Saturday, September 17, 2011

Is Cyberpunk still punk?

At the beginning of the month I wrote a post as part of The Future Fire's alphabetic genre blog marathon, titled C is for Cyberpunk. I'm not going to go back over that ground here (I discussed the definition of the genre, the question of whether cyberpunk has to include computer networks, and the question of whether cyberpunk was a uniquely 1980s phenomenon), so go read the post over there if you're interested in all that.

I want to start here from the observation that in its original incarnation, as typified by the works of William Gibson, the criticism of Bruce Sterling, and the personal computer obsession of the 80s, cyberpunk was a genre about a world in which technology was making science fiction come true on a daily basis. If it feels like that excitement is gone from your typical Anglo-American scifi about information technology, that's because computers are no longer new and exciting and scary (although big business is still scared of and trying to control/regulate the Internet); they're no longer changing the world every day, and most importantly are no longer the preserve of an underclass of elite and rebellious users.

But as several commenters on the original blog post (especially Kathryn Allan's blog, 'On the Margins', and a lively Twitter chat) reminded me, cyberpunk is by no means dead as a radical and exciting genre. To claim that no one has written cyberpunk since Gibson, Sterling, Cadigan and Stephenson (and smug "post-cyberpunks" like Doctorow, Stross and Di Filippo) disavowed the genre, is to paint out of the picture the truly radical cyberpunk being written by authors outside of the self-fulfilling mainstream. Authors such as Nalo Hopkinson, Tricia Sullivan and Nicola Griffith have written a feminist (and in some cases non-Anglo) perspective on cyberpunk; Jonathan Dotse writes Afro-cyberpunk set in a near-future Ghana; M. Christian takes cyberpunk themes and makes them sexually graphic and/or queer.

Information technology is still changing the world, and in exciting and frightening ways, but it's not doing it so much in London, New York and Tokyo any more. Think of the human web of cellphone users and mesh networked laptops in rural India and sub-Saharran Africa, where lives and livelihoods are literally being changed by information and communication technologies, and you'll see new possibilities for cyberpunk scenarios and behaviour. If you want to see the future of cyberpunk, don't look to a white man in mirrorshades or reading Wired; look outside of that box. It's a pretty exciting world out there if you only open your eyes to it.

As a final note, and to join the chorus of voices singing #YesGayYA (read Cleolinda's wonderful summary if that's news to you): I'd love to see a Queer Cyberpunk novel for young adults in which emerging technology really is making a radical difference in people's lives.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Is your council prepared for zombie outbreak?

A lot of fun has been made out of the fact that a "Concerned Citizen" put in a Freedom of Information Act request to Leicester City Council in England, asking to be told "what provisions [they] have in place in the event of a zombie invasion?" Understandably everyone laughs, and the BBC article linked to above quotes an individual who runs a "zombie website" mocking the concerned citizen's state of mind. I suspect if I were to make a similar request of my local council, the outcome would be the same.

Nevertheless, there is a real question here,(*) and it is possible to ask it in such a way as to receive a sensible answer: how well would your local government react to something as unlikely, unplanned, and catastrophic as a zombie infection? Here are some concrete issues we might ask about:
  1. medical supplies and emergency plans in place in case of mass break-out of unforeseen infectious epidemic;
  2. emergency measures for a breakdown of public services, food/water/power supply, communications, etc.;
  3. public control measures in case of pandemic of random individual and group violence;
  4. procedures for emergency services to follow in the case that public officials have not been able/willing to admit the nature of the outbreak--can we do something about it without admitting it's a "zombie invasion"?
  5. communication: how to inform everybody of the danger and the administration's official response to it in the case of power cuts, satellite/cell reception failure, etc.
  6. quarantine plans: when do we decide the danger is over?
  7. citizen defence plans: how should individuals be advised to protect themselves/their homes/families?
What have I forgotten?

(*) Consider this a thought experiment for more generalized disaster planning if you like; or, as I do, as thinking through a problem that you might write a story about some time.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

LGBT representation in fiction

(I had a conversation this afternoon via Twitter, in which I frustrated myself by failing clearly to express a minor point I was making, and therefore labouring it and making it sound like it was the crux of my suggestions. I'm going to see if I can do a better job without a word-restriction.)

The subject is homophobia in science fiction, and how to counteract (in a small way) this by improving the positive representation of LGBT characters in our writing. I believe there are several approaches we can take, and that a combination of these would be the best way to achieve what we're aiming for. I certainly don't think that any of these are better than others, or that everybody should try to use them all, nor that everybody should try to do something like this in all of their fiction. But they're ideas to try, and they might help.
  1. Write science fiction about explicitly LGBT themes: write queer and trans protagonists, not just as positive characters, but as an intrinsic part of the futuristic universe you're creating. Write stories about homophobia as well, and about other issues that LGBT people face; challenge your readers. Make a difference by reminding everyone that the world is ugly that we would wish.
  2. Write stories in which queer and trans protagonists are treated just like anybody else, where they don't even have to be pointed out because in the Utopian world you're creating no one thinks about them any differently; just like people with black hair. Show what we would like the world to be, what we think is possible with more tolerance and acceptance.
  3. If you don't want to do either of the above in a particular story, because it's a story about something else, not about LGBT issues, then just people your story with a representative sample of sexes, races, sexualities and abilities (just as real life is so populated). This can include:
    1. Protagonists/Viewpoint characters: if you start writing your story with the knowledge that your protag is queer (or whatever), even if you don't make a big deal out of it, it should, if you're a good writer, change the way that character works in some small ways. It may make her/him more careful in certain company, more comfortable around the opposite sex, have subtly different reactions to various stimuli or conversations (all of these non-sexual). Just having a positive queer viewpoint character is useful helps to redress the balance.
    2. Minor characters/walk-ons: the same is true as with protags, a minor character may come across slightly differently if you've chosen to write them as gay. But even if they don't, if they're too minor and walk-on for that, just having a few queer characters in the background makes your world more representative and realistic (and LGBT-positive).
  4. Write about a universe or an alien planet with radically different sex/ gender/ partnership/ reproductive alignments than the cis-heteronormative world we normally see. This is what Ursula Le Guin does in her best writing, and why science fiction is great for questioning the norms most people take for granted.
(For the record, what I expressed poorly in the chat, and by trying to explain myself ended up looking like I was suggesting we should do all the time, was 3.ii. Thanks, DD, for taking me to task on that.)