In 2005, the evils of political correctness, liberalism, and tolerance found an official literary home with the declaration of a new form of science fiction called liberpunk [либерпанк]. Authorship of the term is commonly credited to Vyacheslav Makarov, whose participation in a series of on-line exchanges with Artyom Zheltov about the phenomenon culminated in “The Definition of Liberpunk” (“Opredeleniia liberpunka”), posted on February 7, 2005. Makarkov and fellow liberpunk enthusiast Artyom Borisovich Guliaran cite Vladislav Goloshchov as the creator of this particular neologism.
As with most such manifestos of a new literary movement (including most notably Zhdanov’s declaration of Socialist Realism), the participants in the liberpunk discussion codified the genre in part by continually invoking a common set of exemplars: the oldest, K. Krylov’s New World Order (Novyi mirovoj poriadok), a mock dictionary, dates back to 1997. More recent examples include Arseny Mironov’s The Dead End of Humanism (Tupik Gumanizma), numerous stories by Mikhail Kharitonov, Kirill Benediktov’s The War for Asgard (Voina za Asgard), and Vyacheslav Rybakov’s Next Year in Moscow (Na budushchii god v Mosvke).
The list was quickly expanded to include the work of Yuri Burnosov, as well as many of the works of Dmitri Volodkikhin, who, as both a scholar and practitioner of science fiction, would soon become the movement’s primary polemicist. Later that year, the annual Bastion science fiction conference (Bastion-2005) would be dedicated to liberpunk, resulting in a collection of essays whose print-run of 2000 copies has so far rendered it impossible for me to find. If none of these names mean anything to my readers (whose collective knowledge of Russian literature exceeds the norm by several orders of magnitude), this is testament to the power and limits of literary subcultures. Many of these writers were established SF authors whose works were, if not bestsellers, familiar to any hardcore reader of Russian science fiction.
Moreover, several of them have reached a broader audience than they could ever have dreamed of by joining in Konstantin Rykov’s gargantuan transmedia project Ethnogenesis (Etnogenez), a series of novels (and also on-line games) that create a fictional history of the universe, from millions of years BCE to the (Russian-dominated ) far future. The books, which fall into several different generic categories, follow the exploits of people who gain access to mysterious objects (predmety) that grant their bearers superpowers, but also entangle them in time-travelling, interstellar conspiracies involving more groups than could be fit on a single scorecard.
Most of the protagonists are the descendants of Lev Gumilev, and his theory of ethnognesis is soft-pedaled and fictionalized as part of the series backdrop. I mention this not only because I have read or skimmed nearly 70 of these books and need something to show for it, but also because their explicit patriotic pedigree and vague Eurasianism could be seen as an ideal setting for a kind of “liberpunk-lite,” facilitated by the fact that both Burnosov and Benediktov are key figures in the Ethnogenesis collective. Benediktov, who apparently has an editorial role in the group, has authored or co-authored seven Ethnogensis books to Burnosov’s eight.
All of this begs the question: what, exactly, is liberpunk? The name was developed by analogy to cyberpunk, the subgenre that reinvigorated Anglo-American science fiction in the 1980s. Most closely associated with the early works of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson (and Ridley Scott’s reinterpretation of Phillip K. Dick in Bladerunner), cyberpunk typically takes place in a near future in which information technology dominates a post-industrial world run by corporations and all but abandoned by weak governments. Virtual reality, body modification, and a quasi-libertarian ethos set the stage for the adventures of misfit, outcast heroes whose closest literary ancestors are found in noir detective fiction.
The “punk” suffix soon became linguistically productive, leading most notably to steampunk (Victorian-styled alternate history emphasizing steam or analog technology) and, more recently, silkpunk. “Liberpunk” is relatively euphonious in Russian, since it rhymes with “kiberpank.” When translated back into English, the word is far clunkier, sounding more like a dubious cut of meat than a literary genre (virtually nothing in English rhymes with “cyber’). If cyberpunk was noted for its focus on “high tech, low life,” liberpunk, according to its advocates, would create a world of “high law, low life.”
Liberpunk posits a dystopian world (usually the near future) in which the ideals of liberalism have triumphed, resulting in a rigid, stultifying, and soulless world fought against by only an enlightened few. Liberalism might seem like an odd template for an oppressive regime, since, by definition, liberalism is supposed to be anti-oppressive. In the Russian context, however, dystopian liberalism makes a certain amount of sense. First, because whatever one might think of the Yeltsin years, what happened in the country in the 1990s was understood as part of a new liberal regime; the chaos of these years is already not far from dystopia. By the Putin era, the excesses and disorder of the 1990s were being officially and unofficially associated with liberalism, and the number of politicians willing to call themselves “liberal” was rapidly dwindling. And whether or not liberal ideals and liberal programs are to blame for the 1990s, the identification of the one with the other allows antiliberals to demonize not only liberals, but the very tenets of liberalism themselves.