On the Overlap of Postmodernism and Science Fiction


In a recent Omni article, "New Words Were Needed," I looked at some of the commonalities between modernism and science fiction. After inventorying some of the ways science fiction transposes modernist formal concerns to the level of story, I wrote, "And those are just some of the techniques of modernism; I won't even mention postmodernism."

That was a bit of a copout, and I knew that sooner or later I'd have to come back and address it. To be sure, it's a tricky loose end to tie, being as the searches to define both of these terms—science fiction and postmodernism—have spawned cottage industries. So please, regard what follows as less an explanation than an exploration of some of the ways these two literatures overlap.

I've found my opening in Marxist critic Frederic Jameson's idea that “a certain spatial turn” was a hallmark of postmodernism vis-à-vis the temporal preoccupations of modernism. Granted, science fiction has itself been plenty preoccupied with time since Wells invented his machine, but for as far back as you want to trace its origins, sf has foregrounded space—most notably outer space, though also various earth and body spaces. The notion of space in postmodern poetics is a slightly trickier affair because one is no longer limited to spaces available to the projected world alone but also to spaces at every level of a text’s signification, e.g. the space between one diegetic level and another (i.e. stories within stories), between signifier and signified, tenor and vehicle, one text and other texts, and the text and the "real" world; then there’s the space of the text continuum itself (the page, the book), and finally the paratext (cover, copyright page, illustrations). Such spaces are routinely exploited in postmodernist fiction in a way, or to a degree, that they have only been more recently in sf by writers like John Kessel, Charles Yu and Ken Liu. It's by and large the foregrounding of these various spaces that informs critic Brian McHale’s thesis, in his Postmodernist Fiction, that the “dominant” of postmodernist fiction is ontological (to do with being) while the dominant of modernism is epistemological (to do with knowing). For McHale, science fiction, insofar as it concerns questions of ontology—“Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?”—constitutes a “low-art double” or “sister-genre” for postmodernism. I'd take issue with "low-art," but his point is taken: in sf, aliens invade the story; in pomo, the author does.

McHale expands this discussion in his second book, Constructing Postmodernism, and shows how literary postmodernism and science fiction evolved on parallel tracks and finally began intermittently converging sometime around 1980, resulting in a kind of feedback loop such that pomo was influencing sf was influencing pomo, etc. On the sf side, the resulting sub-genre was what came to be known as cyberpunk, and its most celebrated work, despite its author's insistence that the term trivialized what he did, was William Gibson’s Neuromancer. I'm not sure how well it's held up as a novel, but it was undeniably a game-changer when it came out in 1984.

So what's so postmodern about it?

It was only many years after I first read it that I noticed the homophone "New Romancer" hiding in the title. Coincidence or not, this tidbit calls to mind McHale’s discussion of cyberpunk’s distant roots in courtly romance, in which a knight errant traveled from “microworld to microworld—from castle to enchanted forest to cave to bower to another castle, and so on." It isn't difficult to see this pattern in Neuromancer, where Case, the “cyber cowboy,” travels from microworld to microworld. The novel begins with him down-and-out in the dreary, cosmopolitan collage of Chiba City, Japan. Next, having taken on a job, Case is off to The Sprawl, the “Boston Atlanta Metropolitan axis." From there he goes to Paris and Istanbul. Each of these cities is presented as a dystopia littered with postindustrial waste and presided over by shadowy, faceless, multinational corporations. It is an earth of total reification where, in Jameson’s phrase, “nature is gone for good." The rich and famous are not bound to stay there, of course, and neither is Case. Off-world colonies like Freeside offer pleasant, if entirely simulated, environments.

In addition to these more-or-less conventional sf worlds, Gibson also constructs an entire virtual world in cyberspace (he coined the term, incidentally, and is duly acknowledged in the OED):

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding….

The urban imagery that ends this first description of cyberspace becomes a sort of motif throughout the novel, highlighting the experiential space-ness of cyberspace, its status as an honest-to-goodness simulation.

And now I'm reminded of "the simulacrum," Jean Baudrillard’s major contribution to the discourse of postmodernism. Baudrillard argued that contemporary Western society had murdered the sign. Society had become so saturated with communications media, sound, and advertising that representations of reality had in effect superseded that reality, signs surpassing signifieds in ontological status, reality hovering. Whatever one may think of Baudrillard’s idea, there’s no getting around its huge influence on certain postmodernist writers. As critic Michael Bérubé keenly observes, “in an appropriately Baudrillardian way, ‘The Precession of Simulacra’ has itself had a significant impact on postmodern writers and artists whose work Baudrillard’s theories are then called up on to explain, in a rather circular fashion" (If you look closely, you'll see Neo hides his diskettes in a copy of Simulacra and Simulation in cyberpunk's classic film, The Matrix). In any case, whether by way of Baudrillard’s direct influence or simply because there was something in the air circa 1984, the simulacrum finds itself variously iterated throughout Neuromancer, from cyberspace itself, which is for Case an abode of pure bliss; to “constructs” like Dixie Flatline, who’ve died but whose personalities have been uploaded from disc as ROM (which is why Dixie repeats himself sometimes); to the simulated weather in Freeside; down to even the sentence level, where the natural hierarchy in figures of speech sometimes gets flipped, as in the famous first sentence, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." We should hear that Jameson line again, “Nature is gone for good."

The Matrix

It’s worth noting that virtual reality and simulation (or simulacrum) are not the same thing by a long shot. In VR, the user is aware at all times that he/she is plugged into something fundamentally “unnatural,” that this new world exists on a plane ontologically distinct from meatspace. In a simulation, however, the user is unaware, indeed cannot conceive, of a difference between the copy and the original. The distinction is rather important, for in the first case these new worlds are configured as tools, as value added, whereas in the latter they generally signal a hellish state of affairs. For Case, cyberspace is tantamount to a kind of drug; he experiences it as a form of sublime ecstasy. Indeed, these hyperspaces are “real” enough that the boy Neuromancer tells Case, regarding a utopian construct in which Case is reunited with his deceased girlfriend Linda, that, “To live here is to live. There is no difference." It is perhaps significant though that, not unlike Odysseus foregoing immortality and leaving Calypso’s microworld, Case finally foregoes a simulated Eden and returns to the world of meat.

One of the most important paraspaces in Neuromancer is SimStim—short for simulation stimulation. SimStim is a device that allows Case to literally experience Molly’s entire sensorium. In effect, he changes gender (“So now you get to find out just how tight those jeans really are, huh?”), and when she breaks her leg, Case feels it. With the flip of a switch, Case’s identity literally becomes fragmented or multiplied. He is himself in cyberspace, but he is also Molly in cyberspace, and he is also himself in a room wearing a SimStim rig (at one point, he even gets a glimpse of himself through Molly’s eyes—opening the possibility of a kind of cognitive infinite regress, though Gibson doesn’t pursue it). SimStim, you might say, actualizes the fragmented, plural, postmodern self.

Neuromancer, Japanese edition

One last typically postmodern aspect of Neuromancer: the hybridity of its prose. A glance at any page of the novel reveals Burroughs-esque neologisms (ice, trodes, meat puppets), couched in a detached, air-conditioned tone that would seem to owe something to the noir narrators of Chandler and Hammett. We might see evidence of McHale’s feedback loop in the very first sentence, the one about the sky and the TV, which echoes, deliberately or not, imagery from the first page of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: “Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube.” Gibson admits to being an avid fan of Pynchon’s, and while Pynchon could hardly be classified as a science fiction writer, he is an oft-acknowledged influence on the genre, as is Burroughs (particularly Naked Lunch and the trilogy Nova Express, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded—all of which appropriate or parody sf tropes). What results is a “new and heightened bricolage” (Jameson's description of postmodern prose in general), and, when Gibson’s at his best, the effect can be pretty exhilarating. 

And that's all the space I've got time for. Next time I'll turn my attention to Kurt Vonnegut, my first-ever favorite writer.

M. Thomas Gammarino is the author of BIG IN JAPAN, JELLYFISH DREAMS, and, most recently, KING OF THE WORLDS.

"If Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams had a baby, it would look a lot like 'King of the Worlds.' With its tongue-in-cheek humor and intelligent allusions, this is the kind of fiction that playfully reassembles tropes and rejects all labels. It's a dark riot." — Mindy-Lynn Sanico, Honolulu Star-Advertiser

"...hints of other greats like Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace...represent some of the funnest aspects of a novel that takes its fun pretty seriously...It's almost like looking back in time to a literary landscape that is long gone now. Or maybe into the future." — Art Edwards, Entropy Magazine

This dark comedy explores the lost universes of disgraced idol Dylan Greenyears. Dylan had always wanted to live as many lives as he could—that was the appeal of being an actor. But at the end of a brief, bright stint as a Hollywood heartthrob, Dylan loses the lead in Titanic and exiles himself and his wife to a recently settled exoplanet called New Taiwan.

For a while, life beyond Earth seems uncannily un-wondrous. Dylan teaches at an American prep school, raises a family with his high school sweetheart, and lives out his restlessness through literature. But then a box of old fan mail (and the hint of a galaxy-wide conspiracy) offers Dylan a chance to recapture the past. As he tries to balance this transdimensional midlife crisis against family life, Dylan encounters a cast of extraordinary characters: a supercomputer with aspirations of godhood; a Mormon-fundamentalist superfan; an android Frank Sinatra; a sampling of his alternate selves; and, once again, the love of his lives.

A singularly mind-blowing, genre-bending performance, King of the Worlds is a literary take on science fiction that throws cosmology, technology, 90s pop culture, and religion into an existential blender that is by turns tragic and absurd, elegiac and filled with wonder.

M. Thomas Gammarino
M. Thomas Gammarino

Author of King of the Worlds, 'Big in Japan,' and 'Jellyfish Dreams.' Received the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, Hawaii's highest literary honor. Website:

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