Science Fiction Studies

#120 = Volume 40, Part 2 = July 2013


Neil Easterbrook

Cognitive Estrangement Is Us

Paul Youngquist. Cyberfiction: After the Future. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. xvii + 253 pp. $80 hc.

One third of the way through Science Fiction (2005), his excellent account of sf’s development since the 1890s, Roger Luckhurst devotes a chapter to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both as fact and as symbolic crux of a singular shift in the human condition. For Luckhurst, these events signal the “techno-scientific penetration of everyday life,” a saturation such that “[w]ith the atomic bomb, there was no ‘outside’ of technological modernity anymore” (80). From this point on, no person on the planet could pretend to be separate from or immune to technoscience’s imminence. We can put on our aluminum foil hats, or slink off to a lean-to in the Wyoming wilderness, or stealthily settle in the most remote region of the Amazon, or even build a habitat at the bottom of the Tonga Trench. But after 1945, the bomb can find us there—it can find us anywhere. No place, no one was “outside” technology any longer.

In Cyberfiction: After the Future, Paul Youngquist begins with Hiroshima, making the same point as Luckhurst, but with a difference: “the future also died at Hiroshima. Since the arrival of cybernetics and info-technology, the future has become harder and harder to imagine” (xi). Cyberfiction is devoted to this project, the shocking arrival of the future in Hiroshima, and the progressive dismantling of futurity in sf inflected by cybernetics. Youngquist calls this “Cy-fy,” and his central study examples are Ballard, Dick, Burroughs, Delany, Butler, and Gibson—all the usual suspects save for one outlier: Amiri Baraka. Divided into three sections, the book actually has two analytical divisions: an opening section that theorizes the cultural conditions producing “cy-fy,” followed by six chapters of discrete readings, each centered around a single topos of diminished, evaporating futurity: crash, schiz, queer, “space machine,” transspecies breeding, and stealth. You will not find matching names with topics very hard, with Baraka corresponding to the one remaining topos.

Throughout, the book is extremely stimulating, insightful, and well-crafted—it is certainly among the best books I have read of sf scholarship. Not only has Youngquist admirably dispatched his obligations as a scholar, grounding his analysis within the context of and conversation with other scholars, but his prose is lively and readable. Some of the sentences are very sharply polished, and when Youngquist applies his considerable wit, the results can be both funny and very quotable. For example, here Youngquist follows a quotation from early in Pattern Recognition (2003), where Cayce has been contemplating a new segment of the footage: “Yup. Looks like Art: a sublime representation purged of all debilitating history. Kant on a celluloid halfshell. Except that it moves. What distinguishes the footage from Marley’s beautiful boxes is precisely this capacity for the footage to move, to exceed its image status, becoming, in Deleuze’s terms, a movement-image” (219; emphases in original). A compact and clever comment, intelligently conversant with Kant and Deleuze, but pellucid in comparing Cayce’s search for the “maker” with Count Zero’s search for the source of those quixotic Joseph Cornell-style boxes. While the entire book is worth careful reading, I find the opening two chapters the most stimulating. I would think that even sf scholars who have no special interest in the recent literature associated with innovative aesthetics, or postmodernism, or cyberpunk (proto- or post- or anywhere in between) will find these chapters well worth their time, if only to help develop how our present understanding of the future will affect our future understanding of the past.

Youngquist’s argument appears in the first two chapters, “Speculative Futures” and “Cyberfiction.” He generally conceptualizes sf in a familiar way: “science plus fiction equals change” (25; emphasis in original). Like Luckhurst, Youngquist thinks that emerging cultural practices and developments are the vectors that produce such aesthetic imbrications. And of the many vectors that might be studied, he focuses on two: “telecommunications and finance capital” (10). Both changes originate in the US in the 1840s: “With the telegraph begins the forced and speedy march of culture toward a global network of information flows” (13). One of the chief consequences of the development of the telegraph is the development of derivatives markets, the most familiar of which is the futures market, where finance capital makes bets about the future price of commodities. Initially designed to flatten market volatility (14), we have seen in just the last ten years (culminating with the crash of 2008) that derivatives actually increase volatility. The name derivatives comes from the fact that the exchange of capital no longer focuses on objects that exist in the world, commodities such as corn or oil; instead, it is a market that derives its existence from such things. These days, a vastly larger portion of our global economy concerns speculative derivatives rather than material commodities. Youngquist gives the following example: “To illustrate: 2004 saw eleven times as much money made from trading corn futures as from trading corn” (18). This spring, The New York Times reported that the number for oil was close to twenty to one. Under such conditions, “speculation rules the day” rather than either labor or the “exchange of goods” (19). (Though he does not discuss it, I think Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House [2010] is a novel that perfectly illustrates the claim.) But Youngquist goes on to note that “the whole point of a futures contract is to add value to the present”—in other words, to change present conditions, to create an alternative present (21; see also 52). And the sf vector along which such alternatives flourish was not, as Ballard wished, the change from outer space to inner space, but the collapse of both into cyberspace (29).

Following a discussion of Norbert Wiener’s post-Hiroshima development of cybernetics as a way to make futures models more predictable, especially in the context of military command and control, Youngquist then turns to an examination of how the future “as a zone of possibility … becomes a thing of the past” (36). Once commerce primarily becomes flows of information, human activity then becomes simply nodes within systems of distribution. Take Walmart as an example, where “little in [an employee’s] activity is productive” (42). (Youngquist clearly overstates the case, since he does not address commodities or systems of production, but he is on a roll, which is one of the best things in criticism of the arts.) Youngquist’s transition to the rest of his book, which addresses literature, comes through Ballard and Bester. Ballard’s early “fiction simply rescinds mimesis as the condition of literary engagement,” instead foregrounding the flows of information expressed as “code, pattern, and probability” (45). But it’s the Bester of The Stars My Destination (1956) who “invents cy-fy” by “pondering the social implications of instantaneous movement across distance” (47), where jaunting becomes the same sort of technology as the telegraph or the Internet. This second of Youngquist’s theoretical chapters ends with an account of Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981), especially the pattern of how past conceptions of the future present us with proliferating alternatives that disrupt perceptions of the now: “Cyberfiction is that disruption, the strategic consequence of communications after the future” (53; emphasis in original).

The last three-quarters of the book then offers detailed readings of privileged literary exemplars of “cy-fi.” The Ballard chapter uses Crash (1973) as an instance of signifying networks that overwhelm both human subjectivity and human sexuality. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977) becomes a paradigm of the “refractory” (90) postmodern moment, “where the imperative to ‘know thyself’ turns tricky because there is no self to know” (77). It is also a novel where the panoptic gaze renders this “no self” visible to thought. Taking up queerness, Youngquist sees Burroughs and Delany highlighting an sf of “becoming,” of “multiplicity” (107), especially how neither human self nor human body is one, is singular. In the most welcome and surprising but perhaps least convincing chapter, Youngquist gives us Baraka as the agent recoding agency from essence to difference—all in the context of free jazz, Sun Ra, and performativity. In Butler’s Dawn (1987), Youngquist presents bios itself as an uncannily febrile fertility; “the Oankali come to master and then manage the body’s reproductive capacity: in the context of the African Diaspora, a harrowing purpose” (168). Such genetic Fordism signals the eclipse of culture by economics (184). The best chapter of reading revolves around Pattern Recognition, but also rightly invokes Gibson’s Bridge triptych (1993-99) as a recoding of the Sprawl’s understanding of the future. 9/11, empire, Heinlein’s illustration of Foucault’s carceral society (!), and Enron all return us to the change brought about by telecommunications and the innovations of finance capital. One of the primary pleasures of the book is the odd and delightful admixture of reference.

Youngquist is of course not the first to make some of these arguments, which explicitly appear in the fiction itself and have been circulating in sf criticism for decades. For instance, in Pattern Recognition Bigend remarks to Cayce: “In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration.… We have no future because our present is too volatile” (57). About this novel John Clute wrote that

sf is no longer about the future as such, because “we have no future” that we can do thought experiments about, only futures, which bleed all over the page, soaking the present. (Cognitive estrangement is us.) In 2003, sf stories can no longer fruitfully be defined as texts which extrapolate particular outcomes from particular “nows”; such stories that are published as sf are, in fact, nostalgia blankets: Instant Collectibles. In 2003, on the other hand, any story about the case of the world, any story the world can be seen through, is in fact sf. (Mundane novels, which are set in the world like fish in an aquarium, cannot grasp the tank, cannot see the case for the trees.) (403-404)

Clute’s comment comes from 2003, in a review called “The Case of the World.” A similar claim can be found in Fredric Jameson’s 1982 essay “Progress versus Utopia: or, Can We Imagine the Future?” which argues that despite its “apparent realism,” sf functions “not to give us ‘images’ of the future—whatever such images might mean for a reader who will necessarily predecease their ‘materialization’—but rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and to do so in specific ways distinct from all other forms of defamiliarization” (286). A final example, from Youngquist: “Gibson refigures the future as an alternate present” (52). But if some of us have heard these specific claims before, even in essays here in SFS, that does not minimize the usefulness of making them again or developing them, as Youngquist does, along different textual vectors or within differing contextual frames.

The book ends flatly, alas, without coda or recap, without giving some sense of the next new project after the new collapses into the now. But every other part of the book is lively and engaging, well worth both the investment of time and the return on the price of admission. Youngquist shows us how sf traces a shift within the last two centuries of western culture, one that moves “[f]rom religion to economics: the future changes from something people do into something that does people—determines their possibilities, administers their lives” (11; emphasis in original).

Clute, John. “The Case of the World, Two.” 2003. Scores: Reviews 1993-2003. Essex, UK: Beccon, 2003. 403-406.
Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. New York: Putnam’s, 2003.
Jameson, Fredric. “Progress versus Utopia: or, Can We Imagine the Future?” 1982. Archaeologies of the Future. New York: Verso, 2005. 281-95.
Luckhurst, Roger. Science Fiction. London: Polity, 2005.

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