Cyberpunk, cautionary tales, and imagination

This week, I'll be writing about science fiction, solarpunk, and imagining better futures.

halftone flower collage with the words "cyberpunk versus solarpunk"

The world we live in can be . . . bleak.

I've written and podcasted before about how folks who are interested in the paranormal are uniquely positioned to imagine better futures. After all, if you're willing to believe that there's something beyond the widely accepted reality, then you have an ability to believe in and imagine things that you've been told not to.

I've also talked about the excellent book From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want by Rob Hopkins, which makes the argument that creative solutions and positive thinking are critical to our ability to change the world.

If the only future you can imagine is a bleak one, how are you supposed to make moves toward a better one? You just end up with billionaires trying to turn reality into Snow Crash.

Anyway, this week, I'll be writing about science fiction, solarpunk, and imagining better futures.

Science fiction is cool

One of my favorite memes is this 2021 tweet by @AlexBlechman:

Sci-Fi Author: In my book I invented the Torment Nexus as a cautionary tale
Tech Company: At long last, we have created the Torment Nexus from the classic sci-fi novel Don't Create The Torment Nexus

I'm someone who grew up on a mix of classic mid-to-late 20th century sci-fi (like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ben Bova, Orson Scott Card, and Michael Crichton) and 19th to early 20th century sci-fi (like Jules Verne and H.G. Welles).

(Listen, the local library had a terrible selection, so I was mostly limited to the books on my dad's shelf.)

A lot of those books showed positive futures, but plenty of them—as well as many other sci-fi classics—showed disaster.

Cyberpunk and cautionary tales

Science fiction has long been a genre concerned with social commentary and cautionary tales. And just like a fairy tale where a unruly child is eaten by a witch, sci-fi novels often show scenarios that point out the evils of mankind and how it could all end terribly.

But there's a problem with that. Sci-fi is cool. Even a book that ends in disaster can capture someone's imagination with its cool tech (like interstellar travel, or example) and aesthetics.

For example, I missed a lot of the cyberpunk classics, but I've been an earnest, unironic fan of the Matrix movies (and the Wachowski sisters in general) since I saw The Matrix at the age of ten.

I remember loving other 90s cyberpunk, like Tad Williams' Otherland series as well as other, more obscure books like Wyrm by Mark Fabi (I tried reading Cryptonomicon a few years after it came out, when I was twelve or so, but I wasn't really into it, and it's a long book).

In middle school, I breathlessly watched Blade Runner and anime that dealt with disappearing into digital worlds, like Serial Experiments Lain and .hack//Sign. Later, as an adult, that I read some Philip K. Dick and less-appreciated-but-still-great cyberpunk classics like Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott. (Still haven't finished anything by William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, though I've started reading a few of 'em.)

Aesthetic poisoning

Cyberpunk stories depict a depressing, miserable world of tech, isolation, and general misery. Not the sort of reality you'd want to live in, all things considered.

But many of these worlds are aesthetically beautiful. I dunno about you, but there's just something about a dark city street lit by neon lights. Even in real life, there's nothing I love more than walking around a dark, bustling metropolis. And cyberpunk media really takes that to another level.

Like it or not, so much of today's world feels like it's been specifically crafted by people who were charmed by the aesthetics and technology of cyberpunk but absorbed none of the lessons. They took the stories at face value and dove headfirst into replicating the aesthetics—and the underlying evils that came along with it.

Cyberpunk stories often depict alienation, economic precarity, widespread (isolating) tech use, artificial intelligence, and government and corporate corruption. Sound familiar?

I'm not immune

There was a period in early 2021 when, depressed by the state of the world and still feeling extremely isolated because of COVID, I just had to tell myself, Imagine you're living in a cyberpunk movie. Just tell yourself that. This is like that fiction you like. And . . . it helped, a little.

I'm not saying that habitually distancing yourself from reality is a good thing, especially in the long term, but it was decent enough coping mechanism for the short term.

That being said, I also coupled that . . . let's call it a visualization . . . with doing a bit of volunteer work around the neighborhood. I'm not saying this to claim I'm a good person or anything—I do far less than I should—but I recognized that I was freaking out because I was feeling alone and helpless, and getting out and talking to people in real life did help me cope.

But in my darker moments, alone and feeling desolate, I wrapped myself up in an aesthetic blanket and told myself I was a character in a cyberpunk book. It gave me a different lens to see things through, a narrative distance that I think I needed. I don't think it did any harm.

That being said, it's one thing for me, a private citizen without capital or power, to retreat into fiction to shelter myself for a few months.

But it's quite another for the powers that be—billionaires, tech CEOs—to actively try to recreate a cyberpunk world. And more and more, that seems to be what's happening.

Take the metaverse, for example. I'm not going to get deep into it, but it takes its name from Snow Crash. Facebook rebranded as Meta and spent billions of dollars trying to create a virtual reality world inspired by and named after a concept in a 1990s cyberpunk novel. (At the time, articles talked about how "eerie" it was that Facebook's plans were so similar to the book. Yes. A very eerie "coincidence.")

It's also not lost to me that on the Oculus VR headset (now called the Meta headset, I guess), you can choose a "cyber city" home screen environment that's literally an apartment in a cyberpunk city. And many of the games (Beat Saber, Synth Riders, and plenty of others) have a cyberpunk aesthetic.

Look, there's a possibility that I know all of this because the home screen environment on my VR headset is the cyberpunk city one. There's also a possibility that I really enjoy Beat Saber and appreciate the aesthetic.

My purpose here isn't to say that it's wrong to like the cyberpunk aesthetic. But aesthetics can also be a trap. Fiction can be a trap.

Ordinary people can easily be pulled in by fiction and have our imagination of possible futures circumscribed by dystopia.

People with power can decide to recreate their favorite science fiction dystopias and make the rest of us live in them.

The power of solarpunk

As I've said before, I'm a big fan of solarpunk, an science fiction genre that's all about imagining better futures. There's an emphasis on renewable energy sources, sustainable technologies and ways of life, DIY, post-capitalism, nature, and optimism—a belief that there's a better way to live than the way we're living now. An easy entry point into the genre is Becky Chambers' Monk and Robot series. I also find the Terra Nil video gamevery soothing.

Solarpunk offers a counterpoint to cyberpunk: we can still have a future with cool tech, but without the misery, inequality, waste, and environmental destruction that we have today and that most science fiction depicts. There can be a better way forward.

It's telling (and unsurprising) that when I was struggling so much in 2021, withdrawing and feeling like I was stuck in a dystopia, what got me out of it was helping my neighborhood in tiny ways, doing yard work in the community garden and helping out with local political campaigns for candidates and policies that helped ordinary people. (Which, again, I did—and do—far, far less than I should.)

The antidote to loneliness isn't more isolation, and the antidote to despair isn't giving up. But it's so hard to see that, and to act on that, when so much of our narratives (books, movies, news media, social media) focus almost exclusively on the negative.

Even when dystopias are wrapped in exciting plotlines and aesthetic beauty, they're still dystopias, offering cautionary tales rather than solutions.

And, as Rob Hopkins points out in his book From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want, we need imagination and creative thinking to get us out of this mess. The more stressed, depressed, and hopeless we are, the less we're able to do that—and the more trapped we are in the reality that we're told is the only possible one.

As a paranormal researcher, I reject the idea that the mundane physical reality is the only one. So it's not a leap at all to also reject the narrative that we're doomed and that dystopia is our destiny.

For more on this subject, check out the episode of Buried Secrets Podcast called "On Mylar Balloons and Forgotten Futures" or read the essay-formatted version.