May 2008

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

A Very American Disaster

Working my way through Stefan Collini’s complex account of British intellectuals, Absent Minds, I was struck by a comment about how much George Orwell re-used passages from his own reviews and articles in later works. Well, if it was good enough for George, I shouldn’t get too hung up about quoting myself, should I?

You see, a while ago I said something in a comment on someone’s blog. It was an off the cuff remark, but it’s stuck in my mind since then. I said: “We create the authors we want. I suspect much of the time we don’t actually read them.”

The author in question was William Gibson. You know Bill Gibson: originator and leading spirit of cyberpunk, wrote his first novel on a typewriter but still managed to create the most hip, wise, computer-literate fiction we had. The trouble is, you know that about Gibson even if you’ve never read a word he wrote. And if you read his work, beyond the first three novels and a handful of short stories, that’s not what you get.

I remember my wife interviewed Gibson after the publication of his first solo novel following the trilogy. She came back and said they spent the whole time talking about architecture. For several years, that was the only published source you could find on Gibson that wasn’t primarily about computers. But I think it got closer to the heart of what he does than any attempt to make him into a cyberguru. If you look at his books, from Idoru all the way up to Spook Country, they are concerned with the way the world works, not necessarily with architecture but with the way the city is shaped, and the way the shape of the city shapes those who live in it. Then look back at the cyberpunk novels, and the same concern is there too, in the descriptions of the Sprawl. It may be less colourful than the inside of a computer, but it’s more compelling.

The trouble is, because Gibson is the cyberpunk, end of story, even today you get more comment on the way he uses iPods in Spook Country than on the way he shapes his world.

These thoughts were prompted by reading his story "Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City" in Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. The story is not cyberpunk, I’m not even sure it is science fiction, but it is archetypal Gibson, a sequence of minutely detailed descriptions of a space that is currently empty but where clearly someone is living (I think we imagine it is in Japan as much because of the way the title references Hokusai as because of specific references in the text) that tell us more about the absent inhabitant than many another author would have achieved by introducing the person in question.

Above all, the story illuminates a society in decline -- this is "Cardboard City," remember -- unflinchingly but sympathetically. Our sadness at the paucity of possessions, the emptiness of the life, the tokens of sustained human dignity, is displaced sympathy for the disaster going on off-stage. Because Gibson writes disaster stories. He always has; so did all the other cyberpunks.

Something strange happened about a quarter of a century ago. It was the height of the Reagan presidency, and even Democrats were being infected by the unforced optimism he exuded. America was rich, was winning the Cold War, and was riding an exciting wave of new technology as the first affordable personal computers were starting to appear in homes. And there was a new type of internationalist, computer-literate science fiction that seemed to capture this up-beat zeitgeist. Indeed, it was a new kind of science fiction that seemed comfortable with words like "zeitgeist." It was cyberpunk.

But cyberpunk wasn’t optimistic, not really. It wasn’t about a rich and victorious America. It was about America in decline. Despite the technological trappings, the economic and cultural power had shifted, usually to Japan. This was science fiction about the people struggling to make a tenuous hand-to-mouth living in the Sprawl, the people who had lost any hope of the effortless comfort that was supposed to be the birthright of all Americans, the people denied the promise of the bright "morning in America" that Reagan was just then proclaiming. It was, in other words, science fiction that owed as much to John Wyndham as it did to "Doc" Smith or Robert Heinlein.

Now I don’t want to suggest that there had been no catastrophe stories in American science fiction before this point. Ever since the Manhattan Project, and especially since the Soviet Union had exploded their own nuclear device, writers had been imagining an America bombed back to the stone age. In stories as varied as Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick, Golden Days by Carolyn See, "A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison, all the way up to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, American writers have been happy to imagine America in the aftermath of some apocalyptic devastation.

As an aside, it is curious that the writers from outside the sf tradition (Stewart, See, McCarthy) seem comfortable following the devastation through to a pessimistic conclusion, while the sf writers (Miller, Dick, Ellison) all see a future continuing beyond the devastation. But this, alas, is not the place to follow that particular notion any further.

The thing that links these catastrophe stories, however, is that they are all apocalyptic. America was in its pomp when something sudden, devastating and, more to the point, external, happened to wipe it all out. There is no decline there, no loss of stature, no failure of wealth. What set cyberpunk apart from contemporary American science fiction, even more than its computer playthings, was the fact that the sands were running out, the decline had set in, and the world and its wealth had turned elsewhere.

Once the cyberpunks started the trend, of course, others followed, and very quickly. I remember in the early '90s reviewing a collection of stories in which I came across one (I’ve just checked, it was "California Dreaming" by Elizabeth A. Lynn) in which America is saying goodbye to the car. This wasn’t a can-do picture of the future, the way that all American science fiction had seemed to find ways to solve problems however hopeless they might seem, it was a simple account of things no longer working. At the time it brought me to a complete halt myself: this was a straightforward catastrophe story, of the sort I didn’t think ever got written outside Britain.

Now it’s rare to find any contemporary American sf that doesn’t assume some degree of social, cultural, economic, political or moral decline. It’s there in the cyberpunks (Bruce Sterling’s "Bicycle Repairman" or Distraction); it’s there in what Kelly and Kessel call the post-cyberpunks (from their collection I just need to pick out "Two Dreams on Trains" by Elizabeth Bear, "The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi, and particularly "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" by Cory Doctorow).

And if science fiction is a barometer of contemporary social pressures, what is all this saying about America at the beginning of a new century?