Cyberpunk has fallen from its peak in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the great cyberpunk authors are still writing. And many of them have turned to fantasy. Why is this?
What is it about fantasy that appeals to many of the greatest cyberpunk authors? We asked the authors themselves and also cooked up some theories of our own.
Top image: Illustration from the limited edition of Richard K. Morgan's The Steel Remains.
Rudy Rucker, author of the Ware tetralogy and Postsingular, among many others, has described his new novel Jim and the Flims as being akin to fantasy. Also, Black Glass author John Shirley published the mystical Bleak History in 2009.
Metrophage author Richard Kadrey has gained a huge following for his Sandman Slim novels — the third one, Aloha from Hell, is coming October 18. Richard K. Morgan, author of the cyberpunk Takeshi Kovacs novels, has written a bloody fantasy, The Steel Remains, with the sequel, The Cold Commands (or The Dark Commands), coming October 11. Meanwhile, some of Synners author Pat Cadigan's recent stories have seemed much more fantasy-oriented.
What's going on here?
Fantasy is growing
There's no ignoring the fact that fantasy has become more popular — it's hard to get recent and accurate data, but it certainly seems as though epic fantasy, urban fantasy, and paranormal novels are accounting for a much greater share of the book pie than in years past. In 2008, Orbit Books publisher Tim Holman posted a chart showing urban fantasy accounting for nearly half of all SF/fantasy bestsellers, and in 2009, the New York Times reported sales of books about werewolves and other supernatural creatures were "exploding."
There's an obvious incentive to move into a genre that's growing quickly. But fantasy that deals with mythic or apocalyptic is also a highly topical genre when so many of the people in positions of power seem to believe the Rapture is coming soon. We asked Richard Kadrey about his move into fantasy. He says:
I got interested in fantasy because I wanted understand Bush and his born again pals when they took over the government. Reading the Bible and other religious texts got me interested in myths and fairy tales. For me, the connection between cpunk and fantasy is simple. We're looking at modern belief systems from different angles. The ideological divide of the 21st century isn't the economic and social disagreements of the Cold War, but my God vs your God (or your perceived lack of God). However, there's an even simpler reason why I ended up writing fantasy. Money. I never made a dime in the SF world. Fantasy keeps the lights on and smoke coming out of the chimney. I forget who said it but I think this quote covers the lives of a lot of people who write, paint and play music for a living: "When I was young all I thought about was art. Now that I'm an artist, all I worry about is money."
Cyberpunk has come true
There's also no denying that many of cyberpunk's preoccupations have caught up with the present. And the idea of forming your identity in a virtual space no longer feels futuristic or science fictional. To some extent, cyberpunk has come true — and you have the choice of either writing about the present-day real world, or else moving into a world that feels further removed from our own.
John Shirley describes his novel Bleak History as "almost a fusion of cyberpunk and urban fantasy," and says that:
There's a liberating feeling to writing fantasy. Cyberpunk is uncomfortably like the present day world, and the coming world. It's only a few minutes in the future to my novel Black Glass. One can find drama there but can one find the truly exotic? The exotic has its own pull.
And of course, Shirley points out that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling are both still writing science fiction, after their own fashions. "I think they've both developed voices that transcend the 'cyberpunk' notion and they're simple Gibson and Sterling." Gibson's work, says Shirley, has never really been about exploring the fantastical. "He was into introducing the fantastic into the real, gritty world, via technology and an understanding of human drives."
Says Rucker, "Certain kinds of science have gotten a little humdrum and unexciting. Relativity, quantum mechanics, biotechnology, virtual reality — they're a little stale. I like the idea of new science that's so outre and strange that it seems like magic. How do you find it? Start with the magic, and then work backwards to some sick kind of future science that could justify it."
Rucker has blogged before about how he felt tired of coming up with explanations for the weird things in his books. He tells us:
I can't imagine ever writing fantasy in the sense of a book about kings and knights and castles. But I like the idea of fantasy in the sense there being really odd things happening, and that the explanations for them might be so far from known science that they take on an aura of magic... Fantasy, SF, magic realism, speculative fiction, fairy tales, myths, legends—-the common element is that we cast of the tiresome shackles of daily reality and let strange things happen.
Fantasy is the genre about modernity
We can't really get our minds around how our world is changing by telling stories about computers any more, it seems. For one thing, our understanding of the world is so colored by our online interactions, it's hard to step back and see the computerized system that we're a part of. But also, telling stories about our experiences with cyber-spaces and cyber-identities doesn't really account for our nagging sense, in the uneasy 21st century, that there's something dreadful and primal waiting to devour us and drag us back into a dark age.
For better or worse, fantasy is where we're working out a lot of our anxieties about modernity. Watching the television version of Game of Thrones has reminded me of something I noticed a lot in the books — the characters are on the verge of modernity and real sophistication. They're interested in science, especially Tyrion Lannister, and not terribly ready to believe in Grumkins, Snarks and White Walkers. Part of the tragedy of Game of Thrones is that it's about people who stand on the brink of a renaissance and then get pulled back.
Also, fantasy is a place where we can talk about the questions about identity and selfhood that used to live in cyberpunk. We've gotten used to the idea that we can construct endless new identities online — although there are always unexpected limits, like when Twitter and Facebook expect you to have the same identity. But fantasy lets us talk about living our lives between two separate worlds, or existing on the boundaries between one realm of existence and the next.
And as we've discussed before, fantasy lends itself to noir quite easily. Where cyberpunk borrowed from noir motifs to explore a dark, urban environment, urban fantasy (and some epic fantasy) now does the same thing, depicting characters with shades of gray, corrupt ruling systems, and copious amounts of weirdness that ordinary people can't see.
What about the subversive side of cyberpunk, which often showed heroic hackers fighting against corporate-dominated systems? Rucker says that fantasy can be just as subversive: "Fantasy can be subversive, yes. The idea being to suggest that the apparent consensus reality is only a fragile illusion, and there's odd stuff underneath. Stuff you can find all on your own, right now."
But Shirley isn't really sure that cyberpunk was ever a subversive genre, in any case.
Sometimes I think [cyberpunk] reinforced the tiresome idea that we must accept corporate power and skate under its radar to live our lives with some freedom. My A SONG CALLED YOUTH books were subversive; Gibson was just calling 'em like he saw 'em. He's a portraitist and the evolving civilization, limned in existential poetry, is his subject. Sterling is always looking for an insight into what our condition is; Rucker is always looking for the secret trapdoor, the hidden escape route from the restraints of our reality. I myself merely hope to make a living with integrity and some occasional flare of meaning.
If it's true that cyberpunk has become our reality to some extent — and feel free to dispute this idea in the comments — then it's only natural to wonder what's next. And possible candidates for "what's next" include some kind of collapse of our technological civilization — which naturally leads to fantasy, a genre that does apocalypses and eschatology better than any other — along with some kind of nigh-unimaginable next step forward.
It's hard enough to imagine life after a technological Singularity, although Rucker and a few others have done it — but delving into magic or the supernatural is certainly one way to try to come to grips with the idea of an unbelievably advanced future.
The labels are meaningless
And finally, there's the explanation that cyberpunk and fantasy are both just labels that we stick on stories, and we shouldn't get too hung up on them.
Pat Cadigan says that people used not to worry so much about the distinction between different genres of fantastic literature.
I have always written a lot of fantasy and horror at shorter length. If you take a look at my collections Patterns and Dirty Work, you'll find a lot of fantasy, horror, and magic realism. I haven't moved from one thing to another—I'm doing what I've always done, which is write whatever I want, however I want.
I am a servant to the story. When the story comes to me, it tells me what it is and I go with that.
There was a time when this genre wasn't so stratified. When Judith Merrill was doing her Best SF of the Year anthologies, she had every kind of fantastic story in them, from hard nuts-and-bolts sf to the magic realism of John Cheever, before the term magic realism had been invented. Only in the last thirty years has the literature of the fantastic become so strictly categorised within itself. While that's good for marketing, it often confines writers and throws up false shadows. E.g., it makes it look like people are "moving" from one form to another when they're only doing what they've always done.