuromancer. Cyberpunk is a mesh of cybernetics – linking human intelligence to information technology (think about 4G I-Phones and IPads, and imagine what 7G might bring in twenty years’ time) – and punk, since at the start such novels were a kind of film noir brought to SF: dark, dystopian, etc. The human-machine link can either be something we interact with normally (like an IPad), or it can be something we ‘jack into’ like a computer via a bio-electrical cable into the back of the head (they don’t exist – yet). In TL, the hero is ‘scanned’ by a laser into digital format and downloaded into a massive computer program (the Grid) which is a virtual world. Cue amazing special effects…

The original film Tron was way ahead of this time, though the current one seems a bit dated coming a long time after Matrix and more recent (and more intellectually-challenging) films such as Inception. So, why choose now to release TL, nearly thirty years after the first one? And why am I blogging about it?

Well, a couple of years ago, my agent got my manuscript for The Eden Paradox onto the desks of a number of big name editors in New York  (more on that in a later blog). One of them said something like: “It’s not bad, but post-modern cyberpunk is dead.” That sent me scampering off to Wikipedia to see what the comment meant, which at least got me reading Neuromancer (every cloud has a silver lining, LOL). My own novel has two ‘cyberpunk’ elements: the first is the Optron, which immerses one of the main characters into a digitized virtual world. This is not a big part of the book, but it allows him (Micah) to unravel the Eden Paradox. The second cyberpunk aspect is that someone else has a ‘node’, a 7G interface that is implanted in her head, so she can interact directly with everything on the global net (wifi).

Despite the editor’s comments, I didn’t take these elements out, because to me they seem likely developments in the next fifty years, at the rate technology is advancing. I believe one of the roles of SF is to think ahead logically, and ask ‘what if?’ I also extrapolated the social impact of the node, which turns out to be catastrophic (in the novel – so, Apple, beware).  And when Tron Legacy came out, it made me wonder if SF should revisit these cybernetic roots, since info-tech is advancing at an incredible rate. How long before serious virtual immersion in games, with real-time sensory feedback (so the user cannot tell the difference between virtual and reality)? And when it comes, where will people choose to live, in reality, or in second life? In our current I-generation, where many people are ‘head-down’ into their phones, pads, or spending hours at a terminal, the answer isn’t so hard to predict.

I’m interested to hear from anyone on this, especially SF writers dealing with near-term SF (in the next century).

As a PS, I should acknowledge that the original Tron movie had a great impact on me all those years ago. Both films are about the ‘Grid’, a concept which I borrowed, developed into an alien transportation system, and inserted into the Eden Saga, especially Book 2. So, it was just great to see the sequel last night, if only because it was good to be in the Grid again.

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