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Something Is Broken in Our Science Fiction. Why Can’t We Move Past Cyberpunk? (slate.com)
60 points by pseudolus 29 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

The whole premise of this piece is the same as the deluded "hopepunk" premise.

Cyberpunk is sticky because it got so many things right. Both in terms of political/economic/social predictions and in terms of an attractive aesthetic. And technologically it is now an alternate present where we went with VR instead of smartphones and private military commandos instead of strategic media campaigns.

Saying that SF is "broken" because of this, or pushing thoughts-and-prayers-punk trash, is taking the Bannon view that "politics is downstream from culture". That the worth of a genre of fiction is measured by its value as motivational propaganda.

I wonder what sub-genre of SF has something to say about the people who are pushing "consume this corporate media that makes you feel happy and hopeful instead of angry" as a response to social problems?

Of course the other reason for cyberpunk's staying power is that it is an established genre and media companies know how that established genres are safer investments (best investment: reboot/sequel to something people already like).

I wonder what sub-genre of SF had a lot to say about the result of corporate/economic influences on popular art?

Gee, what a mystery.

>That the worth of a genre of fiction is measured by its value as motivational propaganda.

It's the manifest destiny of the culture war that absolutely EVERYTHING has its cultural value purchased and liquidated for it's political propaganda cash value.

I am confused, modern Science Fiction has gone way beyond Cyberpunk. It takes into consideration what having real AI might mean for the world, or what a post-scarcity society might look like, or how horrible/painful the transition to that post scarcity society might be, as all the current holders of power do everything they can to maintain their grip on the world.

Modern science fiction describes worlds where people can clone their consciousness 50 times over, where it is possible to adjust the perception of time, and where plans take millennia to come to fruition.

Accelerando by Charles Stross. Recursion by Tony Ballantyne. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow.

Yes, these are all evolutions of previous ideas, but Science Fiction has always built on itself.

You're not confused, the article is confused. It boils down to a gripe against the suffix "-punk" and it tries to make some connection between that and the lack of originality that is to be expected when art meets mass-market.

And then at the end, it blames the authors! "You may need to drop the -punk suffix". The authors I know hate the categorizations, but fans keep sticking labels on them. At least the labels publishers and bookstores attach are broad brushes like 'Science Fiction', 'Romance', or good old 'Literature' for the works that have managed to shake off their burdens.

Sounds like we have a developing punkgate on our hands

Even The Culture Series, which Iain Banks started in the late 80's, is post-cyberpunk.

I almost feel like the author of the blog went and read Altered Carbon for the first time and somehow thought it was a continuation of Gibson and Stephenson's work. Neither of their latest stuff feels very "cyberpunk" to me. Maybe more so with "The Peripheral", but certainly not Seveneves.

Charles Stross Accelerando is fantastic, one of the best books I have ever read. I wish I could find more like it. There are some great videos by him where he talks how hard to establish a realistic fictional world 50-100 years from now as opposed to 1000 years in the future (where you can come up with anything-ftl, wormholes and so on).

> By 1992, they could be hilariously parodied by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash (a novel often mistaken as an example of the subgenre it meant to mock).

Citation needed. While this is under open debate amongst fans of the genre, I don't think Stephenson has stated it's a parody? And deliberate parody or not, I feel it brings a lot of ideas into the fold and observes the spirit of the genre. It's not a mistake to cite it as an example of the genre.

Bizarrely enough there was a parody of Snow Crash called "Headcrash" which was was written by... Bruce Bethke who coined the term Cyberpunk [0][1].

[0] https://www.amazon.com/Headcrash-Bruce-Bethke/dp/0446673145

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Bethke

I'd go with "homage to", not "parody of".

Think George Romero movies: they're "zombie movies" by genre, but they also are self-aware and frequently invert or riff on tropes of the genre itself.

The main character's name is literally "Hiro Protagonist".

Being tongue-in-cheek, self-aware, and even being a deliberate parody don't preclude a work from being an exemplar of the genre it's parodying.

That is perfectly reasonable, but I think it is also perfectly reasonable to say "parody of X" is the genre most related to but still distinct from genre "X".

In a lot of contexts that is a useful taxonomy to use, because it ends up being more clear.

not that there's anything wrong with that.

It sure felt like a parody when I read it in 1992.

I know there was a foreword or afterword about how it originally began as a comic book script, which would certainly push it towards being over the top.

Maybe it's the time (and how they change). I'm a bit too young to have read it back then, but I did read Shadowrun stuff in the late 90s, and also Neuromancer.

Maybe it's me - but I don't really see a lot of differences between all those, in a way that I could label it a parody. But did technology advance that quick in less than 10 years that what you described changed?

From a certain standpoint they're all "equally ridiculous", not so different. (Not a judgement of quality, I love them all.)

This bugged me too. I think it's too simplistic to call it cyberpunk, but it definitely doesn't read as a parody either.

Didn't Stephenson say that work was a study in how our thoughts on interfaces might map to a story itself?

I recall an interview where Stephenson went on at length about the very structured nature of "Snow Crash."

Dammed if I can find it right now.

I thought it was conventional to call most of Stephenson's work, including Snow Crash, "post-Cyberpunk", taking the ideas and aesthetic of cyberpunk, and dialing back the pessimism to bring it into something more closely resembling plausibility. IE, similar amounts of "cyber", significantly less "punk".

To give my extremely opinionated opinion: because science, politics, and philosophy haven't advanced past the assumptions that made cyberpunk look like a plausible vision of the future.

And you can't necessarily just solve this "politically" with "activist scifi". You have to actually figure out which scientific and philosophical foundation-stones of our present social and technological orders are false assumptions, and figure out how to open them to question and speculation. Then you have to tell an interesting story about it all!

(I often find that many of the people trying to "critique" our social order haven't taken that essential step of asking what the counterfactuals are to the false assumptions they critique. They think just by criticizing, you open some vast untapped field of techno-social possibilities. Nah, once you've grabbed the steering wheel, you still need to have somewhere to steer towards, a map of how to get there, and a map of why you want to go there.)

Cyberpunk and its derivatives are indeed going on an almost 40 years' reign. What this article forgets is that so-called "golden age" space opera or swashbuckling space privateer style sci-fi had a longer reign from maybe the 1920s until the 1980s. The cyberpunk paradigm is comparatively young.

I don't agree with Ursula LeGuin that novelists shouldn't or can't imagine the future. The early cyberpunks certainly did imagine aspects of the future like the importance of cyber-security, individuals vs. massive multinational entities, social fragmentation, and the decay of the nation state. SpaceX's shiny rocket currently taking shape shows that some of the "golden age" space sci-fi writers imagined certain aspects of the future too. The greatest sci-fi is about both the present and the future.

No reason why a 40-year old and a 60-year old could not both be considered ... well, old

Only tangentially related to the title, but one thing that I have noticed about space scifi is that it is very difficult to find novels that do not venture into very fantastical elements and instead would root themselves into known science and engineering. Almost every novel seems to be filled with aliens of all sorts, FTL, omnious superhuman AIs, nanobots that are practically magic, and whatnot. The thing I found so refreshing about The Martian (despite its other shortcomings) was how everything was just so believable; pretty much the same as what Musk is promising to deliver in the very near future. Why can't more novels be like that?

I'd check out The Expanse. The core is a world rooted in relatively real-world engineering, and the fantastical builds pretty slowly (and is generally terrifying).

The Expanse is a low-down and dirty description of near future humanity running headlong into an Outside Context Problem.

I'll second this. I love how they depict space travel and combat.

William Gibson's Blue Ant trilogy was set in the present day and has no fantastical technology. (He did predict YouTube a couple years ahead of time, though, and got the cultural impact almost exactly right.)

What you are describing is 'Hard Science Fiction', and yes, a lot of scifi has very fantastical elements. Some use "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" as an excuse, but I think the reality is that it is easier to write compelling stories and create spectacle if you can ignore the limits that 'Hard Science Fiction' puts on you, because you can just make shit up. So there is more of it. Also, you are describing realistic, near future fiction, and that by definition will not have a shelf life of more than a few years and decades will be the outlier. Almost the entire Cyber Punk genre is now really Alternate History. I haven't seen a cathode ray tube in years.

I don't think it is particularly new. Maybe its more obvious now because there is more bleed between Science Fiction and Fantasy as separate genres. You had your Azimovs and Clarks, but you also had your Dicks, Zelaznys and Moorcocks.

FWIW, even the author of the Martian admits that there's a fair bit of fantasy involved in it as well - namely the cosmic radiation shielding problem and the "Mars' atmosphere would never create wind storms of that magnitude".

Hard SF definitely exists, it's just (like other literary subgenres) a bit less popular and prolific.

Eye of the beholder and whatnot, but AFAIR Andy Weir admitted that the two things you mentioned (and I think one other thing I'm forgetting) are literally the only bits of fantasy involved. Everything else was meant to be Hard SF.

Well I meant more using no frills near future as general setting and feeling, rather than hard 100% accuracy

Near future doesn't last long, because it quickly becomes the present and the past. A book set 20 years in the future will likely only remain plausible for a handful of years, at which point the idea of everyone having a flying car looks silly, or someone invents the mobile telephone and your plot no longer holds together.

Greg Bear is a good option if you like hard sci-fi. I really liked Forge of God and Anvil of the Stars. There are a few of the themes you talk about but in a more realistic sense.

Kim Stanley Robinson does it well. I highly recommend the Mars trilogy, it's the definition of hard sci-fi in my mind now.

Mars trilogy is a classic, and I will not dispute that. But I read the first part, and I felt like I got quite enough of it. The science bits, especially in the beginning, were nice enough, but I recall them becoming more handwavy as they fell more to the background. At points it felt like reading Atlas Shrugged when you really were only interested in railways and trains

Really interesting/inspiring read, but also super tedious and goes on long strides about rocks and geology.

it's lengthy, but for me, those parts seemed justified as character-building; Robinson gets pretty deep into describing characters who are very, very into rocks and geology, among other things. I definitely see what you mean, though.

In retrospect, I enjoyed the rocks/geology part, it gave me something to dream about when I drive in desert landscapes and picture myself walking on Mars sometime in the future, running or flying in low gravity, or sailing..!

But back in the moment, I fell asleep many times trying to go through those passages.

Anyhow, I agree that this trilogy is really good work, on so many levels. It gets me thinking nearly everyday, years later, about what I'd need to prepare for as an eventual, hopeful colonist.

That's funny: for me, that book made it really clear that I don't want to even daydream about going to Mars. Too restrictive. Don't have quite that amount of pioneer spirit and ability to commit. But I can see how others might!

You might enjoy honor Harrington by David Weber. There is FTL, but it still takes significant time to get anywhere, and that plays a big role in the story. Communication also takes as long as ships would take, so it's not instantaneous either. The physics of space and space travel also play a role in combat.


Oh, that does hit the mark. The word mundane seems quite apt. Too bad the publications section is bit thin

The blog of the movement, while it stopped in 2012, seems to contain short reviews indicating whether certain SF works qualify: http://mundane-sf.blogspot.com/

You have to have a very firm grounding in science to write that. The sort of person who has that is not often the kind of person who also masters the skills needed to write a good book.

Cyberpunk still resonates and has cultural value for many reasons (the aesthetic not the least among them) but primarily because it is very much human-centered, messy, broken and glitched, or, to put it another way, realistic.

Previous SF genres had shiny futures, technology that worked, bad guys who were bad and good guys who were good... cyberpunk turned that all on its head and asked "What if everything is as broken and shitty in the future as it is now? What if it's even shittier? Never mind the captains and the heroes, what will the lowlifes and the junkies and the scoundrels do in the future? What if technology is no solution but just a source of more problems?"

These questions remain as relevant and compelling as ever, and so the genre endures.

He claims that sci-fi can't move past Cyberpunk, but I think there's a much more reasonable take on this -

Modern day society looks a lot like the sci-fi novels from the 80s. Novels that use modern day as a kick-off point will naturally have elements of that embedded within them. That sure as hell doesn't make them "punk" novels.

I think modern sci-fi has gone a LONG way past "punk" and is pretty firmly in the "post-apocolyptic" realm right now (which I find marginally entertaining and relatively scary depending on my mood any given day).

That said, I think another large reason is that we're still in early days for many of the technological themes presented in those punk novels.

Human-machine interfaces are still in infancy.

AI is breaking ground, but just barely.

Power generation is basically the same story (although modern fusion is looking more and more compelling).

We have SO much untapped potential there that it's absolutely obvious why people continue to write different takes of it.

Alternatively, the author just has a fetish for punk styled novels and hasn't quite realized it yet.

Tangential as a lukewarm SF fan - I liked some cyberpunk stories, but whenever I read one I can't help thinking "Wait, but what about bandwidth?"

I mean, I can sorta buy over-intelligent AI, human-computer interface, and all that cool shit, but the bits have to flow from here to there somehow. And all cyberpunk stories I've read just assume that information magically teleports. Just like that awful Avatar (which isn't really cyberpunk, but still) - we have rogue humans running around in an undeveloped alien planet and somehow they enjoy ultra-4K instant VR experience over the air? Who's maintaining that connection?

SF stories have to pick and choose which tech they emphasize and which they gloss over. As a rule of thumb, tech shouldn't be explained much in detail unless it helps move the story along, or helps to describe the constraints in which the characters make decisions, making for a more interesting story.

The most elegant SF stories IMO gloss over a lot of tech - Inception for example, never explains a single technical detail about the machines that power the dream world, instead focusing purely on the human interactions.

A counterexample is Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which focuses heavily on tech and makes a good attempt at keeping it within the realm of physics while still describing interesting ideas - however much of the theme of the book is how technology develops as a product of its environment and how it builds on existing tech in a collective way, so it contributes to the story. Even so, it was criticized for being too technical (even though I enjoyed that part of it immensely).

Another example is 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, which makes the mistake of focusing too much on the tech - in fact the whole plot is essentially a vehicle for the author to describe all the possible human habitats that could exist in space.

For me, I think the problem is that cyberpunk pretends to show a gritty, realistic glimpse of dystopian near-future. The feel of realism is part of the appeal, and it costs more when the illusion is broken.

Nobody's gonna care about bandwidth if your hero is trying to save mankind from galactic chaos by reinventing history, but let's say, if you're in a spy action thriller set in the middle of WW2, you can't just take a flight from Heathrow to Budapest: there must be at least some pseudo-plausible explanation.

I have the same concerns about power. In the expanse they spend pretty much a whole book griping about how little sunlight there is to grow plants on a moon of Jupiter, and yet they have fusion powered star ships that can maintain 1g+ indefinitely without running out of fuel for a trip basically anywhere in the solar system.

I can't speak to that discrepancy, but I like the expanse as an example of hard sci-fi primarily because it makes very few tech jumps to build its universe. Ignoring the alien tech, the only real innovation that appears outlandish to us now that they gloss over in the series are those fusion starships.

But as with any sci-fi, you have to have some amount of suspension of disbelief when talking about new tech. If the author knew everything about the tech they talk about, they wouldn't be writing science fiction because they would have invented it, and we'd be reading nonfiction instead.

True, but nobody says how expensive the fuel-pellets are. It may be that hooking up a fusion bottle for agricultural lighting just isn't cost-effective.

Bandwidth is relatively believable, just look how much it's changed over the last 100 years.

The real spoiler is always going to be latency.

I started to enjoy reading stuff from the solarpunk movement. And the memes, they're awesome.

Hopefully someday there will be a landmark solarpunk movie/book that will definitely set it as a recurring theme and general direction for new thinkers to embrace.

It's the second time I see this genre mentioned on HN, in the space of a ~month. Do you have any recommendations of what solarpunk works to read or see?

Because there's no vision for our future that's really good and people really believe in it.

I think it's more likely that the author of the piece appears to be obsessed with any fiction to which "punk" is appended and appears to be excluding a great deal of other material that disproves his thesis such as the late Iain M. Banks' Culture series, Alastair Reynold's "Revelation Space" series, Neal Asher's Polity series, Cixin Liu's trilogy, many of Peter Hamilton's books and even authors such as China Miéville (Embassytown).

I think this is it. Cyberpunk has been sadly predictive of the last few sociopolitical years, and seems very, very relevant today.

>>We are still, in many ways, living in the world Reagan and Thatcher built—a neoliberal world of growing precarity, corporate dominance, divestment from the welfare state, and social atomization.

There has been a massive increase in social welfare spending since 1982.

The continual mischaracterizations of history by writers at media outlets like Slate is really unethical.

Also, the economy is substantially more regulated, and the government's control through omni-surveillance and legal inventions like National Security Letters, has grown by leaps and bounds.

The increasingly constrained, legalistic and centralized structure of the economy is one reason people's lives in the developed world haven't improved more since 1982.

Stanislaw Lem provided some good foundations for this. It suffices to read, say, Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy.

I've been spending the past year working on a space opera comic told with cartoon animals, so whatevs. I roll my eyes every time someone comes up with a manifesto for their new microgenre and dubs it "somethingpunk".

My favorite cyberpunk word derivation: cypherpunk.

Sci fi is a vision of possible futures...

..our present is locking us into a narrow range of dystopian futures.

Our present ain't locking us that hard yet; I'd say that people being fed gloomy visions is a big contributor to the risk of bad future materializing, because it sabotages the only thing people can use against things going along the path of least resistance - the human capacity to decide to do things differently, short-term economic interest be damned.

Read this twitter thread commentary instead: https://twitter.com/scalzi/status/1085230966833065984

I consider Rick and Morty to be revolutionary as far as science fiction goes.

This seems to me like an editor fishing at the bottom of the barrel for a story idea and then handing it to a junior writer. Saying that Sci-fi is "broken" is ludicrous.

I for one, am hoping for far more cyberpunk content.

To quote MST3K...

Can't we just get beyond Thunderdome?

Obviously the author of the article haven't read Iain M. Banks (the Culture series).

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