Cyberpunk, Hopepunk, and the Future

Is science fiction trapped in a rut from which it can’t escape?

Lee Konstantinou over at Slate sure thinks so. In his recent piece, he chronicles a brief history of the cyberpunk subgenre and the struggles of science fiction to find a new, forward-looking niche that packs the same punch.

Many options are on offer: solarpunk, mannerpunk, sharkpunk, and a variety of others. Konstantinou argues that none of these are poised to dislodge cyberpunk as the premier science fiction subgenre–which sucks, because cyberpunk is tired. No longer are there Neal Stephensons writing clever satires of it–instead, it simply satirizes itself.

The Slate piece is good for offering a survey of the alternatives on offer, and speculates as to why none of them have taken off, and what might help the new science fiction literary movements find their footing. But maybe there is more to it. Maybe we can’t escape cyberpunk because we’re living it, and we have yet to enjoy the benefits it promised, saddled instead with the nearly infinite downsides and drawbacks cyberpunk tried to warn us about.

The golden age of space adventures in science fiction was at the height of the Cold War, of which the space race between the United States and Russia was a key symbol. Humanity looked to the stars, and saw numerous possibilities. While terrestrial nations locked horns over who would control bits of turf–either physically, or ideologically–science fiction told us we’d look past these petty squabbles and establish lasting footholds in space. The future promised intelligent robots, faster-than-light spaceships, massive offworld colonies, glittering space stations, mind-bending adventures through time and space–and the list goes on. What space adventure accomplished for science fiction was the fusion of speculative settings and progressive futures, both of which reflected on the politics of their time to say: we’ll get over this.

That is a very broad summation, of course, and there was no shortage of apocalyptic stories set in space. But the possibility of escaping our Earthly dilemmas to draw a brighter future against the stars remained extremely attractive to the readers of the time, hoping for something better than a seemingly interminable Cold War (and a more positive ending than global nuclear annihilation).

Cyberpunk came to the fore in the 1980s, at a time when writers projected the rapidly advancing technology and runaway corporate greed of their era into a future of almost limitless digital technology and bottomless corporate abuse. Outer space gave way to cyberspace–a new frontier, but here on Earth. Cyberpunk understood better that human beings don’t change just because the scenery is different. A virtual reality controlled by the same forces that make physical reality intolerable won’t be much better.

In many ways, that is the future we’re living right now. A handful of companies dominate digital technology, recording our digital lives and turning them into products, using them to teach machines how we think, and what we want. Individual control is mostly illusory. Cyberpunk often imagined that cells of savvy digital rebels will be able to strike back against the formidable power of corporations–of “suits.” The reality of it is far different: everyone has heard of Wikileaks and 4chan and Anonymous, now the go-to suspects whenever digital security is compromised in a headline-grabbing way. And even though Wikileaks’ goal is to force government transparency through leaks of embarrassing and incriminating secrets, manipulations by governments and media organizations blunt the impact. Leakers are not heralded as heroes, but criminal villains. There also remains a massive market for black hat hacking: identity theft, credit card fraud, ransomware, and the list goes on. One could forgive the average person living in a high-tech for just being frustrated with it all. If Ukrainian hackers aren’t stealing your credit cards, Facebook is selling your personal data to companies you’ve never heard of, doing who-knows-what with it. There’s always the option to unplug, but at the expense of a social life, and being able to keep up with what’s going on in the world.

Space disappointed us–we still don’t live on the Moon, much less anywhere more distant–and now cyberpunk disappoints us, too. Corporate intrusion into our lives might be more tolerable if we could play out fulfilling lives in virtual reality, but the technology hasn’t gotten us there, yet. So, we have all the downsides cyberpunk warned us about–government surveillance, corporate abuse, vulnerability to exploitation by distant hackers, accumulation of too much data to ever properly deal with–and for our trouble, we’ve gained the ability to summon food and taxis wherever we are, and our video games look a lot better. Is that it?? Is that all we can have? If we have good, immersive VR in a few years, is that actually going to be satisfying at all?

Konstantinou offers 3 broad templates for post-cyberpunk settings:

None of these are satisfying. Changing out the window dressing is just that. Moving to a different time period is not much different, either. There is value to finding hope in the worst circumstances–but it is easy to slide into “pollyannaism,” to ignore the negative rather than face it head-on.

The key, then, is that the window dressing–the specific technologies, locales, and time periods–are not that important. They are aesthetic, not substance. The best science fiction does not focus on impressing you with its setting, but how elements of that setting influence the story, and most importantly, the people in the story.

It’s useful to think for a moment about who the next major movement in science fiction is supposed to appeal to. That would be people under 40: millennials, and iGeneration kids (now quickly becoming adults, for those keeping track). As an early millennial myself, I have seen the wreckage left behind by everything from the disintegration of the Soviet Union to the Bill Clinton scandals to the dotcom crash to 911 to the financial crisis to Donald Trump, the broader rise of global fascism that he represents. Oh, and a tiny little problem called “climate change.” I have seen my generation constantly mocked and ridiculed by the people who made this world a shambles, while we’re offered no tools to fix it. Those just entering adulthood now are, perhaps surprisingly, exuding a degree of hopefulness and political awareness that is, to me at least, very heartening.

What does this mean for science fiction? I think, for starters, it means that nihilism and cynicism are out. This does not mean stories in which bad things don’t happen, or in which nobody has a dismal perspective on life. It does mean avoiding hopelessness, of finding destinations other than misery and annihilation. The proliferation of “grimdark” storytelling, in which everyone has a tragic past and the depths of human depravity are just what you explore between lunchtime and your afternoon snack, is said to have produced “hopepunk” as a reaction. Certainly, I have seen no shortage of people complaining about excessively “dark” storytelling. But it’s useful to know where the mentality came from, too.

In the context of American pop culture, an unreasonable degree of positivity and squeaky-clean imagery dominated the post-WW2 landscape. Books, movies, and TV shows were mostly uplifting affairs, and tended to present lily white nuclear families who easily resolved their problems. Deviation from white Christian heterosexual norms was uncommon, especially in anything meant for mass consumption. Science fiction, as a comparatively minor niche at the time, was freer to explore the boundaries–of gender, of religion, of sexuality, of culture. A lot fewer people read it, so it was able to survive in the shadows, away from the cleansing light of mainstream attention.

This willingness to push the envelope–not just coming out of science fiction, mind you, but growing out of many cultural forces including the ‘60s counterculture–eventually penetrated television and film, truly taking off in the 1980s with serialized TV shows that tried to treat their subjects honestly, and show America more than a Leave it to Beaver stereotype. These trends paved the way for a genre explosion that would begin in the mid 1990s and which continues now.

That is, booms in comic books and video games–both of which being popular media for those inclined to consuming science fiction stories–really took things mainstream. What science fiction in pop culture struggled to do was catch up with the mainstream culture in a variety of areas. While science fiction has often been ahead of the curve when it comes to technology and its implications for society, it has lagged behind on cultural trends. To be blunt: too many white, male, heterosexual heroes who solve problems through violence. The point is not that such stories are bad–they aren’t necessarily better or worse than any other. It’s just that if they are the main type of story on offer, they crowd out countless other possibilities, and that’s a shame.

To the extent such stories evolved into the “grimdark” trend now often complained about, we should remember that threads of this trend are quite old, stretching back to ‘70s exploitation films at the very least, eventually worming their way into comic books and other genre media (like video games and books). It’s hard to say exactly what triggered the “grimdark” boom as a pop cultural force–too many forces, from 911 to organic trend growth (more begets more) to discomfort induced by shifting cultural attitudes, were likely involved. But it proved popular, and so it grew, and in many ways it has been compatible with cyberpunk, in its ability to harness cynicism and despair.

Perhaps I have meandered too much, as usual, but let me pull it together here: cyberpunk, despite the dark futures it has often portrayed, always displayed rays of hope. Who are the heroes of cyberpunk stories? People fighting “the system”–because there is the stubborn belief that the system can be beaten, that the little people can win against the odds. Even when they can’t smash the oppressive state or corporation altogether, they can at least eke out a little slice of freedom, and find the possibility of something better. In that sense, “hopepunk” is not the least bit radical or revolutionary–it is simply the rediscovery of what the “grimdark” trend tended to bury: that good people can win, and that the world can be better, no matter how bad it might seem at the moment.

But it is not enough to hope. It matters both what is hoped for, and that that hope becomes action. “Hopepunk,” as a vaguely-defined neologism, neglects both of these tenets, which suggests it will not endure. But I do hope (ha!) that it will successfully plant the seeds for what comes after it, for a post-cyberpunk movement that remembers that what matters about science fiction is not the technology, time, or place. What matters is having a point-of-view, of having something worthwhile to say about the human condition, as well as our present circumstances. It has to give us something to look forward to, and it has to remind us that building a better future often means facing down the worst that humanity has to offer. It also means offering a future that isn’t just straight, gender-normative, able-bodied, neurotypical white people using those qualities to save the day. Humanity is vast, and science fiction is nothing if not imaginative. If we cannot imagine futures where we let the best of ourselves shine through, if we cannot conceive of a world that meaningfully includes and dignifies all people, and if we cannot envision saving the world and ourselves from the greatest threats imaginable, then what we have is neither “hope” nor “punk,” but just more of the same.