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Dirtier, grittier, more dystopian… yet somehow so familiar
I’ll just say what we’re definitely all thinking: It’s weird that we’re getting all this new cyberpunk. What’s cyberpunk? It’s science-fiction. And it’s really cool.
“Cyber,” as in cybernetics, and “punk,” as in punk. Just like punk is a genre of music and a kind of aesthetic lifestyle, cyberpunk is a genre of science-fiction with its own themes and aesthetics, summed up in a single phrase: High-tech, low-life.
Maybe you’ve never heard the word before, but I guarantee you know a piece of fiction in the genre. Blade Runner (1982) is classic cyberpunk. The Matrix, too. In terms of books, the big boss on campus is William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive).
Let me try and set the scene a bit.
Imagine you’re walking through a mega-city that stretches from Montreal down the entirety of the eastern seaboard. The rain-slick streets at night are packed with people and piles of garbage and discarded metal scraps.
In the refuse you see computer chips and old prosthetic limbs, some of them more outdated, even, than yours. A group of street kids push past you, some with what look like virtual reality sets fused to their heads, others, whose bodies you suspect may be entirely cybernetic.
A newsreel plays from a massive screen in the main square. Hackers have stolen top secret data from the world’s largest biotechnology conglomerate.
This fusion of the urban sprawl, extreme inequality and technology is cyberpunk.
Cyberpunk is dead. Long live cyberpunk
But aside from the futuristic trappings of cybernetics and information technology, cyberpunk is also really dated – specifically, to the 1980s. Neuromancer, for example, contains my favourite of these ’80s sci-fi moments in its first line: “The sky above the port was the colour of a television, tuned to a dead channel.”
We don’t have dead channels anymore, not really. It’s an artifact of the pre-digital era, and any channels that are dead are usually just black, or maybe blue. The static fuzz of old bunny-ear sets has long since faded away.
This isn’t even to mention the vaguely hilarious moment in the same book, where the main character tries to find a buyer for 200MB of black-market RAM (for reference, that’s about one-tenth of what you’ve got in your phone). Besides, who buys RAM on the black market anyway?
These scenes were intended to reflect a dystopian future, where nature has been all but destroyed and human beings live in expansive metropoles covered in smog, fighting over scraps. Instead, they become a quaint reminder of what people in the ’80s thought the future was going to be like.
And it seemed stuck in time. After the mini-explosion in cyberpunk media in the ’80s and ’90s, it was largely dormant in the western world until now. Just like punk, cyberpunk was dead.
Strangely, though, we’ve seen a resurgence of cyberpunk in recent years. Last year we had a sequel to Blade Runner in Blade Runner 2049, as well as a (disappointing) remake of the animated film Ghost in the Shell (starring Scarlett Johansson).
This year – in fact, in the next few weeks – an adaptation of the cyberpunk manga Battle Angel Alita is due for release in theatres (produced by Mr. Titanic himself, James Cameron). On top of that, there’s a new video game in the works by Polish studio CDProjekt Red called Cyberpunk 2077.
I could go on forever.
It’s odd. Weird, even. If punk is dead, and cyberpunk even deader, then what’s going on? Are we seeing a revival, or did cyberpunk never really die? Or is something else going on? Something that allows these tropes of the ’80s to be continually relevant, even prescient, in the late 2010s?
I’m going to argue it’s the latter. Specifically, I’m going to argue that cyberpunk is not dead. Nor is it alive. It’s undead.
George A. Romero’s cyborg
What we’re dealing with here, in this new series of cyberpunk media, is a zombified cultural artifact, shambling back from the dead to do exactly what it did before – except this time its bones are sticking out, metaphorically speaking.
Zombies seem to me the perfect way to understand what’s happening now with cyberpunk in popular culture. Take George A. Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead. In the movie, the main characters take refuge in a zombie-infested shopping mall. What’s weird is that the zombies inside are shopping.
They’re doing the same thing regular shoppers would do, but in a purposeless, fun-house mirror kind of way. It’s blunt and hackneyed, sure, but it works as a kind of critique of consumerism by showing us what we missed in our everyday actions, namely that we’re mindless consumers.
This new cyberpunk wave is doing just what Romero’s zombies do. That is, it’s highlighting what we missed the first time around.
In his 2016 documentary for the BBC, called HyperNormalisation, filmmaker Adam Curtis describes a significant change that took place in the western world in the 1980s. He looks at how the banking and financial sectors began to gain prominence, and even started to exert real political control over society. The idea was to run society as a closed system, an economic problem to be solved. They do this, he argues, through newly developed networked computer systems.
But these changes didn’t go entirely unnoticed. In fact, this is exactly the sort of world that William Gibson writes about in Neuromancer, and it is a staple thematic element in cyberpunk. “Gibson gave this new world a name,” narrates Curtis. “He called it cyberspace.”
This post-political future, where the world could be run as a financial model through computer systems, is in fact what took place (this was made all too clear in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis). Most of us just missed it while it was happening.
Cyberpunk didn’t die because it had run its course, or was outdated. It died because it became true (no longer science-fiction).
Like Romero’s zombies, these cyberpunk worlds might be horrific. They might be dirtier, grittier, more dystopian and more high-tech than our own world, but at the core they are identical.
Large companies still exert massive amounts of control over society (Amazon’s HQ search, anyone?), the broad neoliberal economic consensus seems to march on, and politics seems more of a choice between one middle manager over another.
But there might be hope. In showing us the rotting corpse of an ’80s future that never happened, I think this recent cyberpunk trend helps us recognize what parts of it actually did. And maybe that’s the key to changing it.
Jesse Scott is a writer and cartoon-watcher who spent too much time and money in school. He lives in Halifax with his cat.