(Not Quite) Getting Over Cyber Punk

In a Slate op-ed published earlier this week, author Lee Konstantinou argues that “something is broken in our science fiction,” and that we need to move beyond the cyber punk subgenre. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

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. […] 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).

But if this is your choice, if you’re writing science fiction that decides on its attitude toward the future in advance of doing the work of imagining that future, you’re not heeding the most ambitious calling of the genre. You’ve substituted the hunt for a cool new market niche for the work of telling compelling stories that help us think rigorously about how we might make a better world, or at the very least better understand where our world might be heading. If, instead, you retain the hope of writing fiction that confronts readers with new ways of thinking about their relationship to the future—our future—you may need to drop the -punk suffix.

Doing so might be the most punk thing you can do.

Personally I don’t mind how much cyber punk keeps getting written as long as the stories are compelling. But I see Konstantinou’s point. He is airing the typical grievance of anyone who is tired of seeing the same old plot line and character stereotypes, and longs for some fresh takes and new ideas in a rapidly changing world. He may be right about that. (There’s also some irony here, in that cyber punk itself marked a major departure from the classic sci-fi stereotypes which preceded it.)

But there is one important theme from cyber punk which goes unmentioned in the article, a theme which I think is worth bringing up whenever one discusses the future of sci-fi. According to Dr. Gary K. Wolfe in How Great Science Fiction Works, cyber punk delivered a crucial insight: it stopped treating technology as a mere tool that we mold to serve our ends, and started seeing it as a powerful force that can mold us in profound and alarming ways:

[Cyber punk’s lasting impact] is the insight that we are no long changing technology. Rather it has begun to change us. Not just our homes and schools, our governments and workplaces, but our senses, our memories, our very consciousness. I tend to agree with this. I think traditionally science fiction has treated technology as a set of tools. I mean robots, spaceships, marvelous new inventions, marvelous new communications technologies. And while sometimes these inventions might get out of hand, threatening or even replacing humanity, people themselves seem remarkably consistent over time. Even some of the most inventive future societies of classic writers like Heinlein or Asimov tend to feature character stereotypes familiar from earlier pulp fiction […] One could argue that cyber punk dealt in its own stereotypes—the streetwise kid with brilliant hacker skills, the shadowdy corporate rep, the tough as nails girl with a tragic past […]. But the chief difference is this. These characters are partly or extensively remade by their environments. They are as manipulated by their technologies as their technologies are by them. […] Cyber punk may have been the first school of writers who recognized, as a basic ground rule, that people would adapt to and be fundamentally altered by the technologies we’ve invented.

~From episode 19 of How Great Science Fiction Works. Italics mine.

If cyber punk does eventually go away, I hope its chief insight about technology and human nature does not. We need to keep digging into how technology changes us, not just how we use it to serve us. Given developments in internet technology, hacking, privacy, and big data, this endeavor seems even more important now than it was in the early ’80s when cyber punk took off.

Photo from Blade Runner—a prime example of the cyber punk aesthetic. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.