Post-Cyberpunk

Rip and edit of something I wrote in 2011, when I first got a smartphone. -daK

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I once heard someone define science fiction as ‘the transposition of the problems of today into tomorrow.’ Plenty of scifi falls into that category. Plenty does not. I can think of some great scifi that tries to honestly and accurately confront the problems of tomorrow, and even provide solutions… and even look at the problems created by those solutions. Such writers don’t follow in the footsteps of Isaac Asimov: they follow in the footsteps of Hari Seldon.

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 passing darkly through a scanner.

Some of the earliest science fiction flowed from the pen of Mary Shelley (exalted is She!). She wrote of medical science, our war on our own mortality, the terrors of isolation. These were upper-class fears. The average Londoner didn’t have time for existentialism; it took all their time just to try to exist another day. The main reason that Frankenstein and The Last Man resonate so well with modern audiences is that the average person in America is closer to the aristocracy of Mary Shelley’s day than they are to the peasantry. We have more to fear, and we have the time to fear it.

With every step of progress, there are more people who have the time, the education, and the reason to consider the future. Harnessing the atom brought untold wealth and power, and the possibility of unimaginable destruction. The end of the world went from the pages of the Bible to the pages of a newspaper. Radiation – fallout – was a new Black Death for a new world. People had every right to be anxious about the future. 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.

Much of the scifi of the Golden Age does, alas, not hold up very well. 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. In large part this is just a reflection of the culture of the times. But I think it goes deeper than that. After WWII, the average person went, not only from isolation to being part of a global community, but from daily safety to the imminent threat of thermonuclear apocalypse. What Stephenson called “the radical pre-hokiness era” did not have time for subtlety; it was too busy being scared out of its mind.

As people became used to living under constant threat of fiery extinction, 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. Big anxieties faded; little anxities came to the fore. The science fiction of the 1960s began to deal with Sexuality, Gender, Race, Politics, Religion, Freedom of Speech, Revisionism in History, Ethics of Science… and that’s just in Book II of Stranger in a Strange Land.

As technology expanded and refined, so too did the speculation. Books were written out of a fear of Mind Control (The Manchurian Candidate), Anti-Intellectualism (Farenheit 451), The Enforced Carnival (Logan’s Run), and really just Everything (Philip K. Dick). And science was joined by the sociocultural: the depression of the inner cities, the first of the post-war economic downturns, drugs and addiction, violence that the white middle classes did not understand. By the early 1980s the stories which grew out of these fears came to share enough between them for them to be thought of as a single genre: cyberpunk.

These stories reflected the fears of their time. This was a time when new things were, not large, but small. This was the time of the computer cable, of the mainframe computer, of tape and terror, of just lots of metal stuff. These pieces of technology began to seem like one great mass, coating the world like a biofilm, ever expanding, taking over. There was a sense that progress implied drowning: in our own waste, in each other, and in wires. The cyber aspect was the new things in the world; the punks were the individuals trying to remain individuals as they moved within it all.

Then, again, things changed. By the beginning of the glorious 90s, the computer had gone from a giant mainframe to a box that you kept by your bed. People had less and less to be afraid of. And that was before Steve Jobs came back to Apple and suddenly your computer looked like an anime cat.

You rarely fear what you understand and you never fear what you can control. The simplified, user-friendly interfaces gave people the illusion of control. 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.

This change was directly reflected in the contemporary science fiction. Things became, for lack of a better phrase, less scary. Urban hellscapes became almost suburban. Dirt and grime were replaced by port and polish. Evil megalithic corporations became publicly-traded corporations. A bundle of thick cables became a single ethernet cord. Anxiety ebbed. Confidence flowed. Thus was Post-Cyberpunk.

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.

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 a whole lot of whining.

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.

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. Is the safety of the iPhone an illusion? Bring that to the fore! Are there threats that people have not considered? Bring ’em on, that we may deal with them sooner rather than later.

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. But – Lord knows – we ain’t there yet.

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~ by davekov on 7 December 2017.

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