Monday, July 16, 2012

Why Cyberclunk Will Change How You View Science Fiction As a Genre

 Science fiction fans are often adamant in their definitions of what science fiction is. There’s “hard” science fiction, or science fiction that is an attempt to literarily portray the possibilities suggested by contemporary technology. There’s space opera-- a romance of the fantastic ideas and imagery generated by science fiction. And then there’s fantasy, or everything else, though sometimes very specifically sword and sorcery or “high fantasy” in the Tolkien mode. And for those tired of these distinctions, there’s the all encompassing, “speculative fiction,” which can describe anything and everything and all of above.

 But what if science fiction is simply fiction about science? This doesn’t mean futurism. It doesn’t mean accuracy. Fantasy involving the supernatural is fiction about physics, which is fiction about science. All fiction is speculative fiction, since the very act of imagination is speculation, even if its about what your neighbors might be having for lunch. You can dismiss this as semantics, but words shape how we think about things, so I do think these distinctions can be important in how we view the genre.

Genre is a formal tool. Fiction itself is a formal tool, as is the novel, as is poetry. They are self-imposed limitations on form and structure. Genre, though sometimes about structure, is more a formal constraint regarding content. These formal constraints offer unique challenges. Genre fiction, was, and often is still considered inferior to literary fiction. But in recent years, genre has been embraced by the academic literary community. One way this has happened is through cross pollination, mashing up elements of different genres into something new, or something less obviously recognizable as having precedent. But the work of contemporary authors who have become known for this kind of genre bending, like Chabon and Lethem, shares much in common with science fiction of the past. Authors like Phillip K. Dick who cared little about the consistency of the technology in his stories wrote stories that were arguably not about science at all. Or Ray Bradbury who described a mythic lost alien culture in The Martian Chronicles, presenting lyrical ideas about nostalgia and loss and impermanence that did not have much at all to do with science or any kind of traditional conventions of genre fantasy. But many elements of the genre remained-- the romance of it, the idea of life on other planets and cultures alien to our own. These stories were not deliberate attempts to subvert the genre, genre bending only in the sense that the genre was still being defined. But then, has it ever been truly defined, and does it need to be?

There is no list of rules or definitions that authors adhere to when they write in any given genre. Larry McMurtry subscribes to many of the genre conventions of the Western, but his stories are both Westerns and more than Westerns. But to say that they subvert or transcend the genre is again to suggest that genre is rigidly defined. Stepping out of what are considered the conventions of the genre does not by default make a story more literary than a story that stays within these common conventions. If we are to judge the quality of the content of fiction, distinctions of genre can only serve as a distraction. A story that doesn’t fall within the imagined boundaries of genre can be just as formulaic as as any science fiction story, Western or Romance. Formula is not genre, it’s simply unimaginative or lazy writing, and there’s no genre for bad writing.

I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that science fiction is first and foremost about the time in which it was written, but even in light of this, we often fail to see that futurism is not its purpose. Projections of future technology and outdated attitudes in science fiction of the past seem to us anachronistic and quaint. But all fiction, and all writing for that matter reflects the attitudes of its time. When you read a novel from the past considered now to be literary, there is language and behavior that is no longer contemporary, but we don’t tend to think of this as anachronistic so much as of its time. So why don’t we view science fiction in the same way?

Often the intention of science fiction writers is literal futurism, an attempt to take current social or technological trends and project where they might be headed in the future. This intention, when viewed retrospectively, may seem overly earnest, but non-genre fiction is just as earnest in its own way, just as much an attempt to articulate ideas about human behavior as they were viewed at the time, and in the same way, there is no way to escape those attitudes and conventions in science fiction.

Which Brings Us Back to Cyberclunk

Cyberclunk is not an attempt to subvert genre, but to embrace it. Its formal limitations are no less earnest than in any other genre, and though the suggestion of post-modernism is unavoidable in a post-modern world, post-modern irony is not its focus.

Cyberclunk is not only a genre, but an earnest attempt to view science fiction in a different light. Rather than focus on the idea that the science in the science fiction of the past is anachronistic, Cyberclunk suggests that you accept the world that the author portrays in its totality. Cyberclunk asks you to set aside your literal interpretation of science fiction as futurism and accept the world that the author presents for what it is--not only a reflection of its time but a world in a bubble, a place that the author transports you. As compelling as futurism is as a concept, it can be a distraction if you view it as simple anachronism. Cyberclunk is meant to demonstrate that futurism is not what science fiction is at its center. While Cyberclunk references the technology of its time, it is not a literal projection of how that technology might evolve from contemporary technology. The technology is deliberately implausible in the literal sense. To further emphasize this fact, the consistency in the details of the era are similarly ignored or satirized. Sinatra might exist in the same world as Justin Bieber. Early computing involving magnetic tape might be used in the same environment as the internet.

The goal of Cyberclunk is no less than to change how you view science fiction in general by demonstrating the irrelevancy of the literal scientific relevance of science fiction. The goal of Cyberclunk is no less than to enrich your appreciation of the genre as a whole.

This is cyberclunk. And it’s going to magnificent. 

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