Cyberpunk (1).





Cyberpunk (1). Mark Wittenborn lived on the top floor of the tallest building in San Paulito, Texas.  At night, when he stood in his kitchen, whose window looked out on an alley, and the lighted rear entrance behind the new Chinese place, three storeys below, he would listen to the sound of his downstairs neighbors’ bickering or the corridos coming from their radio, overlaid by the far-off sound of a punk rock song from a fading in and out Austin station, and for a moment he could fool himself into thinking he was living in a city.

On his table a mess of take-out cartons, a newspaper announcing the last month’s Russian casualties in Afghanistan, a fire-engine red can of Coca-Cola, which he took up and swigged from before clearing away the detritus of his dinner.

He went into the living room, a great, tall-ceilinged room with brick walls and ancient wood floors, arched windows which overlooked the whole of the town.  This building had once housed San Paulito County’s government, the third floor, his apartment, serving as the county courthouse—his bedroom the judge’s chambers—and still some of the old, pew-like benches, dark mahogany and timeless, where once the public, ranchers and ranch-hands and priests and Mexicans, sat to watch the proceedings, rested stacked against the south wall.  He switched the radio from punk-rock to a classical station out of San Angelo, and sat at his desk.

His desk was an old oak door laid across two saw horses.  Where it met the wall were lined-up stacks of mass market paperbacks, ten or twelve high and three deep.  Science fiction stuff mostly.  Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke; Le Guin, Bear, Bova; Miller, Ballard, Dick.  But you would have found there too the short stories of Franz Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, Henry James.  You would have found six of Shakespeare’s plays, the first volume of Gulag Archipelago, a sub-par translation of Dostoyevsky’s Demons, and a study of literary modernism by Irving Howe.  Occupying much of the rest of the desk was a black-screened Apple IIe personal computer.  Mark Wittenborn sat in front of the console, turned on the power switch and waited, patiently taking sips of his now-warm Coca-Cola.  When the computer had cycled through its start-up process, he took from his bag a diskette carrier, which contained on six floppy disks the manuscript for a novel entitled Neuromancer, by a man named Bill Gibson, who he’d only recently met, at GenCon VIII in Dallas, but with whom he was quickly becoming friends.

Reading the first line, he was always overcome with a sense of the uncanny, with a kind of vertigo or déja vu, because that first line was now something that was always with him.  He carried it around, repeating it silently to himself like a mantra, wherever he went.  The sky above the port was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel.[1]  Mark Wittenborn read on.  He was reading the book for perhaps the seventh time, all the while recalling the sensation of reading it for the first, that feeling of something ending, of one thing passing into obsolescence as it is replaced by another.

Years later, standing in front of a room full of students, scholars and fanatics, he would proclaim, “The Seventies ended for me on a hot Texas night in June of 1983.”

Yes, the Seventies were over, and technically, sure, had been over for almost three years now, but you don’t usually feel something like that when it happens, and really, such demarcations are totally arbitrary and artificial anyway.  The true shift, well, it could happen anywhere or, perhaps more accurately, it probably doesn’t happen anywhere or at any time at all, at any specific moment that is.  Decades only become distinct from one another in hindsight, but this had been something different.  A kind of noticeable break.  A fissure.

He thought about the sensation of reading—for that was what it was, a good book, when you read it, and when you remembered it later, what you really remembered was the feeling of reading it—he thought back to a time, not long ago, when everyone had been swept up in the New Wave of sci-fi writers—and don’t get him started on the shitheels who insisted on calling it SF.  He thought of Lessing’s Canopus in Argos books—okay, she wasn’t a New Wave writer, but those books were good, no matter what anyone said—and as he pictured those strange, surrealist, linguistic worlds of hers, the sensation of reading those books came back to him.  He was in a plant-filled apartment with dusty wood floors, this apartment, but somehow different than it was now; he was a little bit stoned, the feeling like much-welcomed kind of exhaustion; the old-sock smell of Hi-Fi equipment that’s been on too long; a Floyd record spinning on the turntable.  He had this sense, as he read, of going somewhere, of escape.

Reading Bill’s book was different.  He couldn’t yet put his finger on it.  It was a different way of reading.  Bill had a different way of describing the world: the world as it would be, the world as it was on the way to becoming.  At some point between then and now the world had set itself on a certain course and, it seemed, Bill Gibson was the only one who’d sensed it.  He’d picked up on something, a shutter, a hiccough, easily missed by the rest of us, and from that little moment this book had sprung up.

It wasn’t finished yet.  Bill had gone up to Vancouver to hole himself up in the cold and the mist coming off the ocean and bang out the last sixty pages or so.  And Mark had his own book, on which he’d been hard at work on for something like five years.  He was maybe thirty pages from being done, and in the years since he’d started work on it he’d gone back and forth so many times between thinking it was really good and thinking it was shit.  He’d kind of stabilized in the last year or so, and he couldn’t say what had done it exactly, what had prompted him to think this way, but he’d realized at some point that what he had on his hands was something that was worth doing, that what he had, some of it on paper, but a lot of it still in his brain, was a good book.  Or, at least, it would be when it was done.  And so he’d set to work, he’d thrown himself into it.  He got up early every day, no matter how tired or bored or hungover he was, and he set to work.  Every single morning.  If he cranked out two pages, he considered it a good day.  Some days he wrote as many as ten, others he was lucky if he could squeeze out a sentence.  As the project progressed he became like one of those characters in one of those books—a Dostoyevsky book he was thinking, but come to think of it he couldn’t remember Dostoyevsky ever writing about a writer, that, writing about writers, was kind of a twentieth century thing, an American thing anyway—he’d been a man obsessed.  For most of the spring he’d been writing not only mornings, but deep into the night as well.  He thought of the introduction to Bend Sinister, and Nabokov’s description of warm spring nights in Cambridge following eighteen hour days—but you couldn’t trust that guy, could you, especially in the guise of an “Introduction”—anyway, that had been Mark for a while: the obsessive writer, burning the candle at both ends.

Then along comes Bill Gibson, and his mother-fucking book.

It was no longer a question of was Mark’s book good or was it shit, it was a question of, Who wrote books like he was writing any more?  It was a question of, What’s the point?

Mark Wittenborn ejected the first diskette from the computer’s floppy-drive and inserted the second.  He drained the last of his Coke and got up and put the can in the trash bin under the sink and returned to his desk and Bill’s goddamn book, the book that was so fucking good, the book that he just could not stop reading.

[1] The quote, as published, actually reads “the color of television” without the article. The “a” is here because Mark is reading an early draft of the book.