At the end of The Matrix (1999), Neo (Keanu Reeves), apparently The One, blathers about a world of “choice,” without “rules and controls, … borders or boundaries, … where anything is possible.” To the opening strains of Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up,” he takes to the air and, like Superman, ﬂies. Coming after the movie’s various bullet-time shenaniganscharacters dodging bullets or hanging, suspended in mid-air, mid-ﬁght, like insects-it is perhaps the last iconic image that cyberpunk will give us. Seen even just a few months later, these moments looked clunky, like they belonged to some almost-forgotten past in which one could not only watch digital eﬀects but see them. Like cyberpunk itself, whose ﬁrst pronouncement of death came before most of us had even got beyond Night City, these digital posthumans were, for a brief moment which passed before we even got to see them, on the edge. A revenant ﬂicker, now they are relics. But that last iconic moment should not pass without comment. Such fanta-
sies of ﬂight, of transcending material constraint, are common in SF, giving access to other realms, physical and metaphysical. While the plunge of the hacker’s virtual avatar into the dataspace of the global information network (reﬁgured in Neo’s ﬂight) was cyberpunk’s ﬁrst iconic image, it did not spring fully-formed from the head of William Gibson (or Tron (1982)). Rather, it was a sublation of earlier SF images of ﬂight, transcendence, and circulation.
In John Jacob Astor’s A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future (1894), three representatives of the Terrestrial Axis Straightening Company realise that the gravity-nullifying energy they are using to correct the Earth’s axial tilt (i.e., increase the planet’s commercial exploitability) can also be used to power spaceﬂight. The solar system opens to them like a textual repository, an information space: on Jupiter, they ﬁnd chronologically jumbled versions of prehistoric terrestrial lifeforms as well as giant ants and musical ﬂowers; on Saturn, lilies and dragons-as well as the spirits of the
dead, one of whom lectures them on spiritual matters and gives them a glimpse of the future. Inspired by this instruction, one of the explorers astrally projects back to Earth. Such peculiar conjunctions of engineering and the esoteric can also be observed in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), cyberpunkishly reworked in Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985), and in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which Douglas Trumbull’s prolonged widescreen psychedelic ‘Stargate’ sequence used innovative eﬀects technologies to produce an intense visual rhetoric and cinematic paraspace. Trumbull returned the spectacle of this headlong rush to its roots in fairground rides and This is Cinerama-style thrills in Brainstorm (1983), the central conceit of which-recording an individual’s experience for others to replay-would become familiar in cyberpunk (even if its representation of posthumous experience had more in common with Astor’s spiritualism than the Dixie Flatline construct or net-distributed Virek of Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Count Zero (1986)). In David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), Maskull is transported
to the distant planet Tormance by the “back rays” (light which returns to its source) of its sun. His body transformed into a humanoid alien form, he is drawn into the Manichean conﬂict between Muspel and Crystalman. Just as the plot resembles Neuromancer-Case, transported to a realm of light, is drawn into the struggle between Neuromancer and Wintermute-so Lindsay’s description of “sparks of living, ﬁery spirit hopelessly imprisoned in a ghastly mush of soft pleasure” (298) resembles cyberpunk’s dualism: digital disembodiment versus the meat. As Astor’s novel suggests, SF has typically imagined scientiﬁc and technological innovations as some kind neoHegelian progress, with the human spirit detaching itself from nature en route to perfection (which often resembles the United States as experienced by rich white men). While Superman was learning to ﬂy (rather than merely leap tall buildings), the visitor to General Motors’ “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair could share his aerial perspective, “simulat[ing] a cruise in a low-ﬂying aircraft over the United States of 1960” (Nye 218) as imagined by Norman Bel Geddes. In the Cold War United States, the aerial view of the American landscape would become apocalyptic: wartime Kodak advertisements promoting superior optical technologies through aerial views of German cities subjected to “high altitude precision bombing” (Dimendberg 37) gave way to diagrams mapping in concentric rings the eﬀects of atom bombs dropped on American cities seen from above. Urban planners advocated the centrifugal, defensive dispersal of populations away from concentrated, centripetal urban centres (248-59), even as primarily white populations were ﬁnding other reasons to remove themselves to the suburbs. More recently, SF versions of this white ﬂight have taken the form not of suburbs, gated communities, oﬀ-world colonies or alien saviours but of libertarian, pro-market, digital disembodiment. Cyberpunk’s uniqueness, then, lies not in its desire for trans-
cendence, which it shares with much SF, but in its development of new