Monday, January 21, 2013

The Cyberclunk of John Byrne's The High Ways

I feel  remiss in not reviewing cyberclunk in prose fiction (which I will try to address soon, or what passes for soon on this blog considering my infrequent updates), but in the meantime here's yet another comic book review.

John Byrne is a controversial figure in the comics world for a number of reasons, all of which are irrelevant here. I'm only interested in talking about this comic on its own terms, so if you have an opinion or gripe about John Byrne the individual that you wish to share, I don't care.

 Now that that's out of the way, lets move on to The High Ways.

I was pleasantly surprised by the suggestion, in a popular medium like comics that space travel involves actual weightlessness. In much science fiction, particularly in popular culture artificial gravity is the rule and the assumption with no explanation given. The only artificial gravity in The High Ways is by centrifuge on an enormous space station, and the inherent awkwardness and imperfection of the technology is well noted.

Outside of this, spaceships designed for long range travel are weightless and dangerous, requiring passengers to wear spacesuits at all times in case of potential breaches in the hull. This makes sense--spaceships aren't the only things out there and I think it's a fair assumption that there's always the risk of coming in contact with a stray asteroid or some other hazard.

It takes a while to get to planets in our solar system. In The Highways there are no warp drives. Cryogenic sleep is required for long trips, though in The High Ways this process does seem to be problem free. Also spaceships are dirty. Close quarters and no opportunity to shower, as the passengers in our own space station have found, makes for a potent aroma. Then there's the problem of weak muscles caused by a lack of gravity, all realities considered by Byrne.

So this can all easily be placed into the realm of hard science fiction, and there are still many conventions of traditional futurism that are adhered to, like the assumption that the resources are available for infrastructure on a grand scale are a given, massive space stations and spaceships are common place.

But this isn't what makes The Highways cyberclunk.

Though it's only hinted at in the first issue, according to the promotional material Byrne intends to populate the solar system with anthropomorphic life in the style of classic science fiction. While in older sci-fi this is done out of naivete, in Byrne's story this is very deliberate. When I read about his intention for the first time, I expected Flash Gordon style space opera, but clearly that's not where he's headed. Any romance is undermined by the reality of imperfect technology. It's this mix of imperfect technology and the fantasy of unlikely anthropology that makes The Highways cyberclunk.

The fantasy of the suggestion that the universe is populated by anthropomorphic aliens is analogous to the anthropomorphic but indigenous creatures that populate China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, a book that effectively mixes science fiction and fantasy without adhering to the conventions of either. But China Mieville's world includes one key fantasy convention, magic, while The High Ways is more science fiction in the purest sense. It's fiction about science.

So here's a brief breakdown of how The Highways employs cyberclunk:

The Highways does not romanticize the mechanics of science.

Unlike the futurism of traditional sci-fi, technology doesn't always work particularly well. It's flawed and inelegant.

Logical and scientifically accurate anthropology doesn't apply.

Byrne knows very well that anthropomorphic life on other planets in the solar system isn't likely. In traditional contemporary science fiction anthropomorphism only exists in deep space. Contemporary science fiction employs the goldilocks planet concept, that anthropomorphic life can only exist on a world with similar conditions to our own. Byrne deliberately ignores this.

 Traditional contemporary science and ideas about science coexist in a way that is not strictly logical.

The High Ways is fiction about science that isn't about literal futurism. It's not a projection of the future, but an exploration of science as an idea, an expression of science through fiction without religious fidelity to realism. It's not space opera because it's still about science, rather than science that's used as a vehicle for romantic adventure. Strip away the science and you have no story. This is the essence of cyberclunk.

Since this is the first issue I still have no idea where the story is headed, and it could still venture into the realm of space opera, but I hope it doesn't. I'm anxious to see where it's headed.