Paul Youngquist, Cyberfiction: After the Future

Paul Youngquist, Cyberfiction: After the Future, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2010), 272 pp. Hb, PDF £68.00. ISBN: 978–0–230–62151–0

Paul Youngquist’s book Cyberfiction: After the Future attempts to describe new methods of creating futures in a world that is now post-future. Locating the end of the future at the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, Youngquist argues that science fiction in particular had to create new strategies for creating science fictional futures. In effect, the book is a meta-Gedankenexperiment and relocates some of the impetus for the Silver Age, New Wave, and cyberpunk forms of science fiction. Youngquist reads these forms not as attempts to move beyond what had gone before, as someone like Michael Moorcock might argue, but to deal with a world where the entire concept of predicting the future now seems a pointless exercise. Youngquist’s book is interested not so much in the futures post-1945 science fiction creates as the world-building strategies the texts use to create these fictions, and in particular, the ways in which these have been affected by the advent of cybernetics and associated issues of speed, recursiveness, and “fungibility” (17) of communication. Youngquist breaks his inquiry down into seven separate approaches to creating new futures, ranging across topics as diverse as economic futures, sex and semiotics in J.G. Ballard, homosexuality in Samuel R. Delany and William S. Burroughs, genetic experimentation in Octavia E. Butler, and the complex use of jazz to create a fictional narrative space. In terms of theoretical reference points, Youngquist invokes both French theory (Derrida and Deleuze in particular) and recent governmental reports, with varying degrees of success.

What is interesting about Youngquist’s book is his approach to science fiction, both historically and critically. Though the book has begun to wane in popularity, in relation to earlier texts, as a critical candidate for the “origin” of science fiction, Youngquist locates the origin of science fiction in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Instead, however, of locating this origin in Gothic and Enlightenment anxieties about taking on God-like powers, he reads the novel as a “critique of capital” (6), and sees it as a direct response to Locke. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, meanwhile, are read not simply as post-humanist and techno-erotic texts, but as about a world inherently changed by the objectification of the camera lens. Of particular interest is the chapter on the relationship of music to the creation of a racial space that looks like a science fictional world, where Youngquist looks at the music of Sun Ra as a kind of Afro-futurism. In a critical atmosphere that has only begun to look at the concept of science fictional music, this chapter prompts considerable thought about not only what science fiction music might look like, but the ways in which music of all kinds might create science fictional futures.

Key to Youngquist’s argument is the rapidity of communication (and, thereby, progress) in a world speeding dizzily towards the Singularity, which he argues results not in science fiction per se, but cyberfiction (“cy-fi”). It is no longer enough for science fiction simply to predict the future, he argues; science fiction must attempt to prophesy about a future that almost immediately becomes a past. The increasingly vanishing distance between reality and mimesis, fiction and science, the technological and the biological, and past, present, and future underpins Youngquist’s approach here. Such an approach is unconventional, at times idiosyncratic, and means that Youngquist positions his work as largely separate from the theories on which the existing body of criticism on Silver Age, New Wave, and cyberpunk science fiction is based. Given the book's lack of critical dialogue with established work on science fiction, Cyberfiction has difficulty locating itself within current debates in the discipline, and indeed it is difficult to see precisely in what debates it means to intervene. This is ironic, because although Youngquist’s approach is novel, many of the analyses seem to respond to widely recognised trends towards the post-human and postmodern in science fiction of the second half of the twentieth century, particularly in the work of Ballard and William Gibson.

This lack of dialogue is regrettable, because Cyberfiction’s most interesting and thought-provoking contribution lies not what it has to say about science fiction, but actually in the way its central thesis, that science and social progress in the twentieth century may be better understood as science fictional in form, can be reversed. Youngquist repeatedly argues that prognostication and speculation in the actual world have influenced science fiction, but what seems more likely is that science fiction - and the Enlightenment queries that gave birth to the counterfactual thought experiment - has influenced the sciences to the point where they rely on fictive systemic and algorithmic predictions rather than actualities. In a strange way, then, Youngquist’s book seems a response to and perhaps an extension of Fredric Jameson’s work on postmodernism and science fiction, and in particular, Jameson’s argument in Postmodernism: The Logic of Late Capitalism that “the cultural and the economic[,] collapse back into one another and say the same thing” (xxi, italics in original). The twin ghosts of Jameson and post-humanism haunt the whole of Cyberfiction, and it is unfortunate that the book's direct treatment of these issues is only brief.

Cyberfiction is a valiant attempt to change the terms of the debate over science fiction in the second half of the twentieth century, but it is bogged down by a reliance on slippery terminology, an ill-judged mixture of ultra-heightened academic language and informal prose, and a tendency to reference Wikipedia. Such linguistic and analytical playfulness allows for considerable punning and a freely associative analysis that reads like something out of Ballard, but these stylistic choices tend to obfuscate rather than illuminate. Still, there are some interesting readings here, particularly, as I have already mentioned, Youngquist's exploration of the relationship between music and science fiction, though these alone are not enough to recommend the book.

Amanda Dillon, University of East Anglia