California Dreams: Our Cyberpunk Future According to ‘Wild Palms’

Michael Grasso / January 24, 2019

Artist rendering of Apple’s corporate headquarters in Cupertino, California, 2011

This new faith has emerged from a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley. Promoted in magazines, books, TV programmes, websites, newsgroups and Net conferences, the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip and rich.

—“The Californian Ideology,” Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron in Science and Culture, 1996

California is where East meets West. Where West is East. Where the future begins. Where realities are created, where for almost a hundred years Hollywood has been the magic dream machine, the crown of creation, the unmoved mover, the void at the center of the Great Media Wheel: The New Jerusalem arising amidst the wild palms and shimmering mirages of the desert, the New Cathedral of our twenty-first century self-made reality.

—Anton Kreutzer, “New Cathedrals” speech, 1994, as imagined by Norman Spinrad in The Wild Palms Reader

The 1980s saw the gradual ascendancy of cyberpunk narratives in popular science fiction. The genre projected Western societal trends seen in the decade—corporate conglomeration, the rise of computer networking and global media, and the ascendancy of Pacific Rim economies, most prominently Japan—into a vision of the future bursting with high technology controlled by a few neo-feudal corporate interests, while at the same time the masses bleakly toil in a decayed urban environment. The commonly accepted “founding documents” of the genre—Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, the 1983 short story “Cyberpunk” by Bruce Bethke, and 1984’s Neuromancer by William Gibson—laid the template that would come to dominate science fiction over the next few decades and arguably influence the direction of Western technology, fashion, and culture into our present day.

One often-overlooked but just as essential work of science fiction during the cyberpunk Golden Age was Bruce Wagner’s early 1990s comic and eventual 1993 television series Wild Palms, a satirical vision of a media-saturated present/future crawling with mind-altering drugs, sinister conspiratorial cults, and ubiquitous computer technology promising transcendence. As a vision of a possible future, Wild Palms would have been believable to contemporary Americans, crawling free of the nuclear doom of the Cold War into a brand-new geopolitics at the “end of history.” But the extended Wild Palms universe also offers an audience in 2019 a startling prediction of a world where messianic technologists promote a cult-like “Californian ideology” that has spread out of control through the halls of politics, entertainment, and big business. Futurists, writers of speculative fiction, and computer scientists helped flesh out the world of Wild Palms in the tie-in book The Wild Palms Reader (1993). These predictions were so accurate because they were the very writers, theorists, and technologists who helped shape the computer revolution of the 1990s in both media and academia.

Wild Palms creator Bruce Wagner grew up and came of age in Beverly Hills, California in the 1960s and ’70s. His early, unproduced screenplays focused on the sleazy side of Hollywood, some of which came out of his time working as an L.A. chauffeur. (One of these screenplays would come to the big screen much later, thanks to David Cronenberg‘s 2014 adaptation of Wagner’s Maps to the Stars.) From 1990 to 1993, Wagner worked with artist and illustrator Julian Allen on the serialized Wild Palms comic series, which appeared in Details Magazine. Wagner borrowed the phrase “The Wild Palms” from a William Faulkner novel (Wagner also was influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Pat Hobby” stories, Fitzgerald being yet another literary figure who’d been through the wringer, much like Faulkner, thanks to working in Hollywood.) Allen’s experience illustrating some of the most gripping and conspiratorial events of the 1970s for New York magazine held him in good stead for Wagner’s story, set in a present-day Los Angeles choked by a web of weird conspiracies. Wagner and Allen’s comic was an unforgiving look at life as part of the Hollywood machine. Protagonist Harry Wyckoff, an entertainment lawyer, finds himself thrown into a conspiracy orchestrated by science fiction writer, cult founder, entertainment mogul, and U.S. Senator Anton Kreutzer that will destroy Wyckoff’s family, his comfortable life, and even his ability to tell fantasy from reality.

 

 

Excerpts from Wild Palms, as it appeared in Details Magazine.
Found at the Julian Allen Art tumblr

The Wild Palms comic largely saved its savagery for the vacuousness and moral degradation of the entertainment industry: bloody fights and kidnappings break out at hip Hollywood restaurants, movie stars blithely joke about killing peasants on trips to the Third World, and drug-fueled rapes and murders abound. Real-life celebrities such as Carrie Fisher (and eventual television series stars Jim Belushi and Dana Delany) appear throughout, further blurring the lines between our world and that of the comic. Minor elements to the comic story, such as virtual reality television, a synesthetic drug called mimezine that allows for the human brain to perceive Kreutzer’s Channel Three network virtual reality series “Church Windows,” and the expressly political conflict between Kreutzer’s child-snatching fascist paramilitary “the Fathers” and the leftist academic-led resistance, “the Friendship Committee,” would become more prominent and central to the television series and its tie-in book. In the comic, these elements lurk in the background, rendering the contemporary early ’90s setting thoroughly surreal. Wild Palms the comic reads more like the kind of story that Philip K. Dick would have written had he lived to see the success of Blade Runner, a recapitulation of his druggy California novels like A Scanner Darkly (1977) and VALIS (1981), charged with the kind of routine, blasé brutality one might find in the work of J.G. Ballard. Allen’s ultra-realistic art, laden with fashion and visual design signifiers of the high yuppie era, contrasts eerily well with both Harry’s and the reader’s journey through a violent, hallucinogenic landscape.

 

The ABC network, which had been taking chances with genre-busting original series during the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s—Moonlighting (1985-1989), thirtysomething (1987-1991), Max Headroom (1987-1988), and Twin Peaks (1990-1991)—adapted Wild Palms into a star-studded week-long miniseries in 1993. Like Twin Peaks, Wild Palms had a marquee film auteur at the helm: executive producer Oliver Stone, hot off his own run of successes: Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), and The Doors and JFK (both 1991). Wagner handled the entire screenplay adaptation for all five episodes of the miniseries. Wild Palms was a genre mashup like Moonlighting (comedy and detective drama) or Twin Peaks (soap opera and supernatural crime thriller). Its Hollywood setting and high-powered family drama put it right at the tail end of ’80s network television’s obsession with powerful families jockeying for position and backstabbing each other in prime time soap operas such as Dallas and Dynasty, but with a near-future science fiction setting. The television series makes many changes from the comic for reasons of narrative exigency but most noteworthy is the change of setting from the contemporary early ’90s to a near-future of 2007. Fashions have changed (high-collared neo-Edwardian three-piece suits are the fashion order of the day in 2007 L.A.) and the addition of near-future technological advances allow for the miniseries to focus less on the internal psyche of Harry Wyckoff (played in the miniseries by Jim Belushi) and instead focus more squarely on the media-political-spiritual conspiracies hatched by Anton Kreutzer (played in reliable “heavy” mode by Robert Loggia).

wild palms delany belushi catrall 1993

Dana Delany, Jim Belushi, and Kim Catrall in a promotional image for the Wild Palms TV miniseries, 1993.

Wild Palms the television series is ultimately less of a comment on the moral void at the center of the entertainment industry and more of a televisual comment on television-as-medium itself. The plot is more linear than the comic, more driven by Wyckoff’s investigation into the conspiracies that surround him and his long-buried family secrets. Wyckoff is eventually revealed to be Kreutzer’s biological son, as is Wyckoff’s own putative son Coti (Ben Savage). Coti’s role as television star and Kreutzer’s chosen scion comes into play with Kreutzer’s messianic plans to live forever and control the American people through the mind-altering chemical mimezine and holographic virtual reality television programs. The glimpses we catch of Coti and the other actors in “Church Windows” reveal a program with broad punch lines, silly plotlines, and wooden acting: a perfect Platonic evocation of television’s banality. But unlike the traditional TV sitcom, the figures appear in the mimezine-dosed TV viewers’ own living room, the drug allowing them a synesthetic full-sensory experience. This recalls Philip K. Dick’s 1965 The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, where dirt-poor off-world colonists are kept sedated using hallucinogens that allow them to project into diorama-like “Perky Pat layouts” that mimic a heteronormative 1950s-style suburban home: an ur-sitcom of sorts. The miniseries’s Macguffin is the “Go chip,” which will allow Kreutzer to use Mimecom’s virtual reality technology to live forever. The fact that this wondrous biotechnology is being used to provide a single man with holographic immortality while simultaneously issued as cheap, hollow entertainment for the masses is yet another classic Dickian trope.

Like the comic, the TV series had celebrity cameos in abundance, including Oliver Stone himself, who is vindicated (in 2007 Los Angeles) that the conspiracy theories proposed in JFK were proven correct. Also appearing briefly was William Gibson himself, in a meta-moment where he is identified as the writer who invented “cyberspace.” And Gibson was also involved with The Wild Palms Reader, which was devised as a tie-in to the miniseries by ABC. Network executives, worried that Wild Palms‘ plot would be too difficult for the network television viewer to follow, produced both the Reader and a 1-900 number to help give context to the fictional history. The Reader, edited by the series’ executive consultant Roger Trilling, recruited musical artists, science fiction authors, media gadflies, and, most important, a handful of some of the most prominent names in the development of the nascent Internet, some of whom were real-world proponents of the aforementioned technocratic future under the “Californian ideology.”

wild palms reader cover 1993

The Wild Palms Reader is described on its back cover as an in-universe artifact, a festschrift for Anton Kreutzer’s birthday. “This is not a book about the world of Wild Palms, it’s a book from that world. It doesn’t know it’s fiction”—yet another postmodern blurring of the lines between reality and narrative. The Reader does largely follow the life story of Anton Kreutzer, with excerpts from documents detailing his family history, his early career as a science fiction writer in the 1960s, his involvement with bleeding edge think tanks and technologists in the 1970s, his dalliances with media ownership and politics in the 1980s, and his eventual role as Senator, media magnate, and head of the “Church of Synthiotics” in Wild Palms‘s projected 21st-century future. In short, Kreutzer’s fictional life story marries the larger trends in Cold War technocratic culture and counterculture that were united in the aftermath of the 1960s to created our current cybernetic consensus. Moreover, the writers and artists who populated the Wild Palms universe with these fictional documents and artifacts were well-versed in the real-world cultural trends and technologies present in the early 1990s that informed Kreutzer’s fictional philosophy-religion of Synthiotics/”New Realities” and its various media and political strategies.

The Reader‘s visual design, by Japanese graphic designer Yasushi Fujimoto and his design house CAP, is redolent of the hip early ’90s desktop publishing decisions—multiply-overlayed text and graphics, text laid out in sometimes unreadable shapes, and lots of fonts—that can be seen in then cutting-edge publications such as Wired magazine or Ray Gun. The Wild Palms Reader is absolutely an artifact of the early 1990s, just as much as it is a book that “doesn’t know it’s fiction.” And the table of contents reveals a who’s who of early-’90s figures in technology and media: Wagner and Gibson, of course; scifi authors Bruce Sterling, Thomas Disch, and Norman Spinrad; futurists and technologists like Hans Moravec and Brenda Laurel; and even oddballs like E. Howard Hunt (who contributes a fake intelligence dossier of Kreutzer), Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead (who penned the lyrics for an anti-Synthiotics Motörhead song from the “future” year of 1997), Malcolm McLaren, the art collective that produced the band Laibach, and Sassy magazine editor Jane Pratt (who provides a teen-beat interview with Coti Wyckoff). So, as a cohesive work of fiction, the Reader is necessarily a scrapbook, although a majority of the fictional pieces within are provided by author and editor Hillary Johnson.

As such, Anton Kreutzer is a protean figure in the Reader. He enters the story as an orphan, his half-Japanese mother dead in an American internment camp during World War II, his father dead from cirrhosis a few years later. In the wake of being orphaned, he retreated into science fiction; the Reader presents unpublished juvenilia which hint at child abuse at the hands of the adults in juvenile hall. By 1963, he is publishing his own stories. The obvious comparison here is to sometime science fiction author and eventual Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s early experiments in both science fiction and self-help, marked by his 1950 book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. But the cod-Golden Age sci-fi presented in the Reader more resembles cosmic-level stories such as Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 Childhood’s End. One of Kreutzer’s protagonists achieves “apotheosis” on the blasted ruins of Los Angeles, ascending to a higher plane on the giant pyramid erected over the irradiated bones of Hollywood. These early works hint at Kreutzer’s god complex and delusions of grandeur, the classic American postwar ethic of self-improvement curdled and turned megalomaniacal.

So of course it’s no surprise that Kreutzer turns to the East to find further wisdom on self-improvement as the late ’60s arrive, just like many real-world tech giants. Kreutzer re-engages with his Japanese ancestry and seeks spiritual wisdom in Shinto spirituality. But Kreutzer is also a child of California, and combines this spiritual exploration with drug experimentation, and funding research at SRI-style think tanks to find the key to mind-machine interface. Kreutzer founds a company, Mimecom, to work on his research into virtual reality and cybernetics. From this fusion of spirituality, pharmacology, and computer technology, Kreutzer believes he will find the key to enable him to become the god he yearns to be. Any resemblance to our own world’s aforementioned technocratic champions of the Californian Ideology seem perfectly intentional. But to make his plans come to fruition, Kreutzer, much like our real-life tech magnates, would need one more crucial element: that of political power.

As the fictional documents turn to the 1970s, Kreutzer begins networking with other men of influence and wealth, founding a movement called the Wild Palms Group. Reminiscent of the Trilateral Commission, Bohemian Grove, and other secretive conspiracies from our timeline, Kreutzer invites a group of prominent figures (including Henry Kissinger, Robert MacNamara, H. Ross Perot, and, somewhat anachronistically for 1978, Ted Turner and Bill Gates) to join his movement for a renewal of American society that had grown decadent and scarred in the aftermath of the 1970s: “Neither party has the answer. Politics as usual will not suffice when people stand at the point of no return.” In this letter to these prominent figures, Kreutzer makes mention of an inner circle to the Wild Palms Group he is founding called “the Fathers,” which we learn on the next page grew out of a neo-fascist movement in Yugoslavia, whose beliefs Kreutzer has fused into his own private conspiracy at the top of the Church of Synthiotics.

 

 

Two excerpts from The Wild Palms Reader: Anton Kreutzer’s letter announcing the creation of “The Wild Palms Group” (left), and a fictionalized future history of real estate in Los Angeles that traces the region’s transformation from a land of malls in the early 1990s to a giant “Wilderzone” of slums surrounding wealthy enclaves by 2008 (right)

Obviously, the cultural touchstone from our own world that most closely resembles Kreutzer here is Ronald Reagan, who won the Presidency in 1980 offering an optimistic (and simultaneously retrograde, moralistic, and fascistic) cure for the malaise of the ’70s. Reagan, too, used plays from the 20th century fascist playbook as both Governor of California and President, cloaking it in the language of traditional values and market supremacy. Kreutzer too runs for office in 1980, for Senate from California, and in the world of Wild Palms, he loses after a rambling “infomercial” airs on television, betraying Kreutzer’s more off-kilter beliefs, such as his firmly-held faith that his development of virtual reality will allow the American people to literally make their own reality. (Given his eventual election to the Senate in 1994, it appears that the American people were not quite yet ready for Kreutzer’s philosophy in 1980.) Calling his followers “New Realists,” he offers a vision of the America he seeks to make:

That’s why I created Synthiotics—to wake up individuals one by one. And that’s why I founded Mimecom, whose great mission is to free the American people from the single-reality media monopoly Disneyworld of the mind that you’ve been tricked into buying as your own collective American Dream. And to bring about the media millennium, where every American is free to inhabit a reality of his or her own choosing, through the software science of the mind and the hardware technology of the spirit!

This language, that of individual choice, of inhabiting one’s own personal media reality, became more and more true in our timeline in the 1980s, as cable television and computer technology began appearing in more and more homes in America. These technologies contributed to the fraying of the social fabric that began with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s. Moreover, Kreutzer’s belief that his very specific technology, both material and spiritual, can open up literal New Realities in the form of quantum multiversal timelines; that individual will, consciousness, and belief can shape the world around us, effectively demonstrates how the modern techno-libertarian ethos has effectively used a general atmosphere of postmodernism over the past 25 years to create a moral and political relativism that elevates the sacred individual, and individual choice under the market, into a veritable godhood. In the world of Wild Palms, this leads to extreme economic inequality, with 2007 Los Angeles turned into a “Wilderzone” of dangerous slums, dotted with walled communities of extreme wealth. On this prediction, the creators of Wild Palms were startlingly accurate, but they really only needed to look out their window to see how it would all unfold.

Who is resisting this techno-libertarian fascism in the world of The Wild Palms Reader? The “Friendship Committee,” a.k.a. the “Friends,” a group of disaffected academics who are trying to smash the illusion machine that Kreutzer, Synthiotics, Channel Three, and Mimecom have all conspired to use to sedate the American people. The main problem with the Friends is that every glimpse of them in both the series and the Reader makes them out to be wild-eyed prophets, screaming in the wilderness, but ultimately impotent to make any material change in Wild Palms‘s media dystopia. Kreutzer’s old rival, Eli Levitt (played by David Warner in the TV series), conveys the gravitas of leftist history and activism well enough, but the Reader features a manic interview with a member of the Friends who tried to assassinate Kreutzer with a curare dart. Interviewed on television, she is allowed to rant about conspiracies, an elite filled with Synthiotic “technoshamans” dedicated to destroying both human free will and the ecological health of planet Earth. Recuperated and made into a laughingstock by the media as so many revolutionaries and conspiracists are in our world, she is effectively neutralized by the very media machine she rants about.

 

 

Immortality through “uploading” and other methods of biological life extension have become a hot topic in the past decade, with computer scientist and futurist Ray Kurzweil leading the way in heralding an eventual humanity-transforming technological “Singularity.” Cover stories on Kurzweil and the Singularity from Time Magazine, 2011 and Wired UK, 2013

And as we get to the end of the Reader, and to the end of Wild Palms the television series, we find out what drives Kreutzer near the end of his mortal life: the pursuit of immortality. The aforementioned “Go chip” will allow hiim to download his consciousness and live forever as a being of pure energy, a hologram, the capstone to all his dreams of apotheosis from his youth. Our own transhumanist technoshamans are no different: dedicated to surviving their own physical death and even the death of our ecosystem with plans to upload themselves; failing that, they’ll either bodily head off to Mars or find a nice bolthole and hunker down as the rest of the Earth (and the 99%) burns and dies around them. With even pop songs now celebrating the possibility of eternal life as one of the Elect in an artificial intelligence cloud, the millenarian implications of techno-libertarianism are more immediate and more dangerous than when Wild Palms was released. After all, if eternal life is promised to you as a “sacred” individual, what responsibility does a “Randian hero” have to the rest of the Earth, to its living things, and to the rest of the human race not wealthy enough to ascend to a state of pure immortal energy?

William Gibson commented on his blog in 2006 that The Wild Palms Reader “managed to pre-figure some of the most eldritch vibes of Bush-era neoconservatism, and indeed the series can be imagined as making a very different kind of sense, at the time, if only Clinton hadn’t been elected.” But Clinton was elected, and the deregulated internet giveaway that resulted in the first dot-com boom and bubble at the turn of the century led to our current Web 2.0 landscape, where corporations control information, reality is fungible, and theocratic neo-fascists use their own bastardized, hollow form of postmodernism to assure us cowed viewers that there is no real truth, only a multiplicity of supposedly equally valid alternate Realities. The same wealthy Baby Boomers who were lampooned for their vacuity in Wagner’s original comic now clutch consensual illusions closely to their heart, each side tuned into news channels devoted to regurgitating their political beliefs, their own custom Reality, just like the VR consumers and New Realists in Wild Palms. And even more shocking is how closely attuned so many of the contributors to the Reader were to what was happening in technology and media in the early ’90s, that they largely predicted our future, and ended up as impotent as the “Friends” to stop it. How much blame should the speculative thinkers of a particular era receive when their nightmarish vision of a possible future becomes the actual New Reality we must live in? Do our prophets merely predict the future, warning us of the dangers ahead? Or do they bear some responsibility for the dystopia from which they’ve equipped us no escape? Sometimes, the mere ability to imagine a different, better future—past the wild palms—is a revolutionary act.


Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.

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4 thoughts on “California Dreams: Our Cyberpunk Future According to ‘Wild Palms’

  1. Fantastic bit of business and, all other considerations aside, it did lead to me tracking down a copy of The Wild Palms Reader.

  2. Pingback: Calling All Computists: The Us Festival in ‘Silicon Gulch Gazette’, 1982

  3. Pingback: Stranger Than Fantasy: Six More Unsung Pop Songs From the ’80s

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