Science fiction sure dies a lot. It’s been regularly dying every year or so ever since it emerged as a separate genre (here is a recent example courtesy of Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin in Der Spiegel) and yet it somehow always manages to survive. Just as WorldCon, the Hugos, fandom, traditional publishing and Barnes & Noble have been dying for years now and are all still around somehow. As we say in Germany, those declared dead live longer.
And now science fiction is dying again. Or rather, it already died in the 1980s and has been shambling along like a mirroshaded cyberpunk zombie ever since. For inspired by the hopepunk debate that broke out in late December (chronicled here), Lee Konstantinou weighs in on cyberpunk, hopepunk, solarpunk and the state of science fiction in general as part of Slate‘s future tense project (found via File 770). And this is one case where I wish I could use the German phrase “seinen Senf dazugeben” (literally “add their mustard”) instead of the more neutral English “weigh in”. Because Lee Konstantinou absolutely adds his* mustard, regardless whether anybody actually wants mustard or whether mustard even fits the dish.
Konstantinou’s post is very much an expanded summary of the various Twitter criticisms of hopepunk that I chronicled in my earlier post. For starters, he takes issue with the tendency to create new SFF micro-niche-subgenres by adding the suffix “-punk” to random nouns. Now I freely admit that the proliferation of punk-suffix genres is somewhat ridiculous, as my 24 page list of punk suffix genres with examples and explanations proves. And Konstantinou even indentified a punk suffix genre I missed (even though I have committed it), namely Trumppunk. But as I said in my earlier post, the cyberpunks themselves started the proliferation of punk suffix genres, when they coined steampunk. And with all the damage they’ve done, they certainly deserve having their suffix appropriated for all sorts of micro-genres.
Besides, speculative fiction is not just flooded with punk suffix genres. Quite often, a new movement or genre niche will coin a name for itself that calls back to some earlier movement or micro-genre. Just adding “new” to the original subgenre name is popular, if a tad unimaginative, and gave us such gems as the New Weird or the New British Space Opera and of course, the granddaddy of them all, the New Wave, which in turn beget a number of other waves such as the Next Wave or the Human Wave. Speculative fiction folks like to mix and match and combine terms to come up with new genre classifications and other neologisms. Even cyberpunk itself was such an accidental coinage, as Lee Konstantinou explains, coined not by the usual suspects like Bruce Sterling or William Gibson, but by Bruce Bethke and popularised by the late Gardner Dozois who favoured cyberpunk over various rival terms for the new movement/subgenre that was emerging in the early to mid 1980s.
But Lee Konstantinou’s article goes beyond complaining about a lack of imagination in naming speculative fiction subgenres and movements. No, he takes issue with the very existence of hopepunk, solarpunk, biopunk, nanopunk, steampunk, clockpunk and all the rest, because to him this means that speculative fiction hasn’t sufficiently advanced since the 1980s and is still stuck in variations of the cyberpunk mode. Here is a quote:
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. […] If we’re still drawn to cyberpunk, that might be because 2019 is far more like 1982 than we’d care to admit.
Now speaking as someone who actually remembers the 1980s, nope, the 1980s and the 2010s are not very similar. There are certain superficial parallels, of course. Both periods were characterised by an intense concern about the environment, though in the 1980s we were worried about acid rain, nuclear disasters and the ozone hole, while nowadays we’re more worried about climate change, which wasn’t that big a topic in the 1980s yet, though it was certainly around. Both periods saw a lot of angst about the loss of old industries, the same industries even (and you’d figure that almost forty years after Bruce Springsteen sang, “They said these jobs are going and they ain’t coming back” people would finally get it). Both periods had a less than sane president in the White House, though Donald Trump makes Ronald Reagan look like a paragon of reason, and an unpleasant woman with a horrible dress sense in No. 10 Downing Street (difficult to say who is worse, Thatcher or May. They’re both terrible). But the Communist bloc and the iron curtain, which very much defined the world of the 1980s, are gone for good, though what came after is just as problematic in many cases. The twin spectres of nuclear annihilation and AIDS, which hung like the Sword of Damocles over much of the 1980s, have not been banished, but at least tamed. The world is a much better place now for women, people of colour and LGBT folks, though still far from perfect, and the sheer neverending, unchanging leadeness of the 1980s that partially stretched even into the 1990s is finally over.
As for cyberpunk, yes, it is still with us, though by now it has become a quasi-nostalgic retrofuturist setting. Cyberpunk is no longer the message, but furniture for science fiction that tells the kind of stories that the original cyberpunks ignored. And that’s all right. Cyberpunk still has stories to tell, they’re just different and in many ways more diverse stories than before. Ditto for cyberpunk’s first spin-off subgenre steampunk. It’s going a lot stronger now than when the term was first coined in the late 1980s (though steampunk as a discrete subgenre existed before it was named) and it’s long moved beyond “What if Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace had been able to built the difference engine?” and has embraced fantasy and horror and is in the process of breaking free from the unexamined colonialism of early steampunk efforts. In many ways, steampunk is following the trajectory of its parent subgenre and is becoming an aesthetic, genre furniture, a canvas upon which all sorts of stories can be told.
As for the many, many other punk suffix subgenres, a whole lot of them were not even direct responses to cyberpunk at all. The various historical punk genres – dieselpunk, clockpunk, transistorpunk, atompunk, mannerpunk, romanpunk, cavepunk, jazzpunk, etc… – are reactions to and derivatives of steampunk, not cyberpunk. As for solarpunk and hopepunk, the two punk suffix subgenres whose existence so infuriates Lee Konstantinou, neither of them is a direct reaction to cyberpunk either.
Hopepunk stands in opposition to grimdark, not cyberpunk and indeed cyberpunk can also be hopepunk. Flawed as the movie is, I’d argue that Blade Runner 2049 is cyberpunk doing hopepunk, because it ends on a hopeful note (so does the original, for that matter). Ditto for Brooke Bolander’s novelette And You Shall Know Her By The Trail Of Dead…, which is a story about friendship, trust and love triumphing against all odds, i.e. very much a hopepunk story, which just happens to use the genre furniture of cyberpunk. Solarpunk, meanwhile, is mainly a response to steampunk, which celebrates renewable energy just as steampunk celebrates coal, steam and combustion energy. It also bleeds over into hopepunk on occasion. Finally, there is a whole lot of science fiction which neither calls itself anythingpunk nor is in any dialogue with cyberpunk at all, because science fiction is as broad and diverse as it ever was.
But Lee Konstantinou’s problem isn’t so much with science fiction’s micro-genre nomenclatura, instead his main complaint is the old familiar stand-by, frequently skewered in these pages, that “other people are doing science fiction wrong”. It’s not just that they are writing cyberpunk derivatives, even if they’re not, it’s that they are not writing the sort of science fiction Konstantinou wants them to write. And what kind of science fiction would that be? Thankfully, Konstantinou is kind enough to tell us:
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.
Now “telling compelling stories that help us think about how we might make a better world” sounds very much like the definition of both hopepunk and solarpunk. And ironically, Konstantinou first accuses solarpunk of being an aspirational subgenre, a “suggestion for the kind of science fiction or fantasy we ought to be writing”, before complaining that it doesn’t tell the kind of stories Konstantinou wants the genre to tell.
But what bothers Konstantinou isn’t so much that subgenres like hopepunk and solarpunk try to imagine building a better world, but that they’re doing it wrong. Here is another quote:
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).
In this paragraph, Konstantinou sounds eerily like those leftwing cultural critics from the 1970s who judged every single piece of pop culture with regard whether its aim was raising the consciousness of the working class and promoting socialism. If the book/film/TV show/comic book in question did not raise the consciousness of the working class or did not raise it in the approved way, it was condemned as distracting escapism at best and dangerously fascist at worst, whereby all that was needed to declare a piece of pop culture fascist was the presence of a blond and blue-eyed heroic character. These folks even declared that poor Captain America was a fascist, which makes Hulk smash and Steve Rogers cry.
I encountered watered down versions of this 1970s leftwing pop culture criticism at school, used by teachers to denigrate their students’ favourite books, films, TV shows, etc… (because that’s such a great method to foster a love of reading). And later at university, I came across the originals in all their seventiestastic glory. Therefore, whenever I hear someone complaining that current science fiction is too escapist and doesn’t raise the readers’ consciousness, I always roll my eyes and think, “The Seventies called and they want their pop culture criticism back”.
Besides, Lee Konstantinou is wrong, because both hopepunk and solarpunk are actually community minded and stress the importance of working together to achieve goals and make the world a little better. Though I suspect that like many of those who criticise hopepunk, Konstantinou never read beyond Aja Romano’s fairly superficial summary article at Vox and thus isn’t aware of Alexandra Rowland’s much more detailed and political explanation.
The article is part of Slate‘s “future tense” series and the contributors to that series are usually fairly high profile. But the name Lee Konstantinou didn’t ring a bell and so I got curious and clicked on his profile and found three other articles/stories by him, two about universal basic income and how science fiction isn’t tackling income inequality and one about drones.
Now I’m sceptical about universal basic income for reasons that are too complicated to go into here (the short version is that I believe it will have unintended effects that undermine what it’s trying to do), but nonetheless it is a viable subject for science fiction. And indeed, there is quite a lot of science fiction – all of which seems to have passed Konstantinou by – which addresses the subject, though usually framed as a dystopia (well, science fiction has always been full of libertarians). In The Expanse, the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants don’t have jobs and live on some form of universal basic incomes, which gets them labelled “parasites” by the ever charming Bobbie Draper character (Honestly, I’m stunned that so many people seem to like Bobbie Draper. From what I’ve seen halfway through season 2 of The Expanse, she’s a horrible person). The Admiral series by Sean Danker (which is really good, by the way) is set in a galactic empire where once again the vast majority of inhabitants live on some kind of universal basic income and the protagonist’s eagerness to escape that life is what sets the plot in motion. For a more positive view, the Federation in Star Trek clearly has some form of universal basic income, though we don’t learn how it works, because we know very little about what life is like for Federation citizens who are not members of Starfleet. Is there room for more? There always is and indeed, a less overtly dystopian examination of universal basic income would be a welcome change.
However, what annoys me about Lee Konstantinou’s article and plenty of other variations on “You’re doing science fiction wrong” is that these complaints inevitably want science fiction to address only the author’s pet topic and promote only the author’s pet cause. However, science fiction’s job is not to prepare us for living in the future, address income inequality and promote universal basic income, promote Socialism, Capitalism, Libertarianism or any other political movement, raise awareness of global warming and climate change, warn of the nuclear apocalypse, overcome non-binary gender, inspire young people to go into STEM careers lest the Nazis/Soviets/Chinese pull ahead of the Western world, etc… Science fiction can do all of those things and more and indeed, it often does them to great effect. But if someone just wants to write an adventure, a mystery or a love story in space or on a foreign planet or in a cool, neon-drenched cyberpunk future without any additional agenda, that perfectly fine as well. Science fiction’s primary purpose is to tell stories. Messages are great, but optional. Not to mention that a lot of readers and critics completely fail to notice messages that don’t concern them and/or confirm their worldview.
Now I consider myself a political person and my politics certainly seep into my writing. It would be impossible for them not to. But it annoys me if people insist that I should only write science fiction that fits whatever their agenda du jour is. Because my job is telling stories. It’s not promoting universal income, raising awareness of climate change (though I have written climate change stories), warning of the nuclear apocalypse (though again I have done this at least twice), telling people how they will live in the future, inspiring young people to go into STEM careers, etc… All these are fine and noble subjects for science fiction, but they’re not the only ones. And I will write whatever the hell I want.
Finally, I’d like to link to David Gerrold’s reaction to Lee Konstantinou’s article, shared by Chris M. Barkley in the comments at File 770. Because the man is right. Science fiction isn’t broken or dying, it’s doing just fine.
*Yes, “he” is the correct pronoun. I checked.
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Excellent article, Cora! Science fiction has been dying since the early 50s, at least…
I guess you’ve already seen several rounds of “science fiction is dying – again” at the Journey. It’s kind of depressing that we will still go through bouts of “science fiction is dying” 55 years on, though the positive thing is that this tells us that at least science fiction survived the intervening five and a half decades.
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I’m not certain this writer understands what the original writer’s intent was. Perhaps he’s attempting to suggest that SF is not “dying” so much as it’s lacking of imagination when writing about near-future scenarios incorporating the standard acoutraments. I personally find that there is a basic failure of current writers to suitably explore and fill in all aspects and extrapolations of their near futures, settling instead on the barest framework on which to attach their stories, or worse yet, “hand waving”, hoping the reader gives the author a pass. Whether it be a lack of imagination or just pure laziness, hoping that the reader (as unfairly and even deferentially implied in this writer’s response) won’t look too closely / peak behind the curtain / possess sufficient intelligence to discern, more than a few of today’s authors end up doing a disservice to their audience. There is also a trend as of late where authors not generally known to the SF genre readership (and who have written in other genres) are popping up, thinking maybe they might hook their wagons to the growing popularity of SF by whipping out any something utilizing the standard tropes but not the more rigorous vetting of same, all for the sake of telling a story, again hoping their readers aren’t sophisticated enough to discern the difference and therefore assuming all SF must be the same. More than a few of these efforts are embarrassing at best. Yes, perhaps the story ultimately does come 1st, but SF has always been a genre of the imagination and, much more often than not, with a purpose and message well beyond its entertainment value. So if SF is supposedly “dying” / breaking up into innumerable subgenres / not fitting into some critic’s self-imposed definition of said all-encompassing genre, perhaps it’s time to challenge its practitioners to go beyond their current efforts and recapture that original “sense of wonder”. I want to be challenged by my chosen genre, not insulted. I don’t – and I suspect most pure readers of the genre would agree – want to be talked down to and taken for granted. Having said that, there’s plenty of room for every manisfestation of the genre so us purists needn’t turn up our noses at the parts we don’t care for. Nor is it interesting to anyone but perhaps navel gazers to “punk out” the genre with scattershot labels. SF isn’t “dying”; like any other genre, it’s morphing and expanding. Yes, perhaps still falling back on some well-worn tropes, but maybe with a bit more rigor to fit its growing audience. I say viva la expansion!