Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Philosophy of Cyberclunk, Or Why Science Fiction Can't Escape Becoming Embarrassingly Dated

Ever since I started reading sci-fi as a kid, I had this habit of trying to apologize in my head for the author's annoying lack of prescience. Maybe they hadn't gotten it quite as wrong as it seemed like they had. Maybe Asimov didn't mean that information was stored on microfilm, as in actual microfilm in the Foundation series instead of computers. Maybe the kids in Heinlein's Red Planet talked in that "gee whiz fellers"1950s dialogue for some other reason than the fact that the book was written in the 50s. I was a literal minded kid, but, like most sci-fi, these were literal minded books, and I desperately wanted them to be relevant. Not that all the ideas in these books had dated so poorly, but they were unavoidably out-of-step with the times. 

Science fiction more than ever, because of the rapid progress of technology, dates as fast as it can be written, and much faster than it can be published. Moore's law--the suggestion that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit will double every two years--assumes that the integrated circuit will continue to be what drives computing in the future. Maybe in another couple of decades, computers will cease to be digital at all. Maybe they won't even be called computers anymore. There's no exponent that can describe the growth of technology that doesn't exist yet. 

Aside from his inability to predict what none of us could predict--in Asimov's time, there was no World Wide Web or cloud computing and microfilm still sounded high tech--Asimov was not exactly known for the quality of his prose, and slogging through his awful dialog could be a painful experience, so his work unfortunately dates for reasons beyond his less than accurate projections of future technology. Like most American writers--not only science fiction writers--Mr. Asimov was painfully literal. He saw science fiction as futurism, as a literal conception of where technology might be headed. In the argot of the genre, this is "hard science fiction," hard, apparently, because of the bluntness required to base a literal future you can't know on 1950s rocket science and magnetic tape. So in ten, twenty years or more, what remains relevant, ironically, is everything in the story that isn't about technology. Sure, Arthur C. Clarke was savvy enough to come up with the idea for satellites. A.E. Van Vogt sort of predicted computers, what he called, "electronic brains" since the word "computer"wasn't yet in popular use. William Gibson predicted virtual reality, or at least, a romantic version of the idea. Neal Stephenson, virtual communities. But as fascinating as these predictions are, this isn't why we still read these books. 

So what science fiction has held up better over the test of time? Frank Herbert's Dune seems to have held up well, more philosophical romance than futurism. The lyrical writing of Samuel Delaney and Ray Bradbury, in part, for the rich quality of the writing, even if the prose can occasionally be a little purple. Ursula K. LeGuin, another solid writer has held up well, particularly for The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed about imagined communities based on social, rather than technological projections. Stanislaw Lem's Futurological Congress both predicts and affectively satirizes virtual reality before it was even a term, and even translated from Polish, is still laugh out loud funny. Orwell's 1984 hardly dates at all. In its first paragraph its clear that it's not at all clear to the narrator that this is the true year, a fact that I was very pleased with as a kid when I read it in1984. Phillip K. Dick's popularity has actually increased over the years, and he is more widely read than all of the above, with the possible exception of Dune

But ultimately science fiction has to be a reflection of its time. Sexism, colonialism and the primacy of Western culture as defined by a white male society is the unfortunate stuff of science fiction from both our immediate past and present. When I recently reread Heinlein's Stranger in A Strange Land as an adult, I was particularly dismayed by the Hugh Hefnerish Jubal Harshaw, a wealthy writer surrounded by adoring lady friends, an embarrassingly transparent fantasy persona of the author himself. The sexism is on the scale of TV's Mad Men, but unlike Mad Men, is completely lacking in self-awareness. It even dips into some pretty damning homophobia in the second half despite all its free-love, 60s sexual revolution inspired progressiveness. I missed most of this as a kid in the 80s, but as an adult I barely made it to the end. 

It's particularly galling what limited imaginations science fiction writer's still seem to have when it comes to alien races. They frequently resort to racial and cultural stereotypes that embody every cliche there is about noble savages, inscrutable Asians and Jewish Shylocks, as if the only way we can conceive of an alien culture is to return to our colonialist roots. The caricatures are even broader in film and television. The racial stereotypes in Lucas' recent Star Wars films is a subject that deserves its own essay. Not too long ago, the African American actor Michael Dorn was cast as Star Trek the Next Generation's own noble savage, the Klingon, Worf, without any apparent irony. Brown is still the color of aboriginal savagery too often in science fiction and high fantasy both. In the fantasy of the past, it's been C.S. Lewis' swarthy and transparently Arab inspired Calormenes, and more recently, George R.R. Martin's Targaryen.

In film, extraterrestrials now seem to be primarily insect-like, usually hostile and with no greater motive than world domination. The image of insects in our culture is inherently alien and malevolent, so it's an easy go-to. District 9 made a well-intentioned attempt to subvert this image, but despite its intentions, the South African film couldn't seem to avoid a colonialist and patronizing view of its aliens. An obvious metaphor for the countries own race problem, the insect-based alien immigrants, despite their supposed superior technology, were too naive to make any social or diplomatic headway with the humans. The were relegated to shanty towns, and traded their superior weapons for cat food. 

In recent years science fiction has looked to the past for its aesthetics, if not, thankfully, it's social perspectives with Steampunk. While William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's original Steampunk novel The Difference Engine was all about technology, an exploration of an alternate future where Charles Babbage's precursor to the contemporary computer was successful, contemporary Steampunk leans more towards the aesthetics of the Steampunk environment, sharing more in common with the romance of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars than with Gibson and Sterling's doctrinaire adherence to "Hard Science Fiction." But at the same time, Gibson and Sterling too are romanticists, their prose invested with an unbridled love of technology, Gibson frequently using technological metaphors in his more poetic passages. Considering this approach, there's no wonder that the Difference Engine inspired a genre of romance over hard science. 

China Mieville has solved the problem in his own way, making no attempt to adhere to traditional sci-fi or fantasy tropes. His books are not quite hard science fiction, space opera or high fantasy, but something else altogether. He freely mixes supernatural elements with technology, inhabiting his worlds with what would in science fiction be alien races, but in Mieville's fiction are indigenous with humans. Unfortunately Mieville's "New Weird" can occasionally fall into some of the same traps of prejudice so common in the genres he subverts, but it's a rich world that is truly unlike any other in genre fiction. 

Another favorite of mine, Haruki Murakami's Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of the World defies categorization, a little bit magical realism and a little bit science fiction and a little bit something else, and of course, it has the best title ever.

The Philosophy of Cyberclunk

 Like most movements, Cyberpunk didn't originate with the two men attributed with its invention, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, any more than the origins of Cubism came from Picasso and Braque. The seeds were already in the air. Writers like Phillip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem frequently dealt with questions of reality, biology and technology, and Phillip K. Dick is often seen as the grandfather of the movement. But rather than American sci-fi pulp and book covers where most sci-fi imagery had come before, the imagery of Cyberpunk came from France in the form of bande dessinee, or comic books. The magazine Metal Hurlant (in the states, Heavy Metal), through artists like Moebius, Bilal and Druillet, inspired the visuals that would eventually accompany the ideas of cyberpunk, and Gibson describes the magazine as a seminal influence. And from the inspiration of Phillip K. Dick, Metal Hurlant and the designs of Syd Mead came Bladerunner, the visual template for everything cyberpunk to come, before cyberpunk even had a name. But this thirty year old aesthetic is one that sci-fi still can't seem to escape. The inspiration for most contemporary sci-fi imagery either comes from Bladerunner or Star Wars, which also, not coincidentally, features a number of designs by Mead.

So where does the term originate? "Cyber" comes from cybernetics, which describes the relationship between mechanics and biology, but why "punk?" The term "Cyberpunk" was coined in the 80s, when punk culture was flourishing as a progressive cultural movement, and even now, punk continues to be associated with youth culture. So the appropriation of the word, "punk" was a deliberate attempt to give the Cyberpunk movement a sexiness and sense of relevance that sci-fi never had before. The present version of punk is less a genuine social movement than a convention of fashion, but the word "punk" and the culture associated with it continues to sustain it's hipster allure. Like punk, Cyberpunk, too, has lost some of its original progressiveness, almost as much pure aesthetic at this point as its Steampunk counterpart. Now any version of the future that portrays youth culture and virtual reality is by default considered Cyberpunk. As much as high fantasy or any other genre, the genre of Cyberpunk is firmly in place and there's no escaping it.

the "cyber of "Cyberclunk," in keeping with this derivation of the word "cybernetic," describes a similar exploration of technology and biology, while it's suffix, "clunk" is both a parody of it's progenitor, and an unapologetic embrace of science fiction's irredeemably clunky, dated, awkward and utterly unhip origins. It's a rejection of both the fashion of Cyberpunk, and the deadpan, humorless tone of most science fiction. Neal Stephenson added much needed satire to Gibson and Sterling's Cyberpunk with Snow Crash, but still couldn't avoid treating science fiction as futurism. Cyberclunk has suggestions of futurism, while at the same time, is a deliberate attempt to subvert it.

Cyberclunk as pure aesthetic borrows from early science fiction films and TV shows, cyberclunky more by necessity than intention. In an attempt to portray the future on a limited budget, the technology of the day was cannibalized to stand-in for high tech gadgetry, with the earnest hope that no one would notice the difference. The original Doctor Who is one of my favorite examples of this unintended aesthetic, where so often the origin of the repurposed gadget, whether a bathroom plunger or egg beater, is gloriously apparent. Spaceship interiors made of aluminum siding. Anything involving tinfoil--this was what made Doctor Who twice as fun. The original Star Wars is also all about cyberclunk, and attempts to avoid any comparison to contemporary technology with it's bold statement, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."

Doctor Who: gloriously Cyberclunk

Plunged to death by a Dalek!

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...there was Cyberclunk!

Like Steampunk, the Cyberclunk movement that I've just made up embraces the aesthetic of its environment, old technology repurposed to give shape to new. Cyberclunk attempts to eliminate the pretense that the story is anything but an extrapolation of the events of the time in which it was written. Like most things American, it's a completely literal concept.  It's not magical realism, or Mieville's version of fantasy, but a romance and satire of technology as we know it today. References to contemporary popular culture are not made with an assumption that they will still be popular in the future, because the story isn't explicitly about the future. While there are projections of future events based on current ones much like the old stories about rocket science and magnetic tape, there's no assumption at all that this is how the future is going to be. It is unapologetically, undeniably about right now, which means that, inevitably, it will become dated just as quickly as all science fiction does, but integral to its concept is an acknowledgement of this fact. 

The zeitgeist of cyberclunk is already in the air. All I've done is given a name to to it. and if it doesn't exist already, then it does now because I say it does. Isn't that how all these things start? 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

We Love the Miami Zombie!

Oh come on. Click on me. You know you want to look.

It was too good to be true.

A zombie attacks a homeless man and chews off half his face. OK, maybe he wasn’t a zombie, but he was about as close as you could ever hope to get. He was growling. He was naked. He was eating off someone’s face. Had he eaten off anybody else’s face? Maybe he wasn’t a zombie, but at least he was a cannibal. Maybe he was a serial killer cannibal?

OK, so it turned out that this was the only face he had eaten, but oh how he had eaten. He had eaten a nose, an eyeball and no less than half a face in a feeding frenzy that did not end until he was shot by a cop. That’s some seriously fucked up zombie shit right there.

But do zombies have to be the walking dead to be zombies? Why no they don’t in fact. But what are the criteria? As we’ve learned from films like 28 Days Later it can be a virus. In The Crazies it’s some kind of disease, and that one was by George Romero, the man himself! So if it can be a disease or a virus, then why not Bath Salts and cocaine?

 Wha-wha-wha-wha whoah-- what in the fuck are “Bath Salts?”

 Bath Salts or Methylenedioxypyrovalerone,also known as Cloud 9, MDPK, MTV, Magic, Maddie, Black Rob, Super Coke, PV and Peeve, or as we like to call it, The Zombie Designer Drug, synthesized in 1969, made popular in the early 2000s, and banned for the first time in the US no earlier than 2011. It causes panic attacks, hypertension, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts and extreme anxiety sometimes progressing to violent behavior-- or so says Wikipedia. But how often is “sometimes?” So maybe it turns out it’s more likely to give you panic attacks and hypertension than to cause you to eat someone’s face off. These, unfortunately, are not the predictable results we’re looking for here.


Victim of” Zombie” Attack Recovering, in Good Spirits. Doctor says, “It’s amazing.”

OK, so it turns out the guy who got attacked was this homeless guy with the adorable name of Ronald Poppo. “Ronald Poppo lives in the moment” said the reporter.

"It's Amazing. He's an extremely charming man," said his doctor.

After surgery, Poppo, a Miami Heat fan, said, “Go Heat.”

He said, “go Heat,” quoth the reporter, before she tells us that maybe there’s a bright side to this story after all. He’s in good spirits. He’s got his own bed. He’s eating his favorite foods, oranges and pizza. Weighing the options, she came to the right conclusion that having your face chewed off is slightly better than being homeless.

So, as long as you’re homeless and have the right attitude, getting your face eaten off by a zombie can turn out to be a pretty sweet deal. Be charming. Say “go Heat.” To further endear yourself to the public, request your favorite foods, oranges and pizza. Everyone loves oranges and pizza. Have a cute name like “Poppie.” A special fund will be set up in your honor, and you will get donations from all over the world from people who are glad to give to the charming, endearing homeless man who entertained us so much by having his face eaten off by a zombie, while having the decency to stay in good spirits and thus, not make us feel like dicks for how cool we thought it was when we first heard about it. And maybe after you get what’s left of your face patched together and have paid all your medical bills, there will be some spillover from that fund for you to afford to rent an apartment—at least for a while-- and get some dental care for your few remaining teeth. And until that day when you are sent on your way from the hospital with one eye, no nose, and season tickets for the Miami Heat, the world will love you. And then they will forget about you. At least until you’re mentioned as a footnote in the next cannibal zombie attack.

The story of the Miami Zombie is a story of hope. The hope that there could someday be a zombie apocalypse or a face devouring cannibal serial killer, or maybe a designer drug that turns those douches who go to raves into undead hoards for us to kill.

The Miami Zombie is dead! Long live the Miami Zombie!