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Brian Attebery, as Editor, for the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts

"Hiro" of the Platonic: Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" Author(s): Carl Boehm Source: Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 14, No. 4 (56) (Winter 2004), pp. 394-408 Published by: International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43308662 Accessed: 19-10-2016 11:49 UTC

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Conditions of Use, available at http://about.jstor.org/terms Brian Attebery, as Editor, for the International Association

Brian Attebery, as Editor, for the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts are collaborating with JSTOR to

digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

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"Hiro" of the Platonic:

Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash

Carl Boehm

First APPEARING in the late 1970s

and early 1980s, the cyberpunk genre provided a fresh reworking of popular

science fiction motifs. Not merely a literary label, the term "cyberpunk" de-

noted a cultural movement, marking a distinct influence on film, music, and

popular culture in general. One appeal of the movement was that, throughout

this period, cybernetics technology advanced so rapidly that its fictional rep-

resentations had strong possibilities of becoming reality - and soon; as a re-

sult, the unprecedented nature of such accelerated technological advance-

ments became a defining feature of cyberpunk. As Steve Jones observes, "The

clearest statements of cyberpunk ideology come from contemporary science

fiction texts that combine information technology and ideology to construct a

reality in the near future (a time that seems almost parallel to the present rather

than ahead of it)" (81). The near-future projections of the cyberpunk sub-

genre of science fiction (SF) are often more accurate than the more advanced

ideas proposed by other SF authors writing stories set many years in the fu-

ture. As a genre, science fiction (and its sub-genre of cyberpunk in particular)

embodies the massive surge of technological advancement of the last century

and a half. Roughly sixty years separate the Wright Brothers' powered flight

at Kitty Hawk from Neil Armstrong's setting foot on the moon. Communica-

tions have evolved from the worldly to the celestial - from the telegraph dur-

ing the late nineteenth century to telephones in the mid-twentieth century to

contemporary cell phones with satellite hook-ups. The early cyberpunk fiction was "obsessed with conjecture about what is

to come within our lifetime" (Jones 81). The stories of William Gibson, Bruce

Sterling, Tom Maddox, and Pat Cadigan celebrate how far we have advanced

technologically, at the same time questioning whether we are ready to handle

the consequences of such rapid advancements. But as promising as it seemed,

the literary movement was short-lived, and by the early 1990s had all but winked out. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash appeared in 1992, at a time when

many critics claimed that the genre was in serious decline or altogether dead.

A second wave cyberpunk novel, the book generated enough energy to sin- gle-handedly revive the genre. Stephenson's work strategically mixes ele-

ments of the past and the future: in his story, for instance, Babylonian

mythology serves as a key to a computer virus that proves deadly to both sys-

tem and user. At the center of the narrative, Hiro Protagonist alternates be-

tween the "real" world of the novel and the cyberspace realm Stephenson calls

the "Metaverse." The Metaverse is a virtual metropolis, yet one that lacks any

Vol. 14, No. 4, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

39 4 Copyright © 2004, Florida Atlantic University.

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law enforcement to maintain order. Hiro assumes the role of defender because

of his programming expertise, which, by default, makes him one of the few

people who can offer protection in this ungoverned realm. Stephenson's Snow

Crash theorizes justice by creating a new locale where morality can be de-

fined, tested, redefined, and tested again. The result of Stephenson's conjec-

tures is an indication of how the human spirit can shape an ethical identity

even in a milieu as uniquely abstract, and potentially untamable, as the

Metaverse.

Like the cyberpunk authors who use near future settings to examine the

parameters of humanity, Plato wrote his Republic, the first extant great West-

ern utopia, using extrapolations not too far in his audience's future. In the same way that Plato envisions a city-state he intends to be implementable,

Stephenson's Snow Crash presents a vision of a virtual city that is a working utopia. And like Plato's city-state, the Metaverse can be read as a place where

morality and justice are integral to the survival of its denizens as well as of the Metaverse itself. The link between the two works is a more natural one than

might be supposed. Besides the Utopian connection and the philosophical in-

terest in justice, some critics have already adopted the Platonic notion of the

binary relationship between absolute truth and the world of false replication to

examine the binary between natural reality and the cyberspace world of vir- tual existence. Robert Markley suggests that such discussions "emphasize, al-

beit in different ways, that the division between cyberspace and virtual

technologies reflects and reinscribes the oppositions of mind/body,

spirit/matter, form/substance, and male/female that have structured Western

metaphysics since Plato" (2). Although these observations have been made, no one has attempted to link Plato's ideas of justice with the oppositions of

real world/virtual realm. Snow Crash, I argue, demonstrates that morality can

be brought into the wilds of the virtual world by a champion who values it and attempts to construct a paradigm for social justice. I will demonstrate that jus- tice becomes the ideal that the programmers such as Hiro Protagonist (a fitting

name that offers a potential tautology for his purpose in the novel) instill and

defend in their (e)utopia that is the Metaverse, for the "real" world of the

novel is a dystopia due to its lack of justice.

Because the principles Plato deals with often concern the abstract, such as

the transcendent realm of truth, the philosopher often resorts to stories and al-

legories for didactic purposes: "Plato's use of the story to tell truth evolved as

he grew to see the value of the irrational, and perhaps to have less fear of the

irrational" (Rochelle 316). Cyberpunk also trusts in the illuminating powers

of narrative, as its authors treat both the theoretical and the irrational. Their means of expressing ideals and fears are stories involving a concrete, physical

world (often dystopian) and an ephemeral, virtual realm (sometimes Utopian,

as I will demonstrate). What are we to make of this tenuous existence of

cyberspace, a computer generated plane supported by electrical charges puls- ing information over high-speed connections? What is cyberspace's relation-

ship to the "real" world, and why are some SF authors so intrigued by it? Scott

Bukatman suggests an answer: "Cyberspace is an abstraction which, diegeti-

395

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"Hiro" of the Platonic: Stephenson's Snow Crash

cally and extradiegetically, provides

visibility in the world, the movement

the global computer banks, and the

the subject" ( Terminal 143). At a m

portant insight into the nature o

Stephenson's novel, a realm simulta

manding and mutable, a place whi

switched on. How can justice be pos able? Plato's philosophical quest for

form the quest for justice by Ste

philosophic champion who undertake

manity (thus creating a virtue-al wo

Cyberpunk and the Platoni

One way to interpret the Metavers

to see the virtual reality as an area w

novel is replaced with what Hiro and

truth: an ordered state upheld by a str

one bit of dialogue regarding Socrat

"There is justice of one man, we say

suppose?"

"Certainly."

"Well, a city is larger than one man?" "Of course it is," he said.

"Then perhaps there would be a larger justice in the city and easier

to understand. If you like, then we will examine it in the single man,

looking for the likeness of the larger in the shape of the smaller."

(Book II 165)

Plato recognized the dynamics of justice in the city-state as being reliant on

the participation of the individual. This was a forethought in the development of his theoretical utopia. Hiro Protagonist recognizes that his utopia is in dan-

ger when the "Snow Crash" virus wreaks havoc on the inhabitants of the Metaverse. Hiro assumes a role similar to that of Plato's "Guardians" or up- holders of justice in the Republic. The "Guardians" possess a recognition of

the ideal world and can discern the true forms from the shadowy replications.

Raymond Cormier elaborates on the notion of the guardian in light of the "Al-

legory of the Cave":

Plato envisions the golden Guardians or philosopher-rulers in the allegorical underground as unchained; they must be educated so as to recognize the connectedness of all knowledge, the ideal Forms,

and understand the realm of knowledge. It is they who will be able

to leave the cave, understand the realm of knowledge, and see and

396 Journal of the Fantastic

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even

be

blind

what

is

assum

chained

priso

Hiro

underst

Metaverse: "

where

you

ca

where

you

m

place. Guns

post-facto

up

sire

ruminations

re

to

his

nam

to

preser

the Metaverse:

They made the place too vulnerable, he realizes now - Therefore, the Metaverse is wide open and undefended, like airports in the

days before bombs and metal detectors, like elementary schools in the days before maniacs with assault rifles. Anyone can go in and

do anything they want to. You can't defend yourself, you can't chase the bad people. It's going to take a lot of work to change that - a fundamental rebuilding of the whole Metaverse, carried out on a planetwide, corporate level. (351)

Like the golden Guardians, Hiro Protagonist will also stand forth to protect

the city-state that is the Metaverse from the villainous antagonists who wish

to plunder its perfect balance.

In Book I of The Republic, Socrates asks Thrasymachos, "Do you think

there is a virtue in each thing which has a work appointed for it?" (153). The interlocutor's answer, as formulated by Socrates' line of questioning, reveals

that a person must complete his appointed task and nothing else, for other jobs

may be diversions leading to unjust actions. This line of rhetoric is the kernel

of thought that will eventually germinate into the notion of a "guardian"

needed to preserve justice in the Republic. Justice becomes the main impetus

for Plato in the formulation of his utopia, and this idea is represented in Socra- tes' claim that "the just soul and the just man will live well, and the unjust man

But

to be miserable is not profitable, to be happy, is" (154).

To pun on the translated words of Plato, Hiro Protagonist functions - and

profits - as an agent of justice in the Metaverse. When L. Bob Rife plants the

"Snow Crash" virus in a bomb sized parcel within the virtual reality, Hiro re-

writes the computer code to render the virus harmless. In place of the window

that would have broadcast the weapon to those looking at the visually trans-

mitted virus code, Hiro leaves a message:

In

the Arts 397

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"Hiro" of the Platonic: Stephenson's Snow Crash

IF THIS WERE A VIRUS

YOU WOULD BE DEAD NOW.

FORTUNATELY IT'S NOT.

THE META VERSE IS A DANGEROUS PLACE;

HOW'S YOUR SECURITY? CALL HIRO PROTAGONIST SECURITY

ASSOCIATES

FOR A FREE INITIAL CONSULTATION (457)

The advertisement reflects the "Guardian" of the Republic who wo

from being a just person by protecting those who are subservient. Plato

defense of the city state could be handled by those who were "the

things which enable a city to be best managed" (Book VII 319) and

guard the laws and habits of the cities" (Book VI 28 1). Therefore, Plato makes his city-state according to his own ethic

ophy so that in his republic the city-state centers primarily on the nee

tice and morality. "Now then," Socrates states in Book II, "Let us im

we make our city from the beginning. Our needs will make it, as (166). Had he the technology of virtual reality, his utopia might h

ceeded, for a computer "'simply' renders the invisible visible, recon

terminal spaces of the datascape into new arenas susceptible to hum

ence, perception, and control" (Bukatman "Cybernetic" 47). By co

the virtual realm, a programmer can create and maintain a utopia by si writing software in response to any problem that may arise in an attem

tablish justice. Porush observes the Utopian impulse behind tec

advances: "It seems self-evident that Utopian longings are part of a

more complex perception of massive change made imminent by a t

cal breakthrough" (124). Technology thrives from the need to

better, and cyberspace allows for incorrigible real-world problems t edied, even if in only one world.2

Hiro understands the disorder of the physical world, an ironica

owy world that is a reflection of the ideal world he has creat

Metaverse, so he reverse engineers a utopia based on justice by und

the imperfections of his "real" world and thus encoding a truth in t

realm based on those imperfections he finds in the physical worl

Hiro best exemplifies both the hero and the "Guardian" tendencie

proficiency in computer language, by translating real world items

directly into the virtual realm. For example, when he is challenged

duel in the Metaverse, Hiro quickly dispatches his opponent. When

mate asks whether Hiro won the sword fight, he boasts, "I'm the

sword fighter in the world." His friend replies, "And you wrote the sof

"Yeah," Hiro admits, "That, too" (104). In the way that Plato philo

searched for truth and justice and tried to implement them into his cit

so, too, does Hiro use his proficiency in computer technology to sponses to enable what he perceives to be a version of a just realm

technology-driven Snow Crash, language is no longer limited to the

398 Journal of the Fantastic

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terplay

son

interplay

b

paral

language

man

reality

lang

r

int

This

obviously

Metavers

elderly

Hiro

The

iprocity

about

comp

talk

g

the

machine

the

libra

analogy.

The librarian's "history" of human speech incorporates an explanation of the "Tower of Babel" legend. According to the librarian, Babylon spoke a lan- guage like that of Eden. All humans once spoke the same Ur-language, he ex- plains, which in turn controlled human actions directly without the need for interpretation. All rules, even formulae for procedures such as baking bread,

were written on tablets instead of being committed to memory. The result was

a completely static society, until Asherah, a goddess, discovered a nam-shub

(a clay tablet with a law or code written on it) of the god Enki that worked like

a virus, causing mutations of language into mutually incomprehensible dia- lects, breaking off transparent communication, but also ending the zom-

bie-like state in which humanity then existed. Babylon's was thus a fortunate

fall: the partitioning of language enabled the progress of society.

Computer language followed a development similar to human linguistic

development. Binary code, made of ones and zeros, is the primal language of

machines, yet it proved to be tedious and monotonous to programmers, who

developed a variety of streamlined controls to generate their code. Hiro states

the parallel succinctly to the Librarian:

When you program in machine language, you are controlling the

computer at its brainstem, the root of its existence. It's the tongue

of Eden. But it's very difficult to work in machine language be-

cause you go crazy after a while, working at such a minute level. So

a whole Babel of computer languages has been created for pro-

grammers: FORTRAN, BASIC, COB AL, LISP, Pascal, C,

PROLOG, FORTH. (278)

The wider selection of languages enables the programmer to break away from

the banality of binary code; thus expedience and independence make for

In

the Arts 399

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"Hiro" of the Platonic: Stephenson's Snow Crash

faster, better software developme

ing in some loss of control.

While explaining the concepts of

brarian both come to an understan

and its replication. Pulling fr

Steiner, one who also theorizes abo

serts that human language imped

interposes itself between apprehen

mirror'" (278). Drawing from

same idea about their language:

form

his e

You talk to the computer in one o software called a compiler convert

you never can tell exactly what the

ways come out the way you want

mirror. A really advanced hacker c

ner-workings of the machine - h

working in and glimpses the secret

(278-79)

Hiro recognizes that language of a

one conveys ideas to another, and

cause language itself is a shadowy r

cation of language into the true p

bestow the title of philosopher upo

of justice, he attempts to discern b

Binary Realities

Plato's dualistic conception of

structure as the cyberpunk imagi

Protagonist enters the Metaverse i

gory:

The lens can see half of the universe - the half that is above the

computer, which includes most of Hiro

puter are three lasers - a red one, a green one, and a blue one

Down inside the com-

In

this way, a narrow beam of any color can be shot out of the innards

of the computer, up through the fish eye lens, in any direction. Through the use of electronic mirrors inside the computer, this

beam is made to sweep back and forth across the lens of Hiro's gog-

gles, in much the same way as the electron beam in a television

paints the inner surface of the eponymous Tube. The resulting im-

age hangs in space in front of Hiro's view of Reality. (23)

400 Journal of the Fantastic

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The

ized

Crash-

Meta

urba

ju

yond

to

mers

examine

fect

the

mainta

ma

for

Another

realm

of

shapes

do

signed

to

drons,

po

(435). Alt

grammer

ated

possible,

illus

know

wha

best

surp

environm

Crash. T Oregon,

longer

to

r

Not

a

Stephens

"The

Me

walled-of

modest

powered

quire

STD's

h

cit

(se

Before

S

punk. W

the

claim

structur

dystopia

Ger

ture,

downfall

claim. Fr

darkened

gaudy

Neuroma

movie

ne

Hugo

for

Tr

In

the Arts 401

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"Hiro" of the Platonic: Stephenson's Snow Crash

hulking machines (often computer if to say that the machines are ove

Stephenson presents a solution to

he juxtaposes a Utopian cyberspa

though Hiro Protagonist is not th world, he comes to understand ho

regulations to preserve the utopia. He

a lect

laws. The lesson comes from

myths written on them

delivered by

'There is a great deal of monoton

fair amount of what Lagos desc

ism' - scribes extolling the superio

other city."

"What makes one Sumerian city be

ziggurat? A better football team?"

"Better me."

"What are me?"

"Rules or principles that control t

code of laws, but on a more fund

Hiro Protagonist does not operate his actions are reactions to the vill

acy. Hiro never polices the Metave

tors," as Scott Bukatman calls them

those who need unrestricted free

maintains the equilibrium

betwee

freedom

to rebel but will not push t

she loves so dearly. Therefore, cyb vents the implosion of utopia.

Any worthwhile utopia will provi

freedom and self-determination w

unpredictability. Gibson approache

Continuum." In the story's conclu

"semiotic ghosts," apparitions of id "really bad media." The character c day "near-dystopia": that it could

movie The Matrix, the villaino

Morpheus that the original "matri

the too ravaged real. T

perfect," and a later, more realisti Perhaps the most paradoxical fea

apprehended in theory. If a societ

guish, it would have no way of kno

claimed, good can only be defined topos in SF - in cyberspace, Stephe

escape from

402 Journal of the Fantastic

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gesture. S

in

the

"r

to

the

ide

place,"

th

with

pun ever, the

eral no-p

the

need

poten

for

exists

at

the

phys

city-state

Since

th

the

once

city

belie

rected

the

or

sky,

science

fi

ring

tions

ima

to

three

opposing

ma

"move

facts"

Snow

Guardian

in

(22

Cra

The

conj

sion

defined

of

t

a

be

ideal.

Neuroma

by

At

of

te

sa

existen

this

the

allows

ture

ingly

realm

th

t

of

om

bec

intersect

pare

However,

precludes

the

virtual r

grammers

the Metaverse:

In

the Arts 403

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"Hiro" of the Platonic: Stephenson's Snow

Crash

Hiro and some of his bu

the first development

hackers. At that time, i

vast blackness. Back t

streetlights around a bl

Since then, the neighb

Street has. By

the whole business. Som

getting o

That's why

Hiro has a

to share a 20-by-30 in R

people in

Hire's nei

it's tasteful. The houses

Frank Lloyd Wright re

(Stephenson

SC

25-26)

Whatever one may

those with

utopia against the nostal

a subjectively rendered

Additionally, the "bur

that have horribly devo ated. First, they are cop

desi

t

the ability

1950s black-and-white

family living thrown i with "immense marble

stones. Designed on a co of things past and forg the place for those fam

rather not live there. But

any

physical city, since n

stead, the "burb-claves"

Second, because of the

come franchises of "fine

that a franchise works

branches of "Mr. Lee's G

coast vying for more cu

ited to residential "burb-

the famous "Uncle Enzo

tee that unless the pizza

personally

free trip to Italy. The e

tains a dystopic threat t

Since the programmer h

of cyberspac

greet the dis

construction

also create a replication

o

part: "the body

(suitabl

404 Journal of the Fantastic

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idealized

most

disabilitie

any

space. Ng

(Yours

who

Metavers

Tr

n

do

very

dapp

military-

avatar's

physical

p

armored

more

than

or

Ng's

simulate

legs; h

mec

What

Ng

bernetic

Y.T.

ality

as

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pian

o

¿link

The

is

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not, I

or

trolling

and

ing

brain, mi

medium

t

progr

concei

revis

Porush

another:

ture

cl

adap

in

turn

pr

ing

man

individua

huma

bein

Like Plato's emphasis that morality must be initiated and maintained

within the individual first, cyberpunk literature focuses on the individual as

the locus of preservation. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay posits, "Implosive science

fiction finds the scene of SF problematics not in imperial adventures among

the stars, but in the body-physical/body-social and a drastic ambivalence about the body's traditional-and terrifyingly uncertain-integrity" (188). His

observation brings us back to the idea of the cyborg, the merging of man and

In

the Arts 405

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"Hiro" of the Platonic: Stephenson's Snow Crash

machine. Stephenson's extrapolation

Because the "Snow Crash" virus is

when the individual's avatar in virtu virus passes through the eye and dir

"It [the virus] opens a portal between

the cybertech supporting the virtual w

of the categories natural and artific

simulated reality of cyberspace" (au

puters have the ability to program

hancing the species beyond its natural

primitive, near catatonic state. The "Snow Crash" virus displays a d

the novel, the physical and the virt

spreads the virus by intermingling "co

cessed blood serum taken from peo

ingly, in the virtual world of the M

looking at a bitmap, a digitalized pi

image appears as the white static of digits create a snowy image. This ad Babylonian formulas (the nam-shub

guage, alters the nature of cyberspac

less replication, for now the very tec

in communicative abilities can alter The result in the victim is glossolali

emulating the Ur-language of the B mental capacities.

Science fiction literature deals with

a philosopher grapples with morality

ities and problems that the near futur

tions is the concept of a moral ident

humanity and as far as humanity ca

lose sight of our moral identity. In a m

disappointment in those who nev

cyberspace: "It serves them right, he r

that could happen was that a virus m

and force you to ungoggle and reb

value placed on virtual reality, there

defend himself and his community.

virtual realm from the darker vision

world plagued by haunting visions

which is a blank slate for idealistic t

plemented and defended by Hiro and

406 Journal of the Fantastic

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Notes

1 Stephenson, I believe, has a special penchant for creating characters that resem-

ble comic book heroes. In Zodiac, the protagonist, Sangamon Taylor, refers to him- self as the "Toxic Spiderman." Like Hiro, Taylor is a defender of the environment who leads a frugal lifestyle but has advanced knowledge of biological and chemical sciences. He, too, is similar to Plato's "Guardian."

2 Even for those programmers who do not design but only operate in cyberspace,

the draw of the self-satisfying, other world proves overwhelming. Case, the computer

hacker of Gibson's Neuromancer, obsessively longs for the cyberspace realm of the

"matrix." At the beginning of the novel, Case has been shut out of the matrix as pun-

ishment for information theft.

A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading

nightly. All the speed he'd taken and the corners he'd cut in Night

City and still he'd see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic

unfolding across that colorless void

The Sprawl was a long

strange way home over the Pacific now, and he was no console

man, no cyberspace cowboy

But the dreams came on in the Japa-

nese night like li ve wire voodoo, and he'd cry for it, cry in his sleep,

and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin ho-

tel, his hands clawed in the bedslab, temperfoam bunched between

his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn't there. (5)

Case's compulsion to return to cyberspace sounds similar to drug withdrawal because

the hallucinatory experience of "jacking in" or projecting oneself into the virtual

world is described as euphoric, psychedelic, and self-indulgent.

3 The "burb-claves" being a satirized form of the suburbs of the '40s and 4 50s also

stresses my point that the "real" world of the novel is a shadowy corruption of the

ideal Metaverse. One cannot think of the "burb-claves" as a comparison with a previ-

ous time for the purpose of recognizing a utopia, for they stand as a mockery of past

idealistic living.

Works Cited

Bukatman, Scott. "The Cybernetic (City) State: Terminal State Becomes Phenom- enal." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 2.2 (1989): 46-60.

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