Something Is Broken in Our Science Fiction

Why can’t we move past cyberpunk?

A wannabe cyberpunk
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When it first emerged more than 30 years ago, cyberpunk was hailed as the most exciting science fiction of the ’80s. The subgenre, developed by a handful of younger writers, told stories of the near future, focusing on the collision of youth subcultures, new computer technologies, and global corporate dominance. It was only ever a small part of the total SF field, but cyberpunk received an outsize amount of attention. Since then, its characteristic tropes have become clichés. By 1992, they could be hilariously parodied by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash (a novel often mistaken as an example of the subgenre it meant to mock). In 1999, the Wachowskis brought cyberpunk to a mass audience with The Matrix.

Meanwhile, myriad new SF subgenres and microgenres have been discovered or invented, each trying to recapture the excitement cyberpunk once generated. The list is long to the point of parody. There’s steampunk, biopunk, nanopunk, stonepunk, clockpunk, rococopunk, raypunk, nowpunk, atompunk, mannerpunk, salvagepunk, Trumppunk, solarpunk, and sharkpunk (no joke!), among others. Most recently, my Twitter feed has been choked with discussions (and mockery) of hopepunk, after Vox published an article in December announcing its arrival. The term, coined by Alexandra Rowland, was meant to describe fiction that resists dystopian pessimism in favor of “DEMANDING a better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there if we care about each other as hard as we possibly can, with every drop of power in our little hearts.”

Like cyberpunk, these new sci-fi punk movements combine genre conventions and political attitudes. If you’re a hopepunk, for example, you’re the sort of person who commits to remaining optimistic in the face of a bleak or dystopian world, unlike your “grimdark” opponents. Solarpunks, meanwhile, proclaim their commitment to “ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community” and oppose the nihilistic tendencies of cyberpunk and the reactionary tendencies of steampunk.

Some of these microgenre names describe real literary trends. Others are post-hoc labels applied to writers who have little to do with each other. Others still, like solarpunk, are aspirational: They’re suggestions for the kind of science fiction or fantasy we ought to be writing. There are so many named successors to cyberpunk that a whole special issue of an academic journal was devoted to mapping the punked terrain of science fiction and fantasy. And the Wikipedia page on cyberpunk derivatives is wild.

This proliferation of SF punks is what you’d expect from the overproduction of popular culture. Musical subgenres, likewise, offer so many new niches that it can be hard even for aficionados to keep up. When you try to come up with new artistic ideas in a crowded field, a new name can signal your relation to—and distance from—existing styles. Moreover, as SF scholar Sean Guynes-Vishniac argues, publishers always want to find evermore-narrowly-sliced microgenres, hoping to squeeze every aesthetic niche dry.

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.

The term cyberpunk was invented by Bruce Bethke as the title of a short story, first written in 1980 and published in 1983 in Amazing Stories, about a group of teenage hackers who spend their days breaking into computer systems. Our hero hacks into his parents’ bank account and tyrannizes them but is finally foiled by his father’s Luddite love of paper receipts before being banished to a military academy. Its invented teenage argot reads like a warmed-over version of A Clockwork Orange, but the story actually holds up surprisingly well. Explaining how he invented the word, Bethke writes, “I took a handful of roots—cyber, techno, et al—mixed them up with a bunch of terms for socially misdirected youth, and tried out the various combinations until one just plain sounded right.”

At the time, as Bruce Sterling wrote in his preface for Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986), there were other candidate names to describe the new SF: “Radical Hard SF, the Outlaw Technologists, the Eighties Wave, the Neuromantics, the Mirrorshades Group.” But the author and editor Gardner Dozois popularized the term cyberpunk in his columns, using it to refer to writers such as Sterling, Gibson, Lewis Shiner, Pat Cadigan, and Greg Bear, all represented in Mirrorshades.

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.

Post-cyberpunk derivatives adopt three strategies for moving beyond this original template. First, as in the case of biopunk and nanopunk, they focus on different technologies. Now, our hacker hero hacks biotechnology—now, nanites. Same story, different tech. Second, as in the case of steampunk or dieselpunk, cyberpunk’s characteristic tropes get transported back in time. What if our hacker hero lived in Victorian times? No, wait—even better—what if she lived during the Renaissance? Clockpunk to the rescue! Finally, the new post-cyberpunk variants give us the same story but with a new attitude. What if stories set in this or that dystopian hellscape made us feel happy and good about ourselves rather than bad? What if we adopted a different stance toward the apocalypse? This has been the approach taken by a lot of recent science fiction, including stories found in Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future and the Verge’s Better Worlds series. (Here, I should disclose that I have a short story, “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA,” in Hieroglyph, which features characters who call themselves “dronepunks.” Also: Hieroglyph?is a project of Arizona State University, which is a partner in Future Tense along with?Slate?and New America. Future Tense published a couple of stories from it and hosted an event as part of the anthology’s launch in 2014.)

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.

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

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.