Classics, Class, and Code: The unlikely presence of the ancient world in cyberpunk literature

Classical antiquity, or classics – the study of the ancient Mediterranean, its history, culture, art, literature – is just about the fanciest thing in the history of the western world. It was, and to some extent is, the domain of the upper class, and for centuries has formed the bedrock of the British private school curriculum. Study of the ancient world was, and is, to a large extent, something of an act of self-indulgence, requiring the possession of wealth and the privilege of free time to undertake. The archaeology of Egypt is said to have originated with Napoleon Bonaparte, who in the early 19th century was probably one of the most powerful individuals in the world. People of lesser means could do this kind of work too – like Arthur Evans, who uncovered the Greek site of Knossos – but they had to at least attend Oxford first. Heinrich Schliemann had to make a killing as a war-profiteer before he could excavate Troy, while Claudius James Rich used his position as an agent of the British Empire to collect antiquities from ancient Mesopotamian sites. Even now, Conservative ministers in the UK (most famously, the Prime Minister himself) will often quote from classical literature or throw out recitations of Greek and Latin.

Perhaps because of this millennia-long obsession with the ancient world across European and North American ‘ruling’ classes, its influence in all corners of our everyday constitutes the sort of thing you can’t unsee: we come into contact with Greek material culture stolen by Earls only behind glass in museums, appreciate maybe a week or two of ancient Greece or Egypt in schools, and see Greco-Roman architectural influence in state buildings, concert halls and banks. Anyone in the US might look to their governmental headquarters – the US Capitol being the most famous – to see just how powerful ‘ancient things’ really are as a symbol of power and order. 

Cyberpunk, on the other hand, is popular culture about popular culture, its narrative content, worlds and characters following that infamous moniker “High tech, low life”. So many cyberpunk novels focus on down-on-their-luck protagonists living in squalor: neither architecturally sound nor planned, communities like that in Gibson’s Bridge trilogy are ramshackle, thrown-together networks of old signage and indistinct corrugated metal.

Furthermore, the lives of the characters within are almost never situated in the past. Cyberpunk almost always takes images, agents and institutions from the present and launches them into a sketchy, grim future: thus corporations like Cosa Nostra Pizza control the landscape of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), and the Hitachi computers and other such systems packing the stores of Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy. K W Jeter’s Noir (1998: 117), for example, refers to our own present-day events as “ancient history”. There is seemingly no awareness of the long-dead peoples of the Mediterranean and the Near East across the cyberpunk corpus in cyberpunk. It is apparently uninterested in the past; certainly not for an idealised, ‘civilised’ and specialist past that requires rigorous formal training and gross levels of funds to interpret. As Noir (1992: 302, my emphasis) succinctly states in relation his cyberpunk-capitalist hellscape: “The goal of commerce is to destroy history, to put its customers into the eternal Now”! The ruling hierarchies of cyberpunk worlds want their subjects situated firmly in the present: uneducated, ill-informed, heavily repressed consumers. 

And yet… Pieces of the ancient past keep appearing throughout cyberpunk worlds, either as fragments of material culture or as anecdotal micro-stories told by characters, and occasionally as analogies used by the authors to enrich their narratives. In Noir (1992: 115), the Greek gods Eros and Thanatos are used by Jeter to describe the social-sexual fabric of his world, drawing on Sigmund Freud’s own adoption of the gods to exemplify his theories of life and death instincts. Eros – so much more than the infamous Aphrodite – is the quintessential god of love and, most appropriately, sex. Consequently, as eagle-eyed fans of the Caprica TV series (Syfy, 2010) will attest, the Twelve Colonies’ equivalent to Valentine’s Day is “Eros Day” (“Unvanquished” ep.) Thanatos, the god of death – again, more so than the god of the underworld – points the reader of Noir directly towards the notions of threat and/or an ‘end’. The author’s recourse to these mythical figures will, for those readers who get the classical reference (if not the Freudian one), automatically bolster those feelings and emotions most associable with his sinister world. 

More pointedly in George Alec Effinger’s The Exile Kiss (1991: 205), the author speaking from the perspective of the protagonist Marid Audran uses the “whimsical Greek gods in the works of Homer” to illustrate the characters that surround him. A quick call-back to the Greek mythology of, specifically, Homer, puts into perspective the series of figures surrounding Marid as both strong characters (like the mighty Zeus, the rage-filled Ares, or the ever-alert protector Athena) and, most crucially, people of means and power, people who will, as Marid states: disturb “entire nations because of some imagined slight, or out of boredom, or for no particular reason at all.”

Very occasionally, the ancient past can be something to aspire to: Shariann Lewitt’s Memento Mori (1995: 82) eulogises classical Greece as a model of revolutionary creativity. Nonetheless, this passing comment is overshadowed by a focus on modern cultural phenomena – most notably, 20th century jazz music. For the most part, stories of the ancient past and particularly surviving relics of antiquity trigger merely faint memories of a time long forgotten, and are more likely to indicate to characters and to readers the status and importance of the space or individual possessing them.

The existence of actual, tangible material culture from antiquity says a lot more about the worlds in which cyberpunk stories and characters reside – as opposed to the evidently educated authors of those stories residing in the very real present. Across Effinger’s Marid Audran series, antiques from ancient Greece are kept within the houses of rich men amidst a “hodgepodge” of other cultural artifacts (e.g. When Gravity Fails, 1987: 80). Note that this is in keeping with the real-world claim upon antiquity by the rich and powerful – that antiques from the ancient world ‘belong’ to the rich, are representative of them. Not coincidentally then, later in the book the more rough-around-the-edges protagonist stays in the Hotel Marco Aurelio: “Named after some Roman son of a bitch”, he notes flippantly. See, again, that as much as these cultural artefacts are indicators of a higher class, the classical Roman past here means little to Marid Audran, his life, or his journey. He’s just “some Roman”.

That tone of disrespect levelled at the classical world isn’t entirely unfamiliar across the cyberpunk literary corpus. In the aforementioned Noir, a doctor offers to implant upon McNihil, the protagonist, an animated tattoo of “the empresses Messalina and Theodora getting it on in every orifice, full-motion rock ‘n’ roll with digitized close-ups” (1992: 234-5): this in reference to the wives of the Roman emperors Nero or Constantine, and Justinian. Not only do figures from the ancient past therefore possess some role in cyberpunk worlds, functioning as moving pictures overlaid upon human skin: the actual content of the animation calls back the words of our esteemed editor in the call for articles. The genre isn’t “afraid to say fuck you when it is appropriate.” Perhaps these empresses are chosen as a broader analogy with the rich and powerful. At the very least, the choice of Roman imperial wives suggests an at-once playful and degrading (cyberpunk is, unfortunately, no stranger to casual misogyny) adoption of wealthy and authoritative characters from an ancient past, cast into the depths of ridicule and exploitation.

The use of antiquity in cyberpunk is far from unsophisticated, nor is its implication always so fleeting or oblique as in many of these examples. It can of course be argued that the above instances are important nodes in a wider descriptive network that assists the reader in constructing a literary world. Nevertheless, it is with Neal Stephenson that the ancient world receives its fullest and most significant treatment in cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk works. 

Stephenson is no stranger to the ancient world, nor does he hesitate to lend it primacy to the narrative. In Cryptonomicon (1999: 993-1004), analogies of the Olympian gods Zeus, Athena and Ares are used to interrogate one of the central subjects of the giant novel: the concept of representation. The precedents of classical mythology are therefore the path by which both characters and readers alike might comprehend a central theme of the book. Perhaps more extraordinarily, throughout Snow Crash, computer science is deliberately conflated with Sumerian culture and language so that the names of the Mesopotamian gods are recited at the novel’s dramatic climax. Here, an explicit connection to the past grants its characters the capacity to counteract the antagonist’s plans to control peoples’ minds. What’s more, those characters are explicitly down-and-out types. Relatively obscure ancient information (be honest with yourself, how much do you really know about the theological concepts of the Sumerians?) is here bestowed into the hands of dirty, filthy, unlawful hackers. 

Such is the complicated and occasionally bizarre relationship between ancient past and imagined cyber-future. It remains a convenient corpus of references for a whole host of cyberpunk writers: they might use it to indicate very familiar class differences, just as they might adopt past figures to exaggerate the vice and licentiousness of their corrupt capitalist worlds. In some cases, authors lean on ancient precedents as a vehicle for understanding (for their readers) and a mode of progress (for their characters). Nonetheless, these instances are effectively all from the perspective of down-and-outs, or of hackers living outside the law, or of protagonists fighting against ‘the system’, and they are essentially all illustrated within the contexts of fictional environments where corporatism and ruling classes are never held in high esteem. Thanks to cyberpunk, we’ve gone from the study of ancient worlds as the preserve of the well-off and the educated to its implication into nasty, scruffy back-alleys and the degenerates that inhabit them. Thanks to cyberpunk, we’ve taken a brief tour from ‘high’ classics to ‘low’ cyberpunk. As we have seen, imaginative and intellectual appropriation of classics in cyberpunk is so often reconfigured to indicate and challenge class structures rather than to reinforce them: it grants Marid the power to accurately illustrate his surroundings; it allows inhabitants of the Noir world to challenge power structures (and, of course, engage in that age-old patriarchal pastime of objectifying women); it leads Hiro and YT towards saving the day. Arguably, the supplementing of these down-and-dirty worlds and their honourless characters with references to Greece, Rome and the Near East prove to us – here and now – that the past, ancient or otherwise, belongs to no single group of people. No matter how much money or power they’ve got. 

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