Inside ‘Mondo 2000,’ the cyberpunk magazine that gave us a glimpse of the utopian future that never was

The magazine's founder R.U. Sirius talks with Claire L. Evans about internet culture's psychedelic early days and its clusterfuck present

It’s wildfire season in California. My home, ten miles from an active fire in the San Gabriel Mountains, smells faintly like barbecue; up in the Bay Area, the smoke from a convergence of fires hangs greasy and thick in the air, filtering the sunlight through a diffuse orange haze. The San Francisco skyline has never looked more cyberpunk. Geeks on the internet are grimly mashing up drone footage of the city with selections from the Blade Runner soundtrack. It all feels oddly predictable, as though the dystopian pronouncements of a generation of leather-jacketed science fiction writers and techno-cultural prophets were now plodding, exactly as written, toward their tedious end. “I’ve been trying to warn people that the apocalypse is boring,” R.U. Sirius emails me, from Marin, on a 109°F day.

As the founding editor of one of cyberpunk’s foundational texts, Mondo 2000 magazine, Sirius—born Ken Goffman—is one of those leather jackets, a longtime observer of the confluence of technology’s utopian aspirations and their inevitable collapse. In its 18-issue tear through the early 1990s, Mondo brought an anarchic, drug-addled sensibility to the geeky world of computers, drawing a wiggly line from the gonzo rock journalism of the 1970s to the novelty-chasing prognostications of glossy tech publishing (in comparison, its closest descendant, Wired, reads like the operating manual for an IBM mainframe). Mondo 2000 publisher and “domineditrix” Alison Kennedy, who went by the moniker “Queen Mu,” once called the magazine “the Rolling Stone of the ’90s,” but it was closer to that decade’s Whole Earth Catalog—a generation-defining tool kit for understanding the new edge of tomorrow.

R.U. Sirius, Queen Mu, and a rotating cohort of writers, designers, hackers, musicians, futurists, dope peddlers, and kooks ran Mondo 2000 from Kennedy’s mansion in the North Berkeley Hills, a wooden Maybeck furnished in the Victorian style. The Mondo House was legendary for its parties, where the Bay Area’s nascent cyberculture experimented with designer psychedelics and engaged in animated conversational cross-pollination with the likes of Timothy Leary, John Perry Barlow, and VR pioneers and science fiction writers including Jaron Lanier, Brenda Laurel, William Gibson, and Rudy Rucker. From this interpersonal stew emerged a magazine that confidently covered fringe nootropics, cybernetics, hypertext, techno music, and teledildonics in equal measure.

It’s a miracle it lasted as long as it did. Bankrolled almost entirely by Kennedy’s inheritance, Mondo 2000 nailed the zeitgeist but failed to secure advertisers comfortable with its drug-positive, anarchist sensibility; after a highly sporadic run, it printed its last issue in 1998. For those who loved it, however, Mondo 2000 was transformative. Each slim issue was spring-loaded with crackpot musings and countercultural intel, a revelation that technology needn’t belong to software engineers and business dorks alone—that it might, in fact, benefit greatly from a hearty dose of farce, fearlessness, and feral imagination. Today, as California burns, and as the utopian promises of technology have mutated into yet another manifestation of capitalism’s cultural and ecological vampirism, reading Mondo 2000 is a glimpse into an alternate timeline, one where the freedoms of the early web still promised a freaky future worth fighting for.

Ken Goffman a.k.a. “R.U. Sirius” photographed in Mill Valley, Calif. by Mark Mahaney.

Claire L. Evans: Indulge me: What was a day in the life like at the Mondo House?

R.U. Sirius: It was so variable. Most days it was pretty much just an office. People being more or less busy with stuff that needed to get done, even though it was always done late. I would usually sleep until 11am, go upstairs to the kitchen in my silk bathrobe, nothing else, and make my coffee. I had a sexy, young girlfriend—Stara—she would come up to the kitchen right after me and start doing her morning narcissizes, which consisted of flouncing, flirting, pouting, laughing, and warbling in a loopy voice before, usually, hopping into her 1966 red Mustang convertible and heading off to have extreme experiences.

There were a fair amount of parties at the house, it’s true, with plenty of psychedelic drugs and some open sex—albeit not orgies—and infamous intellectuals and celebrities like Timothy Leary or Hakim Bey. Too many to remember. And sometimes something would bust out in the middle of the afternoon. One midday, I had just given an interview to a San Francisco Examiner reporter and we were saying our goodbyes in the Mondo House living room when in flew John Perry Barlow with Barbara Leary, Tim’s wife at the time, demanding some DMT [N-Dimethyltryptamine]. So we all smoked DMT, including the reporter. Barlow puked. The Examiner reporter wrote, ‘Mondo 2000, dig it, boys and girls, is not your father’s magazine, unless Daddykins was hooked into virtual reality, artificial IQ enhancement, pleasure-pulse implants, the post-industrial leisure avant-garde, space skateboarding, hacker-pranking…’ It went on like that for a while. You get the picture.

1989. “Mondo 2000,” Issue 7.

Claire: Even in its day, there was something marvelously anachronistic about Mondo. It was an impossible object: a print magazine about how technology was going to dematerialize 20th-century culture, including, implicitly, print magazines!

R.U.: I told some TV show that we would be the last magazine. It’s sort of like that, actually. I’d guess that people having enthusiasm for print magazines are pretty rare. I used to love going to the magazine stands or even the corner store. Even when I was stuck in the middle-of-nowhere, Upstate New York in the late ’70s I could look in the magazine section and find Creem and National Lampoon, and maybe even Crawdaddy. It was like a little glint of counterculture in the media desert. I digress.

The key Mondo pleasure is that it was, in a sense, anachronistic, and a bit of a trickster in that it posed as a digital culture or cyberpunk magazine, but it was really anything goes. I mean, a long treatise about how Jim Morrison might have been part of a long line of creative artists who used tarantula venom for ‘orphic inspiration?’ So much that we did didn’t fit genre. As Kevin Kelly observed, it was really ‘home-brewed.’ Wired got a larger audience share because it was genre-specific and comprehensible to the tech enthusiast as well as the freak nerd Mondo appealed to.

Ken Goffman a.k.a. “R.U. Sirius” photographed in Mill Valley, Calif. by Mark Mahaney.

Claire: The thing that impresses me most is the sheer density. Interviews with Debbie Harry, George Clinton, Frank Zappa, Deee-Lite, Stephen Wolfram, Genesis P-Orridge, Tom Tom Club, William Burroughs…in one issue alone!

R.U.: Morgan Russell, an editor and co-owner for a brief period, described us as a ‘beribboned letterbomb to the core address of consensus reality.’ We definitely treated every issue as if it were the last statement we might ever get to make before they come and take us away. There was definitely the satisfying sense that we were overwhelming people who had the capacity to welcome us into their lives with divine madness cranked up to 11, and they responded appropriately, almost orgasmically.

Claire: It seems that the window of time between the emergence of cyberpunk as an authentically transgressive literary movement and the co-opting of the genre by mainstream media was vanishingly short. You were always on a line between embodying and parodying cyberpunk.

R.U.: John Perry Barlow said that once cyberpunk was on the cover of Time magazine, in early 1993, it was over. St. Jude Milhon and I satirized popularized cyberpunk in Cyberpunk Handbook: The Real Cyberpunk Fakebook for Random House in 1995. They pitched us on writing the book, which shows that it was a big hype at the time. When we appeared for a reading in Virginia, a 16-year-old girl showed up with a pie she was going to throw at me for ‘selling out cyberpunk.’ She chickened out, but when she told me about it after the talk I had her throw it at me anyway.

1991. “Operation Sundevil & The Legion of Doom,” Issue 3.

Claire: What do people get wrong about early web culture?

R.U.: The aesthetics and politics of the web at the start was kind of a mix of two things: 1) American—mostly white, mostly male—boomer idealism about virtual communities and global brains and good, free, open communication that could lead toward positive change and common understanding and 2) an even more dominant Gen X sensibility of reflexive irony and evasiveness of politics and (the aforementioned) boomer idealism in favor of silly things largely unencumbered by political concerns. There was awareness, but concern seemed like an emotion that could be pushed away with ironic distancing.

What was missing was most of the billions of people in the rest of the world, particularly outside Europe. So much that is good now comes from forces like Black Twitter and the inclusion of other voices—the voices of ‘others.’ Today, along with the horrendousness of Facebook, we are viewing the current internet from the point of view of apocalyptic weather conditions cascading into other events that are decidedly dystopic. We see some people blaming it exclusively for the global rise of reality-defying chaos fascism. It’s actually more like one large part of a cascade of bad events and eventualities.

From Reality Hackers Issue number 6/1988, “Music For Earthquakes: Brian Eno at the Exploratorium in San Francisco,” Photography by Jay Blakesburg. Illustration by Helena Powell, Jay Blakesburg and Ruppo.

Claire: There’s something about the combination of boomer idealism and the Gen-X prankster snark of Mondo that feels particularly alluring now—maybe because we can recognize it as the beginning of the end?

R.U.: Do you think that alluring quality is that it’s an escape from the dire present, or is there something in it that could become useful in the present or future? For me, I think the tech optimism is probably dead, unless there’s some nanotechnology magic box that does everything for everyone. But there may be something in the sort of fuck-all playfulness and spontaneity that might liberate some folks from holding their tongues. I mean, right now, fuck-all seems to be captured by Trump and the Pepe the Frog alt-right crowd. Maybe there needs to be a new libertine left.

Claire: I think it’s a little bit of both. Certainly we need the gusto of those heady early cyber days, but I’m not sure how we reclaim a ‘libertine left’ energy in a world where context has collapsed so spectacularly.

R.U.: I’m glad you noted the nature of Mondo 2000—that it combined boomer idealism and Gen X irony and snark. In the first editorial of High Frontiers, the magazine that we were before we became Mondo 2000, I closed with a section titled ‘The Irony and the Ecstasy,’ in which I mildly deflated the sermonizing about psychedelic– and techno- optimism. I mentioned David Bowie and Andy Warhol and being at play with ambiguity. Since that first magazine appealed mainly to the psychedelic culture, I think it zipped right past most of the readers. It would take Mondo to bring in a new generation of people who were less self-serious than most of the boomers.

Claire: Mondo is often characterized as being techno-utopian, but you were well aware of the potentially autocratic possibilities of technology. Did you feel out of step with the hyped narratives around the internet at the time?

R.U.: There wasn’t a huge amount of techno-utopianism in Mondo, particularly after the first few issues. But it was kind of a selling point and got us into mainstream media as they salivated over things like VR and smart drugs. I got into the habit of telling reporters that I’d rather watch Ren and Stimpy on caffeine than go into VR on smart drugs, but they would usually just quote something upbeat.

My favorite quote from the first issue of Mondo 2000 is from John Shirley: ‘A wire is stuck into the pleasure center of your brain while someone is vivisecting you; you just chuckle and reel them out a length of your intestines.’

As far as where I thought it would go, I was always a fan of uncertainty. Excitable advocates and critics were grist for the mill. But I think by around 1993, in interviews, I was largely holding digital capitalism as suspect and portraying the future as one of extreme class distortions—the elimination of the middle class and the rise of billionaires and precarity, although I wouldn’t have used that word at the time. I think I wrote somewhere that the two classes would be the rich and the ‘organ donors.’ But the organ donors would have cool grunge outfits. I think I predicted a trend toward wearing Depends undergarments on the outside along with snot-covered backward baseball caps.

1990. “The Rush is on! Colonizing cyberspace,” Issue 2.

Claire: I’m sure you get a variation on this question every time you do an interview, so I’m just gonna make it short and sweet: What the fuck happened to the internet?

R.U.: Everybody talks about the obvious things, like the environment created by profit-seeking companies that use algorithms to fan the flames of the type of bad memes that excite people—or even just the existence of commerce on the internet, since it wasn’t that way at the start. But people hesitate to also ‘blame’ the masses. To slightly détourné [Jean-Paul] Sartre, hell is other peoples’ tweets.

There’s an entire world full of people who are toxic with bad tropes, ignorance, distorted views of reality—all of us, really. For example, everybody talks about Facebook being used as a tool of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, but that potential was already there. I mean, the horrors of the 20th century occurred without the assistance of Zuck.

But I do think we’re in a unique clusterfuck here in the 21st. When I was born, in 1952, there were approximately 2.5 billion people in the world. Now there are almost 8 billion, and maybe a quarter of them have access to this means of global communication. That’s a social singularity. That’s a radical decentering of the possibility of any consensual sense of the world and of the possibility of predicting what kind of politics and social habits might emerge. Probably just more confusion. And we celebrated that in Mondo. But it seems to be mainly a bad mess.

Claire: You’re currently writing a history of Mondo—some of which you’ve been kind enough to let me read—and you’ve been working on the Mondo History Project. As someone who spent his early career thinking about the future, what’s it like to spend your time now examining the past?

R.U.: I think part of the secret of the magazine was that behind the occasionally hyperbolic excitement about the possibilities was a desperation, an awareness that the situation we were in politically, economically, interpersonally, environmentally ad infinitum was not really acceptable, even then. We were living up in the Berkeley Hills in a mini-castle, but we had homeless friends occasioning our couch. We had the LA riots of 1991. It was like, not only isn’t the state of affairs acceptable for us brats, but oppression en masse isn’t acceptable, so we’d better try to fix it or we’re all in for trouble. And tech seemed like the only Hail Mary pass in the age of Reagan, Bush, and even Clinton. Maybe it still is.

Tags