How does one write science fiction when the atom bomb (and later 9/11) makes the future seem impossible to predict? Justin Roby reviews Paul Youngquist’s Cyberfiction: After the Future, which explores how postwar “cy-fi” critiqued life in the age of cybernetic control systems.
“business as usual - world without end” - William Gibson, Virtual Light
Paul Youngquist’s Cyberfiction: After the Future provides a consistently challenging, sometimes startling, often frustrating, and always illuminating look at the increasing science-fictionalization of the modern world. In doing so, he pursues a useful line of enquiry, crossing disciplines to reveal to the reader how the rise of modern capitalism provided the necessary economic and cultural structure for science fiction to become viable not only as a publishing genre, but also as a form that has become essential to understanding our modern milieu.
Between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, when capitalism began to transition from industrial capitalism to finance capitalism, science fiction’s often-stated purpose reflected how finance capitalists had to speculate in order to make money. By 1938, this speculative mode had become central to popular perception of SF’s cultural work. One of Youngquist’s strengths in Cyberfiction lies in his discussion of SF’s place in modern culture, specifically describing the pressures placed upon authors who wished to submit work to the pulp magazines of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. In 1938, John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding science fiction, wrote, “the man who is interested in science must be interested in the future, and appreciate that the old order not only does change, but must change” (qtd. in Youngquist 25). SF has since been historically and popularly understood to anticipate the future for the advantage of the present. Youngquist argues, therefore, that it should be no surprise that in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, “time travel produces value - cultural value that accrues through an imaginative journey into a questionable future that ends with a return to the present” (17). To some extent, these tropes continue to be relevant today.
However, Youngquist argues that the culturally conditioned notion that SF only looks toward the future lost its force after World War II. Youngquist, like Kurt Vonnegut and many postmodern theorists, places the rupture that begins our age on the days when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Kurt Vonnegut reconsidered his thinking on unstoppable progress and wrote: “Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable. What actually happened when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima. We killed everybody there” (Vonnegut 163). The bomb changed the structure of war and scientific progress, the speed of the destruction it wrought “tainting” the future (Youngquist xv). Because of the speed with which the bomb destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Youngquist argues, SF can no longer effectively extrapolate valuable futures. The manufacture and deployment of the atomic bomb, for Youngquist, is not only the origin of the military industrial complex, but also signals the creation of system of coordination at a scale that became a “dry run for globalization” (xiii). Atom-age SF, therefore, examines and interrogates the emerging systems of command and control that take firmer hold after World War II, developing into what Youngquist suggests is a new genre, “cyberfiction.” In the era of cyberfiction, the future is no longer as interesting or puzzling as the present. The purpose of Cyberfiction, therefore, is to account for this difference between pre-WWII, pre-space race SF, and literature that came after, in order to understand how the future could be regained as a place from which value might be brought back and how cyberfiction fulfills that function.
Youngquist defines cyberfiction (or “cy-fi”) as “the strategic consequence of communications after the future” (53). This genre delineates how our now cybernetic world is designed not to accommodate individual freedoms but to circulate the messages that serve to control and overdetermine societal structures and individuals. Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination forms a large part of Youngquist’s early argument concerning the nascent cy-fi that comes into being after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead of simply anticipating the future, cy-fi is geared for speed, potential, and probability, imagining fictions where “alternatives persist - even if imagining them is a gamble” (53), right when they’re needed. Therefore, despite appearing to simply recapitulate the networks of control that have come to overdetermine post-WWII culture, cyberfiction offers alternatives that critique and disrupt those networks, suggesting survival strategies or even worlds that work obliquely to disrupt mainstream culture.
Youngquist’s work is thoroughly historically grounded, at least when he addresses developments in real-world technology, foreign and domestic policy, and the increasing influence of global capitalism. However, Youngquist only historicizes SF up to the 1950s or so. By largely stopping the discussion of the economic and cultural forces surrounding SF in that decade, he avoids the origins of the term he so happily seems to call into being and retroactively apply as “the fiction of a culture … in which cybernetics configures everyday life” (44). By doing this, Youngquist effaces the fact that he is participating in an ongoing conversation rather than initiating one. For instance, in the 1980s, Bruce Sterling’s newsletter Cheap Truth laid bare the continuing crisis that struck SF after the atom bomb was dropped:
Extrapolations, that once held some intellectual validity, have now become distorted folk tales, passed down through generations…To survive and revitalize itself, SF must find new visions of the human future. Never mind that 40-year-old crap about atomic armageddon. If we can’t see any farther than that, then we will have added to the apathy and fatalism that are the allies of destruction.
While Sterling can’t rail against nuclear armageddon’s place in SF without mentioning it, he nonetheless demands something different and new from SF, much as Youngquist does. In the face of the assertion that futures are uncertain after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what must these “new futures” be? How do we go on? Cheap Truth helped establish an aesthetic discourse that critiqued the failings of mainstream SF, which, in part, became the cyberpunk movement. Though Youngquist does not entirely ignore cyberpunk as a literary movement (after all, an entire chapter concerns William Gibson), leaving out a discussion of the work that went into its brief existence is a mistake.
Storming the Reality Studio (1991), the academically-minded collection that helped establish the cyberpunk canon in conjunction with Sterling’s Mirrorshades (1986), makes clear the links between cyberpunk fiction, mainstream postmodern literature, and postmodern criticism. The editor, Larry McCaffery, with author Richard Kadrey, suggest a possible lineage for cyberpunk that, like Youngquist’s book, spans literature, SF, music, movies, and other cultural touchstones (17). This work helps describe how, after Sterling’s call to arms in Cheap Truth, cyberpunk sprang out of the need for “new visions of the human future” (Sterling). To some extent, cyberpunk moved out of the SF ghetto, not only as a media movement (besides the work of Sterling and Gibson, the primary cyberpunk texts have been and continue to be films, music videos, and performance art), but also in terms of the non-SF influences listed by cyberpunk authors. J.G. Ballard, Kathy Acker, William S. Burroughs, and Thomas Pynchon all appear in McCaffery and Kadrey’s brief, stochastic primer “Cyberpunk 101” (17-29). William Gibson suggests, “…if you talk with a lot of recent SF writers you’ll find they’ve all read [Pynchon’s] Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) several times and have been very much influenced by it”, and admits, “I’ve imagined a world in which Pynchon sold his early stories to Fantasy and Science Fiction and became an alternate [Philip K.] Dick” (272-3).
Gibson’s placing Pynchon as part of his personal canon, in fact, makes Pynchon’s absence from Youngquist’s work deeply felt. Gravity’s Rainbow outlines with extreme, paranoid precision much of the groundwork laid both before and during World War II for the cybernetic networks Youngquist gives us as World War II’s true legacy. While perhaps too long to deal with economically in anything but a full book-length study, it would have been worth a look, or at least an acknowledgment. The closest Youngquist comes is opening the eighth chapter, “Stealth” with an allusion to the opening line of Gravity’s Rainbow, “A screaming comes across the sky” (3): “The plane came streaking across the sky” (Youngquist 187).
Despite these absences, Youngquist’s book is wide-ranging, and must be, in order to make his case. He examines both literary and real-world examples of the use of technology and networks of information to determine life, death, law, and finance. After setting up the general context from which cyberfiction arises, the organizational arc Youngquist uses moves from the authors who document the problems of cybernetic society (J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick) to potential solutions and subversions of cybernetic society in the works of William S. Burroughs and Samuel R. Delany (sex and sexual identity), Sun Ra and Amiri Baraka (race), Octavia Butler (feminism), and William Gibson (consumer culture and militarization).
Youngquist uses J.G. Ballard’s Crash as a document of the increasingly sign-saturated world that dissolves subjectivity and changes the body from flesh to conceptual: a mere network of signs upon which more signs may be hung (59). The discussion of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly works through the War on Drugs in its various incarnations, suggesting, in the end, that the War on Drugs maintains the market for drugs as a hidden and necessary dark reflection of capitalism itself. In the cybernetic networks of law enforcement and the prison-industrial complex, the future of the nation is determined through risk assessment and thus overdetermines individuals based both on their behavior and their race. Youngquist suggests that the use of risk to determine criminalization creates a false distinction “between us and them, solid citizen and criminal doper” (103).
Having covered cybernetic society’s effects, Youngquist begins to search for solutions. In the next chapter, he uses the work of Samuel R. Delany and William S. Burroughs as a corrective against the ever-evolving appropriation of sexuality within cybernetic capitalism. Delany and Burroughs disrupt and expand the traditional spaces of sexuality beyond the commodification and scripting of sex put in place by consumer culture and pornography. Delany calls for these disruptions by documenting and imagining the urban spaces used for cruising in his study Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, and Burroughs does so throughout his own novels, though Youngquist specifically engages with The Soft Machine and Wild Boys. Ending the chapter on Delany and Burroughs with a single, short paragraph on the AIDS epidemic, Youngquist suggests a few fascinating yet underdeveloped ideas about how the counterpublics imagined by Burroughs would resist the discursive and biological issues surrounding the issue of disease: “Multiply images that multiply new bodies” that are potentially immune (132). Youngquist latches on to Burroughs’ ability to take the overdetermined matter of media and twist it into new forms that enable the disruption at which cyberfiction excels, but he doesn’t look at how Delany deals with the same issue.
Delany’s sword-and-sandals fantasy novel “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” juxtaposes a fictional account of a plague in the ancient city of Kolhari with a fictionalized first-person recollection of Delany’s experience in New York at the start of the AIDS epidemic, documenting how essential information often got lost in guesses, lies, and homophobic and anti-sex propaganda (361). Alternating narrative fragments between Kolhari and modern day New York, Delany explicitly describes the strategies that would ideally constitute how a counterpublic could react against the discursive and biological effects of AIDS, even while he documents how difficult it was (and, sadly, remains) to get useful, accurate information. Such strategies exemplify, in an undeveloped form, what Youngquist seeks in the work of Delany, and present a missed opportunity. Not only could Youngquist have pursued his ideas about cyberfiction in the face of AIDS, but also he could have expanded the definition of cyberfiction: as with alternate futures, in “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” Delany presents an alternate past that serves a similar function.
The next chapter is an often worshipful discussion of the opportunities he sees in an SF that puts outer space and its blackness into play. Youngquist explores Amiri Baraka’s jazz-influenced poetry and prose with Sun Ra’s space-age-inflected jazz, placing them within the context of probabilistic SF. Baraka’s short story “Rhythm Travel,” for example, puts the future within the present via travel-within-music, as space aliens come to earth during a race riot to grab good jazz records. Sun Ra’s jazz does much the same, particularly through its packaging, which grafts SF tropes to the joined genres of the album liner note and marketing material. This exciting chapter strikes me as perhaps the most useful for setting forth a clear basis for joining mainstream African American literature to SF, because the act of imagining a possible future in which Black people are considered human and eligible for full subject-hood must be considered probabilistic SF. In fact, I argue that the work required to understand African American literature requires a toolkit derived from reading SF, particularly as the African American experience becomes dominated and overdetermined not only by racism but also by its institutionalization. Youngquist writes:
From its original conception in the 1950s to its continuing insurgence today, the music of Sun Ra, the Arkestra, and its sustaining communities works to change the world, by the immeasurable measure of a fictive, impossible future. And yet that future is real, as real as the popular culture of the Space Age … Sun Ra’s titles for records and tunes are not metaphors for tomorrow. They are tomorrow. [Italics in original] (149)
Gaining access to that tomorrow requires us to work, putting into practice the strategies that will bring the other, probable futures into being.
His chapters on Octavia Butler and William Gibson continue the search for the new strategies that appear in cyberfiction. These chapters do an excellent job situating Butler’s Lilith’s Brood in dialog with specific historical moments. Butler, as with Sun Ra and Baraka, is examined within the context of African American literature and the legacy of slavery and racism in America, but with the added complication of genetic engineering.
Youngquist argues that Butler’s Lilith’s Brood constitutes a clear articulation of the question “what will happen when … [female reproduction] becomes a consciously creative enterprise?” Here, Youngquist makes some odd statements. First, he categorizes biology as a “soft science,” which makes little sense. Second, he says “perhaps surprisingly” that Butler, an African American woman, is “the best cy-fi practitioner of that soft science and its body magic.” Letting poetic license get away from him, he almost makes Butler into a ‘Magical Negro’ and mystifies reproduction when it is obvious that he wants to make it more plain (159). Why is it surprising that she does this so well, if the reader is familiar with feminist SF or even Donna Haraway? It’s a shame he opens the chapter with these imprecisions, because much of the rest of it is sharp indeed.
Lilith’s Brood, a collection of three novels, concerns the end of the human race and its rescue. After a global nuclear war, the few human survivors are rescued by aliens who call themselves the Oankali. These creatures are gene traders; ideally, they would encounter other worlds and work out arrangements for trading different genetic traits with other species. Unfortunately, the human tendency to create and maintain hierarchy through violence decimates the the human race and renders Earth uninhabitable for a time, so the Oankali act quickly to save humanity for the purposes of their trade. Dawn focuses on Lilith, an African American woman, and her first encounters with the Oankali. Initially, Youngquist relies too much on relating Butler’s novels to the historical pressures of the slave trade, drawing on Lilith’s point of view: she associates her imprisonment and the offer of genetic trade with the human practice of slavery. This connection is well established in criticism on Butler. In 1996, for example, Eva Cherniavsky explicitly outlines how the Oankali trade mirrors that of imperial colonialism, noting that the Oankali are “genetically coded for capitalism” (109). Cherniavsky goes so far as to insist that “Butler offers a polemical vision of U.S. slavery as an explicitly colonial practice, even as the novel moves forward to imagine … the emergence … of postnational subjects” (104). Youngquist’s focus, fortunately, turns to the Oankali identity as genetic traders and how they contrast with the ability of science, in the service of capitalism, to objectify subjects. His discussion of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who died of cervical cancer, whose immortal cells became the genesis of modern oncology (Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  collects the material Youngquist draws upon), serves to ground his discussion of Lilith’s Brood in modern scientific discourse and practice, allowing him to argue for the Oankali talent for genetic engineering as valuable and necessary, instead of mere eugenic horror (183). This is convincing to a point, but the argument runs the risk of resembling too closely his discussion of the appropriation of Lacks’ cancer cells. He doesn’t go far enough to make Oankali genetic engineering different from the specter of human attempts at eugenics, sex selection, and other troubling reproductive issues.
Due to this, Youngquist offers a somewhat incomplete reading of Lilith’s Brood. First, the later books in the trilogy get little attention: only Adulthood Rites is directly cited (182). Though he examines human reaction to the Oankali thoroughly, he primarily discusses Oankali reactions to humanity in terms of how they learn about and learn to control cancer and its capacity for mutating genetic material. In fact, the Oankali attraction for humans expands beyond this need. In Dawn, Lilith’s chosen partner, Joseph, is murdered by other humans. Nikanj, her ooloi mate (ooloi are a third sex, who manage the genetic outcome of mated males and females) shares his grief after Joseph’s murder with Lilith at her request. Butler’s language, usually straightforward, achieves poetry: “[Nikanj] gave her … a new color. A totally alien, unique, nameless thing, half seen, half felt or … tasted. A blaze of something frightening, yet overwhelmingly, compelling. Extinguished” (226). This deeply (and differently) felt grief for an individual human serves as further evidence for the value of the partnership the Oankali offer. By ignoring the seduction taking place between humanity and the Oankali, Youngquist misses an opportunity to expand upon the new sexualities he hoped for in the chapter on Delany and Burroughs.
Youngquist looks at William Gibson’s novels as they reflect and interact with the world post 9/11, the events of which, Gibson says, made it impossible for him to continue to write SF as he had done (Youngquist 193). Youngquist offers much to critical discussions of Gibson’s work, cleverly illuminating, for example, how Gibson’s early novels dealt with the increasing militarization of life and how they contrast with earlier major SF works like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1975) and Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1955). In these discussions, Youngquist shows how cybernetics came to redefine war, taking human decision-making and human agency out of its practice. Yet he also shows how human strategies can defeat cybernetic techniques: Youngquist’s examination of The 9/11 Commission Report allows him to document how the asymmetric warfare waged by al Qaeda makes certain types of futures, especially those offered by intelligence agencies, obsolete (192). In the face of this, Youngquist specifically discusses Gibson’s work as a way to see that “the future is a thing of the past” (193).
Like his chapter on Butler, there is much to like, and much that I wish Youngquist had investigated further. I have mentioned that Youngquist deals well with earlier SF takes on warfare in a cybernetic age. He makes valuable contributions to readings of SF by discussing Haldeman’s The Forever War, which imagines the difficulties of fighting a war on fronts light-years away and therefore at relativistic time scales. Soldiers regularly come back from engagements to confront new political realities at home. This problem with time connects to systems for controlling weapons and developing strategies to deal with distant results originating from recent events. In Haldeman’s novel, “War lives a life of its own called civil society, whose future belongs to money,” and the ability to predict that future, for the sake of money, produces short-term technological fixes and long-term miscalculations (Youngquist 198-201).
Often, however, Youngquist rushes along to his larger point, missing small yet important details and context. Noting how, in Gibson’s SF novels, “Agency shifts past what used to be called politics,” Youngquist quotes Gibson’s novel Virtual Light: “ ‘Shit happens,’ says the gnomic Yamazaki … ‘You think it was politics. That particular dance boy, that’s over’ ” (203). Yamazaki did not speak those lines in Virtual Light. They were spoken by Skinner, who is discussing in some detail how, exactly, the San Francisco Bay Bridge came to be a shanty town, an interstitial home for marginalized people. Misattributing the quote to Yamazaki and giving it such short shrift deprives this evocative quote of valuable context that may have enriched Youngquist’s reading of Gibson’s work. Skinner’s story proves to be another case of asymmetric warfare, this time between the homeless and the forces of real estate. Traditional political forces fail to find the will or the money to rebuild the Bay Bridge after the “Earthquake fucked it good,” and conditions reach an untenable point for the homeless of San Francisco and Oakland. Suddenly, thousands of people take the bridge over. “No signals, no leader, no architects,” Skinner reports to Yamazaki, a young Japanese sociologist (94). No traditional political move took place, from Skinner’s point of view. Youngquist interprets Skinner’s line to suggest that cybernetics short-circuits the political, but within the original context, Skinner instead recounts a moment of pure democracy after years of failed bureaucracy. This moment takes the new residents of the bridge outside of cybernetic society, however temporarily.
Nonetheless, the sense of an ending persists in Gibson. Yamazaki thinks that “Modernity was ending. Here, on the bridge, it long since had,” and goes on to seek more information on “the new thing’s strange heart” (97). That “new thing” and its heart is what Gibson later calls a nodal point - moments in history where the networks of information result in something entirely different and new, at which everything changes. These points in history are rarely predictable, but Gibson imagines that a great deal of power could be gained by those who can perceive them and survive them. While Youngquist is concerned with nodal points’ unknowability, Gibson, even in his latest novel, Zero History (2010), never entirely gives up seeking the conditions by which cybernetics might achieve the ability to collate information to anticipate these oncoming catastrophes, and allow humans the ability to effectively navigate them to better results.
Youngquist ends Cyberfiction with a discussion of art that makes the distant workings of war visible: a geo-cache project by Paula Levine that transposes the coordinates where bombs were dropped on Baghdad over the city of San Francisco. This project and its political force serves Youngquist as an exemplar that outdoes Gibson’s imagining locative art as “augmented reality” in Spook Country. By picking only that aspect of Spook Country to examine, however, Youngquist neglects the secondary plot which concerns an elaborate prank. An old man, formerly an intelligence professional, tracks a cargo container full of money that had been spirited out of Iraq to Vancouver in order to irradiate it, rendering it impossible to launder. The money is now susceptible to becoming visible. The old man knows how war, civil society, and cybernetics combine to keep money moving, yet, like Levine, finds ways to make that movement and its connection to death apparent to those who know how to look.
These lapses are what make Cyberfiction a frustrating book to me. I have no issue with Youngquist’s insights or interpretations. He examines the policy issues at stake in great detail, and often uses this information effectively to ground the interpretations he offers. Knowing that there is much more in Gibson and Butler’s work that would expand and enhance his arguments brings me up short. Combined with an over-reliance on Wikipedia for some citations in his discussion of policy and the consistent use of the word “breech” for “breach,” these problems prevent me from making a wholehearted recommendation. Even though these mistakes are perhaps one or two words out of thousands, they’re like gristle, making me question Youngquist’s arguments regarding the authors and policies of which I have less knowledge. I wonder if Cyberfiction needs one more draft to become a truly great contribution to the field.
Butler, Octavia E. Adulthood Rites. 1988. Lilith’s Brood 229-517.
—. Dawn. 1987. Lilith’s Brood 1-248.
—. Imago. 1989. Lilith’s Brood 519-746.
—. Lilith’s Brood. New York: Warner, 2007. Print.
Cherniavsky, Eva. “Subaltern Studies in a U.S. Frame,” boundary 2 23.2 (1996), 85-110. JSTOR. Web. March 22, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/pss/303808
Delany, Samuel R. “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, or: Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Five.” Flight from Nevèrÿon. 1985. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1994. Print. 181-359.
Gibson, William. Virtual Light. New York: Bantam, 1993. Print.
—. Spook Country. New York: Putnam, 2007. Print.
—. Zero History. New York: Putnam, 2010. Print.
McCaffery, Larry, ed. Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Print.
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. 1973. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Sterling, Bruce, ed. Cheap Truth. 9. Austin: n.d. n.pag. Web. March 18, 2011. http://www.its.caltech.edu/~erich/cheaptruth/cheaptru.9
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Address to Graduating Class at Bennington College.” Wampeters, Foma, & Granfaloons (Opinions). New York: Delta, 1999. 161-170. Print.
Youngquist, Paul. Cyberfiction: After the Future. New York: Palgrave, 2010. Print.