Annotation: E.L. McCallum’s “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction” (2000)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, as yet, still untitled. See my prospectus here.

McCallum, E.L. “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction.” Poetics Today 21.2 (2000): 349-77. Print.

In this essay McCallum asserts the importance of examining the function and role of “real” space in cyberpunk fiction. She argues that while works of the genre are traditionally noted for their innovative representations of virtual spaces through “distance transcending technology” such as the internet, characters still deeply rely on the real material world and it only through physically traversing this realm that certain narrative ends can be accomplished (350). McCallum emphasizes that by shifting the critical focus to “real” space, we can see how “old” colonialist systems and familiar oppressive power structures (race, gender, nationality, class, etc) continue to organize the apparently “futuristic” virtual space. She ultimately asserts that the contemporary cyberpunk genre has its roots in imperialistic adventure narratives such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and fail to transcend the geographic and ideological norms of our current society, making these texts rather conservative. But I argue that rather than lacking the creativity to imagine a more “transcendent” future, cyberpunk authors are interested in exposing familiar oppressions and exploitations in order to emphasize the urgency with which trends such as globalization and corporatization may be severely perpetuated into the future through more insidious means such as the Internet. While McCallum notes important parallels between virtual and real space, she does not explicate how organizational conventions of race, gender, nationality, class, etc are re-inscribed in the “Metaverse” of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which I hope to further expand on in my own paper.

With respect to the novel, McCallum importantly demonstrates how the boundary between reality and cyberspace is destabilized. Hiro can move not only in between these two realms, but also through both at the same time, he “can remain hooked into the Metaverse while traversing the real” (366). Unlike McCallum who sees this as a reliance of the virtual on the real, I argue that this moment reveals the potential of this convergence to enhance human agency, where technology can be used to affect change. Therefore, while McCallum concludes her article with the assertion that cyberpunk protagonists do not offer any viable means of resisting or critiquing the corporate culture and that our best hope is to become adept at maneuvering through this reality, in my paper I hope to challenge her defeatist position.

As a slightly unrelated point, McCallum also discusses in her article, the difficulty of localizing transnational corporations in Snow Crash, which not only operate in multiple locales throughout the world but also virtual spaces in the “Metaverse.” This is a particularly interesting point from which to examine current implications of corporate globalization.

Prospectus: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992)

Below is my prospectus on Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) and a working list of the references I have consulted so far. I recognize that one of the major challenges in my project so far is historicizing my discussion of the Internet. I also plan to look more deeply into discourses about “techno-orientalism” and the “posthuman” so any constructive criticism about my topic or suggested reading will be greatly appreciated. thanks ^^

Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash offers a means of understanding the complex relationship between human beings and cyberspace, which emerges as simultaneously a tool to further ends that will facilitate and improve one’s existence in the real world, as well as a distinct realm where another life can be lived and a new identity fashioned. Stephenson presents the Metaverse as a futuristic model of today’s Internet, combined with video game RPG (role-playing game) technology, where individuals can log on and interact with one another through personal, digitized avatars. In the novel the main character, Hiro Protagonist, spends a lot of time in this “computer-generated universe” working as a hacker who sells information to finance his living expenses in Reality (24). But the Metaverse does not simply provide Hiro with a job; it also offers him an entire “universe” through which he can lead an alternative life as a “warrior prince” (63).

The novel ultimately calls attention to some of the major tensions surrounding discourses about the Internet and its role in society today. For Hiro, cyberspace becomes a means of escaping the discomforts of the real world, such as his bland 20-by-30 U-Stor-It apartment to enjoy the comforts of his mansion in the Metaverse. Some critics assert the endless possibilities of this physical dissociation, positing the Internet as a fully democratic space, where all individuals can have equal access and will not be discriminated against on the basis of race, class, gender, or nationality because these elements do not have to be transmitted and therefore bear no import in virtual reality. Stephenson dramatizes this notion of cyberspace as a site where the free and multifarious experimentation of the self can happen: “Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful… You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse” (36). But while he accentuates how individuals can assume virtual identities entirely dissociated from their real physical appearance and human biology, in the same moment he deeply troubles the notion of free and equal access by asserting that the quality of one’s avatar is limited by one’s “equipment.” Unlike Hiro, who possesses the privileged means to design a high-tech, personal computerized representation of himself, other users are forced to rely on commercialized Brandy and Clint avatars that have a limited range of facial expressions and therefore appear less human, while those who can only manage to log into the Metaverse from “cheap public terminals” materialize in the form of “grainy black and white” avatars (41).

In this paper I am interested in examining how the Internet offers a false sense of liberation from real world oppression by problematically obscuring structural inequalities and the ways in which race, gender, class, and nationality continue to organize and assert their haunting presence in cyberspace. “The Black Sun,” for example, emerges as an exclusive virtual space, where “Everything is solid and opaque and realistic. And the clientele has a lot more class—no talking penises in here (55). Stephenson suggests that “The Black Sun” is realistic because of its high-definition graphics, but we realize that this realism also stems from familiar acts of exclusion. Despite the previous assertion that individuals can assume any desired computerized form, this space does not welcome “talking penises” or any avatar that lacks “class.” In her essay “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction,” E. L. McCallum asserts that while works in this science fictional genre have been traditionally analyzed for their innovative representations of virtual spaces, characters still deeply rely on the real material world and it is only through physically traversing this realm that important narrative ends can be accomplished. McCallum emphasizes that by shifting the critical focus to “real” space, we can see how “old” colonialist systems and oppressive power structures continue to organize the apparently “futuristic” virtual realities presented. But while she concludes that contemporary cyberpunk fiction “map the same old world” and are ultimately conservative in presenting a future that relies “on the division between first and third worlds, demarcated by race and ethnicity,” I argue that rather than a failure of artistic innovation, works such as Snow Crash endeavor to expose familiar oppressions and heighten the urgency with which they may be severely perpetuated into the future through more insidious means such as the Internet (352).

I will particularly rely on the theoretical framework Lisa Nakamura presents in Cybertypes where she examines the Internet as a highly racialized space. Her discussion of avatars as a problematic means through which people of color can “pass” as white or are assumed to be white without certain pronounced racial indicators is especially relevant to my research. I argue that Stephenson captures this notion of “passing” through the character of Hiro who possesses a hybrid racial identity. His mother is “Korean by way of Nippon” and his father is “African by way of Texas by way of the Army” (20-21). Yet in the novel Hiro’s blackness and Korean-ness are disturbingly repressed while his Japanese-ness is highly accentuated as he is presented as a “black kimono wearing,” katana equipped, ninja-like figure (36). I intend to explore the problematic moments where this racial complexity surfaces, such as the incident in The Black Sun where a Japanese businessman interrogates Hiro’s mixed appearance and essentially his right to carry a katana. This is an especially urgent topic for analysis because of the troubling manner in which many critics have perpetuated the repression of Hiro’s complex racial identity by entirely glossing over his Korean and African roots. In his essay “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash,” David Porush, for example, entirely misrepresents Hiro as “a Japanese-American hacker living in L.A.” (561). While my paper will rely on theories of techno-Orientalism, I will also problematize how these discourses may perpetuate stereotypical representations of the web as a “white” and “yellow” space at the expense of more nuanced racial complexity

Works Consulted

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “Orienting Orientalism, or How to Map Cyberspace.” AsianAmerica.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace. Eds. Rachel C. Lee and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong. New York: Routledge, 2003. 3-36. Print. (Annotation)

Hayles, N. Katherine. “The Posthuman Body: Inscription and Incorporation in Galatea 2.2 and Snow Crash.” Configurations 5.2 (1997): 241-66. Print. (Annotation)

Huang, Betsy. “Premodern Orientalist Science Fictions.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33.4 (2008): 23-43. Print.

McCallum, E.L. “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction.” Poetics Today 21.2 (2000): 349-77. Print. (Annotation)

Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

–. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print.

Niu, Greta Aiyu. “Techno-Orientalism, Nanotechnology, Posthumans, and Post-Posthumans in Neal Stephenson’s and Linda Nagata’s Science Fiction.”Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33.4 (2008): 73-96. Print.

Ow, Jeffrey A. “The Revenge of the Yellowfaced Cyborg Terminator: The Rape of Digital Geishas and the Colonization of Cyber-Coolies in 3D Realms’ Shadow Warrior.” Asian America.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace. Eds. Rachel C. Lee and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong. New York: Routledge, 2003. 249-266. Print. (Annotation)

Porush, David. “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash.”Configurations 2.3 (1994): 537-71. Print. (Annotation)

Sohn, Stephen Hong. “Alien/Asian: Imagining the Racialized Future.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33.4 (2008): 5-22. Print. (Annotation)

Wisecup, Kelly. “‘Let’s Get Semiotic’: Recoding the Self in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992).” The Journal of Popular Culture 41.5 (2008): 854-77. Print.