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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cyberpunk ≠ An Aesthetic/Visual Movement

Follow science fiction long enough and you'll notice a trend:  most people, by default, associate the various generic traditions of SF with aesthetic or visual qualities.  We see a spaceship or a robot or an alien species or a ray gun or whatever and immediately think "this is clearly science fiction."  In many respects, this is how fantasy with spaceships comes to be placed within the genre, despite lacking all the formal qualities of SF.  No subgenre suffers this fate more so than cyberpunk.

I've often wondered why cyberpunk gets dumbed down so excessively.  Much of the genre's history (where it came from, what its authors were responding to, and so on) is not exactly hidden from the public eye.  Yet we can talk about the formation of SF in the early 1900s and its immediate precursors in the late 1800s more accurately than we can the formation of cyberpunk -- this despite having far less information about those periods than we do about the late 70s and the 80s (that's not to say we don't have a lot about the early 1900s and late 1800s).  The latest example of this dumbing down hails from two episodes of Writing Excuses (w/ Brandon Sanderson, Dan Well, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Taylor).  The first
episode is an attempt on their part to define cyberpunk, while the second is an exercise in constructing a cyberpunk tale.  
It's the first I have issues with, since the hosts spend so much of their time applying aesthetic and visual objects to the genre or otherwise dumb down the heavily political momentum that made cyberpunk possible.  The hosts also apply a number of stories to their definition, many of which are falsely associated with cyberpunk precisely because they only bear visual resemblance to the subgenre.  Blade Runner, for example, is, at best, a proto-cyberpunk story (which one of the hosts, I think, points out), in part because the only things that tie it to cyberpunk are the environment and occasional bits of machinery, all of which are, once again, falsely associated with cyberpunk.  While cyberpunk is a very visual medium, it's not the surface level of the subgenre that matters, but what lies beneath.  Any story can contain noir elements, hackers, evil corporations, and so on.  But just as having a spaceship does not make a story science fiction, so too do the surface level visuals not make something cyberpunk.  Akira is a cyberpunk movie; The Matrix is not.  Neuromancer is cyberpunk; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not.
The only thing the folks on Writing Excuses got right was the fact that cyberpunk is a near future genre (post-cyberpunk is not, since it tends to transplant the formal qualities of cyberpunk into broader spaces of engagement, such as other planets, space stations, and so on).  But they missed the crucial point that makes cyberpunk such a valid form of literature:  we live in a cyberpunk world.  Africa is cyberpunk with its manipulations of technology, its relationship to global capitalism, and its complex and troubled social conditions (and the interactions between all of these elements).  Many parts of the western world are cyberpunk too.  All you have to do is look around you to see cyberpunk in action.

But you also have to be careful with such real world associations, because so much of what is problematic about defining cyberpunk can be unfairly applied to the now.  Cell phones and text messaging and phone hacking aren't cyberpunk activities.  Anonymous is not a cyberpunk group.  It's the "punk" that really matters to the "cyberpunk" label.  And if you don't know what a "punk" is, then you really can't talk about the "cyber" part...

(For the record, I've written a bunch of stuff on the "punk" in cyberpunk and the formal qualities of the genre:  here, here, here, here, and here.)

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  1. Anonymous2:02 PM

    This is actually my same feeling with the abuse of the Steampunk genre, as well. Steampunk should be about the 'punk' with the 'steam' being a merely visual aesthetic. Personally opinion, of course.

  2. The "punk" gets ignored in everything with "punk" in the name. There are very few steampunk stories which deal with actual punk-ness. It's sad.

  3. Anonymous6:01 PM

    I totally agree, but is there a tipping point where popular definition supersedes academic definition, and cyberpunk does become a visual definition? Maybe we should capitalize Cyberpunk when speaking of it academically, and leave the popular definition lowercase?

  4. Cyberpunk is Cyberpunk. That is all. I don't much care for alternate forms of definition. There's one definition. Stick with it.

  5. Shaun, I wish I'd read your post before I moderated the post-cyberpunk panel yesterday at the Reno Worldcon. It would really have helped focus the discussion, which IMO meandered at bit too much about CP itself, and ran out of time before we got to the meat of post-CP. (This was a failure by the moderator, but, in my defense, 50-minute panels are such a bad idea.)

    Also, I wish you'd been on the panel.

  6. Eileen: maybe next time!

  7. Anonymous2:44 PM

    Just came across this blog today... but i have a problem with your assessments:

    "Neuromancer is cyberpunk..."

    "post-cyberpunk is not, since it tends to transplant the formal qualities of cyberpunk into broader spaces of engagement, such as other planets, space stations, and so on"

    Did you actually read Neuromancer? Half the book takes place on a SPACE STATION orbiting the earth.

    So either Neuromancer is cyberpunk, and therefore the elements it uses can be used elsewhere, or it's not because it has other planets and space stations...

    See the problem here?

    Bladerunner is cyberpunk, but the narrative is in the perspective of a character who is forced to play by the megacorp/megacop rules...

    He is even told "If you aren't a cop, you're a little person"
    Replied, "I guess I don't have a choice"

    The depth of the threat and the reaction to it clearly show that Cops and Corps in this world are on equal footing when it comes to the peasantry.

    The antagonists are clear examples of the "punk" definition without being the stereo typical "London Cockney Punk" (aka Sid Vicious in 2080)... Punk means to resist the wills of society. It's not just walking a beat to a different drum, but clashing against society with purpose and intent to disrupt or change society.

    The replicants (from Mars) stole a ship, crashed it to Earth, and challenged society without remorse because society limits replicants to a lifespan of 4 years and they aimed to change that by any means necessary... Sounds pretty punk to me... Especially since the makers were Tyrell Crop., a giant mega-conglomerate corporation, yet another aesthetic aspect that makes cyberpunk what it is...

    I also take issue with your assessment that Neuromancer is, but Sheep isn't, when both stories feature the same location, the same timeline, and the same supporting character (molly)...

    I seriously question your knowledge on the subject...

  8. Anonymous: You can drop the snark. I don't care if you disagree with me, but you can at least do it without being disrespectful, as your last line shows.

    To your points:
    1) Most of Neuromancer does not take place on a space station. Most of it takes place either on Earth or in cyberspace, with small forays into non-terrestrial spaces. But those non-terrestrial spaces are also intimately linked to the geographical ones through one of the operative components of cyberpunk proper -- relations of and to global capitalism. See my previous posts on this subject.

    So, yes, I did read the book.

    2) Neuromancer is cyberpunk. Period. The existence of space stations does not make it post-cyberpunk. Post-cyberpunk is, in my view, entirely divorced from a terrestrial space. That is, from Earth proper. That is, that it is not concerned with political issues specific to Earth itself, but to other spaces made available through what I see as the intersection of space opera and cyberpunk.

    In other words: there really isn't a problem; I simply need to clarify.

    3) Bladerunner cannot be cyberpunk. At best, it can be proto-cyberpunk, but placing it into the cyberpunk genre is, on the one hand, a kind of retrospective fallacy commonly applied to SF texts, and, on the other hand, ignorant of what makes cyberpunk something other than an aesthetic movement.

    In that sense, just because large corporations exist in Bladerunner, and that we are dealing with a "cop" situation, doesn't suddenly mean we are dealing with cyberpunk. In cyberpunk, the corporate paradigm is totalizing and homogenous. See my previous posts again.

    The megacop thing is also way off. Nothing in the narrative indicates that we are dealing with a police state on a massive level, or that we are dealing with a police state which is in league with corporate interests. Quite the opposite. The State and the Corporation are at odds, not one and the same. Hence the proto-cyberpunk label (if we're going to be retrospective at all).

    Likewise, the reaction in the text does not put Cops and Corps on equal footing (though this is an irrelevant point to the cyberpunk question). There is nothing "clear" about that. Rather, the degree to which corporations are involved in the central problem (androids have escaped and are killing people for information) is limited at best, particularly in light of Roy Batty's response to his creator's unwillingness or inability to grant longevity.

    That's part one.

  9. And part two.

    4) You associate "punk" with "active antagonism." You also suggest that punks "resist the wills of society" and "clash against society" to "disrupt or change [it]." This is not what it means to be "punk." Punks are not active antagonists, but passive ones. They do not resist through direct, violent confrontation, but more often through indirect means. Likewise, punks are not responding to the wills of society, but the paradigms of global capitalism, post-industrialization, and the culture wars of the 70s and 80s. Global capitalism wants to flatten the world; punks resist this notion by being a counter-culture, as opposed to a subculture. They reject global capitalism. They resist its functions. Not by actively engaging the capitalist system, but by working beneath it to undermine its authority on a local scale.

    You seem to imply that "punks" are a kind of revolutionary force, but this was never the intent of the punk movement as a whole. Rather, precisely because they were not revolutionaries, capitalism was able to co-opt them into its paradigms, turning "punk" into "commodity." See my previous posts again.

    In light of all of this, what you see in the replicants/androids is something else entirely. You're associating direct and violent revolt with indirect and cultural-specific ideological rejection.

    5) When you can show me that Decker resists global capitalism as a general principle, not as a last ditch effort to save his identity, then I'll accept your assessment that Neuromancer and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are "the same." Otherwise, the comparison is superficial at best.

    And that's what I've got for now.