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Paintwork (2011) By Tim Maughan – Cyberpunk without the Iron Lady

February 21, 2012

Given its nominal association with the music of Crass, the Sex Pistols and Refused, it is only natural to expect the literature of cyberpunk to be both politically engaged and radically opposed to the status quo. However, the term ‘cyberpunk’ is actually something of a misnomer as the values of the subgenre have always been decidedly more bourgeois than the values of the bands that inspired the genre’s name. Far from a leftist clarion call, cyberpunk is and continues to be the literature of Thatcherism.

 

 

Early cyberpunk texts such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net (1989) articulate a deep sense of distrust and frustration with existing institutions. The archetypal cyberpunk protagonist is a supremely competent individual who has somehow managed to fall through the cracks of middle-class life and supports himself by occupying economic niches ignored by larger economic interests. Early cyberpunk is imbued with the rhetoric of class alienation, for while cyberpunk protagonists seldom have a place in the crystalline spires of the corporations they serve, it never occurs to them to either question or combat the status quo. Many critics assumed early cyberpunk to be a leftist dystopia because the corporations that dominate the cyberpunk skyline also overshadow our own. A more accurate interpretation would be to see these corporations as metaphorical stand-ins for the family-owned industries and old-fashioned financial institutions that were ripped apart by the first wave of Thatcherite deregulation. The early cyberpunk protagonists should not be seen as angry rebels but as aspiring corporate raiders similar to the aggressive young Turks who made millions in the City while entire regions were put to the economic sword. By emphasising Thatcherism’s economic conservatism while glossing over the social conservatism that sold it to both the British and American publics, cyberpunk was able to position itself as a literature of social alienation. It is only when we consider the wider history of the sub-genre that we realise the self-serving nature of cyberpunk’s radicalism.

The first warning signs were evident in the genre’s rapid cultural stagnation. For example, despite cyberpunk having been a product of the American cultural malaise of the late 1970s, traditional cyberpunk novels such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) continued to be published well into the 1990s. The reason for this stagnation is that the ambitious middle class people who were on the outside in the early 1980s continued to think of themselves as outsiders despite their cultural and economic triumph over the institutions of the post-War period. Indeed, it is only when Neal Stephenson published Cryptonomicon (1999) that cyberpunk finally began to recognise the true extent of its cultural impact.

 

 

Cryptonomicon took the values and formulae of traditional cyberpunk and merged them with those of the airport thriller to produce a story involving the staff of a high tech start-up company who finds themselves being sucked into a world of espionage and corporate intrigue. Cryptonomicon is very much a work of cyberpunk except that it replaces cyborgs with white-collar office workers and futuristic dystopias with modern-day America. This groundbreaking spin on the traditional cyberpunk novel formed the template for what we should think of as the Phase 2 cyberpunk novel.

As in Phase 1 novels, the protagonists of Phase 2 novels such as Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008), William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007) are middle class outsiders with a deep distrust of established institutions. However, while the protagonists of early cyberpunk novels had fallen through the cracks of middle class society, the protagonists of Phase 2 cyberpunk novels intentionally position themselves outside of the ‘mainstream’ of their culture. The recognition that middle class alienation and cheerfully commoditised rebellion were suddenly integral parts of American corporate culture lends Phase 2 cyberpunk novels a celebratory smugness that can be nothing short of nauseating. Like characters in the films of Sofia Coppola, the protagonists of Phase 2 cyberpunk novels breathe a rarefied cultural atmosphere of fashionable nightclubs, swanky hotels and cutting edge cultural events thanks to their ability to stay one step ahead of the technological curve. The celebratory nature of Phase 2 cyberpunk is also evident in the decidedly neoliberal tendency of science fiction writers to globalise cyberpunk narratives by exporting them from America to the developing world (as in Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy and works of Ian McDonald including River of Gods (2004), Brasyl (2007) and The Dervish House (2010)). Looking back on Phase 2 cyberpunk novels, one is struck by both the complacency and the sense of entitlement of a wealthy middle class that was utterly incapable of predicting its own eventual downfall. After all, if the long boom of Thatcherism had enriched the Western middle class why should it not do the same for the entire world? It was not until Phase 3 that cyberpunk finally began to question its affiliation with neoliberalism.

 

 

Thus far, the defining text of Phase 3 cyberpunk is Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland (2008). Set in a South Africa so corporate and gentrified that it could just as easily be America or Britain, Moxyland brutally deconstructs the smugness that formed the cornerstone of the Phase 2 novel. The difference between Phase 2 and Phase 3 cyberpunk is that while Phase 2 authors such as Gibson and Doctorow present their protagonists as aspirational figures, Beukes presents the same type of character as spoiled, deluded and morally compromised imbeciles. It is far from accidental that Moxyland appeared at a time of economic crisis as Beukes’ decision to question the underlying ethics of the cyberpunk movement reflects a wider cultural sense of buyer’s remorse. The West swallowed the teachings of Thatcherism and clung to them right up until the moment when the entire global economy seemed about to implode. The anger of Phase 3 cyberpunk is an anger of profound disenchantment not only with established institutions but also the aspects of human nature that created such institutions in the first place. This same rage surges through the veins of Tim Maughan’s debut short story collection Paintwork resulting in a story cycle imbued with a profound sense of sadness and disappointment with how the future has turned out.

Paintworks eponymous opening story is set in Maughan’s hometown of Bristol. The story tells of a ‘writer’ named 3Cube who spends his time sabotaging QR codes so that, rather than displaying adverts, they display idealistic and uplifting works of digital art. However, as soon as 3Cube and his friendly neighbourhood hacker vandalise one billboard, someone comes along and replaces 3Cube’s art with a work of 2D art that both mocks his idealism and uses his imagery to sell product. Furious at what he assumes to be a calculated act of disrespect, 3Cube tries to work out who it is that is sabotaging his artwork.

Paintwork’s second story “Paparazzi” tells the story of John Smith, a man who made his name as a documentary filmmaker by chronicling the online restaging of a key battle in the War on Terror, a battle that was fought and refought in digital space until the desired outcome was eventually achieved. Based on his reputation for both honest reporting and infiltrating online cliques, Smith is hired by an MMORPG clan to capture footage proving that a rival clan’s general is actually controlled by more than one person. By proving the general is nothing more than a media construct, Smith’s adoptive clan hope to undermine their rival’s popularity and thereby attract more skilled players to their banner. In order to gain incriminating footage, Smith is handed an MMORPG character and trained in how to play the game well enough to pass muster amidst expert players. Initially approaching the task as a simple infiltration mission, Smith is rapidly enchanted by the sense of community and shared adversity that forms the core of online play. The more time he invests in this community, the more he values its achievements and the more he values the interests of his clan, the more his clan come to consider him as one of their assets.

The book’s final story “Havana Augmented” takes place on the island of Cuba where local gamers have organised a demonstration fight between one of their home grown clans and the generals of the internationally renowned video game clan that features in “Paparazzi”. Given that Cuba is still the subject of a US trade embargo, this fight should not be able to take place as the citizens of Cuba are not officially allowed to access the kind of games where clans do battle. However, because Cuba is legally off the net, a group of Cuban gamers have hacked some gaming software and transformed it into a piece of Augmented Reality software that allows them to stage giant robot fights all over their city. Intrigued by the software and always mindful of a PR opportunity, the clan’s leadership travels to Cuba where the Cuban gamers are forced to choose between protecting their country and becoming international superstars.

Despite being self-published, Paintwork’s writing is elegantly effective. Like many cyberpunk authors, Maughan favours both short sentences and unadorned syntax which, though clearly intended to keep out of the way of Maughan’s ideas, actually lend proceedings an edge of brittle hardness… as though everyone is walking around with gritted teeth, hoping to make it home in relative safety.

Maughan presents his ideas using the old cyberpunk trick of blending new technology with old brand names. This produces a heady mixture of today and tomorrow that is sometimes familiar, sometimes disorienting but forever tantalisingly out of reach. For example, Maughan’s story “Paintwork” re-uses Cory Doctorow’s idea of someone faking out gait-recognition software by intentionally hobbling themselves. However, rather than simply ripping off an existing idea, Maughan makes it clear that his character does this by wearing a pair of Nike trainers that are too small and because they are too small their seams have cracked meaning that they are no longer even remotely waterproof. Key to cyberpunk’s reputation for grit and realism is a willingness to present futuristic technology as not only old but also broken and there is something both intensely cyberpunky and very British about someone who is clever enough to mess with CCTV and yet vain and short-sighted enough that he winds up sacrificing a pair of over-priced trainers to the gods of British weather.

As a storyteller, Maughan is somewhat frustrating. Each of Paintwork’s stories carefully introduces us to its characters and setting before making the tensions between these two elements abundantly clear. The over-riding message of Paintwork is that no matter how clever you believe yourself to be, you will eventually be used, exploited and cast aside by the people who are actually in charge. Though Maughan takes his time explaining the trap and why his characters might choose to enter it, he never lingers once that trap is sprung. For example, “Paintwork” is 33 pages long but only a page or so is devoted to explaining the true nature of what has transpired. When used in a cinematic context, this technique can be very effective as it produces endings that are both shocking and ambiguous. Unfortunately, though Maughan’s endings are certainly surprising, they are not particularly ambiguous as it is always obvious precisely what it is that happens to each of the characters at the end of the story. Given that ambiguity was never part of the game plan to begin with, Maughan’s stories might have benefitted from a little more time sent unpacking the impact and implications of their endings. Maughan’s fondness for the scratch ending is frustrating as all his endings (short though they may be) allude to a world that produces intelligent and promising young people only to break them in order to make a quick buck. This sense of utter disappointment is not only timely but also central to the aesthetics of Phase 3 cyberpunk, an aesthetic that Maughan seems to perfectly understand.

Each of Paintwork’s stories articulates a profound sense of disappointment with the institutions of the modern world. In “Paintwork” Maughan explores an underground art scene and in both “Paparazzi” and “Havana Augmented” he explores the idea of an online gaming clan that have become so wealthy and powerful they now resemble a multinational corporation. Each of Maughan’s stories involves a character who becomes sucked into these new forms of institution because all of the old institutions have failed them. For example, 3Cube is a talented artist and programmer and yet he pins his hopes and dreams on online celebrity rather than the day job that the story alludes to. Similarly, Smith is a gifted filmmaker and yet no production company seems interested in hiring him let alone paying him money to make his own films. Paintwork’s protagonists are not the capable outsiders of Phase 1 cyberpunk or the smug middle class success stories of Phase 2 novels, they are something different… they are people who have lived by the book and acquired all the skills only to find that there was no job waiting for them at the end of the process. The closest thing to a Phase 1 or Phase 2 protagonist to appear in Paintwork are the hateful gaming celebs of “Havana Augmented” and the preposterous corporate artist of “Paintwork”. William Gibson would have turned such monsters into aspirational figures but Tim Maughan reveals them for what they really are: a cavalcade of smug and self-serving wankers who care more about the tailoring on their designer suits than they do about the plight of their fellow man. The world of Paintwork is not the world of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson; it is not a playground for elite hackers and it is not a place where anyone with a computer and an attitude can change the world. It is a world where the wealthy abuse the poor and where the poor get sucked into institutions that promise community but deliver only oppression.

Though clearly the work of a relatively inexperienced author, Paintwork remains a work full of both power and promise whose political vision strikes a resounding chord of disgust, alienation and profound disappointment. This is a cyberpunk novel that is a long way from the iPads and smugness of Phase 2 cyberpunk and I for one am delighted to have read it.

18 Comments
  1. February 21, 2012 2:54 pm

    Another great review Jonathan. I’m not familiar with this three-phase manner of looking at cyberpunk but associating each phase with a socio-economic era or widespread social/literary outlook corresponds with what I know of the genre.

    I covered Paintwork alongside a few other books for a forthcoming Vector review although my focus was quite different to yours. :)

    I’m looking forward to reading more of Maughan’s work.

  2. February 21, 2012 5:27 pm

    Hi Shaun :-)

    You’re not familiar with the idea of the third phase cyberpunk novel because I only just coined it for this review. It’s a refinement of the ideas I’ve been kicking about since the days of Barleypunk.

    I agree about wanting to see more of Maughan’s work.

  3. February 23, 2012 12:44 pm

    Can we really say that a phase has arrived based on two books? (one of which is self published), or do you hope its more like a self fulfilling prophecy (which I certainly hope comes true)?

    Have you read Doctorow’s book “For the Win” which does include a US middle class viewpoint character but is mainly concerned with Asian teenage gamers trying to unionise. Maybe another candidate for P3?

  4. February 23, 2012 3:45 pm

    I think that there’s a niche opening up, whether or not Sf has the cultural vibrancy to explore that niche in a sustained manner is another question entirely. One of the reasons why I seldom read or write about SF these days is that so little of it is actually about the world (as opposed to ‘look at the clever stuff I can do with the genre toybox!’) so I’m not holding my breath for a huge influx of phase 3 cyberpunk novels.

    I’ve not read Doctorow’s For The Win but I’d be genuinely pleased and surprised if his politics had shifted as pretty much everything he has written to date is about how awesome it is to be a middle class laptop owner.

    However, I would include Roberts’ New Model Army as a transitional piece between the two phases as that book is very much about the awesomeness of new institutions but it acknowledges the fact that these institutions are born into a world that is utterly wretched and that these institutions might not actually save the world beyond their own capacity to survive. NMA is an insider’s view of new institutions but Paintwork is an outsider’s view on the same phenomenon.

  5. Colbie permalink
    February 28, 2012 3:52 pm

    ‘Many critics assumed early cyberpunk to be a leftist dystopia because the corporations that dominate the cyberpunk skyline also overshadow our own. A more accurate interpretation would be to see these corporations as metaphorical stand-ins for the family-owned industries and old-fashioned financial institutions that were ripped apart by the first wave of Thatcherite deregulation. The early cyberpunk protagonists should not be seen as angry rebels but as aspiring corporate raiders similar to the aggressive young Turks who made millions in the City while entire regions were put to the economic sword.’

    Some examples or argument to back this up might help. Why should the corporations not just be what they are – corporations? Why is your interpretation more accurate? Why are the protagonists akin to young Turk raiders and not, say, akin to thieves robbing a bank? Again, a statement devoid of evidence and perhaps too broad brush to even be of any use.

    ‘Cryptonomicon is very much a work of cyberpunk except that it replaces cyborgs with white-collar office workers and futuristic dystopias with modern-day America.’

    Saying it doesn’t make it so. You’re a critic, please write like one. This is potentially interesting but since you haven’t bothered to show us how, by leaving out tropes which you suggest are ways of defining cyberpunk, this book is STILL cyberpunk we can’t know what you mean. As far as I can see the author was guilty of writing cyberpunk in Snowcrash and you’ve decided that you can fit his later novel – an airport thriller, not inaccurately described – into your argument that cyberpunk is middle class comfort reading (something that M John Harrison has been saying for at least a decade).

    You’re a good, interesting critic but this piece needs more work and thought to become an argument.

  6. February 28, 2012 4:46 pm

    Ah Colbie…

    The question isn’t whether or not my interpretation of the history of cyberpunk is true, the question is whether my interpretation is entertaining and interesting. I could unpack my arguments further but this would not make them any more truthful.

    Having said that, the reason why I didn’t unpack my arguments is because nobody is interested in reading a 5000 word essay on the history of political rhetoric but they might be interested in a 2500 word review of a collection of short stories. Know your audience and all that…

    The root of my interpretation lies in the Adam Curtis documentary The Mayfair Set (1999). The documentary is, sadly, not available to buy but it can be stolen if you know where to go. According to Curtis, Thatcher’s economic policy had its roots in the neoliberal thinking of Hayeck and the Mont Pelerin society.

    According to first generation neoliberals capital wanted to be free but instead it was locked away in institutions controlled by the aging patriarchs who had been in control of Western economies since the Great Depression. These patriarchs were not as economically effective as they could be because they held themselves to a set of traditional values that were at odds with the liberalism of the free markets.

    Despite being nominally Conservative, Thatcher and her supporters saw it as their job to dismantle these traditional institutions in order to free both society and capital from their rigid patriarchal thinking. When Goldsmith and the other corporate raiders began sharpening their cutlasses, they weren’t just making themselves richer… they were fighting the powers that be. Because these raiders stood in opposition to traditional institutions, they were outsiders and rebels. If you want to see an example of this type of thinking in a literary context then look no further than the work of Ayn Rand, it is littered with radical free spirits who take on not just government but the old fogies who run yesterday’s business empires.

    Seeing cyberpunk as a leftist movement is the result of Neoliberalism convincing the world that socialism was a more radical offshoot of classic liberalism than laissez-faire capitalism. We read stories about alienated outsiders and we automatically assume they are left-wing because being alienated and rebellious is now seen as the sole preserve of the left despite the fact that Neoliberalism has done more damage to traditional institutions than any number of Marxist revolutions.

    My argument is not that cyberpunk is middle class comfort reading but rather that cyberpunk has tracked the middle class’s attitudes towards traditional institutions. At the time of Thatcher, cyberpunk was the literature of the up-and coming outsider. At the time of Clinton and Bush, cyberpunk was the literature of middle class entitlement. By the time of Obama, cyberpunk seemed ready to become the literature of a middle class that swallowed the kool aid and came up thirsty. Thatcherism promised to free the middle class and make everyone rich… instead it made the wealthy very wealthy indeed while crushing the middle class beneath the heel of its designer boot.

    Your point about cyberpunk protagonists being thieves running a bank is interesting but wrong-headed as there is nothing revolutionary in stealing from people. There a wonderful black and white heist movie called Rififi in which the crooks pour scorn on the fools who work nine to five jobs despite the fact that their skillsets are really no different to those of your average wage slave. The real message of Neoliberalism is that being rich and successful is not about climbing the ladder and joining the golf club… it is about finding ways to use the system to make you richer than the people around you. The Thatcherites did this, Ayn Rand’s characters do this and so do the characters of Phase 1 and 2 cyberpunk.

    Why is cyberpunk a right-wing wet dream? because it is a celebration of being smarter than everyone else and getting paid commensurately.

  7. aelilea permalink
    March 13, 2012 5:59 pm

    While I think there is probably something to your thesis, I agree with Colbie that it would be strengthened by being more explicitly argued. Because it’s far from obvious from the examples you give. Neuromancer, for instance, is hardly a story of “being smarter than everyone else and getting paid commensurately” or of “aspiring corporate raiders”. There is nothing aspirational about the main character, and while one might think momentous changes would transpire as the consequence of the protagonist’s actions, it is clear from the start he is being used, and clear at the end that effectively little has changed in the lives of those involved. Motivations are unclear and mixed, but hardly purely materialistic. Bruce Sterling’s shaper/mechanist stories also don’t seem to obviously map to your argument. (With Stephenson’s blatant libertarianism, you don’t really have to argue your case of course.)

    Also, speaking for myself, I think (I hope) you’re wrong that there would be less interest in essays than reviews. There are so. many. reviews. out there, and sneaking interesting ideas in along the edges rather than developing them outright does seem like hiding your light under a bushel… though of course the LRB has made that kind of “review” its house style, their “reviews” are in fact quite long…

  8. March 14, 2012 12:17 am

    Aelilea —

    Your suggestion that I am hiding my light under a bushel has given me considerable pause for thought. On one level, I agree with you… I could write more, I could write with more depth, I could write in a more scholarly manner and I could be more ambitious in the pieces I produce. I could write a book. I could do all of these things and yet I don’t. I don’t because I genuinely cannot see the point.

    My experience of online criticism is that it is an entirely pointless and self-indulgent undertaking. There’s so much of this stuff floating about that most of it goes unread and none of it really has any impact. In my experience as an online critic, criticism produces either silence or hostility and neither is particularly conducive to motivation. The truth is that nobody cares about this stuff other than the people who produce it.

    The only reason I produce this stuff is because I (normally) enjoy the process of watching a film, thinking about it and producing something readable. My motivations are entirely self-contained: I have no head of department to answer to, I have no prize that I am ever likely to win. I do it because I enjoy the process and because I find it useful.

    You say that I’m hiding my light under a bushel as though it’s a bad thing… I live under a bushel and my lamp keeps the inside of it bright and warm but if I lift off the bushel then that light will dissipate in the darkness and the risk is that I may attract undue attention. I am not an academic and I am not a great author, I am simply me and I am happy under this here bushel :-)

  9. aelilea permalink
    March 14, 2012 1:23 pm

    Thanks for your kind reply! While I was criticising you for not writing the text I would have liked to read after having read it (always a bad thing to do), what I was responding to was this —

    “Having said that, the reason why I didn’t unpack my arguments is because nobody is interested in reading a 5000 word essay on the history of political rhetoric but they might be interested in a 2500 word review of a collection of short stories. Know your audience and all that…”

    which indicated to me you had more you wanted to say but felt there was no interest out there. So I thought I’d better express an interest! :) For very selfish reasons, as I really enjoy your blog, precisely because it isn’t quite like so much of the other stuff floating about… and if everyone just lurks (like me) it never gets said. Didn’t want to take your cosy bushel away from you ;)

    Very much in agreement about your notion of current SF’s curious disconnect from the present btw.

  10. friendlygun permalink
    March 15, 2012 3:17 pm

    It is good to rustle a man’s bushel every so often, if only to make him share the interesting things he is hiding within. ;)

    [P.S. Jonathan, I can no longer comment using just my email address and name. Has my email address been flagged for some reason, or is this just a blanket Gmail ban, or is it some nefarious cyberspace hacker jacking in to toy with me for fun and profit?]

  11. March 16, 2012 8:50 am

    Aelilea —

    I realise, looking back, that my first response to you may have seemed a bit defensive. In truth, I did realise that you were paying me a compliment by wanting to read more of my ideas on this subject so thank you… message received :-)

    The defensiveness is due to the fact that I’m currently processing my attitude towards reviewing and criticism. At the moment, I’m really struggling to find the motivation to write. While a lot of my mislaid motivation is down to the fact that I’m currently selling my house and moving to the country, I am also acutely aware of the futility of the undertaking. Motivation is partly about Push (the desire to do stuff for its own sake) and partly about Pull (the desire to do stuff in order to accomplish some wider task) and, at the moment, I am feeling no Pull at all. I still enjoy the writing process and still enjoy thinking about this sort of stuff but I am very aware that I am just one of a hundred million amateur bloggers. So if I came across as defensive, it’s partly because I’m not sure why I should continue writing.

    As for SF, the problem is that it is an artistic form whose economic viability is entirely dependent upon a small niche community and rather than challenge that community or aspire to reach out beyond the boundaries of that community in order to speak to the universal truths of the human condition, SF has now started to write primarily about SF. American comics and tabletop RPGs have a similar problem as does a lot of contemporary art.

  12. March 16, 2012 8:54 am

    Shaun —

    I just experienced the same problem :-( Evidently you can’t just comment and leave your email address, you now have to log in if that email address is associated with an account. I don’t like this type of thing at all but it seems that I’m powerless to do anything about it… I had a look in the options and there is no option to remove this ‘feature’ BAH!

    My stuff about bushels really is just the latest iteration of my ongoing attempt to make sense of my conflicting desire to a) be part of a wider intellectual community and b) be left alone. My metronome seems to swing back and forth but I’ve been reading quite a lot of stuff about introversion and solitude recently and so my head is currently filled with thoughts about being self-contained rather than engaged. On the one hand, I want to write and to process stuff but on the other hand, I’m not sure why I feel the need to make those thoughts public.

  13. aelilea permalink
    March 17, 2012 7:41 pm

    “As for SF, the problem is that it is an artistic form whose economic viability is entirely dependent upon a small niche community and rather than challenge that community or aspire to reach out beyond the boundaries of that community in order to speak to the universal truths of the human condition, SF has now started to write primarily about SF.”

    While that’s not wrong, doesn’t it beg the question as to why SF has stopped rejuvenating itself (as it has done in the past), or speciating? I have a suspicion which I can’t quite nail down yet, along the lines of “SF used to push certain emotional buttons for people, and current reality makes it impossible to push these same buttons with SF”. From which it would follow that SF is forced to withdraw into its own shell and replicate manieristic versions of its past (now with improved diversity! let’s add some steam!), or something that functions radically differently would have to be invented. Some examples I have in mind are the famous dystopias (eg the Blade Runner setting), which from a present point of view don’t seem all that dystopic anymore, and probably weren’t all that dystopic even then. Or the “competent man”, an idealization if ever there was one, but also a kind of dream whose realistic shadow is much less attainable to people today then it was a generation or two ago. (It is noticeable that coders seem to have been the last holdouts here, which goes along with a sense of control which comes with programming – and of course economically the last IT bubble being not too long ago.) The baseline for the future has shifted from one where you could sketch some blue skies, or gain a certain frisson from “no future”, to one where (as you point out) disillusionment runs deep. There are numerous approaching singularities implicit in the present which look nothing like as “fun” as the one SF chose to deal with, and harder to peer beyond.

    Anyway, I hope you discover the right setting or format to keep writing in a way which is satisfying to you! Part of the “pull” might be to get a decent conversation started, so something comes back from the void one posts to, but this is kind of hard to plan for… As someone who hasn’t published anything I am the last person to give you advice though.

  14. March 18, 2012 9:38 am

    I’ve heard that type of theory a number of times over the years and my problem with it is that rather than explaining the problem of SF’s dwindling relevance, it simply restates the problem in slightly more specific terms.

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while now and I think the problem is actually ecological rather than creative. Think of it in these terms:

    There is a finite number of talented people in the world and these talented people can only ever devote their talents to a finite number of spheres of activity. The most culturally and intellectually vibrant areas are those that manage to capture the imagination of talented people and hold them in place while those talented people poor their talents into that particular scene.

    Traditionally, spheres of activity attracted talent simply by being present so if your parents were academics then chances are that you would grow up to be quite bookish. Similarly, if your friends were into science fiction then chances are that you would grow up to be into science fiction too. Thanks to its networks of book clubs, conventions and fanzines, SF traditionally had a good deal of visibility which meant that it could quite easily hoover up talented youngsters and feed on their talents. However, because the internet has made sure that geographical proximity is no longer am impediment to geographical access, SF must now compete with a lot of other sphere of activity.

    The reason why written SF is in decline is because SF’s institutions are dominated by insular old people with little or no interest in reaching out to younger audiences. In addition to this, many of these old people are also racist, homophobic and sexist meaning that anyone who is a) young, b) non-white, c) non-straight and d) female is not particularly likely to feel particularly welcome in the genre community.

    Why should a talented teenager seek to invest their talents in a community where they are manifestly not wanted? Why would a teenager choose to hook up with SF when they could join more inclusive and youth-oriented communities such as those around anime or TV series?

    The reason why SF is no longer relevant is because it is a culture in decline. It is failing to compete for new people and so it is becoming increasingly old, increasingly self-regarding and increasingly insular. Of course, some people do make it through the gauntlet and wind up being published but as the growth of YA and mainstream use of genre tropes suggest, many people with an interest in genre are now by-passing the SF scene entirely.

  15. aelilea permalink
    March 18, 2012 11:49 am

    Yes, it’s quite possible I completely underestimate the importance of that, never having been part of any SF community myself. I’ll just add that sometimes I suspect the issue I was trying to put my finger on is much wider than just SF books (certainly the mainstream/YA crossover stuff is no more exciting on average). Maybe literature itself is a “culture in decline”, but I don’t particularly like that very pessimistic way of looking at it. So instead I’ll turn it around and ask: where do you think the vibrant areas are these days?

  16. July 12, 2012 1:12 am

    A 9,000-word review/essay would be welcome if it is well-written. I think word count matters less than quality.
    Colbie’s criticisms are sound, in that when you made those statements, you piqued everyone’s interest. We wanted to read more.
    You write well and I love the depth of your analysis and that you are willing to take on some sacred cows and upend metanarratives. You must live in protective custody.
    Please keep writing. I can’t find much good analysis out there.
    Also, I enjoy the posts from your readers. I’m always learning here.

  17. July 12, 2012 3:32 pm

    Thank you Plozancich… I appreciate the encouragement :-) I shall definitely keep writing.

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