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.

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