Something Is Broken in Our Science Fiction

Yet I have come to suspect these punk derivatives signal something more than the usual merry-go-round of pop culture. These punks indicate that something is broken in our science fiction. Indeed, even when they reject it, these new subgenres often repeat the same gestures as cyberpunk, discover the same facts about the world, and tell the same story. Our hacker hero (or his magic-wielding counterpart) faces a huge system of power, overcomes long odds, and finally makes the world marginally better—but not so much better that the author can’t write a sequel. The 1980s have, in a sense, never ended; they seem as if they might never end.

The persistence of cyberpunk under different labels is, perhaps, to be expected. After all, as many writers insist, science fiction isn’t in any real sense about the future. “Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists,” Ursula Le Guin writes in the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness. It’s “not the business of novelists.” The real business of science fiction writers is to offer metaphors designed to help us see ourselves more clearly. And, though few think mirrorshade glasses are cool anymore, cyberpunk’s interests in the collision of digital media, underground subcultures, and transnational corporate power can feel as relevant today as they did when William Gibson’s first Sprawl short story, “Burning Chrome,” was published, or when Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga Akira first appeared in 1982. If we’re still drawn to cyberpunk, that might be because 2019 is far more like 1982 than we’d care to admit.

It’s definitely hard to ignore how much closer to dystopia we are now compared to 30 years ago.

All of these strategies can produce terrific stories. But none seems capable of generating the sort of excitement cyberpunk once did, and none has done much better than cyberpunk at the job of imagining genuinely different human futures. We are still, in many ways, living in the world Reagan and Thatcher built—a neoliberal world of growing precarity, corporate dominance, divestment from the welfare state, and social atomization. In this sort of world, the reliance on narratives that feature hacker protagonists charged with solving insurmountable problems individually can seem all too familiar. In the absence of any sense of collective action, absent the understanding that history isn’t made by individuals but by social movements and groups working in tandem, it’s easy to see why some writers, editors, and critics have failed to think very far beyond the horizon cyberpunk helped define. If the best you can do is worm your way through gleaming arcologies you played little part in building—if your answer to dystopia is to develop some new anti-authoritarian style, attitude, or ethos—you might as well give up the game, don your mirrorshades, and admit you’re still doing cyberpunk (close to four decades later).

Whether the article is right or not on saying that there is “something wrong” with SF, I like the critizism of the formula.

One notable and recent exception to this formula is Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation trilogy.

I guess we need a new genre of Millennial Sci-Fi. Let’s see… A twenty-something barista in skinny jeans, attends his regular yoga class, where he overhears two angel investors discuss their new acquisition: an AI company building mind-controlling expresso machines. The investors’ goal: to place a machine in every household. The barista’s goal: to stop their plan and pay off his student debt.

July 4, 2019


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