American Horror Story

After years on the margins, liberpunk has gained more mainstream attention through a clever repackaging that fits seamlessly with current ideological debates.  In the past few years, the liberpunk brain trust has released four thematic anthologies that call attention to specific hot-button issues rather than to Liberpunk per se:  Antiterror 2020 (Антитеррор 2020),  Liberal Apocalypse (Либеральный апокалипсис)  No Family (Семьи.net), and Relentless Tolerance (Беспощадная толерантность). [1]  It is last of these four (the first one published) that represents the perfect synthesis of liberpunk ideologies with neo-Putinist values:  the title (“Relentless Tolerance”) zeroes in on the idea that tolerance itself is the enemy. 

"Relentless TOlerance"--I read it, so you don't have to.

"Relentless TOlerance"--I read it, so you don't have to.

Tolerance, liberalism, and political correctness do not present a clear and present danger to Russia today—on the contrary, liberals in Russia are looking more and more like an endangered species. Then how does liberalism play such a productive role in the Russian dystopian imagination?  Why does the Russian hell look so much like Berkeley? And what does this all tell us about the evolution of dystopian thought? 

The political content of liberpunk is understandable for the reasons I’ve already laid out; it is part and parcel to the general anti-liberal trends that have animated public discourse in the Putin Era, and that threaten to become something of a state ideology in the aftermath of the Crimean Annexation.  It is the elaboration of this ideology through the generic framework of science fiction that makes liberpunk so noteworthy.

Prose fantasy and science fiction (F&SF) are complex genres whose variety and depth bely the common association between SF and escapist melodrama (such as Star Wars).  F&SF offers a multitude of benefits to the close reader, most notably in the realm of ideology:  the ideological scaffolding of F&SF cannot be hidden as easily as it can in mainstream fiction.  The act of imagining a world different from our own lays bare the political and sociological assumptions on which the fantasy is based. 

For example, feminist SF writer and critic Joanna Russ finds fault in a great deal of Golden Age (the 1940s) American science fiction in that it assumes that gender and family relations are a constant not worthy of even elementary extrapolation (she calls the settings of these stories “galactic suburbia.”). This should not be surprising.  Much of F&SF can be considered a part of popular culture, and a popular fantasy world can reasonably be expected to reflect and reinforce popular ideology.  This, by the way, is one reason liberpunk would be unlikely to achieve popularity were anyone to translate it into English. Explicitly anti-liberal tales can be found largely in the subgenre of military science fiction (something of a self-selecting audience);  the excesses of something like liberalism may be lightly satirized in Dave Eggers’The Circle,but his is more of an insider critique than a hostile polemic. [2]

It is precisely the political components of F&SF that traditionally attract mainstream writers who wish to go slumming in these degraded genres before returning to more conventional realism or modernism (Orwell, Huxley , McCarthy,  Chang-Rae Lee).  And this is also the reason that one of the subgenres of SF that is most congenial to such authors, and most acceptable to mainstream readers and critics, is dystopia. Liberpunk writers see themselves as the next step in a dystopian tradition whose focus on language may suggest 1984,   but whose ideological orientation is presented as the heir to Huxley’s Brave New World.  Huxley and Orwell were the twin idols of twentieth-century dystopia, establishing apparently opposite views of the road to hell.  Orwell gave us our classic image of totalitarian control, while Huxley described a world in which all meaning was lost to the pursuit of pleasure. 

Liberpunk revives Huxley through a creative misreading.  Huxley’s bete noire was the trivialization brought on by a hedonistic mass culture, but this critique is not, at heart, moralistic:  the polymorphous sexuality of the World State is an obstacle to the depth of feeling rather than being a carnal sin.  Huxley novel lacks an explicit moral framework in large part because it doesn’t need one. Liberpunk blames the excesses of World State society not just on mass consumer culture, but on the soulless moral relativism it finds at the heart of liberalism. 

Liberpunk is a truly American horror story.  Huxley and Orwell were two British men whose nightmare futures were modeled on the superpowers that would emerge in the twentieth century:  Russia/the Soviet Union for Orwell, America for Huxley.  We have long understood the role of a Soviet totalitarian model in the American culture imagination, but with Liberpunk, we are witnessing a kind of transcultural symmetry.  Finally, America takes its rightful place as the model for Russian ideological nightmares. 


Next: Tyranny of the Minority


[1] This title “No Family” involves untranslatable (and, frankly, uninteresting) wordplay.  The last three letters of the title are in English, which makes it look like a URL (“.net”), but they are clearly meant to be read as the Russian word “нет” (“no”). 

[2] More explicit anti-liberal dystopias include  Larry Niven’s and Jerry Pournelle’s Fallen Angels (1991), L.P. Hartley’s Facial Justice (1960), Pete Hautman’s young adult novel Rash (2006), Rob Grant’s Incompetence (2003) and the 1993 film Demolition Man.  Other works that might fit the bill include Idiocracy (2006), Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957), and the entire Left Behind series. 

Even if we find more examples, they still are the product of isolated authors, and not a movement.  The closes exception could be the ENC publishing house, founded by Russian emigre Olga Gardner Galvin (author of the 2003 anti-liberal dystopia The Alphabet Challenge, also published by her press). My thanks to Lisa Howey for bringing this book to my attention.