The Question Redux
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?
I don't think it's "transgressive thinking" that solves your alleged problem there. Actually science fiction doesn't have "inertia" now. It's not stuck in place, it's crumbling, disintegrating, like print media and book retail in general in most parts of the world.
Rigorous speculation isn't in fashion now because science isn't in fashion. You're not gonna get a lot of "science" fiction when science is on the back foot in mass culture. People like product-development now, they don't much like science -- they like "technology," by which they mostly mean commercialized digital technology.
This isn't a counsel of despair or anything -- if you look at, say, the Hugo Awards, you can see that the people in science fiction are not old-fashioned people, they're neck deep in echo-chamber social-media flame war, just like everybody else. Plus, there are genre emanations like Game of Thrones that are colossal, just global-scale phenomena. Star Wars is like an international holiday now.
You've got to be in trans-media to do that, it's got to be book plus TV plus movie plus collectibles plus social media fandom, but it's not a dead or inert means of expression, it's just that current media structures are quite weird. Why Harry Potter as a titanic world enterprise when writers can no longer afford to live in London?
It's always better to have novel, intelligent ideas than "transgressive" ideas. If you're "transgressing" all the time, you always have to be getting into somebody's face. You misbehave, sure, but you're letting the straights set the standards for what you can do. That always ends up looking corny in the long run.
A few specific responses to points Rudy made yesterday:
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?
Well, no--the situation's not like 1979 any more than it is like 1959 or 1939. The entire economy's run by tiny cartels now, it's not just publishing that was cornered by ultra-rich elites.
It's true that the mid list has dwindled and more money and attention goes to fewer science-fiction creatives, but that's also true of movies, nonfiction books, acting, pop music, all kinds of pursuits. Even heads of corporations have a one percent of ultra-wealthy moguls towering over them. I dunno why, but it's clearly something broad and systemic, it's not about some personal injustice done to some particular writer somewhere.
I would also argue that popular writing kinda needs a lot of dross available. Popular writing needs room for badness. You don't get great writing without a lot of just, writing. When I look at a bookstore rack and it's all junk I feel a sense of relief: it's like the swimming pool still has water in it.
So where does this leave the ambitious, literary, independently-minded young author of the genre formerly known as SF?
It leaves them messed up and in a global Depression, but I would definitely hang out with young people if I was a young writer now. I'd be spending huge effort looking for my own generational voices and I'd try hard to make them famous. I'd be looking for conspiratorial cliques who understand that the fix is in and aren't willing to pretend otherwise.
Awards aren't much use. They're like placebo pills, really. If you believe they matter then they matter. It might be argued that awards give writers in writers organizations some reason to participate in writers organizations.
Just in passing--[The G] 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?
Enjoy yourself there, I hope that feels better...
Returning to G's original question:
What would it take, in today's environment, to restart the kind of transgressive thinking that fuelled 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?
I was actually supposed to answer this days or weeks ago. But then, I was supposed to be at the conference where Henry Jenkins and Bruce and Rudy and others talked about cyberpunk, except I was still having chemotherapy and couldn't travel. So it goes.
Chemo is a month in the past; it wasn't as hard on me as it is on many other cancer patients and I'm feeling better, but I don't have the energy to write a survey of the genre over the last thirty years. My perspective on science fiction in general and cyberpunk in particular is different. Being a cyberpunk didn't mean my experience was less sexist than it would have been otherwise. I had people trying to pick fights with me over this or that thing they'd read that Bruce Sterling had said somewhere, over whether I actually was good enough to be in the august company of the "real" cyberpunks or had I just been included because I knew them, and even over whether women could write science fiction at all.
It was never as straightforward for me as it was for the guys. Before I could engage in a discussion of cyberpunk's qualities/merits/whatever, I had to deal with the whole gender thing. And not because I wanted to.
The gender thing always got in the way. People would talk to Bruce and Rudy and Paul and the other guys about cyberpunk. Then they'd turn to me and ask what it was like to be a woman in a male-dominated field. My standard answer became, "Well, for one thing, I have to answer this question all the time."
This is one of the very few times I've been asked a straight question about cyberpunk. However, in order to provide some background to my career/personal history, I have to bring it up. So it goes.
And after that, I'm not sure where to begin.
We're not going to see cyberpunk as everyone remembers it now because we're living in the cyberpunk future we were writing about thirty years ago. In introducing the question, G said:
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).
Cyberpunk was–to me–the impact of technology on people, who would then have an impact on technology, which would then...you see where I'm going.
Take communications and surveillance. The two have become inextricable. If you use the internet, you open yourself up to surveillance. Tweet about something you're doing and everyone knows where you are. Maybe nobody's actually surveilling you in particular but it doesn't matter. It's like being in the background of a photo. It wasn't intended to be a photo of you in particular...but it is.
I can't think of a more cyberpunk situation. Personally, I'm not done dealing with that kind of thing in my work. I'm still writing what I've always written. Call it cyberpunk or don't call it cyberpunk but I'm writing about it. It doesn't read like stuff written in 1985 because it isn't 1985 any more and I'm twice the age I was back then. How old is too old to be a punk? And what are you after that?
I've been transgressive my whole life, not because I wanted to get in someone's face but because there was always someone objecting to my being who I was in whatever context: e.g., a cyberpunk; a woman in a male-dominated field. Hell, in high school, I was the only girl in my physics class. That was 1970. I spent the first half of the school year just defending myself–and the teacher was the biggest jerk of all.
I don't know. You guys, talking about writing "arena rock" science fiction. Do you have any idea that there's more going on than just "Do I choose arena rock sf or what?" Have you heard of diversity? Does the word just make your eyes glaze over while visions of "political correctness" dance in your head?
That's the thing about cyberpunk. It was transgressive and bolshy and rude and different but the one thing it wasn't: ethnically diverse, at least in terms of the writers. The best we could do was to widen the focus of Ameri-centric sf.
And son of gun, just as more diverse writers have begun to enter the field, a bunch of good old white guys figured out how to game the Hugo Award, in the name of restoring science fiction to its "former glory" as the pulpy stuff for people who want to read about white men in space.
Yeah, yeah, everybody's going to say awards don't mean anything. Maybe not. But when a bunch of xenophobic reactionaries figure out how to steal an award ballot--and not just any award but the one that's most well-known--I think that means something.
That was cyberpunk's great strength--it wasn't just concerned with science fiction. It was holistic--it was SFand music and technology and art and cultures other than our own. It wasn't comfort food, it didn't indulge, and it didn't pander–it asked the hard questions and it talked about things that made people uncomfortable––not just for the sake of making people uncomfortable but because these were things we cared about.
I don't know what anyone else is going to do but that's what I'll be doing for whatever time I have left. And somewhere, someone will be taking issue with it.
Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.
POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and 'nerds of a
feather, flock together' founder/administrator.