Friday, March 28, 2008

Retro-Journal: The Peak of Your Civilization in Early 1999

What was a typical day like for the common man in the year 1999 A.D.?

My notes suggest it entailed going to a party organized by Daily Show writer Jon Bines and hosted by Love Boat cast member turned Republican congressman Fred “Gopher” Grandy to benefit a comedy troupe, accompanied by bigtime media lawyer Stephanie Abrutyn (much too smart to get involved with a guy who doesn’t want kids) and there bumping once more into Jill Pope, mentioned in a prior Retro-Journal entry as a figure contributing to my Slaughterhouse Five-like detachment from the timestream.

(“Hey, it’s me!” was her boldly vague but well-deserved intro after what may have been a five-year gap since perhaps the only time I’d met her — I think I’d next bump into her five years later through Daniel Radosh, whose new book I’ll review on this site Tuesday and whose debate against Brian McCarter on the subject of Christian rock and its degree of suckiness I’ll host on Wednesday at 8pm at Lolita Bar.)

But I’m not the one whose judgment about whether the media-saturated world of 1999 was good matters: Agent Smith, the villain in The Matrix, is the one who, from his vantage point centuries later, called 1999 “the peak of your civilization,” the happy, bustling time period on which the virtual reality of the Matrix was based.

This was an amazing script line on the part of the Wachowski Siblings, I think. I mean, here they were, working in a genre (sci-fi) full of doomsday warnings, in a subgenre (cyberpunk) all about media dystopias, in a plot about robots enslaving mankind, in a film filled with implicit endorsements of radical-left liberationist ideas from environmentalism to Marxism to s&m subculture — yet they still have enough admiration for the present day to hold it up as a hustling, bustling peak of civilization, like “the glory that was Rome,” worthy of imitation even by coldly objective robot conquerors.

Even with vague worries about Y2K computer glitches and millennial terrorism starting to nag at us, we, as a civilization, were in love with ourselves in 1999, and it felt right.


And The Matrix did not exactly arise from a sci-fi subgenre known for its upbeat take on present-day society. “Cyberpunk,” a term coined by a short story with that title that came out in November 1983, really existed as an aesthetic before the term was coined. There were precursors — any sci-fi that seemed to revel more in extrapolating from present-day media trends and media technology than from classic engineering and physics technology, I’d say, with an emphasis on social and psychological near-future effects rather than whole new worlds.

Michael Moorcock with his amoral media star heroes and Philip K. Dick with his videotape-editing schizophrenic drug-user characters — and the 1982 film Blade Runner inspired by his work — are obvious forefathers. William Gibson was writing in this mode in short stories even before his 1984 novel Neuromancer became the dictionary example of the genre. And though it’s still not entirely cool for intellectuals or the masses to admit their world has been created by comic books (better Agent Smith’s robot slavemasters than that!), I suspect comic books had a lot more to do with shaping cyberpunk (and thus the default quasi-sci-fi, quasi-psychedelic rhetoric in which the Web was often described in the 90s) than we usually admit.

Again, the term “cyberpunk” wasn’t even coined until 1983, but by then we’d seen:

•Deathlok, the time-traveling rogue government agent cyborg in Marvel Comics (1974)

•Ronin, the ninja displaced into a high-tech cybernetic dystopia influenced by anime, created by Frank Miller (July 1983)

•Thriller, not the Michael Jackson album but the way-ahead-of-its-time (or should I say “Seven Seconds into the future,” for those precious tiny few who know?) DC Comics character and series — a ghostly Catholic woman in a cable-TV-dominated future fighting computer viruses and Islamic terrorism, I kid you not, with the help of family members like her brother, the skilled and goth-looking gunman Anthony “Salvo” Salvotini, whose flesh she can remold (for example) to produce strategically useful eyeballs in the palms of his hands — with both of the heroes watched over by their nine-foot-tall genetically-engineered family priest, Beaker Parish (get it?), all of it brilliantly drawn by Trevor von Eeden in a sketchy style that made the whole techno-dystopian, New Wave-influenced world look like it was literally going by in a blur (November 1983 — the same month the short story “Cyberpunk” appeared)

•The X-Men stories of Chris Claremont who early on tapped into the same cybernetic forces in the zeitgeist, complete with the orientalism (Wolverine encountering high-tech samurai), the punk (Storm, I am convinced, based her outfit on the lead singer of the Plasmastics, Wendy O’Williams, during one period in the comics when she lost her weather-altering abilities and was thus able to cut loose and get emotional for a change — subtle layers to the character’s psyche that, to put it mildly, were never reflected in the Halle Berry version), and even the weird cyberpunk fetish for wisecracking teenage girls (Jubilee, after whom downtown New York comedienne, event hostess, and comics fan Michele Carlo named her cat, by the way).

In perhaps his most giddily early-80s-cyberpunk move, Claremont created the larger-than-life character Lila Cheney, who is — brace yourself — a cute but amoral punk with unlimited teleportation powers who has thus become a rock star throughout the universe and makes her home (and stages some of her concerts) on an abandoned Dyson sphere (a gigantic, hollow artificial planet surrounding a star) created by some ancient alien race.

The Wachowskis worked for Marvel for a while and were well-versed in all this stuff (and no doubt read The Invisibles by Grant Morrison, my favorite comics writer [responsible for what will be my May Book Selection, the impending Final Crisis miniseries], who complains the Wachowskis ripped him off — but then, the Wachowskis borrowed from dozens of places, and we love them for it, or at least the first movie). And for all its machine gun battles and killer cyborgs and environmental sermons, it all seems born of an underlying optimism, a love of technology and progress subtly but significantly different from the more panicked and serious tone of the post-9/11 world, even post-9/11 frivolity like that of and Family Guy, marked as they are by a new viciousness and urgency that wasn’t yet dominant in the 90s — but more on 9/11, obviously, in five weeks.


One living embodiment of this peak time of civilization, for me, was my neighbor Katherine Taylor, a classy (and libertarian) dame with a theatre background who worked as a bartender for a time (once being treated a bit condescendingly by a customer who was one of my acquaintances, as I recall, which just goes to show you shouldn’t assume you know whether you’re in the company of your superiors, though the wit and beauty should have been a hint to my acquaintance) at establishments including one co-owned by Quentin Tarantino (as much an embodiment of early-90s retro-irony as The Matrix was an embodiment of late-90s cyberoptimism) and Lucy Liu (star of Charlie’s Angels, which so well summed up that mid-90s period when half the action movies had giant budgets and not an iota of realism but were sometimes cartoonish fun anyway, like The Big Hit and Lost in Space). Katherine would go on to win the Pushcart Prize and other accolades for her fiction writing, eventually becoming the author of one of my Book Selections, Rules for Saying Goodbye, and one of our debaters at Lolita Bar.

She was also one of the first people to explicitly share with me the fear that this whole cyber-culture was a bit of a bubble waiting to pop, since she worked briefly for an ambitious but failed site called Lavaspoon with which I’d actually interviewed as well, growing suspicious when I noticed that they had not only failed to get back to me about working with them but didn’t even seem to have gotten around to getting all their office phones hooked up or their logo designed yet — despite ostensibly having over a million dollars at their disposal. My techno-optimism was becoming tinged with nervousness.

Katherine is flourishing without Lavaspoon, though, and as I type this, I think she’s between a trip to Paris and a glacier-climbing expedition to Patagonia.

And indeed, two cosmopolitan friends of Katherine (meaning international in this case, not cosmo-drinking), males visiting from the UK who surprised me by getting manicures while they were in Manhattan — and swear to me that straight males do this all the time in Europe (perhaps a side effect of socialism) — were pivotal in pushing me into making an important travel decision: They encouraged me to try visiting India, as I’d been contemplating doing, and so I’d do just that later that year, with new girlfriend Indrani Nicodemus (who’d worked with Keanu Reeves once back when she lived in L.A., as it happens — one of many reasons the people at Page Six should get to know her).

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