What Did Ursula K. Le Guin Really Think About Dystopian Science Fiction?

Disdain seemed to overtake the voice of Ursula K. Le Guin in the passage quoted below about her life and work. The article by Zoe Carpenter suggests that Le Guin was disenchanted, or perhaps even bored, by the mere idea of dystopia.

For someone preoccupied with humanity’s ability to destroy itself and the rest of the natural world, Le Guin is notably disinterested in dystopias. Frankly, they bore her. “I think they’re just ground out,” she told me. “They’re just the latest way to write sci-fi novels. Don’t readers ever get tired of being told that the world is coming to a nasty, ugly end and only a very few people will survive, by luck and by violence?” Nor does Le Guin think much of the kind of shallow moralism used to justify invasions and torture. She has written through plenty of dark territory, but with an eye fixed on the constant stars of kindness and bravery.

Ursula Le Guin Has Stopped Writing Fiction—but We Need Her More Than Ever

This take on dystopia seems to completely miss the purpose of that story world. Is it possible Le Guin thought so little of dystopian stories as to dismiss the entire subgenre completely?

Dystopia isn’t necessarily a “fad” or “shallow moralism.” Some writers will jump on nearly any shiny new literary bandwagon, but Le Guin isn’t likely to have stereotyped an entire subgenre of science fiction just because she couldn’t imagine new stories to be told using that approach.

Based on the quote alone, Le Guin says that dystopia itself is “ground out” and “just the latest way to write sci-fi novels.” Dystopia is as old as science fiction itself, and is an integral part of the genre. Trends and fads don’t render an entire subgenre obsolete.

The quotation overgeneralises in a puzzling way. Anyone can write whatever they want, but it’s strange that Le Guin seemed to dismiss dystopias completely in the quoted passage. If she had focused specifically on superficial ways of writing dystopian fiction, the quote would have made more sense.

Dystopia, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is

1 : an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives

2 literature : anti-utopia · writing a dystopia

—dystopian \-pē-ən\ adjective

The definition of dystopian is not “and it all comes to a nasty, ugly end, and only a few people will survive, by luck and violence.” Dystopia is a state of society and/or the physical world, not an event in the story itself (‘a nasty, ugly end’). That’s what’s odd about the Le Guin quote. It doesn’t make sense.

Given that Le Guin was one of the most well-regarded figures in science fiction and fantasy, it’s not likely that she spoke carelessly. So what did Ursula K. Le Guin actually mean?

Two quotations might clarify her perspective. For Le Guin, the oppositions that create dystopia (and utopia) are gendered. Yang is male, and yin is female.

Le Guin’s approach is informed by Taoism, where opposing forces are interdependent.

She elaborates in No Time to Spare: “Yang is male, bright, dry, hard, active, penetrating. Yin is female, dark, wet, easy, receptive, containing. Yang is control, yin acceptance. They are great and equal powers; neither can exist alone, and each is always in process of becoming the other.” For Le Guin, there’s an overabundance of yang in American culture—one that’s reflected in its science fiction. She says, “Many contemporary dystopias provide such a great opportunity to wallow in gratuitous cruelty and mindless violence. Yin is for losers.” So much, then, for the philosophical cautionary tale.

Ursula K. Le Guin, the sci-fi giant, takes on dystopia and social injustice

In this passage, Le Guin doesn’t dismiss dystopia itself. Her rejection is of an opportunistic use of cruelty and violence. The excess of yang (male) destructive “penetration” energy overwhelms and drowns out the “receptive” yin (female) energy.

That’s a decent start, but does Le Guin offer any thoughts for how to escape the endless cycle of dystopian yang in science fiction — and perhaps in society itself?

Definitive elaboration on the question naturally comes the celebrated author’s unabridged thinking, expounded upon in the completed essay as published in a 2017 collection, NO TIME TO SPARE: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The essay is titled, “We keep writing dystopias instead of envisioning a better world—maybe what we need is balance“. Le Guin continues with the Taoist metaphor of yin and yang, ending on a perhaps-hopeful note (emphasis added):

Through psychological and political control, these dystopias have achieved a nondynamic stasis that allows no change. The balance is immovable: one side up, the other down. Everything is yang forever.

Where is the yin dystopia? Is it perhaps in post-holocaust stories and horror fiction with its shambling herds of zombies, the increasingly popular visions of social breakdown, total loss of control — chaos and old night?

Yang perceives yin only as negative, inferior, bad, and yang has always been given the last word. But there is no last word.

At present we seem only to write dystopias. Perhaps in order to be able to write a utopia we need to think yinly. I tried to write one in Always Coming Home. Did I succeed?

Is a yin utopia a contradiction in terms, since all the familiar utopias rely on control to make them work, and yin does not control? Yet it is a great power. How does it work?

I can only guess. My guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long-term survival is a shift from yang to yin, and so involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth.

Ursula K. Le Guin wasn’t just “bored” by dystopia. She wanted sci-fi creators to use it as a radical agent for change. Although Le Guin is no longer among us, her energetic words can continue to reveal new alternatives, undiscovered elsewheres that science fiction might describe in hopes that society might follow, before it’s too late.

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What is AltSciFi now? Primer and invitation, 2018 January

This project aims to be a small group of independent sci-fi artists and writers, and fans who want to support their work. Our ultimate goal is to finance indie sci-fi films, created only for fans and artists who love science fiction.

The project has been in development for a few years.

Background: we’re only weeks away from officially opening to the public. An artist found a prototype page on our web development site and thought we were selling their work. The page had working PayPal links — only for testing the payment system — but we don’t have anything to sell, so no one could buy anything yet. We literally have to connect to artists to sell anything, because that’s the whole purpose of the project.

Naturally, instead of talking to us, the artist sent a Twitter mob to slander a project she knows nothing about, because mobs of outrage are just what people do on Twitter for entertainment.

So as you read the “introduction” letter below, keep in mind, if you were writing this, the recipient might have heard false claims and slander about you on Facebook or Twitter.

The key point is that no one actually knows what we’re about, because this project is intentionally different from what already exists.

Our project will feel like it immerses you in a small world of mainly hard sci-fi and cyberpunk, to connect fans with artists who love that specific style and aesthetic. We have a traditional site, experimental web magazine, “online PDF” reader site, free email newsletter, bi-weekly mini-zine, and four store sites to support the artists directly by buying their art.

Oh, and we also have a new “sci-fi library” initiative to collect and archive science fiction of past and present. That’s still in early stages, though.

You can see that this project is a small world unto itself. Our main topics are:

  • future science
  • surveillance
  • (ethical) hacking
  • Net neutrality and the open web, and why it matters
  • increasing corporate domination of everyday life (and what can be done about it)
  • fashion and style, and
  • an “18+” section for the parts that people will actually pay to see. :)

We can support concept art, webcomics, manga, short films, short stories, novellas, and excerpts of novels that readers can pay for.

You’ve probably seen updates about our progress over the past year or so. Now we’re almost ready to start telling artists, so what do you think of the letter below?

P.S. If you want to know when we officially start up, we’ll add you to the list. And if you’re an artist, writer, filmmaker or other kind of creator, feel free to get in touch as well.

Sample Letter to Artists about the AltSciFi Project

> Hi [name],
>
> Your art is great. We’re an informal group of sci-fi artists
> and writers who support other indie artists and writers.
> We’re just creators, not some giant brand or corporation.
> Your art is featured on our site. Have a look:
>
> [link to artist page]
>
> Our project does not run advertising. Ads on sites
> like Facebook are free because they track people and sell
> everyone’s personal data. We don’t do that. This project has
> a small base of subscribers to help pay the costs
> of running this project. Our ultimate goal is to commission
> new stories and art, and the dream is to finance indie films.
>
> This project is designed to stay as informal as possible;
> to help artists and writers escape from dependency on sites
> like Amazon; and to use the open Web to make it easy to
> find great art and artists like you.
>
> Beyond that, our core values are anti-racism, anti-sexism,
> anti-misogyny, and anti-surveillance. We protest
> police brutality, militarisation, and nuclear war.
> This project embraces sexual diversity and supports
> universal human rights. (We want to help prevent dystopian
> sci-fi from becoming real, and teach why privacy matters.)
>
> If you want, you can sell your works through our website as well.
> We don’t have any art to sell, so we can’t sell anything ourselves.
> That’s a completely separate process we can discuss later.
>
> If for any reason you want us to remove your work,
> reply to this message and it will be removed as soon as
> possible (usually within a day or two).
>
> We always want to find great artists who do unique work
> like yours. If you have other art you’d like to see
> featured here, reply with a link and we’ll discuss further.
>
> Thanks,
>
> —

Sci-fi films so few people saw, they might as well have been indie: Passengers (2016)

Here be spoilers, dearest visitor. Watch the film Passengers (2016) before reading further.

The ideal date movie?

For an easy way to know if your date is a sexual predator or apologist, sit down together for a watch of Passengers (2016), starring Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen and Lawrence Fishburne…

…then ask your date to read this blog post, or summarise it in conversation. Their reaction will tell you everything you need to know. Just be sure to have a quick getaway plan in case their answer surprises you in a certain way.

Did you notice how Passengers (2016) had three endings — but chose the (morally) wrong one?

In reverse chronological order:

Third is the actual ending of the film, when the rest of the crew awaken on their new home world nearly ninety years in the future. Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) are long dead, having turned the ship into a Garden of Eden during their lifetime spent together en route to Homestead II.

The second ending shows us the moment when Jim explains how Aurora can return to cryosleep using the medical treatment pod.

The first ending came as Jim (Chris Pratt) is blown out of the ship and into space, presumably beyond anyone’s ability to save him.

Passengers was a great story about two people who face impossible choices. An asteroid storm damages their ship and Jim, a mechanic in his early thirties, awakens from cryosleep eighty-eight years too early. He will live, grow old, and die on a ship in the middle of space, alone with barely palatable food and only an AI bartender to keep him company.

Aurora, probably somewhat younger than Jim but still age-compatible, is faced with the same fate. The twist is that Jim is to blame for her early awakening. This is essentially the reverse of the typical “date rape drug” scenario: instead of being molested in her sleep, Aurora is brought back from medically-induced slumber only to be emotionally manipulated by Jim into believing that their shared misfortune is due to cosmic destiny.

What’s interesting is how the filmmakers seemed aware of the moral implications, but ignored their (morally) rightful outcome in order to feign a “happy” ending.

To put it simply: in order to set things right at the end of the story, Jim needed to die.

Jim sentenced Aurora to death for the sake of alleviating his loneliness. He brought her back to life in order to deceive her into loving him. He didn’t even have the courage to tell her himself — Arthur (Michael Sheen*) the robot bartender was more of an honest person than he was, and even then the truth slipped out by mistake.

When Jim was blown out of the ship, his death would have been a heroic act of contrition to save Aurora. A life for a life.

When Jim discovered that the medical pod had the power of suspended animation, it was an opportunity to bring the symbolism of “sleep pod” full circle, using Jim’s expertise as a mechanic to save Aurora’s life. A perfect ending.

But instead, the forces of Hollywood prevailed. The sexual predator won. His victim’s disturbing “need” for his love resembled Stockholm Syndrome in which a person grows attached and emotionally enslaved to their captor.

Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was brilliant, raw and real. The script and filmmakers failed her character Aurora, and turned a visually beautiful film into a symptom of Hollywood’s inability to see women as real people. Instead, Aurora remained the love-object to be “won” by a “Nice Guy” abuser/rapist/emotional terrorist.

The screenwriters and filmmakers had two chances to make Passengers great. Instead, they chose the third option which, in light of recent revelations about Hollywood’s treatment of women, seems to be an ominous symbol of our past and present than a story about our possible future. If you see Passengers as a warning, then it’s still a good film, but a chilling one that tells its true story in layers simmering below the surface of its narrative. Passengers isn’t just romantic science fiction. Passengers is psychological sci-fi horror.

What’s the future of sensuality, sexuality and sex in science fiction, society and life?

[ + ] Crystal Sacrophagus, by G-host Lee.

Technology has always played a major role in the enhancement of our human sensual reality. Ripples from the future find voice in the quaking tremors of sex toys, the seismic shifts of mass media, and enduring whispers of unanswered questions.

From the Printing Press to Virtual Reality

Since the beginnings of literature with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, erotica — sensuality conveyed through words alone — has consistently been among the most profitable genres of fiction, especially among women 1.

From Victorian times, vibrators were often disguised as anything from handy kitchen utensils to mechanical neck massagers. One look at their elongated, bulbous shapes and attachments often betrays their dual-use versatility.

Today’s technology still transforms our lives in ways both subtle and obvious, as remotely sharable teledildonics share news headlines 2 with emergent virtual reality spaces 3. Media, hardware and software will eventually come together to redefine our conception of wetware, literally and figuratively, reaching deeply into all areas of public and private life.

There has never been a monolithic “right” versus “wrong” way to approach human sexuality. Non-Western societies have a multiplicity of words for an assortment of genders 4, 5. Both ancient Greeks and Japanese regarded love between men as the highest form of bonding 6. In ancient English and Asian 7 theatrical traditions, the roles of beautiful women were often played by young male actors.

Theatrical technology continues into the future, pervading everyday life in the realms of makeup, fashion and style. Increasingly sophisticated clothing interweaves synthetic materials with cloud-based programs to track vital signs 8 and fitness, embed our communications devices 9, and even disguise our appearance to protect us against increasingly intrusive surveillance 10.

From Sexual Liberation to Social Dystopia: Meet The Real Enemies of Society

In an increasingly uneven economic landscape, where the rich get richer and everyone else feels pressured by the downward slide into corporate-owned dystopia 11, young women increasingly sell nude photos by the dozen to their online followers. Non-nude pornography proliferates on sites like Twitter and Tumblr, from lingerie selfies of playfully bared nipples and shapely rear ends to blogs full of blatantly erotic “fitspo” models and yoga posers. Influence cultivated via homespun “authentic” Youtube videos can lead to careers fueled by invasive behavioural profiling, innocently re-cast as “Internet advertising” 12. This is a technology-driven form of “soft” entrepreneurial sexwork evolving from the self-exposure demanded by Silicon Valley’s social media companies. Privacy policies dictated from above in dense legalese are minimally skimmed by attention-seeking users who gladly thumb their noses at the more prudish sensibilities of generations past.

There are harsh downsides and real dangers in this new world of sensuality, sexuality and sex in society. Shaming campaigns, revenge porn, and Internet stalking have reached epidemic levels. Amoral corporate entities like Facebook restructure our ideas about privacy to nudge us into oversharing while packaging and selling our digital identities — drunk tweets, lonely late-night nudes and all — to anyone who will buy them 13. Our immediate present becomes a long-tail past that, once uploaded and shared, can haunt us long after an initial indiscretion, perhaps for a lifetime. The entirety of Gamergate was based on attempts to shame and harass indie game developer Zoe Quinn into committing suicide, partly based on recirculation of nudes that were published nearly a decade prior. What people do consensually in private is never the business of a stranger, much less a pack of voyeuristic keyboard warriors hellbent on false “madonna versus whore” moral-purity witchhunts. Society loses sight of basic morality at its peril, and this is a peril that has quickly become an existential threat.

Privacy and the right to be forgotten, left alone or simply able to control access to non-public data has never been more important. The twenty-first century heralds an age where nation-states increasingly wage information warfare campaigns in tandem with kinetic battlefield tactics. Similar to our understanding of cyberwar, the average person remains woefully unprepared for the new era of misinformation, disinformation and malicious identity distortion that already envelopes and threatens the world’s democracies 14. We are now all potentially social media superstars — or at least stars to our few followers. With stardom’s intense fascination comes the perils of “reputation management”: a single cheeky semi-nude photo, cellphone “sextape” video or inebriated sexy tweet can be intentionally and virally misconstrued to slander a person’s entire identity. Technological capabilities have raced far ahead of the average person’s awareness of their responsibility to check facts and seek context, instead of jumping to unfounded conclusions based on assumptions and prejudice. Our hunger for entertainment often outpaces our willingness to accept the diversity of human sexual expression as technology spreads across the globe at an ever-increasing rate of acceleration.

The overused and irresistibly true William Gibson quote applies here, paraphrased, as everywhere else: the future (of human sexuality) is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. Gibson wasn’t talking about sex 15 but in some ways, sex is now just another aspect of cyberpunk, though Gibson’s original vision (and sexuality itself) is so much more than that.

Trans, human: Redefining nature, shifting social norms, Hollywood and porn

Glacial as it may sometimes feel, social norms are quietly changing. Rap stars now brag about not only fast cars and money, but also an increasing diversity of sexual orientations and inclinations. Pop stars continually push new boundaries as the glistening baton of sexual freedom passes from Madonna to Lady Gaga to Miley Cyrus, Halsey and other mass-media brand names. Androgyny and non-binary gender presentation has become cool with genderfluid personalities like Ruby Rose. Movie stars are increasingly comfortable with identifying as gay, from action heroine Michelle Rodriguez of Fast & Furious and Resident Evil fame, to the surprising insights brought by a refreshingly mature Lindsay Lohan. Transgender actresses and directors like Laverne Cox and the legendary Wachowski sisters, respectively, are powerfully visible role models for young trans women. Many people across the gender spectrum in the Hollywood spotlight are openly LGBT now, and it no longer necessarily consumes the gravitational centre of their public identity.

Homosexuality, bisexuality and pansexuality are as “natural” as any other sexuality; there are hundreds of species whose members engage in non-heterosexual behaviour 16. Human beings simply extend such natural inclinations into the symbolic and technological realms, and bring our intimately imagined desires to life. The internetworked spread of ideas clarifies what has been true for as long as species Homo sapiens sapiens has existed on this planet.

In the fashion world, reality stars like Carmen Carrera and high-fashion models like Andreja Pejić have built careers defying, challenging and changing gender and beauty norms. In January of 2017, model Hanne Gaby Odiele came out as intersex in a bid to raise awareness and help others who are born the same way 17.

Even pornography itself is changing. What used to be considered “gay” among cisgender heterosexual men is now becoming mainstream when a man and a woman do it together on camera. Transgender model Ines Rau graced the centrefold of the November/December 2017 issue of Playboy 18. Playboy is still the world’s most famous and well-respected “lad mag”, renowned equally for its beautiful models and for its high-quality in-depth journalism.
Above all, Playboy and Hollywood encompass massive business empires. They only hire, print and promote what sells to mainstream audiences. The fact that LGBT and non-binary actresses, directors and models (and yes, even porn stars) are increasingly visible means that society is not only becoming “tolerant”, but more accepting of expressive sexual diversity.

Returning to technology, cosmetic surgery merges with transhumanism as more people experiment with body modification. Techniques become more refined, strategic and precise, and will even become even moreso as robotic surgeons take over the scalpel from their human forebears. The line between “extreme” fashion, body modification, transhumanism and posthumanism blurs as augmentations combine style and function. Advancements like augmented reality built into our eyes will increasingly be adapted for ornamental and recreational purposes. First, essential medical devices like pacemakers found their way onto computer networks. Now, consider the increasing prevalence of sex toys that are already being connected via Wi-Fi; as technology begins to enter and take more permanent places inside our bodies, what’s next?

Questions for the future of sex and society

Gender reassignment surgery is real. How long until we have functioning implantable wombs?

In what ways will our perspective rebalance after the realisation that sexuality, sexual orientation, gender, and genitalia aren’t necessarily hardwired together?

How will our attitudes change as robots learn to accompany us and fulfill even our most taboo fantasies?

What happens when our technology-enhanced bodies and brains — meshed into a next-generation Internet of Things, Minds and People — inevitably get hacked 19? How will we protect ourselves from malicious software and memetic viruses that contain transmissions of a sexual kind (in a sense, the newest form of “social disease”, or more accurately, social-networking disease that contains a sexual payload)?

These are questions to be pondered, explored and played with here in this subproject of AltSciFi. The same imaginations that have constructed erotic narratives for millennia can anticipate unseen new directions before they become our collective reality over the coming decades.

Science fiction has always been a place to look toward possible futures. As you’ve read in this overview, society is changing faster and in more ways than most people are consciously aware, but we can all feel it. Sensuality, sexuality and sex offer a window into an aspect of ourselves that few people explicitly consider, but is evolving nonetheless. The implications of our relationship to our bodies and minds as expressed in sexual thoughts, desires, behaviours and technologies has always been intrinsic to our existence as human beings. The sooner we accept who and what we are, the sooner we move to a better future for all.

Welcome to AltSciFi ピンク. ;)

Join us. Explore. Enjoy. Above all, be safe and protect your privacy.

P.S. The AltSciFi project is for adults over the age of eighteen only. We do not knowingly include or endorse any imagery or other content depicting the sexual behaviour of anyone under the age of eighteen. AltSciFi is for consenting adults, by consenting adults. Any material depicting nonconsensual sex may be accompanied by a disclaimer that such fantasies are common (specifically among women) and thus constitute a grey area, up to a certain point. Child sexuality and rape are never acceptable topics for adult entertainment — including in anime — and are banned from use by anyone associated with AltSciFi. Aside from that, as long as it’s consensual, non-scatological and enjoyed by adults only, our future-focused approach will gladly consider all possibilities. This is the future, after all, and in science fiction, everything is possible.

Learn More

1. Stewart, Thomas. (31 Jan 2014). Which 5 Book Genres Make The Most Money? Retrieved from https://www.therichest.com/rich-list/which-5-book-genres-make-the-most-money/.

2. Cox, Joseph. (7 Aug 2017). We Anonymously Controlled a Dildo Through the Tor Network. Retrieved from https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/wjnwgb/we-anonymously-controlled-a-dildo-through-the-tor-network.

3. Tsukayama, Hayley. (11 Oct 2017). Facebook announces a wireless $200 virtual-reality headset. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/10/11/facebook-announces-a-wireless-200-virtual-reality-headset/.

4. Medwed, Robbie. (01 Jun 2015). More Than Just Male and Female: The Six Genders in Classical Judaism. Retrieved from http://www.sojourngsd.org/blog/sixgenders.

5. Guy-Ryan, Jessie. (18 Jun 2016). In Indonesia, Non-Binary Gender is a Centuries-Old Idea. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/in-indonesia-nonbinary-gender-is-a-centuriesold-idea.

6. History of Same-Sex Samurai Love in Edo Japan. (1 May 2017). Retrieved from https://allabout-japan.com/en/article/5187/.

7. Kabuki. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/art/Kabuki.

8. Giles, Chris. (24 Oct 2017). The biomedical smart jacket that diagnoses pneumonia using Bluetooth. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2017/10/24/africa/biomedical-jacket-uganda-africa-tech-rising/index.html.

9. HAL 90210. (26 Sep 2017). Jacquard: Google and Levi’s ‘smart jacket’ that you can only wash 10 times. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/26/jacquard-google-levis-smart-jacket-denim.

10. Schneier, Bruce. (14 Jan 2013). Anti-Surveillance Clothing. Retrieved from https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2013/01/anti-surveillan_1.html.

11. Metcalf, Stephen. (18 Aug 2017). Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world . Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world.

12. Eckersley, Peter. (21 Sep 2009). How Online Tracking Companies Know Most of What You Do Online (and What Social Networks Are Doing to Help Them). Retrieved from https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/09/online-trackers-and-social-networks.

13. Hachman, Mark. (1 Oct 2015). The price of free: how Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google sell you to advertisers. Retrieved from https://www.pcworld.com/article/2986988/privacy/the-price-of-free-how-apple-facebook-microsoft-and-google-sell-you-to-advertisers.html.

14. Constine, Josh. (31 Oct 2017). Congress grills Facebook, Twitter, Google on shells hiding election meddlers. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2017/10/31/election-inference-shell-companies/.

15. Kennedy, Pagan. (13 Jan 2012). William Gibson’s Future Is Now. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/books/review/distrust-that-particular-flavor-by-william-gibson-book-review.html.

16. Hogenboom, Melissa. (6 Feb 2015). Are there any homosexual animals? Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150206-are-there-any-homosexual-animals

17. Lindsay, Kathryn. (Jan 2017). This Model Just Revealed She Is Intersex. Retrieved from http://www.refinery29.com/2017/01/137416/hanne-gaby-odiele-intersex

18. Quinn, Dave. (19 Oct 2017). French Model Ines Rau Makes History as Playboy’s First Transgender Playmate. Retrieved from http://people.com/bodies/ines-rau-makes-history-as-playboys-first-transgender-playmate/.

19. Dalton, Andrew. (03 Apr 17). This connected vibrator’s camera is disturbingly easy to hack. Retrieved from https://www.engadget.com/2017/04/03/siime-connected-vibrator-camera-wifi-hack/

What if we can take Elon Musk’s science fiction high-speed underground vision one step further, and make it work for everyone?

Have you heard about Elon Musk’s idea for an underground system of tunnels that would move cars at superhigh speeds?

Of course you have.

The idea generated a wave of hype for Musk’s brand, but what is this “underground car” concept, really?

Silicon Valley often cannibalizes and reinvents existing services, usually involving an app, in order to turn a profit. In this case, Elon Musk has set his eyes on “disrupting” public transportation using his tech-celebrity cult guru status and the Tesla brand.

His “underground car” concept is a subway for private transportation, combined with the idea of a bus stop where cars arrive to be transported underground (a “car stop”).

Do you notice the weird part of that idea, though?

Yes. The exact reason for a subway is that many people don’t have access to cars. Subways and buses exist for everyone to use, which benefits all of society at an affordable price.

Elon Musk wants to sell more cars. He also probably wouldn’t mind owning an entire private subway system. Beyond hyping his brand now, it makes good future business sense. Public transportation is also “suboptimal” to say the least, so maybe Musk could “disrupt” it and do it better.

What if there could be a public option that works for everyone, and doesn’t require digging a whole new subway just for cars?

Think about it: there are already bus stops in many urban areas around the world. There are also subways in many major cities from São Paulo to Seoul. What if we could create a compelling vision of a future where the two — bus and subway — came together?

On a busy rush hour city street, a bus-sized pod sits at the curb. The pod, however, has no tires (or maybe it does) and sits atop a platform. At scheduled intervals, the platform descends into a city subway tunnel, and is propelled inside a vacuum-sealed tube (or a regular subway track) to the next stop. Behind and ahead of the pod, a regular subway train also runs its route, along with other transport pods.

When the pod reaches the next pod-stop, it slides into the rectangular lift-space and is elevated to the curb, streetside, unloading passengers and making itself available to a new group of riders.

In this idea, you leverage existing subway tunnels to create a public transportation subsystem that’s a hybrid of bus and subway. It can

  • reduce traffic congestion and pollution
  • be mostly automated to fit into subway schedules, and
  • benefits everyone rather than only people who have private cars.

Revenue generated by this system can be used to improve other aspects of public infrastructure — bridges, roads, schools, a functional universal healthcare system, or even funding basic income for when AI and automation overtakes most human jobs.

This idea could change the world. And we — the science fiction writers, artists, tinkerers, hackers and future-fascinated engineers — could be the ones to build the vision so that society can imagine it as real and demand that it be created.

Learn More

1. The Boring Company. (28 Apr 2017). Tunnels. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5V_VzRrSBI.

2. Etherington, Darrell. (28 Apr 2017). Watch how Elon Musk’s Boring Company tunnels will move cars faster. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2017/04/28/watch-how-elon-musks-boring-company-tunnels-will-move-cars-faster/.

3. Oremus, Will. (2017 June 19). Lyft Isn’t Reinventing City Buses. It’s Undermining Them. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2017/06/19/no_lyft_didn_t_accidentally_reinvent_the_city_bus.html.

4. Friedman, Ann. (26 June 2017). Lyft Shuttle: A bus, but without all those pesky poor people. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-lyft-shuttle-bus-perspec-20170626-story.html.

5. Pereira, Alyssa. (19 June 2017). Critics call out Lyft for reinventing the bus with its new ‘Shuttle’ feature. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/technology/article/Critics-call-out-Lyft-for-reinventing-the-bus-11230357.php.

6. Drum, Kevin. (17 Jul 2017). Mass Unemployment Will Start Around 2025. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2017/07/mass-unemployment-will-start-around-2025/.

Is Cyberpunk Still Fresh and New, or Lovably Obsolete? William Gibson Answered This Question Himself. The Next Steps Are Up To Us.

Take this as a dare: dare to mention that cyberpunk is an “ancient aesthetic” in conversation with certain science fiction lovers. Predictably, someone will take umbrage at the idea, presumably for violating one of their sacred sci-fi cows.

William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” itself, and situated many of his concepts within it. Author Bruce Bethke invented the term “cyberpunk”, but even he concedes that Gibson largely invented the genre [1] [2]:

How did I actually create the word? The way any new word comes into being, I guess: through synthesis. I took a handful of roots –cyber, techno, et al– mixed them up with a bunch of terms for socially misdirected youth, and tried out the various combinations until one just plain sounded right.

IMPORTANT POINT! I never claimed to have invented cyberpunk fiction! That honor belongs primarily to William Gibson, whose 1984 novel, Neuromancer, was the real defining work of “The Movement.” (At the time, Mike Swanwick argued that the movement writers should properly be termed neuromantics, since so much of what they were doing was clearly Imitation Neuromancer.)

Then again, Gibson shouldn’t get sole credit either. Pat Cadigan (“Pretty Boy Crossover”), Rudy Rucker (Software), W.T. Quick (Dreams of Flesh and Sand), Greg Bear (Blood Music), Walter Jon Williams (Hardwired), Michael Swanwick (Vacuum Flowers)…the list of early ’80s writers who made important contributions towards defining the trope defies my ability to remember their names. Nor was it an immaculate conception: John Brunner (Shockwave Rider), Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), and perhaps even Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination) all were important antecedents of the thing that became known as cyberpunk fiction.

You can also download AltSciFi’s mirror of Bruce Bethke’s 2001 cyberpunk novel, available as shareware (click here).

It seems only natural, then, to commit further sacrilege and open the belly of this beast for everyone to see. This gives rise to the question:

Is cyberpunk still fresh and new, or has it become a lovably obsolete relic that still holds some relevance, if only those who care to find it?

The obviously conciliatory middle-of-the-road answer is “cyberpunk is in a state of continual renewal.” In truth, you can only reboot an aesthetic with a new face but so many times before it morphs into something else entirely. Or, until it burrows so deeply into obscure in-tribe self-references that no one but die-hard members care about or even notice at all.

For context, consider William Gibson’s own perspective. He has described cyberpunk as a byproduct of a simpler time. His answer may be a definitive one, but for the few artists and creators here, we may be the ones to take his ideas in a different direction. The question is whether we can still truly call that direction “cyberpunk”. Maybe we’re verging into something else. Something new. Something made of possible futures rather than infinite regressions to an imaginary future-past.

From William Gibson: I never imagined Facebook:

You’re considered a founder of the cyberpunk genre, which tends to feature digital cowboys — independent operators working on the frontiers of technology. Is the counterculture ethos of cyberpunk still relevant in an era when the best hackers seem to be working for the Chinese and U.S. governments, and our most famous digital outlaw, Edward Snowden, is under the protection of Vladimir Putin?

It’s seemed to me for quite a while now that the most viable use for the term “cyberpunk” is in describing artifacts of popular culture. You can say, “Did you see this movie? No? Well, it’s really cyberpunk.” Or, “Did you see the cyberpunk pants she was wearing last night?”

People know what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t work so well describing human roles in the world today. We’re more complicated. I think one of the things I did in my early fiction, more or less for effect, was to depict worlds where there didn’t really seem to be much government. In “Neuromancer,” for example, there’s no government really on the case of these rogue AI experiments that are being done by billionaires in orbit. If I had been depicting a world in which there were governments and law enforcement, I would have depicted hackers on both sides of the fence.

In “Neuromancer,” I don’t think there’s any evidence of anybody who has any parents. It’s kind of a very adolescent book that way.

[…]

So what do you think is a better way to phrase that question today? Or what would have been a better way to phrase it in 1993?

I think you would end with something like “or is this just the new normal?”

Is there anything about “the new normal” in particular that surprises you? What about the Internet today would you have been least likely to foresee?

It’s incredible, the ubiquity. I definitely didn’t foresee the extent to which we would all be connected almost all of the time without needing to be plugged in.

That makes me think of “Neuromancer,” in which the characters are always having to track down a physical jack, which they then use to plug themselves into this hyper-futuristic Internet.

Yes. It’s funny, when the book was first published, when it was just out — and it was not a big deal the first little while it was out, it was just another paperback original — I went to a science fiction convention. There were guys there who were, by the standards of 1984, far more computer-literate than I was. And they very cheerfully told me that I got it completely wrong, and I knew nothing. They kept saying over and over, “There’s never going to be enough bandwidth, you don’t understand. This could never happen.”

So, you know, here I am, this many years later with this little tiny flat thing in my hand that’s got more bandwidth than those guys thought was possible for a personal device to ever have, and the book is still resonant for at least some new readers, even though it’s increasingly hung with the inevitable obsolescence of having been first published in 1984. Now it’s not really in the pale, but in the broader outline.

The headline for this article ends with “the next steps are up to us.” It seems clear that Gibson himself has already fully moved on from cyberpunk to other aspects of science fiction. If cyberpunk is to continue, it may evolve into a new form that requires its own niche separate from that which came before.

An unexpected call from William Gibson: on Eliot Peper’s cyberpunk novel Cumulus.

Cumulus. Front Cover.
The following are excerpts from Eliot Peper’s conversation topic on Reddit. To read the discussion, click here.

How I Wrote Neuromancer

Neuromancer was a commissioned work. I have no idea how many years it might have taken, otherwise, before I produced a novel on spec. Had you asked me at the time of commission, I would have told you 10, but then again, it might never have happened. Careers are odd, that way. (Careers are nothing but odd.)

I was 34, a first-time parent, married, a recent university graduate with a BA in English literature. I had published a few (very few) short stories in Omni, a glossy magazine from the publisher of Penthouse. Omni paid around $2,000 for a short story, a princely sum (particularly when compared with science fiction magazines – digest-sized, the traditional pulps – which paid perhaps a 10th, if that). Omni left me no choice but to write more.

Their first cheque cashed, I’d purchased the cheapest possible ticket to New York, intent on meeting the mysterious human whose editorial decision had resulted in such a windfall. The late Robert Sheckley, a droll and affable man, and a writer whose fiction I admired, took me out to lunch on the Omni tab and gave me two pieces of sage advice: I should never, under any circumstances, sign a multi-book contract, and neither should I “buy that big old house”. I have managed to follow the first to the letter.

William Gibson: how I wrote Neuromancer (click here)

Bill (William Gibson) shared insights and perspective on building a writing career, working with literary agents, and finding a place in the publishing industry. He passed on two tips that he had received as a young writer:

– Never do a multibook deal.

– Don’t buy the big house!

He also said that many of his most successful writer friends are distinguished by the fact that they KEEP WRITING, rather than getting distracted by side projects or celebrity. He’s an incredibly sweet and brilliant human being and I was humbled and honored to talk to him.

Inspiration for Cumulus

Here’s some details about the inspirations behind Cumulus that I shared in the afterward:

I’m really proud of how Cumulus came together. I moved back to Oakland in 2013. It was the city of my birth and where I grew up. Seeing how Oakland has evolved since the ’80s is at once inspiring and harrowing. Cumulus is a kind of twisted love letter to my favorite city in the Bay Area.

Over the course of the past few years, we’ve bonded with many of our incredible neighbors, sated our appetites at countless ethnic food joints, had a triple homicide on our block, installed a free little library for our community, hiked in beautiful Redwood Park, and watched a protest with thousands of people and hundreds trailing police vehicles terminate at the end of our street. We love the birdsong but hate the gunshots. Oakland feels like a special point of confluence for so many critical social issues: the implications of the growing wealth gap in American society, the extraordinary promise of new technologies and diverse world views, our failure to solve persistent social problems like poverty, racism, and homelessness, and the power of fierce, pragmatic optimism.

Writing Cumulus allowed me to explore my enthusiasm for my hometown and my fascination with how new tools like the internet are reshaping our lives in so many ways, big and small. Through years of working with startups and venture capital investors, I’ve had the privilege of seeing how some new technologies come to be and getting to know a few of the people who build and popularize them. I’ve never been more excited about the promise of human ingenuity and there’s no other time in history when I’d rather live. That said, these new developments are changing our social fabric, the texture of our personal lives, and even our geopolitics. Such change is always painful. Times like these require open-mindedness, compassion, critical thinking, resourcefulness, and creativity. I don’t have the answers but I hope that this story might contribute a few questions.

Eliot Peper’s Writing Process

Cumulus is my 4th novel. My first three constitute the Uncommon Series, a trilogy about two college students who found a tech startup and take it from garage to IPO, but get caught up in an international financial conspiracy along the way (think Panama Papers).

I started writing that story because I had spent years working in startups and venture capital and realized there was so much inherent human drama that would be a rich canvas for a novel. But most business books are dry, sterilized nonfiction. I couldn’t find that story to read, so I decided to try my hand at writing it. I just opened up Word and started typing.

Here’s some more context about the book if you’re interested in the backstory.

I wrote the first draft of Cumulus over the course of ~4 months. Revisions and edits took another 3 months or so.

I’ve found that if I write everyday, and make sure that everything I write advances the story, I can keep momentum through the creative process more effectively. The hardest part about writing is actually getting yourself to write!

100% Organic

It went straight to number one in its category, which blew my mind. First six months of proceeds go to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Chapter 510, and it’s raised thousands for both organizations over the past five days.

This was 100% organic, I didn’t even post it to Reddit. Friends started texting me screenshots of Reddit front page with the book sitting right up there. Then literary/film/tv agencies and production companies started reaching out about rights and adaptations. All in <24 hours. It was nuts. It was completely unexpected and I'm totally out of my depth.

My perspective on "harnessing the power" of any community is simply to (1) participate (not just about your stuff), (2) find ways to help people (that's what communities do for each other), and (3) make awesome things that you're proud of (why do anything else?). Rinse, repeat. With a little luck, the rest takes care of itself.

I wrote up an article on building an organic fanbase for fiction that you might find useful: How to build an organic fanbase if you write novels: You’ve written a book, but who’s gonna read it?

On Self-Publishing

All thanks for the awesome cover go to Kevin Barrett Kane at The Frontispiece.

He did an incredible job with it and I use him for all of my books. If you can believe it, that was the first design idea for Cumulus! The minute I saw it, I know it was perfect.

Yes, I am self-published. I used to be published by a small press and then the rights reverted so now all my books are indie. I love the creative control and the direct interaction with readers. But there’s not right or wrong path, only the one that works best for you. From my perspective, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. Now we have options!

Cumulus. Book jacket design by Kevin Barrett Kane at The Frontispiece, http://www.thefrontispiece.com.
Digital versions of Cumulus are also available on iBooks.

Digital versions of Cumulus are also available on iBooks.

It might be surprising, but as an indie author, Amazon actually shares as much or more of the royalty share with me than most other retailers. The only way to do better would be to distribute the digital versions directly from my own website, which I don’t have the backend for (although I’d be interested in exploring it in future).

I very much appreciate the sentiment. Making a living with fiction is tough. What really gets me excited to get up and write in the morning is reader enthusiasm for the stories :).