My earliest literary loves were books that contained adventure. Sinbad’s voyages, Hercules’ labors, Jason and those Argonauts, journeys to the center of the Earth or to the bottom of the sea. The spirit of discovery, of adventure, of new frontiers that has been so pivotal for so much of human civilization. From vellum maps to Google Maps, from wondering what was up on the moon to actually going there.
I’ve found it a tad ironic, therefore, that so much of my published body of work cuts far closer to Wellsian pessimism than the odysseys of Verne. I generally dislike the stale binaries of that kind of thinking: the group-a-versus-group-b way of looking at the world. Nonetheless, there’s been an uptick of discussion in literary circles on the subject. Namely, the battle-cry for “hopepunk”, versus the defenders of “grimdark”.
Personally, I think social media is the worst development since the evolution of smallpox, but I find this discussion interesting, because it has very long roots. It’s a question I’ve asked myself. The sci-fi genre has certainly embraced the dystopias, trading the bright frontiers of say, Asimov, for a gleefully seedy, violent, and often ghastly outlook on tomorrow.
A recent Slate article on cyberpunk kicked off the latest round of debate in my circle. It’s a thoughtful and worthwhile read by Lee Konstantinou, with the thesis being that sci-fi has lingered too long in its cyberpunk (and therefore seedy, violent, often ghastly outlook) phase.
I don’t necessarily concur with the author’s opinion; after all, sci-fi spent at least as long in the “space is an adventurous frontier phase,” from the escapades of Northwest Smith to the cantinas of Tatooine. In fact, I suspect we’re about to see a whole lot more cyber and punks in the coming years
(hell, I have a story coming out soon in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show which is about junkpunks.) And I also don’t agree that this means “sci-fi is broken.”
But again, why cyberpunk? I think cyberpunk’s endurance owes to three things.
For starters, many of the subgenre’s themes are more than ever a part of our lives, which can’t be said for other flavors of sci-fi. We aren’t the interplanetary species that Clarke thought we’d be, and we aren’t the rational galactic society that Asimov wrote about (and holy shit, we aren’t even a rational society on one planet, let alone an entire galaxy) . Yet we really do seem to be hurtling towards cyberpunk as an actual reality. The “high-tech/low-life” concept is something we see every day, from sociopathic behavior on the Internet to virtual reality being actually here now to corporate conglomerates beginning to rival Gibson’s BAMA.
Secondly, cyberpunk has only recently gotten into mainstream consciousness. Sci-fi has known about it for more than three decades, sure, but The Matrix is more recent than that, and the Deus Ex games (and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077) are more recent still. Johnny Mnemonic and my guilty pleasure flick Hackers vanished too quickly to have any lasting impact on pop-culture, with Blade Runner being the only obvious exception.
Finally, I’m about to get political here (and tying back a little to my first point) but I think “hope” is not something our culture-at-large sees in daily life or near-future expectations. Hyperpartisan tribalism, lynch mob viciousness online, and emotional rhetoric being elevated far above rational discourse (across the political spectrum—the only thing worse than bothsideserism is when it’s true) makes dystopia seem all the more probable… even inevitable. There don’t seem to be cool, dispassionate heroes around us–rather, we see the opposite, and so cyberpunk’s themes of anarchy, nihilism, and tribalism strike a grimdark chord that’s hard to ignore. Black Mirror resonates today, because its worlds of possibility seem more like probability. Perhaps even inevitability.
So where does that leave us? I appreciate the trumpet call of so-called “hopepunk”. One of my many, many, many arguments against western religion is its giddy anticipation of the end of the world and there is a real danger of self-fulfilling prophecy (especially when many apocalyptophiles are the ones with their hands on society’s wheel); I can appreciate the concern of having a forward-thinking subgenre becoming too obsessed with mirrorshades, hackers, and mod-harvesting.
But I also don’t think such a shift in literary trends can or should be forced. Literature reflects society. Take a look at society. Look at our political scene, our president, our online behaviors, the proliferation of conspiracy theories and disinsformation and dishonest meme-and-video-sharing, the changing climate, the spread of everything from anti-vaxxers to flat earthers to magical thinking. Grimdark is all around us. Cyberpunk seems right down the road, our car hurtling downhill to meet it.
At the same time, I’ve seen a noticeable emergence of, well… let’s call it a defiance of all that. The Martian and Arrival and First Man featured the return of the science-as-hero idea (botany, linguistics, and astronautics, respectively) and there’s an awful lot of exciting sci-fi being published each year. Even Ten Thousand Thunders takes place after an apocalypse, in an era when civilization has rebuilt and achieved dazzling new heights of technology and promise.
What I expect is, once we’re through the current phase of cyberpunk, we’ll forge ahead to reflect the newest zeitgeist. Whether that zeitgeist contains hope is really up to us.