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Category Archives: Science Fiction

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.

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.