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Tradition and liberty in science fiction and fantasy: Part Eight – Some antecedents to cyberpunk
Another variant of the dystopian genre are depictions of near-future (often nuclear) conflicts. Red Dawn, portraying a bunch of American teenagers fighting as guerillas against an invading Soviet army, was a film very much in the spirit of certain sectors of 1980s sensibility. In this same period, there was the highly absurd depiction, in a television mini-series, of a postwar America under Soviet occupation. It was highly characteristic that America was shown in the best possible light (i.e., life in the countryside, in "the Heartland" was portrayed -- which appeared far more traditionalist than it does today). The action took place in small towns and with beautiful scenery in the background. The Soviets were curiously mild -- which seemed highly unlikely. "Special occupation units" (commanded by a Nordic-looking German), with black uniforms and helmets also made an appearance -- so there was once again a return to World War II stereotypes. Persons of Eastern European descent would view the plot with incredulity. How likely would it be, that the Soviets would consent to the elimination of their shock-troops by the American partisans, while the army of the post-American puppet-state would arrange with the partisans the delayed arrival of support to the shock-troops, in order to give the freedom-fighters time to finish them off? It seems unlikely that the show's producers had read, in regard to these sorts of matters, a single serious historical work.
Oliver Stone was given an incredible amount of money to produce the first American "cyberpunk" mini-series, The Wild Palms (based on the comic-strip series which ran in the trendy Details magazine). Although rather interesting and worth watching, the miniseries was "buried" by the fact that the decisive moment of the National Hockey League (NHL) play-offs took place at the same time. Two television series with somewhat of a cyberpunk feel, were The New War of the Worlds, and Tek Wars.
A more recent television series with a cyberpunk and surreal feel was Lexx.
The Wild Palms is related to another interesting subgenre in television and film -- the so-called "surreal thriller." The paradigmatic example of this is the superb British series, The Prisoner – of which only one brilliant season was made. The Avengers/The New Avengers are similar in style, albeit more comically oriented.
This subgenre has been continued in America, with David Lynch's Twin Peaks, and, of course, The X-Files (at its time the jewel in the crown of the Fox network). A rather pale imitation of the latter, Nowhere Man, had also been launched. In the 1996-1997 U.S. television season three new imitations -- Dark Skies, Profiler, and Millennium -- appeared on the scene.
A fairly interesting 1970s movie, Welcome to Blood City, begins as an odd-seeming Western, but turns out to be a nasty "virtual reality" experiment designed to produce "superkillers" to serve the government.
Somewhat related to this subgenre are the Westworld and Futureworld movies, which portray an elaborate entertainment complex staffed entirely by very human-looking robots, a theme which was also explored in The Stepford Wives. David Cronenberg's Videodrome also has strongly surreal elements, and implicitly expresses some interesting ideas about the effects of media on society.
Two very popular old shows containing surreal themes, which were revived at various times, include The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. A very recent television series similar in form to The Twilight Zone (with self-standing episodes) is Black Mirror.
All these shows have served to keep the pot of speculation about nefarious government misdeeds simmering -- and it is not impossible to imagine they have had some impact on the political thinking of some persons.
One should also like to mention here the classic science fiction work from the 1950s, Cyril Kornbluth's and Frederik Pohl's The Space Merchants (sometimes also titled Gravy Planet). It presents a polluted planet of florid consumptionist capitalism where, for example, oak wood is worth more than gold, as 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 "Consies" -- a word that might equally suggest "Commies" or "conservatives". In fact the tendency existing in opposition to this "world" can easily be characterized as embracing both sociocultural and pro-ecological conservatism, although the authors might not have explicitly intended this as the message of the book.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, also from the 1950s, pointed to the approaching perils of a consumerist and post-literate society, where books would be burned by so-called “firemen”.
One could say something here about the ideas that are, to a certain extent at least, being conveyed in the cyberpunk subgenre. It would not appear at first glance to be a very friendly subgenre to a traditionalist orientation. Nevertheless, certain of its aspects are worthy of attention. What is interesting to note is that, although it portrays such a "gritty world", many persons reading this kind of work, identify with the independent "cyberjockeys", and experience a kind of exhilaration in this literature. Many persons having a tedious and uninteresting life are captivated by the sense of adventure in this "world", although it is more often than not a dystopic world. One could advance the hypothesis that 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.
In a way, cyberpunk can suggest ideas that could termed neo-Romantic, a Romanticism based only on one's own humanity, rather than on Nature. Nature in fact is virtually non-existent, but the human person alone, in this gritty, poisoned world, where there are virtually no other living creatures except cockroaches, must somehow find meaning and sense in life.
Extending this idea to contemporary reality might suggest a kind of solution to the latter-day "crisis of identity". The human person, who no longer has the sense of roots being "imposed on them", in the end makes a free choice to identify with their traditional roots, not excluding at the same time partial identifications with the other collectivities of late modernity. (It would be extremely difficult to demand today total immersion in tradition.) Insofar as we live today in a society that -- apparently at least -- enormously valorizes free choice -- then a free choice of traditionalism constitutes a strong challenge and not insubstantial problem of ideas for today's system. It is a form of real opposition against the current-day "air-conditioned nightmare."
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.