Stop Punking the Genre!

In 1983, the term Cyberpunk was born, with a story by the same name by author Bruce Bethke in Amazing Stories #94. The term is defined as a "[S]ubgenre of science fiction that focuses on the effects on society and individuals of advanced computer technology, artificial intelligence and bionic implants in an increasingly global culture, especially as seen in the struggles of streetwise, disaffected characters. (Prucher, Jeff, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, 30). The word itself comes from the meshing of 'cyber' and 'punk', which to me has always seemed as an electronics rebellion. Certainly, the subgenre is one that presents drastically different stories and meanings than what had traditionally been science fiction, and in a way, the style represents a degree of cutting edge thinking that really belongs to the first on the scene, with the truly unique and original thoughts that go against the grain. I think of cyberpunk as the books that are out looking for a fight, ready to cut those unprepared with what they have to say.

My main issue here is two-fold. The first is that with that in mind, it's hard to apply that sort of label to any sort of science fiction after the term is pushing 30 years old, much as it's hard to take someone seriously who's been involved in the punk scene for a comparable amount of time, with several records under their belt to a major record label. The surprise and edge vanishes after a while, and in a way, the 'Cyberpunk' term has become a label that's synonymous with electronics and dystopia. At the same time, the suffix '-Punk' seems to be added onto any number of themes and styles of science fiction literature. Steampunk is a ready example, both visually with film, photography and costuming, but also with such books as Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, where there is a blend of dystopic and steam-powered technology. The problem that I see is that the idea behind 'punk'-style music, video, literature is that it's something that ultimately rebells against a label, and in science fiction's field of vision, -punk is the marketing term to rally behind in creating a subgenre, undermining or missing what the word in the meantime really means.

The term itself came at a time of globalization and a rise of technology around the world, and has since become a label for any number of stories that correspond to a use of technology, with dystopic and near-future themes. Promoted by Gardiner Dozois, the term has largely been used to describe books by William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, Bruce Sterling, Neil Stephenson, and many more. Neuromancer really cut in close at a time before the Internet and home computing, creating a vision of the future that was wholly unique, interesting and edgy. In a large way, the term really did apply to a lot of these earlier books. (This is not to say that modern books in the 'cyberpunk' genre are bad - far from it. This isn't a specific criticism at the books within, just at the association and labeling that they're saddled with). Like observing a quantum event, you change the picture simply by looking at it, and in effect, calling something 'punk' undermines the meaning of the term, and ultimately, does the books labeled as such a big of a disservice. In this day and age with computers and virtual worlds becoming the norm, computers and electronics aren't necessarily that edgy, and any book written in the genre will most likely be compared to Neuromancer in some way or form.

At the same time, I've long been irritated by the Steampunk genre as a concept. According to Brave New Words, the term was coined just four years later by K.W. Jeter in a letter, noting that he believed that stories set in the Victorian era will become the next big thing, and suggested the term Steampunk, most likely in relation to the same edgy connotations that '-punk' gave the word 'cyber'. Once again, the idea of the word 'punk' being used as a label, especially a label right out of the gate, goes against all of the rebellion and fire that the term really should hold for that which it describes. Steampunk is a subgenre that is really beginning to grow a bit more, but doesn't feel new or edgy as far as its content goes: much of what you can see in the stories has long roots in the genre: the stories of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, for example, could easily fall well within the common definitions of Steampunk, and they did it when the concepts were really new and punkish in their own right. (Wells, especially, went across the grain in his literature and his personal life). Thus, a lot of this current steampunk fad is a retread over old ground, with stories that tell drastically different things this time around. Cherie Prist's latest book, for example, isn't so much about technology as it is about character inter-relations in a steampunk-styled environment, one that I'd really label as alternate history over Steampunk. The same goes for recent books by K.J Parker with Devices and Desires, Christopher Priest's The Prestige and Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone. I've long believed that the term science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction in general really transcends the content and goes far more towards the themes, plotline and characters of each work.

Still, there seems to be a tendency for new genres to be bestowed with the '-punk' suffix to differentiate various groups of works by content and theme to perfectly define its own little sub-genre and capture a specific audience. In a large way, it's a good move on the parts of publishing marketing departments to better make their books sell: define an audience, and target them. In some cases, it's warranted. The stories of Paolo Bacigalupi, for example, such as The Windup Girl, The People of Sand and Slag and The Calorie Man, all exist within stories that are defined by their environmentalism-styled stories, ones that have a clear and defining message within a near future, influenced by current events. I've seen others, and called them myself, bio-punk, because in a way, they are some of the more raw, unique and though-provoking stories that I've yet seen. I'm sure that there are other stories, (including the upcoming story at Lightspeed Magazine called Amyrillis, by Carrie Vaughn), that looks at the environmental future and the speculative elements of the next several decades, at the same level of intensity as the early Cyberpunk stories. At other points, I've seen a tendency to apply the label to other things that really don't warrant it, and I can't help but wonder if '-punk' has just become synonymous with 'subgenre' or 'cool'. With the rise of steampunk and cyberpunk, what's to say that there won't be a major movement like 'biopunk', but alongside such things as woodpunk, ironpunk and stonepunk, each with their own style of stories, each more ridiculous than the last? In this possible future, Homer's Iliad, Odyssey and the entirety of the Greek myths will be re-categorized as 'Bronzepunk', and the Apollo-era of space stories will be titled 'Vacuumpunk' (which will most likely be re-titled for ironic effect, vacuum pump fiction).

The main question behind all this is that if the term '-punk' becomes an expected title for any style of sub genre, does it really convey the same meaning as it did in those early days, when? I think that it doesn't, because the idea behind the term is that the fiction is unexpected and raw, and placing the label on it becomes an effective, safe bandage that soothes what shouldn't be. The fiction isn't at fault, it's the hype behind it. Ultimately, speculative fiction as a whole is done a disservice by the constant subgenres, which separates out everything into miniscule categories that are ultimately meaningless, governed and sold based upon their superficial elements, but not the central themes that ultimately make a story worth reading. Punking a genre seems to be the epitome of posing, especially if the term is simply applied to a brand of stories for the simple purpose of finding a market for them.

I, Human, not I, Robot

Looking over my bookshelves, I had a bit of a revelation: there are very few books that really use robots as characters in them. Taking a look, I only see Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and several additional collections of short stories, a collection of Ray Bradbury stories that contains 'There Will Come Soft Rains', a couple of Iain M. Bank's Culture novels, Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ekaterina Sedia's Alchemy of Stone and maybe a couple of others that I passed over. An additional trio of books: Ambassadors from Earth, Edison's Eve and Wired For War all represent a significant figure when it comes to real - life robotic systems and theory. However, looking over the movies that I have on my shelves, robotic characters readily come to mind: C-3P0 and R2-D2 from Star Wars, The Terminator from that franchise, Robbie from Forbidden Planet, the replicants from Blade Runner, Ash from Alien, Andrew from Bicentennial Man, Sonny from I, Robot, and so forth.

I have to wonder about this: there is a large gap in recognizable characters between the two mediums, film and literature. Film seems to contain far more in the way of robots, androids and mechs that come to mind, while I have a difficult time remembering the names of some of the characters from some of my absolute favorite science fiction books.

The first element in which film readily becomes the better medium is its visual nature, allowing for elaborate costumes, props and CGI'ed components of metal and plastics that make up what audiences really think about with robotic characters. Some of the most dramatic imagery from science fiction cinema includes robots: C-3P0 and R2 in the hallway of the Tanative IV, The Terminator coming out of the flames, Ash getting his head bashed in, and so forth. Simply put, robotics are more visual, allow for some differences between living characters and their mechanical servants.

The use of the term 'Robot' goes back to 1923 (1) with Karel Čapek's play, Rossum's Universal Robots, and according to genre historian Adam Roberts, came at a certain time of anti-machinery sentiment with science fiction at the time, with other books, such as with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Olaf Stapledon's The Last and First Men look to the use of mechanical and scientific processes and as a result, a population that overly depends upon them as something wholly against nature and counter-productive to humanity as a whole: societies are generally dystopic and dehumanize their inhabitants. This somewhat fits with some modern science fiction films, such as the far futures of The Terminator and The Matrix, and even with Wall*E, where an overreliance of machines results in our destruction, or at least an enormous disruption of society. (2) Indeed, Robot comes from the Czech term robota, which translates to servitude.(3)

Indeed, it should come as no surprise that early views towards robotics weren't necessarily looked at in any sort of favorable light: throughout history, a constant struggle between leaders and those being led has come about, and one lesson that a history teacher (Mr. David Munford, thank you), imparted was the destruction of clocks and machines during one early worker uprising. The use of factories in particular lends itself well to machinery and associated dystopia images and themes. Henry Ford put to good use the assembly line, which relegated skilled labor to fastening single bolts day in and day out. It is particularly ironic that those human workers were in turn replaced by robots who do the same roles for them.

In literature, then, the use of robotics goes far beyond characters, but is typically used as part of a larger theme that a novel is trying to push across to the reader. The Three Laws of Robotics that are central to Isaac Asimov's robot books are particularly conscious of this fact, and represents some level of paranoia on the part of the human race that at some points, robots will eventually take over humanity because of their inherent strengths over human flesh: stronger, faster, smarter, etc. This makes Asimov’s novels somewhat different from the earlier books with mechanical imagery linked to dystopia: Asimov’s world shows where a fall of society has not occurred because of the indulgences by humans, but generally only because the robots that we’ve essentially created in our own image are just as screwed up as we are. Dystopia, in this case, may be in Asimov’s futures – we certainly see that in his Foundation stories – but for the time being, he views a world with robotics as one where robotics act as a natural counterpart for humanity, rather than a replacement, although the threat, held in place by his three laws, is still there.

In films, however, different elements are brought out: robots are the servants of humanity & associated sentient life in Star Wars, performing vital and specialized tasks while interfacing with their creators. The same goes for the robots in Blade Runner and Wall*E. At other points, they're used for war, such as in Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, where they then turn on their human creators for a variety of reasons, or under the control of a vast, superhuman intellect, such as in the Terminator franchise. Here, these elements often, but not always, hearken back to a sort of dystopia, where robotics are part of a larger problem: it represents the failure of the human race to continue with its biological need to reproduce, and demonstrates some basic elements of life itself: Darwinism or survival of the fittest. Those that cannot keep up, will be destroyed, or at least overcome.

Within literature, the larger themes of dystopia and robotics are used, with the protagonist generally someone who overcomes the system/society/social norm to relearn what it means to be human, and there is a larger theme of the scientific, mechanical, logical order, represented by robotics, and a more organic, theological, chaos, represented by people. At points, this is represented with some very pointed examples: Ray Bradbury’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, which shows a robotic house living diligently on long after its inhabitants have destroyed themselves. However, the reason that robots themselves seem to be fewer and farther between is because there is an inherent need for this dystopia theme to be present in the film: it represents the weakness of humanity, carries with it religious overtones and two extremely different styles of thinking all wrapped up into a single character, which oftentimes, seems to be difficult to work in or really justify as a regular character in a book that takes just part of the story, especially if they are not the central part of a story. Their existence represents so much in relation to their human counterparts, it would seem almost a waste to have a story with a side character as a robotic entity, rather than fleshing out everything that he/she/it represents.

With movies, these themes are there occasionally, but generally, explosions and violence comes first and foremost in the eyes of paying audience members.

1 - Jeff Prucher, Editor. Brave New Worlds: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Oxford University Press, 2007, 164 2 - Adam Roberts. The History of Science Fiction. Palgrave Press, 2005, 159 3 - Ibid, 168