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Science-fiction is neither cyberpunk nor broken

In his new Slate essay, Lee Konstantinou opines that Something is Broken in Our Science Fiction.

He isn’t really talking about science-fiction, so much as its subgenre of cyberpunk, which certainly still influences science-fiction subgenre naming, from steampunk to hopepunk. I’m not sure that cyberpunk has more influence than that these days – but let’s talk cyberpunk, for now.

Konstantinou calls cyberpunk a genre where the “hacker hero (or his magic-wielding counterpart) faces a huge system of power, overcomes long odds, and finally makes the world marginally better—but not so much better that the author can’t write a sequel.”

Never mind that this is the story of many novels in many genres. It’s a poor fit to cyberpunk, which usually sweeps its anti-heroes into situations where they are fitfully, perhaps only for a moment, masters of their fate. Usually, cyberpunk contents itself with not letting things get even worse. Its antecedent is the bitter Sisyphean resignation of Philip K. Dick. It’s telling that the book Konstantinou calls a parody of cyberpunk, Snow Crash, is one of the few that really embrace his straw-man of story concept in a funny and self-aware way — though, without a sequel.

According to Wikipedia, I am twelve years older than Konstantinou. I am fifty-three, so doing the math will show those were a significant twelve years. When he was a kid, he had the hammering-down of the Berlin Wall. When I was a kid, nuclear war, waged across that wall’s spiked concrete, was such a certainty that the network ABC made a prime-time movie about it.

In that light, cyberpunk was hopeful. Ecodeath and corporate control notwithstanding, we still had a world, and satellite casinos too. To state baldly, as Konstantinou does, that “cyberpunk is arguably a kind of fiction unable to imagine a future very different from its present” ignores that the present got more hopeful after the fiction. In its day it was a vast imagining, counter to both the militarized and the utopian strains of science-fiction, and more realistically human than either.

Konstantinou also dismisses style, which is a big part of cyberpunk. It’s like faulting Edgar Allan Poe for brooding. Even in our days of smartwatches, the scene in Neuromancer where the AI Wintermute chases after Case by ringing pay-phone after pay-phone is still powerful — BBC’s recent Sherlock steals it to introduce Watson to Mycroft Holmes.

Konstantinou’s biggest error, of course, is to conflate cyberpunk with the whole of science-fiction. In this century, most good and well-regarded science-fiction books are not cyberpunk, in either setting or style. Now that so much reality has come to resemble cyberpunk, in its technofetishism and anarchic capitalism, we do need new imaginings.

Thing is, we’re getting them. There’s lots of good sci-fi, and most of it owes its predecessors. No one would call N K Jemisin cyberpunk, nor Ann Leckie, nor Cixin Liu. All of them work in older traditions, and also do many things new.

So what does Konstantinou want? For his Twitter feed to be less full of optimism and fads, it seems.

Maybe the problem is less in science-fiction than on Twitter?


Thoughts on Eden while mowing my lawn

In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil on the serpent’s advice, “know their nakedness,” and are thrown from the garden to a life of toil and want – the original sin that in Christianity, Christ died to forgive.

This sin of the apple is such a tortured and joyless reading of the story that I (nominally atheist, though also not) had to wonder how it has taken hold. Perhaps because we learn it as children, when banishment seems impossibly hard, when knowing nakedness only connotes embarrassment.

If you let go of this reading, the story is a much better message for adults than for children. It’s an obvious metaphor for adulthood, and of the need to separate from any parent – if you’re gonna have sex under My roof, God tells His creation, time to get your own roof.

If you are anthropologically minded, it represents the transition from the hunter-gatherer life to stabler but more labor-intensive agricultural life. A fall from grace, perhaps, but with the planet’s grace, hewing our own structures and spaces out of it, using ever more of it, removing ourselves from it with the flaming swords of burning wells.

Eden is garden, always a garden. Gardens are safe. You don’t worry about running through thorn bushes from lionesses in a garden, but you can still pick a strawberry. We take this idea into our names for safe child spaces, real or imaginary – kindergarten, A Child’s Garden of Verses.

A garden is a managed space. Adam and Eve don’t mow their lawns or trim the verge – who does? Maybe this is why the angels rebelled.

To a gnostic, of course, the serpent is the true good in Eden, the pirate message from outside the garden, warning the garden is unreal and pernicious. Think of the clones in Never Let Me Go, or Neo in The Matrix. They know something’s not right in their managed world. The serpent is the path out, and a reassurance that maybe what is beyond isn’t nearly as terrifying as they tell you.

Maybe you don’t need forgiveness for wanting to leave. Maybe you just grew up. Those flaming swords keeping you from that past? They’re just time.


Recovering technophiliac

I use a MacBook Air 2012, second version of the Air line and model for all that follow. It’s a perfect size for serious work, with a screen that usefully shows a half-dozen apps in a single desktop space. It’s substantial yet light, easily portable, fine in a lap or a desk. It has local storage so no need of wifi for work on the go, and cloud backup the moment it connects.

At my desk, it runs two HD+ monitors, a backup drive, and any peripheral I need. Home and away, from apps to settings to bookmarks to the structure of the folders, everything is the same on it, wherever I take it. It’s the most useful thing ever.

Drives me crazy.

I have an addiction. I like new computing gear. I like to get better gear that does new stuff. A perfect computer can do everything – but that.

Every other year, I spend good money on e-trash, some quirky machine with a clever feature like a touch screen or small size. Each time, the affair is short-lived, and soon the device ends up housed in a cabinet, so backlogged with updates that I fear to turn it on. My last one went three days from unboxing to reboxing.

It’s as if I drive a McLaren sports car, every day, but I keep buying new Cadillacs for the bigger cupholders.

It started out innocently enough. I got into computers as a teen, as a writer, at the dawn of word-processing, still a hobbyist’s preserve but even then superior to typewriters. My then-rare comfort with the technology dovetailed with the dawn of online connectivity as a consumer business. I was rewarded with a prestigious international career.

If you bought your winning ticket for the mega-lottery at the liquor store, how would that affect your alcohol abuse?

The same for my success and my need to poke at new gear – even in this new career where (from a gear perspective) I merely key words in empty spaces, and there’s no more technology to master.

Meanwhile my MacBook Air just works. It’s got another four years at least. Four more years of perfection, of comfort and familiarity and a natural flow.

Maybe longer.

The itch is stressful. I am trying to realign it with better pursuits, like the ambulance-chasing lawyer in Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, proud to have a good use for his anger. When my dad’s old desktop needed its final backup, I taught my son the basics of computer architecture. We rebuilt it at modest cost with new drives, cards, and memory. We did such a good job my dad demanded it back.

Of course, I spent two afternoons after thinking through and researching how to build powerful desktop machines for different uses from parts at low cost.

But I didn’t buy anything.

That’s something.


The Inner Loop reading series

I had a great evening under twilit stars – and frequent, seemingly aimless helicopters –  with The Inner Loop, a monthly DC reading series for poetry, fiction and non-fiction writers, at Colony Club. The headliner was Jennifer Atkinson, a poet drawn to human disaster, with readings by Joel Goldberg, Matthew Moniz, Alyssa Oursler, Alex Aronovich, Peg Alford Pursell, Alan C. Page, Leila Rafei and Sam Mahone.

Standing room only!

       

I’m firmly in the camp that writing is an art for the ear. Studying other languages’ poetry let me hear the latent music in my own writing. I always want my work to sound good aloud and I love to hear other authors reading. It’s a happy time for this viewpoint, with the growing market, and quality, of podcasts and audiobooks. I’ll be fascinated to see how English prose style changes for a world where most of it is heard not read. (Prediction? Dialogue tags will lose “said.”)

The evening had a warm, friendly feel. I talked shop with other writers, books with readers. A writing event is quieter than a band, with no dancing or chatter and surprisingly little phone use other than recording videos. The vibe remains casual and attentive. Even for the writers – 5 minutes, and you’re back in the audience.

There will be a bigger market for these. Already the Moth series has spread to live events in several cities. Reading for performance will be the new penmanship.


Sexual tension in fiction

My guest post for the Fictorians, a site on writing fiction, discusses sexual tension and its different roles in different stories. It’s part of the Fictorians’ month-long Tension series.

Read it at: 

http://www.fictorians.com/2017/02/24/sexual-tension-in-fiction/


Sticking to my knitting (opinions)

As Facebook gently reminded me —

2017-fb-little-while
my professional media have been stale. It was less a writer’s block than a blind alley. Perhaps others will find my thinking instructive.

Like everybody, I have opinions about the world, and in these contentious times, it’s very tempting to share them. Everyone else is, and I talk prettier than many. Why not join the fray? Ooh, ooh, you’re discussing politics, or climate change, or guns? I can do that too!

I drafted three different posts on things political. One even got into my WordPress dashboard, until I deleted it.

Truth is, I just don’t want to be a public intellectual.

It feels irresponsible to say this. In the face of the great activists of the past, and today’s popular writers who still manage worthy columns (or at least snarky tweets) – and often get slagged by some fans for voicing opinions they don’t like – it seems weak to say, nah, I’m out.

I’m out. While it might feel good to get something off my chest, people aren’t waiting around to hear what I have to say about today’s crisis. Or, if people are, they don’t just want it once. If I start down that road, I have to stick with it, have to make it a bigger part of my life and thought.

Perhaps this would be virtuous, but it wouldn’t be singular. Many good people already discuss the state of the world, plainly and well, after actually investigating it and reporting on it. If I want to change the world in favor of my political beliefs, I’m better off writing checks.

Or, writing novels.

Not that I’m going to be ripping tales from today’s headlines. That’s not my thing. More to the point, the political power of good fiction is often indirect. Fiction can say complicated things to culture, often better than it says simple ones. There are political ideas in my novel The Demon in Business Class, but they’re neither immediate nor partisan.

The “messy ground where the worldly meets the divine,” as my back-cover text promises, is a place in the mind. My characters in their big world might inform your opinions about tomorrow’s crisis, whatever it is, but only by example and analogy.

That’s my contribution. We’ll see if it’s enough, over time.


Love your pile of words (first drafts)

I love my current first draft.

This is a shocking and unfashionable thing to say. Everyone laments their first draft. It is the shoals of mediocrity on which our dreams founder, or at least so tells every clickbait online writing workshop. Complaining about the horror of that first draft is required. Even really successful and also good writers do it, and always have.

I love mine. I banged it out for NaNoWriMo 2015, in fewer than my allotted thirty days. Yes, I know that’s a long time ago (I sold a book in the meantime!), but that length of time is supposed to make clear how awful the first draft is, as the scales of hope fall from my more jaundiced and persnickety eyes.

Alas, I love it, blazingly. I have reread it more than once, with comments from my writing dojo NoveltyDC, and each time I am in a better mood.

It’s got half-finished ideas that I now can’t remember, areas that need major restructuring, a lot of plodding exposition. Some of my best supporting characters – like the smuggler with a tail – are on far too briefly. Late ideas may turn out to be organizing principles. No doubt I will rewrite almost every sentence in it, reorganize it, wrestle it. I may occasionally kick it. It will take a lot of work. Even then it will be niche, strange, uncommercial and standalone.

It’s going to be great.

What is wrong with me? How did I get to this place? How did I find joy and wonder in my work while others gnash teeth and tear hair? It isn’t my success to date, which is tiny; nor is it my upbeat disposition, which is pure fakery. So what is it?

Here’s a thought – I love it because it’s a draft. It may be made of words, but it’s not a novel yet. It’s been work of course, the work of felling trees and forging nails, but this is the lumber and hardware and cleared ground, not the finished house. It’s a pile of words and ideas, and for that, it’s just fine. Well, maybe I will need a few more words.

The draft is the start, the lumber and blueprints. It will not house or warm you, not without a lot of work to come. It’s just a stage.

Get excited. And get to work.