Your Own Private Universe: Neal Stephenson, Max Gladstone, and Cyberpunk’s Midlife Crisis
When I was fourteen, I read a full-page review of Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age in The Oregonian. I remember spreading the newspaper out on my parents’ dining-room table and concluding, “This is a story about a girl my age, who is from China” (my grandfather was British Chinese, and my teenage self yearned for that form of representation, among other forms). “She has a magic book that is also a computer. I have to find it.”
My allowance didn’t stretch to new hardcovers, so I got Snow Crash out of the library instead. I only understood about half the jokes, but I loved the energy and density of ideas per page, and all the permutations of computers and technology and rebellious future coolness. It was through Stephenson that I found Melissa Scott and a whole strand of queer cyberpunk that I’m still following. Meanwhile, I went on reading Stephenson: Zodiac and Diamond Age, sure, but also Cryptonomicon (which helped me decide to become a mathematician), every last page of The Baroque Cycle, and the thriller Cobweb (co-written with J. Frederick George). I even liked Reamde, which I’ve summarized for friends as, “Like an action movie, but with a Black woman from Iowa as the action hero and a programmer as the helpless romantic interest.”
When I read the beginning of Max Gladstone’s novel Empress of Forever, it felt like a Stephenson novel where a woman got to be the impossibly competent programmer. I’m a fan of this nonexistent feminist-hacker-heist subgenre, and would read many instances of it; I enjoyed all of Viv’s intensely held opinions on startups and ex-girlfriends and avoiding government surveillance and breaking into secret labs. But the plot of Empress of Forever doesn’t stay near Earth. It goes somewhere completely different, on an arc involving posthumanism, the Chinese epic Journey to the West, love, friendship, and realizing one’s own arrogance.
At first, I classified Empress of Forever as more space opera than earthbound cyberpunk. But while reading Stephenson’s newest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, I had a creeping, horrified realization: Empress of Forever and Dodge in Hell have the same plot, but Dodge in Hell doesn’t realize who the villain is.
One of the central tropes of classic cyberpunk was the division between the virtual world and the “real” world. Diamond Age had the magic book; Lisa Mason’s Arachne had a courtroom where lawyers posing as geometric Platonic forms argued for truth; Melissa Scott’s Burning Bright juxtaposed a game about a prison escape with a real-world murder mystery. Structurally, the virtual and real plot strands developed in parallel. At the story’s climax, they merged, demonstrating the virtual plot’s impact on the real (or, in the case of The Matrix, interchanging the roles of virtual and real completely). But in the decades since cyberpunk was invented, the distinction between virtual and real has collapsed. Rather than stepping into a virtual world, we’ve integrated computers into every moment of the everyday. This means that if you want to write a novel with a classic cyberpunk structure, you need a replacement for the virtual world. William Gibson’s Peripheral novels solve this problem with alternate timelines: instead of a privileged real world and a virtual one, there are multiple distinct, diverging alternate histories. Dodge in Hell and Empress of Forever juxtapose a familiar near-future “present day” with a post-Singularity future where minds are uploaded to computers maintained by nanobots in outer space. Freed from the constraints of human bodies, these minds inhabit what feels like a fantasy realm.
In both Dodge in Hell and Empress of Forever, the post-Singularity fantasy realm is created by the brilliant hacker billionaire protagonist, who thereby acquires quasi-divine powers. Empress of Forever creates contrast by catapulting a nearly-present-day version of the arrogant programmer Viv into the star-spanning future empire. While searching for a way home, she makes friends with—or at least friendly rivals of—a band of characters modeled on the adventuring party in Journey to the West: Monkey becomes Zanj Queen of Pirates, the White Dragon Horse becomes Xiara, a woman channeling ancestral memory of a starship pilot’s skills, and so on and so forth. Viv slowly figures out that the Empress who kidnapped her and tossed her into this strange realm is another version of herself. The Empress is fighting an intractable war with beings who have the power to destroy the fabric of reality. Because this version of Viv has figured out how to create alliances, rather than relying only on her own massive strength, she can defeat the Empress, forge a peace treaty, and open up a future that belongs to everyone:
The protocols would still work—souls would grow and gods would move. But no one was in charge now, except everyone.
Across a hundred thousand light-years, new worlds opened, and crypts long sealed rolled back their stones, and the galaxy woke up.
In Dodge in Hell, the billionaire game developer Dodge (uncle-by-adoption to Reamde’s action heroine) dies unexpectedly after spending a pleasant afternoon with his four-year-old great-niece Sophia. Following the instructions of an unexpected clause in Dodge’s will, his survivors arrange for his brain to be preserved, scanned, and eventually uploaded to a computer using experimental software. Dodge’s consciousness is disoriented and confused—he vaguely recalls that his name might be Egdod—but he uses his experience designing an extremely realistic sandbox game called T’Rain to create terrain around himself. Egdod’s initial design grows into a new world, creatively called the Land, and other uploaded consciousnesses slowly join him. By the end of the book, the creation of new servers to host this ever-growing collection of consciousnesses has been offloaded to robots elsewhere in the Solar System. Most humans have turned their attention to the new world where everyone can be endlessly reincarnated. The exceptions are people trapped in benighted communities that have chosen allegiance to Fake News, where they subsist on piles of automatic weapons and drive-by crucifixions.
The ostensible villain of Dodge in Hell is a different billionaire, El, who frames himself as God to Egdod’s Satan. The final pages of the book involve a Quest (referred to thus, in capital letters) in which a young woman named Prim and a collection of companions seek a key that can be used to free the imprisoned Egdod. Prim spends most of these segments journeying and being confused. She inadvertently kills some enemies with her mind, and then kills some more advertently. She admires a mysterious raven who happens to be the reincarnated consciousness of the classically-Stephenson-named Corvallis Kawasaki. She is psychically assaulted in a sequence chillingly reminiscent of date rape. Some boring teenage boys get crushes on her.
Many of Prim’s enemies—the generic mobs of this video-game-esque future world—are Beadles. Dodge and his billionaire friends and relatives have demigod status; they can create and destroy features of the Land. When other human consciousnesses (at first, the merely ordinarily rich, but as the technology spreads, almost anyone) are uploaded to the Land, El’s minions capture and shape them for specific tasks. It’s slavery on a massive, industrialized scale, made more chilling because the narrative never takes it seriously. El is evil, sure, but the Beadles are just cannon fodder. They don’t get interiority. They don’t get to go on the Quest.
If Dodge in Hell had any punk left in its cyberpunk, the protagonist would be a kid from one of the Fake News zones. They’d break out, try to enter the shiny new universe where they can build the self they’ve always wanted, discover instead the awful truth about the Beadles, and organize a rebellion. Instead, we get a confrontation between billionaires. Prim doesn’t even survive her Quest.
At the end of Dodge in Hell, Prim is reincarnated once again. By now, we recognize her as Dodge’s niece Sophia. She is back to being a child again, and he’s reading to her. It’s supposed to be sweet. But the story from Sophia’s point of view? She’s a young Black woman. She’s brilliant and curious and gets a degree from Princeton and is going to make something really interesting; but instead a billionaire’s robot murders her. She is reincarnated, is just reaching maturity and thinking about who she wants to be, and again a billionaire murders her. She’s trapped in the world her rich white uncle made. He thinks he loves her. He thinks this is a better world, Earth 2.0. But he is never, ever going to see her as an adult.
That’s the problem cyberpunk has to solve, now: who gets to grow up? When I first found the genre, I felt trapped on a smaller scale, in an open-plan school in a dead, open field where even the library was a Panopticon overlooked by classroom balconies. Cyberpunk offered a mirror of things I knew were wrong, on small scales and on grand ones. My dad had been laid off again and again, in post-Cold-War restructurings, so I knew a lot about economic uncertainty for a thirteen-year-old, as well as loneliness. Cyberpunk also offered a double escape: computers and stories, drawn together in the electric promise that computers could make stories.
But structurally speaking, if you’re going to escape, you need some place to go. Starting over with a whole new universe is a compelling way to do that. Dodge in Hell and Empress of Forever share an awareness of the immense resources that entails. But in Empress of Forever, the inequity involved in that creation drives the plot. Dodge in Hell can’t detect inequities more serious than the nerds versus geeks of a 1970s childhood.
Ursula Whitcher is a mathematician, writer, and editor who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with one spouse, two cats, and an ever-growing collection of art supplies. Ursula’s writing can be found in venues including Cossmass Infinities, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and the American Mathematics Society’s Feature Column, or in collected form at yarntheory.net. You can find them on Twitter.
This essay was commissioned and edited by Sean Guynes, and languished in editorial limbo for some time due to behind-the-scenes shufflings-about at ARB. Final editing and copyediting were provided by Jake Casella Brookins and Chad A. Hines. No review copies were arranged by ARB.