Online Edition: Fall 2002

Cyber Reader

Cyber Reader

edited by Neil Spiller

Phaidon Press ($39.95)

Hard_Code

edited by Eugene Thacker

Alt X Press ($18)

by Rod Smith

The book is dead - or at least one book: Bill Gates's The Road Ahead. Dead on the market, that is. A cursory perusal of that vast online booksellers' clearinghouse, Abe.com, reveals that more than a thousand copies of the 1995 slab of spurious prophecy are up for grabs, with hardcover first editions going for right around the price of a Big Mac Value Meal. In fine condition, even, with dustjacket in archival mylar sleeve and accompanying CD ROM. A smart player can get more for a dogeared Danielle Steele paperback on Ebay.

Given the fact that a whole new generation has embraced book culture (thanks to Harry Potter, et al), not to mention the fact that one of the most widely embraced uses of computers to date has been the online buying and selling of books, it seems pretty likely that Mr. Microsofty's ejaculations about the demise of the codex were just a tad premature, to say the least. If anything, books and computers have a complementary relationship. Computers (via the internet) offer a wealth of information about books. They've also provided a treasure trove of fodder for same.

Two prize specimens of the current crop, Cyber Reader and Hard_Code, deliver very different glimpses into the world of computers and their effects on contemporary (and future) culture. Cyber Reader, a lavishly produced compendium edited by design mage Neil Spiller, delivers a vertiginously sweeping overview of cyberspace dating back to the birth of computers as a notion and moving forward through the fairly distant future. In many ways the excerpted essay that opens the book, "Of the Analytical Engine," by English mathematician and Charles Babbage, sets the tone for much of the anthology.

Babbage's piece, written in 1864, displays a faith in technology as an instrument for the betterment of society so powerful that at one point in his life, he referred to God as "the programmer of divine algorythyms." This tendency to deify the digital, or at least to cast it in an uncritical light, is resoundingly echoed to a great degree by Babbage's intellectual progeny, a pantheon of computer visionaries that includes artificial intelligence pioneer Alan Turing, cybernetics pioneer Norbert Weiner, and a host of others represented in Cyber Reader.

The anthology covers the practical end of the spectrum as well, with contributions from the likes of human/machine interface trailblazers JCR Licklider and Douglas Engelbart, as well as CAD pathfinders Gordon Pask and Cedric Price. This nuts and bolts aspect is counterbalanced nicely with excerts from the work of cultural theory gurus Marshall McLuhan, Paul Virilio, and Donna Haraway, whose "A Cyborg Manifesto," sparked a revolution in socialist feminism when it was published in 1985.

Cyber Reader displays no dearth of speculative fiction, either, with contributions from William Gibson, Greg Bear, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson, to name but a few. If the anthology comes up short anywhere, it's in the lack of what Wilhelm Reich once refered to as "the adversary position." Granted, there are exceptions-E. M. Forster's 1909 cautionary tale, "The Machine Stops," for example, and a revealing excerpt from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's monumental "A Thousand Plateaux." But overall, the anthology leans in favor of rationalism and rationalization; even its dystopias pack a certain glamour.

This doesn't prevent Cyber Reader from being highly readable, extremely informative, and often inspiring. Spiller has chosen wisely and well, and the brevity of the excerpts-most of which run around four pages in length-pretty much guarantees smooth sailing for the layperson in even the most arcane waters. The book's design owes a massive debt to Bruce Mau (Zone Books/S,M,L,XL), but it is a beautiful book to peruse. As what Spiller calls "a springboard to all manner of interesting, exciting, and even mind blowing concepts," the anthology is an unqualified success.

Hard Code

Besides, there are other books out there for the rebel kind, practicing and armchair alike. Take Hard_Code, for example. Editor Eugene Thacker opens his introduction (and the book) with a quote from William Burroughs's prophetic Nova Express regarding the similarity of binary code and viruses. Invoking Burroughs right off the bat makes for a nice lurid start. It also provides an immediate frame of reference, alerting the reader to the possibility that this "mis-users manual for the network society" just might be taking a somewhat more engaged stance than one normally encounters in literary antholgies.

And it does. From "Mad Cow," Harold Jaffe's beguiling meditation on agro- terrorism and the vulnerability of cell phone networks, to a primer for net insurgents by "//meta" titled "search?q=code," Hard_Code abounds with the sort of up-to-the-nanosecond "Us versus. Them" invention that Burroughs would applaud without reservation. That's really not such a big surprise, as a number of the anthology's contributors, Thacker included, sport solid reputations in the realm of transgressive fiction, on and offline.

What is surprising, given the anthology's rather dry stated mission of asking the question, "what kind of stories are told by data?," is the fact that so much of the writing in Hard_Code radiates rampant sensuality-and sexuality. While she is by no means alone, the identity-shifting Francesca Rimini, who appears in Hard_Code as GashGirl, Doll Yoko, Liquid Nation, and one third of ID Runners, shines brightly in this department. But even she seems a bit laid back compared to Shelley Jackson, whose "love-life of the story," an inspired take on George Bataille's Story of the Eye, oozes a strain of polymorphous (and polysemous) perversity potent enough to send old Mr. Naughtypants himself back to the drawing board.

Sex and sensuality aside, for an anthology that draws so heavily on the talents of those who work primarily in the virtual world, Hard_ Code spends a surprising amount of time in the world of flesh and blood. While Burroughs provides the anthology's ideological underpinnings, its patron saint is Paul Jernigan, the convicted murderer whose body provided the raw material for the male half of the Visible Human Project. Jernigan pops up again and again in various guises throughout the book, finally appearing as himself in Steve Tomasula's baroque tour de force "Bodies in Flatland."

All this physicality does a fine job of grounding Hard_Code, no matter how abstract it gets (as it does, from time to time). It also keeps the focus on the writing, which, above all else, tends to be damn fine. It's almost as though all the contributors decided in advance to agree with hyperfiction superstars The Unknown, who, in the elegant (and very funny) "Hard_Code Theater: In Remembrance of Things Unknown," suggest that maybe "writing is the best code of all."

Click here to buy Cyber Reader and Hard_Code at Amazon.com

Fall 2002 Table of Contents