Modern Genres: Five Characteristics of Successful Steampunk

Modern Genres: Five Characteristics of Successful Steampunk

steampunk hero gunslinger clockworkSteampunk has been described as “Victorian science fiction,” a futuristic version of a world long past—but never far from our hearts. It’s characterized by a solid industrial setting, advanced steam-powered technology, defunct scientific theories, Victorian English aesthetics, and (frequently) alternative history; it is worth noting, however, that—unlike cyberpunk, which is usually set in the urban landscape of near-future Earth—steampunk regularly departs from real-world settings completely.

Steampunk may also incorporate metaphysical themes, of the sort more commonly associated with fantasy than science fiction: there may be a great clock tower, in which there lies imprisoned a figure who is the embodiment of all the world’s sorrows. There might be a massive engine of unknown origin at the center of the world, which drives the life-force of an entire race of living machines, inevitably leading to a conflict of interests whereby its function would seem to endanger humanity. Steampunk grew, in part, out of early twentieth-century pulp fiction set within the Victorian era, and ethical questions of human progress and advancement were a common thematic element in Victorian writing.

In honor of Peter Jackson’s upcoming feature film, based upon Philip Reeve’s steampunk novel Mortal Engines, let’s explore five of the characteristics which successful steampunk novels have in common.

Creative Anachronism

steampunk hat goggles steam-powered technology Victorian fashion

Steampunk features advanced technologies, often with abilities which would be incredible even by modern standards. At the same time, there is a strong element of retro-futurism; these technologies are anachronistic, as they may have been imagined by a fiction writer living in Victorian times. The steampunk writer must take the forward-thinking but still fundamentally limited prescience of the modern science fiction author, and imagine what the same individual might have written about 150 years ago—give or take a few decades.

Common technological elements of the steampunk genre include steam power, early experiments with wireless and electrical technology (which are often presented as being both powerful and uncontrollable, save perhaps by a few gifted individuals), complex mechanics driven by clockwork mechanisms, hydraulics, orreries, and automatons. Steampunk automatons are frequently represented as true artificial intelligences—either the unfortunate victims of uncaring men, or the monstrous offspring of a botched experiment. They are often cast as either the casual hero, striving to be human, or the tragic villain, whose responsibility for their own actions is deliberately debatable.

Meanwhile, the feats which such devices are capable of achieving may include such noteworthy accomplishments as the replication of solid matter, teleportation, the generation of free energy, travel beyond “the spheres” of the known universe (during a time when even the concept of the galaxy and the composition of stars were unknowns), and the reanimation of dead matter.

The Ambiguity of Power

Steampunk incorporates contrasting views. On the one hand, the nature of scientific progress and human achievement is placed under a critical microscope—but this is not to say that such ideas are presented as inherently bad. Rather, the suggestion is more that careful thought needs to be put into such concepts, lest we make ill-considered decisions—with potentially cataclysmic consequences.

In fact, steampunk embraces the concept of scientific advancement and achievement. Anything which is unknown or “outside” the laws of science is, if not invariably bad, certain to be sinister and suspect. Extra-dimensional powers and spiritual entities, where they are present, have ulterior motives and agendas that are at worst malevolent; at best, their plans take on such a long view that most characters can simply sidestep any scrutiny of their ethical considerations.

If a character in a steampunk story is fiddling with alchemy, researching sorcery, or dabbling in the occult, the powers with which they are contending are portrayed as dark and ill-advised influences. Magic and technology mix and react in uncertain ways, with magic (where it exists; it’s not a universal element) being portrayed as the essence of chaos. Its very use may serve to break down the natural order of things, and—if it is even successful—there are always unanticipated consequences.

Steampunk DIY: Do-It-Yourself

The Victorian era—the actual Victorian era—was a time of almost steampunk-clockwork-deviceunprecedented invention and technological innovation, as compared to all the rest of human history. It also saw the growing frequency of large corporations, railroad barons, and captains of industry, and introduced (at least to the popular perception) the widespread idea of intellectual property theft as a damaging, criminal enterprise.

In modern times, for example, we recognize the frequent theft of ideas perpetrated by Thomas A. Edison, as well as his propensity for ruining the livelihoods and careers of his competitors so thoroughly that some died in relative anonymity many years after Edison himself was long gone.

The steampunk genre pays underlying tribute to the more genuine side of the spirit of Victorian innovation. Large organizations and powerful individuals are usually presented as having stolen their ideas, often for dark and sinister ends. The most remarkable innovations are the prerogative of individual, independent craftsmen and innovators, often unrecognized for the true extent of their genius, who are forced to assemble their gadgetry more or less single-handedly from secondhand materials. Time and again, the day is saved thanks to the life-long efforts of an unsung “do-it-yourselfer.”

A Motley Aesthetic

steampunk soldier officer steam-powered prostheticThe appearance of steampunk settings has a lot in common with the era on which they are based. The average individual is not clean and well-kept, save perhaps in higher echelons of society—which are invariably keeping the majority of the population oppressed. Technology is functional first, and neat second: neatness, where it occurs, is one of several traits that tends to be characteristic of the corporate presence, the inner circle, and other parties with sinister or suspect motives.

Patchwork riveting, scavenged materials, and dirty streets intermingle with other cobbled-together visual elements, such as clothing and personal accessories which incorporate bits of the steampunk aesthetic. They may be functional, such as a steampunk or a clockwork-driven prosthetic limb, or they may be purely decorative, serving no apparent use—except to make an individual stand out as being a character in a steampunk setting.

Steampunk is a gritty, hard, and visceral setting, one that is based profoundly on visual imagery and readily recognizable components. The profound nature of its underlying themes is manifested directly in the way everything else is presented. Things look a certain way—right or wrong, benevolent or dangerous, friendly or hostile. There is, of course, a meta element to such a presentation: the visual nature of the genre is for the reader’s benefit, leading to the dramatic tension of a character interacting with something we know to be dark and sinister—even if we don’t quite understand why.

A Disenfranchised Society

Steampunk, like the other ‘punk genres, embraces the lone and asocial hero. Sometimes, a small group of these may be forced to work together, and might even find some common ground, but there is always a maverick streak—a sense of rebelliousness, which encourages them to rise up and work against a corrupt and inadequate system. The system, after all, is something that most people simply accept, for the sake of the greater good or simply not rocking the boat. As a result, there is a certain amount of ambiguity in the main characters’ actions; some part of why they’re fighting, or working against the system, is based on their own internal dissatisfaction—or other needs that must be reconciled.

They might be doing the right thing, but not entirely for the right reasons—and they may not be going about what they’re doing in the best way. That’s not to say that the steampunk hero can’t be a clearly right-minded individual, only that they frequently aren’t, and the latter seems to be the ingredient of more highly-praised and critically-acclaimed steampunk. One of the great forebears of the genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—while not a work of steampunk in itself—features two primary characters: Victor Frankenstein, an obsessed man who follows blind ambition to a result that was dark and ill-advised from the beginning, and his creation, a creature who is at once terrible and innocent, as tragic a villain as any in the last two centuries of modern fiction.

In steampunk, nobody is perfect. The people in power are corrupt and uncaring; the do-gooders are naïve—and often obsessed—and the common people are either bitter, broken, or angry, reduced to the dog-eat-dog state of doing what it takes to survive. The villain may have the best of intentions, but fail utterly in their realization, and the hero might use the absolute darkest methods. In the end, steampunk is about upsetting a carefully constructed balance, often one that is stressed as having stood the test of time for most of human history up to that point, in response to the growing need for individual recognition and personal satisfaction. It is not a genre for the faint-hearted, or the unusually reserved.

It is, however, a lot of fun to read.

Need More (Steam)?

 

You Should Know: The Ninth Amendment

You Should Know: The Ninth Amendment

First, let’s have some background. There are a lot of popular misconceptions about the Bill of Rights, ranging from the false, but relatively harmless (“it wasn’t called that at the time”) to the alarmingly misinformed (“it wasn’t the work of the Founding Fathers, and shouldn’t be regarded as a real part of the Constitution”). Here’s a quick summary of the actual history of the writing of our Constitution, including how the Bill of Rights (the first nineteen… I mean, ten Constitutional Amendments) came into existence.

United States Constitution Ninth Amendment rights
Can you honestly say, or even think “We the People” without rolling your eyes a little, at this point?

The Constitution of the United States was hammered out by the Confederation Congress. They came together for this purpose in 1787, in Philadelphia, and worked out the particulars of the document over the course of four months: from May 25th through September 17th, at which point the Constitution was signed by the delegates. At this point in time, America had no executive branch, and therefore no chief executive officer. George Washington would be elected as our first president the following year, with John Adams elected vice president.

Several key figures in our nation’s fledgling history, including both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were serving in diplomatic positions abroad at the time of the Constitutional Convention. They communicated extensively with the delegates by written correspondence, and works for which they were already responsible were among the influential factors in shaping our Constitution. Given such, they are recognized as having been deeply influential in the shaping of the original Constitution.

The original document was drafted by James Madison, who would go on to become our fourth president, serving two consecutive terms following his election in 1808. Substantial input was provided by such individuals as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Thomas Paine, author of “Common Sense.” Notable patriot Patrick “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death” Henry was hotly opposed to the idea of creating a Constitution at all, as at first blush the very idea supported a strong centralization of power. He was persuaded to come on board through the addition of the Bill of Rights, which afforded rights—not just to We the People—but also to the individual states.

States’ rights versus federal authority has always been a controversial topic throughout US history (we spent four years killing each other over it, you know—that one time), and it remains a heated issue even today. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, however, it was easily the fiercest point of fevered contention among the delegates. There was a tremendous sense of the responsibility inherent in what they were doing, and the understanding that whatever direction they took would subsequently shape the course of American history. Thanks to this issue, the necessity of incorporating protection for individual and states’ rights directly into the language of the Constitution was understood, and in the planning stages, before the ink was dry on the original document itself.

The Ratification of the Bill of Rights (and, Yes, It Was Called That at the Time)

Like the original Constitution itself, the Bill of Rights was drafted by James Madison, and originally took the form of nineteen proposed Constitutional Amendments. These were proposed to the United States Congress on June 8th in 1789, Madison drafted nineteen amendments, which he proposed to Congress on June 8, 1789, not quite two years after the Constitution itself had been signed. Through a steady series of approval procedures, the fledgling proposal was narrowed down to seventeen Amendments, and then to twelve, by the House of Representatives and the Senate respectively. After approval by Congress on September 25th of the same year, these twelve Amendments were sent to the individual states for ratification.

The final ten of those twelve Constitutional Amendments were officially ratified, as the Bill of Rights, on the 15th of December in 1791. At this point, they became a recognized part of the US Constitution. The original First and Second Amendments ultimately failed to meet with necessary state approval. The first dealt with certain particulars in how representation was apportioned in the House of Representatives, and the second would have prevented Congressional representatives from voting themselves a pay raise within the current session (in other words, “effective immediately”). That original Second Amendment would eventually become our Twenty-Seventh Amendment, being ratified on May 7th, 1992.

Fun Facts: The Unopposed Elections of George Washington

Washington is considered to have run unopposed during the elections of 1788 and 1792. He received one vote per elector. Each elector was supposed to cast two votes, supporting two candidates, with the overall runner-up at the time being elected as vice president. By receiving one vote per elector, Washington is said to have earned 100% of the presidential vote. It was widely understood that the other candidates were “functionally” running for the vice presidency; the eventual 12th Amendment to the Constitution would change the

The Ninth Amendment: Our Forgotten Potency

Ninth Amendment inalienable rights US Constitution
Click the image to view this image of the original Ninth Amendment text at full resolution

Ask the average American today what rights are acknowledged as being afforded to them by the Bill of Rights, and most will stumble to a halt after the first two. A distressing number of people view our rights as being provided by the Constitution, when the idea is that they’re inherent—undeniable, inalienable—and that the Constitution acknowledges the government’s duty to protect them. Technically, “Constitutional rights” is a misnomer, though its use is unlikely to go away any time soon. More’s the pity.

A few people who remember the investigation into Bill Clinton, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, can hash out a guess as to the Fifth Amendment—it protects one from self-incriminating. Some states’ rights enthusiasts are familiar with the Tenth Amendment, which affords jurisdiction over any matters not specifically retained by the federal government to the discretion of individual states. The Ninth Amendment, however, is rarely referenced in popular culture or major news items, and that’s a pity. It’s entirely relevant to many ongoing issues affecting Americans today.

Like most of the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution, the Ninth Amendment is pretty short. In fact, at a single modest sentence, it’s shorter than several others. Here it is:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

It’s an open door to “Power to the People.” It’s the Billy Mays “But wait, there’s MORE!” of the Bill of Rights. It literally, inarguably, and uncompromisingly asserts the fact that the American people can, by general consensus, stake their claim to fundamental and inalienable human rights which aren’t mentioned in the Constitution at all.

So, why did Madison write this?

As I mentioned earlier, the issue of federal versus state power was the number one issue during the drafting of the Constitution. There were individuals who were heatedly opposed to the idea of a Constitution, which they felt was nothing more than a tool for solidifying centralized power over the rights of the individual states to by-and-large govern themselves. This was ultimately the driving force behind the Tenth Amendment, which assured that any rights not specifically retained by the federal government were left to the individual states.

In writing our first batch of Constitutional Amendments, however, James Madison came to recognize another disturbing possibility, with regard to the future expansion of the power of the government. He understood that society, technology, and general human innovation would continue to advance over time; after all, significant advancement had occurred within his own lifetime (that whole “rebellion against the Crown” and “establishing the first great modern democracy” thing, not to mention the one-man technological revolution that was Benjamin Franklin).

Should society advance significantly, Madison reasoned, it seemed likely that there would eventually exist some commonly-perceived right or fundamental necessity to ensure the continuation of that whole “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” deal which he, from his hot and non-air-conditioned chambers, could not hope to anticipate. At such a time as such an innovation came into being, there was the distinct possibility that the Constitution could be turned on its head, and used to restrict the rights of the people.

There is an old Latin maxim, which was recognized at the time of America’s founding: expressio unius est exclusio alterius. In English, this means “the expression of one thing is the exclusion of another.” It is the implication, in legal documentation, that—in a situation with two possibilities—the “common sense interpretation” of one of those possibilities legally excludes the other. It has been raised and debated many times throughout American history since James Madison’s time, and it was a common subject of debate and interpretation going back to a time when people spoke Latin as a native tongue.

James Madison drafted the Ninth Amendment to try and prevent the list of rights recognized by the Bill of Rights as being used to imply that no other protected rights could be claimed in the future. It reinforced the notion that the rights listed were inherent and inalienable, while providing them with room to grow. Though the average American isn’t even aware of the existence of the “Silent Amendment,” it affords us as a society great power over the direction our government takes—should we choose to exercise it.

Given that there are hundreds of millions of us, it should come as no surprise that—despite the general lack of understanding of the Ninth Amendment, and what it entails—efforts have been made to bring it to bear on behalf of all American citizens.

Recent Efforts to Apply the Ninth Amendment

gay rights protest inalienable rights Supreme Court
The hatred that arose in response to the push for gay rights is a national embarrassment.

Here are a few areas where the Ninth Amendment might just come in handy, in terms of securing the future of American freedom for all its citizens. Please note that, while they are certainly not my opinions alone, these do reflect upon my own personal views quite heavily.

  • Right to Privacy: During the time of America’s founding, privacy was a little-known luxury. Most houses didn’t even have hallways: they were built as a series of interconnected rooms, including bedrooms. The large families of the day meant that multiple people typically shared a bedroom, which was predominantly used only for sleeping. A lack of privacy doesn’t simply impact personal comfort levels: it affects social roles and behavioral norms. No activity that is remotely unusual can be engaged in without observation and influence by those around you. In the present day, privacy concerns have expanded into the electronic medium, with fiercely debated arguments regarding what is required to spy on a person through their mobile device activity. If we indeed hold the rights of the individual as sacred, the modern scientific understanding that you cannot observe someone without affecting their behavior should limit the extent to which said observation is permitted. There is even some argument to the effect that mobile devices and personal information should be treated with the same reverence as a person’s own thoughts (video link), due to how we approach the electronic medium psychologically.
  • Right to Engage in Private Sexual Acts Between Consenting Adults: Recognition of gay rights was long overdue, but without the teeth of a Constitutional Amendment to back this up, there are many ways in which gay rights are still under attack—and too many people are now sitting back, congratulating themselves on a job well done. This is quite possibly well-earned, given all that homosexuals in the United States have endured by way of decades of completely legal persecution (video link), but it means that progress in some areas is being reversed. In certain states, for example, the right to start a family via gestational surrogacy is limited to those for whom natural reproduction is a medical—not biological—impossibility. In a country with millions of homosexuals, such situations regularly impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, while representing a problem that can be easily dealt with through the introduction of a carefully and simply-worded Constitutional Amendment.
  • Right to Die with Dignity: (video link) Thousands of individuals struggle, day by day, with the pain and the suffering of terminal illness. With no end in sight, they are not permitted to pursue painless, physician-assisted suicide, due to a lingering stigma that is entirely religious in its origins. These include individuals who are elderly, with no surviving family members, and people with conditions for whom even viable, experimental treatments are years away (it isn’t so simple as “discovering a cure;” the overall process can take years, and that’s assuming it’s viable to begin with). People with terminal illness are forced to waste away, often on life support, past the point where they can care for themselves—or even communicate with the outside world. They endure until they suffer organ failure, drown in their own fluids, or suffer brain death—and it is not unknown for a person who is brain dead, and only being kept “functionally” alive by machines, to be kept on life support against the wishes of their immediate family. There are high profile cases of the government interfering in this (lookin’ at you, Jeb).
  • Right to Reproductive Autonomy: The ongoing issue of abortion is clouded with misunderstanding, false myths, and deliberate ignorance (video link). The pro-life “platform” is based entirely on these misconceptions, and it has its roots in the enforcement of ideas that are at worst rooted in individual religious preferences—and, at best, a matter of personal opinion, completely unenforceable in accordance with known facts. The platform is notoriously unconcerned with the reasons why an abortion is being sought, with the other services provided by an organization that offers abortion services, with the consequences of a society without legal abortions, with the health and well-being of the mother, with the welfare of a child once it has left the womb, or with the profoundly negative way in which it impacts the lives of millions of American women every year. It is one of the primary focal points for under-reported incidents of extremist Christian violence and domestic terrorism, and is a major example of how American policy allows for “religious freedom” to involve the imposition of one’s religious beliefs on other people.
  • Right to High-Speed Internet Access: This is a relatively recent proposal, but it is an idea that is gaining traction (video link), both in America and abroad (I’ve always wanted to study a broad… I’m so sorry). The European Union and the United Nations have both come out in favor of pursuing the classification of high-speed internet access as a necessary public utility, and its advancement as an inalienable right. We live in a world that is becoming increasingly globalized; internet access is frequently required to look for a job, to shop for basic necessities, and to pay bills. Our legal regard for internet access—which is still regarded almost as a passing fad, or a curiosity, by the US government—is decades out of date. This antiquated regard for the electronic medium has contributed in many ways to the ability of law enforcement and other government agencies to flout existing, recognized Constitutional rights in ways that wouldn’t be possible in direct physical analogy: recognizing internet access as an inalienable right could assist in the ongoing fight against invasive electronic search, seizure, and surveillance practices.

The Right to Know More

There are many more areas where the Ninth Amendment could be brought to bear, for the good of all American citizens. Is there an issue about which you are passionate, that you would like to see raised in regard to the Ninth Amendment and the protection it could potentially afford? Leave a comment; I’d love to hear from you! In the meanwhile, feel free to check out these additional resources on the subject:

How to Tell an Indie Author that You Love Them

How to Tell an Indie Author that You Love Them

indie authors love reviews
I mean, who doesn’t? We’re all so clean and well-irrigated.

Write a review. Please. And, thank you.

There’s a lot to be said about this, but that’s the cold, hard gist of it. Each year, hundreds of thousands of new writers join the millions who are already engaged in self-publishing. Thanks to platforms like Amazon and CreateSpace, millions of new books are flooding the worldwide market.

I recently joined the ranks of new authors (The Death of Constance is a BDSM erotic thriller, available now, if you’re into that sort of thing) along with my coauthor Amburgese Rain; it’s been an adventure, a rewarding experience, and a lot of fun. A simple release party on an indie authors group on Facebook can lead to a few hundred dollars in sales, right away, but for anything bigger—to climb the ranks; to become known? That takes some serious elbow grease, thanks to the level of competition.

This is not a bad thing. It’s “the more, the merrier.” And, thanks to eBooks, reading habits are actually on the rise: print sales are gradually declining, but the difference is vastly outpaced by the number of people using e-readers. Until conclusive evidence is presented as to e-readers somehow being “harmful,” there is no reason to discount electronic readership as being somehow “different.”

I love a hard copy as much as the next B&N haunt, but—ultimately—books are books. I’m sure people complained when we stopped using clay tablets, and again when we stopped using parchment scrolls.

Another Non-Sequitur “Nick Can’t Stay on Topic” Moment: Digital Information Death

To those worried about the eventual decay of electronic media, a phenomenon sometimes called “digital information death” or “digital information disintegration,” modern books disintegrate after a few decades. Books from five decades ago are frequently in worse shape than books from five centuries ago. The medium of the written novel began using cheaper, less durable materials a while back, and nobody noticed—except to appreciate the associated decrease in pricing, which e-readers have once more delivered.

Back to Indie Books and Writing Reviews

save authors help indie books write reviews
My review type is 0+. There’s a shortage.

The sheer number of new books and fledgling authors has led to the saturation of many commonly read genres, both in fiction and in nonfiction. As a rule, “commonly read” equates to “commonly written;” it’s mostly readers who become writers, and the self-publishing community relies heavily on community support. People also tend to write within genres and subject matter which they personally enjoy reading about.

As a result, there are simply too many books for online publishing and marketing platforms to keep track of via traditional methods. This has resulted in their finding ways to essentially narrow down the list, without actually discriminating directly against authors based on subject matter or preferred genre. To be fair, the latter is the avenue being taken by many traditional agents and publishing houses (it is common, for example, to stumble upon “no longer accept manuscripts within the fantasy genre” in the course of one’s search for a potential outlet).

What the online platforms have done, in response to the glut of new literature, is to focus related product searches and other incidental promotional efforts on customer reviews. Books on Amazon are ranked, referenced, and promoted based upon customer rankings and reviews, with books that have no reviews loitering in a negative space that is in some ways even more disadvantageous than having an overall negative reception.

How to Write a Review

amazon goodreads reviews indie publishing
Give a hoot! TEASE YOUR EYEBROWS! Also, write reviews.

There are lots of places which offer tips and advice on how to write the perfect review. What they tend to neglect (though not always; thanks for the ample assistance, Kyle!) is the fact that even something quick, low-effort, but high-energy is far more valuable than nothing—even more than a standalone rating. The simple act of taking a few moments out of your day to submit a review at all is what Amazon and other markets are looking for. The rest is icing. Sweet, sexy, succulent icing—but still icing.

Reviews in places like Amazon and Goodreads don’t have to be lengthy. They can be as simple as “Great job; can’t wait for the next one!” or even “I liked it!” along with an honest rating. Goodreads also offers other forms of engagement, including a forum for questions, quizzes, and trivia questions relating to the book.

Frankly, many authors don’t pay enough attention to these features.

Would You Like to Know More?

  • Amazon’s Customer Review Guidelines. They’re pretty much common sense, but everybody involved in the industry ought to read them at least once as a reminder.
  • The best reviews on Goodreads; a weekly/monthly/annual/all-time list of the site’s 50 most popular book reviews in the United States. If you really want to do your favorite authors a favor in return, this is where to go to find some good examples. It’s applicable outside of Goodreads as well.
  • From Bustle.com, Nine Websites for Readers Who Think About Books All Day, Every day. As with Goodreads (which is on the list) it’s to the indie author’s benefit to be familiar with these websites as well!
  • Join The Hive on Facebook, a group dedicated to indie authors pooling their resources to provide a mutually supportive boost to new authors. Mind you that “mutual” is a point of emphasis—but it’s the effort that counts!

Cyberpunk and the Sci-Fi Curve

Cyberpunk and the Sci-Fi Curve

Cyberpunk is a fan favorite literary, film, and gaming niche within science fiction, which has long since turned into a “supergenre;” sci-fi plays host to many popular subgenres (among them steampunk, alternate history, and post-apocalyptic survival). What sets cyberpunk apart from the rest, in addition to its recent rise in popularity, is the fact that it seems poised to fall in line with the sci-fi curve—in ways which its progenitors probably weren’t expecting.

This attribution is something which is normally associated with classic, mainstream science fiction, often of the “harder” (more realistically detailed) variety. It is frequently associated with names like Arthur C. Clarke, Gene Roddenberry, and Isaac Asimov, and even with such venerable writers as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Thousands of terrified radio listeners would certainly attest to the all-too-horrifying detail of Wells’ War of the Worlds.

The Science Fiction Curve: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Smartphone

The sci-fi curve is a famous idea, and is often referenced by authors. This happens in the same way that normal people—people who aren’t inspired to write fiction by the sight of an odd-looking shrubbery—tend to quote old sayings and popular expressions.

The curve references the seemingly prescient abilities of classic science fiction creators, whereby they appear to predict near-future feats of human invention. It can reference an idea or a trend, but is almost exclusively used to refer to technological achievement.

Here’s one famous example: back when futurists were talking about computers being “as small as a single room” by the year 2000, Gene Roddenberry was already envisioning the modern laptop computer and the smartphone (along with numerous other innovations). Yes, he placed them several centuries into the future, but that was in the face of some of the leading minds of the day not daring to go there at all.

Many people doubted that some of those ideas which we now take for granted would ever be possible, even within the time frame that Star Trek was invoking.

As a side note, some of the most far-fetched of Star Trek’s ideas may be forever impossible (or not), but they do present us with profound existential questions: watch CGP Grey’s most bodacious video, The Trouble with Transporters, just in case that accident from The Motion Picture has stopped giving you nightmares after almost forty years. Also, click here for nightmares, because I’m a helper.

The Deal with Cyberpunkcyberpunk sci-fi science fiction writing literature

If you’re familiar with cyberpunk already, go ahead and skip to the next section if you’d like. If you choose to continue, please understand that this is only meant to be a light, topical overview of the subgenre, not a thorough and comprehensive examination.

The seminal, classic work of cyberpunk with which the greatest number of people are most familiar—dedicated fans of the subgenre aside—is most likely the 1982 film Blade Runner. There are other works of film and literature (as well as a variety of games, songs, and other popular media) which are more outstanding in terms of the genre’s attributes, and there are other, equivalently famous works which include the odd cyberpunk-themed element, but Blade Runner brings it all together.

The story of Blade Runner is easy to follow, although its underlying themes are profound. A former cop, played by Harrison Ford, is extorted by his old superior into taking up his specialty one last time. He’s to track down and “retire” four replicants who stole a shuttle, killed the people on board, and came to Earth illegally. Replicants are genetically engineered bio-mechanical androids, so like unto humans that specialized training and psychological examinations are required to ferret them out. Over the course of the film, Ford (as Rick Deckard) comes to question the rightfulness of his mission, and the viewer is exposed—not only to the violence of the replicants—but to the monstrous actions of those who created them.

The film exhibits several major aspects of cyberpunk. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The Alienated Loner: The hero is a solitary, brooding and asocial figure, who is extorted by an autocratic authority into doing a distasteful job with which he’s long become disenchanted. He lives alone, and is unaccustomed to friendship.
  • The Megacorp: More powerful than governments, the world of the cyberpunk subgenre is dominated by global-spanning corporations. They operate their own police forces, wage urban war against their competition, oppress the people who work for them, and follow only their own rules—with impunity.
  • “High Tech Low Life:” Genetic engineering has reached a point where animals—and people—can be designed and grown to exacting specifications. Technology is extremely advanced, but we’re also shown a society that is fractured and crumbling. Crime and poverty are rampant. The world is filthy—almost as messy and disgusting as the people who live in it.
  • Terra Firma: The cyberpunk setting is almost always an overcrowded, resource-stretched, near-future Earth—the better to confront issues like social disenfranchisement. Cities consist of enormous, towering buildings, with increasingly unsuccessful and unfortunate people living lower down in the superstructure.
  • Film Noir: Cyberpunk is dark, brooding, suspenseful, and atmospheric. It makes heavy use of narration (which is still present in some versions of Blade Runner) and often follows a structure similar to that of a classic detective story.

How Cyberpunk is Setting the Curve

Science fiction has always mirrored social and political issues relevant to its time. Small wonder, then, that cyberpunk is becoming more relevant: our technological advancement is outpacing our growth as a society. Cyberpunk reflects a setting of advancing technology, which is often used in strange and unintended ways: people aren’t sure what to do with all of the capabilities at hand. It mirrors social unrest, complaints about oppression, and a strong feeling of disenfranchisement: you’re on your own, and nobody is out there pushing for your better interests. Major characters are often connected to a computer network twenty-four-seven—sometimes literally; even the most functional are barely getting by.

That, in itself, isn’t enough to make it dominate the sci-fi curve, but consider the following:

The Latest in AI: Autonomic Function

We have been making huge leaps in artificial intelligence, and many of these strides are going unnoticed and unappreciated: we forget that there is much more to intelligence than problem-solving and holding a conversation. Everything that we take for granted about how our brains work is part of our “intelligence,” from controlling our heart rate to regulating our body temperature.

Fifteen years ago, we had the technology to perform complex brain surgery and study a person’s genes, but creating a robot that could walk upright was still virtually impossible. The power, complexity, and autonomic function required for something like walking is taken for granted by many people.

Today, we’re on the verge of creating robots that can perform brain surgery. Part of the development of AI technology has been research into things like perception, and autonomous functions: a truly intelligent robot should be able to delegate walking and other basic functions to its background processes, just as we do. Scientists have built two- and four-legged robots which can recover their balance after being struck by a stout kick, or with a sledgehammer. The way they maneuver is smooth and organic, to the point where it triggers a creepy “machines aren’t supposed to do that” vibe in many who witness it for the first time.

Cybernetics: Personal Enhancement

We’re developing prosthetics with autonomous functions that react to our muscle movements—or are directly connected to our brains. A man with two artificial legs can walk, run, sprint, and jog up and down stairs.

One of the major components of cyberpunk has always been cybernetic enhancement. People deliberately have limbs, organs, and other parts of their body augmented artificially—or replaced, with alternatives of superior design, whether biological or mechanical. This is very much mirrored by current endeavors—and not only with prosthetics. Consider the ongoing effort to help transplant victims avoid rejection by literally growing replacement organs from their own cells.

At present, this is done for medical reasons. There is a neurological disorder which causes those who suffer from it to crave the amputation of specific limbs, but in general, people don’t get body modification of this magnitude for purely voluntary reasons—certainly not legitimately. That seems likely to change, however, when prosthetic limbs inevitably pass beyond the point of being relatively delicate and fragile, and begin to surpass our biological counterparts in function.

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