Like most I came to writing through reading, and what engaged me most as a reader when I was young was science fiction. The idea of looking at the “future” was enticing to me, and science fiction served as a lens through which I could see what was coming next. As a kid I had fantastic dreams about when humans would live on Mars, or a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri…to a ten-year old’s mind, it all seemed so close.
And then I learned physics.
Like many I came to engineering through an inexplicable thirst to understand what made things work, and what I could do to make things work. My desire to understand the world clashed head-on with my sci-fi dreams, and the result was not the dreams becoming squashed, just modified a tad.
Though Cyberpunk was my fiction darling through high school and into college, for the sake of completeness I’ll cover three genres here that are all well read by me, and in my mind, connected. Looking at Dystopian, Cyberpunk and post-Apocalyptic fiction, we see writers wrestling with new social and scientific discoveries, and what they mean. I’m going to try here and do a poor job of addressing them in chronological order.
The most famous examples of the dystopian genre came, both in my historical analysis and in chronology, after World War II. The combination of Hitler’s “master race” delusion and the omnipresence of war propaganda everywhere led to two very different and yet similar works, Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Orwell’s “1984”. Both described different visions of a world that was strictly controlled to bring about the optimal consequence for those in power.
The genre still exists today, though I’d argue that the most poignant works tend to be older. My favorite, and now the one I find most chilling, is Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Everyone seems to get stuck on the book-burning aspect, but that was by no means the most important part. Bradbury described society as being placated by high-quality, mindless entertainment fed to them by television. It’s an observation that, though possibly a bit dramatic in the 50s, is now close enough to spot-on to be very disturbing. Though dystopian visions that clearly stick with us like the above 3 examples are clearly caricatures of even what the authors though possible, we ignore them today at our peril.
The post-Apocalyptic novel was a product of the Cold War, when the question of nuclear holocaust was when, not if, and the idea of humanity’s total destruction was at the front of many people’s minds. Inspired by the likes of Mad Max, post-Apocalyptic pieces in pop culture tend to be campy and stylish (there is a very specific image people get of ramshackle vehicles and people in armor running across deserts shooting at each other), the most effective pieces of literature tend to be a bit more serious. A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the older and more influential pieces in this genre. The story centers around a monastery trying to preserve the knowledge of human society destroyed by nuclear war, and like many novels in this genre uses the mention of modern day relics as a compelling form of dramatic irony. Riddley Walker is in some ways similar, taking place thousands of years after mankind’s destruction as the remnants of human society in England are on the verge of rediscovering gunpowder.
The themes of knowledge loss and rediscovery are played into heavily in all levels of the post-Apocalyptic library (The Brotherhood of Steel in the Fallout series, for instance), but it seems that the more widely viewed pieces these days are about scarcity, human nature (The Road covers both of these quite well), and more and more often, zombies.
My personal favorite, the Cyberpunk genre was largely in reaction to the emergence of computers and computer networking in the 1980s, though elements of the genre had showed up as much as a decade before (The Shockwave Rider, for instance). In an interpretation I don’t particularly agree with, continued works in this genre were labeled with the label “post-Cyberpunk” as early as 1992 (Snow Crash seemed to be a catalyst for this term), as Cyberpunk seemed to be a label reserved for a small group of authors in the 1980s writing about a Japanocentric world where the internet was bright VR shapes and everyone wore Mirrorshades. In my mind, Cyberpunk is about writing predictive fiction (the “cyber”) with a typically noir approach to society and human nature (the “punk”). Nothing says the genre has to stay in the 80s, any story with a bleak attitude towards emerging information technology (be that augmented reality, ubiquitous computing, or whatever buzzword my mechanically-oriented mind has missed recently) and some reflection of that bleak attitude onto a vision of society can fit the mold, at least for me. In some ways, though purists would balk, I’d say that William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition can be considered just as cyberpunk as Neuromancer.
Why the engineer cares
I’d lump these three science fiction subgenres into the group “predictive fiction”, so called because all of them are different ways for their authors to reflect on what the future means through the lens of whatever the zeitgeist of the time is. This interests me because, unlike Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov, and all the other sci-fi authors I read in elementary and middle school, these stories have pertinent applicability to the real world, often without much in the way of allegory and heavy symbolism that would most certainly need to be present in any hard sci-fi with a political message. Dystopian and post-Apocalyptic novels remain popular because we see where they intersect with reality. We see the power and danger of mass media, just as Bradbury and Huxley alluded to 50 years ago. We see computers cleaving people’s identities, though not with cyberdecks and prosthetics, rather with Facebook and Twitter. And we see that, no matter how long it’s been since nuclear war seemed real, the world always seems on the brink of destruction, whether from an economic collapse from peak oil, from climate change, or from some Middle Eastern crazy with a good ol’ nuke. In short, the popularity of predictive fiction at large is the same reason it’s my favorite genre of science fiction: it gives us a good look into the future, but whether through prescience or clever writing, it seems real.
EDIT: As I did some fact-checking, I found that Brave New World was in fact written almost a decade before World War II. However, Huxley’s commentary on the social impact of his novel, Brave New World Revisited, was written in 1958, so from at least a scholarly perspective my statement can still stand. Additionally, the concepts of Eugenics that inspired both Huxley and Hitler were of course significantly older than either of them. Even so, whoops.