Back in the 1980s, the field of science fiction was all afroth over a movement that proclaimed itself as cyberpunk. Reviewers both inside and far outside the genre went into paroxysms over this new movement, crediting it with everything from "gritty, sharp-edged realism," to "high-gloss textures," to inventing the trope of an angry tomorrow, symbolized by the angry young man of the streets.
Setting aside egregious exaggerations and heaps of heavy-breathing hype, this literary movement surely made the field more interesting for a while. Haughty literary mavens, who normally snub "sci-fi," condescended to discover these daring writers of dark, heroic, slashing prose, including William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, a tale filled with stark, vivid imagery about a future dominated by oppressive corporate structures. A future in which control over access to information outweighed the importance of political or military power.
It was a heady time, even for those of us who were shunted, willy-nilly, into the category of "the opposition." I was happy to grant interviews to reporters from national magazines, seeking quotes from critics of the cyberpunk movement. Whatever. I dutifully played my part, double-teaming the establishment. Hey, free publicity is fine!
In retrospect, the Cyberpunk Movement was probably the finest free promotion campaign ever waged on behalf of science fiction. Brilliantly managed, and backed by some works of estimable value, it snared and reeled in countless new readers, while opening fresh opportunities in Hollywood and the visual arts. True, the self-important rhetoric and whines of persecution sounded ironic -- at times even hilarious. However, the CP rebels did shake things up. We owe them a debt.
Ah, but were they original?
Name any point of interest in the history of Western culture, and you'll likely see a similar pattern. In retrospect, the trial of Socrates was all about a "punk" of sorts, with a reputation for extravagant behavior, satirizing standard values, and spewing unconventional new metaphors. The young writers of the Enlightenment, back in the eighteenth century, saw themselves toppling a stagnant order, using the fresh light of scientific reason to dispel superstition. Indeed, the followers of Locke and Jefferson rattled the world.
When these men grew older, and mighty in success, along came the romantics -- typified by Shelley, Byron and others, young men who derided Reason as an oppressive cudgel wielded by fogeys and old farts. Science was portrayed as a chain that aimed to shackle the vaulting ambitions of the human soul. Indeed, science fiction was born amid this tussle, with Mary Shelley's seminal Frankenstein, emerging literally in the middle of the Romantic movement, containing within it SF's perpetual answer to romanticism -- that progress will happen and the only way to deal with it will be wisdom.
The Romantic movement was more, of course, than simply cultural recidivism -- more than a grandson allying himself with his grandfather in common hatred of papa. Predictability would take all the fun out of being a rebel! Still, there is a certain inevitability about these cycles. There will never be a shortage of young men and women, eager to announce new revelations. No matter how fine the accomplishments of their parents, bright newcomers will always be ready to proclaim themselves prophets of a new age.
All the more so for the loose confederacy of genres known as Speculative Fiction! After all, SF is the literature of change -- in the human condition and in the universe as a whole. By its nature, it must encourage fresh ideas or perish.
So SF had the "New Wave" authors of the sixties -- Ellison, Zelazny, Silverberg -- who decried the prior emphasis on gadgetry and plot, proclaiming the discovery of something called style. Language became their palliate. Their colors would be passion, stirred in the reader's soul.
Naturally, the Old Farts thought a lot of this was straight bull. They had spent half a lifetime ardently fighting for the freedom to speculate about mankind's relationship with technology and space and time -- and now these young whippersnappers were just taking that freedom for granted. Worse, they were strutting about as if they were the true innovators!
Indeed, the best New Wave writers were wonderfully inventive, contributing something vital to our genre, just when it was needed most. They raised new issues, posed new quandaries, precisely because those prior battles had been won. The best of the old guard did not grouse when the newcomers came by, flaunting new, gaudy plumage. Rather, they smiled, remembering what it was to be young. And they said, "Come on over here, son. Sit down and tell me all about it."
So it was with Cyberpunk in the Eighties. Although I was younger than most of the CP folk, and started my career much more recently, somehow I found myself in the O.F. (Old Farts) camp, perhaps because I truly do believe that technology and reason will play a role in raising generations better than ours. Assigned a role, I was only too glad to play along for the fun of it, keeping quiet to outsider reporters about the fact that I really liked most of the work I'd read by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Pat Cadigan -- and had already contributed my own gritty, noir bits to the trend.
Ah, well. As literary movements go, Cyberpunk is already well past ripe middle age. Like some of its practitioners, who can be seen occasionally peering into each others' mirror-shades suspiciously, watching age-lines and liver spots emerge. But the worst is coming. For the most successful movements are always punished by becoming... clichés.
Consider the story of the elderly lady who was taken to her first Shakespeare play ever -- Hamlet. Her reaction? "Well, I thought it was very nice... but it was all so full of quotations!" Such is the doom of authors, to be fated at one end with obscurity, and at the other end, after success, with being copied until everyone is sick of you. Alas.
And each successful generation creates something else... a new clade of rebels, fomenting revolution and rejection against the prior one. Bright kids who are talking about these new things they've discovered... things called "story," and "character" and "hope."
Many people have tried to define science fiction. I like to call it the literature of exploration and change. While other genres obsess upon so-called eternal verities, SF deals with the possibility that our children may have different problems. They may, indeed, be different than we have been.
Change is an important matter -- indeed, it's the salient feature of our age. How well do you deal with change?
All creatures live embedded in time, though only human beings seem to lift their heads to comment on this fact, lamenting the past or worrying over what's to come. Our brains are uniquely equipped to handle this temporal skepsis. For example, twin neural clusters that reside just above our eyes -- the prefrontal lobes -- appear especially adapted for extrapolating ahead.
Meanwhile, swathes of older cortex can flood with vivid memories of yesterday, triggered by the merest sensory tickle, as when a single aromatic whiff sent Proust back to roam his mother's kitchen for eighty thousand words. (We'll return to neurons and the brain, later.)
Obsession with either past or future can almost define a civilization. Worldwide, most cultures believed in some lost golden age when people knew more, when they mused loftier thoughts and were closer to the gods -- but then fell from that state of grace. The myth occurred so frequently, in so many continents and so many contexts -- despite an almost complete lack of credible evidence for any genuine past "golden age" -- that we must assume the fable wells up from something basic in our natures.
Under this dour but recurrent "look-back" worldview, men and women of a later, coarser era can only look back with envy to that better, happier time, studying ancient lore and hoping to live up to remnants of ancient wisdom.
Just a few societies dared contradict this standard dogma of nostalgia. Our own Scientific West, with its impudent notion of progress, brashly relocated any "golden age" to the future, something to work toward, a human construct for our grandchildren to achieve with craft, sweat and good will -- assuming that we manage to prepare them properly for such an ambitious task. Implicit is the postulate that our offspring can and should be better than us, a glimmering hope that is nurtured (a bit) by two generations of steadily rising IQ scores.
This perspective can be important when we examine popular mythologies in the realm of science fiction. Take a number of popular epics: for example, The Matrix, Minority Report and Blade Runner, the latter two films films inspired by literary works of Philip K. Dick.
We shall see that these works -- and others, such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the perennial, Star Trek -- can be especially well illuminated by asking the following questions:
Does the work look forward to human progress or does it push nostalgia by lamenting a lost golden age?
Is science portrayed with loathing? Or as a hopeful trend that must also be watched carefully against harmful excess?
What role does rebellion play? Is suspicion of authority portrayed as a private thing? (The hero as a lone fox among sheep.) Or is suspicion of authority portrayed as a healthy reaction by all citizens, who participate by helping to keep the mighty accountable?
Are "heroes" portrayed as normal people -- perhaps above-average, but part of the human continuum? Or are they demigods, exalted above common humanity by class or genes or even by divine right?
These are not the usual literary categories applied by analytical critics, but I am willing to wager that they will prove enlightening.
First, however, let us begin with one obvious fact -- that every generation is invaded by a new wave of barbarians -- its children.
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Do you believe that the people around you are subjected to propaganda? Most people think so. Please take a moment to write down on a piece of paper which campaign you think most thoroughly indoctrinates your fellow citizens. Some mention Communism, religion, or consumer advertising... or that today's mass media push conformity on a hapless, sheeplike population.
It is a smug cliché -- that you alone (or perhaps with a few friends) -- happen to see through the conditioning that has turned all the rest into passively obedient sheep. Cyberpunk plays to this image, by portraying a lone individual -- or perhaps just a few -- scurrying like rats under the dark towers of the ruling masters. In The Matrix, the masters are evil computers. In Johnny Mnemonic they are the rulers of faceless corporations. In The X Files it is a government conspiracy. What these myths share in common is the grimly satisfying image that the masses are useless bystanders, lowing and mooing in confusion.
In fact, it never occurs to the heroes of these tales (above all The X Files) to actually appeal to the very masses who pay the hero's wages and deserve his loyal respect. The common man or woman cannot help resist the Dark Power, because they were long ago indoctrinated into dull, unquestioning obedience.
Ah, but here is the ironic twist. Look around yourself. I'll bet you cannot name, offhand, a single popular film of the last forty years that actually preached homogeneity, submission, or repression of the individual spirit.
That's a clue!
In fact, the most persistent and inarguably incessant propaganda campaign, appearing in countless movies, novels, myths and TV shows, preaches quite the opposite! A singular and unswerving theme so persistent and ubiquitous that most people hardly notice or mention it. And yet, when I say it aloud, you will nod your heads in instant recognition.
That theme is suspicion of authority -- often accompanied by its sidekick/partner: tolerance.
Indeed, try to come up with even one example of a recent film you enjoyed in which the hero did not bond with the audience in the first ten minutes by resisting or sticking-it to some authority figure.
Some film-makers, such as Steven Spielberg, use this potent cinematic ingredient in measured doses, creating and portraying authority figures who are just malevolent and powerful enough to keep the heroes in jeopardy, without too much exaggeration. Others slather the authoritarian premise on as thick as sugar icing in a wedding cake, using the sweetness of resentment to overwhelm all other lacks in plot or consistency or taste.
Alas, the latter tendency is all-too frequent in sci fi cinema. Take the bleak paranoia that pervades The Matrix and other films of its genre. Oh, I don't mind some tales about rebellion against mega-computers. What gets tedious is the relentless refusal ever to recognize -- and then start cleverly varying - a classic cliché.
But back to the essence here. Rebels are always the heroes. Conformity is portrayed as worse than death. Even in war flicks, irreverence for some pompous commander is a necessary trait. Often, the main character also presents some quirky trait, some eccentricity, that draws both ire from some oppressor and sympathy from the audience.
Oh, you do hear some messages of conformity and intolerance -- but these fill the mouths of moustache-twirling villains, clearly inviting us to rebel contrary to everything they say. Submission to gray tribal normality is portrayed as one of the most contemptible things an individual can do -a message quite opposite to what was pushed in most other cultures.
This theme is so prevalent, and so obvious, that even though you can see where I am going with it -- and hate the inevitable conclusion -- you aren't going to dispute the core fact. You have to sit there and accept one of the most galling things that a bunch of dedicated individualists can ever realize -- that you were trained to be individualists by the most relentless campaign of public indoctrination in history, suckling your love of rebellion and eccentricity from a society that -- evidently, at some level -- wants you to be that way!
Oh, the ironies abound.
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A Question of Perspective
So do all popular works of fiction promote suspicion of authority? At some level, yes they do. It is the core element of the modern drama, showing just how far the modern sensibility has traveled, parting markedly from the passive plaints of poor doomed Oedipus and Othello, who had no recourse when they were marked for agony by their gods. The classical Greeks, Romans, Japanese and others tended to portray resistance as futile - as prescribed primly in Aristotle's Poetics -- a fundamental tenet of the Look Back view we talked about earlier.
In contrast, some modern SF & Fantasy tales aggressively take the extreme opposite position. Take Xena and Hercules, two fairly low-brow popular television series in which authority figures were portrayed as evil in direct proportion to their rudeness or callousness toward commonfolk. Xena might rescue an exiled king from invaders and restore his throne, but only if he treats people nicely and promises to set up a democratically elected city council. Any time someone is abused by an Olympian, that "god" is sure to face dire punishment from our heroine!
Ah, but the will toward worshipping olympians and demigods still roils within us. After all, we spent thousands of years in feudal settings that were totally undemocratic. Social structures were pyramid-shaped, with a narrow elite dominating ignorant masses. Starting with Homer's The Iliad and The Epic of Gilgamesh, nearly all of the bards and storytellers worked for the chiefs, aristocrats and kings who owned all the marbles. (A point conveniently never mentioned by Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces.) Naturally they preached that lords and "better" 'folk had a right to exercise capricious power at whim. You could choose which demigod to root for -- say, Achilles or Hector. But there was no disputing the super-hero's ultimate right to deal with mortals however he wished.
Of course this is another aspect of the nostalgic-romantic Look Back worldview. Today you see it exemplified in two highly popular epics, the Ender series of
Orson Scott Card and the Star Wars saga produced by George Lucas. In both, the pivotal characters are born profoundly superior to those around them... not just a little smarter, but indisputably and qualitatively greater than the mere mortals surrounding them. Moreover, the distinction is not one earned by hard work or the give-and-take of reciprocal criticism that typifies modern teamwork, democracy, meritocracy or science. Rather the justification is one of inherited genetic supremacy, giving the hero an inherent right to meddle at will.
Nearly all O.S. Card's works feature a central demigod, whose saving grace is a deep self-pitying angst -- expressed at great length -- over being forced to over-rule the obstinate will of benighted humanity and set things straight. But at least Card's characters seem to feel vague regret that people aren't able to handle things as adults. Not bothering with such hand-wringing, George Lucas's "Jedi Force" mythology baldly and openly extols the same sort of secretive mystical priest-class that assisted and excused oppressive kings in nearly all eras, on nearly all continents. And all the while, both sagas put forward strawmen 'authority figures' for the characters to resent openly, while real manipulators play the underlying dancing tune.
Of course, the very notion of progress is anathema to nostalgic-romantics. Despite techie furnishings, the Star Wars pop-epic relentlessly preaches the nostalgist party line -- an ideal society ought to be ruled by secretive-mystical elites, unaccountable and self-chosen based on inherent qualities of blood. The only good knowledge is old knowledge. (No wonder it all happened "long ago, in a galaxy far away.")
Note: these romantics needn't be anti-technological, though they almost have to reject science. Their worldview is utterly incompatible with the way science works or thinks.
From Virgil and the Vedas to Plato, Shelley and Tolkien, all the way to Updike and Rowling, this prevalent nostalgist tradition spanned five continents and forty centuries. Some rage, others fizz; but all grumble at tomorrow.
Even where the heroes of these tales practice "suspicion of authority" (they must, in order to bond with today's audiences) the dispute is portrayed as one among demigods. Mere mortals have the option of dying as spear carriers -- as they did in the The Iliad -- and of worshipping the demigods with mass ceremonies, as in Triumph of the Will.
Contrast this with the view portrayed in Star Trek, in which democracy is an inherent good. Scientific progress, while deserving skeptical oversight, is seen as both inevitable and probably desirable. The ship's captain, while great, relies utterly on the competence of his or her "merely human" crew, any one of whom may prove crucial and deserving of a brief moment on center stage. In Star Trek, any demigod is viewed with worried doubt. (For more on this distinction, see my Star Wars article.)
Frankly, I am amazed that Star Trek ever thrived. Certainly it is unsurprising to find that its core element of progressive optimism has seldom been emulated elsewhere in the canon of SF. There are a few other examples. Robert Silverberg, Iain Banks and Wil McCarthy have been known to portray futures in which our descendants face problems commensurately difficult enough to challenge even people who are far better and wiser than we are.
Let's face it; portraying a smart future civilization -- one that nevertheless faces cleverly onerous problems -- can be hard work! It is much, much easier to milk the emotions by using a demigod character, in a dystopian setting filled with clueless citizens. Just assume the worst about society and give the readers or viewers the emotional satisfaction of watching that supreme hero "rebel" against some garishly simple and overwrought authority figure... while at the same time wielding magical forces that he was born and destined to use.
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The Difficulty of Optimism
Where do many of today's popular genre films fit in?
Take The Matrix, a movie I quite enjoyed! Its high-tech premise and cyber-glossy ambiance are lavishly attractive and the conflict setup is appealing. Who could resist the dark glamour of its design, the pyrotechnics of its stunts, the seduction of its noir-ish vision?
Above all, relish the classic audience identification with a character who is told in advance that he will be 'the One' . . . and any skill that he lacks -- any skill that you ever wished that you had time to learn -- can be downloaded in a matter of seconds! (Naturally, this miracle uses the very same science that the central premise preaches to have been one big mistake. Ironies are another lavish trait of the film.)
But how does it score according to the four questions I posed earlier?
On almost every count, The Matrix is an unabashedly nostalgic-romantic piece, loyal to the elitist, Look Backward worldview, suspicious of science and deeply contemptuous of the masses, which are portrayed more sheeplike here than in any other work of popular culture! Only at the very end is there a hint that perhaps the common man or woman might someday be wakened from their seductive slumbers. But not much chance of that.
Don't get me wrong! Dark warnings are among the greatest literary works and SF does civilization a genuine good when it dourly explores potential failure modes. Elsewhere I go into the importance of self-preventing prophecies -- SF tales that have quite possibly saved our lives and certainly helped save freedom, by innoculating a definitely NOT-sheeplike public with heightened awareness of a potential danger. Among the greatest of these were Dr. Strangelove, Soylent Green and Nineteen Eighty-Four, all of which helped make the author's vivid warning somewhat obsolete through the unexpected miracle that people actually listened.
Still, there have been enough paeans of praise for the style and the warning inherent in The Matrix. I want to go back to those under-discussed aspects -- such as the devout adherence to a nostalgist-romantic-Look Back way of viewing the world.
Contrast this mentality with another enjoyable romp -- The Fifth Element -- a far less serious or thoughtful film than The Matrix -- one whose general mindlessness is only matched by its unabashed joy. Ebullience and optimism spills off the screen in gushing torrents, overwhelming the viewer's sense of surly skepticism, even when the adventure is at its most dire or the plot is most ridiculous. True, there is a demigod... but she desperately needs the aid and succor of mere mortal heroes, even citizens who are passing by! Some authority figures drive the plot with their vileness, but the director does not feel it necessary to tar all of society and all of science with this brush. The villains are plenty bad enough. No need to make the cake all frosting.
Take another example -- Minority Report... or almost any Steven Spielberg film, for that matter. Spielberg is unabashedly progressive and loyal to the Look Forward zeitgeist. Although he skillfully utilizes suspicion-of-authority, he cannot let himself fall for the X Files cliché of a country and citizenry that are completely and forever clueless. Even the government -- a classic target of authority-resentment in film -- is never portrayed as unalloyedly vile. Rather, his abusive authority figures are narrowly defined, a vile police chief here... a callous scientist there.
Moreover, the hero can even sometimes call upon help from decent people and institutions. While there are moments of techno-Orwellian creepiness in Minority Report, such as when the police send spy-eye "spiders" running through an apartment building, Spielberg portrays this as a highly limited invasion, one that sovereign citizens have clearly decided to put up with. They can still vote to eliminate a particular police power if they decide they do not like it -- in fact this is a central element to the plot. This future may be creepy and filled with problems, but it is no clichéd tyranny.
In other words, unlike George Lucas, Spielberg is grateful to a civilization of democracy, egalitarian science and general decency. He simply cannot bring himself to spit in its face. Especially not after it has been so good to him.
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The Roots of Fantasy
At the very opposite extreme, consider the popularity of feudal/magical fantasies, of the kind typified by The Lord of the Rings.
Recall how a core element of romanticism is to spurn the modern emphasis on pragmatic experimentation, production, universal literacy, cooperative enterprise and flattened social orders. In contrast to these 'sterile' pursuits, Romantics extolled the traditional, the personal, the particular, the subjective and metaphorical. Consider how this fits with the very plot of Lord of the Rings, in which the good guys strive to win re-establishment of an older, graceful and "natural" hierarchy against the disturbing, quasi-industrial and vaguely technological ambience of Mordor, with its smokestack imagery and manufactured power-rings that can be used by anybody, not just an elite few. Those man-made wonders are deemed cursed, damning anyone who dares to use them, usurping the rightful powers of their betters. (The high elves.)
Another of the really cool things about fantasy -- you can identify with a side that's 100% pure, distilled good and revel as they utterly annihilate foes who deserve to be exterminated because they are 100% evil! This may not be politically correct, but then political correctness is really a bastard offspring of egalitarian-scientific enlightenment. Romanticism never made any pretense at equality. It is hyper-discriminatory, by nature.
The urge to crush some demonized enemy resonates deeply within us, dating from ages far earlier than feudalism. Hence, the vicarious thrill we feel over the slaughter of orc foot soldiers at Helm's Deep. Then again as the Ents flatten even more goblin grunts at Saruman's citadel, taking no prisoners, without a thought for all the orphaned orclings and grieving widorcs. And again at Minas Tirith, and again at the Gondor Docks and again... well, they're only orcs, after all. What fun.
Notice any similarity to the waves of foot-soldiers and spear carriers who died under Achilles' hand in the The Iliad... or in The Star Wars Saga?
Among all the attempts to cast definitions of fantasy and science fiction, to help explain the chasm that so many see, let me offer this one based on the difference between the Look Back and Look Forward Worldviews.
Science fiction is the genre that posits the slim possibility that children might -- sometimes -- be capable of learning from the mistakes of their parents. That people may someday be better than us, even partly on account of our efforts.
They may no longer need kings. They may, each of them, be capable of rising up and being heroes.
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A Continuing Struggle of Worldviews
There is no resolution to this ongoing struggle, one that runs deeper than any politics or ideology. Movies such as The Matrix and Minority Report embody this struggle. While we are entranced by the similarities -- the glossy, diverting futures and techno wonders and dark warnings, it is important also to remember that there are deeper assumptions at play. Assumptions about what human beings can potentially achieve.
Science fiction, in effect, has become a central battlefield in one of the most important disputes roiling in the human mind -- the decision whether to continue our obsession with hierarchies, demigods and the past...
...or to turn with confidence and wary optimism toward the future.