This is the fourth assignment for ‘Introduction to Cyberpunk Literature’ at P2PU.org. This penultimate assignment asks where we are going, and whether or not we have a choice. We will look at the developments since the days of Cyberpunk and some of the trends currently emerging from, in and around Science Fiction.
“Cyberpunk is just science fiction by another name. It’s just another attempt, another wave of technical development, and another wave of literateurs trying to jump the gap between the two cultures.”
– Bruce Sterling
The heyday of Cyberpunk was almost 30 years ago now, so before we attempt to look forward to where we’re going we should first look back at where we’ve been and what mutant offspring the genre has spawned since then. The first freak appeared in the early 90’s when Bill & Bruce put away their mirrorshades for a while and donned their monocles instead, bringing us widespread acceptance of the first Cyberpunk derivative; Steampunk, and a naming conventional meme that has also assisted the bastard births of Biopunk, Atompunk, Clockpunk, Dieselpunk, Stitchpunk, Salvagepunk, Mythpunk, Elfpunk, Splatterpunk, Nanopunk, Greenpunk, Stonepunk, Sandalpunk, Cattlepunk, Vegapunk, and for fuck’s sake can somebody just do Derivativepunk and get this shit over with.
The progeny with the purest genes and Cyberpunks’ primary heir is the imaginatively named Postcyberpunk. In the 90’s the original movement authors were no longer running around doing coke off laser beams or whatever they did in the 80’s but buying houses and raising children, so Science Fiction lightened up a little. The chrome lost its shine, dire dystopic settings gave way to not-half-bad places to live, characters attempted interaction with society instead of just being loner assholes and the general hard edged doom and gloom gave way to a more optimistic near-future view. This all makes perfect sense as you wouldn’t want to spend your days projecting the future as a dog-eat-dog shithole while you watch your kids grow up in it. Besides this a new generation of authors were being published who had matured under the influence of cyberpunk. They didn’t write their first novels on typewriters, the computer and a networked world were a given for them, not groundbreaking ideas, and as all good Science Fiction writers do they concentrated on the exploration of issues reflecting their own present perceptions and concerns.
Of course Cyberpunk never really died, it just went to Switzerland for a cryo-treatment and a blood change (as you do) and was recently reported to be seen trading biocores in Sub-Saharan Africa. Our man on the ground is Jonathan Dotse, current owner of the portmanteau afrocyberpunk. He’s working on his first novel and judging by the first few entries on his blog, he is the guy to watch if you prefer your cyberpunk served raw.
“You don’t have to predict the future when you live in it.”
– Bruce Sterling
Where then, as this assignments asks, are we now going? The wave of Post-modernism is over and we have moved into a new age of our cultural development. In this place the waves of technical development, social development and artistic response have reached incredibly high frequencies and emanate from multiple locations in space and time, creating crazy interference patterns, standing waves and eerie deadzones. Call it network culture, remix culture, transcontemporaneity, atemporality or nowdernity, whatever it is by the time we settle on a name it will just about be through. One response to this has been to drop the idea of the future as a place we have yet to reach altogether in what Cory Doctorow has called ‘Radical Presentism’. A prominent example being the recent work of William Gibson, as Cory commented; “a science fiction novel so futuristic that Gibson set it a year before it was published.”
Another response can be found in new narrative formats that have emerged with our new media, allowing Science Fiction to extend itself past the scope of its traditional story conventions. On one end of the scale there are vast collaborative world building exercises such as Orion’s Arm and The Mongoliad, on the other the micro-shrapnel fiction of works like Windsor Executive Solutions and everything ever published on Thaumatrope.
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
– Alan Kay
Most interesting is the increasingly common occurrence and consequent recognition of Design Fiction, which mixes fact, design and fiction in new ways allowing the narrative techniques of literature to be applied to the creation of objects and worlds both virtual and material. The ubiquitous availability of digital design tools now allow all who wish to do so not only to envision the future, but also immediately instantiate a prototype of it to play with. Sandboxing the future is no longer the domain of a select group of authors or highly funded labs but anyone who cares to learn a simple set of tools. Of course having some talent helps too. The democratization of design has been decried by some, but the cost of failure has been reduced to the point that if someone has an idea, it’s almost more expensive not to try it out.
“Fiction is evolutionarily valuable because it allows low-cost experimentation compared to trying things for real.”
– Dennis Dutton
So do we have a choice? We have more choices than we can possibly make, people are having to hack their actual lives just to get enough time in to deal with them. Even in the cases where we don’t have a choice there are increasingly more ways for us to track down who does and hassle them to get our way. The future as far as any of our experiences is concerned consists only of the time we have left to live, so choosing how we spend our precious time and what consumes our space should bear some serious consideration. You can instantiate a personalized future that would make the previous century’s hardest-edged surrealists look about as exciting as registered accountants, or stand around and stare in abject horror as the world around you completely removes itself from any conservative baseline of normality. You can have all the choice you want, unless you choose for nothing to change. Then it sucks to be you.
“I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring.”
– J.G Ballard
Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto
– Lawrence Person, 1999
Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction
– Julian Bleecker, 2009
– Bruce Sterling, 2009
– Cory Doctorow, 2009
Book Expo America Luncheon Talk
– William Gibson, 2010
[fractal’09] Cyberpunk & Post-Cyberpunk
The editors of the Rewired anthology discuss Cyberpunk & Post-Cyberpunk at Fractal’09, an conference about the future held in Colombia.
– James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel, 2009
Atemporality & The Passage of Time
Using a different approach to a human standpoint of time, Bruce Sterling attempts to examine futurity, history and the present from the standpoint of contemporary temporalism. Aka wtf is happening to us.
– Bruce Sterling, 2009
Design fiction [Lift Asia09 EN]
Imagining the near future through “design fictions” and prototypes of networked artifacts. This presentation is about the relationship between design and science fiction, and the new narrative forms they have enabled.
– Julian Bleecker, 2009