Cyberpunk and mirrorshades: a fashion and cultural statement
Before cyberpunk received its definite label it was known under many other names. The first writers of the genre back in the 80s gave it these other labels, which included: Radical Hard SF, the Outlaw Technologists, the Eighties Wave, and the Neuromantics. For some time, cyberpunk was also known as the Mirrorshades Group. This name comes not only after Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986), the defining cyberpunk short story collection edited by Bruce Sterling, but also because the Movement — a group composed by Sterling himself, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker and William Gibson — was often seen wearing one of their favorite accessories: mirrored sunglasses.
In the preface of Mirrorshades, Sterling wrote that “by hiding the eyes, mirrorshades prevent the forces of normalcy from realizing that one is crazed and possibly dangerous.” The author also added that mirrored sunglasses are also “the symbol of the sunstaring visionary, the biker, the rocker, the policemen, and similar outlaws.” As if that were a fashion manifesto, Sterling stresses that the accessory should be wore “preferably in chrome and matte black,” which is the Movement’s totem color that appeared in many of their stories, “as a kind of literary badge.”
Together with Lewis Shiner, Sterling wrote the short story Mozart in Mirrorshades (1986), in which he tells the story of a time traveler that goes back in time, with the intention of rewriting history. But in order to get what he wants, the protagonist bargains future (or “realtime,” as they name it) goods with people like Marie Antoinette and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who love to wear fashion items like jeans, leather jackets, and mirrored sunglasses.
By playing with anachronisms, the story features a 15-year-old Mozart, who sports all the qualities of a stereotypical millennial — as if the authors managed to predict the youth of today way back in the 80s. Clever, ambitious, and a trickster, the Austrian composer knows he is a genius that is destined to write the most beautiful symphonies in the history of mankind, but he wants more than that: he wants the future, he wants to be a rockstar in mirrorshades.
Her eyes like mirrors
Two years before Mozart in Mirrorshades, in 1984, Molly Millions became the star of William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer with her eye implants. At first, the protagonist Case think Molly is actually wearing mirrored eyeglasses, but soon realizes that her “silver lenses seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above her cheekbones framed by dark hair cut in a rough shag.” In fact, Molly has sealed her eye sockets with vision-enhancing mirrored lenses that require an adaptation of her tear ducts: they were re-routed to her mouth, so she can either spit or swallow the tears whenever they come. Bad ass.
The image reflected in the mirror is a representation of the concept of virtuality
Molly is such a strong character that she inspired many different artists, including the American band Information Society, who composed a song called Mirrorshades after her. While the 1995 movie adaptation of Gibson’s story, Johnny Mnemonic, featured Molly renamed as Jane, and with no visual augmentations, the Wachowski Brothers brought her back to the trilogy that kept cyberpunk alive and kicking for the next century. Molly was re-imagined as Trinity, one of the protagonists of the The Matrix movies.
Due to its bold costume design, The Matrix became a fashion statement that inspired a generation that could also see the fierceness in leather and latex clothes, black and long overcoats and, of course, every character wears sunglasses. Not only the black ones worn by Trinity and Neo, but especially the mirrored round shades worn by Morpheus. As a tribute to 80s fashion, though revisited with a futuristic approach, The Matrix brings subcultural references by mixing goth clothing with the rivethead style.
In the 70s, Ray-Ban started a line of eyewear design including mirrored lenses in two new models, the Ray-Ban Vagabond and Ray-Ban Stateside, each included plastic frames and two types of lenses — the G-31 mirror lens and the standard G-15 lens. To get the mirrored effect, brands started using different materials and sometimes even metals when covering the lenses. Among the options were titanium, nickel, and chromium, the latter being another cyberpunk totem.
You can see this in Gibson’s 1982 short story Burning Chrome, which makes the connection between cyberpunk and chromium through the image in its title of liquid chrome. This would be revisited in later years by the Terminator movies — especially the second one, which had the shapeshifting android T-1000 who is able to melt into liquid metal at will.
Similarly, in The Matrix, mirrors are often featured in scenes, both distorting and showing an image of the characters in reference to Jean Baudrillard’s theories in Simulation and Simulacra (1981) — a work that even appears as a fake book in Neo’s apartment. Here, the shiny metal surface of chromium appears as rearview mirrors, mirrorshades, or even as a fluid material that overtakes Neo’s body after he takes the red pill. In these scenes, the liquid metal is less about fashion and more in tune with a certain philosophical point of view. The image reflected in the mirror is a representation of the concept of virtuality — not only the reflection is unreal, but the whole world too.
Through the looking mirror
One theory discussed by The Matrix fans is that sunglasses are worn only by characters who are already at a higher level of enlightenment within its world. They could be the agents or they could be the Nebuchadnezzar’s crew, who have already seen through the reality illusion of the Matrix and learned its tricks. But only Morpheus wears mirrored lenses in the films, possibly as an instrument that represents his philosophical approach.
The reflection of Neo in Morpheus’ lenses is perhaps meant as a precursor to what he becomes — a virtual image of the future savior. That is, if you consider the classical meaning of “virtual” here. In the 14th century, Scholastic terminology introduced the term virtualitas with the meaning of “effectiveness, efficiency,” so that “virtuality” meant the same as “potentiality.” And though the semioticist Charlie Sanders Peirce has criticized this notion in the 20th century, the Scholastic idea was that each seed is a potential tree, thus each seed is a “virtual” tree. As an image, and therefore a virtual “object,” Neo, as seen reflected in Morpheus’ sunglasses, has the potential to be The One — this is how Morpheus always sees him.
In the case of Agent Smith, who is a machine (or a program) that is meant to keep order in the Matrix, the shades work both as a symbol of his knowledge about the Matrix and also as a kind of mask for his face and human appearance. The sunglasses move him visually closer to resemble a machine as they hide any emotions he may express through his eyes, “the windows to the soul.” And so, when Agent Smith loses his glasses, it acts as a symbol of his downfall as it gives us a chance to see the fear and hate in his eyes — despite being a machine, he gains the vulnerabilities of the human he presents himself as.
Sunglasses as cyborg prosthetics
Taking what Sterling wrote about how cool the Movement saw themselves as when wearing shades, the accessory is continuously featured in many cyberpunk works, from the eye implants of Batou in Ghost in the Shell (1995) to the augmented sunglasses of Adam Jensen in the Deus Ex franchise. More than a fashion item, cyberpunk sunglasses are like prosthetics with further uses than making one look good.
Adding to Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1985), Robbie Davis-Floyd stated in 1998 that “we are all cyborgs now,” simply for using computers and earphones or for wearing glasses. In this sense, before taking cyborg culture as strictly linked to the idea of enhancing our bodies beyond our biological settings, cyborgism becomes more related to how people with disabilities are using technology and science as a means to facilitate daily life.
Davis-Floyd mentions Stephen Hawking as an example of a person who is still active and making important contributions to astrophysics while taking advantage of a human-machine symbiosis. In Social Sciences: The Big Issues (2003), Kath Woodward wrote that instead of making a distinction between the body and the machine, “we could benefit from thinking across the boundaries of natural = body = agency on the one side and the machine = culture to the other.” She says cyborgism gives people control and that “this merging of body and machine enables us to exercise control and agency.” This is why Haraway avoided the idea of making machines look alien and saying they are going to take control of our lives: “they are part of us and we are part of them.”
Ultimately, and maybe not even on purpose, the mirrored glasses trend in cyberpunk was a first step to the assimilation of a cyborg culture that is already merged with our daily routine.
And before we reach the point where people with no disabilities choose to get prosthetics as an enhancement, we still need to work hard by helping those who are in need of such technologies. The good news is that many science-fiction writers and creators, such as the team responsible for the new Deus Ex titles, are already working hard to promote this integration, as they did recently by building a real life prosthetic arm after Jensen’s design.
Originally published on Versions in 2016.