Post-postcyberpunk: A Theory of Science Fiction

There are many flavors of creative fiction. Most of them can be reduced to an answer: SUSPENSE (for thrillers), BOGART (for noir), ALLOWING THE READER TO FEEL INTELLIGENT BY FOLLOWING ALONG (for whodunnits), ELF TITTIES (for fantasy). This is their raison d’etre; the question which they seek to answer thereby is no more complicated than “Why are we reading this story?”

And – the question does not have to be complicated beyond that. The reader, the asker, has either bought the story, subscribed to its publishing magazine, given the blog a Reddit upvote, or in some other way supplied that which the author wanted of them. While I am suspicious of any writer, as any artist, who has no desire to use their work to better the world, I am three times as suspicious of a writer who believes that their humble prose will do just so. They that provide what is desired have no need for further self-justification… and, all things being equal, market demand for elf-boobs isn’t going anywhere.

Much of science fiction, and its associated genre and subgenre, is content to be an answer likewise: EXPLORATION (Rodenberry), DISCOVERY (Hogan), EXISTENTIALISM (Asimov), PROTO-EXISTENTIALISM (Shelley), EXISTENTIALISM AND CRACK (Dick), I WISH THEY’D LET ME STAY IN THE NAVY (early Heinlein), I WISH I HAD BREASTS SO I COULD SQUEEZE THEM ALL DAY (late Heinlein), ad plenum. Much of it is is happy to follow in these footsteps, to sin the sins and strut the stuff sufficient to be called a Member Of Genre.*

The more revolutionary sort of genre fiction is that which self-consciously plays with the tropes of the genre while still remaining within it. Comic books provide an easy example, particularly those of a certain sort released in the 1980s. Watchmen was a superhero comic in which some of the superheroes (but not all) were anything other than ordinary people. Had they all been Maguffin-powered wunderkind, the comic would not have been revolutionary – but had they all been regular people, it would not have been a superhero comic; it would not have been judged by the rules of the genre; and thus it would not have been revolutionary. By the same token, a person who came  to comics beginning with Sandman would have none of the knowledge requisite to appreciate its subversions. Whereas someone reading The Dark Knight through the veil of ignorance would simply think that Batman needs a weekend in Atlantic City.

If you go too far up the divided line*****, your work ceases to be subversive genre, and becomes just odd-mainstream. If you stray too far from one genre into another, purposefully or not, you enter the realm of slipstream – for which tropes and dogmas are quickly being established, thus to be, etc., etc.

There is a great deal of fiction which seeks, not just to answer, but to ask. The unanswered question, the fatalistic poser, has a noble tradition: from Rabbi “Shecky” Hilel to Lermontov’s “Let it suffice that the malady has been diagnosed – Heaven alone knows how to cure it!” leading us to video games with player-chosen endings a la Deus Ex. Beyond this are those works which, for good or ill, seek to answer themselves.

This is the domain, not of genre fiction, but of speculative fiction. It is not, as many adherents would claim, a class of writing monopolized by science fiction. It can be found in novels set in the past, ranging from REALISM (The Physician) to AD ABSURDUM (A Song of Ice and Fire******) to JUST PLAIN ABSURD (The High Crusade) and everywhere in between (Dies the Fire, Eifelheim, Tim “It Needs More Byron” Powers, Roger “It Needs More Corwin” Zelazny). It can be found in novels set in nobody’s past: I would like to think that the works of Prof Tolkien tackle at least as many ethical issues as the works of Immanuel Kant (and in only seven times the page-count!). Likewise it can be found in the burgeoning school of ‘the future as past’ literature, begun with The Last Man and carried through Heston yelling at the apes but reaching its modern peak with The Great Zombiepalooza of Ought-Eleven.

Yet its most traditional form is that of the future speculative fiction: that is, scifi. For the past few centuries (with the occasional caesura, usually due to the activities of someone with preposterous facial hair) the world has experienced constant progress: new ways of doing things, new things a-doing, the ability for humanity to provide more for itself, to provide for more of itself, and to do so in more variety than was possible before. Yet with innovation comes new challenges: the death of pastorality, international arms races, Mutually Assured Destruction, and cat macros. To name but a few.

For centuries now it has been the role of speculative science fiction to:

-Determine what there is in the world that can be improved upon or fixed

-Dream of ways for this to be accomplished

-Envision the direct challenges these things will create…

-…likewise the indirect challenges, to people, to culture, and to the world

Speculative fiction, I submit, is the genre of change: speculative fantasy suggests changes that are not likely to occur (vampires, little green men, “Blimey Harry! You’re a wizard!”), whereas speculative scifi is just a bit more probable (longer life, lives less lived, the creation of a post-scarcity world, fights over commodities that do not yet exist to be scarce). Neither are inherently less practicable to the world: the former simply in metaphor, the latter without interpretation.

The changes experienced by the world most certainly inform the fiction which its denizens produce. This at least from the demand side – a novel which reflects the hopes and fears of its target audience will be famous, whereas a novel which reflects the hopes and fears of a-hundred-years-from-now will be lucky to end up as a footnote in a graduate student’s dissertation… two hundred years later. ******* A novel may be timeless if those changes to which it is responding (or which it is predicting) remain stressors to future generations… or if it details the reasons for these stresses, and the reactions of its characters thereto, in a way which transcends the simple anxiety of history.

Frankenstein is a classic, uber alles, because it deals with themes which remain relevant, which are more relevant today than a Regency writer could have envisioned. The Last Man, to stay with Ms. Shelley, is too a classic (albeit somewhat less so) because it deals with themes which are just as relevant supposing the creation of a certain scenario. The role of medical science, the fixity of death, these are questions which affect us, whether or not we are consciously aware of it, every day. Whereas the nature of isolation affects us more indirectly… just as we, daily, create new ways – plague being the most commonly considered – for such isolation to result.

The forces which are most pressing upon the minds of the world are, with the assistance of retrospect (and a certain disregard for complexity), well able to be categorized. In the 1920s it was HEDONISM (Fitzgerald), in the 30s POVERTY (Steinbeck), the 50s COMMUNISM (Marvel comics), the 60s FREEDOM and BUMPING UGLIES (Crumb comix), etc. How things should be classified is a debate for academics; how one wishes to classify things for oneself are the decisions of an author.

For those who question the hubris of my dichotomizations, I would respond that it is no more presumptuous to lump the works of a given period together, and call them LOST GENERATION or GEN X, than it is to split the works in a given media by theme into SCIFI or FANTASY.******** Either has its uses, for the simplification of large amounts of data is required for its easy manipulation… but moreover, each is self-fulfilling, as mainstream writers of a given age seek to write of-an-age with at least the self-conscious intention of a genre writer seeking to write of-a-genre.

Since we are discussing science fiction in particular, we ought to look beyond general sociocultural stressors and give our particular scrutiny to technological innovation. The century before last was that of Verne and Wells, whose works need hardly be belabored. This moved into the Futurists, the superheroes, the early space operas, anti-Nazi propaganda, then anti-Communist, Stories For Boys.  By and large the work was not directly the result of anxiety. We had no time machines, no promise of them, to fear: such devices were employed so as to explore more general anxieties, greater trends in what was perceived as social direction. There was little need to imagine fear of weapons during the years of the World Wars, that fear being clear and present enough; there was little fear of new disease, when the old ones were still felt in every community, near in every home; whereas new advances in technology were not yet widely disseminate, nor had they yet to have substantive impact upon The Life Whitepicket.

Life for the majority – of Americans, and certainly the world beyond – may not have been the Hobbesian nightmare, but it was less removed from the medieval than the modern world is from them and then. In those ways in which it was bad, it had been bad for a very long time; in those ways in which it was good, it was stable, known, and full well adapted to. There was little hope for improvement, or at least not technologically-assisted improvement. Nor was there much anxiety of change.

As such, there was little room for scifi among the middle classes. The upper-classes did not necessarily see more of the changes occurring in the world, but with a finger in the Great Pie these changes were closer to their hearts. Speculative fiction was, at that time, a primarily aristocratic genre of literature. Which is why, I suppose, it had this great tendency to be philosophical, full of wankery, and boring.

The advent of the atomic age caused the alteration of this distribution. An awareness of atomic power brought a feeling that the future heralded true change. An understanding of mutually-assured destruction made that technology personally threatening. Radiation – fallout – was a new plague, about as well understood as the Black Death and just as feared. There was much to be anxious about. There was a need to identify the threats, the challenges, the possibilities, and to work through their implications. Speculation was strategically and psychologically necessary; speculative fiction was the natural result.

A direct fear of technology, and its potential impact on The Community, truly began with the atomic age. Much of the scifi of the period 1945-1960 is, to a modern reader, comically melodramatic: everything is Good or Evil, everything is to the scale of the Titans, and every male lead has a chin strong enough to chisel titanium. This should not be surprising. Under threat, real or imagined, of daily death (and beyond that, extinction), subtlety is not a virtue. What Stephenson called “the radical pre-hokiness era” did not have time for bourgeois existantialism; it was too busy being scared out of its mind.*********

As nuclear fears subsided, and technological advances became more and more assimilated into the life both of the nation and the individual, science fiction became less apocalyptic to suit. The anxieties with which it dealt expanded a thousandfold to include such topics as SEXUALITY, GENDER, RACE, POLITICS, RELIGION, FREEDOM OF SPEECH, the QUESTIONING of both HISTORY and SCIENCE, and… well, everything else in Stranger in a Strange Land.

As technology expanded and refined, so too did the speculation. Computers began to play a larger part in the scene-dressing of novels, and artificial intelligence in their array of villains and Macguffins both. Books were written out of a fear of MIND CONTROL (The Manchurian Candidate), ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM (Farenheit 451), A TOTALLY SWINGIN’ INVERSE MUNDI (Logan’s Run), and of course the OVERRELIANCE ON TECHNOLOGY (Minority Report). Speculative fiction also began to provide scenarios whereby the anxieties of previous generations might reoccur, as with super-soldiers, super-viruses, super-villains… and the glorious space opera, whereby mankind’s conquering of the oceans and the skies was replaced by the infinite gulfs of the heavens, to impose the challenge of scale which our planet had ceased to provide.

With the advent of the digital computer, the fear began to shift from that which was too large for humanity to manipulate, to that which was too small for humanity to defend against. Duck-and-cover only worked when death was coming from the skies; when it was distributed, when it was everywhere and at eye-level, it became easier for the individual to sympathize with the danger, with increased fears to suit. The depression of the inner cities, commonality of drugs and addiction, and first of the post-war economic downturns served only to provide more cultural contexts for new anxieties. By the early 1980s the stories which dealt therewith came to share enough between them for them to be thought of as a single genre: cyberpunk.

The basis for these stories was a fear of technology run amok, but one which, unlike previously-envisioned situations, did not result in human annihilation. Rather, it simply made things get very shitty and basically turn into the Bronx. The stories, to a modern reader, are much scarier, more visceral, more downright probable than the not-quite-beyond-good-and-evil apocalyptica of the Atom Age. Yet they are so precisely because they are more moderated: a thousand-megaton nuclear fireball is an abstraction, whereas a hacking cough, or flechette wound, or designer drug overdose is ever so concrete.

There was at this time a direct association between the proliferation of technology and the increase of its mass. This was the time of the computer cable, of the mainframe computer, of tape and terror, of just lots of metal stuff. These new advances, these pieces of Technology, were not seen as pieces; they were one great mass, coating the world like a biofilm, ever expanding, reducing rather than increasing the boundaries between individual people, certainly reducing the separation between people and their environments. There was a sense that progress implied drowning: in our own waste, in each other, and in wires. Cyberpunk is, more than anything else, a punk of the coaxial cable.

Yet this is not the path which technology took. The cyberpunk stories demonstrate a clear demand for certain things (in the form of a demand for the absence of others). As technology became more and more consumer-focused, the desires of consumers began more and more to affect its development. The market listens, it always does. And technology became, quite simply, less scary.

By the middle 1990s, the amount of Tech which your house required could be reduced to one big box sitting on your desk: your personal computer. Every few months your computer (or rather, the new computer you couldn’t afford) could do more, it could do it more easily, it could let you do it more easily, and it would take up less space while doing it. Then Steve Jobs came back to Apple and suddenly your computer could do it all while looking like an anime cat.

The people said: technology scares us! So a company produced technology that was as comforting as strawberry shortcake. Demand was satisfied. And people were happy.

It did not whatsoever hurt that people were becoming more and more acclimatized to technology, particularly digital technology. People were now alive who had been born with it. They had studied it. They understood it. At one point a nerd was a person who could appreciate how incredibly powerful the new tech was; now a nerd was someone who understood how much it was still in its infancy. You rarely fear what you understand and you never fear what you can control. The simplified, user-friendly interfaces gave people the ability to use their computer somewhat. This provided the illusion of control complete, or at least sufficient. A computer stopped being anything-you-could-dream-of and became, instead, ClarisWorks. A person can be afraid of infinite possibility much more easily than of a spreadsheet.

This change was directly reflected in the contemporary science fiction. Things became, for lack of a better phrase, less scary. Urban landscapes became more polished. Dirt and grime were replaced by port and polish. Evil megalithic corporations became… evil megalithic publicly-traded corporations. A bundle of thick cables became a single Spartan ethernet cord. Anxiety ebbed. Confidence flowed. Thus was Post-Cyberpunk: Cyberpunk that is on its was from speculation to genre-tropes, from science fiction to fantasy.

We are seeing a similar pattern in various other forms of science fiction. Biopunk is a particular example. The primary works of the genre are at best Dickensian (The Windup Girl, BioShock) and at worst as apocalyptic as Shelley (Oryx & Crake). They are many of them works of extremes to the point of abstraction, whereby Science is more of a frame for philosophical exploration than it is the result of the study of textbooks. Either genetic modification has run amok, leaving everyone with super-tuberculosis working in a super-workhouse… or else everybody’s dead of a nanovirus, and it’s up for The Last Man to… well, something. Usually involving whining. And a Last Woman, but not for a few hundred pages.

This is reflective of changing attitudes towards genetics, and particularly the human manipulation and control thereof. As with computers, such things are now outside of the life and grasp of the average person; they are Big and Unknown; they are occult; the average person does not understand them; does not feel in control of them; does not feel in control of those who are; feels under the control of those who are; is anticipating the worst, which is persistent cough followed by Armageddon. As with computers, I expect that these fears will be assuaged: increased education, increased exposure to the fruits of genetic experiment in a person’s daily life, and more opportunities for individual people to practice genetic manipulation, will cause these anxieties to disappear.

Will there be a bio-chicken in every pot? Most likely. I could argue there already is. Will there one day be in every home a terminal for selecting the traits that you desire from your houseplants? Baby’s First Gene Gun? An iPharm, in either 4 or 8 petabyte (and six different pastel colors?) I expect there will be. I speculate that it is so. And is this happens, biopunk will become post-biopunk just as surely as did its digital partner-in-genre.**********

One might go so far as to say that, in the world of computers at least, we have entered the realm of post-post-cyberpunk. Mainframes were scary; laptops less so; the iPhone is many things but it is not an object of apprehension. This is the progression of every technology: from immature and frightening, to clunky and disseminate, to mature and user-friendly. Cyperpunk was a genre of coax cable, postcyberpunk of ethernet cord. We are the wireless generation. There is nothing to fear but fear itself.

It is up to the speculative fiction writers of the world to return to their roots: identify the problems of the world; think of how they could be solved; and wonder at the implications of these solutions. Yet it is difficult to ignore that, ceteris paribus, the problems of the world are much under control. There has been no conflict between superpowers in more than half a century. Diseases are much treated and becoming moreso every day. Human life expectancy is increasing with no end in sight. And a regular person with a $200 computer and $10-a-month internet connection is more advantaged, more downright spoiled, than any King or Pharaoh who ever lived. It will be a rare author who can find things to fear in a world safe and secure. It will be the great authors of the future who can take our utopia-in-progress and find within it things hidden, things secret… opportunities for challenge… opportunities for Romance.

Surely we have not yet reached utopia. Surely there are obstacles which stand in our way, many that we have yet even to see. But surely too we have the tools and the talent to reach them, and overcome them. This is not a post-scarcity society, but it is nearer than Mary Shelley or even HG Wells could have envisioned. Perhaps it is the next great challenge of humanity, to discover what it shall do when no other challenges present themselves.

(Though if all else fails, we can always read more science fiction.)

-Cambridge, 2011

*The famous question posed to aspirant Microsoft employees – “Why is a manhole cover round?” – called to my mind the response: because if it wasn’t round, it wouldn’t be a manhole cover. The thing “manhole cover” is by definition round, the way an Oreo is, or a wagon-wheel. Make it square and it’s not a “manhole cover” any more. Definition, here as so often, is a matter, not of function, but of form.**

**Turns out the answer they wanted was “so it won’t fall down the hole when turned on its side.” Clearly this question is meant to distinguish between those destined for hardware and those for software***.

**And those for the bread-lines.****


***** Okay, referenced Plato. Now I just need 634 Foucault and I will have the ideal citation ratio for publishing.

****** If one focuses solely on those events in the West; when the camera pans right, the phrase “ad musa” might better apply.

******* The ancient Romans knew the phrase “ahead of its time”; they just abbreviated it to “RIP”

******** Those of you with an interest in historiography will know that the phrase ‘lumpers and splitters’ is, A, not my own, and B, no longer in vogue in academia

********* It was the Unabomber’s theory that the time of such necessity, of the fear of such urgent means, was superior to modernity’s little anxiety and non-teleological fears. To which this humble essayist can only respond:


********** I have yet to encounter a steampunk story which was anything but a projection of modern difficulties onto times arbitrarily ancien. It is elf-titties with cog-shaped pasties. No less – but certainly no more.

~ by davekov on 20 November 2011.

3 Responses to “Post-postcyberpunk: A Theory of Science Fiction”

  1. This is, for all intents, my Artist’s Statement for “The Sweat of the Brow”

  2. “Perhaps it is the next great challenge of humanity, to discover what it shall do when no other challenges present themselves.”

    I just like gravely doubt that this is ever going to be a problem. Also, “humanity” is not really an agential unit; “humanity” never solves problems in the same intentional sense that individuals or small groups identify and solve problems. Moreover, the challenges that different subsets of humanity identify as the most serious differ vastly from place to place, and from person to person. It’s not even clear to me that, even in a basic material sense, any “challenge to humanity” has been dealt with, for the notional average human, ever.

    Certainly, in some societies, technological advances have had certain, absolutely revolutionary effects over the past few hundred years. However, the availability of clean water, vaccines, mass-produced food, and wifi are generally positive developments that are nonetheless orthogonal to the type of (fictional) utopian path I’ve seen in speculative literature. If we live in the future, then the futuristic stuff turns out to be way more ad hoc, capricious, incomprehensible, and of questionable or qualified benefit (or danger) than anything in speculative fiction.

  3. [...] Post-postcyberpunk: A Theory of Science Fiction [...]

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