January 17th, 2019
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: email@example.com
People complaining about is the first sign of something ending.
This was science fiction perfectly tuned for the Reagan-Thatcher era. Its connection with punk music and subcultures is, of course, contingent. (Who knows what might have happened if Bethke decided to call his story Techno-Hipster.) Yet the clichéd punk imperative to “Do It Yourself” is in fact perfect for a kind of fiction whose ethos is that you have to survive in a world where unstoppable megacorporations control every aspect of everyday life. The best you might hope for is to carve out a temporary autonomous zone of freedom before you—like the hero of Bethke’s short story—are caught by parental authority and sent away to a re-education camp. At its root, then, cyberpunk is arguably a kind of fiction unable to imagine a future very different from its present.
…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).
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.