Thursday, February 1, 2007

Thoughts on Our Postcyberpunk World

In 1998 Lawrence Person wrote an article called “Notes on a PostCyberpunk Manifesto” (originally from Nova Express linked from its reprint on Slashdot). He defines postcyberpunk as a genre the evolved out of cyberpunk, a transformation centered around leather-clad, motorcycle-riding anti-heroes being replaced by productive average members of fairly functional society.

Person was clearly onto something, although it is tough to say whether the distinction from cyberpunk was enough to merit a new genre. The setting is pretty much the same (futuristic metropolises dominated by technology) and the themes overlap quite a bit (cybergenetics, genetic engineering, technology affecting society, information at the fingertips of anyone, etc). Only the characters have made a significant change of type and this is the key. What Person fails to do, is to contextualize (or historicize if you prefer) this shift.

The construction of the protagonist is, with few exceptions, the window into the ideas, opinions, beliefs and observations of the author. Even anti-heroes define a world-view through what they oppose and unreliable narrators tend to be confused about the very things that the reader (or sometimes society as a whole) also are confused about. Problematic protagonists help define the belief systems of the age they were written in through the very qualities that get them dubbed “problematic.”

When one looks at the shift from the 1980’s into the late 1990’s, we can see many of the changes that are echoed in the literary characters of science fiction. The technology junky, the nerd, the computer user, the programmer and the videogame player all moved from the fringe of society to the center (the motorcyclist and the criminal are left behind). No longer outsiders or anomalies, these figures became commonplace elements of a broad middle-class. The archetypical image of a computer user went from the reclusive, anti-social hacker to the suit-and-tie office worker and the well-adjusted student on a laptop in a café.

That science-fiction urge that has been around for centuries, the desire to picture ourselves and our society in the future, simply followed the current trends as it often does.

One place that Person doesn’t go is into the structure of postcyberpunk, an area that shows as much development as characterization and deserves as much attention as setting and theme. Of great interest is the way that science-fiction has reached out to the technological advances in our society and incorporated them directly into its form. Authors are able to tap the immense amount of data on the internet for research and inspiration. Readers can communicate with each other and provide feedback to the author over long distances in real time or at leisure on discussion groups. Postcyberpunk books even tend to make use conventions borrowed from computer code, emails, discussion and news groups and other means of communication.

Blurring has occurred at the boundaries between mediums (not to mention genres). Evidence of this is visible in internet literature (such as Geoff Ryman’s “253”), manga, graphic novels, videogames, digital artwork and book websites. An emphasis on the interactivity has arisen particularly in highly literate videogames that contain novel length amounts of detail, dialogue and description. Players are given an ever increasing amount of freedom to make choices and customize their experience. The “worldbuilding” to which Lawrence Person refers to has found a new peak in massively multiplayer online games with their own internal societies and economies. Immersion for even conventional literature material is enhanced by television, movie and game adaptations creating multi-media, in-depth story-universes like “Star Trek” and “Ghost in the Shell.”

Immersion into online communities, games and globally popular story-universes has changed from being escapism to involvement. Those people who continue to reject technology are the ones being cut off from society. This is as much a matter of mass communication (cell phones, email, AIM, news sites, digital cameras, uploading) as culture (literature, art, shows, movies, games).

While many of these changes are not the sole property of the 90’s and 00’s (the 80’s saw the rise of “synergy” and cross-media marketing tie-ins), it is postcyberpunk material that seems to most frequently reflect these changes. While early science-fiction literature was showing the dangers of technology and dystopia, it tended to set literature in opposition to or in rejection of the future (think “Fahrenheit 451” or the reduction of vocabulary with double-speak in “1984”). In cyberpunk literature the protagonist is fully complicit (and often ahead of the curve) in the onrush of technological progress. The character has willingly given up the page for the computer screen, the physical for the virtual, and has found freedom (both artistically and literally) in a technological expression. Now, in the postcyberpunk era, it is the author and the reader who are undergoing these same changes. Society has begun to accept technological advances as less of an inevitable threat and more as a logical extension of scientific and social possibilities. The literature community, particularly the science-fiction community, has likewise come to accept technology as enabling their artistic freedom rather than destroying it.

This is why I think we can expect postcyberpunk literature to continue growing in output and popularity. For the time being, at least, we live in a postcyberpunk world.

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