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The night air swooshes through a 20-foot door into Bart Nagel's Emeryville warehouse/studio space, where almost a dozen people are busy shooting a promotional video for a new book -- Cyberpunk Handbook: The Real Cyberpunk Fakebook -- that takes the cyberhip clichŽ to task with an ironic smirk.
It's only fitting that the book's authors -- St. Jude, R.U. Sirius, and Nagel -- are sending up the concept, seeing as they were the ones who foisted cyberpunk mania upon the world with the slick quarterly Mondo 2000. Begun six years ago as a shared hallucination in the Berkeley hills, Mondo melded computers, psychedelic drugs, sex, and art into an organic whole.
Published and financed by minor heiress Queen Mu, Mondo found a nationwide audience in the hip computer culture and titillated the talk show bookers with stories about virtual sex, smart drugs, cryptology, and nanocyborgs. By 1993, Mondo was on the cover of Time magazine, promoting the editors' best-selling book from HarperCollins.
But in 1995, with cyberpunk now reduced to trite Hollywood formula, this trio from the Mondo brain trust are happy to record the movement's obituary with the snide video. As Nagel puts his "star," former Mondo writer Chris Hudak, through his paces, R.U. Sirius and St. Jude offer directorial suggestions. Hudak, decked out in black leather -- his bullet belt bristling with a Taser, laser pointer, and Star Trek communicator -- re-creates his tongue-in-cheek role from the Mondo spoof "R U a Cyberpunk?" in issue No. 10.
"The term 'cyberpunk' has been used to describe music, lifestyles, and artistic sensibilities, but it really describes one narrow school of science-fiction writers," Hudak says. "God, it was a good word ... poetic, efficient, and romantic. Distance and passion. Machine and man. Technology and attitude. Cyberpunk. Great fuckin' word. And what the hell; we stole it."
After several takes a break is called and the crew sips brew and chatters. Slouched against the refrigerator, R.U. compliments Hudak's performance and adds, "Boy, am I working hard!"
When did cyberpunk die? I ask.
"1993," smirks somebody. "The release of the Billy Idol record."
Although the crew continues to gab, they avoid discussing the magazine that brought them together in the first place. It's no secret they've all fallen out with Queen Mu, and haven't worked on the publication as a group for several issues. I understand their reticence, having survived a few San Francisco magazine wars myself. Since the newsstand hasn't seen a new issue of Mondo in seven months, many readers assume that it is as dead as the cyberpunk concept, so I volunteer what appears to be the obvious:
"Isn't it a shame about Mondo?" I say.
The silence that falls on the room informs me immediately that I've broached a horribly touchy topic. The seasoned smartasses avoid my gaze to stare at the floor. An uncomfortable dramatic pause says I might as well have mentioned the name of somebody's family member who died in a violent accident. After a couple of vague, sad remarks, the subject is changed and chatter picks up again. Without further comment, we return to the video shoot.
As it turns out, Mondo isn't dead: In late September, Queen Mu produced Issue 14 and placed it on newsstands. What did expire some time ago was Mondo's bragging rights, its role as the undisputed arbiter of technohip. Having nailed the new Zeitgeist with the very first issue in 1989, the Mondo crew isn't keen on acknowledging that a South of Market competitor fat with consumer ads, subscribers, a commercial Web division, and an infusion of cash from CondŽ Nast has displaced it as the magazine of the '90s digital mind-meld.
Examined at close range, Mondo's history reads as if fabricated on another planet, spewed forth by a sweaty cyberpunk novelist tripping on nasal-ingested DMT. Yet the story is true. In its absurd journey from Marin to San Francisco to Berkeley, Mondo changed its name three times to avoid detection. Its staff consumed vast quantities of designer psychedelics; was plagued by vehicular accidents, some of them fatal; experienced office break-ins; suffered publicity-starved celebrities; indulged in media pranks; watched the skies during suspicious helicopter flyovers; engaged in cross-dressing; enjoyed the temporary rush of depleting inheritances; and generated conspiracy theories about the Mormons taking over the world.
And it all began at a 1984 equinox birthday party for an archdruid named Stephan Abbott in Berkeley. Ken Goffman (by this time already adopting the Dadaist persona of "R.U. Sirius") arrived with newsprint copies of the premiere issue of High Frontiers under his arm. Subtitled "Psychedelics, Science, Human Potential, Irreverence & Modern Art" and published by a dubious organization called the Marin Mutants, High Frontiers consisted primarily of long, unedited interviews with acid veterans like Albert Hofmann, Timothy Leary, and Terence McKenna, the margins filled in with weird jokes and short items.
That night, Sirius met a woman named Alison Kennedy.
"She was talking about how she had been irradiated over in Germany, because she was living right next door to the Russian Embassy," says Sirius, who turned 43 this year. "She'd been irradiated and poisoned, she was sick and dying, and she was smiling from ear to ear. I immediately fell in love with her because she was so strange. She was also the prettiest woman at the party. I said, 'Let's go take some drugs,' and it went from there."