Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is Cyberpunk Dead -- Or Is It Now?

On this Google+ thread about this io9 article about novelists who used to write cyberpunk science fiction but have now turned to dark fantasy, a few FriendFeed friends of mine and I argued over whether cyberpunk is dead. One of them said it's dead. I said it's only dead as science fiction. But then, after all, my position is that we're already living in the cyberpunk universe.

Actually, I've even gone farther: on a NaNoWriMo forum thread, I declared science fiction itself to be dead. More specifically, what we know as science fiction is really a subgenre of fantasy called "technofantasy", which can be further subdivided into "space fantasy", "future fantasy", and so on. Some fantasy subgenres that originated in science fiction have actually left SF altogether and become fantasy genres of their own, most notably steampunk. Properly, Star Wars isn't really science fiction, but a chivalric space fantasy set "long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away".

What the io9 article is saying is that many authors normally associated with cyberpunk have abandoned it for dark fantasy. Some were never really SF to begin with. Rudy Rucker (Ware Tetralogy), for one, has always really done what can rightly be called "science fantasy". John Shirley (Eclipse Trilogy/A Song Called Youth) is mainly a horror author, and his seminal novel that inspired the cyberpunks, City Come a-Walkin', is an urban fantasy, a genre that Walter Jon Williams (HardWired) has also worked in (Metropolitan and its sequels).

William Gibson (Neuromancer) has gone in the opposite direction. His Blue Ant trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, Zero History) is set entirely in the present day, using present-day technologies, and yet feels like the future he wrote about in his seminal 1980s cyberpunk cycle. And yet it's not science fiction at all, except to the bookstore marketing executives who have programmed their corporate databases to associate "William Gibson" with "cyberpunk". Gibson has done what Philip K. Dick failed to do: fuse science fiction with realistic fiction. But he was able to do that because the world caught up with science fiction.

Another example I mentioned in the Google+ thread is the Daemon series by Daniel Suarez. Daemon and Freedom™ are entirely cyberpunk, yet contain no actual science fiction at all, if by "science fiction" we mean technological speculation. Like the Blue Ant trilogy, it's set in the present day.

You can say cyberpunk is dead. But only as science fiction. Those cyberpunk writers who want to stay in the fantasy family of genres turn to dark fantasy and/or urban fantasy, or always considered themselves to be writing in those subgenres in the first place. Those who stick with cyberpunk, like I am, abandon fantasy altogether, even technofantasy, and write realistic fiction: technothrillers, political thrillers, even litfic.

Virtual reality, augmented reality, implanted computers, wearable computers, computer monitors that look exactly like ordinary eyeglasses, exotic drugs, cyberterror both state and outlaw, virtual guerrilla war, corporate headhunting using mercenaries: these were all speculations in cyberpunk SF, but are a reality today, in many cases more so than the cyberpunks could ever have dreamed. Other technologies, like social media, surprised even the cyberpunks, who never saw them coming. Hell, those old SF clich├ęs, jetpacks and aircars, are now in production and coming down in price; hoverboards are now in development. They've left the realm of speculative technofantasy to become our reality today. I myself really have only one speculative technology in Chaos Angel Spanner: video body paint.

So I agree that cyberpunk is indeed dead — as science fiction. Unless you see SF as I do: as the literature of today. Cyberpunk is our reality.

You're probably asking me, "So where's the escapism in Spanner then?" My answer: pop culture. Can the Fashion-Industrial Complex get any more absurd and, well, fantastic? You'd be surprised...

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