Friday, September 05, 2008

Neuropunk and the future of SF

University of Miami Lit Professor Nader Elhefnawy has an essay for Strange Horizons that takes a look at two very different SF novels: R Scott Bakker's near future psychological thriller Neuropath and Peter Watts' strange far-future just-pre-Singularity Blindsight. What they have in common is that the "science" part of their science fiction is the workings of the brain. Elhefnawy argues that neuroscience - particularly exploration of the nature of consciousness - is the direction science fiction is moving.
Given that Blindsight, like Bakker's book, places such stress on the functioning of brains and the workings of consciousness, the two novels tread much of the same ground, playing off many of the same assumptions, with characters communicating similar ideas in much the same terminology (extending even to Watts's title) in an exploration of an old question made new by recent scientific developments. However, where in Neuropath the scientific proof of this view of consciousness is the story, in Watts's novel it is part of a bigger premise, the angle less the illusory nature of consciousness than the idea that sentience may simply be irrelevant from the standpoint of evolution. Consequently, where Bakker's novel derives much of its impact from its narrow scope and no-frills future, Watts's bigger canvas proves essential to telling his "macro" tale about what such a diminished premium on sentience might mean from the standpoint of the history of life in this universe.

Nonetheless, the similarities between the two works say more than their differences about the direction sf is taking. Rather than concentrating on human beings' scope for choice, writers might find themselves increasingly looking at the absence of meaningful choices, a theme which has already attracted the attention of numerous other writers, Ted Chiang, Greg Egan and Daryl Gregory to name but a few. That would not be unprecedented for literature, nineteenth century naturalism having had a similar focus, derived from the cutting-edge science of its day—Darwin and Marx, particularly. However, where those ideas seemed to demand a new social vision, the new cognitive science seems to imply only an end, whether a "Semantic Apocalypse" as in Bakker's book, or one of a more physical kind, as in Watts's. Put another way, they concentrate on a dark side to a Singularity which is far from brand new—one can see most of its essential concepts already well-developed in Clarke's 1956 The City and the Stars (if not in the novels of Olaf Stapledon)—but which the science fiction of the cyberpunks and after has focused on as never before, and more importantly, tended to treat as imminent.
It seems a bit of a stretch to me to bundle Bakker and Watt's novels together and consider them signs of a "movement" in SF, especially if they are using themes that can be traced back to the 19th century - or at least the 1950s. But hell, what do I know, I haven't yet read Neuropath (it won't be released in the US until next May) and I'm a far cry from an expert in literature. In any case there is a lively discussion at Peter Watts' blog as to what this new movement should be called:
So I'm looking at this, and I'm thinking Hmmm… an academic comparing two related works in a burgeoning thematic niche. Or, more concisely: New Subgenre! All we really need to keep the marketers happy (and to keep the unicorn-huggers out of our shelf space at Barnes & Noble) is a name.
Neuropunk was Watts' first suggestion, but ended up preferring NeuroNazi. Nicely hard edged and nihilistic sounding enough for a subgenre that may, as Elhefnawy puts it, "mark the "end" of science fiction."

For more thoughts from Elhefnawy, check out his "The End of Science Fiction": A View of the Debate at The Fix.

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  1. There is a movement, she's just writing more of a book review than an essay. David Swanger published an essay on the subject of "hard-Character sf" some time ago. I'd throw into the move Greg Egan, Ted Chiang, and Daryl Gregory (off the top of my head).

  2. Oh, and Karl Schroeder, also. (There are of course more, but I'm not looking at my notes or Swanger's article at the moment.)

  3. Do you know where the Swanger essay was published? The idea of "hard-character" sf sounds interesting.

  4. Hi, this is the David Swanger Kathryn Cramer spoke of. A little late to be responding to this, but I just discovered it trollong the web. If Peggy or anyone else is still interested, my article was "Mrs. Brown's Prefrontal Cortex: The Promise of Hard Character SF," and it appeared in the December 1999 New York Review of Science Fiction. You could probably order the issue from them, or if that fails, you might write me at and I could send it to you. You'll also find 3 paragraphs of it in the headnote to Greg Egan's "Reasons To Be Cheerful" in _The Hard SF Renaissance_. In 1999, it was more a premonition than a genuine phenomenon, but I did cite Greg Egan and certain scenes in Benford, Brin & Bear as showing the potential for what I called "hard character sf." Certainly, Bakker & Watts are shining examples of what I hoped to see, and Schroeder, too, but with a tone & approach that differs from theirs. I haven't read Gregory yet, but I'll make a point of it now.


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