Tuesday, August 18, 2009

This Is The Cyberpunk Universe -- With A Twist

If you've read cyberpunk novels from the 1980s, they're generally set in this decade or soon afterward. The 21st century of the classic cyberpunk cycle from Neuromancer to Snow Crash is dystopian and corporatist; a majority of its heroes are science fictional versions of the hard-bitten heroes of hard-boiled crime fiction. The future tech was not only up-to-date, it was different from anything seen before in science fiction: basically, personal tech and street cyborgs, plus something then new called virtual reality.

In my last post, I floated the idea of abolishing the science fiction genre. I think the name's misleading and so 19th century. There's just so much "science fiction" that sneaks in magic of some kind (like the new Star Trek movie's unexplained "red matter") that the label has long since become meaningless. Also, there's the fact that we are now living in the science fiction universe, though without the spaceships; even the androids and jetpacks have proved much more difficult to develop than we expected back in the 20th century. I'd suggest the new genres "speculative fiction", "future fantasy", and "technofantasy"; but science fiction and its fandom are an institution, so that 20th-century label's sticky. Especially if Hollywood uses it, and a cable TV network names itself after the genre. (But one sci-fi offshoot has managed to escape the genre — by latching itself onto a far more powerful and mainstream genre. I'm speaking, of course, of "future romance".)

But what's the genre that's all the rage these days? Contemporary fantasy, especially dark fantasy. You have the ultra-popular romantic variety in which women fall in love with vampires, werewolves, and demons (replacing such dangerous men as the pirates and rogues of the bodice rippers). But the other popular variety of contemporary fantasy stars our old friend, the hard-boiled hero. It's not Black Mask meets Dangerous Visions anymore; it's Black Mask meets horror movies. Why all this supernatural stuff? Apparently, the science fiction world we live in has become banal. We're used to it now.

Conversely, we go into the recent past — the 19th and early 20th centuries — in a cyberpunk offshoot called steampunk, which is growing increasingly popular. I see so much of it these days that I can confidently predict that it will go mainstream eventually. One big reason is that, for all its cynicism, it's nowhere near as bleak as the most hard-boiled classic cyberpunk. But it definitely has a way stylish look.

Or, like William Gibson today, we can write cyberpunk stories about the present day and actually stay out of the sci-fi ghetto. (Actually, in his new style Gibson writes like a New Wave science fiction novelist writing about the present day.) The genre of suspense fiction has a subgenre known as the technothriller. Most novels in this genre tend to fetishize military hardware in Tom Clancy fashion. The technothrillers I'm interested in, though, center (or at least hover) around the high-tech industries. Unlike the military technothriller, this kind is ideally suited to the cyberpunk approach.

Of course, I'm not actually writing non-military technothrillers. Instead, I'm applying the lessons I learned from cyberpunk to the political thriller. There was always a political angle to much cyberpunk, at least since John Shirley's Eclipse/A Song Called Youth trilogy; but. But it mostly tends to be either nihilistic or accomodationist, somehow treating corporatism as an absolute (like feudalism used to be, and is still in some backward places).

Admittedly, many of cyberpunk's most hallowed conventions are hoary, and much of its tech is already obsolete. I think even its traditional style of oppositional politics is no longer suitable to a world transformed by the Internet, cellphones, and social networking. There's little room for chaos in the grim and deterministic world of hard-boiled ficiton; that holds whether the setting is the future, the past, or the decaying present, or whether the setting is realistic, futuristic, or paranormal. Furthermore, so many dark fantasy/paranormal romance novels have followed the hybrid-genre Shadowrun RPG into the cyberpunk universe that it seems those genres are assimilating it!

Well, I, like William Gibson, am sticking pretty much to the present day. (In novels, anyway; I explore the fuzzy edges of SF in my [future] webcomic Spanner, and I feel free to go all the way in my "post-Spanner" short stories.) At least to this reader's eyes, Gibson (in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country is bringing the New Wave SF style into mainstream fiction using today's technology, some of which would (and does) astonish the '80s cyberpunks. I'm going even further, at least in Bad Company and Black Science, and treating today's world as if it were the cyberpunk universe of the '80s. (Neal Stephenson does something similar in Cryptonomicon.) If anything, one could call them technopunk political thrillers. But my approach is different from that of classic cyberpunk, precisely because of new technology. Specifically, the Internet, plus the entire social media culture it spawned, plus cellphones that have become full-blown computers in their own right. Virtual reality is indeed a reality — just take a look at Second Life, or the millions of people addicted to "World of Warcrack" — but I think cellphones and social networks have had a much more powerful impact on the world.

Take the cellphone. By itself, it made all sorts of previously reliable plot elements obsolete. Lost in the mountains, the dark woods, or the creepy old house by the side of the highway? If you're phone's sufficiently charged up, you can call someone from where you are and send a GPS signal. Your friends or the police could suddenly break right into the dark room and save your butt just in time, drawn by your phone's GPS signal, ruining all those carefully drawn-up evil plans the villain has just for you. Those old isolation scenarios are now obsolete. Unless, of course, the phone's battery dies (suggesting a new Ticking Clock I recommend to suspense authors). And don't forget that social innovation the cellphone made possible (and which is being abused by corporations for promo stunts and TV ads), the flash mob.

Then there's those social networks, bringing people from everywhere on earth together. (I exaggerate only a little.) Even more established Internet powers such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple are retrofitting their existing services with social-network features. Then combine cellphones with social networks: the most advanced phones, such as Apple's iPhone, now have apps for Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks.

The result: the old existentialist predicament of the hard-bitten noir hero, shared by the equally hard-bitten antihero of classic cyberpunk, is no more. It still exists out there in the real world, but it's no longer the oppositional force it once seemed to be. The lone malcontent may be able to kill a politician, celebrity, or master criminal, but (s)he can't spread memes like people can when connected through cellphones and social networks. Noir and existentialism may go together, but noir and chaos theory don't.

So the cyberpunk universe we live in may be as oppressively corporatist as the '80s cyberpunks predicted, but its heroes are no longer alone against the Man. This accounts for the difference between the first generation of cyberpunks (Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, et. al.) and the new generation (Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, M.M. Buckner, etc. — and me). The cyberpunk universe of the 1980s, like its classical and New Wave science fiction predecessors, was pre-Internet and (mostly) pre-cellphone. When the original cyberpunks hit the literary scene, answering machines were still new (never mind Mike Hammer's reel-to-reel unit in the 1955 movie version of Kiss Me Deadly). Today, flash mobs form and scatter, memes go "viral", and news spreads faster than the MSM (as we social-media types contemptuously call the old-media news organizations) can report it. Reputations can be made, unmade, and remade in the time it takes to do a Google search. This is today's technology, and it's transformed society in ways the old cyberpunks never suspected (at least till it started affecting them directly).

And don't get me started on augmented reality...

(Note that I haven't been providing links this entry. That's because I'm writing this late at night and I'm tired...)

Back to Spanner’s World...

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