Monday, June 8, 2015

BLOGTABLE V: Cyberpunks on the State of Science Fiction, Then and Now (Part 1)

Welcome to a special edition of Blogtable! Normally, a prompt is issued by a regular contributor to nerds of a feather, flock together, which is then answered by three guest bloggers in turn. However, this time we have four esteemed guests, each of whom was gracious enough to lend their time and energy to this project. And what guests they are! Please join us in welcoming:

Rudy Rucker

Photo by Sylvia Rucker

Rucker's novel Software (1982) is considered by many to be the first cyberpunk novel ever published (as well as the first in which a mind is downloaded into a robot body). Both it and sequel Wetware (1988) won the Philip K. Dick Award. The full Ware Tetralogy is available free via creative commons license, or as a trade paperback with a nifty introduction by fellow cyberpunk innovator William Gibson. (Get the paperback, though--it's well worth it.) Rucker has published 17 additional novels and 5 short story collections, many of which feature his signature "transrealist" approach to science fiction writing. He is also a prolific writer of non-fiction--you can check out his Collected Essays, including "Transrealism" and "What is Cyberpunk," at his website. Rucker's latest book is his hefty Journals: 1990 - 2014, a tome which in some ways anticipates Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle as a transrealist work of self-reinvention.

Paul Di Filippo

Photo by Rudy Rucker

In addition to contributing the excellent short story "Stone Lives" to Mirrorshades (the essential anthology of early cyberpunk), Di Filippo is author or co-author of 13 novels and 15 short story collections, including the highly influential Steampunk Trilogy. He is also a prolific reviewer and essayist--where, this humble blogger suggests, Di Filippo sets an impossibly high bar for the rest of us wannabes. (I mean, come on.)

Bruce Sterling

Photo by Rudy Rucker

Sterling has been called the "unofficial spokesperson" of cyberpunk and "Chairman Bruce" for his role in the emergence of the style. He edited the fanzine, Cheap Truth, that served as the ideological center of the nascent movement, edited Mirrorshades and has authored a number of critically-acclaimed and influential novels (including the excellent Islands in the Net and Schismatrix Plus). Sterling has worked as a journalist, teacher, activist and speaker, and is involved in multiple projects investigating the intersection of art, design, technology and social interaction.

Pat Cadigan

Photo by Christopher J. Fowler

Cadigan is author of the seminal cyberpunk/postcyberpunk novels Mindplayers (1987), Fools (1992) and Tea from an Empty Cup (1998), which are collected in this fantastic omnibus--as well as the equally good Synners (1991) and Dervish Is Digital (2000).  She is a two-time winner of the prestigious Clarke Award (for Synners and Fools), and in 2013 won a Hugo for the novelette "The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi" (Edge of Infinity). Cadigan is also a prolific writer of short fiction, and one of the authors who--many years ago--convinced a certain blogger that science fiction could work as serious literature. [See also: my recent review of Mindplayers.]


This special edition of Blogtable was inspired by a recent symposium hosted by the University of Southern California, which both Vance and I attended. "Visions and Voices: Cyberpunk - Past and Future" was, in a word, fascinating--and featured enough material to build a year's worth of Blogtables (check out the videos to see what I mean). But it was the first panel, featuring cyberpunk pioneers Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling, that really blew my mind. So much so that I spent about 10 minutes composing a question about how and to what degree one might compare the state of the field of science fiction today to what the cyberpunks rebelled against.

Unfortunately, time ran out before I could ask it. Thankfully both Rudy and Bruce agreed to answer my question via email--only by that point, the idea had grown in my mind. I needed to turn this into the next episode of Blogtable--the biggest and boldest yet. Enter Paul and Pat, each of whom enthusiastically agreed to participate. Frankly, I'm still amazed that everyone said yes. And humbled, because these are four people whose work I've admired for a long, long time.  

Because this Blogtable is so big, however, we're going to split it into two parts. Today we are posting the question and the responses by Rudy Rucker and Paul Di Filippo. Tomorrow, we'll repost the question alongside the responses by Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan.

But enough about all the question!

EPISODE V: In which The G attempts to draw a tenuous historical parallel...

At the USC symposium on cyberpunk, Rudy Rucker recalled how cyberpunk emerged in reaction to the prevalent "arena rock" quality of science fiction in the 1970s--its emphasis on spectacle, elitism and tired, endlessly-rehashed tropes. Fans of the era, Rucker suggested, were comfortable "wallowing in their castles and space navy bullshit." Cyberpunk aimed to transgress, disturb and upend these conventions and expectations.

Arguably we stand in a similar position today. Bruce Sterling, speaking on the same panel as Rucker, argued that science fiction lacks a "rhetoric of the 22nd century" analogous to the rhetoric of the 21st that served as the pulse of 20th century science fiction. Similarly, the critic Paul Kincaid has framed the problem as one of "exhaustion"--a loss of faith in the idea that the future is knowable, and consequent retreat to formal explorations, the old "castles and space navies" tropes, and the comforting simplicity of nostalgia (including for cyberpunk).

As Sterling and Kincaid both note, few practitioners seem to be looking forward and engaging in rigorous speculation on the future. Yet even in this environment, there are voices within the community loudly complaining that science fiction is too challenging, too intellectual--essentially that it is not "arena rock" enough. 

So my question is: what would it take, in today's environment, to restart the kind of transgressive thinking that fueled cyberpunk? What lessons can writers, critics and fans draw from the 1970s and 1980s, and what should they specifically ignore about that context? What does science fiction need to do, or be, or try to do or be, to break out of its current inertia?

Rudy Rucker

That’s very much a multipart question, G man.  So I’ll give a multipart answer, breaking it into sections with italicized headers.

1. Why SF?

When I’m talking aloud I get loose and I say things that I wouldn’t write in an essay.  So it’s amusing to hear that on the USC Cyperpunk panel in 2015 I spoke of “castle and space-navy bullshit” as being kinds of SF that I don’t enjoy.

My point was that I prefer to see SF that’s about ordinary kinds of people, as opposed to being about aristocrats, power elites, military officers, or police. To this end, I often use my so-called transreal approach of basing my characters on myself, my friends, or people I casually know. It’s a way of making the SF real, and not veering off into the writing about generic kinds of characters. Above all, I don’t want to base my characters on characters in movies, TV show, or other books I’ve read. I want them to be real people in a SFictionally doctored world.  I want them to be transreal.

I like the idea that SF acts as a funhouse mirror to show us what our current lives are really like.  And there’s the persistent wishful hope that SF might raise people’s awareness and somehow change the world. Like, during the long years when the US was under the yoke and lash of the Bush-Cheney administration, I made a point of writing novels in which the US President was a stupid and evil man—I had Dick Too Dibbs in Hylozoic, and Joe Doakes in Mathematicians in Love. I was doing my part for political change—as surely as if I’d been handing out leaflets door to door. It almost goes without saying, by the way, that a transreal book is intrinsically antiestablishment. The goals of individuals are forever antithetical to the goals of power elites.

2. The Birth of Cyberpunk.

Jumping back to the birth of cyberpunk—it’s not like it was a considered and well-thought-out campaign. In 1980 my biggest beef with the SF scene was that my books weren’t getting much attention. I’d hoped to find a home in the SF world, and I had a feeling I wasn’t welcome there.  And now in 2015, thirty-five books later, I have much the same feeling about SF!

My 1980 malaise about SF mirrored the fact that, in the wider world, the system was bent on grinding me into dust. I’d barely escaped being sent off to die in Viet Nam. I was unable to get a secure academic job. Our nation’s leaders hated me. I’d fled reality for SF, and I wasn’t welcome in SF—so then what? Then I was lucky enough to meet some people who were writing like me.

I’ve sometimes compared cyberpunk to Beat literature. The Beats had Jack Kerouac as their angelic voice and Allen Ginsberg as their agitator.  We had William Gibson for our star.  He’s a sheerly wonderful writer—a master of language, aphorism, imagery, characterization, and attitude. And we had the manic, motor-mouthed, confrontational Bruce Sterling for our advocate.

I met Allen Ginsberg in person around 1981, and I asked him how it was that the Beats had gotten so much press. His answer: “Fine writing.”  We cyberpunks were very focused on being good writers.  We wanted to write avant garde, high-lit books that used the tropes of SF, with the added factor that our books had a rebellious, anti-establishment quality—the punk thing. And, of course, we dealt with the uneasy fusion between humans and machines. The cyber thing.

3. Trad SF and Crypto-SF.

Fast forward to 2015. Has the publishing category of SF become as plastic and bogus as it was in 1979? Time for another revolution! Is the SF industry being run by tiny cartel of greedy multinational corporations and book distributors? Is 99% of the attention and money going to 1% of the writers? Are the Nebulas and the Hugos complete bullshit?

Could be, seekers, could be.

Just in passing—you mentioned the rhetorical question of whether the SF publishing niche needs more badly written, middlebrow space operas and thrillers populated by emotional ciphers. Do billionaires need more tax breaks? Does the media run too many articles about art? Is TV news too liberal? Is the right wing being oppressed? Is science taken too seriously by congress? Is global warming a hoax?

No, no, the majority of the books being published under the science fiction label really are quite dull and generic these days.  The other day I was looking at the SF rack in an airport shop. Yeecchh. It really is like the late 70s.

But, unlike the old days, that’s not the whole story.  If you’re a regular reader of, say, the New York Times Book Review, you will have noticed that a lot of recent mainstream novels have SF elements in their plots. I’d guess that fully a third of all new mainstream novels are crypto-SF.

Of course the tame mainstream critics never use the SF label when enthusing over these new books.  The works are visionary, speculative, powerfully imagined, and magical—but they’re not science fiction. Couldn’t possibly be. The New York Times doesn’t review SF.

4. Breaking In and Dropping Out.

So where does this leave the ambitious, literary, independently-minded young author of the genre formerly known as SF? Well, even now, the SF publishing system does grant newer writers with a certain novelty credit. Nobody ever knows what’s going to sell, and they have to hedge their bets. So you do have a possibility of selling a non-traditional, transreal, politically subversive novel. Your novel, launched in the usual blaze of no publicity and no reviews, will probably bomb.  Maybe you can sell a second, but not a third.  And then what?

Maybe, if you’re enough of a shapeshifter, you can knuckle under, bloat up, and dumb down. Or maybe you can manage a YA book. Or maybe you can sell into the mainstream market—although, if you have a track record as an SF writer, the mainstreamers will be loath to consider you. You’re tainted. Potentially subliterate.

So then you might go hat in hand to a series of small publishers, abasing yourself in the hope of no advance, a shitty cover, an ugly font, no ads, five free author copies, and potentially iffy royalty payments! (Just rhetoric here—I really do love my small press friends.)

Or maybe you get into self-publishing . That’s where I’ve been at for my last two novels.  It’s not bad.  A little like being under house arrest. If you put in seven or eight painful months of trial and error, you can figure out how to create legit-seeming PDF interiors and covers for print-on-demand paperbacks. Plus you’ll make ebooks for the Kindle and other readers.  And you can sell your paperbacks and ebooks via Amazon and maybe via the one or two pipsqueak alternate venues that still happen to exist. If you do all this yourself, it doesn’t cost you anything—although you do need to get access to some software along the lines of InDesign, Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Sigil and Calibre.

A plus is that, as a self-pubber, if you’re pushy and high-profile enough, you can run a Kickstarter to score the equivalent of a cash advance for publishing your book. Really when you crowd-source and offer rewards, you’re doing advance sales of a collector’s edition. You’re likely to score more money this way than you’d get from a small press, and maybe even more than you’d get from an SF industry house.

5. Reforming SF.

But these are the perhaps too gloomy musings of an old man.  What about the dream of writing a style of SF that changes the genre and gets noticed by the wider world? Okay, that’s possible.

Certainly it helps if you can band together with a couple of other writers. Starting an online ezine is a good way to do this.  In my opinion, online ezines should be free—especially if you want a lot of people to read them.  Forget about nickel-and-diming your initial readers, if you can get a groundswell of interest going, then you’ll be making money at the back end of the process, that is, when you start selling books or Kindle singles or commercial stories.

I had a little experience with this in publishing and editing my ezine Flurb from 2006 to 2012.  You can read all thirteen fab issues free online.  It was fun for me to be in touch with other writers.  Shout-outs to: Adam Callaway, Brendan Byrne, Eileen Gunn, Cory Doctorow, James Worrad, Kek, Emily Skaftun,  Leslie What, A. S. Salinas, Wongoon Cha, Mac Tonnies, Rudy Ch. Garcia, Bruce Sterling, Charlie Jane Anders, Madeline Ashby, Bef, Jon Armstrong, Paul Di Filippo, John Shirley, Seth Kallan Deitch, Anna Tambour, Howard Hendrix, Cody Goodfellow, Kim Stanley Robinson, Charles Stross, Martin Hayes, Alex Hardison, Ian Watson, Christopher Shay, Charles Platt, Lavie Tidhar, Th. Metzger, Kathe Koja, Carter Scholz, Michael Blumlein, Tamara Vining, Danny Rubin, Annalee Newitz, Marc Laidlaw, Richard Kadrey, Ernest Hogan, Terry Bisson, Doug Lain, Brian Landis and all the other deviants involved.

Flurb did get some notice—we were getting hundreds of thousands of hits. It was art, and it was interesting, but did we change the face of SF?  Hard to say. It’s not clear that our lumbering multinational commercial publishers ever look at anything but spreadsheets. A cultural democracy in action, with every consumer-dollar a vote. And just look how wonderfully democracy does in selecting the very cream of the crop to serve as our representatives in the Congress!

Another angle for changing SF from within is to start writing about a set of ideas that haven’t really been touched upon yet.  That’s a true and hardcore kind of SF endeavor. It’s not easy. You have to get yourself to look at the present day world with new eyes—as if you’re a Martian. You pretty much want to forget about all the SF plots and futurist-type prognostications.  In the same sense that your characters shouldn’t mirror characters in existing works, your ideas shouldn’t mirror futurist ideas that you might read in magazines.

A good rule of thumb here is that if most people believe something—then it’s wrong. Consider: a hundred years ago, the human race pretty much didn’t know jack shit about science or modern technology. A hundred years from now, just about every single bit of tech that we’re using today is going to be gone.What’s going to replace it? Anything you want. Make up the weirdest shit you can think of. Be optimistic. Why not a new force of nature? Why not aliens from the subdimensions? Why not telepathy with every single object that you see?

Pile on the bullshit and keep a straight face. As the immortal David Lee Roth said, “It’s not who wins or loses—it’s how good you look.”  If you and your friends can make your books fun and quirky, then maybe the soggy, stodgy SF ship of state will change its course.

6. Abandoning SF.

Or maybe at this point it’s impossible to change the commercial genre known as SF.  In 2015, there’s an alternate path.  What if you sidestep the SF publishing niche, and shoot for mainstream publishing from the start?

It could be that the whole SF publishing industry is on its way out—or down. There will still be some great science-fiction books, yes, but they’ll be called something else.  Transreal, visionary, speculative—like that. And the hidebound old trad SF label might really be fated to descend into subliterature. Maybe in ten years nobody will even consider publishing a good SF novel under the old SF rubric. Maybe the old category has been eaten by parasitic Martian blimps with electric news-crawl letters on their sides, or by institutional politics left and right, or, more simply, by cultural dynamics and the processes of media change.

It’s a bit sad. For me, it’s like I grew up in a nice small town—cue the silo-fulla-corn nostalgia routine—and I go back thirty years later and it’s all strip malls, and the city core is stone cold dead. As the Pretenders put it in My City Was Gone:  “Ay, oh, where did you go, Ohio?”

The big loss for us mad-scientist, freakazoid, pinpoint-pupil SF nut-cases is that the mainstream market is harder to break into than SF publishing. Here in the nest it’s kinda okay for us to write funny. Me, back at the very start I was so daunted by the whole Brahmin Mandarin New Yorker vibe that I never tried selling into that market at all. I liked the idea of being an SF writer.  I liked the image of being a rock and roll musician instead of an orchestra violinist.

But…if the orchestras are trying playing rock and roll, however ineptly, why not try for a gig with them? If you keep your soul, you’ll still be writing SF. Maybe better than before. Educating the squares. Showing them where it’s at.

Many paths, many futures.

Write on.

7. Further Reading.

In the DIY punk tradition, I self-published my Collected Essays as an ebook in 2012, and in the fuck-it hacker tradition, I also made the essays available for free. Relative to the topics I’ve touched on here, you might check out “What is Cyberpunk,” “Cyberpunk Lives, ” “New Futures in SF,” and/or “The Great Awakening."

Paul Di Filippo

In that video referenced in the introduction to our discussion, Rudy remarks that it's awfully hard to be the speaker who has to follow the jaw-droppingly articulate and idea-overflowing Bruce Sterling.  Of course, the same might be said for following Messr. Rucker himself, as I am feeling now.  Rudy lays down a brilliant, accurate history of the past thirty years of SF (my God, where did those decades go?!?), and then projects a myriad fascinating future vectors for this narrative and thematic mode to pursue.  There is nothing I see to contradict in his presentation, or deficiencies to repair, so I will have to content myself with riffing off certain things he's said, then maybe adding a new slant or two.

First, let me structure my reply this way, in two parts.  In my personal life and in my observations about the world, I oscillate between two contradictory viewpoints, whose synthesis might be that both are simultaneously true.  So I will look at SF from each of these POVs separately.

First, "'Twas ever thus."  (And here I'm going to cite Robert Crumb's great illo of Mr. Natural atop a grinning tractor as he proclaims this truth.)

People and their cultures are eternal.  (At least until we start installing permanent changes in the human genome.)  The same old ways of being have persisted forever, since hominids emerged.  The same set of desires and responses, the same kinds of love and hate, the same issues of art and religion and politics. "They heard the call and they wrote it on the wall, before there was even any Hollywood," as Steely Dan opined about cave art.  This moment in time, this fix we are in, has happened before, many times, and will happen again.  Nothing to worry about. Hang loose.

Rudy gets at this a little bit by comparing cyberpunks to the Beats. What the Beats faced circa 1948, we faced circa 1984 (nice Orwellian synchronicity with those two dates). So the process of reinvigoration of any genre is perpetual, and nothing special for this moment.  This is something of the Buddhist View of Science Fiction.

But another constant to consider is Sturgeon's Law:  90% of everything is shit. There is  no way we can turn a marketing genre around to some kind of utopian state of brilliant perfection.   By default, the great bulk of stuff is, has been, and always will be trivial trash.  There are indeed Silver and Golden Ages, when the ratio of shit to diamonds shifts a bit in favor of gems.  Rudy and I and the other cyberpunks were lucky enough to experience one of those moments, as were the New Wave folks, as were the Campbellian Revolution folks, as were the Gernsbackians, and so forth. Golden Ages are hard or impossible to predict or manufacture. 

But I'd like to address Rudy's use of the word "elitist."  I know he's using it to mean narratives wherein upper classes receive all the attention of the storyline. But art itself is ineluctably elitist. If art means anything, it means a spectrum of quality, difficulty, impact  and performance.  The ten percent of genius that Sturgeon's Law alludes to. Unless we have sieves for genius, we will always be swamped with shit.

I guess this observation brings me to my other, antithetical viewpoint that I cherish on alternate days of the week.

This era is unique and full of special challenges and opportunities.

Rudy does a magnificent job of addressing this viewpoint.  He speaks of self-publishing, slipping under the radar of mainstream, creating ezines, etc. I would also mention the great resource of the internet allowing writers to research and communicate beyond anything that has gone before. Imagine how the cyberpunk movement was conducted with paper fanzines! But he does not mention a few of the factors that are making the life of the SF writer so difficult. How to tackle these trends and issues is not something I have an easy answer to.

First is the very lack of gatekeepers and healthy elitist attitudes. The internet has "disintermediated" the hell out of a system that worked, in however flawed and biased a way, to produce the incredible canon of SF that we all cherish. It took Frank Herbert over twenty rejections to get Dune published.  Would Herbert's career have taken off better if he had self-pubbed it with no hassle?  Maybe, maybe not (see below). The self-publishing movement, however valid and worthy in some cases, has also opened up the floodgates to a tsunami of crap. Amateurs ruin everything, I'm sorry. When asked if writing workshops discouraged fledgling writers, Flannery O'Connor said, "Not enough." It's just Gresham's Law as applied to SF:  bad fiction drives out the good. When presented by Amazon with a hundred new ebooks, 90% of which are shit, and one of which is Rudy's and nine others of which are good stuff too, guess what the odds are of a random reader buying Rudy's book, or one of the other nine? 

Whenever I hear that the field discourages Group X from entering or being heard, my immediate response is to say, "Great! Our work is partly done. Now if we could only discourage Groups A, B, C and Z as well!" (Let Z stand for white male conservative writers if you will.) The barriers to getting published should be high enough to discourage dilettantes and the talentless, regardless of any other classification they belong to. Do you know the story of the fellow who approached the Zen monastery and asked to be enrolled as a student? The Zen Master told him, "No, sorry, full up," then shut the door in his face. The student-to-be then camped bareheaded and without food or water outside the gates for three days, in rain and heat, till he fell over unconscious. Only then did the Master take him in as his acolyte. Why can't this be our template, instead of handing out "participation awards" to every Tom, Dick and Harriet who can string some two-syllable words together into a cliched story?

Another trend we are facing is the fragmentation of the audience into niches, otherwise known as the "There Can Never Be Another Beatles" problem. We could produce another whole cyberpunk-like set of genius writers, and they would go unheard, due to the immense variety of subgenres and entertainment activities available to the audience. Take a figure like George R. R. Martin, famous and best-selling enough to appear in Entertainment Weekly magazine. There are fans who have certainly never sampled him and never will. Same goes for Stephen King. The chances of producing another figure with the stature and influence of a Robert Heinlein are correspondingly reduced.

Another matter is the sheer weight of genre history. If we date SF back to Jules Verne (rather than Mary Shelley, who, while brilliant and a real forerunner, left no real school of imitators), then SF originated in 1851, with Verne's "A Voyage in a Balloon." Consequently, we now have over 150 years of literature on our backs. It's all available too, thanks to digitized books and the internet market for second-hand physical books. There's no excuse for not knowing your chosen past. It would be like trying to be a dancer and never knowing Isadora Duncan or Martha Graham. We can't reinvent the wheel, we have to put new spins on old tropes. Every now and then, a really fresh idea pops up. The Singularity was probably one such, which explains why it was glommed-onto so enthusiastically. But otherwise, every time we want to write about one of Rudy's "Power Chords," the educated, savvy SF writer (as opposed to some unschooled amateur or idiot savant) is forced to face what Hemingway saw as his own major challenge:  "to beat some dead man at his own game." It's hard work.

All of these things would be immensely discouraging, save for one ineluctable truth: great SF somehow continues to be written! When I read a new book by Rudy, or Hannu Rajaniemi or Nick Harkaway or M. John Harrison or China Mieville or Karen Joy Fowler, then my faith in our ability to produce relevant, touching, tragic, funny, hip, truly speculative SF is reaffirmed.  I study them and try to take direction and excitement from them, and improve my own work. That's the eternal process all true artists throughout time have employed.

It's like the old urban legend about the scientist who proved bumblebees are aerodynamically unable to fly.  You just have to point to a bumblebee to disprove him!

Let's all try to be the best bumblebees possible, and sting the asses of complacency, sloth, ineptness and narrow-minded lack of real visions!

[To be continued.]


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and
'nerds of a
feather, flock together' founder/administrator