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Friday, September 18, 2009

Punking Everything in SF/F (Part Five): The (Closer) Past (Cyberpunk C)

Now we come to the crux of the cyberpunk movement: its death. Cyberpunk was, unfortunately, always a movement that was losing momentum as it gained it. Even Gibson saw the looming death of the subgenre. He said so during a book signing some years back that I attended; he remarked that he had always considered the label "cyberpunk" to be a death note for any author, because it would be hailed almost exclusively as a label one could never escape. He was, of course, mostly right. Most of the cyberpunk voices that took up the mantle of cyber and punk are largely silent today, with exception to the greats who were able to live outside the limited scope of cyberpunk itself. Gibson, now, is a contemporary novelist who uses the furniture of cyberpunk, but does not write cyberpunk novels (though not in the same sense as Harlan Ellison and science fiction).

Why did cyberpunk die in the United States and other far west countries? To answer this we have to look at what is so terrifying about the prospect of the death of science fiction. The fear, it seems, is invoked in the terror of the encroaching future. Science fiction is presumed to be dying precisely because we are already in its propose initiating point (i.e. the originary point of all science fiction tales that forever complicates the notion that science fiction is about the future). Whatever notion of future (present and past) there may be in the science fiction landscape, proponents of its death assume that its originary point limits its relevance. As such, most science fiction would seem to have found its death in two ways: 1) where it has ceased to have relevance to the projections or speculations upon the future, effected here by the prospect of the future always moving faster towards us, exponentially with the complicating of the micro-processor and processing power (the death of near- and almost-near-future science fiction); 2) the loss of the “sensawunda” or the loss of the shock of the novum (as Darko Suvin applies it to SF). Both of these deaths, however flawed, are hailed by Deathers (to take clever liberty with the Birther movement President Obama is all too familiar with) as the definitive moments that have disrupted science fiction from the fabric of literature.

However, unlike science fiction, cyberpunk was always already dying, because it came at the dawn of its futuristic imagination. That imagination, coupling the speculative future of science fiction with the present conditions of networks, could never leap beyond, in its purest form, its originary point. Whatever lay beyond could be nothing more than an amalgam, a bastardized version of the real thing clinging like a parasite to the master beast: science fiction. Cyberpunk died because it did not contain within its structure the ability to survive the future; once its future became true, at least insofar as its key elements were concerned (primarily the adoption of the Internet on a massive level and the introduction of the hacker or socially-inept figure who resists through difference the systemic structures of corporatism), then it had nowhere else to go, except to merge with other, more adaptable forms. Cyberpunk was, and always will be, an evolutionary dead end in the face of genre.

That is not to say that cyberpunk is truly gone; no, as I have indicated here, cyberpunk was adopted, even absorbed into other forms, particularly the master narrative of science fiction and the various more prolific and profitable sub-entities (particularly military SF and space opera, two subgenres that have yet to reach their originary point). But, as a punk genre, as a genre with something to say, cyberpunk is dead, because as much as we might see its elements lingering in the bulbous mass of science fiction and even in the quasi-fictions of modern popular movies (the Bourne books, Mission Impossible, and even the new incarnations of James Bond, among other less “masculine” items), it is never a part of the critique of modern culture. Even when it is taken up again and presented in its “purest” form, it is saying nothing that has not already been uttered, and is relegated to the position of the clone with a neon sign suspended over its head saying, “Read me at your own risk. I am infected.” Cyberpunk is dead, but not buried. Whether it can ever been revitalized without being seen as the infected zombie of literature is yet to be seen.

But now we get to the question of why cyberpunk has largely been overlooked. We could easily blame Hollywood for perpetuating the idealized image of the punk: a figure who is a reluctant hero, whose fingers are sewn to the keyboard or always ready to smash the face of the unsuspecting villain with brute fury. If The Matrix had only come when cyberpunk was at its peak; then, we might have seen something new, something dreamt in the void and resistant to even the hackneyed attempts by Hollywood to appropriate the punk in cyberpunk for its ironically (for the punk) capitalist purposes (again, no offense meant to capitalists or capitalism, but blunt language is necessary here). Instead, we had Hackers, an impressive film for being so absurdly absurd that it developed its own cult movement akin to a watered down version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the various other films that have long since been deleted from my memory.

We could blame Hollywood, then, for making cyberpunk into what it never was, in bringing the public to the edge and then tossing them over, telling them that the bottom of the cliff is covered in pillows, when in actuality there are stones.

Alternatively, we could blame academia for its long fight against all forms of science fiction and related genres, one it is thankfully losing piece-by-piece (hell, even Fredric Jameson has written a book on science fiction).

The reality is that there is no right reason for the avoidance of cyberpunk as a medium of study. As a genre, it was ready to take on the prospect of (post)modernity and tribal capitalism, and for the most part did. Its corporate structures were uncanny in their resemblance to the crime syndicate (the tribal capitalist structure). Now, it seems, would be a good time to take on cyberpunk, to bring it to task for what it did and did not do. Perhaps that will make up the formulations of a future post, but for now, we have this—a series of posts on the object that is punk and its various derivations in literature. Thus ends this discussion of cyberpunk. Where to next?

Comments are always welcome, particularly if you disagree with anything I have said or if you want clarification. I in no way assume I am right on any of the things I have said about cyberpunk. They are simply my attempts at conceptualizing this genre based on personal and academic study.

With that, I leave you to your thoughts!


Don’t forget to check out the previous editions:
--Part One (Punking)
--Part Two (Punk)
--Part Three (Cyberpunk A)
--Part Four (Cyberpunk B)

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  1. First picture. What is film from?

    1. Anonymous1:28 PM

      pic is from japanese film Tetsuo II: Bodyhammer

  2. Anikum: I don't know. I found it online. It might be from Lawnmower Man, but I'm probably wrong on that.