• S.C. Jensen

Cyberpunk Book Review: Headcrash by Bruce Bethke

Earlier this week I talked about Bruke Bethke’s 1980 short story “Cyberpunk” that gave our favourite genre its name. You can read the blog post here and read the story here.

Today, I want to tell you a little bit about Headcrash, Bethke’s 1995 novel that won the Philip K. Dick award that year.

Before you dive into the review, you might want to jump back to the previous post that gives a bit of history on Bethke’s experience in the genre.

Headcrash by Bruce Bethke

The Blurb

When Jack Burroughs, a brilliant young computer programmer, is given his pink slip, he is offered the opportunity to use his skills for a little industrial espionage. Donning the guise of his online alter ego, Max Kool, Burroughs transforms himself into one of the hippest cybernetic surfers on the InfoBahn.

“Bethke has taken the computer industry and thrown it in a blender . . . savagely funny”.–“Seattle Weekly”.

The Review

I picked up this book without actually knowing anything about it except that Bruce Bethke had written it.

I learned this when the man himself joined a Cyberpunk Groups book that I moderate with a bunch of other indie cyberpunk authors. (Many thanks to Behind Blue Eyes author, Anna Mocikat, for the introduction! I reviewed her book here.)

In his into post, he explained about his infamously named short story and his wish that people would pay more attention to his award winning novel rather than the “Cyberpunk” novel that would never be. If you don’t know the story, you can read about it here.

Now, beyond being a bit star struck at actually having a conversation with one of the most influential–if somewhat unknown–writers in the genre, I was curious about Headcrash.

How does a cyberpunk book win a Philip K. Dick award and not end up one of the most read cyberpunk books in the genre? Bethke has served as one of the judges for the award in years since and is the editor of Stupifying Stories magazine’s anthologies, which is well recognized in the SF&F writing community as being a stepping stone publication for many famous authors.

The fact that Headcrash didn’t make more waves is a bit… well… stupifying in itself.

When I read it, though, I began to understand why. But it’s not for the reason you might think.

Headcrash is bloody fantastic.

Let me get that out of the way first, because I know some people are going to assume that the simple reason Headcrash hasn’t become canonical to the genre is that it sucks. It doesn’t.

Like Bethke’s “Cyberpunk” story, the writing is eminently readable, unlike the more cryptic prose of Gibson’s Neuromancer. And Bethke has real chops in the the tech industry. As one of his author bio in and interview with Strange Horizons magazine states:

“What very few people in either circle have known until recently is that he actually works in supercomputer software development, and all his best science fiction gets repackaged as “futurism studies” and sold at stunningly inflated prices to various government agencies, where it is promptly stamped SECRET and filed away, never to be seen again.” Strange Horizons magazine

Gibson readily admits that he isn’t a techno-whiz himself.

“I’m not a computer guy,” he has been quoted. “I’m like an anthropologist. I’m fascinated with people’s obsessions. I’ve learned to wear them.”

Neuromancer is often described as closer to science fantasy than hard sci-fi, and I’m inclined to agree. This isn’t a dig at Gibson, either, I appreciate an author who doesn’t let facts get in the way of a good story. Often technologically accurate and detailed narratives read more like manuals than novels.

So it is doubly impressive that Bethke is able to apply what he knows about software and technology in the real world and make it readable to a techno-moron like me.

I’m obviously not able to vet the plausibility of his fictional technologies, but what I will say for Bethke is that he is able to describe his tech in a way that makes sense. Frankly, I don’t think this is something Gibson ever achieves, but which people forgive him for because handwavium is part of the mystique of his stories.

But do you know why I think Bethke’s writing hasn’t taken off?

Headcrash pokes fun at the cyberpunk genre.

It’s a parody. It’s a bitingly satirical take on all the overdone tropes of the genre. It’s akin to the wonderful genre spoof movies of the 80s like TOP SECRET! and Cry Baby. But it has that 90s vibe and acerbic tone that could have been a Kevin Smith project.

I loved every minute of it. I laughed out loud repeatedly and read sections to my husband because he wanted to know what I was giggling about.

Headcrash is cyberpunk for fans of the genre who don’t take themselves too seriously.

And that’s the problem.

There aren’t many.

As a genre, cyberpunk takes itself very seriously. The endless, ornery ranting about what is or is not “real” cyberpunk in any fan group will reveal exactly how flexible the majority of cyberpunk lifestyle enthusiasts are in their genre dogma.

And because Bethke is relatively unknown despite his massive influence, I believe a lot of fans read Headcrash as if he was an outsider looking in and teasing about the things they love.

Unfortunately, the real outsiders didn’t get it either.

According to critical reception, there were a lot of people who didn’t even understand that it was meant to be satirical. These are the people who didn’t know the genre well enough to understand what was being parodied.

And so Headcrash is an absolute cult classic for a fringe minority of cyberpunk enthusiasts who have a sense of humour about their favourite genre.

What makes Headcrash so great?

Well, that’s a matter of opinion, of course.

I love humour writing, and it is probably the hardest type of writing there is. People’s senses of humour are vast and varied, and what tickles the funny bone of one group is going to annoy another.

I guess I’m the right reader for this book, because I loved it the same way I loved the cheesy 80s spoof movies.

It’s corny and a bit slapstick, not afraid of throwing in a few cheap laughs for the peanut gallery.

But underneath it all, there is a love for the genre and an inherent understanding of what makes cyberpunk books so great.

Even though Headcrash is a parody, and I knew it was a parody, I was still riveted by the the actual cyberpunk plotline and I was rooting for poor Jack Burroughs all the way.

Knowing Bethke’s history with the genre, and the way he was (I believe) essentially cheated out of his opportunity to capitalize on the success of his original “Cyberpunk” story, adds a bittersweet edge to the satire.

If anyone has earned a right to poke fun at the genre, it’s Bruce Bethke.

Discussion

I’m a big fan of humour in every genre, as those who have read my Bubbles in Space series can attest to. I wouldn’t say I write comedy, but I like to keep things light, even when there are dark themes lurking in the corners.

Do you have a favourite satire or parody novel?

Hit me with your suggestions!

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