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Tag Archives: Nowpunk

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.

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.