Cyberpunk Women, Feminism And Science Fiction by Carlen Lavigne (book review).

I had slight misgivings with the preface to Carlen Lavigne’s book, ‘Cyberpunk Women, Feminism And Science Fiction’ when she starts describing the history of cyberpunk without mentioning Bruce Bethke’s 1983 short story but in the proper introduction, she clearly is well read on the subject and covers the history in the following chapter. She describes cyberpunk as belonging to the 4 C’s: corporation, crime, computers and corporeality (read that as corporations) and the changes to our world today as computer technology takes over our reality and taken to extremes.

She also includes cyborgs as a near fifth C. Oddly, she misses out the meaning of ‘punk’. Not the original meaning which meant ‘prostitution’ but that of rebellion as given with the UK punk movement of the 1980s. The reason why ‘cyberpunk’ didn’t really last that long was because, unlike William Gibson’s assertion that people would rebel against computers, is because they embraced the technology instead. Many of you people reading here lived through that period and look what you’re reading this review on. Something else Lavigne misses out on is Gibson admitting that he doesn’t like computers and I suspect those who read his novels probably raised their own eyebrows as to how druggies could program computers when you really need all your attention when writing code.


Nevertheless, she does give a good account of the cyberpunk novels and authors, even if only Pat Cadigan was the only female star initially and from reading on, only really a handful after that. With cyborgs, she does backtrack to the likes of C.L. Moore’s short story ‘No Woman Born’ (1944) and James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon) with ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ (1973). The use of computer tech was used way back into the 1950s and often embraced and not rebelled against. The size of the tech might be different but that was based on the size of the computers back then where they were as big as a house before silicon and miniaturisation.

Her discussion on female robots being seen as sex objects is rather telling but it also showed the odd gap. I mean, what would you call the Terminatrix or T-X from ‘Terminator 3: The Rise Of The Machines’ (2003) film? Even the robot Maria in ‘Metropolis’ (1927) wasn’t a sex object. Making a case is one thing, missing out known exceptions less so. I would correct her about Eve VIII from ‘Eve Of Destruction’ (1991) because I doubt if any male fantasy is to have their penis bitten off although it might be perceived as a female fantasy. Oddly, the one female cyborg you would think she would have included, Jaime Sommers, ‘The Bionic Woman’, doesn’t even get a mention and was popular with both sexes. Whatever the gender given to robots or androids, they lack the emotional make-up that would make any difference to them. Going through the motions, if you’d excuse the wry pun.

Lavigne does make a rather telling point that the number of women involved in computer programming has dropped a bit, citing it’s more a male domain. That sort of becomes a Catch 22 situation, if you think about as the numbers are bound to go down if fewer decline to work that way.

When it comes down to sexual preferences, I’m less sure about as it can become an issue within a story than an aspect of it. When Bruce Sterling added a sex scene to ‘The Difference Engine’ (1990), it seemed totally superfluous and unnecessary. If there is a sexual preference, then chances are that if you aren’t of that persuasion, you’re less likely to buy it.

Lavigne’s examination of Google hits for various people and terms seems high and although she points out that not all the entries are likely to be related to them, at most they are only a trend not absolute figures. Having a word but not in relation to what doesn’t really help. Are people just curious about cyberpunk or want to buy a book would have been something I would have looked up. Looking around on the Net, there are only about 50 significant books so it’s hardly a big sub-genre so hardly surprising that a bigger proportion are known.

I do think if things need to be changed then it must be the role models for women in stories. Showing women as computer programmers would certainly be at the top of the list.

Lavigne has made a reasonable exploration of the subject. Certainly enough for me to come up with the July editorial out of something I spotted in it. As she has also covered the history of cyberpunk as well, this book doubles in its purpose. About the only thing she might have explored more is whether there’s any future in the subject as many of us have adjusted to technology with little fear of it. Cyber-reality bytes.

GF Willmetts

June 2016

(pub: McFarland. 204 page indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £35.50 (UK), $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-6653-5)

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8 thoughts on “Cyberpunk Women, Feminism And Science Fiction by Carlen Lavigne (book review).

  • I suspect those who read his novels probably raised their own eyebrows as to how druggies could program computers when you really need all your attention when writing code.

    Say what!? It’s clear you weren’t working in Silicon Valley in the ’80s or ’90s. Programmers using lots of drugs are about as rare as…um, writers using lots of drugs. That is to say, not as common as rock stars using lots of drugs, but far more common than policemen using lots of drugs.

  • Hello Xtifr
    Using drugs is one thing but I doubt if they were programming when they were high as a kite.
    I was programming in the UK during that period and you do need to keep your wits about you so you don’t make mistakes.
    Bear in mind also that Gibson admits a few decades down the line he didn’t understand computers and probably exaggerated what he heard. You certainly would need more than your wits programming cyberspace.

    • I think you underestimate both the overconfidence that drugs can inspire and the arrogance that programmers can display. Think? Heck, I know! I worked with a lot of these people. For a while (I quickly learned better), I was one.

      I suspect Silicon Valley may have been a much different experience than most UK programming gigs. Right next door to Stanford, and just a few miles from Berkeley(!), it was fueled by young, arrogant kids fresh out of school who thought they were indestructible and could do anything. If you can use drugs to cram for class, then you can use drugs to crank out code, right? And with all the little startup companies, these people were operating with little or no oversight from mature adults.

      Gibson’s notions of how computers work were pretty ridiculous, but his notions of how programmers work bore an all-too-frightening resemblance to what I was seeing at the time. 🙂

      (Note that none of this is intended to take away from the rest of your review. I just noticed this one point and had to comment. But I didn’t/don’t want to make a big deal out of it.)

  • Hello Xtif
    A lot of it depends on the drugs. Maintaining concentration has moved onto how some students can keep going for hours but some are not suitable for that and Gibson definitely use those as his examples.
    You certainly wouldn’t use alcohol or even too much caffeine for too long. The same applies with psychedelic drugs which was high (sic)on Gibson’s list. We are talking drugs while programming not something some might have taken for downtime.
    Even Gibson was surprised at how a genre grew out of his own inaccuracies. Wait until you see my editorial end of the month. 🙂
    The overall comment is that there are a lot of drugs you definitely wouldn’t want to be one while programming.

    • Again, you clearly weren’t there. 😉

      First, cocaine is generally classified as a mild hallucinogen, as well as a stimulant. But more generally, yes, psychedelics were quite popular in early Silicon Valley. Programming (especially for a brash young start-up that wants to change the world) is a creative endeavor, and a lot of people think psychedelics help creativity. The creators of BSD Unix and the founders of Apple were all known for their use of psychedelics. Among many others.

      I, myself, in the early seventies, conceived, designed, and coded a debugging tool while tripping on LSD in the middle of a loud party. It literally came to me in a vision. It was deployed throughout the company by the end of the next week. Coding on psychedelics is not actually hard. (Debugging is another story.)

      While I’ve long since grown out of that phase of my life, I’ve heard recently that ecstasy and mushrooms are still extremely popular among young Valley programmers these days.

  • Hello xtfir
    I can write an article when I’m tired but I would still have to be wide awake for the final polish.
    From what you described, you might write the code but it doesn’t mean it was finished or polished before testing it. So how long did it take you to debug and were any of your thoughts that some of the code was clearly wrong??
    I have a feeling that we were a lot more sensible programming in the UK.
    Thinking drugs will help concentration is one thing but I doubt you would have been stoned as Gibson’s characters were. With Cyberspace, you would be tracking multiple variables and how they connect to existing code.


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