Winter 2016, University at Buffalo
Online Course, January 4-22, 2016
During the 1980s and into the 1990s an almost imperceptible and underground transformation in our cultural imagination took place, as our dependence on the analogue media of print, broadcast television and celluloid film slowly gave way to a digital information culture that William Gibson termed “cyberspace” in his novel, Neuromancer (1984). While the public waited for Tim Berners-Lee to fashion a hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) and Marc Andreesen to code the first widely used Web browser, enabling a boringly commercial hypermedia known as the World Wide Web, the legacy media of science fiction and cinema took it upon themselves to imagine a dynamic, immersive, resistant and culturally diverse virtual reality. It’s not exactly what we got by the millennium; or, as Lawrence “Yogi” Berra is reputed to have said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” But that is the world of Cyberpunk, populated by techno-adept hackers and socially marginalized types, combining the grunge aesthetic of Punk music, the gritty realism of Film Noir, and the postmodern theory of a Simulacral society. In this condensed, three-week Winter session, we will read three classics of the cyberpunk genre: the aforementioned Neuromancer, whose antihero Case “jacks into” the Matrix of cybernetic war and trolls the dystopian Sprawl; Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991), in which the map of the mind becomes the territory of real space; and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1993), featuring Hiro Protagonist, whose digital avatar pursues a virus capable of infecting the cerebral cortex. We will complement these three works of fiction with three popular films in which virtual space overwhelms our Euclidean world: the millennial apocalypse of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995); an alternate world in which reality is a deceptive digital representation in the Wachowskis’s The Matrix (1999); and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), in which computer gaming becomes all too real. This course will be conducted online through UB Learns, with digital streaming of the films. Students will be required to participate in weekly graded discussion boards and writing assignments on both novels and films.