Mirrorshades: Sometimes, Yesterday’s Science Fiction Becomes Today’s Reality

When Mirrorshades first came out, many saw it as a warning shot across the bows of the science fiction genre. Designed as a showcase for the newly-emergent Cyberpunk movement, the anthology featured early stories by writers William Gibson, Greg Bear, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, Marc Laidlaw, James Patrick Kelly, Lewis Shiner, Paul  Di Filippo, and John Shirley, and it took few prisoners.

The very first story, Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, drew a very deliberate bead on the techno-utopian sci-fi of the pulp era, contrasting its shining cities and thirty-lane highways with the world as it actually was: a world of crumbling gas stations, rented Toyotas, and cinemas showing Nazi Love Motel. The future it implied wasn’t a future constructed by heroic American engineers, but an international, improvised future cobbled together from necessity. The prose is stripped-down and elegant, with hardly a wasted word; the characters just people doing their jobs. Science fiction, Gibson seemed to be saying, could get along fine without being pompous or self-consciously experimental. 

As a statement of intent, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ illustrated everything that Bruce Sterling claimed in his introduction: especially a fascination with the fabric of daily life, and an acknowledgement of, and desire to build upon, the SF that had gone before.

That point is reinforced by Sterling’s choice to include a story co-written by himself and Gibson. ‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ tells the tale of a Russian astronaut marooned on an orbital space station as his country collapses beneath him. Space, it says, will not be settled by handsome USAF pilots riding gleaming Von Braun rockets, but by those who pull themselves up there anyway they can, and repurpose and reuse whatever they can find in order to do so. Rather than an expansionist future of stellar empires, the story postulates a gradual dispersal of bohemian settlers in jury-rigged habitats built from the cast-offs of a dying space programme.

“Cyberpunk,” Sterling wrote, “has risen from within the SF genre; it is not an invasion but a modern reform.”

Whether all the stories in Mirrorshades reflect that statement is a question open to interpretation. For me, one of my favourite stories in the book is the least ‘cyberpunky’ of them all. Rudy Rucker’s ‘Tales of Houdini’ is set in the 1940s and features magic and fantasy rather than the usual associated tropes of the sub-genre. On first reading, I found it hard to understand why it had been included. Each of Rucker’s ‘Ware’ trilogy of novels is a classic Cyberpunk text; but this story – highly entertaining though it is – doesn’t seem to fit the purpose of the book.

Of the other stories in the book, John Shirley’s ‘Freezone’ imagines a shantytown floating in the Atlantic, accreted around the remains of abandoned oil platforms, and a rock musician struggling with the encroachment of electronic music.

Pat Cadigan’s ‘Rock On’ and James Patrick Kelly’s ‘Solstice’ also concern themselves with the evolution of drink and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. 

My personal favourite is the last story in the collection. ‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’, co-written by Sterling and Lewis Shiner, is a time travel romp in which corporations have discovered that changing the past has no effect on the present, and are therefore enthusiastically dedicating themselves to plundering history. Intent on turning the eighteenth century into a massive Third World of cheap labour and abundant natural resources, they trample over everything, creating a world where Amadeus Mozart is a hustling street kid who plays electric guitar over synth riffs sampled from K-Tel pop cassettes, Marie Antoinette reads Vogue, and one of Genghis Khan’s generals rides a Harley.

Yes, aspects of the stories have dated – everybody smokes; nobody owns a mobile phone; and some of the ‘futuristic’ technology already looks dangerously obsolete – but science fiction is always about the time in which it was written, and these stories are most definitely about the 1980s. And yet, as we do more and more of our socialising, shopping and banking online, they still seem curiously prescient. And, when you consider that these stories helped shape the minds of the people who built the Internet we see around us today, I guess that’s hardly surprising. 

In the 1980s, Cyberpunk predicted that in the early years of the 21st Century, we’d be living in a post-Cold War dystopia ruled by greedy and all-powerful corporations, in a world where data was the most important commodity and misfits and loners stalked the virtual frontier in search of mischief. Forty years on – as I scan headlines concerning international cyber war, corporate tax avoidance, online fraud, and the latest information war between Russia and the West – that prediction doesn’t sound so far off the mark.

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