The end of times, the end of signs? Cyberpunk novels, nuclear war, and virtual realities

Snow, Carrie (2022) The end of times, the end of signs? Cyberpunk novels, nuclear war, and virtual realities. Masters thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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This thesis examines the representation of virtual reality and nuclear apocalypse in three cyberpunk texts – Neuromancer by William Gibson, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and Tea from an Empty Cup by Pat Cadigan – and finds that each novel uses virtual and nuclear imagery to explore signification. Each text’s vision of virtual reality is informed by either a Platonic or Baudrillardian theory. Neuromancer and Snow Crash both suggest that the virtual world is the world of Forms because its signs (graphics and code) are wholly commensurate with their referents (aspects of the virtual world itself). Tea from an Empty Cup, however, suggests that the virtual world consists of empty signs whose original referents (an absent framing world and an untold nuclear history) are missing and beyond recovery, because nothing exists outside of the simulation. Each novel’s depiction of virtual reality as a space of either ideal truth or endless simulation correlates (through accordance or opposition) with its conception of nuclear apocalypse. Neuromancer follows Derrida in suggesting that the a-symbolic nuclear referent is the only possible true referent, as the apocalypse represents a simultaneous moment of truth revealed and reference lost. In contrast, both Snow Crash and Tea align with Baudrillard’s reading of the nuclear as the height of simulation, and the attendant implication that simulation is always already post-apocalyptic. Whether the nuclear event is figured as a moment of revelation or pure simulation, each text points to the impossibility of imagining (even science fictionally) a post-nuclear future, and thus, each reflects on its own end (in both senses of the word) as a representational work. Accordingly, I read cyberpunk as a metafictional reflection on the life and death of a novel.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters)
Item ID: 15505
Additional Information: Includes bibliographical references (pages 94-99).
Keywords: virtual reality, nuclear apocalypse, signification, cyberpunk
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > English Language and Literature
Date: April 2022
Date Type: Submission
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
Library of Congress Subject Heading: Cyberpunk fiction; Virtual reality in literature; Nuclear warfare in literature; Apocalypse in literature.

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