between a growing affinity with technology and concerns about protecting
the environment have found unique expression in contemporary forms of science
fiction, including cybernetic (aka cyberpunk, postcyberpunk) literature.
The effects of harvesting nature in an effort to smooth the way toward
a utopian future raise fundamental questions to pioneers and practitioners
of these postmodern literary movements. How do we exploit technology while
simultaneously preserving a natural order? To what degree is technology
an extension of a natural order? To what degree are humans merely a species
--- Since the 1960s, science fiction has concerned itself with ecological issues, exploring the consequences of technology and industry on a fragile planet. Unlike "golden age" science fiction, which could posit fantastic worlds in distant futures as backdrops for speculations about our fate, more contemporary forms of science fiction tend to ground us in worlds that are close to immediate experience. This quality lends a sense of urgency to the work, an appeal to social ethics. When reading of alien worlds millennia away that may echo ours, we are hardly challenged to address the social ills portrayed. These later forms of science fiction represent mandates to act on the concerns expressed, and to act now. Indeed, these stories and cybernetic literature are good shorthand expressions for capturing a prevalent contemporary sensibility regarding our place in nature and our responsibility for discovering an ecologically sustainable future. ENG 307U invites us to consider the inevitable negotiation of this terrain and the incorporation, integration, and embodiment of organism and machine while surveying the vitalization of machine.
--- The seeds of ecologically oriented science fiction originated in the New Wave movement, a term coined by writer Judith Merril in a 1966 essay in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The New Wave shifted emphasis from the physical to the social sciences, radicalized notions of community, and acknowledged that science and technology can be used for dark purposes. New Wavers experimented with gender, relationships, and ideas of self as a series of constructed identities more influenced by social, political, and economic forces than by biological states. Ecofeminist science fiction boomed in the late 1960s and in the 1970s with groundbreaking works like Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and Joanna Russ's Female Man (1975). The effect was a shift in science fiction from "hard science," the desire to portray plausibly a world in which unimagined technological advances have occurred, to "soft science" emphasizing the interpersonal and psychological. This explosive interest in gender construction fortuitously intersected with the ecological movement labeled "ecofeminism" in the 1970s.
--- Science fiction of this type largely began as a reaction against a mechanistic worldview. It questions the notion that natural and social systems are like smoothly running machines, a disturbing view that produces an ethic of domination and reduces nature to a commodity. In such a world, hierarchies prevail; people dominate nature, men dominate women, the rich dominate the weak, all because "that's the way things are." Writers of science fiction turn this view upside down, creating worlds where nature and culture subtly and intricately interconnect, where things aren't all black or white, where traditionally dominant institutions devolve into close knit and caring communities.
--- The mechanistic worldview has dominated western culture since the 17th century scientific revolution, which constructs the world as a vast machine made up of interchangeable atomic parts easily manipulated by humans. The earth is not a living entity but an inert construction insensitive to human conduct. By extension, humans function to run the machine efficiently. Sir Francis Bacon could be used as a poster child for the growing dominance of the mechanistic view. For Bacon, nature must be made a "slave" in the service of the human drive to improve our material condition. Science and technology therefore become the means by which humans bring nature into servitude--quite in contrast with the assumption that scientific inquiry and the tools it invents to probe its subject represent an earnest desire to understand nature rather than to control it.
--- The view that the earth is a machine and that technology helps us manipulate it displaced the organic perspective prevalent in the Renaissance, which holds that the earth is a living being. Its winds are the breath of a respiratory system, its rivers and streams the blood coursing through circulatory veins, its seasons the signs of a reproductive cycle linking birth to death in endless patterns of renewal. The organic view did not disappear completely, of course. We see it re-emerge in notable "back to nature" movements including Romanticism, American transcendentalism, the philosophies of Goethe and Schiller, and to some degree in Karl Marx's early conceptualization of socialism. It is worth noting the relevance of this latter manifestation, since extrapolating a mechanistic worldview to industrial capitalism is not a difficult stretch. In The Communist Manifesto Marx asks, "Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground--what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?" Marx recognized capitalistic society itself as a machine that exists to produce goods for consumption, one that exploits human labor as another expendable natural resource that always will be in abundant supply. Killing this machine, Marx believed, would inevitably return us to a more natural order; the equalizing effect of socialism on the social classes means less production for production's sake and de facto more conservation of resources, with emphasis placed on what we need to live well, not on what we need to dominate others. Threads of Marxist ideology therefore run throughout contemporary science fiction, which similarly imagines replacing a social construct defined by one group's domination over others with egalitarian, even utopian, alternatives. An important distinction between Marxism and some forms of science fiction is the latter's prevalent tendency to embrace pacifist means to the revolutionary end, in contrast with Marx's belief that only violent overthrow can effect real change.
--- Authors of cybernetic fiction, often regarded as a sub-genre of science fiction are equally concerned with the themes that give contemporary science fiction its identity, yet these writers tend to imagine dystopian consequences of the problems that both address. The term "cybernetic literature" therefore is intended to suggest a tradition encompassing several postmodern movements and extending the discussion of ecological sustainability raised notably by ecofeminists. Cybernetics (from the Greek kubernetes or pilot) is a term coined in the 1940s and used to characterize emerging communication technologies. Its meaning came to suggest someone who could control and direct flows of information. The first crest of the new wave is cyberpunk, whose luminaries include the likes of William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, Bruce Sterling, and Nicole Griffith. Cyberpunk stories are "cyber" because they depict characters who control information technology and who are, ironically, controlled by it. These characters are "punk" because their central value is social resistance, particularly resistance against media and multinational corporations that recycle people's desires into commodities for sale.
--- Like other forms of contemporary science fiction, cyberpunk questions the hierarchies of the existing world, but it portrays more specifically the post-industrial anxiety of present times. As William Gibson has said, "Technology has already changed us, and now we have to figure a way to stay sane within that change." In this obsession with technology, cyberpunk writers embrace what many consider the most recent of four significant revolutions of thought that have produced profound psychic transformations in the human condition. The first is Copernican; the earth, and by extension, human kind, is not the center of the universe. The second is Darwinian; humans are not unique. The third is psychoanalytic; humans are behavioral systems in which reason does not always rule. The fourth is technological; our capacity to create and apply technology defines our identity as a species. As Joseph W. Slade puts the matter, "Technology is what makes humans human."
--- It is little wonder, then, that cyberpunk literature surveys emerging technologies in order to predict evolutionary horizons. The most notable of these is the now popularized notion of cyberspace, a metaphysical dimension we slip into through computer cables. Gibson first conceived of cyberspace as a transcendent experience owing to "a consensual hallucination." Through computer implants in the brain, humans can "jack in" to a matrix of electrical impulses that produce virtual experiences. In essence, one's mind is transformed into a computer program that can access worldwide information systems in seconds. It is an artificial reality that, according to Pat Cadigan, offers a conception of what information looks like. Cyberspace is limitless, a metaphysical plane populated by information cowboys, ghosts, personifications of electronic and biological forces, and independent artificially intelligent programs, all of whom exist in or come to the matrix to acquire the new commodity dominating economic exchange: Information.
--- Perhaps the greatest appeal of the concept of cyberspace is the sense that it offers the last frontier for human experimentation and exploitation. As John Perry Barlow points out, cyberspace has much in common with the 19th century western frontier: "It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse, hard to get around in, and up for grabs. It is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for outlaws and new ideas about liberty." Catherine Richards sees the cyberpunk in cyberspace as a nostalgic throwback mixing elements of beat rebel with techno-surrealism, a "Jack Kerouac on the road to the new virgin frontier." Cyberpunk heroes can be characterized as marginal figures who may be cybernetically enhanced but who represent the last and best of the human spirit. Typically they stand in opposition to the dehumanizing multinational corporations and the "dance of biz," to invoke Gibson once more. Their prototype comes from the wild west but also 1940s film noir and hard-boiled detective novels in the style of Raymond Chandler. Thus, they possess a chivalric, even romantic, quality while maintaining an image of rough independence.
--- The dominant themes of cyberpunk include the cybernetic breakdown of the classic nature/culture opposition, where the privileged status of humans over machines is questioned. In previous science fiction, notably the work of influential masters such as Philip K. Dick, the idea that machines can be "more human than human" finds disturbing application; in an increasingly technological world, humans risk becoming automatons, devoid of empathy, existing as mechanistic devices rather than as souls in organic bodies. In cyberpunk, by contrast, the distinctions blur. Humans can be part machine; machines can be part human; in fact, the synthesis of human and machine is viewed as an inevitable step on the evolutionary ladder. Cybervisions imagine a potentially nonnatural future populated by cybernetically enhanced humans whose organic nature becomes superceded by hybrid cyborg forms. Cyberpunk thus acknowledges that the Alien or Other resides within us. The possible variations on human existence are manifold, ranging from meat to mind. That is, one can exist housed either in a physical, organic body, or one can exist as a series of electronically captured memories on CD disks played in cyberspace. Organic bodies tend to be augmented with prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, and genetic alteration while the mind makes use of brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, and neurochemistry. What is human, and what is self, in this bold new world?
--- Cyberpunk poses several central questions: Are we becoming post-human entities? Are we becoming less organic even as multinational corporations, which seek to thrive and reproduce, become the dominant evolving organisms? Gibson imagines, for example, Tessier Ashpool, an "immortal hive" that began as a family business and grew to become an artificially intelligent computer program whose human creators slumber in cryonic chambers while the program replicates itself and runs the show. Multinationals acquire supreme power as individuals become more marginalized and governments are subsumed to the megacorporations.
--- Since the 1980s, cyberpunk and other forms of contemporary science fiction, including ribofunk and steampunk, have moved through postmodern phases to encompass chaos and complexity theory. Connie Willis, Nicole Griffith, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson in his more recent work are foraying into this newer territory. Chaos theory suggests that we may rely too heavily on the deterministic, linear equations we use to predict the behavior of simple mechanisms. In a world where small effects may produce large effects, chaos abounds. To cite the prevalent metaphor coined by MIT Professor Edward Lorenz, a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. Lorenz developed weather-predicting models based on nonlinear equations, which take into account the chaotic, as opposed to linear, relationships that govern vast environmental systems. The ecological models originating in chaos and complexity theory since have been applied in biological, neurological, genetic, and molecular biological studies.
--- As heirs to the cyberpunk world in which existence is dominated by multinational conglomerates marketing junk, a commercial enterprise devoid of ethics beyond making a buck, a society that represents the ultimate triumph of late capitalism, cybervisionaries embrace chaos and complexity theory because it offers the only hope for the individual trapped in an overwhelming system. If a butterfly's wings can blow a tornado into being, then the actions of a single individual can bring about social change and a rebirth of political consciousness.
--- Another significant emerging technology of interest to the cybernetic tradition is nanotechnology, an experimental science used to manipulate matter at the molecular level in order to build molecular computers. Through the process of manipulating atoms and complex organic patterns, one can make essentially anything that is physically possible. The alchemical machine predicted by nanotechnologists would be able to turn hayseed into fillet mignon. The extraordinary outcomes predicted include the eradication of poverty, hunger, and aging, as nanotechnology promises to give humans utter control over physical matter, a cornucopia of previously scarce commodities. The original conception of this revolutionary science came from Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, but it was Eric Drexler who popularized the theory, bringing it into mainstream discussion. Of interest to the Pacific Northwest, nanotechnology is among the University of Washington's and, more recently, Portland State University's cutting edge research interests.
--- As explored by science fiction writers, the application of nanotechnology raises troubling questions and generates cautionary tales. Neal Stephenson, for example, challenges the assumption that this new biological manipulation will facilitate global egalitarianism. In his view, the wealthy will obtain more access to the fruits of this technology, creating a stronger divide between those who have and those who need. In Greg Bear's prognostications, the development of nanotechnology will parallel that of atomic fusion, originally conceived as a means of providing benign and abundant energy but ultimately appropriated by the military for machines of war. Finally, for William Gibson, along with these threats comes the possibility that the creatures produced by nanotechnology will self-perpetuate, in turn creating alien architectures that will blur the distinction between what is organic yet ersatz and what is natural.
--- Will our growing dependence on technology displace us from nature? This class invites you to experience diverse visions of possible worlds where the distinctions between technology and biology, utopian wishfulness and cynical realism, urban and rural, virtual and real, blur and are re-shaped.