If you want to know an era, you take a look at its pulp. That's where the subconscious peeks out. Horror movies, for example, track in interesting ways against mainstream culture of their time--the slasher films that rose with the sexual revolution, the nuclear-powered monsterfests of the 50's, or the nature-strikes-back stylings of the environmental 80's. It's not perfect, but you can get an interesting glimpse into the spirit of the times.
It occurred to me, yesterday at the L St Borders, that the same kind of thing applies to science fiction. It is, after all, a genre composed of what-ifs and daydreams, which is an easy way for social fears and needs to express themselves.
So what's playing at the Jungian Theatre of SciFi Monstrosities these days? Not cyberpunk, that's for sure. Looking over the selection (which is hardly overwhelming on L Street, but neither is it anemic compared to other chain locations), you could be forgiven for thinking that William Gibson is the only person who ever wrote in the subgenre, and he only rents space there now--you could argue that Pattern Recognition and the Bridge trilogy are cyberpunk, but I think that has more to do with Gibson's style and personal obsessions than anything else. It's particularly interesting for my zeitgeist theory that cyberpunk has quietly died, because when it emerged it was seen as a direct response to the privatization and post-Cold War fugue of the Reagan era. Apparently, those big Japanese corporations just don't scare us any more.
What looks to have replaced c-punk as a genre is self-conscious nerd fiction. No doubt this was always an aspect of science fiction--Robert Heinlein's stories of intrepid day-saving engineers with slide rules of steel are just nerdcore from the days when buzzcuts were geek credibility. But I actually saw a book the other day that had, as part of the back cover blurb, something like the following:
Imagine it read in the nicotine-roughened tones of a movie announcer for the full effect. Because seriously: the big dramatic device here is the product cycle? I know we can't necessarily assume that the back cover of a book is entirely an accurate representation of its contents, but I'd rather stab forks into my eyelids than read that. On the other hand, I'm not its target audience. People who do coding all day long and fit a very specific psychological profile probably find it riveting.
I know what that means: there's a market for that kind of cubicle fiction, and clearly there are authors writing about what they know. I'm less clear on why transhumanism has undergone such a renaissance in sci-fi lately. As typified by Alistair Reynolds, Vernor Vinge, John C. Wright, Charlie Stross, and a horde of wannabes, these stories concern people that are at least partly virtual, or manipulated by nano-technology, or other malleable aspects of data. The Singularity often figures prominently. Does it say something about readers that their fiction seeks to reject the boundaries of the human form? Or is it just a reflection of attention spans raised on instant messaging conversations and Boing Boing? Either way, it's another interesting counterpoint to the cyberpunk genre, which explicitly put its protagonists in the role of criminals, lower classes, and vaguely anti-establishment slackers. The transhumanist trend seems like a move back into the utopian technofetish of Golden Age science fiction, just with weirder devices and less emotional characters.
Anyway. The other interesting trend I saw on the shelves was the revival of the gritty "magical underworld" theme. Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher, and a few others pen books about wizards, werewolves, and vampires that are all around us, having really exciting adventures and lots of great sex. There are a lot of these books on the shelves at Borders. I'm not sure if it's a backlash against the geeky escapism of genre fantasy (is it the equivalent of cyberpunk unicorns) or just a coincidence that incorporates the intrinsically (if trashy) appeals of exciting adventures and sex. I can't really blame people for the latter.