|Was B7 cyberpunk? As I'm sure you're all dying to know the answer to this tantalising question, I'll answer it straight away: No, it wasn't. But it might have been, even though it never could have been.|
Niel Faulkner (21K)
B7 wasn't cyberpunk for a number of reasons. For a start, when the series went into production, the term didn't exist. The concept of 'cyberpunk' first emerged in the early 1980s to describe the work of a small group of new young SF writers - such as William Gibson and John Shirley - who merged a streetwise punk attitude with the future implications of the dawning Information Age. In the late 80s the term spread to the rolegaming industry (which is how I first got to hear about it), and only in the past few years has it impinged on the wider public consciousness. Gibson, author of the award- winning *Neuromancer*, was apparently the man who coined the term 'cyberspace', with which I'm sure we're all now quite familiar, though the cyberspace he envisaged is a little more exciting than the flood of on-screen e-mail chatter that we currently understand by it.
As with so many things, popular awareness and popular acceptance have altered and arguably debased the original nature of cyberpunk. The rolegaming market was perhaps the turning point, introducing a whole new audience to the concept. The first cyberpunk roleplaying game was simply called *Cyberpunk* (now *Cyberpunk 2020*), closely followed by *Shadowrun*, which merged high-tech near-future realism with magic and fantasy. Both were instant commercial hits, prompting an inevitable release of cash-in supplements. This, I think, is where the rot set in, because all of these follow-ons were little more than gadget catalogues, brimming with implants and 'smart' (as in intelligent) vehicles and weapons. Especially weapons. Adolescent rabid kill-frenzy hardware. The photogenic potential of high-tech lethality gave birth to the action movie and made Arnold Schwarzenegger an international superstar; by the time a true cyberpunk movie came to be made - the not-terribly-good *Johnny Mnemonic* - it was doomed to be still-born in a rut so deep it couldn't hope to climb out (though JM is so perfunctorily clich‚-ridden I'm half inclined to suspect at least an element of parody). So, what is cyberpunk?
On the surface, cyberpunk is high-tech sleaze, a marriage of style and silicon, or mirror-shaded youth cult where life is cheaper than any number of computerised implants. All you need to do is look cool, act cooler, talk smart and sport the right hardware. That was about as far as the roleplaying games went, which I considered so superficial I soon stopped playing cyberpunk games. The real, underlying, nature of cyberpunk is deeper and darker, and all the more alluring for being so frightening.
Cyberpunk is Hardtech in extremis. Technology has gone beyond being the shaper of society to become society itself. Part of Gibson's second novel, *Count Zero*, concerns a search for a mysterious artist, who turns out to be an abandoned artificial intelligence, drifting in high orbit. Other AIs have transformed themselves into gods, inhabiting the grey and featureless frontiers of cyberspace. The evolution of technology and its integration with living systems is no longer under human control; people are merely the means by which technology achieves its aims.
This is not an entirely novel concept in SF; humanity has fallen slave to its creations since Victor Frankenstein bought his first alembic. The theme reoccurs frequently in SF; Fredric March's classic short story *Answer* and Dr Who's *Genesis of the Daleks* are just two examples. Cyberpunk is different in that it shows this subjugation of humanity as a social as well as a technological phenomenon, and throws in the all-too-believable notion that this can happen not in spite of out efforts to prevent it, but through our willingness to let it happen. Gibson's cyberspace is a 'consensual hallucination'.
Cyberpunk also adds the economic dimension, which SF has a habit of overlooking. The human substratum of the cyberpunk world is dominated not by governments, which are largely ineffectual entities, but by commercial concerns. In Gibson's novels, nearly everything is described as a product of a manufacturer and given a brand name (either real, like Sony, Braun or BMW, or invented). Everything is corporate product or corporate property. And so are people. Technology owns the shapers of its own evolution, and they permit this because they can profit from it. Subservience pays.
Then there is the punk element. Punk culture rejected the conformist standards of the 1970s, and the heroes of the cyberpunk share this anti- establishment, anti-intellectual attitude. They inhabit a shadowed, lawless world of concrete and steel, scrounging off the discards of 'respectable' society. They are parasites and thieves, outcasts, junkies, self-centred, selfish, amoral, cynical, emotionally blunted, spiritually gutted. If you think they sound like an unsavoury bunch, wait until you meet the bad guys.
Cyberpunk, then, is an essentially dystopian genre, and is open to the same criticisms that apply to all nightmare visions, namely that they run the risk of celebrating the very things they clam to be condemning. And whilst cyberpunk might be a new high-tech urban outsider folklore, it is still a fantasy vision, in which smart streetkid heroes run rings around the ruthless corporate dictators of society. Stripped of the computer jargon, it is a genre where peasants topple kings and win princesses. Given the kind of social infrastructure it depicts, this level of optimism can seem sorely out of place.
In AltaZine-2 I traced the connections between B7 and punk, and found what I consider to be a similarity of attitude (if only coincidental). It would therefore seem natural that there might be some connection that can be drawn between B7 and cyberpunk. They are there, I think, but at a very nascent level, which is why I said at the very start that B7 was not cyberpunk. The main links are technological.
Prosthetic limbs and implants are a common feature of cyberpunk heroes (especially in rolegames), and they are in the series too. Again, this is not an original concept, cyborgs being almost as old as science fiction itself. The most obvious example is Travis' arm with its lazeron destroyer. (Curiously, no fan writer other than myself seems to have posited that some implant or other might also lurk under his eyepatch.) Sensory replacement devices were sported by Hal Mellanby and Ardus (in *Animals*), and Zee (in *Gambit*) had an artificial leg built for him by Docholli (a cybersurgeon). The notable thing about all of these is that they were replacements for lost limbs or organs; there is no example I can think of any character who voluntarily undergoes augmentation. Beyond the Federation, there are the Altas, who some fans consider to be robots but are more likely augmented people (human or otherwise). Even if the Altas are not robots/androids, they might as well be for all their mindless subservience to the System, which introduces stock SF Myth #27, that technology dehumanises you.
Personally I think this is spurious reasoning. It is a common theme in SF, and roleplaying games reflect it, with cybernetic implants having a Humanity Cost or similar. In the latter case this primarily a game mechanic, to stop players overloading their characters with lethal implants, but the concept exerts a powerful pull. I think it is false because all the evidence we have fails to support it. If a cyborg is a human being somehow augmented or enabled by an inorganic device, then hearing aids, dentures, pacemakers, plastic hip joints and even wearing glasses ought to be turning out psychos by the thousand. It doesn't seem to work that way. If the commonplace implants we take for granted (so much so that we fail to recognise them as implants) don't have this effect, then I see no reason work a computer chip lodged in the brain should have the same effect. This is where cyberpunk has the edge over traditional SF, in the way it recognises that technology alone does not dehumanise people, but the society that technology facilitiates certainly can. Cyberpunk presents a greedy, selfish, ambitious vision of a high-tech future, and this creates greedy, selfish, ambitious people, with or without computerised enhancements.
Another essential feature of cyberpunk is the concept of cyberspace (under whatever name) and the ability of people to interact directly with computers. B7 as a broadcast series predates, if only by a few years, the concept of cyberspace, so its absence from the series is no surprise. Direct interaction with computers is hintd at in a few episodes though. Firstly, Gan's limiter might be a putative example. The Alta's ability to interface directly with the System is another (and Jenna did the same thing with Zen, albeit accidentally, in *Cygnus Alpha*). The best example however is probably the sensornet which appeared in *Deathwatch*. This is very close to the 'trode- pads which Gibson's cyberspace cowboys use to enter the Net, and the complete sensory transmission it enables echoes the 'rider-chip' which figures so strongly in *Neuromancer*. We can infer, then, that the technology of direct interfacing with a computer system, and the sigital encoding of sensory and emotional data, is a reality in the B7 universe. It's just not very common, or at least not universally accessible. (*DeathWatch* might also count as an example of virtual reality - the combat grounds might have been computer constructed and transmiytted to the duellists - and audience - as sensory input. Again this is a concept that did not have a name when the series was made. Virtual realirt also features prominantly in the two good episodes of the Doctor Who story *The Deadly Assassin*). As a further example, consider the visual image structuraliser used on Avon in *Terminal*, which has additional implications for the memory manipulation used on Blake and others in *The Way Back*. The stock hardware of cyberpunk fiction makes such things explicable, even predictable.
Artificial intelligence is also a stock feature of cyberpunk. In Gibson's future, AIs are powerful entities in their own right. Some have citizenship status. There are AIs in B7 too; Orac is the most obvious example (and its ability to crack into any computer with tarriel cell technology is a further echo of cyberspace). Zen should also count on this score, and I suppose Slave ought to be included as well. Orac can be taken further still; several of Gibson's stories feature encoded personalities of living or dead individuals, and another cyberpunk novel, *When Gravity Fails* makes free use of plug-in modular personalities, allowing you to be whoever you want. Could it be that Orac is actually based on a recording of Ensor's personality?
As well as the technological dimension, B7 echoes cyberpunk in other ways, though in a muted form. The cynicism, pragmatism and moral ambiguity underlying B7 represents a step towards the levels of social realism that pervades cyberpunk. The ready use of violence and the brutal depiction of it (in some episodes at least, especially the earlier ones) is also a hallmark of cyberpunk (there are lasers in *Neuromancer* and *Count Zero*), but not the clean, snappy Star Wars variety; Gibson's lasers are dirty, deadly weapons, severing limbs and vapourising internal organs). The low production standards of the series created (albeit coincidentally) an atmosphere of shabbiness and decline. And of course, the gloomy, dystopian vision shared by both, with no promise of happy endings or successful resolution.
But, as I said at the start of this (already overlong; sorry, please bear with me) article, B7 was not cyberpunk. It diverges from cyberpunk in a number of ways. Firstly of course, there is the fact that the cyberpunk concept did not exist when B7 went into production, but there are other major differences:
So, B7 was not cyberpunk. It was made too early for one thing. Even if it had been made several years later, it still wouldn't have qualified. Television is too conservative a medium, and has enough trouble with science fiction as a basic concept. The cutting edge of the genre hasn't a hope of making the small screen.
But that doesn't mean that B7 can't be cyberpunk. I would say that in fan fiction, it can be. Of course, it doesn't have to be, but the option is there. Cyberpunk B7 is a very real possibility that deserves to be explored further than it has been (which is hardly at all). The technology is certainly there in the series, though it seems to be rare and restricted. There is a sound rationale for this.
The silicon revolution and the Internet have ushered in the so-called Information Age. Concerns about this unprecedented level of public access to information are voiced daily. We might suppose that the Federation would try very hard to restrict this level of access; if there is a pan-galactic internet in B7, it is for the privileged few, within the Federation at least (elsewhere things might be different). Prosthetic augmentation might be seen as being reflected in mutoids, with their 'high bionic rebuild'. As for the low-life, street level dimension of cyberpunk, its absence in the series merely reflects the places the crew visited in the episodes. The mean streets of the Delta zones in Federation cities might be very cyberpunky indeed; urban space rats tripped out on shadow, kingpins under contract to the Terra Nostra, freelance cyberspace jocks illegally penetrating the Net, rider-chipped Central Security agents on their tail - the possibilities are there for any fan writer who wants to take them up.
Obviously I'm biased. I happen to like cyberpunk, its dystopian vision, its density of style and illusion of realism, its social awareness and sleazy high- tech glitter. Most fan writers and fanfic readers would seem to be somewhat less interested in the concept. Fair enough, but cyberpunk, like hardtech, is as much an attitude and approach to writing as it is a genre in its own right. Blakes 7, the series, is now looking very dated and technologically backward; an injection of cyberpunk can bring it up to date without compromising the basic vision of the series or distorting the central characters. The Star Trek movies updated Trek without adulterating it; cyberpunk can do the same for B7.
Besides, wouldn't Avon look really cool in mirror shades?
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Last changed on 26th of April 1998