(I know that it’s so cliche to talk about a -punk literary movement, but I think that’s a good thing – it prevents me from getting too serious about it. This is just how I think about my aesthetic at this point in my writing career.)
When I was 13 or 14, I discovered Vernor Vinge’s “True Names”, and it got me hooked on a new brand of science fiction. I was always a scifi reader, ever since I discovered my dad’s basement stash of science fiction novels in the 2nd grade, but while I’d previously been into the more far-future books about robots and space ships and distant worlds, “True Names” was about right here at home. I’d just discovered the Internet and was incredibly taken by the fact that all I had to do was use proper grammar and say thoughtful things, and people would treat me as if I were about ten years older than I really was. In those awkward years, the sense that a virtual world of pure data, image and text was superimposed upon a rather dreary, vaguely dystopian material world described my perception of reality far better than any supposedly “realist” fiction.
That was my first introduction to cyberpunk. While science fiction had previously seemed like a realm of cool things and neat concepts into which I could escape from banal family/social gatherings, in “True Names” I’d discovered the incredible truth that somehow a made-up world could describe reality better than reality itself. As my high school years progressed, I got my hands on every cyberpunk-ish scifi book I could find. Voraciously read Vinge, Gibson, Stephenson, some of their inspirations like Niven and Philip K. Dick, and watched films like Blade Runner, Akira and Ghost in the Shell.
As I was getting into cyberpunk, 9/11 happened, and that was so insane that I instantly became interested in global politics to try and make some sense of that plane and that building and the insanity that rippled through our country in the aftermath. After realizing in about two days of intense research that the U.S. foreign policy was not without blame for the event, my cyberpunk aesthetic obsession deepened. I soon got the sense that when writers were talking about these near-futures ruled by amoral corporate technocrats and puppet governments and an apathetic, easily-manipulated populace, they weren’t just making it up. This was about the present-day, just seen through imaginative eyes.
* * *
Flash forward to 12 years later, there’s the sense that cyberpunk is passe, not because its ideas are any less relevant, but because they’re almost too relevant. I read a great Facebook comment to the tune of, “these dystopian sf writers just need to stop writing, they’re inspiring the powers that be!” We look at modern cityscapes, this mixture of billboards, poverty, profusion of surveillance and ubiquitous Internet, and wonder how that came about. If that dystopian cyberpunk totally-connected world of mass income inequality was only an aesthetic glimmer in the 90s and early 00s, today it’s just realism, and tired realism at that. It’s like the tech guys read it, loved it and decided they wanted to make it and be on top. I still love the gritty, moody, surface-detailed aesthetic, but I have to acknowledge that people are tired of it. I was rereading Snow Crash the other day, it was talking about weird people called “gargoyles,” who walked around always jacked into the Internet with Google Glass-like goggles and I was like, damn, today that’s just called being polite on the bus. What kind of world do we live in?
I think, by now, everyone knows the U.S. government did and does lots of bad things around the world. I think, by now, everyone is resigned to it. Instead of trying so hard to virulently defending our Constitution and our patriotism and our exceptionalism, the tide is changing so that the standard independent view is one of vague distrust for our government and apathetic snarkiness, underlying which is this deeply sad, hurt confusion about where do we go from here.
* * *
I got into gardening as a de-radicalized version of becoming a hermit and living off the land. Once upon a time I thought that if I just had control over my surroundings, it would be a solution to my problems int he world. It was sort of a dream that I realized would stay as a dream, but it didn’t go away, so I wanted to make some part of it real. Grow some of my own food. So I found a group of young people gardening in Philadelphia. They were vaguely anarchic but more with the Do It ethos – that is, just make a garden if you want a garden, doesn’t matter why. We took over about eight contiguous vacant lots, cleared them out, made paths and planted in beds. The discourse was of food sovereignty and providing free nourishment to ourselves and the neighborhood, to prove a point that anything is possible.
Two years later, it’s just me and my fiance in that garden. The dreams and discourse that started it moved on, and we’re figuring out how to make the garden last. That’s the definition of a garden – how that green lasts. It’s messy and not dreamy, but it’s romantic, idealistic and also punkish with that Do It freedom-fighting ethos. It’s escapist, but not really because it’s not always that fun or exciting. It’s a lot of hands in the dirt blindly feeling for bricks. Because you believe in the possibility of asparagus growing there for twenty years. And occasionally brushing aside a giant rhubarb leaf and finding a clutch of turnips you didn’t notice all season.
* * *
As science fiction develops, our goal is to discern the leading edge of the future. In cyberpunk, “where it’s at” was where all the connections were going up. Every city space was paved over, made into anarcho-capitalist paradises with gleaming apartments or storefronts. The gritty collapse and hyperinflated future happens later. I can see something like that happening in a San Francisco, a Tokyo, a Dubai, a Hong Kong of the future, but what about the rest of the world? All the cool kids ran off to pat each other on the back in their cyberpunk city vistas, and gentrification pushed everyone else to the cold and dirty cities falling apart with pockets of wilderness creeping into vacant lots untouched for 20 years. The money’s gonna run out faster than the cyber edge can get to every pocket of the world (though it’ll try), so we’re punking our way through garden tech, where nature’s primal hacking is princess trees effortlessly busting up your sidewalk over decades, and you think, “maybe I could be like that too.” “Maybe that could be my strength.”
Why the earth and not anything else? Why gardens? “Reality is what remains even when you don’t notice or believe in it.” The protagonists are less concerned with unraveling the root of things and more interested in building what lasts. We’ve got decades of seeking behind us, and we’re done. Rather than film noir, gardenpunk is romance.