One Punk’s Guide to Science Fiction by Katie Dunne

Dec 25, 2016

Originally printed in Razorcake #74 June/July 2013, here is a printable PDF and full text of Katie Dunne’s One Punk’s Guide to Science Fiction

Illustrations and graphic design by Marcos Siref

This zine is also available directly from Razorcake.

One Punk’s Guide to Science Fiction
By Katie Dunne

My first real experience with sci-fi is something hard to define. Sci-fi and speculative fiction exist everywhere in forms you would never consider. Yeah, I watched Twilight Zone with my father at a young age but I never had that feeling of, “Oh, so this is sci-fi. This is a thing, a name that encompasses, embodies, and pushes forth a subculture of ideas and people.” I think my first recognition of sci-fi as its own world with something to offer was when I read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card in the sixth grade. I fell in love with the characters. Ender was a child but he wasn’t like other children I read about or talked to on a daily basis at the middle school that I hated so much. He was intelligent. He could articulate the things he felt and thought about. He was also strong. He had a sense of right and wrong and never wavered from what he knew to be right. Really, he was an adult. Card wrote Ender with an adult voice and I doubt he ever considered doing otherwise.

The thing that struck me most though, was that this was my first experience with psychoanalysis and the effect of archetypal images on the unconscious, though I certainly didn’t know it at the time. I just knew the imagery of the game: a virtual reality that was more like a surreal dream touched me in a way I couldn’t articulate, and I really yearned for a way to learn how to. So, I kept reading.

Over the years, sci-fi keeps coming back and surprising me. Sci-fi is, at the core, a DIY movement. As a genre, it has always been propelled by fan engagement and interaction, starting in the 1930s with fanzines and amateur press associations. These were (and still are) platforms for fans to express themselves and support one another’s work. In the same way punk rock has been a refuge to weirdos, losers, and outcasts, sci-fi has served as a safe place for experimentation and boundary breaking. Where sci-fi fans got it right is their unabashed, unironic love for what they do. Even if you’re not a fan of Star Trek, Trekkies is one of the best documentaries ever made about an individual’s place in a society. The people interviewed unabashedly love Star Trek. They face mockery at their jobs, at school, and in every public space they navigate because they do things differently than everyone else. Yet, none are apologetic or feel weird for being into what they’re into. This is why I love sci-fi, and this is why I love punk rock.

I am by no means saying that I’m an expert or that you won’t completely disagree with everything that I say. What follows is just my path to science fiction and some tips to think about when you’re looking for something to read.

“All struggles are essentially power struggles, and most are no more intellectual than two rams knocking their heads together.” –Octavia Butler

When people talk about the history of zines, they usually talk about the printing press and Martin Luther. We have an even closer ancestor in the sci-fi fanzines of the ‘30s, and I think DIY punks have more in common with them and their culture of fandom, obsession, and outsider voices. The Comet is the first recognized sci-fi fanzine in American history, published in 1932. (Fanzines are distinguished from “semiprozines” and “prozines” by extremely particular rules about circulation and revenue.)

The biggest magazine in science fiction during this time period was Astounding Stories. It went through a few name changes when John W. Campbell took over in 1937. It went from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell believed the word “astounding” sounded immature and finally settled on Analog in 1960. Campbell’s influence—from encouraging writers to focus on science and technology, to the change in name, to getting artwork that was more mature and less childish—propelled the magazine from something you might be embarrassed to read on the train into one of the driving forces of the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Campbell published Isaac Asimov’s Robot series in the ‘40s, and plenty of work from Heinlein, Lester del Ray, A.E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, and others. As great a visionary as Campbell was, he was also a little bit nuts. He was known for writing provocative and outlandish editorials. Michael Moorcock, the editor of New Worlds claimed, “[h]e also, when faced with the Watts riots of the mid-sixties, seriously proposed and went on proposing that there were ‘natural’ slaves who were unhappy if freed.” He was also a big fan of pseudoscience and published L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics in 1950 which became the genesis of modern Scientology. By this time Campbell had alienated many of his writers, and when Galaxy Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction gained prominence in the ‘60s, they marked the end of Analog’s reign.

 “Without change something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens.” –Duke Leto Atreides

Analog had a reputation of being focused and dogmatic. Known for placing utmost importance on the science and technology elements of science fiction, some authors felt hemmed in by Analog’s conventions. George R.R. Martin described Analog as having “the reputation of being hard-nosed, steel-clad, scientifically rigorous, and perhaps a bit puritanical.” A direct reaction to these tropes and conventions of the golden age of science fiction was the New Wave of science fiction the 1960s and ‘70s.Though the main driving force of the New Wave was to change course—to experiment with style, and to dig deeper in order to offer the reader more than time travel, robots, and rocket ships—it was influenced by Golden Era writers like Leigh Brackett and magazines like Amazing Stories and Galaxy Science Fiction. Under editor H.L. Gold, Galaxy published and supported writers whose fiction he believed elevated sci-fi to high literature since the 1950s. Galaxy published Ray Bradbury’s “The Fireman” which he later expanded into Fahrenheit 451 and a serialization of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.

Beyond these predecessors, two main agitators cited for the New Wave revolution are Michael Moorcock, who became the editor of New Worlds in 1964, and Harlan Ellison, specifically his anthology Dangerous Visions published in 1967. When collecting content for Dangerous Visions, Ellison put out a call to writers for stories that had trouble being published anywhere else or hadn’t even been written because of the sense of futility under past sci-fi editor’s whims. You can see an overarching progressive movement in the U.S. right around this time from sci-fi, to the civil rights movement, to punk. People were yearning for something new and explosive in reaction to toxic norms. It’s possible to see the work of New Wave writers as inherently political. The act of transgression is a powerful social agitator. As writers fragmented their narratives and broke boundaries in sci-fi, The Cramps’ Lux Interior was in high heels on stage repurposing golden era rock’ n’roll into something dangerous and unsettling.

A huge effect of the movement was the broadening of the range of themes and styles that were seen as “acceptable” in sci-fi. Like the postmodern movement in non-genre fiction during the ‘20s, sci-fi writers finally started exploring stream-of-consciousness prose, meta-fiction, and questionable narrators. Under Moorcock, New Worlds set out to “define a new avant-garde role” for science fiction with experimental techniques, storylines, and voices.

“I think from now on, I will not trust anyone who isn’t angry.” –Joanna Russ

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is one of the most interesting novels in sci-fi during the New Wave years. Published in 1969, Le Guin’s novel about a society of “neuter” individuals beat out Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five for two of science fiction’s biggest honors that year, the Hugo and the Nebula awards, for best novel. The novel uses first person narration from a character who’s an outsider to the culture he finds himself in. Genly Ai is male, from somewhere similar to earth, and he is an alien to the planet named Gethen, or colloquially, “Winter.” The novel explores all types of boundaries: outsider and Gethenian, male and female, nation and “un-nation,” and private and public identity.

Genly immediately rejects this society. For example, he tells us that he won’t stop referring to the Gethenians with the pronoun “he” because it’s simpler, and the pronoun “she” calls attention to itself. He tells us that complex social cues are “feminine” traits of the society. This serves as a kind of excuse for his constant missteps and his rage as he repeatedly bangs his head against the subtle-to-the-point-of-opaque culture of the Gethenians. Only after Genly starts to see gender as a continuum instead of binary does he see Gethenian people as complete beings.

By illustrating Genly’s distrust and bewilderment with the Gethen world, Le Guin illuminates our own culture’s biases and dysfunctionality. It gives the reader the ability to see what it would be like to live in a culture without dualities. Genly’s protests and the unwieldy way he handles social customs come across to the reader as bigoted, crass, and immature. We can read this story as bitterly satirical of the world Le Guin lived in.

Written a few years later in 1975, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man also explores ideas of gender by framing it in an alien culture. The novel follows four women living in parallel worlds, each with their own concept of gender roles and expectations. When their lives intersect by crossing over to each other’s planets, their encounters force them to look at their pre-conceived notions objectively. They understand what it means to be an outsider, and thus what it means to question a reality taken for granted.

Russ is regarded as one of the strongest feminist science fiction voices at the time and one of the most vocal in challenging male dominance in the field. Her writing is marked by humor and irony but also a brightly burning anger. In a critical essay that gained most attention after being reprinted by Vertex Magazine in 1974, titled “The Image of Women in Science Fiction,” Russ explains that, “There are plenty of images of women in science fiction. There are hardly any women.” This ruffled feathers with a lot of male writers at the time. Vertex published editorial responses from Poul Anderson and Philip K. Dick which are just completely bizarre to read today. Anderson basically says women are irrelevant in sci-fi and Dick frames his response by comparing Russ to his many “left-wing girlfriends when they were mad at me for whatever reason.” The exchange is really fascinating. In order to ground ourselves in where we are now and where we should be headed in the future, it’s so important to see where we’ve come from. Here is a perfect example of why diverse voices are important to the entire collective. Dick and Poul’s responses (which could be said to be emblematic of a wide swath of responses) obviously come from a place of misunderstanding, blindness, and non-empathy. The way to combat ignorance is to teach, discuss, and listen.

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center” –Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is not considered a sci-fi writer in all circles, particularly in those that think sci-fi should be pushed aside to its own little corner and that sci-fi is not literature, but “genre fiction.”

Like punk rock, sci-fi has had some brief moments in the mainstream. For punk it was the ‘80s with The Clash and the ‘90s with Green Day and Blink 182. It’s been more cyclical for sci-fi since it’s been around longer. Every now and then there are movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner that may not do well at the box office, but eventually become standards even for people who don’t like sci-fi. In a 2007 speech at the Venice Film Festival, Ridley Scott claimed that sci-fi was “dead” as a genre*, citing blockbusters like The Matrix or Independence Day that relied heavily on computer generated graphics instead of story lines and characters. What Crass in “Punk Is Dead” and Ridley Scott were lamenting about mainstream punk and science fiction wasn’t that the genres themselves were dead, but that they had been appropriated by people who don’t know what to do with them. Kurt Vonnegut was a mainstream author who knew what he was doing with sci-fi and understood that the point was not to write “genre fiction,” but to use the tools the genre could give him to explore concepts and give his characters a world they could live in and an environment they could react to.

His semi-autobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five involves an American soldier captured by German forces in Dresden during WWII (an actual ordeal Vonnegut lived though), who is “unstuck in time.” All time exists at once, it’s just that humans can’t see it, except for Billy Pilgrim. So he is free to travel along all points of his life from the past to the future. He’s not “free” in the normal sense. He’s very much a victim of fate, which is a major theme in much of Vonnegut’s writing. Billy has so little control over his life he can’t even decide what memories he gets to live through again. Life and death are inevitable, just like war, and every moment leads up to Billy being in this war, in Dresden, in this slaughterhouse. Vonnegut often has the narrator intrude on the story: “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book,” he says about a sick prisoner held captive with Billy Pilgrim.

When there’s nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, what do you say about it? How do you reconcile the experiences of those waging a war and those fighting a war? How do you explain something absurd? In Vonnegut’s case it was often absurdly, with a shrug, a smile, and a tear. Vonnegut has described when he was a child and seeing people with ataxia for the first time. Ataxia is a neurological disorder which impairs a person’s ability to control their muscles. It planted a seed in Vonnegut’s mind that they moved like broken machines, which led him to the conclusion that people who were healthy were well-maintained, but machines nonetheless. Vonnegut explores these themes of futility with such a soft and sad hand. He can make you laugh at the most terrifying propositions: that there is no why, that to ask why is complete madness, the ultimate absurdity.

“The best thing you can do with science today is use it to explore the present. Earth is the alien planet now.” –William Gibson

William Gibson first published “Burning Chrome,” in which he coined the term “cyberspace” in Omni Magazine in 1982. Like a lot of Gibson’s work, it’s a story that takes place somewhere like “The Sprawl”: a massive urban setting that’s similar to Blade Runner’s future-decayed aesthetic. Gibson has said that after watching Blade Runner while trying to write his most famous novel Neuromancer, he practically gave up finishing because he assumed everyone would think he was just biting Ridley Scott’s style and he’d be publicly ridiculed for the rest of his career.

Fortunately for a lot of people, he did finish Neuromancer, which went on to win Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Gibson went on to write two more books in what became known as the “Sprawl Trilogy.” The Sprawl is a vision of the future where the majority of the entire East Coast has become one big metropolis. Geodesic domes encase the Sprawl, which has become basically a separate country: it has its own climate and a separate artificial sky that is never night or day, just grey. There is a huge gap between classes of people: the rich make up a tiny percentage of the population, while most people live in abject poverty.

In this future, technology is so widespread that it’s not completely a class symbol anymore. The poor have access to it and everyone spends most of their time in the “matrix,” one of culture’s first glimpses of “cyberspace,” which established a new genre of science fiction, cyberpunk. It could be said that cyberpunk was the natural progression of New Wave. Some people reacted to the New Wave by calling for a return to Golden Era values. Some said the postmodern strides in sci-fi weren’t revolutionary at all (not a bad argument seeing how they were about forty years late to the postmodern party), and some kept pushing experimental boundaries further and further and wound up creating something new, something informed by—but separate from—the New Wave. Cyberpunk, Gibson in particular, was heavily influenced by the beats, and especially by William S. Burroughs. I also see a lot of E.E. Cummings in Gibson’s poetry, but I also see less warmth and sweetness.

It’s difficult—or perhaps incorrect—to describe Gibson’s style as more rigid after explaining how he moved fluidly past boundaries, but there is a sense of something mechanical in it. This is maybe the point. That’s partly because I grew up in the ‘90s, after cyberpunk was an old hat. To me, it’s got this taste of triteness now. But on another level I know that’s a prejudice. That’s not taking the work in its context. This was the time of Reagan-era dystopias. The Dead Kennedys were singing about the neglected working class.The future looked burnt-out and grim, and weighed heavily on people’s minds. Gibson took this fear and made something out of it. Cyberpunk was extremely influential in the development of our culture’s imagination because of it.

One of Gibson’s most interesting efforts was with artist Dennis Ashbaugh and publisher Kevin Begos, Jr. who created Agrippa (a book of the dead) in 1992. The piece is a three-hundred-line semi-autobiographical poem that exists solely on a 3.5” floppy disk embedded into a book designed by Ashbaugh. Once accessed on the computer, the floppy was programmed to slowly scroll through a poem of Gibson’s that centered around time, loss, the unreliable and fleeting nature of memories, and, ultimately, life. The floppy would then encrypt itself after a single use. The pages of the book were treated with photosensitive chemicals that would react, making the book fade as soon as the pages were exposed to light. You can find (probably illicit) copies of the poem online, and even a Youtube video of the program running on a 1992 era Mac computer.

“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.” –Genly Ai

Hopefully these selections have been broad enough to cover the bases. Even if you’re not into cyberpunk or urban decay, it’s important and fascinating to see where these influences and tangents can end up. Even if you think Dune is steel-clad and impregnable, you can see how other writers you may like were informed by Frank Herbert. Ultimately, my advice for exploring sci-fi, just like my advice for anything in life, would be to keep an open mind.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of those stories I never thought I would get in to. I’d attempted to watch David Lynch’s film version a handful of times with people who assured me that I must have been too young to like it before, or that I just needed to give it a chance. I would always fall asleep about thirty minutes in. Always. A couple of months after my last attempt at sitting through awkward inner monologues, Sting’s maniacal grin, and Duke Leto’s creepy stare, my brother told me that I had to read the book by the time he got into town about two months from then. My boyfriend had a copy and he and I were about to take a twenty-two hour train ride from Birmingham to New York so I said, “What the hell, I’ll try it.”

I didn’t put it down for the first five hours we were on the train. It took two months to finish it only because I tried to drag out the ending forever by just reading a few pages at a time. I never wanted it to end. Luckily, I have two more books in the series to go through.

Dune is one of those books that just effortlessly holds an entire universe inside of it—like Lord of the Rings but with more political intrigue and less adventure and singing, I guess. There is some singing, though. Herbert creates a new world and a new race of people with a religion and a culture that seems completely foreign on the outside but rings with some kind of cryptic truth.

“Oh, this is sci-fi.” I thought to myself.

You may be the kind of person who, at the age of sixteen, made fun of people who liked Doctor Who, but then you may start dating someone at twenty-five who opens it up to you in a new way because it’s his favorite show and you give it a chance because his joy makes you happy and you want in on that joy. Then who knows? It could turn into one of your favorite shows. Or you could decide that fantasy is for nerds and you would never read anything with dragons in it. Then you’d never stumble upon George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, which could be considered a period piece and fantasy, a double whammy of stereotypically “tacky” themes, but also an amazing piece of fiction (and television).

I spent a lot of my teenage years defining myself, deciding on “dealbreakers” amongst friends in order to confirm to myself that my opinions were correct because everyone else’s were wrong. But, luckily, most of my pre-conceived conceptions have been whole heartedly broken down, and I hope the same for you.

*This quote is disingenuous coming from Scott, (see Prometheus and some of the weakest plot lines and characters to make millions of dollars), but he still has a point.

Suggested Reading:

Journey Planet
A fanzine that got started around 2008. Some issues are theme based and may not appeal to your interests (e.g. James Bond, conventions), but there’s some pretty great commentary on sci-fi there if you look for it. They won a Hugo in 2012.

The Left Hand of Darkness—Ursula K. Le Guin

Ender’s Game—Orson Scott Card

Dune—Frank Herbert

Galaxy Science Fiction—H.L. Gold

Dangerous Visions—Harlan Ellison

The Female Man—Joanna Russ

Slaughterhouse-Five—Kurt Vonnegut

“Burning Chrome”—William Gibson

Parable of the Sower—Octavia Butler

Suggested Viewing:

Doctor Who—Begin with the ninth Doctor. Suffer through the abysmal costumes and all the cheese. It gets better, I promise. Every season you can tell they got a budget increase. Rose is an important character and you need to understand where she comes from. And you need context to understand why the eleventh Doctor is so amazing. Afterward, go back and watch the fourth Doctor. You might like him by this point.

Red Dwarf—a British sci-fi, comedy series that aired from 1988 to 1993. If you like The Young Ones, you’ll love it. If you hate The Young Ones, you’ll love it.


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