Today In Interesting Literary Trends: Torture Porn!

Apparently what readers really want is more sex, drugs and cracking heads with their futuristic technology.

Mar 29, 2012 at 5:30pm | Leave a comment

I just finished reading “Strange Flesh,” which was billed as “hacker noir,” an evolution of the cyberpunk genre that started developing in the 1980s as writers began pushing at the possibilities of a heavily technological world. The book got me thinking about the twists and turns of the genre and how it’s arrived at its present point, which seems to be heavily saturated with torture porn and salacity; readers and writers are both shifting, and consequently the genre is changing along with them.

As a genre, I love cyberpunk. Typically set in a near-future society where social order has started to break down, and in some cases apocalypse has already struck, it tends to blur the lines between digital worlds and reality, requiring protagonists to be resourceful and adept. At the same time they might need to scavenge for food on the streets, they also need to be able to slip into a digital world at the drop of a hat to follow up on other resources; “The Matrix” was a recent film iteration of the genre that neatly captured a lot of the key elements.

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There’s tech, but also social commentary, and the characters straddle complex social and economic divides. A common theme in traditional cyberpunk was the positioning of the protagonist as a loner and outsider in society, fighting to survive and stay below the radar. These underdog narratives allow the reader to slip into a story that feels gritty and believable, as well as markedly different from the high gloss science fiction that puts the reader square in the lap of futuristic luxury.

There’s a certain noir influence on cyberpunk as well, a mystery to unravel, mysterious and shifting characters, allegiances that are hard to follow and harder still to pin down. Criminal elements in the text work with and against each other in the underworld, and it can be hard to know who to root for and who to trust. It captures a whiff of the human experience in a world out of balance, where people are struggling to survive while they adapt to a changing society, or view an utterly changed world as completely normal, in which case some nostalgia for the good old days of the past tends to creep in.

With “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and subsequent forays in publishing, an interesting change started to happen. Both Larsson’s novels and “Strange Flesh” are forms of cyberpunk, integrating elements like hackers, real and digital worlds, shifting moral standards and unclear loyalties.

For that matter, Stephenson’s epic “Reamde” also includes a lot of these elements as well; both “Reamde” and “Strange Flesh” integrate the concept of bleed, where the line between digital and physical spaces is blurry and hard to articulate. People are immersed in digital worlds that have their own commerce, social rules and norms, and it becomes hard for some characters to see where one world ends and the other begins.

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But they're not quite like the old school.

There’s been a radical shift in terms of who the heroes are; we are still supposed to see them as underdogs, but they actually occupy positions of relative social power. James Pryce (“Strange Flesh”) is a security specialist in a fairly elite position with a company that serves the rich and famous. Likewise, the authorial insertion (aka Mikael Blomkvist) in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is a well-respected journalist and publisher. “Reamde” features the new digital elite.

Instead of showing us what life is like for the poor and struggling in the near future, these texts are showing us what life looks like at the top, where corruption sours everything and the culture is rotten to the core. There’s a large thematic element of corporate culture from the inside of the corporation, and readers are placed among the corridors of power rather than in the masses struggling to survive. It shows us how the other half lives, and illustrates that the other half is poisoning society in the process.

And they’re also far more salacious than traditional entries in the genre; more than that, they’re heavy on the torture porn. “Strange Flesh” features a particularly graphic and somewhat disturbingly described death scene that plays a key role in the novel and is only a small part of the blood and filth that sprawls across the pages. It’s unclear whether it is intended to shock or titillate the reader at some points in the novel.

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Likewise, Larsson’s novels have got torture coming out their ears, along with graphic rape and sex scenes. “Reamde” includes its fair share of bloody ultraviolence, although it’s more action oriented. Inclusion of these elements makes these books difficult to stomach for some readers, but at the same time, they’re also rather trendy, far more so than older cyberpunk works. Texts like “Neuromancer” and “Blade Runner” are cult classics, and while cyberpunk films like “The Matrix” have hit the big time, the same hasn’t been true of books.

Until Larsson, who burst onto the bestseller list and has firmly kept his claws there, even after death. Something about these novels has captured the public imagination in a way earlier authors failed to do.

These shifts in tone and popularity levels are telling us interesting things about readers, writers and society at large. Traditional cyberpunk is still going strong, but this hacker noir subset has carved out a niche for itself, and has managed to do very well commercially. Apparently what readers really want is more sex, drugs and cracking heads with their futuristic technology.

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