I’ve been a fan of science fiction since the early 1960s. I was already an avid fan and ready audience for Lost in Space (1966–68; Judy was one of my earliest childhood crushes), It’s About Time (1966–67), and I was glued to the TV set enthralled when Kirk, Spock, and the rest, first boldly went in 1966.
It’s been a whole lot of years, and a whole lot of science fiction, is my point.
Of course, science fiction is much older than I am. As a form of storytelling, it goes back at least to the early 1800s.
Many consider Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley in 1818 (published New Year’s day!), as the first definitive science fiction novel.
Edgar Allen Poe jumps in almost 20 years later, Verne doesn’t show up until A Voyage in a Balloon in 1851. His Nemo novel isn’t until 1870. Wells doesn’t publish The Time Machine until 1895. His The War of the Worlds comes out in 1898, just before the turn of the century.
This means, incidentally, that the world’s first definitive science fiction writer is Mary Shelley, a woman. Yet women have fought for recognition and parity in science fiction ever since.
Arguably, though, all our mythologies and fairy tales are a kind of science fiction.
Thematically, science fiction uses fantastic storytelling devices to tell stories about people, their feelings, their motivations, their actions and consequences. As such, it attempts to explain the world (as good storytelling does).
Fairy tales and myths serve exactly the same purpose. They provide normative stories and parables. So does science fiction. So does fiction in general.
[There are also ripping good yarns, which are just for fun.]
I have long argued that science fiction isn’t a genre so much as a platform or approach — one that is as old as storytelling. Every other literary genre is found in science fiction: mystery, romance, adventure, horror, police procedural, comedy of all sorts, and anything else you can name.
All stories twist reality! Science fiction just twists it a bit more.
Speaking of genres, science fiction spawned a new one in the 1980s that seems to require the SF platform to tell at all: Cyberpunk.
It’s one of the better children of the “SF New Wave” — the prior two decades when authors began to experiment with storytelling.
(Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison are two most remember, but I was a huge Roger Zelazny fan. It was a time of social iconoclasm, not just literary. A lot of what was written was very interesting and completely unreadable.)
In 1984 William Gibson publishes Neuromancer, which is perhaps analogous to Shelley’s Frankenstein in being seen as the first definitive novel of a genre. It’s the first of the Sprawl trilogy, the others coming out in 1986 and 1988.
(The term “cyberspace” comes from Gibson’s 1982 short story, Burning Chrome.)
By the time The Matrix rolls around in 1999, cyberpunk is mainstream.
As with Shelley’s Frankenstein, I think many social factors came together to give birth to both science fiction and cyberpunk (and most other things).
Ideas whose time had come, so to speak.
(For that matter, A Clockwork Orange came out in 1971. Not exactly cyberpunk, but certainly headed that way. Got the dytopian future part.)
The point of all this history and lead up is an article by Lee Konstantinou in Slate, “Our Sci-Fi Is Broken, and Hopepunk — Whatever That Is — Can’t Fix It”
I clicked into the article in the first place because only the first four or five words showed up in my newsfeed, an abbreviated assertion certain to catch my attention!
The author’s main point is that a segment of science fiction is stuck in “punk” mode. One result of this is a burgeoning list of sub-genres: steampunk, biopunk, nanopunk, stonepunk, clockpunk, and many more.
The deeper point is that cyberpunk is essentially anti-authoritarian. It’s about individuals against rules, technology, machines, and corporations. It’s about the power of the individual “hacker” (in the original sense of “tinkerer-fixer”).
Yet modern living makes it pretty clear the lone wolf stands no chance. The entire ethos of cyberpunk is, in hindsight, wishful thinking. To be still dealing in that ethos now, without moving it forward socially, is to be stuck doing variations of a 30-year-old theme:
We are still, in many ways, living in the world Reagan and Thatcher built — a neoliberal world of growing precarity, corporate dominance, divestment from the welfare state, and social atomization. In this sort of world, the reliance on narratives that feature hacker protagonists charged with solving insurmountable problems individually can seem all too familiar. In the absence of any sense of collective action, absent the understanding that history isn’t made by individuals but by social movements and groups working in tandem, it’s easy to see why some writers, editors, and critics have failed to think very far beyond the horizon cyberpunk helped define. If the best you can do is worm your way through gleaming arcologies you played little part in building — if your answer to dystopia is to develop some new anti-authoritarian style, attitude, or ethos — you might as well give up the game, don your mirrorshades, and admit you’re still doing cyberpunk (close to four decades later).
The author acknowledges that many very good stories come from these sub-genres. It’s more a question of moving on and having science fiction address the future in a more 2000s way than a 1980s way.
Which I think is happening. Various “punk” forms aren’t the only science fiction being written by any stretch.
Pick any genre, and I think you’ll find the same sprawl of variations and sub-genres (and sub-sub-to-the-nth). I think you find that speciation and specialization in almost any field involving anything.
I don’t really have an opinion on whether “punk” needs to move on. I suppose if it sells, it doesn’t. I did find several points the author made interesting.
I don’t see that at all.
It’s not nearly slapstick enough to be parody, although it can be pretty funny in parts (as in the booby-trapped vagina). The book is so rich in ideas (cyber guard dogs, shared virtual reality universe, coolest wheels ever) that I have to see it as a serious work.
Full disclosure, I’m a big Stephenson fan, and I really like Snow Crash.
I love the idea behind the title, and I found the language-as-code stuff really fascinating. The book has a lot of great stuff in it.
I do think the analysis of genre speciation is right on. The same thing has happened in music; think of all the sub-styles.
As Konstantinou writes, some of this is legit, people finding genuinely new ways, but some of it is just an attempted market grab. In particular with science fiction “punk,” much of it is nothing more than a new coat of paint.
Some of it seems to be aspirational, they try to steer SF into less dystopic stories. (My only opinion on this is “Meh, when has that ever worked.”)
I’ll leave you with two final thoughts:
¶ It strikes me that cyberpunk lends itself to mass marketing. Blade Runner was not popular when it came out, but popular taste now is very much in favor of the visuals the genre provides: high technology, dystopia, cyber-stuff, virtual reality, black leather, mirror shades. All hugely visual.
Also all hugely shallow. It’s easy to see why it’s a marketing success. It’s the movie equivalent of fast food hamburgers, which have famously sold billions.
I think perhaps punk gets lost in the sell and people forget the ethos. (Which as Konstantinou says, has questionable relevance now.)
¶ Remember how people used to ask: “Is rock is dead?” Sometimes people ask if science fiction is dead. Konstantinou is sort of asking that about cyberpunk
I think the obvious answer is no, rock and SF aren’t dead.
Remember story space? It is possible (inevitable, really) that the SF story space (or rock & roll space) has gotten well populated.
Think of it as a landscape where writers have built houses. In some cases housing tracts (book series) or castles (major works). Some even have small villages (known realities for many stories).
It has to happen that the landscape begins to fill. It’s possible to build new houses, but it’s harder and harder to build them any distance from other houses.
Even territories become well explored. There might be room for a house, but who would care? It would look like far too many other houses.
Maybe, very much cyberpunk style, we need technology to provide entirely new forms of artistic expression, entirely new landscapes.
If, indeed, such a thing is possible. Perhaps storytelling is forever limited by certain constraints: plot, theme, narrative, character.
Consumption of story space is just one of many rising curves humanity faces. It’s interesting to ponder what it means to “exhaust” rock & roll or science fiction.
Can those wells run dry? Can the neighborhood be too full?
Or is there a way out, new alternative landscapes?