Examining the four main foci for traditionalist impulses in fantasy and science fiction (Part Four)
By Mark Wegierski
(This article is based on a draft of a presentation read at the Fantastic Literature Conference (The Basic Categories of Fantastic Literature Revisited) (Lodz, Poland: University of Lodz) October 21-23, 2012.)
The fourth point of focus is marked by a lonely, existential resistance to quote hypermodern dystopia. This focal emphasis posits future societies that constitute an extension, not a negation, of modern trends. That is to say, the trends of modernity are extrapolated to ever increasing extremes.
One of the most typical genres here is cyberpunk. Cyberpunk (a paradigmatic example being William Gibson's Neuromancer, 1984) depicts a vision of technological dystopia or semi-dystopia, sometimes called quote an air-conditioned nightmare. In the cyberpunk world, the planet is dominated by huge transnational corporations and so-called virtual reality or cyberspace. The latter is imagined as an autonomous electronic realm with which specially equipped quote cyberjockeys can interact and is indeed a central element of life and power struggles. Within this dystopian scenario there exist multifarious interpenetrations of humankind, the electronic realm, gadgetry, machinery, and genetic manipulation.
The most prominent examples of cyberpunk in film are Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) (loosely based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968) and the Wachowskis' The Matrix (1999).
Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953) points to the approaching perils of a consumerist and post-literate society, where books are burned by so-called firemen.
The Space Merchants (sometimes also titled Gravy Planet) (1952), by Cyril Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl, presents a polluted planet of ostentatious, consumerist capitalism where, for example, oak wood is worth more than gold, the reason being that there are very few living trees left. An interesting aspect of this work is that the forces opposing this world exist in an underground organization called the World Conservationist Union. They are derided as quote Consies – a word that might equally suggest quote Commies or quote conservatives. In fact, the tendencies that stand in opposition to this world can easily be characterized as embracing both socio-cultural and pro-ecological conservatism, although the authors might not have explicitly intended this as the message of the book.
Cyberpunk would not appear at first glance to be a subgenre at all friendly to a traditionalist orientation. It's interesting to note that, although it portrays such a quote gritty world, many people who read this sort of fiction identify with the independent cyberjockeys and experience a kind of exhilaration in this literature. In point of fact, many readers who have a tedious and uninteresting life are captivated by the sense of adventure inherent in this subgenre, although more often than not it depicts a dystopic world. Perhaps the real reason for cyberpunk's attractiveness is not so much the gadgets, but the fact that the reader can identify with a cyberjockey living a far more interesting life than that of the reader.
Cyberpunk may suggest ideas that could be termed neo-Romantic, a Romanticism based only on one's own humanity rather than on the natural world. Nature in fact is virtually non-existent, but in this gritty, poisoned world where there are virtually no other living creatures except cockroaches, humans must somehow find meaning and sense in life through their own resources and devices.
The extrapolation of this idea to contemporary reality suggests a kind of solution to our latter-day quote crisis of identity. No longer labouring under the sense that roots are being quote imposed on them, in the end humans make a choice in full freedom to embrace their traditional roots, not excluding at the same time partial identifications with the various other collectivities of late modernity. It would be extremely difficult in today's world to demand total immersion in tradition. Insofar as we live nowadays in a society that – apparently at least – places enormous stock in free choice, opting freely in such case to become re-invested in a cultural context marked by traditional roots constitutes a strong challenge and a not insubstantial ideological conundrum for today's prevailing system.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.