The birthplace of Neon Science-Fiction: how I accidentally discovered a new subgenre of Science-Fiction

How it all started

Hello everyone. Louise Blackwick here, doing a quick follow-up on what must be one of the most requested topics I’ve ever received in my life. So many of you have demanded I speak about my latest publication (my exciting new novel titled “5 Stars”). More particularly, you have asked me to tell the story of how I wound up coining the term: Neon Science Fiction, a never-before-seen genre of sci-fi and speculative fiction in general.

To tell you the truth, I never intentionally set out to “create” a new flavour of sci-fi. In fact, I didn’t even know “5 Stars” was going to be a science-fiction novel at all until I was about halfway into its writing. I came to discover Neon Science-Fiction entirely by accident, sometime between September 2020 and August 2021. The story I’m about to tell describes how that came to happen.

Neon Science Fiction in Five Stars: Can you beat the Neon God's Algorithm?

A Long journey through “Dark”

As many of you are aware by now, the 2020-2021 timeframe coincided with an extended period of illness I happened to experience around the same time; a debilitating autoimmune disease that made multiple attempts on my life.

From one day to the next, I got extremely ill, and no one knew what I had until several months later. I was told there was no cure available, except to try an aggressive treatment with a list of side-effects longer than the longest grocery list. Before this completely unexpected illness, I was a 33-year old woman, healthy as a horse, who hadn’t been sick a single day in her life. Yet the medicine I was compelled to take threatened to permanently lower my immune system, not to mention cause me horrendous symptoms that were a million times worse than the disease. All of this might have been bearable, had it not happened in the midst of a rampaging pandemic.

Now, I don’t mean to turn this whole experience into a sob story worthy of your sympathy. I do, however, believe it is important to share the context of my unintentional discovery of Neon Sci-Fi. The sheer dread and existential terror I felt during this testing period of my life had proved to be unusually formative and can only be classified as the darkest night of my soul. I was no longer this healthy young woman with an entire future of writing ahead of her, but a frail and sickly creature locked in a battle for its very survival.

I quickly found myself feeling reduced to my most primal instincts, grappling in the dark as I tried to hold on to every tether of life. Soon enough, my days were reduced to watching old science fiction movies and re-reading the titans of science fiction, all while throwing thousands of words a day at my work-in-progress, trying hard not to think how it may be the last novel I write; trying to distract my thoughts from my looming mortality. Needless to say, I went to a dark place… and that dark place became the personification of Dark.

It was during this intense period of “Deep Dark” that I came to pen the Neon Science-Fiction and Survival Thriller novel that became “5 Stars”. And the ideas flowed through me like water; like I was nothing more than a distiller of intense, raw emotion; a receptacle of concepts both original and terrifying. For the first time in my writing career, I found myself living the story I was attempting to write.

The birthplace of Neon Science-Fiction

The raw reality that my days might be numbered had awakened in me such frenzied creativity and intense hunger of life, I found myself writing five thousand words a day. Ideas and concepts I never thought existed flowed onto the page and rapidly crystalized into shape. By this time, I knew my novel was going to be a dichotomous story about survival and death, light and darkness, consciousness and the unconscious. I also knew it was going to be a science-fiction novel that takes place five days before the end of the world, and that it was going to be unlike anything else on the market. Moreover, it was going to be an entirely new and untried flavour of science fiction altogether.

The latter part was a huge problem, seeing as I had already signed with a publisher, pledging 5 Stars’ story concept as “an apocalyptic, science-fiction novel with strong survival undertones”.

Now, I’m not one to scorn fresh new ideas. Anyone who has read my body of work knows I have been pushing the boundaries of literature on every occasion, dragging not only new styles and aesthetics into my work, but also unusual typesetting and 4th wall-breaking physical writing formats as well. And yet even I knew my novel fitting into its own subgenre of science fiction was problematic. I had been writing professionally for long enough to know the marketability of such a story was sticky at best.

As a classically-educated linguist and literary critic, I inevitably went back to the source, scouring through many decades of science fiction writing in a desperate attempt to find a jacket that would fit this absolute snowflake of a book. Yet the more I researched, the more ill-fitting the jacket and the more unusual my story appeared. Determined to fit my now-finished novel into a distinct category, I turned to fellow authors, creatives and literature-degree-holding friends with high connections in literary circles.

In turn, they all took a look at my creative experiment and decided that “5 Stars” was both “aesthetically and thematically unusual” and “an ocean of Dark sprinkled with bright neon lights”. Its closest relative, some concluded, was a weird hybrid between Nanopunk, Cyber noir and Post-cyberpunk. During our extended talks and debates, I was encouraged to settle upon a new subgenre – one that can be stylistically and thematically all-encompassing, and satisfy all aesthetics, so I coined the term “NEON SCIENCE FICTION”.

Still, a part of me felt ashamed at my failure to belong to a pre-set sci-fi genre. Feeling more lost than ever, I finally turned to my publishing team and proceeded to tell them all about my Neon Science-Fiction experiment. By this stage, I had amassed enough technical knowledge of comparative literature to write a PhD proposal or two. I was convinced in my heart that “5 Stars” was going to fail because of my inability to walk the trodden path of sci-fi.

Surprisingly, both my editor-in-chief and my publisher embraced this Neon Science-Fiction concept well-enough. They were to do their own rigorous research, of course, and come back to me as soon as they knew under which label they ought to market “5 Stars”.

About two weeks into our talks, they sat down with me across a large table (with the obligatory 1.5m measures in place) and asked how I was doing. I told them I was on the mend; that I was finally off the medicine and in total remission; that I was no longer “wandering the Dark”, now that my horrible autoimmune sickness had run its grim course. “Good, you’ll need all your strength” they told me, “because you’re probably about to make literary history”.

Neon Science Fiction in Five Stars: The Neon God

A new subgenre of Science-Fiction is born

As of yet, none of the “making literary history” bit happened, and I doubt anyone but a few hard-core literary critics would care about the minute implications of dealing with a new flavour of sci-fi. Heck, I have my doubts even Wikipedia would care enough to pick up on it at all, let alone reference my work. Even my publisher found it unwise to trademark the actual name, seeing as the term was already narrowly used by the digital art community to describe a certain aesthetic.

Despite all that, I did end up coining the Neon Science-Fiction subgenre in relation to science fiction, speculative fiction and literature as a whole. Neon Science-Fiction was born, whether I embraced it or not, with the full support of the publishing house standing behind me.

So what sets Neon Science-Fiction apart from the rest? What makes it stand out from its very close cousins Nanopunk, Cyber noir and Post-cyberpunk? The full answer to that would take a rigorous essay, but for the sake of keeping this short, I will try to enlist some of its most distinguishing features:

Neon Science-Fiction vs. Post-Cyberpunk

First off, why Post-Cyberpunk and not just plain Cyberpunk? Well, according to literary sources, the rise of cyberpunk fiction took place at a time when the term “cyber” was still considered a new, flashy and foreign (ergo unfamiliar) aesthetic. Post-Cyberpunk essentially emerged in acknowledgement of that idea, namely that humanity has evolved past seeing the concept of cyberspace as belonging to a distant and unreachable future. We are in that future now (or very nearly so), which means the idea of a sentient A.I. that has infiltrated every technology that holds a microchip (i.e. 5 Stars’ Neon God) while still slightly out-of-reach, is no longer such a foreign and unimaginable concept to us.

In fewer words, “5 Stars” had to be set entirely Post-Cyberpunk. And still, the differences were too numerous to warrant a complete inclusion within its subgenre.

Secondly, while both Neon Sci-Fi and Post-Cyberpunk enjoy dystopian, futuristic settings that focus on low standards of living in conjunction with futuristic high-tech (ultramodern technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with societal collapse and decay), the difference comes from how “neon light” functions thematically and existentially (philosophically, if you will) within its respective subgenre.

While in Post-Cyberpunk, the neon lights of a million advertisements are used to emphasize the corrupt, consumerist and ultra-corporatism of a Mega City One, in “5 Stars”, the spectacle of neon lights are remnants of a dying civilisation that yearns to scream out: “Irritating advertisements aside, look what humanity has created! We were here and look what the soul of humanity dreamt up!” This is emphasized by the unstoppable footsteps of “the Close”, a name I gave to The Apocalypse by Darkness (used in juxtaposition with the neon lights of digital advertisements). And surely, anything is better than endless, caustic, cosmic darkness for all time. Even the blazing neon light of a billion advertisements is a more positive fate than Oblivion.

And wouldn’t you know it, even the Neon God (the ubiquitous, digital hive-mind A.I. ruling the fictional city of New Vega) is afraid of the Dark. He is, after all, a rogue A.I. evolved from the Internet and a deified personification of humanity at its worst. And if “the Internet” were a person capable to manifest some form of higher cognition, albeit artificial, I imagine any consciousness is exclusively afraid of “being put in the dark”. If the Internet could think for itself, I speculate its biggest fear is something akin to oblivion.

Thirdly, unlike in Post-Cyberpunk, where all the threats are man-made or consequences of ultramodern technologies gone out of control, in Neon Science-Fiction the ultimate enemy is eternal darkness. The highest danger is the destruction of consciousness, either artificial or organic. Oblivion. In other words, the Dark.

In addition, neon advertisements aside, in Post-Cyberpunk, “neon lights” carry a more negative connotation (amplified by a luminous and outrageous – and often extremely cool – punk “F**k the System” fashion and just general debauchery). In Neon Science-Fiction, the intended connotation is largely more positive. Because of the ongoing threat of Darkspread, “Neon-glowing drugs”, such as Bluecode or Rhapsody provide an escape from pain, dread and even waking reality. Some may even wonder if consciousness can survive beyond the impending void, preserved in sweet fumes of neon-orange Rhapsody.

Also plasma weapons fashioned in the “neon aesthetic” are portrayed as beneficial to a character’s survival, while DarkTech (weapons fashioned from Deep Dark and Dark) are needlessly cruel and sadistic. Music carries a similar message as well. In Post-Cyberpunk, music is used as a form of rebellion against the super-state or the system. In Neon Science-Fiction, the creation and distribution of music (and art in general) is a rebellion in itself. And while the existence of “machine-made music” seems to be the Neon God’s secret pet peeve, the thematic message is that of: Creation of music and Art = Life vs. Silence = Dark and Eternal oblivion.

Another difference is that unlike in Post-Cyberpunk where the keywords are “alienation” and “boredom”, the general theme of Neon Science-Fiction is “hunger”: hunger for food and resources, hunger for merit (the acquisition of “Gold Stars”), hunger for justice (Algo and the Jurors are constant facilitators of unfairness and injustice), hunger for life (humanity’s fight to acquire the necessary resources to escape the planet). Hunger and pain and struggle and strive – all of which are qualities that ascribe consciousness.

Neon Science Fiction in Five Stars: The Neon God

Neon Science-Fiction vs. Cyber noir

Cyber noir (also called Tech noir, future-noir or science-fiction noir) is a subgenre of Science-Fiction that combines elements of noir and cyberpunk (cyber- as in cyberpunk and -noir as in film noir). According to Wikipedia, the subgenre was epitomized by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and James Cameron's The Terminator (1984).

Cyber noir presents "technology as a destructive and dystopian force that threatens every aspect of our reality." It is usually set in urban landscapes, predominantly at night and is characterized by a darker palette aesthetic and a suitably dark subject-matter. The treatment of its themes is often sexy and glamorous as well as stylized and violent. Film noir is often said to be defined by "moral ambiguity", something I believe characterizes Cyber noir science fiction as well.

While Cyber noir bears elements that may fit the Neon Science-Fiction subgenre quite well, Cyber noir is often described as “essentially pessimistic”. The lights are off and it is always dark and rainy outside because things are bleak, and grim, and gloomy, and hopeless. The pallet of colour is often dark grey to black, and neon lights are essentially non-existent. Not only that, but unlike in Post-Cyberpunk with its mega-corporatist advertisements, neon lights fail to make an appearance at any narrative level.

To that regard, both thematically and stylistically, there are at least two types of LIGHT and two types of DARKNESS, both personal and impersonal, both found in juxtaposition with the light of humanity and that of digital advertisements. This is what, in my opinion, distinguishes the Neon Sci-Fi subgenre from its close relatives. There is the organic light of humanity and there is neon light; there is the Deep Dark of the mind and there is the shiny dark of a black screen. There is both symbiosis and struggle between the two categories, with one often subverting the other both visually and thematically.

In terms of similarities, Cyber noir stories are seen as depicting a world that is inherently corrupt. While this is entirely the case with Neon Science Fiction, the corruption of humanity (and the Neon God, as metaphoric representative of its soul) is juxtaposed with acts of genuine love, kindness and goodwill. People are willing to sacrifice their well-being and livelihoods in the pursuit of small hope (best personified by baby Star), which adds a neon-bright coat of colour over the general dark, bleak and hopelessly gritty world of “5 Stars”. This sliver of bright-shining hope is something we don’t see in Cyber noir, since such a dazzling display would defeat its despondently austere purpose.

Another similarity-turned-difference is that, more often than not, noir stories describe people trapped in unwanted situations (which they did not cause but are responsible for exacerbating). Characters are often seen striving against a random, uncaring fate, and present themselves as either hopeless or doomed.

While this is definitely the case for our five main Star-hunting characters, whose struggle is to beat the Neon God’s Algorithm (which is as random, chaotic and uncaring as a reward-based Algorithm can get), they are most certainly not doomed. Even Rolf, the character who is the most hopelessly nihilistic and kynikoi (an ancient Greek term I used to describe a “cynic”) finds his purpose and utility in death. Stella, the musical star of “5 Stars” and a victim of attempted suicide, felt visibly lost at first in her endless attempts to “restore her faith in humanity”, and surprisingly enough, she manages to do just that on the day the world ends. Even though she dies in the end, her hope and persistence are rewarded by her achieving her lifetime dream of “singing before an audience”. And the award is plentiful, as the song she sings is the Anthem of Hope, the most powerful song ever written, and her audience is the entire world (or at least the places still untouched by the Dark).

To summarize, Neon Science-Fiction is a hopeful triumph over darkness, while the Cyber noir subgenre often falls prey to its hazards.

Neon Science Fiction in Five Stars: The eye of The Neon God

Neon Science-Fiction vs. Nanopunk

I am not entirely alone in the opinion that “5 Stars” fits very little into the Nanopunk subgenre. There are, nevertheless, similarities that I wanted to address on behalf of 5 Star’s induction of Nanochrome.

To paint you the general idea, Nanopunk focuses on worlds in which the theoretical possibilities of nanotechnology are a reality (i.e the existence of nanites and nano-assemblers etc.). It is an emerging subgenre still relatively uncommon, especially in comparison to stronger and more popular flavours of science fiction such as Cyberpunk and Post-Cyberpunk. The genre is similar to Biopunk, which inducts the use of biotechnology, such as bio-nanotechnology, bio-robotics or some variation of genetic nano- engineering.

Now, as you know “5 Stars” can easily fit into this quite narrow category because of the existence of Nanochrome, an ambiguous and ill-defined “chromatic goop” whose purpose is to assimilate all biological lifeforms. And yet, that’s about as far as similarities go. While Nanochrome could easily fit the bill, its role in the story is marginal. I would argue Nanochrome is merely an interesting curio meant to characterize the Neon God’s hunger for control (through His desire to steal everyone’s free will) rather than a thematically-rich literary device employed in the service of a particular aesthetic. And of yet, the interface of man and machine is something Nanopunk is still to discuss or address, whereas in Neon Science-Fiction, the communion of man/creature and machine is more explicitly addressed.

Neon Science Fiction in Five Stars: Can you beat the Neon God's Aerodynes?

The future of Neon Science-Fiction

Going forward, I try to gradually embrace my accidental discovery. I believe Neon Science-Fiction – as subgenre and harmonic sum of artistic qualities – can be a great new addition for fans of science-fiction, especially reader who looking for books with a more optimistic and thematically-driven neon aesthetic.

Backed up by my amazing and forward-thinking publishing team, I hope to get Neon Sci-Fi more widely acknowledged within the reading and writing community.

After two years of humanity collectively wandering the Dark, we could all do with a more promising and encouraging outlook. Stories, as manifestations of our collective unconscious, continue to provide an escape from reality (and at the same time, enrich it) through their awe-inspiring worlds, their gripping designs, and the resilience of their characters.

And Neon Science-Fiction promises to offer readers just that: an escape from the all-consuming, all-encompassing Deep Dark; an escape found among Gold Stars and distant cold stars and the dazzling, neon lights of a civilization that does its outright best to hold on.