Mirrorshades, Ed. Bruce Sterling

Ace, 1986 (1988 reprint), 239 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-53382-5

Short story collection may be a staple of written Science Fiction, but few of them pass the test of time. Year’s Best SF collections have their place, of course. Sometimes, theme anthologies can be good for a giggle or two. But very few of them can outlast their print runs. Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions duo still reigns supreme as a genre landmark, but those were original anthologies published at an unusual junction in the field.

Then there’s Mirrorshades, which has sailed through two decades to still end up as one of the defining cyberpunk books. Not many 21st-century readers may have held a copy in their own hands (it took me years to find even a battered water-stained paperback edition), but it’s still listed as one of those books you have to read in order to understand the bright flicker of what was cutting-edge Science Fiction in the eighties.

This is an achievement made even more remarkable by the fact that Mirrorshades is a reprint collection where even Bruce Sterling’s all-new introduction is a summation of what he was writing in his “Cheap Truth” fanzine. Mirrorshades is a classic collection: It’s meant to be the distillation of an attitude, the portrait of a movement and the dawn of a new Science Fiction. With time, it has become a time capsule. It’s hardly a definitive cyberpunk anthology (anything missing “Johnny Mnemonic” is incomplete, almost by definition), but it’s there to make a statement more than a curriculum document for English Literature students.

Reviewing Mirrorshades is a bit useless: It’s so closely tied up to a historical sub-genre that fans already know that they want to read it, and those who could never stomach cyberpunk know better than to try. One might as well write a study of the sub-genre and how it has diffused in the rest of SF.

Hence this non-review, which will simply run down the list of contributors to the anthology and see where they are, twenty years later. This of this as a VH1 special, without any of the sex and drugs. (You too can obtain the following information via simple web searches, with special stops at Wikipedia and the locusmag.com site.)

  • Tom Maddox (“Snake-Eyes”) last prose science-fiction credentials date from 1996 (with two “X-Files” episode co-written with William Gibson in 1998 and 2000), but he’s currently doing well in occupations related to technology and writing, specifically in the field of “identity management”.
  • Lewis Shiner (“Till Human Voices Wake Us”, “Mozart in Mirrorshades”) is reportedly still writing, though his latest fiction seem to be mainstream novels dealing with music. The last one was published in 1999.
  • Though Pat Cadigan (“Rock On”) has published steadily since the eighties, her output has been sparse for the last decade, and her last three novels have been novelizations (Cellular, Jason X) and a sequel to a novelization (Jason X: The Experiment)
  • Looking at Marc Laidlaw‘s (“400 Boys”) bibliography for the last decade, you may think that he’s been out of the SF game entirely. But that would be entirely misleading, because Laidlaw’s words have possibly been heard/read by more people than the rest of his Mirrorshades colleagues combined: As a video game writer/designer, he has worked on the Half Life video game series, which has gone on to become one of the classics of modern computer gaming.
  • John Shirley‘s (“Freezone”) career has become far too eclectic to describe properly, buzzing between splatterpunk horror, media novelizations, music and a new novel just out in late 2006.
  • Rudy Rucker (“Tales of Houdini”) is still writing steadily, and his hip blend of mathematics and all-out weirdness continues to amaze readers in and out of genre. His latest novel, Mathematicians in Love, was published in late 2006.
  • James Patrick Kelly (“Solstice”) has become a formidable short-story SF writer, recently enjoyed a Hugo Nomination for his 2005 novella Burn, was recently interviewed in Locus Magazine and continues to be an active participant in the genre. His short stories often appear in “Year’s Best SF” anthologies.
  • Paul Di Filippo (“Stone Lives”) has steadily gained stature as a prolific genre writer, with a number of award nominations to his credit. He is also regarded as one of the best critics in the SF&F field.
  • Greg Bear (“Petra”) is still recognized as one of Science Fiction’s foremost hard science fiction writer, although his reputation has dimmed somewhat since the mid-nineties. His latest few novels have marked an attempt to gain a mainstream thriller readership, with mixed results. (His latest novel, Quantico (2005), had trouble finding an American publisher.)
  • William Gibson (“The Gernsback Continuum”, “Red Star, Winter Orbit”) was already a superstar at the time Mirroshades was published and now enjoys something akin to mainstream respectability. Since Neuromancer, his novels have steadily moved away from Science Fiction to mainstream reality… an evolution whose irony has not been lost on anyone.
  • And finally, Bruce Sterling (Preface, “Red Star, Winter Orbit”, “Mozart in Mirrorshades”) now reign supreme as one of SF’s best and most influential writer. His fiction was quick to move away from cyberpunk, and the past decade (since his Heavy Weather renaissance) has shown him as a writer at the top of his game, surfing over the world’s constant changes like few other SF writers are able to do.

And so the future histories of the young punks that defined Mirrorshades have come to illustrate the impact of their anthology, their writing and their genre. Technology still plays a heavy part in the Mirrorshades diaspora: Who could have imagined that one of them would go on to become a video-game writer/designer in one of the most acclaimed franchise of computer gaming? Who could have imagined one of them working in the very cyberpunkish field of “identity management”?

The mainstreaming of those writers also holds true for those who stuck to regular printed prose. Greg Bear and Pat Cadigan, in their own fashions, are now writing in the present. Lewis Shiner and John Shirley have been able to embrace the “punk” in cyberpunk like few other. The two superstars of Mirrorshades, Gibson and Sterling, often give the impression of pacing ahead while the rest of the world catches up: Their last two novels (including Gibson’s upcoming Spook Country) have stuck close to “the real world”, though a real world even more bizarrely amazing than what they set out to describe in either Neuromancer or Islands in the Net.

Not everyone can be so lucky, of course, but there are remarkably few “Where are they now?” questions about the Mirrorshades alumni. Like cyberpunk itself, they have weathered the storm that they foresaw, and cannot simply be tagged with genre labels. The world has seen their technology, heard their music, heeded their call for rebellion and decided it could find its own uses for all of that. Cyberpunk is dead because everyone now lives in it. Mirrorshades, even twenty years later, remains relevant… and that’s even throughout talking about the qualities of its stories. No wonder amazon.com (which wasn’t even an idea twenty years ago) won’t sell you a copy under US$30.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *