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How Cyberpunk lit influenced technology

Did you know Robert Heinlein invented the waterbed?

Interview with Cyberpunk author Pat Cadigan

No less than Gillian Anderson, Scully in the X-files, once called American author Pat Cadigan "The Queen of Science Fiction." Her novels Synners and Fools both won the Arthur C Clarke Award, writes John O'Reilly.

Along with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in the 80s she was a leading figure in the new generation of Cyberpunk writers who brought a hardbitten tone to traditional sci-fi.

But Cyberpunk wasn't just literary fiction. In The New New Thing, Michael Lewis' story of new economy giant and Netscape co-founder Jim Clark, Lewis describes Clark's frustration in the early 90s. Businessmen just couldn't see the use for his computer graphics products.

The only people who could imagine a purpose at the time were creators of fiction like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Cadigan and the other cyberpunk writers described virtual reality and the cyberspace economy a decade before the dotcom revolution.

Entrepreneurs looking for the next New New Thing might do worse than have a look at Cadigan's fiction. She does meticulous and lengthy research and is currently learning how to build her own PC. Her latest novel Dervish Is Digital was published last year. Her short story Icy You... Juicy Me has just been published in The New English Library Book Of Internet Stories. But you can read it here exclusively online.

You've talked before about being interested in the unforeseen side-effects of technology. It's similar to William Gibson's idea that "the street finds a use for things". How does this idea play out in your work?

Pat Cadigan: We may develop a technology for a particular purpose and it ends being used for something that no-one foresaw. My favourite example of that is Robert Heinlein who invented the waterbed in The Stranger in a Strange Land.

He never saw it as anything other than a hospital bed. But I have yet to hear of a hospital ever using a water bed. I'm sure it has its therapeutic side but it's definitely not a medical instrument at all.

Most people who are on the inside of a technology have no idea what it's like to look at from an end user's point of view. This is why they have focus groups. I'm really familiar with this because I worked 10 years for Hallmark Cards in the US.

It taught me an awful lot about marketing and trying to see things from the consumer side. All of my work really has to do with people who are reluctant insiders, or people who are sucked into something or are impacted by something whether they like it or not.

The agoraphobic in Icy You Juicy Me is an example. And I think in the not too distant future agorophobia and claustrophobia are probably going to be some of the more prevalent social/psychological disorders.

Do you think something like agoraphobia is related to the effects of technology with the advent of phenomena like homeworking. You miss out on the water-cooler gossip, you can become desocialised. Are there clear psychologicaI effects produced by developments in technology?

Pat Cadigan: It's more complicated than "we developed this and therefore created that." I think something like agoraphobia was always there, laying in wait for us. And we finally found something that triggered it.

There is a link between science-fiction and business. Sci-fi offers very specific examples of technology that didn't exist when the book or film was being created but do now. Sci-fi can act as a resource for business people. The most obvious example being the mobile phone in Star Trek. Do you think that's pushing the link too far?

Pat Cadigan: No not at all. I was on a Radio 4 programme with a number of people and there was a guy from the European Space Agency of something and they were reading all these old science fiction novels.

The moderator of the programme asked me what I thought. So I talked about how sci-fi writers writing about the problems of remaining sane when in a small enclosed space with a lot of other people for a very long period of time. When you have other problems of weightlessness or the fact that if there is a small flaw in your environment you will die.

The guy came back and said, "well that's a little advanced for us. We're looking at stuff that happened 50 years ago. I bit my tongue. I wanted to say, "well if you read the stuff now you won't be reading this 50 years from now trying to catch up!"

There's the example of Solar Sails. The whole idea of solar sails, the satellite, was developed by professionals as well as writers. They had the soul of an engineer. I've just lately gotten into the spirit of that myself. I'm studying for my A plus computer engineering exam.

I took this how to build computers course basically because I'm sick and tired of getting ripped off by cheesy computer companies. Software baffles me. I like hardware. I used to change my own oil and now I want to build my own computer so I can have what I want. I'm tired of getting ripped off or getting a nasty surprise by finding out "Oh sorry, the expandability is only 64 megs."

The concept of your work Mindplayers reminds me a bit of some contemporary management theory, such as that of Tom Peters. One of his books is called Brand You! The idea was that in the new economy you constantly need to adapt yourself, to have a portfolio of identities in order to deal with all the tasks demanded of you. Whether you are self-employed or an employee in rapidly changing companies. Was Mindplayers predictive of the adaptable personalities required in today's working environment?

Pat Cadigan: I've heard of Brand You! but I haven't read it. Oddly enough the Mindplayers stories started out of my making fun of Hallmark because I was still working there.

I wrote the stories starting in 1980 and I finished the novel in 1987. It was making fun of the commercialisation of people. In my last year at Hallmark we finally began putting verses on computer. It had been all in filing cabinets on index cards. They had to assign a 4 digit serial number to each sentiment, for each area of feeling.

They'd send us an order to do a card and they'd tell us we need a 6 line verse "the main theme has to be how much you mean (HMYM) with a 'wish for day'" (WFD). There's wish for day, wish for life, wish for emotion.

They'd say "It should be to mother and it should be sendable from one or a group of people so it can't say I or we. Oh and by the way we have too many rhymes that end 'oo' or 'a' so none of those."

It was very, very structured. All of these emotions and had to be computerised from the index cards. It was total madness. No one found it grotesque except me. The Mindplayers stories satirized that.

You were part of the generation of cyberpunk writers that changed science-fiction. One of the features of cyberpunk in the 80s in the novels of William Gibson and Bruce Stirling, was that it was partly about the relationship between new technology and the black economy. You had it recently with Napster, where people had there own underground economic networks. How do you explain this interest in IT and the black economy?

Pat Cadigan: Cyberpunk was really a reaction against old boy sci-fi which was about white guys in space who would come up with some kind of technological thing.

Most of us like William Gibson were all poor. Bill's very rich right now. But he went through a lot of lean years and knows what it is to have to survive. There are many of us who grew up on the darker side of the American dream and dealt with that kind of black economy. If you have to beg on the streets you are part of the black economy. It's a short walk for many of us.

Related Links

Pat Cadigan's home page is here.

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