Heroes of Cyberspace: Thomas Pynchon

by Charles A. Gimon


(InfoNation Logo)

Published November 1996

Cyberspace, however you define it, is something that most people think of as an artifact of the 1990s. Yet the mental constructs of what we call "cyberspace" have deep, deep roots, and there have been many thinkers over the last 30 (or 300 or 3000) years who have contributed to the style and substance of the new culture long before computing found it way into the public eye. Among these founding thinkers is Thomas Pynchon.

Yes, that Thomas Pynchon, the most famous non-person in America. The greatest American writer of the second half of the 20th century. Frequent non-guest on "The John Larroquette Show". The only celebrity today for whom an 8-by-10 glossy cannot be had at any price. Pynchon's works have been influential for many of today's digital elite, and obscure references to his work are scattered through web pages and Usenet .sigs around the world. Pynchon's overarching themes reflect the American psyche, and even in the 1960s he foresaw the oddnesses and enormities of our end-of-the-century Internet.

What little we know of Pynchon's life suggests experiences that while common enough, would be shared with many of the builders of today's world of computers and networking. He seems to have gravitated toward late-50s bohemianism while at Cornell, spent time hanging around Greenwich Village, and may have dabbled in drugs during the 60s. On the other hand, he did a stint in the Navy and worked as a tech writer at Boeing in Seattle, perhaps making him more Dilbert than Dobie Gillis. None of this is as certain as Pynchon's fans would like.

Pynchon's few works are all worthwhile: his first novel "V.", published in 1963, "Vineland", published in 1990 after a long wait by his following, Slow Learner, a collection of short stories, and his crowning achievement, Gravity's Rainbow, written over nearly a decade, published in 1973, a cult phenomenon as well as a literary piece.

Pynchon's most accessible work, and the one most remarkable for its foresight, is "The Crying of Lot 49", published in 1966, and written during a hiatus in Pynchon's work on "Gravity's Rainbow". "Lot 49" follows the quest of Oedipa Maas, a young woman in suburban southern California of the sixties, the surprised executrix of an old lover of hers. Scattered through the estate she didn't ask to manage are signs of a conspiracy, a secret network that might underlie everything in her world. Or not.

In a word, Pynchon's highest theme--developed most clearly in "Lot 49"--is paranoia. The entire social web of Oedipa Maas' life, maybe all of America, might be caught up in the tangle of possible underground connections she finds. During the time "Lot 49" was written, in fact, since the World War II or even before, paranoia has replaced baseball as our national pastime. From the red scare, to the Kennedy assassination, to Area 51, there has been a paranoid undercurrent to American life that never seems to go out of style. Pynchon explores every possibility, every logical contradiction or strange coincidence, (or in "Lot 49", every 'anarchist miracle') in the paranoid world-view.

But this is no dark gothic novel; Pynchon is a wicked satirist (not least in the proper names he chooses). Oedipa's first early encounters with the underground involve the employees of Yoyodyne, Inc., a less-successful defense contractor and the major employer in her home suburb of San Narciso, California. Pynchon lays on the geek stereotypes thick.

"The Scope proved to be a haunt for electronics assembly people from Yoyodyne. The green neon sign outside ingeniously depicted the face of an oscilloscope tube, over which flowed an ever-changing dance of Lissajous figures...There was this je ne sais quoi about the Scope crowd: they all wore glasses and stared at you, silent..."

What was happening at the Scope was an illicit mail distribution. The paranoids of this particular scene are handling an underground postal service, in violation of the U.S. Postal Service monopoly on first-class mail, through a shady organization of unknown origin called the Tristero. Oedipa's drive to find the meaning behind the Tristero, if there is any, turns up all variety of clues that might validate her paranoia--or might not. Twisted parodies of postage stamps. A graffito on the back of a bus seat. A lapel pin on a stranger in a bar. A message in a bathroom stall. And yet, so many of the tantalizing clues seem to point back to her dead former lover. "She moved through it...attracted, unsure, a stranger, wanting to feel relevant but knowing how much of a search among alternate universes it would take."

The Tristero itself, apparently an underground channel of communication, is the prime efflorescence of paranoia (if it exists). Dozens of minor paranoid conspiracies and anti-conspiracies are attracted to it, with its possibility of avoiding the government surveillance or worse that paranoids are so certain of. The network itself is an amazingly foresighted concept, one that is reflected in the culture of the Internet today. Today's remailer networks are doing in real life what Pynchon's satirical Tristero (if it existed) did in "Lot 49"--handling mail for anyone, particularly persons on the fringe, persons who need anonymity--beyond the long arm of the Law.

These unfettered communications channels exist not because they should or shouldn't, but because they can. And somehow communication and information are an underpinning of existence itself. Pynchon more than once invokes the concept of entropy by name, and shows an understanding of information theory:

"She remembered John Nefastis, talking about his Machine, and massive destructions of information. So when this mattress flared up around the sailor, in his Viking's funeral: the stored, coded years of uselessness, early death, self-harrowing, the sure decay of hope, the set of all men who had slept on it, whatever their lives had been, would truly cease to be, forever, when the mattress burned...It was as if she had just discovered the irreversible process. It astonished her to think that so much could be lost, even the quantity of hallucination belonging just to the sailor that the world would bear no further trace of...The act of metaphor then was a thrust at a truth and a lie, depending on where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost. Oedipa did not know where she was..."

Information entropy is death, not just by annihilation, but by meaninglessness. Here destruction is the destruction of meaning--even if the meaning in things only comes from paranoid delusions.

Oedipa is faced with three possibilities: maybe there is a Tristero, and then the America she knew before is not the America she knows now. Maybe the entire thing is a gargantuan joke being paid for out of the estate of her former lover, which appears to have had tentacles everywhere...or maybe there is no Tristero, in which case she is a nut case. Without meaning, even false meaning, there is nothing.

While one approach to Pynchon embraces meaning, the postmodern approach is prepared to toss it away. The postmodern question is: who is an author? But for that matter, who cares? Latter-day lit crit types forget the author in favor of the reader, the observer without whom, like in Schroedinger's cat-in-the-box thought experiment, there is no meaning in the work. It's no surprise that Pynchon is claimed by the postmodern set as one of their own. As Jonathan Hudson points out in an entertaining paper on the web, Pynchon himself is the ultimate pseudonym, the author who isn't, the writer whose deliberate and complete lack of publicity parallels postmodern ideas of what an author is (or isn't). "Lot 49" has several items that reinforce such a notion: the playwright who commits suicide, the used-book store that burns down. Indeed, the true paranoid is the person who thinks there might be meaning in the book, the postmodern reader around whom all meaning revolves--but whom, as Pynchon also points out, might be stone crazy.

In the cosmic sense, paranoia means gnosticism. Another view contrary to the postmodern one has Pynchon not as the atomizer of meaning, but as the subversive preserver of it. In his book "The Gnostic Pynchon", Dwight Eddins, professor of English at the Univ. of Alabama, analyses the cosmic themes and religious name-dropping in Pynchon's works. "In the beginning, for Pynchon, was the malaise...mankind alone and alienated in an indifferent cosmos, vulnerable to entropy and nihilistic despair. This sense of a sterile, enveloping neutrality is challenged almost at once, however, by a paranoia of religious dimensions--the increasing suspicion, suggestive of ancient Gnosticism, that humanity is trapped in a history increasingly manipulated by antihuman forces." In other world, it's not just the government that's reading your mail; the whole universe is your enemy. A select few own the saving knowledge that can renew the world--or are they just paranoid freaks? For Pynchon, science itself is the foundation of religion, the knowledge in "gnosis", both for the orthodox and for heretics. Calculus, polymer chemistry, information theory--all are involved in a cosmic battle between meaning and meaninglessness.

On today's Internet, we find thinkers and speakers with a near-religious tone in their advocacy as well. More than one has mentioned Pynchon and his amalgam of anarchy and meaning as an influence. Internet anarchist Hakim Bey (a Pynchonesque character himself) has written about "Temporary Autonomous Zones", "the interzone that opens up in the midst or wake of war and revolution, cf. Pynchon's 'zone' in 'Gravity's Rainbow'..."

The controversial and respected advocate of crypto-anarchy, Tim May, also belies a bit of a Pynchon connection, having been a contributor to the Pynchon mailing-list and the Pynchon FAQ-list. May helped bring about today's network of anonymous remailers, and floated the concept of an anonymous, autonomous information market called "BlackNet" a few years ago that has been influential in its own way. May told InfoNation: "Pynchon's sense of 'things not being what they seem' certainly informs my outlook. I can't say BlackNet was directly inspired by this, but it generally was. Certainly the notion of using remailers in a 'W.A.S.T.E.' fashion was a popular topic of discussion between Eric Hughes and myself, several years ago...I learned Pynchon had lived for most of the 80s just a few miles from where I was living most of the same time (literally, a few ridges over from me). He was gone by the time I learned his address, but I probably passed him without knowing it on the streets or at musical events here in Santa Cruz/Aptos." The most dedicated of paranoids might suggest that May himself could be the elusive Pynchon. Or not.

On the Internet, paranoia is normal business. How do you know who you are communicating with? You are one person, alone, on a world-wide net that is more silicon than flesh. You might not even be sure whether your partner is a sixteen-year-old, or a bot, or an award-winning author in hiding. In a world without organization, where there are no kings or capitols, every point is the center, as long as you are standing on it. There is always meaning to support you--if you provide it.

Or in a subliminal slap at the government, you could add a line to your e-mail, borrowed from a forged Tristero postmark: "Report All Obscene Mail to Your Potsmaster".

The "San Narciso Community College" (!) pages are at:

Tim Ware has Pynchon resources and links to other sites at:

Jonathan Hudson's paper on "The Crying of Lot 49" is at:

Dwight Eddins has a bare-bones homepage at:

The pynchon-l mailing list is archived at:

Tim May and BlackNet are featured in many pages, including:

Various documents by Hakim Bey are at:


Charles A. Gimon teaches an Introduction to the PC class at the English Learning Center in south Minneapolis. He can be reached at gimonca@skypoint.com.


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