He leaned closer. "But that's not all of it. I'm not innocent enough to let chaos alone. I stink of the Net, Laura. Of power and planning and data, and the Western method, and the pure inability to let anything alone. Ever. Even if it destroys my own freedom. The Net lost Africa once, blew it so badly that it went bad and wild, but the Net will get it back, someday. Green and pleasant and controlled, and just like everywhere else. "Reading old cyberpunk is a peculiarly weird experience. On the one hand, the whole genre is envisioned as a plausible reconstruction of an imminent and threatening future, so its inconsistencies with the realities of the future-as-lived are especially noticeable, while the endless thought experiments of the Golden Age era are somehow better-preserved. (It's true, though, that the strangely ambivalent sense of living in the future that I feel on a daily basis seems to align with cyberpunk more than any other sf subgenre.) On the other hand, because it's a characteristic product of the late '80s, cyberpunk also constitutes a temporally-grounded aesthetic; it's as difficult today to imagine Gibson's Case in flannel and vintage Converse as it was back then to imagine the disappearance of payphones. Steampunk, which has stripped away the aspects of cyberpunk that made claims on reality, doesn't have this problem: we don't care that the brass goggles and difference engines are unrealistic because they were never supposed to be real. So cyberpunk is strange because it sees the future as a radicalized present, and its overarching focus on the tendency of technology to aggravate the tensions of exploitation rather than mitigating them marks it even more as a product of the disillusioned late Cold War moment.
"So I win, and you lose-is. that what you're telling me? That we're enemies? Maybe we are enemies, in some abstract way that's all in your head. But as people, we're friends, aren't we? And I'd never hurt you if I could help it."
"You can't help it. You were hurting me even before I knew you existed." He leaned back. "Maybe my abstractions aren't your abstractions, so I'll give you some of your own. How do you think I financed all this? Grenada. They were my biggest backers. Winston Stubbs . . . now there was a man with vision. We didn't always see eye to eye, but we were allies. It hurt a lot to lose him."
She was shocked. "I remember.... They said he gave money to terrorist groups."
"I haven't been picky. I can't afford to be--this project of mine, it's all Net stuff, money, and money's corruption is in the very heart of it. The Tuaregs have nothing to sell, they're Saharan nomads, destitute. They don't have anything the Net wants--so I beg and scrape. A few rich Arabs, nostalgic for the desert while they tool around in their limousines.... Arms dealers, not many of those left. I even took money from FACT, back in the old days, before the Countess went batshit. "
- Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net (1989)
Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net, in that context, performs surprisingly well. Although he failed, like everyone else, to predict the fall of the Soviet Union, he correctly foresaw an end to the Cold War and the Eastern Bloc's turn to rapacious consumerism. In general, what is most attractive and compelling in Sterling's approach to futurology (and he has now become much weightier as a modern Nostradamus than as a novelist) is that he resists the narrativizing tendency of most predictive sf. In other words, he doesn't follow the traditional path of taking a single trend and extrapolating its momentous consequences. Instead, he identifies a complex of mentalities, social processes, technological developments, and climates of opinion which coalesce and cross—fertilize to produce a loosely coherent world. This happens to be how history actually takes place, so it's unsurprising that it makes for good history of the future.
In the world of Islands in the Net, the Abolition of nuclear weapons (the grand achievement of the Baby Boomers, as he tells it—hah!) has led to the creation of a quasi-world government and a worldwide complex of corporate and other institutions grouped together as "the Net," which is both a vaguely-described technological entity corresponding to the Internet and a sociopolitical one corresponding to what Hardt and Negri would call Empire. The plot revolves around the struggle between this entity and a variety of outlaw communities that both prey on the Net (as information brokers, for instance) and resist its homogenizing attempts to incorporate them. Sure, there are a few lazy archetypes here and there (what the hell is it with cyberpunk and Rastafarians, anyway? That deserves a post of its own), but by and large the picture is a convincing one.
Probably the most profound insight in the book is the way that the insurgents oppose the Net. Of course, they reject its founding liberal-democratic-technocratic principles, but they are not Luddites or (as most cyberpunk writers envision it) bricoleur-hackers who use scruffy, beat-up technology to defend themselves against bigger and shinier machines. Rather, the very fact of insurgency depends on the existence of the system. The "islands" are as much a product of the Net as the larger structures that oppose them. It is difficult not to recognize this as a prescient vision of contemporary Islamic insurgencies (which are heavily dependent on online forums and sites like kavkaz.ru) or, more charitably, the Zapatistas and other like groups. The rather frightening, or perhaps sublime in the eighteenth-century sense, lesson—that the Net abides whether one likes it or not—will almost certainly end up being cyberpunk's most lasting cultural legacy.
I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that cyberpunk as a genre is now dead. It was killed off by a variety of things, including William Gibson's acknowledgement that the world he was writing about had now arrived and thus near-future sf was increasingly irrelevant. The touchstone moment of its death, though, was the release of the The Matrix. I won't deny that the film is slick, that it is probably the first non-textual cyberpunk work to give it all the style and atmosphere it deserves (but see also the really odd and awesome '90s computer game BloodNet)—but that's precisely the problem. By abstracting away the historical, cultural, and geopolitical aspects of cyberpunk's central question, and replacing it with a bunch of tedious Philosophy 101 Cartesian bullshit, the Wachowski brothers effectively reduced the genre to a pure aesthetic, a point driven painfully home by the sequels. Although the problems cyberpunk once posed are especially relevant in the Wikileaks age, the genre's resurgence is an increasingly distant prospect.