On the Margins, Cyberpunk lives!

Thursday, 08 September 2011 20:58

I know that genre categorization pieces can be annoying, but I think that the argument about cyberpunk and its (dis)continued existence as an identifiable SF subgenre reflects feminist fandom concern around “gender in genre.” Time and again, I come across people, mostly male writers, reducing cyberpunk to a specific aesthetic that passed out of fashion with the rest of the 1990s. At the most recent WorldCon in Reno this past August, I attended a panel where one of the panelists repeatedly declared that cyberpunk = noir. This simple reduction does not categorize the cyberpunk subgenre adequately in any context. By relying on one aesthetic element to define cyberpunk, the genre is robbed of its rich and engaging thematic components: the relationship between technology and the body, the globalization of the marketplace, and the DIY attitude to urban survival, to name a few. By putting aesthetic at the forefront (as exemplified by a handful of mostly straight, white North American male writers), the past and continuing contributions of women and people of colour to cyberpunk are either elided or denigrated as passé. While the original progenitors of cyberpunk are done with the genre, there are a good many writers – particularly women, people of colour, and non-Western world writers – still addressing and regenerating core cyberpunk themes.

In the iconic preface to the Mirrorshades Anthology, Bruce Sterling ventured that cyberpunk captures the moment in time where the institutions in power are losing their control over technology and that the cyberpunks were the first generation to live in a “truly science-fictional world” (344). While Sterling may have overstated the radical elements of cyberpunk, he was right in suggesting that cyberpunk creatively tapped into the cultural moment when the world was becoming “wired” – through advanced telecommunications networks, globalization, and international corporate conglomerates – for the first time. For fans of the subgenre, cyberpunk navigates cyberspace (and other advanced technologies that impact the body and spatial relationships to embodiment) with a postmodern aesthetic (non-linear and multiple narratives, fractured constructions of time and space) that embraces a punk, anarchist, DIY attitude towards technology and power. By tapping into the anxieties over the pace of technological change, cyberpunk combined the technophilia of conventional SF with a sense of postmodern global malaise and a growing concern over what constitutes identity (as a citizen and as a human being).

While it seems that the majority of voices in fandom lean towards the “cyberpunk is dead” angle, there is also the popular position that cyberpunk has not disappeared, but has merely been transmuted into further generations of the subgenre and dispersed among SF as yet another trope. I argue that both the aesthetic and thematic elements of cyberpunk, along with some of its material aspects – in terms of fashion, music, and drugs – while no longer depicted in mainstream SF, continue to exist in rave and hacker subcultures in the US, in former Eastern block countries and developing nations in South America, Africa and Asia [Japan is a notable exception here, as its cyberpunk movement grew up alongside the American one and still continues on today – this is a whole topic for another discussion]. For example, buzz has building around a young aspiring SF writer from Ghana, Jonathan Dotse, who has unabashedly seized cyberpunk as his SF subgenre of choice. While cyberpunk-like anxieties about the body, technology, capitalism, and power may not be at the forefront of the North American cultural imagination right now, people living in non-Western countries currently experiencing wide-spread internet access and increased pressures to compete – or just survive – in the global marketplace are feeling the same dislocations and challenges to their national and personal identities.

In addition to non-Western writers taking up the themes and aesthetics of cyberpunk in their work, feminist SF writers in North America and the UK have been playing with and re-writing cyberpunk narratives. Since the 1970s, feminist SF has posed difficult questions about what it means “to be human” and sketched out the cultural limitations of gendered bodies. In today’s feminist SF, there is a deepened focus on racialized characters (and writers), as the body’s relationship to technology continues to be a central concern. Women have taken centre stage in writing and representing themselves in (post-)cyberpunk. Novels like Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, Tricia Sullivan’s Maul, and Laura J. Mixon’s Proxies emerge out of and extend the subgenres of both feminist SF and cyberpunk. The new cyberpunk-inspired narratives advance progressive political projects – such as inclusive human rights for all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and class. Specifically, issues of race and gender are at the forefront, as writers turn a critical eye to the role of technology in evolving our relationships to our racialized and gendered bodies.

As feminist SF developed into the 1980s and the 1990s, more and more of its writers began incorporating substantial technological themes and tropes from cyberpunk, developing into what I like to call “feminist post-cyberpunk.” I do believe that both subgenres contribute to this latest generation of SF, as it explores the relationship between technology and the body in a globalized world. Perhaps one of the reasons that the term feminist post-cyberpunk SF has not been coined by anyone else (aside from it being unfashionably long), is that cyberpunk is often critiqued as deeply heteronormative, masculine, and seemingly incompatible with feminism. Several academic SF critics, most notably Jenny Wolmark and Nicola Nixon, have pointed out the hesitancy of cyberpunk’s progenitors to acknowledge the contributions of women and early feminist SF to the development of the subgenre. Apparently, an acknowledgement of feminist SF might take away some of the acclaimed “cyberspace cowboy” bravado and supposed radicalness of cyberpunk. In most discussions of cyberpunk, Pat Cadigan is the only woman mentioned, despite a number of other women, such as Misha and Marge Piercy, writing in the subgenre. In current conversations about (post-)cyberpunk, the same absence of women still persists.

Given the general unpopularity of feminist politics – in both fandom and society at large – it is not really a surprise that few novels are marketed as both feminist and cyberpunk (Tricia Sullivan’s Maul is one of the few books I’ve seen openly marketed as “feminist cyberpunk”). Other non-Western writers, regardless of gender, take a risk in branding themselves as cyberpunk practitioners: in a subgenre decried dead and buried by many, they might inadvertently find their novels dismissed as imitative and “quaint,” rather than as progressive political and cultural reflections of current reality. Just once would I like to enter into a discussion about cyberpunk and hear about the variety of writers – feminist and otherwise – working within the subgenre today (and not only those who did twenty plus years ago). The argument that cyberpunk is merely an aesthetic or an out-dated trope keeps the subgenre closed in and protected for a select group of people (who are generally straight, white, and male). The refusal to acknowledge the continuation of cyberpunk past the time of its original writers is a way of excluding those people who have been and are overlooked in SF. On the margins, amongst feminists, and in the areas of the world undergoing their own technological revolutions, cyberpunk is alive and well.

[Do to time and mental energy constraints, I have only mentioned a few current writers who are still working within the realm of cyberpunk today, but there are certainly many more out there (especially in languages that I cannot personally read). Please leave recommendations in the comments!]

3 comments

  • Comment Link Kathryn Wednesday, 14 March 2012 20:34 posted by Kathryn

    I'm responding to both of your posts embarrassingly late! I just wanted to say:

    Margaret - thanks for the recommendation of Mead's Fate's Mirror. It is officially on my "to read" list.

    Susan - thanks for pointing out the distinction between my reading of Gibson's work and the man himself. I don't think that every one of the original cyberpunk writers have distanced themselves from the genre, but that there certainly was a trend away from it once it became "mainstream." One of the great things about the SF community, however, is that people are always referring other writers to new readers, even if they aren't involved in whatever specific subgenre themselves.

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  • Comment Link Susan Thursday, 22 September 2011 17:13 posted by Susan

    This is really interesting, especially the points about authors wanting to preserve the definition of cyberpunk to apply strictly to what they did. Although I think that William Gibson is the epitome of the "cowboy" mentality that you describe--which initially turned me off of his work completely--I find that he seems to be a little less interested in shutting down the definition of the subgenre. It was through him that I found out about Lauren Beukes, for instance.

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  • Comment Link margaret y. Sunday, 11 September 2011 18:28 posted by margaret y.

    May I recommend FATE'S MIRROR by M.H. Mead? It's a modern cyberpunk, in that it is not as...gritty. Takes place in 2040's in a revitalized Detroit.

    http://amzn.to/qHl2eF

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