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I’ve been away from blogging for a while. A few years, in fact. And I’m not entirely sure that I want to get back into it. So why am I writing this at all? I’ve discovered that, more than anything else, I lack writing discipline. I’m hoping that I can make this blog a place to practice the discipline of regular writing.

Also, I’ve discovered that my area of academic interest (urban studies and discourses of futurity with a particular emphasis on the revitalization of Detroit) is burning me out a bit. And since academics who work in the humanities have to be flexible and take on multiple sites of study, I’m using this as a place to practice my secondary interest: fantasy/SF studies and gaming/gamification studies.

We’ll see if it will take hold this time… I’ve started and stopped here multiple times. Let’s see if I’ve got the discipline to make it stick.

So, I’m going to try to make this blog all about fantasy/SF/gaming as a place to take a break from urban revitalization discourse analysis. I’ll try not to go off on urban studies tangents.* But I will be digressing into my thoughts on grad school from time-to-time.

Share and enjoy!

 

 

*I’ll also try not to write about my dogs.

Every time I go to a bookstore, I am confronted by the overwhelming number of books that seem to be trying to capitalize on the simultaneous success of Twilight and Urban Fantasy. You know the books I am talking about: the covers always feature a young woman, usually with fiery red hair, and she carries a sword (or a crossbow, or an impossibly large axe, or something). She typically is shown at such an angle that you can see her outfit leaves part of her back exposed, and she has some kind of tattoo on her back. And the book summary is some variation on the following: “Rhiannon has a problem. She just found out that she is the last in a long-line of demon hunters. To make things worse, the love of her life, grey-eyed Brandon, is a demon. Now she must choose where her loyalties lie: with the man she’s loved her whole life, or with her family!”

Of course, the tendency to churn out derivative, hack material is not unique to fantasy, nor is it new to fantasy. I remember fantasy in the ‘80s. If it didn’t involve a quest through misty moors to reclaim (or destroy) an object of power before the Black Mage/Dark Father/Evil Overlord could get his hands on it, then it wasn’t really fantasy. Elves who were enlightened forest dwellers and dwarves with big, honking axes were nearly a requirement. Much of ‘70s and ‘80s fantasy was simply riffing on Tolkien.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Publishing is an industry, and the point of industry is to mass-produce widgets. Those widgets are essentially all the same, with minor tweaks rather than actual system-wide variations. Sneakers are a great example: there really isn’t much of a difference between Adidas, Nikes, and Reebok shoes except for the “cool” factor (and that is always shifting). The publishing industry saw “epic fantasy” as a cash cow in the ‘80s. Urban Fantasy aimed at tweens and teens is the cash cow now.

But when I think about this, it does bother me on a deep level. The issue is the word “fantasy.” When I look up the word, I always get something that describes “fantasy” as “imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained; the forming of mental images, especially wondrous or strange fancies.” Extravagant and unrestrained imagination? That is hardly what one sees on the shelves in a bookstore. Instead, we find derivative riffing on a few central ideas.

I can anticipate an argument to this complaint: fantasy is built on a few mythic archetypes, so of course there will be some similarities. This is an interesting and often-used argument. After all, Papa Tolkien is the writer that is most often taken as a model, and Tolkien was a scholar of mythic and epic literature. However, Tolkien did not actually recycle the structure of epic and mythic literature texts. He took elements of their feel. For example, there is nothing in The Lord of the Rings that is reminiscent of the plot structure of Beowulf or The Saga of the Volsungs. Instead, he took aesthetic elements and even specific plot points from these texts. (Bilbo woke Smaug the Dragon by stealing a cup from his treasure hoard; in Beowulf, an ancient dragon is awakened when a thief steals a cup from the dragon’s hoard.) At no point do the derivative epic fantasies take on the structure of The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, or even the later attempts to recreate the epic form such as Layamon’s Brut. So please, stop trying to claim a mythic tradition for fantasy that isn’t there.

Fantasy should be the most open and creative of genres, but it seems that what we get is endless repetition of whatever sells well at the moment. This is the nature of capitalist production: when something succeeds, repeat the success. Repeat until it fails, and then move on to something new. But even within this paradigm, there should be opportunities for creativity.

This argument isn’t as forceful as it would have been twenty or thirty years ago, as Fantasy has opened itself up. Books like Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, or even Sanderson’s Mistborn series have shown that fantasy has some range, and they certainly wouldn’t have found success in the Epic ‘80s. And there really never was a time when fantasy was a completely “closed shop.” Even in the darkest days of Tolkien-copying, Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and Holdstock’s Mythago Wood were demonstrating that Fantasy could encourage real imaginative play. But publishing is a business, and it is out to make money. If Tolkien copies make money, that is what will get published. Businessmen are not in the business of encouraging creativity unless it will help the Bottom Line.

The publishing industry is entirely willing to keep publishing minor variations on the books that sell. But Fantasy is big enough as a genre that there actually is a lot of room out there for creativity to find an outlet. We fantasy readers need to be willing to demand creativity; if we demand it, we will get it. As fantasy readers, we need to fight against complacency. You don’t have to accept yet another story about an orphaned farm-boy who must discover his true destiny in order to defeat the Black Mage before he can find the Seven Mystic Keys of Fentoozler and enslave the world. You don’t have to accept yet another story about a young woman who must choose between her job as a vampire hunter/demon killer/dragon slayer and her boyfriend who is a vampire/demon/half-dragon. I’m all for the occasional guilty pleasure in my fantasy reading, and I will keep reading epics. But I used to read things I didn’t completely enjoy, simply because I thought that, in the Fantasy genre, I had no choice but to accept the limited output there seemed to be. Fantasy is more than a formula; unless you enjoy the formula, don’t accept it.

And whatever you do, don’t accept any more stories about sparkling vampires. Vampires don’t sparkle.

Many subcultures come and go, contributing little to the long-term arc of society. (When is the last time you saw a pompadour-sporting greaser outside the touring company of Grease?) Other subcultures pass on elements of their aesthetic or mode of representation to newer forms: the beatniks gave up some of their identity to the hippies, and Punk style has been incorporated into many subsequent movements. And occasionally, styles remain mostly unchanged for prolonged periods. I never thought that Goth would last as long as it has; despite some changes Goth has experienced, it is fundamentally the same subculture today as it was in the early ‘80s.

There is one subculture, or perhaps sub-subculture, that has drawn my attention recently for its durability: Steampunk. Its origins are wide-ranging and contentious, but the coinage of the term (and thus, the start of a definable subculture) dates to the often-cited April 1987 letter K. W. Jeter wrote to Locus magazine where he referred to the small circle of writers working in Victorian retro-futurism as “Steampunks.” But three people does not a subculture make, and soon related writers, artists, designers, and musicians were exploring a Victorian retro-futurist aesthetic.

This puts Steampunk at an official age of twenty-five. That is a long time to exist in sub-cultural terms. Hippie culture was on the wane after the chaos of Altamont and the grisly Tate/LaBianca murders; even a generous estimate would give the Hippies (formally) only a decade. Punk was declared dead as early as 1979, and Post-Punk took over. Punk as a style experienced renaissance and resurgence movements as well as exerting a strong influence on later subcultures, but Punk as a unified subculture didn’t make it past a decade. Kerouac first coined “the Beat generation” in 1948, but by the late ‘50s it had been co-opted and turned into the mass-culture “beatnik,” a term that many of the Beats themselves explicitly rejected. Putting Steampunk up against these other subcultures shows its longevity. Of the major Western post-war subcultures I’ve looked at so far, only Goth has lasted longer than Steampunk: Goth is now thirty years old.

I am not ready to try my hand at final definitive explanations of Steampunk’s longevity. But I think a few things might be worth exploring:

1. Steampunk flew under the radar: For a very long time, Steampunk was a geeky, minority sub-subculture, located simply within SF conventions and role playing games. It existed even before the term was coined, and many Steampunks enjoy finding works that participate in the aesthetic but predate the term itself. But the ‘90s saw a few significant events. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling released The Difference Engine, FOX released the cult television show The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., and in the late ‘90s Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill released the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Gibson, of course, was a SF writer with mainstream appeal; Brisco County starred Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead semi-fame, bringing semi-celebrity status to the subculture; and graphic novels were riding high the tide of mass-culture respectability. People who might have never picked up a Steampunk novel found an entry point to the aesthetic in a graphic novel by Alan Moore.

But by the time these major works were released and the public was starting to get clued in to Steampunk, it had been gestating in the geek community for a long time. Geeks had been playing games like Space: 1889, reading books like Moorcock’s Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy, and generally enjoying the aesthetic possibilities Steampunk offered. Mass-culture attention often kills subcultures in their infancy, but Steampunk had been allowed to grow up without mainstream media attention. Even though The Difference Engine was released in 1990, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen wasn’t released until 1999. The ’90s saw a slow build mainstream awareness of Steampunk, and that allowed the subculture to avoid scrutiny during its awkward early years.

2. Steampunk is resistant to co-optation: I neither want to lionize Steampunk as a bastion of “authenticity” (whatever that actually is) nor condemn capitalist culture for the tendency to co-opt subcultures. That is another argument. But the cultural narrative exists: when mass culture co-opts a community and sells it back, it becomes “inauthentic.” (When something goes on sale at Hot Topic, the early adopters that drive “cool” have already moved on to something else.) I am old enough to remember the way Cyberpunk got co-opted. Billy Idol’s atrocious Cyberpunk album is just one example: “cyberpunk” as a label was attached to games, sunglasses, even jeans. By that point, whatever made Cyberpunk what it was had been emptied out and turned into a product.

Steampunk, however, seems to resist that drive to co-opt. In part, that is the nature of the community. For example, many people probably could charge an arm and a leg for the ubiquitous Steampunk fashion item of the brass goggles. But rather than mass produce them and sell them at a profit, most Steampunk fans would rather post their free videos and free blogs about how to make brass goggles yourself at home. Most Steampunks take their home-made costumes as a point of pride. It doesn’t matter if the costume doesn’t look the best as long as it was made by the person wearing it. Steampunks love to share information about how to improve costumes and props, and they do so for free.

But on top of all of that, a community that mixes Victorian aesthetics with a DIY mentality and an off-beat, subversive sense of humor just doesn’t sit well as something that can be mass-produced. The entire aesthetic goal of Steampunk is to resist mass-produced culture. It eludes co-optation by its very nature. (This is not to say that it can never be marketed. But mainstream mass culture has not yet figured out how to do it. Every time mass culture tries to market Steampunk, it fails: does anyone remember Wild Wild West? It made some money, but it was generally disliked by Steampunk fans and movie critics alike. The closest Hollywood has ever gotten to nailing Steampunk was in Sherlock Holmes.)

3. Steampunk is multiple: Unlike many subcultures that are highly unified, at least in some aspects of their aesthetic or ideology, Steampunk is highly varied. There is Steampunk literature, Steampunk music, and Steampunk fashion. There are games, conventions, and manga. But there is really no one “flavor” of Steampunk within any of these: some Steampunk is very faithful to Victorian history and culture with only semi-plausible changes to technology, while other Steampunk is set in a secondary world, involves magic, posits substantial changes to world history, or even entirely different laws of physics (such as the luminiferous aether).

There are Steampunk novels with dwarves and elves, Steampunk with rigorous technological extrapolation, and Steampunk with wizards in London, etc. There is no single, definable Steampunk culture. And, what is more, Steampunks themselves seem very tolerant of those who are not like themselves. While many subcultures strive for orthodoxy and worry about “poseurs,” Steampunk is unusually welcoming.*

Steampunk looks as if it might be poised to be a long-term cultural phenomenon. Of course, it is when people like me make these kinds of pronouncements that cultures seem to suddenly die. I hope to see Steampunk continue to grow and evolve, and look forward to its continued vitality.

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*Steampunk’s ideological and aesthetic cousin, Dieselpunk, is similarly welcoming.

(Note: For the few of you who have been following my blog, I apologize for the absence. Graduate school can be rough on the schedule sometimes. Thanks for coming back!)

 

Science fiction seems to be a dominant mode of expression in modern American culture. Eight of the twenty top-selling Xbox 360 games are science fiction titles. Four of the top twenty grossing films of all time are SF, and if we add the closely-allied genres of fantasy and super-hero films into that list, it balloons to thirteen. Either way you choose to look at it, the top-grossing movie ever, Avatar, is a SF film. In most brick-and-mortar bookstores, SF sells only slightly behind Romance as the dominant genre. Two of America’s most beloved franchise properties, Star Trek and Star Wars, are SF.*

But we also live in Science Fiction. In the ‘80s, I read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at least once a year, and the idea of a technological device that had all of the knowledge of the universe in the palm of your hand seemed beyond imagining. Now, the only thing that separates an iPad from the Hitchhiker’s Guide is that the iPad doesn’t have the words “Don’t Panic” in large, friendly letters on its cover.**

These are only a few reasons why SF matters. And this is where my English Teacher instincts kick in. When we teach books, we should choose books that speak to our students. And I can think of no better way to reach (some) students than through SF.***

 

Reason #1: SF isn’t really about the future. I have argued this before, and I will keep arguing it. SF is usually not about predicting things, at least most of the time. Instead, Science Fiction is about the author’s understanding of the immediate historical moment, but set outside of the political and social arguments of the historical moment. It allows the author to make a statement about our cultural moment without polarizing the audience. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly wasn’t about the future: it was about the Nixon-era drug war, just as one example.

As a result, SF lets us discuss big ideas without worrying about our immediate cultural, political, or religious climate. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often cited as the first SF text. If it is (and I’m not 100% convinced), it wasn’t an attempt to predict a time when scientists could piece together a living being from dead body parts. It was a meditation on one of the great ideas of literature: does the creator “owe” anything to the creation? This allows us to discuss some of the most interesting ideas in the history of philosophical thought. It also allows us to consider issues of emerging importance: bio-ethics (genetically modified animals, plants, and possibly humans); artificial intelligence (what is humanity’s responsibility to any AI that emerges?); and relationships with the “other” (racial, social, sexual, etc.).

 

Reason #2: SF “expands the circle” of the human: This is an idea that I am taking from Professor Michael D. C. Drout’s audiobook lecture From Here to Infinity (and if I remember correctly, he borrowed the idea as well). SF allows us to see humanity in a variety of places. If we can see the humanity in C-3PO or in a rogue AI that simply wants to be given respect as a thinking being, then it should be much easier for us to see the humanity in the “others” who live right next to us. SF encourages us to see that all living beings have basic dignity. If we can learn to love a Klingon, why can’t we learn to love the person of another race or a different sexual orientation?

 

Reason #3: SF is the only genre that really deals with technology’s role in human life: In most forms of literature, technology is “just stuff.” Rarely does mainstream literature deal with technology in any significant way, except as a prop. Even when technology plays a role (the high-tech equipment in a techno-thriller, for example), it is either used as a neutral object (it is just there to help the characters) or it is a “gee whizz” technology. (“Look at how cool this is!”) As SF/Fantasy writer Marshall Maresca has pointed out to me several times, CSI frequently uses the “Enhance the picture!” technological nonsense (no one can do with images what they do in that show). But never once does anyone in a Tom Clancy novel or on CSI worry about how our society is being changed by those technologies.

But our society does change every time a new technology takes hold. We are not the same culture now that we were before recorded music, before television, before antibiotics, or before the internet. Technology changes us deeply and fundamentally. Romance fiction doesn’t explore that. Neither does the (inappropriately-named) Techno-Thriller genre. Only SF really deals with that. Look at any novel by Asimov, Gibson, Clarke, Dick, etc. They explore how technologies change what it means to be human, or what it means to live in the cultures we live in. Asimov’s robots ask us what it means to be alive. Clarke’s fiction asks us what it means to be human when death is abolished. Gibson asks what it means to live in a world where all of history is compressed into a single, constantly changing technological “present.” Dick asks what it means to be an individual in a society where memories can be altered, pasts can be erased, and civilizations can be created almost out of thin air.

I once had a professor who argued, as many literature professors do, that the value of literature is that it asks us to put ourselves into the place of another, and to contemplate that other’s “humanity.” But technology is one of the things that makes us who and what we are, every moment. To contemplate the humanity of the “other” and NOT consider technology’s role in the other’s life is to get an incomplete picture of humanity. SF is the only genre to completely consider that important piece of humanity: what we build goes a long way to making us what we are.

 

This list could go on much longer. SF is important because it is fun to read (or watch). SF is important because it makes money. There are many more reasons. But these are, I think, the most important—and the most-often taken for granted. But what about you? Do you have reasons that you think I should have included?

 

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*I actually don’t think that Star Wars is SF, but rather mythic fantasy with SF window-dressing. But the fact that it takes on SF characteristics still supports my argument.

**Of course, many of the cooler fans have put “Don’t Panic” stickers on their iPads or Kindle Fires. I have done neither, because I own neither. Yet. If someone wants to send me one, I’d be perfectly happy with that….

***No two students are alike, and your mileage may vary. Personally, I’ve only ever had two students who have revolted at the idea of SF, and both of those students were fundamentalist Christians who found SF to be incompatible with their belief systems.

I think a lot about geekdom. And since my previous blog (on music geekery), I’ve had a few people engage me in what “geek” actually means. While I’m not a fan of citing Wikipedia, the “geek” page seems to indicate that one of the elements of geekery is a hyper-focus on detail or a willingness to obsess about things. Lars Konzack of Aalborg University, in his paper “Geek Culture: the 3rd Counter Culture”, doesn’t really answer the question but does suggest that the modern educational system that extends well into adulthood creates a culture of experts with specialized knowledge. CNN Living asked, “Are You a Nerd or a Geek?” The pages seem to suggest that being a geek is all about your way of dealing with the wider world, specifically a fascination with information. If you obsess over details, offer your opinion even when it is not asked for, and willingly engage in lively exchanges and intense friendships with others who share your obsession, then you are probably a geek.

But in today’s world of massive informational access (overload?), aren’t we all geeks now? What is the difference between a person who knows every single detail about, say, The Lord of the Rings and a person who knows the names, point standings, and crew of every single NASCAR driver? If someone can obsessively rattle off the names of every producer that Rush, Steely Dan, or Tom Waits ever worked with, what makes that person less socially valuable than the person who can rattle off the statistics of every player for the Atlanta Braves for the last ten years? And gaming has entered the mainstream: I used to be mocked for my devotion to video games, role-playing games, and simulations. My son, on the other hand, was given an Xbox a few years back because NOT playing video games made him a bit of an outcast. And the people who used to mock DnD players are often now obsessive participants in Fantasy Football leagues.

Part of the modern geek culture, I would argue, comes from the easy access we have to information; this same access wasn’t possible twenty or thirty years ago. In the darkest days of geek-prejudice, we geeks banded together because we knew something. We had areas of expertise. We were unlikely to be popular, we typically weren’t terribly athletic, and most of us… well, my group of friends wasn’t going to be gracing the cover of magazines in our youth. If we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the herd, we needed to find areas of obsessive expertise. I found music and history, some of my friends found physics and math, others found film, comics, SF TV shows, or any number of other areas of knowledge.

But today, the depth of knowledge that geeks had some kind of lock on is available to everyone. The easy access to information that our modern technocratic economy has created has made it possible to have obsessive knowledge about everything: knitting, golf, dog grooming, or zombies, whatever your interest… you can show an obsessive level of expertise simply by pulling out your smart phone and surfing for a few minutes.

Most definitions of geekery also suggest that geeks lack basic social graces. We obsess at the drop of a hat. While this might separate the music-geek from the baseball fan, I think that this wall is coming down as well. In the modern era of Twitter-sharing and Facebook transparency, we all feel as if our opinions are wanted and valued by everyone. Hey, let me tell you what I think about The Phantom Menace for the next five hours… and don’t forget to read my tweet about the tuna sandwich I just ate!

(Note: Just look at the act I am currently engaged in. I am blasting out my opinion to dozens of people, many of whom I either don’t know or only know vaguely. And we reward that kind of opinionated transparency. We friend people, follow Twitter feeds, and feel connected to them based more on the quantity of their posts, tweets, and status updates than the quality of the same. The best and yet worst advice anyone ever gave me about blogging: post regularly, even if you have nothing to say. Doesn’t that remind you of the geeky kid in high school who would engage any passerby in a long harangue about the superiority of Shadowrun over Battletech? It doesn’t matter that people don’t care… he just needed someone to listen. How is blogging, or tweeting for that matter, different? We all want someone to just listen. And most geeks, I suspect, feel as if we aren’t being heard.)

We are all geeks now. We carry around a lot of information in our heads, and we have access to even more through the fifty million screens we interact with every day. Embrace it, and live it. You probably are living it already, even if you don’t know it.

And I promise, if you tweet, I will read it. As long as you read mine. It will probably be about Shadowrun.

I can’t help but get the feeling that kids today have a different relationship to music than I did in High School. This is NOT going to be a “what’s wrong with kids today?” whine-fest. I despise those. I’m not complaining about the difference, but there is a difference. It isn’t good, it isn’t bad. The texture of life is different now than it was back then, so the experiences we had in the ‘80s (or ‘70s, ‘60s, and ‘50s, for that matter) are different from what people are having now. And one of the key places I see it is in music.

When I was growing up, I had a hard time finding people whose musical tastes were in line with mine. I dug The Buzzcocks, The Dead Kennedys, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. But more than any of them, I loved Joy Division. And in my late-‘80s affluent suburban high school, there weren’t many Joy Division fans. The few kids that I knew who had similar musical obsessions tended to get irritated by the way in which I expressed my own obsessions, so I parted ways with them.

In order to find music that I enjoyed, I had to travel by bus (as I had no car and no license) to get to a hole-in-the-wall record store downtown that always smelled vaguely bad and was the only place where I was ever hit by a genuine wave of claustrophobia. And I had to deal with the classic record store employees: the know-it-all who drips with condescension as he informs you that he doesn’t have the record you are looking for; the slightly disjointed young man who treats every record as if it were sick child, in need of constant care; and, importantly for me, The Sage who was willing to bestow vinyl on just the right acolyte. It was from The Sage that I first received Joy Division’s Warsaw demo (on a crappy tape, not vinyl), and it changed me. I get hit with an almost unbearable nostalgia every time I hear any of the songs on that recording. They aren’t the best. In fact, it’s not really a great set of songs. But it changed the way I look at music.

And that, more than anything, is what has changed. The Warsaw demo wasn’t that great, but I had been let into someone’s inner circle. I had to hunt and pick, proving to The Sage that I “deserved” the demo. I didn’t know much music, but the music I knew was intensely analyzed, scrutinized, and deconstructed. My musical knowledge was a mile deep, but an inch wide. Young people today display the opposite: knowledge that is an inch deep, but a mile wide. I don’t know which is better. I don’t know if one has to be better than the other, but they are different experiences. Someone who wants the Warsaw demo now can just go to Amazon and order it. It will get to you in a couple of weeks. No need to cultivate a relationship with the guy who smells vaguely like burning rope, no need to get verbally abused by the weasely guy behind a record store counter. Music is available in ways that have eliminated the hunt and the search. All that you need to do now to get access to entire worlds of music you’ve never heard before is know a web address.

My son is fifteen, and for a long time he was not a huge music lover. He has been forced into very catholic tastes, as he used to listen to psych folk with me, punk and early alternative with his step-mother, polka and big band swing with his grandfather, praise music with his grandmother, and country with his mother. He enjoys music when it is on, and has taken to listening to music in order to fall asleep (something I remember doing all the time, but couldn’t do today). I gave him my fully-loaded mp3 player, and he went from listening to whatever was on to having definite tastes overnight. He didn’t need to pick through old record bins, network with weird guys in a downtown hole-in-the-wall shop, or read fanzines. Whole worlds of music (specialized worlds, but worlds nonetheless) were given to him, fully formed.

One day recently, we were driving somewhere, and my son said, “Dad, I like that Brian Eno stuff, but I’d like something a bit more… I don’t know… rockin’, I guess. Any suggestions?”

I wanted to say, “Nope. Find it yourself.” But that was just an old man being spiteful.

“Look for David Bowie’s Low. I think you’ll like it.” It took me years of searching to run into something as perfect as Low. And after years of searching for something like it, I came to treasure it. And now, with my son asking me just the right question, I had become The Sage. But Low probably isn’t going to change his life, the way Warsaw changed mine. He is going to search the Internet for the album, hopefully not download it illegally, and then move on to something else. But, I guess, that is what kids do. And that is, as they say, what it is.

I can’t map my experience onto his: he has to be allowed to have his own experiences and make his own way, particularly with something as intensely personal as music. Technology has changed how we deal with music. The record store is gone, and maybe that is a good thing. People have easy access to things that they never would have had access to before. Just a few minutes ago I heard Trader Horne, a band I hadn’t heard in years. I heard them on Last.fm, and decided to switch over to the Trader Horne station. In rapid succession, I heard Wooden Horse, Fotheringay, Dr. Strangely Strange, and Fresh Maggots. But since discovering these bands (all since the public availability of the Internet), none of them has made the same impact on me that Joy Division did back then. I found them without the hunt. I stumbled onto them, and that made a difference for the worse.

The Internet has allowed everyone to have The Sage and the Contemptuous Know-It-All in our homes. The hunt isn’t as exciting when it can be done at the same time as cooking a Hot Pocket. But I can’t help feeling a little bit of jealousy every time my son says, “So, Dad… Fairport Convention is pretty awesome, huh?” Yes, they are. And you get to grow up listening to them.

Damnit.

Science fiction is often thought of as being a “predictive” or prophetic genre. H.G. Wells is hailed as a prophet for the many predictions he made, and Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century is remarkably accurate in some of its predictions. Gibson’s Neuromancer is seen by some as being a prophetic imagining of the Internet, and when 2001 came and went, 2001: A Space Odyssey was retroactively criticized by some for failing to be accurate. A common trope among stand-up comics is, “It’s the 21st Century… where’s my flying car?”

Both the lionizing of Gibson, Verne, and Wells as visionaries and the criticism of our lack of airborne automobiles is inappropriate. It is not only unfair, but these investigations of SF miss the point. SF is often not about predicting the future. It is instead about understanding the present moment, and doing so in such a way that allows us to step outside of politics and social restrictions. Neuromancer, for example, was less about predicting the future than it was exploring the changes that technology was bringing to the historical moment in which it was written. The book engages a very mid-1980s concern with the rise of Japan as an economic power, for example: Neuromancer opens on an expatriate community in Japan, and explores the fractured multiculturalism of the global economy. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly was less about predicting a future drug that would cause split personalities to emerge than it was examining the emerging rhetoric of a “drug war” and the impact that was having on society; those issues were very pressing to a post-Nixon, “War On Drugs” America. And Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is very rooted in immediate, real-world concerns about peak oil and the dead dinosaur energy economy as well as the emergence of bioterrorism, private armies, and economic warfare in a way that creates a neocolonial atmosphere.

In fact, I would argue that the “predictive power” of SF is, at best, a happy accident. And at its worst, the heavy-handed attempt at prophecy is an annoying distraction from the story being told. If I want prophecy, I will read Ray Kurzweil, Peter Newman, or Peter Schwartz. It isn’t that SF writers should be forbidden from trying to predict events. But rather, we as the audience must understand that SF writers are presenting a vision. It might play out, and it might not, but in many cases that predictive vision is not relevant to the story that they are telling us! Because authors are located in their historical moment, they cannot help but comment in some way upon their immediate historical context. And it is that comment that is more important. Gibson’s work was concerned with the intersections consumerism, technology, and everyday culture; Dick’s work was concerned with identity, surveillance, and freedom; Heinlein’s work was concerned with how advances in technology make new cultural modes of organization necessary. For all of them, discussion of “the future” was always meant to cast our thoughts back to the present. They were prophets not in the predictive sense, but in the sense it occurs in the Abrahamic religious traditions. In that sense, a “prophet” is a person who carries a message for people to listen to. It might be a warning of future events, but it might be a message that is meant to guide people here-and-now.

Prophets are in a dangerous line of work. Authors write the stories that speak to people, and prophets often fail to speak to people. When prophets are wrong, we call them fools and cast them aside. When prophets are right a few times too many, we start to get suspicious. No one listens to Cassandra, and professional writers want an audience. SF authors aren’t in the business of making predictions as much as they are capturing the ever-present “now” in ways that guide us toward the future while simultaneously illuminating our current condition. But they are on the very leading edge of that “now,” and they are pulling the rest of us along with them. If SF is prophetic, it is so in the sense that life as it is right now is not how it could be. SF authors are not predicting the future; they are reminding us that the present is not living up to the promises of the past.

On my nearest bookshelf, I have some excellent Science Fiction anthologies. At just a quick glance, I see the ParaSpheres anthology; Feeling Very Strange, the “slipstream” anthology; two anthologies on cyberpunk (Mirrorshades and Storming the Reality Studio); two anthologies devoted to “new wave fabulism” (whatever that actually is); Rewired, the post-cyberpunk anthology; two anthologies of steampunk; and two anthologies of “the new weird.” Each anthology contains some excellent pieces, some that I could live without, and some that I will never read again.

A good number of the texts could fit within a broad definition of SF, sure. But some of them could also fit in a broad definition of Fantasy. And a few of the texts seem a bit out of place in SF anthologies at all, unless we really stretch the definition. For example, the anthology Storming the Reality Studio includes a brief excerpt from Don DeLillo’s White Noise. DeLillo’s work is excellent, and certainly expresses the fractured nature of technocratic Modernity. It fit in well with the “fifteen minutes into the future” idea that the anthology seemed to be reaching for. But is it really Science Fiction? DeLillo is SF (and cyberpunk) only if you want to argue that we are living today, this very moment, in a SF world. (I think that argument could be made, but it is outside of my larger point.) To call DeLillo a “Science Fiction” writer is to really stretch the term to a breaking point. On the other hand, I have little problem with Gibson’s Zero History, Sterling’s The Zenith Angle, Stephenson’s Reamde, or Doctorow’s Little Brother being placed in the Science Fiction section of my local library, despite the fact that none of them ever involve alien technology, time travel, cybernetics, or any other common trope of SF. So why does DeLillo not belong?

How do we define Science Fiction? When we define a genre, we include some things and exclude others; who we include and exclude can, on a first glance, seem nonsensical. For example, look at the novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. In Jurassic Park, genetically recreated dinosaurs go on a rampage. The dinosaurs are created through scientific means that are semi-scientifically possible, and there is some narrative hand-waving to misdirect us from the bits that are impossible. It examines science in a semi-plausible way, but also manages to make science, scientists, and theory interesting. It is SF. Why is this book never stocked as such in the few brick-and-mortar stores that remain?

Cryptonomicon, on the other hand, dealt with the world as it was when it was written, with two other storylines that took us back to WWII. There was no significant hand-waving, and (from what I remember) nothing that was scientifically impossible in the year it was written. (Full disclosure: I am not a scientist, nor am I a computer guru. I am relying on those who are to confirm that everything in Cryptonomicon was, at least in theory, possible with no hand-waving. Other than Enoch Root being, possibly, the same Enoch Root who appears in The Baroque Cycle.) In fact, Cryptonomicon had more in common with a techno-thriller written by Tom Clancy than with SF.  So why is Jurassic Park stocked in “Fiction” and Cryptonomicon stocked in “Science Fiction” in my local bookstore? And, more to the point, why do I have a gut-feeling that, at the end of the day, these classifications are all right?

I don’t have a good answer to the question of shelving practices and genres. But the question returns to SF. How do we define it? What is it? I’m not going to touch that question directly, at least not here. SF is too deeply contested a genre for me to want to step on that particular land mine. Instead, for the purposes of this problem, I think it comes down to the issue of discourse conventions. Interpretive communities use not only language but also style in ways that mark them as being “insiders” in a group; SF, fantasy, NASCAR, and MMA fighting all have their own discourse conventions. (I do understand that the term “discourse convention” more properly belongs in academic discussion, but it is also relevant to issues of mass culture.) These conventions are often so internalized that they become invisible, and we think of them as “natural.” Of course, they are anything but natural. The discourse conventions come over time and with practice. But writers do participate in discourse communities that tend to reinforce their own styles.

By reading many SF writers, SF fans build up a set of tools for understanding how Science Fiction is “supposed” to read and feel. A good reader will have several different discourse conventions in which he or she feels comfortable operating, and sometimes readers will see something in a “non-canon” work that speaks to their own genre. I think that is what the editors of Storming the Reality Studio saw in DeLillo: someone who was not SF, but whose aesthetic project was, in some way, allied with their own. The same thing has happened with Thomas Pynchon: many SF geeks have claimed Gravity’s Rainbow as a text that is SF-ish. Pynchon is not SF, but his aesthetic project seems to have something in common with that of SF.

Even the best writers have styles in which they feel most comfortable and discourse communities within which they tend to participate. These styles will be the ones to which they return, even when they explore new creative avenues. Gibson’s work, fiction and non-fiction, just “feels” SF, even when it deals with the hyper-present “now” and not some kind of jacked-in, implanted techno-future. I think this is why, even though I would never call DeLillo a SF writer, his inclusion in the Storming the Reality Studio anthology made sense. White Noise was not SF, but it did participate in some of the discourse conventions that SF explores. (This isn’t an academic paper, so I will avoid long sections of analysis that compare DeLillo and Gibson in terms of their discourse conventions. But I do know what my next conference paper will be about.)

Originally, when I started planning this blog, it was going to be about the “identity crisis” that Science Fiction is in. I no longer think of that as a problem. Instead, when we ask ourselves these questions about who, or what, SF really is, we ask our beloved genre to engage more deeply with the lived experience of the community. If anything, I now think that this proliferation of styles that are “sort-of-kind-of-maybe SF” (styles like Nowpunk, Dieselpunk, Slipstream, and the New Weird) is liberating. But it does demonstrate that being a Science Fiction writer is probably harder now than it was thirty years ago. If nearly everything can make an argument to be SF, then that means that Science Fiction is everywhere. We are saturated with it (like Palmolive… “You’re soaking in it!”). At the risk of seeming like a fawning fanboy, I am going to point us toward Gibson again. He hit on this cultural saturation of SF when he said “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

This immediate presence of the future in the everyday makes Science Fiction more intellectually potent and more culturally relevant than it has ever been before. But it also makes SF so ubiquitous that it risks fading into the background. I think that this might explain the turn toward “Nowpunk,” as well as the rise of so many other “—punk” sub-genres. It gives their communities a way to force their view of SF, their own discourse conventions, onto the discussion of culture. It forces a genre that is often seen as monolithic to accept collaborative voices.

Hmm. I guess I’ve come around.

In Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, a group of characters discuss languages in fantasy fiction. The point is made that fantasy and SF names and languages often fail to match up with reality, and that throwing apostrophes randomly in fantasy names and words would be like plopping an active volcano in the middle of a prairie. (I’m paraphrasing for the sake of simplicity, so please don’t bother to tell me that isn’t exactly what they said.)

Language presents a significant problem for writers of fantasy and SF. We casually develop character names, place names, and other examples of foreign language without any thought about how those languages actually work. One of the cultures that I developed with a friend of mine back in our Dungeons and Dragons days had an incredibly high vowel-to-consonant ratio. According to the World Atlas of Language Structures Online, less than 1% of the languages in the real world have a consonant-to-vowel ratio as high as what we created.

But worse than that is the fact that SF and fantasy tends to create different species and races who never seem to have trouble communicating with one another. Star Trek has the universal translator. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has the Babel Fish. Star Wars just has people understand each other, or has C-3P0 translate for them. But translation isn’t quite that simple. Imagine the seemingly simple question, “What’s up?” Speakers of American English (and English more generally) have no problem with this term, understanding it to be a simple greeting. But speakers of other languages might be confused as to why they are being asked to explain what is above them. Further, the question “How are you doing?” might receive puzzled looks, and the response, “How am I doing what?” Just because a person can translate the words from one language to another does not mean that the sense is recreated. The more culturally different language communities are, the more difficult translation becomes: speakers of American English are more readily able to learn culturally appropriate usage in German, Spanish or French than they are Cree or Tumbuka. If languages on one planet are so dissimilar that they create problems in learning and translation, how much greater would these problems be in the case of different races from vastly different planets?

Anyone who has ever played around with a simple translator knows that the results can be quite odd. The German word for “television,” for example, is fernseher. This is fine: it literally means “far-seer.” This isn’t a significant problem, because that is what the English word “television” means as well (tele, Greek for “far,” and visio, Latin for “sight.”) But imagine a language that used the term “far-seer” as a term for a prophet or holy man. A literal translation from our imaginary language might be “I want to talk to my television,” when really he means that he wants to talk to his pastor or religious leader. Or the term cul-de-sac: this is a term to mean a dead-end road or a court. But it literally means “butt of bag.” A universal translator would have a difficult time dealing with that. Imagine an alien being who wants to know where I live, and what he hears through his universal translator would be, “I live down that butt-of-bag.”

The problem gets worse when one considers inflections: some languages attach grammatical meaning to a word through a morpheme, or semantically meaningful units. In some languages, called “agglutinative languages,” many of these meaningful units can be attached to a word. A single word in these languages can express the meaning that, in English, would require an entire sentence. In a case like this, a universal translator might have to spit out some weird stuff. An alien who says, “Baetthakuerian” might have that word translated as “Feminine marker, plural marker, past-tense, leave.” The target “should” be, in English, “the women left.”  (“Ba” being a gender marker, “et” marking past tense, etc.) And if a universal translator manages to be good enough that it can translate sense-for-sense instead of literally there is the concern that important contextual meaning is lost. The Hebrew word yom can be used to describe the period of time in which the sun is shining, a full twenty-four hour day, or an unspecified period of time that could be days or centuries; context tells us which is meant. And, of course, sometimes contextual clues are absent. How would a universal translator handle that? The universal translator would have to know which use was meant. This means that translators would also have to have telepathic power.

I’m not suggesting that universal translation can’t be achieved with advanced technology or (in the case of fantasy worlds) through magic. But what I am suggesting is that some basic care needs to be taken when we create worlds. Unless we are engaging in an intensely personal process of creation that will never leave the space between one’s ears, the worlds that SF and fantasy fans create are meant to be consumed by others. They are game worlds that we share with our friends, worlds that we set novels and comics in, and we turn our creations into web series and LARPs. When a person sits down to create a world, it has to pass a basic “sniff test.”

This, then, requires that we know a little basic linguistics. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Many fantasy worlds I have encountered include jarring biological abnormalities, such as having two examples of an apex predator occupying the same ecosystem without coming into conflict. And the problem of fantasy races is another example: while I love elves, dwarves, and hobbits, it is a bit odd to think that they would all live in the same space. Wouldn’t one have crowded the other out, much as Neanderthals were crowded out/absorbed by Homo sapiens? And what about the maps that many of us randomly scribbled down while we should have been paying attention in our high school chemistry classes? Are we absolutely certain that the world we are setting our stories, games, and graphic novels in have fjords where they are supposed to be? And why is it that so many game worlds have Bronze Age raiders valiantly resisting or at least being completely unaffected by the numerically superior and better organized Iron Age empires on the borders?

Similarly, in SF, how is it that entire cultures manage to spring up on planets that have only one discernable ecosystem? (Really? Entire planets of nothing but desert, forest, or ice, you say?) Perhaps I am being too picky. I can already predict a reasonable response to this: “I play RPGs/read/write/etc. to escape from reality, not to make more of it.” I suppose that is fine for some people. But I am always impressed when someone gets it right. And that means knowing a little bit of physics, geography, history, linguistics, biology, and probably economics as well. While you’re at it, knowing some comparative mythology, music, architecture, and chemistry is probably smart. And some basic military history would help.

If you have the stories in you, go ahead and keep writing them. Keep naming your races things like “Ke’theqixa” and “Plixin’glaming” if you want to. Let them wear bastardized and a-historical armor. Let beam weapons and swords exist side-by-side if you must, and allow extremely low-powered space-faring races to somehow, against all odds, resist being colonized by super-advanced beings who can warp space-time to their will. But I hope you have some kind of internal logic that explains why every warrior in your metal-poor world walks around in full plate mail, or why your technologically superior race of conquering aliens seems to lack the basic social cohesion necessary to make lunch, much less get off their home planet.

And please, if you have to use apostrophes in names of your alien race (as I am guilty of, too), then have your language worked out well enough in advance that you can explain why they are there.

Anyone who read my last two blogs will know that I did the following things: dismiss the “X-punk” affix, (unintentionally) dismiss some sub-genres that use the affix to describe themselves, and then backtrack from my position. I’m nothing if not inconsistent. But in the discussions that followed, my good friend and fantasy/SF writer Marshall Maresca suggested (if I may paraphrase) that “—punk” serves as a useful shorthand. It calls to mind a subversive, rebellious attitude that transgresses accepted social norms to create a more liberated social space. He wrote, “If someone tells me, ‘I’m doing a teslapunk story’ or ‘I’m doing an atompunk story’, then I’ve got an instant sense of exactly the feel and look they want to achieve.” He then went on to agree that “nowpunk” makes no sense.

I was satisfied. I still disagree with the use of “—punk” on the grounds that overuse strips it of meaning. But I was willing to accept his argument. After all, that is one of the processes through which languages change. Linguistic communities (or, more accurately, interpretive communities) decide for themselves how a word is to be used, and set the term in ways that are useful for them. In Old English, the word “stench” (stenc) simply meant “smell.” It was possible to tell a woman that she had a lovely stench, and not get slapped. Words change as the community needs them to change. So I accepted Marshall’s argument, and accepted that he threw me a bone in agreeing about “nowpunk.”

And then, I woke up at 2:00 AM. Why not nowpunk? If we accept that “—punk” is a useful shorthand (which I haven’t completely accepted, I just don’t want to argue about right now), then what keeps “nowpunk” from being meaningful? If we are going to build a useful framework, nothing excludes this term from use.

My first thought was that “nowpunk” is really just “punk.” Not so under our new schema. If the “—punk” affix means that something about the setting or the characters therein transgress social norms and strive for liberation, then we have to accept that this carries its own meaning that is distinct from “Punk” in terms of the social and musical movement from the ‘70s. The terms are related, but not conflated. “Punk” in terms of the social and musical movement is a free morpheme: it stands alone as a unit of meaning. Meanwhile, “—punk” is a bound morpheme: it must be attached to another unit of meaning to be useful.

I was still unconvinced at that point. After all, if I were talking about the oatmeal that is sitting next to me, waiting to be eaten, I wouldn’t call it “now-oatmeal,” would I? My dogs that share my house are not my “now-dogs” (in contrast to the dogs I have had in the past). But actually, we do that all the time. People talk about “my current girlfriend” or “the class I am taking now.” It is a way of classifying the information. All of my objections to “nowpunk” had been put to bed.

I did have a final problem, though. What made “nowpunk” fundamentally different from, say, a techno-thriller by any number of Tom Clancy-esque writers? What made “nowpunk” different from Modern Warfare 3? At first, I recalled that in the discussion, CSI was suggested: they do impossible things with technology, but put into a modern setting. “Enhance the picture” was the example. But the characters in CSI don’t subvert the social order in any way. And it isn’t just subversion: Sterling, in his original suggestion about “nowpunk” said that “Gibson’s doing this too” (http://craphound.com/sterlingsxsw04.txt). The characters in Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History aren’t all about subversion.Some are, but others are just trying to navigate their way through a fragmented and splintered Modernity.

There is the key: I don’t think “nowpunk” is describing the characters or the technology, so much as the ways in which the characters move through technocratic Modernity. The modern world just has a different feel than the world of a few generations prior. Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikoli Leskov” (1936), wrote, “A generation that has gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body” (84). For Benjamin, the world had changed in ways and at speeds that culture was not capable of accepting or even understanding. And the pace of technological (and economic) change has certainly increased since the time Benjamin wrote his essay. Benjamin suggests that we live in a fractured, partial existence. But more than this, according to critic Ben Highmore, Benjamin suggests that the fractures of our existence are the detritus, the trash of previous eras. Highmore suggests that:

The ‘object’ of fascination that animates Benjamin’s later work is the Parisian arcade, not in its heyday but as a ‘ruin’ existing in a time when it has been superseded, outmoded. The rag-picker [Benjamin’s image for those in an uneasy relationship with Modernity] deals in the second-hand, in the dreams of the past for a future that was never realized. (Everyday Life & Cultural Theory, 65).

We are the ragpickers, the people who deal in trash culture. We are trying to take the failures of modern culture and repurpose them into new ways of dealing with the ruins all around us. That, I think, is what Nowpunk probably is.