Humans, by nature, are shallow, empty, and extremely needy creatures. This statement requires no proof through documentation, nor any support from psychological case studies; it is a plainly apparent fact, evident in the constant search for acceptance, enlightenment, or salvation that seems to characterize each individual’s life. The appearance of punk writing signals Science Fiction’s widespread acceptance of human insufficiency, being the first real movement in the genre to focus on the struggle of the individual in a technological dystopia. Although social criticism is certainly not new to SF, the anti-authoritarian, individualistic rhetoric that characterizes punk writing attempts to realistically portray the emotions and passions stirred by a society overrun by advancement. Nowhere is this more evident than in Cyberpunk, a sub-genre absolutely focused on acceleration. Acceleration is shown to create pressure, pressure seen to breed tension, and tension finally threatening collapse. It focuses on a world trampled by consumer-culture and ultra-capitalism, where the night sky is brightened by a neon glow and countries are turned to wastelands by corporate empires. This is a world where life is a constant struggle: a struggle to compete, to survive, and to live the ‘American dream’ fed into the population by bazillion-inch television screens. Such an atmosphere is destined to expose weakness, and soon adaptations are made by humanity to counter the neurosis caused by such an intense and demanding environment. In Cyberpunk, the most important manifestation of this weakness is the use of drugs. Drugs become an outlet for the escapism, the quest for self-betterment, and the celebrity-worship that results from existence in a technologically and culturally accelerated society. They come to be a metaphor for the gift of technological advancement, a warning of the isolation, dependence, and shallow emptiness that awaits humankind in the world cyberpunk portrays.
There is no attempt to gloss over drug use in Cyberpunk fiction: it is nakedly portrayed, present as an acceptable and often essential component to the story. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, in fact, acquires its title from the designer drug that the story revolves around. Most important, however, is the character which drugs in cyberpunk assume. They are gritty, brutal, and lethal, a far separation from the mélange-type drugs prevalent in earlier SF. Cyberpunk drugs do not offer transcendence or increased awareness, these are stick-it-in-your-arm-in-a-dark-alleyway-then-pass-out-in-the-garbage-type drugs. Characteristic of the dystopic nature of punk SF, there is no glory or mystique to them: drugs are portrayed as vices. Syringes litter the floors of urban ghettos, vials are found in deserted asbestos plains. As Hiro Protagonist and his roommate Vitaly walk from their ‘home’ in the U-Stor-It complex, they step over “white trash stoned on Vertigo, Apple Pie, Fuzzy Buzzy, Narthex, Mustard, and the like. The floor needs sweeping: used syringes, crack vials, charred spoons, pipe stems.” The world is full of drugs like Hyponarx, which you can get “at any Buy ‘n’ Fly, people call them rusty nails, they are cheap and dull. Supposedly the needles of poor black diabetics and junkies.” With such negative connotations, it may seem strange that the drugs are so popular and so prevalent, odd that “a thousand new drugs [are] invented every year, and each of them [sold] under half a dozen brand names.” The explanation is simple. Drugs in Cyberpunk, as in reality, provide something more: something different, something bigger, something brighter. They allow something that non-chemical alternatives, such as the metaverse or Burning Chrome’s ‘simstim’, cannot. Nothing allows one to connect, forget, and explode as effectively as drugs do. Reality is so harsh that only complete alteration is acceptable…chemicals become the most effective band-aids. The weaknesses and deficiencies of society, high and low, are medicated by drugs, and so they become an antidote not only for personal turmoil but for state stability, a response to the culture that they are born of.
The first response to acceleration is pressure: a capitalist world, by nature, breeds competition. The artificiality of consumerism creates massive demands regarding image and power, Cyberpunk characters creating what Mark Leyner calls the “I’m OK, You’re Lunch” Generation. Mocking the hyper-sexualization of the accelerated society, Leyner describes the popularity of CDs featuring the sounds of men lifting weights: “Smell my Thick Leather Belt After I Power-Lift…or maybe Hymns to a Hernia, Huge Weights and Sweaty Straining Men…or something like Colossal Men Suckle Methyltestosterone from the Hairy Nipples of the Men Who Spot for Them or something like that.” A world that so glorifies physical perfection is bound to place pressure on the individual to better himself. Gibson speaks of “surgical boutiques” in Burning Chrome, where one can be adjusted to look “like each new season’s media front-runner,” but these methods are often expensive and dangerous, with “Sendai eyes notorious for depth-perception defects and warranty hassles.” The easiest possible way to better oneself is to seek drugs that aid physical development, and so Cyberpunk comes to portray a future in which people are as addicted to testosterone and steroids as they would be to heroin. Even in Snow Crash, such a development is considered unorthodox:
“You see, our biochemists lead sheltered lives, did not anticipate that some people would be so mentally warped to use hormones like they were some kind of drug. How bizarre.”
The use of drugs for physical enhancement becomes a widespread problem, a new weakness created by societal pressures on image. In a world so competitive, drugs allow every boy to be the school bully. While hurrying to deliver a pizza, the Kourier Y.T. latches on to a van driven by some sort of accelerated alpha-male, an archetype that seems to be consistent among Cyberpunk youth.
“It’s not mom at the wheel. It’s young Studley, the teenaged boy, who like every other boy in this Burbclave has been taking intravenous shots of horse testosterone every afternoon in the high school locker room since he was fourteen years old…He steers erratically, artificially pumped muscles not fully under his control…He wants this car to be like his muscles: more power than he knows what to do with.”
The boy is described as being “bulky, stupid, [and] thoroughly predictable,” and seems to be quite prototypical of young affluence. This is a world where barbaric youth, “blasted out of their minds on natural and artificial male hormones”, run rampant on the streets, partaking in their “idiotic coming-of-age rituals.” Through this Cyberpunk finds outlet for a criticism of the dumbing-down of a society that occurs as a result of a massive emphasis on external attractiveness as opposed to promotion of internal enlightenment. Appealing to sex, putting forth an image of power, is more important in a consumer world than developing intelligence, and this is Cyberpunk’s first warning of the danger of a media culture.
The use of drugs for self-betterment also acts as a result of the fear of falling behind. To be successful in any context, one has to ‘stay on top of their game’, and drugs become a way of gaining edge in the ultra-competitive world of accelerated future:
“Desiree, as you know, Mark Leyner is about total fitness and power – muscle mass, density, ripped definition, triceps, biceps, pecs, lats, glutes, intensity, stamina, endurance, mental focus…on the other hand, I do have a responsibility to my fans to forge ahead where most men fear to tread. I mean we can’t leave the exploration of inner space to New Age Milquetoasts like Terence McKenna. What kind of drug and how much?”
The danger of a world where drugs provide edge, where drugs become a means by which one can fit in, is reflected in the dystopia of the genre’s setting. The virtue of a ‘healthy soul’ seems to be non-existent in a Cyberpunk future, and there is much to say for the fact that the heroes of these novels are usually the ones who do not rely on drugs for their skills. The ‘dog-eat-dog’ philosophy of capitalist society is accelerated in Cyberpunk so that humans feel it necessary to take any steps they can to become the biggest dog.
Pressure to be beautiful and successful creates enormous tension within the masses. Stress is the logical outcome of tension, and this may explain the prevalence of drugs as a method of escape in Cyberpunk. How is the majority of the population supposed to deal with being, as Leyner indicated, “Lunch”? The accelerated globalization of the world portrayed in the genre coincides with a decay of cultural identity, and the result of this is a crisis in which familiar associations melt down until the concept of ‘community’ disappears completely. In the postmodern world that Cyberpunk portrays, “there is no longer room for interiority and intimacy; the illusion of control afforded by modernist visions of alienated solitude is no longer convincing.” An individual is left alone and forgotten. How is one to deal with such alienation and separation? Again, it seems that drugs are the cheapest and most effective form of therapy. Drugs become a way to defeat the harsh realities of the world. Leyner’s Et tu Babe provides evidence of the frustration associated with being nothing but a statistic in a capitalist world. The author’s friend Jorge spends every day of his life on an ant farm, where he works, eating steak to “regurgitate to feed the queen and her larvae.” Although the anecdote is obviously satirical in nature, Jorge leaves the reader with an important message:
“If you…if you squander your precious beautiful days on meaningless labour whose” – he coughed up blood – “whose ultimate purpose is to further enrich the ruling elite or solidify the hegemony of the state…you’re a sucker.”
The problem, however, is that the majority of the people in a Cyberpunk world are just that – “suckers”. Escapism becomes an industry. There are ‘hip’ drugs: “Ultra Laminars and Mosquitos…you get them around fancy burbclaves, they don’t hurt as much when you stick them in, and they have better design. You know, ergonomic plungers, hip color schemes.” Major corporations compete for control of drug production: “the Narcolombians still have a lock on coca leaves, but now that Nippon Pharmaceuticals has its big cocaine-synthesis facility in Mexicali nearly complete, that will cease to be a factor.” The point is, society has become reliant on drugs: chemical dependency is a fact of life. One comes to pity the population for having to resort to such therapy. Perhaps most startling is the story of the former systems programmer that Y.T. meets in the ‘Falabala’ encampment at Griffith Park. The woman, bald and dressed in rags, did not choose to take drugs (she was infected), but it is difficult to refuse the sincerity of her happiness when she speaks of the freedom Snow Crash has given her:
“You want to leave? I can get you out of here.”
“No,” the woman says, “I’ve never been so happy.”
“How can you say that? You were a big-time hacker. Now you’re kind of a dip, if I may speak frankly.”
“That’s okay, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. I wasn’t really happy when I was a hacker. I never thought about the important things. God. Heaven. The things of the spirit. It’s hard to think about those things in America. You just put them aside. But those are really the important things – not programming computers or making money. Now, that’s all I think about.”
This is the second aspect of the punk critique of capitalism. The intensity of life in such a demanding environment will eventually become too much for the average person to handle, and the result will be this sort of fetish with the ‘spiritual freedom’ chemical dependency can create. An accelerated culture accelerates human vulnerability, and these hard drugs are quite literally the acceleration of contemporary commercial drugs like caffeine and tobacco. In the Cyberpunk future, hard drugs will be sold at the local ‘Buy n Fly’. Drugs will be used in the workplace, as seen with Y.T.’s mother during her Federal interrogation. Drugs will be on restaurant menus: in Et Tu Babe, Desiree orders “vanilla ice cream with cough suppressant whip and a cup of PMS tea.” The human need for escape becomes another aspect of the commercial empire that characterizes Cyberpunk.
If the tension that creates the need for escapism is meant to culminate in collapse, then perhaps the celebrity-worship of a Cyberpunk world can be considered the fall-out. At a certain point, it may become futile to try and improve, and no longer effective to just escape. The emptiness of chemical dependency can bring about a complete loss of identity. The alienated and weak individual searches for something to cling to, something that they are not, something bigger and better. The insufficiencies of the individual become supplemented by the personalities of society’s elite. The cult of celebrity is indeed a prominent issue in Cyberpunk, whether seriously or satirically, and its acceleration in a Cyberpunk world is seen to create many problems. The cultural elite become more important than United States Presidents, women leave their jobs as Supreme Court Justices to run security for popular writers, Japanese rock stars with ten foot high hairdos become the new gods. It all has to do with the allure of a world of excess and riches, an ideal promoted by a commercial culture where consuming and commodity are all essential: “I’m wearing Air Jordans, camouflage pants, no shirt, an onyx quarter-pound burger embedded with chunks of diamond on a gold rope around my neck, and a black baseball cap with the words Golden Nugget in gold stitching.” The life of a celebrity becomes, in itself, a drug. It is the ideal that all citizens of Cyberpunk strive towards, and any association with a celebrity becomes the realization of a life-long dream. The use of the ‘simstim’ – simulated stimuli – in William Gibson’s Burning Chrome is characteristic of this longing to connect with the cultural deities. While connected to simstim, one can experience:
“the world – all the interesting parts, anyway – as perceived by Tally Isham. Tally raced a black Fokker ground-effect plane across Arizona mesa tops. Tally dived the Truk Island preserves. Tally partied with the superrich on private Greek islands, heartbreaking purity of those tiny white seaports at dawn.”
The culmination of this celebrity deification is the use of actual aspects of the celebrity’s being as a chemical drug. Although it is used satirically in Et Tu Babe, it is a direct commentary on the acceleration of celebrity in a Cyberpunk world – the media elite are so worshipped that a piece of their physical body becomes equated with the power usually reserved for the Eucharist in Catholic worship. A celebrity’s hair, clothing, essence becomes a method through which one can reach a different level. In Et tu Babe, Desiree informs Leyner of “a sealed ampule of Lincoln’s morning breath – I mean a snort or two and who knows – I knew you’d be interested, Mark.” The idea of a vial of Abraham Lincoln’s morning breath holding the potential to ‘get one high’ is yet another punk critique on accelerated culture. Remember, Cyberpunk is essentially a vision of the present on steroids, and in this context is it perhaps frightening to think of how many people nowadays will spend a fortune on eBay to buy a napkin used by Brad Pitt, how many teenage girls burst into tears when their hands are able to catch some of the sweat dripping off their favourite pop star. The idea that accelerated culture breeds human weakness is evident in this deification of celebrities – what sort of future is this that allows the masses to become swooning drones at the whim of the rich and famous?
If the intent of punk writing is be critical and harshly realistic, it seems that the use of drugs in Cyberpunk is an extension of this attitude. Drugs represent the weaknesses that a brutally consumerist capital system will draw out, the struggle of the individual in a world that has evolved far too quickly and far too drastically. Cyberpunk presents a dystopic future based on competition, image, and survival, and drugs are used to medicate the human inability to cope. They are a response to the high standards set by a shallow and commodity-based society, acting as a way to achieve the level of physical perfection expected, as a means to escape the pressures at least for an instant, or as an aid to become something else altogether.
The acknowledgment of human weakness seems to be a logical step in the maturation of any art form; the idealism with which movements often start must evolve into realism upon the inevitable exposure of flaws in the ideal. Whether through Euripides forcing men to stand without divine aid in his Greek tragedies or Vietnam bringing images of war to American television, realism forces humanity to understand its weaknesses. Awareness breeds conscience, and conscience is supposed to stimulate reform. William Gibson, the so-called ‘father of cyberpunk’, can perhaps be equated to Euripides and Vietnam, for he brought a “a gritty-realist account of actual existence” to the Science Fiction genre. Cyberpunk became a rejection of the humanism of Golden Age SF, a portrait of the dark aspects of a technological wasteland, accounting not for the lives of Dukes and Merchant Princes but of the insignificant parcel courier, or the lowly pirate hacker. Cyberpunk provides a potent warning against the modern era’s faith in advancement and progress, bringing the effectiveness of Science Fiction’s moral messages to a new level. But it is questionable as to whether or not this message will breed conscience or reform. The reliance on drugs to medicate human weakness is by no means a desirable future, nor is a future that forces these weaknesses to come forward. It seems imperative that these issues are addressed, for this is the path humanity is heading down; the societies observed in these writings represent an accelerated present. Snow Crash displays a world we may some day know, Et Tu Babe mocks a world the author sees as inevitable. Punk is often dismissed as being too radical or too extreme, but the portrayal of human weakness in Cyberpunk is a reality difficult to ignore. As the future approaches and consumerism and capitalism spread over a ‘globalized’ world, acceleration seems inevitable. The question now is, how will humanity respond?