Friday, March 14, 2014

A(s)century's Contested Bodies and Narrative Temporality

A(s)century by Austin Walker is a twine game made for the cyberpunk jam, in which the player controls a character (who they name) as they inhabit and alter the course of a corporation-controlled future over the course of a century, beginning as a small time hacker and ascending the ranks of a corporation through a job as a writer until becoming the de facto authority behind a corporation which is "synonymous with the state." Or at least it was when I played it; the game makes use of saved variables to track the ultimate outcome and, because of how certain of these are marked (beginning, smartly, with the requirement that the player choose a handle for their character), creates a strong sense that the story itself is only one of many possible stories, nearly from the beginning. And that's not even to begin getting into how reading itself is an always partial and generative praxis, which (beyond being a hobby horse of mine) is an argument actively thematized through the game's narrative. Another time.

What draws me particularly to A(s)century (aside from the fact that Walker's easily one of the best games critics doing it right now), at least in terms of writing this up, is that, as per the name, its a cyberpunk fiction which occurs over a significant length of time. Which is, I think, extraordinarily rare -- the only analogue I can think of are Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist books. The usual cyberpunk template, codified by Gibson, is the near(ish) future with a narrative temporality cribbed from detective fiction, where time isn't measured by bodies but by things. Maguffins, specifically, although the way that most cyberpunk is written positions them within the context of an active contestation of the dyad of self and stuff. To draw the on the most overused example possible: in Neuromancer, the Maguffin is, basically, Case's blood. The nanobots or whatever specifically, but really the blood itself; the novel can end when it is purged. Sterling has always operated slightly larger than that, often implicitly linking the temporality of the narrative to either states or corporations (think of, say, Islands in the Net or The Caryatids or Distraction, and how rapidly and comprehensively they fall to pieces whenever the novel attempts to reign the narrative temporality to the individuals as such (or think of how Sterling's most recent book is entirely a desperate attempt to achieve that reigning, and how embarrassing of a failure it has been)), but its his Shaper/Mechanist stories that provide, if not direct inspiration for Walker's game, at least a Pure Cyberpunk precursor for the faithful to grasp onto.

Other precursors might include some of Greg Bear's writings, if you're inclined to figure his inclusion in Mirrorshades as definitive (though I think you'd have to make a hell of an argument to convince me that City at the End of Time, for instance, could even be included in The Movement on that kind of technicality). Rucker's Ware Tetralogy is certainly closer to the cyberpunk center, and the first novel and a half or so might reasonably appear as close to Walker's game as Sterling. By the time you've reached the end of that tetralogy, though, the initially jarring juxtaposition (Ruckers is a very new age/yippy cyberpunk) has resolved itself into an essentially conservative (generically, as well as politically) fictional future which (at least in my reading) has almost nothing whatsoever in common. Which isn't to say that cyberpunk was ever anything but conservative (I don't think it was as such, but that's an argument for another time as well); only that the tetralogy, as it progresses through time (linked, again, to (contested) bodies), it progressively narrows its interests from a relatively inclusive sample within the rough constellation of cyberpunk to exclusively that contestation as such, and, ultimately, the rejection of that contestation. Which is to say that, while on one formal level it seems to be doing something similar to A(s)century, it ultimately (and largely) is not.

A(s)century's particular take on the temporality of cyberpunk is, actually, perhaps the most properly cyberpunk approach to temporality I've ever seen; it takes as given that contestation between the body and the technological world -- treating, appropriately, language, the state, and corporations as technologies in the same way as the typically sfnal devices with which those things are interfaced -- and links the total time of the narrative to the body which is all these things. This is the rough explanation of the concordance between Walker and Sterling.

The body here, of course, is one hell of an abstraction, filtered not just through the conceptual disunity of cyberpunk's just-beyond-possible modifications, but also the abstraction inherent to the notion of a Player Character in a video game, and then again through the particular engine of the game, Twine, which produces hypertext. This basically just means that the representation which would be present, as a mixture of graphical and mechanical elements, in most games is here organized exclusively through the discursive (representational and mechanical) element exclusively. That this abstraction mirrors most closely the form of abstraction of reading a novel (or a short story) is only worth noting in the way that it points up the difference in the (technical, but also cultural) process by which that abstraction is achieved. Most relevant here is how the protagonist or player character of a video game is itself a site of conflicted assumptions, as the pure expression of player agency and as agentive participants in a fictional narrative in their own right. Which is, of course, neither to say that this means that player characters are in some essential way compromised by their form, nor that either of these assumptions even remotely reflect anything resembling reality. But these assumptions prime receptivity in certain ways, and A(s)century navigates them expertly -- most visibly in the already mentioned mechanic in which the player sees their chosen handle appear within the text, confirming that there exists an invisible tracking mechanism within the game towards which the player can, if they so choose, orient their decisions.

It's an elegant extension of a formal feature, as defined by cultural assumptions, into that particular realm of cultural assumption that valorizes itself with the term genre. An inherited ambiguity -- what is the role of the player character -- meets an inherited theme -- the contested body -- by way of a formal declaration -- your choices are tracked, and you are meant to know this. Which is, of course, then itself productive of thematic content; cyberpunk has never been one to shy away from surveillance.

That rough concordance between Walker and Sterling, unfortunately, relies on the assumption that two points equidistant from an object are necessarily the same point. One exemplary difference between the Shaper/Mechanist stories and A(s)century can be found in how the latter never explores the problem of generations; where the entirety of Sterling's universe is predicated on inter-generational conflict, as exacerbated by technological development, Walker's is absent any such (explicit) conflict, focused instead on subsumption itself as conflict. In this way it grabs another thread of cyberpunk, though one that is usually ignored; from the Mailman and Wintermute come the colonization of representational space by the stuff that is not quite of that space, implicated as it is in the problematization of the body. Walker, like Sterling, achieves this through the device rather than the distributed intelligence, but the climax is the same: the dialectic is closed with the things finding their own uses for the streets.

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