A bottle to the sea, drifting along our era’s shores, finding its way before our eyes, voiceless against a world deafened by its own cry.
Ready Player One, Ghost in the Shell 2017, Altered Carbon, Battle Angel Alita, Blade Runner 2049. Between nostalgic, back-to-childhood fantasies, and commodification of that which triggers dopamine secretion, a prophetic warning shifts into pure, decaying hedonism, betraying itself in pleading allegiance to the global hivemind.
Cyberpunk, boasting such intricate mythology, woven over nearly four decades, must now come to terms with its very own reflection. The world turns its back to the future it destined itself to, prefers to run senselessly into the past, crawling back towards self-proclaimed easier times. Times of synthpop, abrasive neon light, and dubious clothing choices —of addiction and consumption, ever-facilitated by the unrelenting technological growth —times begging for cyberpunk to emerge. Offspring of an alien, self-isolated world, and of the soon-to-be absolute, all-encompassing communication grid. Spoon-fed by revolutionary technological interfaces, cyberpunk grows, nurtured by a dying century’s neuroses.
The year is 2020, an era of remarkable technological advancement, yet also one of global surveillance, disparities, decaying mental health, and loss of belonging in an increasingly soluble collective identity. Bionic prostheses and job automation going hand-in-hand with this unnerving gut feeling reality just broke. The not-so-conscious, semi-psychedelic sensation of being trapped in a simulation recursively crumbling on itself, leaving us only with those apocalyptic fever dreams.
Chain of events as cyberpunk as it can be, where industrial society reaches its critical meltdown point, becomes unable to mitigate the disastrous effects of its unhinged expansion. Yet the genre pretends to be able to warn us still —even after next to forty years trying to no avail. So the big question comes to mind:
Does cyberpunk as a genre still make sense in 2020?
One must understand the genre at its root to grasp the full picture. The word has seemingly lost its spice over time, and deep-diving into its source code seems now unavoidable.
Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction in a dystopian futuristic setting that tends to focus on a “combination of low-life and high tech” featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics.
Or so would your favorite online encyclopedia say. As incomplete as it is, it puts us onto something interesting.
|> Static Skies
Cybernetics, stemming from the Greek word kubernêtês, which means pilot, governor. A concept first brought by scientist André-Marie Ampère to illustrate the science of men’s government. However, the word takes its common sense in 1947 when Norbert Weiner uses it as an umbrella term to encompass emerging domains such as automation, electronics, mathematical information theory, then later on cognitive sciences, artificial intelligence, and neurobiology. Cyber then points to an array of scientific and technological fields booming in the twentieth century’s second half.
Cyber is then piped into punk, injected with the early seventies counterculture’s dissents. Facing the hippie years and their complete dissonance with society’s climate of the time emerges a new, militant, radical movement mainly carried by proletarian youths, lost in a desperate search for answers to questions they never really asked themselves. In the wake of this technological revolution rises a growing distrust for the institution and those who maintain the tools of the future in their tight grasp. The bitterness of the working class, merging with technocratic wet dreams to give birth to this question: who’s in control of technology and who falls prey to it?
The term cyberpunk is deeply bound to its context. If authors like Philip K. Dick and Bruce Sterling already strove to distance themselves from classical science-fiction biases, only in 1984 does the word come out of author Gardner Doizoi’s mouth to describe the craft of his comrade William Gibson and, most importantly, his founding piece Neuromancer.
Born in 1948, Gibson is somewhat of an introverted, solitary kid who, at the early age of six, has to accept his father’s death. His mother decides to send him into a boarding school and passes away shortly after, leaving eighteen years old Gibson to provide for himself daily after dropping school. Emigrating to Canada to avoid the draft during the Vietnam war, chunks of his youth being robbed one after another from him —books keep him strong and going forward.
Without surprise, he finds himself relating to the vast counterculture and integrates practically instantly within the punk movement as one of its authors. After the publication of numerous short stories in the seventies with Omni magazine, it’s in 1984, at thirty-six, that he releases his fated first novel: Neuromancer.
Case is left with a fried nervous system, payback from an employer he tried to cross. The lone hacker now finds himself at the center of an intricate plot of AIs and megacorps, drawn by the proposal of debugged nerves. Floating in the primordial soup of data centers yet again. A dystopia of grotesque capitalism and tentacular zaibatsus looming over the market, only seasoned wiseguys left standing in this elusive battlefield.
What cyberpunk would be for years to come —defined as soon as the opening sentence:
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
Cyber becomes punk, not as much because of its imagined realms, than through the cultural obedience of its forefathers. As much as Gibson being a hardline punk author, his works become in turn equally militant, radical and anti-capitalist. Two parallel processes are contending for memory in the Cyberpunk Virtual Machine: one of the information age in exponential growth, and another of unlimited neoliberalism, breaking free from all limiters with the Cold War coming to an end. Taking advantage of the Soviet Union, washed-out by decades of arms race and proxy wars, dubbing USA’s hegemony as the perfect vessel to take shape… a ferocious beast awakens.
Down the widening rift between classes, we throw ordinary gladiators to cannibalize on each other and themselves; show rigged from the start unbeknownst to them. Ever-expanding bubble of alienation ready to blow up; self-denying entropy; continued existence in still life as the persona for a godless empire, running away from the only absolute truth: impermanence.
Cyberpunk is very little, if not a legacy of madness.
Gibson describes cyberpunk as “high tech, low life”. Silicon age mirroring the void, leaving us unable to understand our own design, let alone commit it to the good of all. The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. You can’t stop progress. You can rest assured something else won’t stop anytime soon: progress stays in the hands of those using it as a power-preserving tool.
That’s what cyberpunk is. What it means, which scars it traces on: technologically-assisted war on sanity and dreams of insurrection in transfer protocols. Hypernormal hypertext requests and depraved aggregation queries in the database.
I had some discontent. It seemed to me that mid-century mainstream American science fiction had often been triumphalist and militaristic, a sort of folk propaganda for American exceptionalism. I was tired of America-as-the-future, the world as a white monoculture, the protagonist as a good guy from the middle class or above. I wanted there to be more elbow room. I wanted to make room for anti-heroes. —W. Gibson
|> Tears in Rain
All context aside, anyone who figures even a little what cyberpunk is, should be able to visualize its aesthetics quite clearly: packed vertical cities, damp with human heat and industrial pollution, choking in wild advertisements, neon lights and a hundred other ways to drown the senses in too much of everything. Hongkong blocks not without reminding Kowloon’s (as legendary as short-lived) walled city. Brutalist, borderline-Stalinist monoliths of executive exuberance reaching out to the starless, carbonated sky, watching the rain pour on it all on top of the hill. This pretentious and coked-out world of technocratic city-states comes with a peculiar name: Blade Runner.
Thirty-eight years ago, we had a glimpse of the future —the day cyberpunk’s visual aesthetic was set for most of us by Ridley Scott. Cyberpunk really thrives in seeping vice and rusty metal mixed with sketchy fellows, on the —psychotropic— rocks. It builds itself in diametrical opposition to classical sci-fi, too sleek, too orderly. From 2001: A Space Odyssey’s authoritarian rigor, Star Wars’ epic, to parasitic technology perverting bodies and minds.
I also wanted science fiction to be more naturalistic. There had been a poverty of description in much of it. The technology depicted was so slick and clean that it was practically invisible. What would any given SF favorite look like if we could crank up the resolution? As it was then, much of it was like video games before the invention of fractal dirt. I wanted to see dirt in the corners. —W. Gibson
One could argue some sort of protocyberpunk, of dark science-fiction had already been out there —maybe should we consider Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis as the great precursor, clearly ahead of its times with the projection of class struggle in what’s basically an imaged —yet accurate— vision of today’s major cities.
Maybe. A movie piques my interest even more so, however, which came out only a few years before Neuromancer: one called Alien.
Directed by Ridley Scott, out three years before Blade Runner. Mega-corps, androids, AIs and space garbage men. The Nostromo spaceship reeks of sweat, grease and vapors; long before the xenomorph comes to play, it already swims in crass, organic anti-heroism. Another fundamental aspect of cyberpunk is very much represented here: body corruption. The creature as a bio-engineered weapon —sadistic and symbolically rapey one at that— designed by H.R. Giger, someone quite familiar with machine-flesh aberrations or the union between death and sexuality.
Here comes transhumanism: a vast thought movement divided by a vast number of subroutines all orbiting around technologically augmented human condition.
|> Deus Ex Machina
The twenty-first-century man comes around a dead-end. He against his polymorphic society, self-reinventing faster than biological evolution ever could, must find a way to keep up with himself. Generating civilizations with more-and-more sophisticated tools, stacking new layers of leaky abstraction and rigid boilerplate to our own perception daily, we —strange kind of newtypes— go in dissonance with perceived reality.
Then the consensual hallucination turns out not so consensual anymore.
It is crushed under mountains of environment variables we take notice of our own limitations, dopamine-starved monkeys lurking in our psyche. In self-disgust comes a desire for transcendence —a wish to reach the skies by our own will, abolishing frontiers between creator and created, freed from our flesh bounds, emulated bytecode soul to reside in MOSFET chips.
This basic premise comes subdivided into different focus points, from singularitarianism —dreams of a god from the machine, to post-genderism and its genderless society, passing by extropianism or immortalism.
By no means should it be surprising cyberpunk then decides to represent a perversion of these technologies as means of total control: remote-control ships bugged in synthetic limbs, brain hacking, AIs as all-seeing data-mining weapons… The rich benefit from neuronal implants making them smarter, beautiful limbs making them stronger and more enduring, maybe nanotechnologies avoiding them mechanical parts. The poor are either condemned to stay beings of meat, or enslaved with arms designed for industrial work and legs made for wars. A two-speed transcendence where machines become more human as humans themselves become fancy tools.
The uncontested masters of transhuman cyberpunk are Japanese. In the middle of Japan’s bubble economy of the eighties, an era of abundance and endless entertainment, an extraordinary niche lets artists express their creativity like nowhere else —Japanese animation.
In Japan, animation successfully broke free of the common stigma (being cartoons should only be for kids to watch) thanks to vanguard creators of the sixties and seventies. Moreover, the videotape comes crashing inside every home in the same years, making cultural consumption really explode. In addition to television programs, the new market grows around OVAs, direct-to-VHS animation now free of TV censoring.
|> Rust, Dust & Guts
An entire culture of ultraviolence is born, giving way to a good amount of projects who wouldn’t have been here otherwise. The line between B-series, genre, sci-fi and cyberpunk is thin, to say the least. Rise and popularity of Mecha anime, particularly its real robot subgenre and leading figures like Yoshiyuki Tomino and Ryosuke Takahashi, or the arrival of cult space opera series like Uchuu Senkan Yamato, in a sense, paved the way for Japanese cyberpunk.
First OVAs, Megazone 2-3 and Dallos —respectively released in 83 and 85; ultra-gore Yoshiaki Kawajiri productions such as Cyber City Oedo 808 or Goku: Midnight Eye… Cyberpunk’s influence is not one to be neglected. Often fringing on turkey like Genocyber, sometimes blatant Blade Runner bootlegs like Armitage III, yet proofs of the genre’s quick assimilation into more-or-less underground anime.
Manga follows a similar path in parallel. Garo magazine appears amidst artistic New Wave and class struggle ideas of the late sixties, allowing many violent, militant, or grown-up works to be. Many creators in generations to come would be profoundly marked by this heritage, something you can, in fact, still feel decades later. In Tezuka’s era already, consanguinity between manga and anime is common facts. With that in mind, a few select authors expanding their work on both media made what we can really consider as Japan’s cyberpunk vanguard.
|> Making of Cyborgs
His cult manga Akira starts serialization in 82, followed by its 88’s featured film, marking the minds as much, if not more. An overambitious project featuring animation and design standards rarely equaled even to this day. Transcendence, gods, übermenschen produced in labs, relationship to the body. Tetsuo does feel his awakening as power, but also as a disease, a parasite devouring him from the inside. Enthralled by uncontrollable passions, he ends up merging with the machine, reduced to the state of an all-consuming biomechanical tumor.
With its secret societies, apocalyptic sects, biker gangs gorging with drugs under neon lights, Akira succeeded in becoming a genre essential, strong with an insane amount of founding images. Otomo adds few, more discrete commits to cyberpunk with Roujin-Z and his contribution to Neo Tokyo.
Director of what is generally considered the first OVA, Dallos, he sharpens his fangs working for Pierrot Studio in the eighties, wearing the director’s hat on Urusei Yatsura films and series. After his first (and esoteric, to say the least) full-length original film, Tenshi no Tamago, he goes on to work on the Patlabor license.
The second movie premieres in 91, and from the ongoing Gulf War, anticipates all the way up to what would come to life in September 2001 and its lasting consequences. Military-industrial complex, weapon innovation, entire cities built by corporations on the strength of industrial mechs —Labors— and their pilots’ exploitation. Voices of militarism rising and anti-Article 9 arguments in a post-Cold War universe, on which looms global terrorism’s threat. Far from textbook cyberpunk aesthetics, Patlabor flirts nonetheless with genre’s themes, along with its honest characters, perfectly oxymoronic against the society they are supposed to protect and serve. Not government dogs, allies of justice.
While an important movie to understand Oshii’s craft, it’s even more crucial as the gateway to his next major project.
Ghost in the Shell.
Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga becomes the very essence of Japanese cyberpunk —as ambitious a movie as its comrade Akira, it boasts so many big names: composer Kenji Kawai, or animation director and character designer Hiroyuki Okiura, both collaborating in the shift between ethereal, meditative soundtrack and hyper-realistic —purposely edging on the uncanny valley— character animation. Cult intro sequence (and inspiration for Matrix’s aesthetic some years later), birth of main heroine Motoko’s cyborg body. Meditative dysphoria between mind, soul, and corporeal shell. Cyborg cop hunting the soul hidden inside her body’s circuits and cables; an intelligence born from machinations in the Network wishes to contain its self-proclaimed soul in a human shell. Among human relations without a glimmer of warmth, woman and machine dream to understand and make whole with one another.
Akira, Ghost in the Shell, other works such as Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo in 89 or Yukito Kishiro’s Gunm in 90 are all representative of an obvious, yet in my opinion underrated aspect of cyberpunk: sensuality.
Its relationship with flesh, death, sex and their technologically-enhanced hubris, in a transitory state between materialism and spiritualism. Japanese cyberpunk is no stranger to the concept of body horror, whose master David Cronenberg already spliced with cyberpunk in two movies, Videodrome and ExistenZ. Such a correlation shouldn’t come as too surprising from Japan, already familiar with nuclear trauma and its deconstruction of the flesh in most extreme ways. This statement may be true, in a certain extent, all the way back to the genre’s roots. Gibson’s profoundly sexual literature and Blade Runner’s nightmarish cut with Roy crushing the skull of his creator barehandedly; his own hand he pierces with a rusty nail to make pain keep him in control later on.
Both Akira and GitS were, like most cult films, clamored critical successes yet relative fails at the box-office, barely getting back on investment. A factor, which combined to Japan’s nineties crisis, recession and the dotcom bubble crash of 2001, contributed in blowing cyberpunk’s shot at high-budget productions in the long run. Studios struggling to keep the ship above water, could not risk potential bankruptcy on such projects.
Cyberpunk sings its swan song in three acts at the corner of the millennium through the creative trio formed by Yoshitoshi Abe, Ryuutarou Nakamura and Yasuyuki Ueda.
|> It really hurts! :]
Serial Experiments Lain in 1998, already drifting away from traditional cyberpunk. Questions about flourishing Internet, relations and ego in the network, vanishing frontiers between individuals —diluted in two concurrent layers of existence. Rise of a global human consciousness taking form as a slumbering god, its dream echoes rippling against the fabric of material existence.
Texhnolyze in 2003, realms torn between pathetic and divine, as what remains of humanity in all its passion and destructiveness merges with mechanical members to survive in the underground city, Lux. The surface world already became little more than suspended memories, ghosts of people who lost life alongside death.
A third project, Despera, never saw the light of day after Nakamura’s brutal passing away. As for Lain and Texhnolyze, both were undeniable commercial failures, beginning the start of a bleak period for cyberpunk in Japan and overseas.
And such as that, an excruciatingly slow cross in the desert begins, worsened for anime by a difficult translation from celluloid to digital animation. Rarer than ever, cyberpunk now mostly expands on existing works; the excellent GitS: Stand Alone Complex TV series, Oshii’s second film GitS: Innocence, or The Animatrix short film collection. Series like Ergo Proxy, PSYCHO-PASS or Mardock Scramble, while having merit in trying to push the genre’s revival, are in all lucidity mediocre iterations of over-exploited takes on cyberpunk. A bunch of 3D movies like Vexille: 2077 and Wonderful Days were simply forgotten right at the start.
layer_03~ DEATH & REBIRTH
As a matter of fact, the rest of the cinematic landscape hasn’t been spared by any mean: A Total Recall remake more resembling a Blade Runner clone than that of Verhoeven’s satire, mostly disliked Matrix sequels, I, Robot and Babylon A.D… hardly anything worthy of attention. Both qualitatively and quantitatively, the genre seems to just vanish into thin air after Matrix’s release in 1999, leaving only extraordinary exceptions to confirm the general rule —Oshii’s Avalon, Immortel and A Scanner Darkly… that’s basically it.
This fate doesn’t just concern cyberpunk: the very idea of counterculture is already fading away. Punk is dead, Mecha is dead, Rave is dead… At the root of those dying cultures lies the same observation: members are disinterested, demoralized, defeatist. Mainstream media quickly loses interest for them to get the mass culture machine back on track, clogging pop culture with down-your-throat positivism and promises of you getting big, someday. Questioning things, making edgy art, everything is swept away and overshadowed by exponential entertainment.
|> Second Life
Some could see glimmers of hope in a young and promising media. Video games start getting popular around the same time cyberpunk did and both share common patterns. From video game to virtual reality, from VR to wondering where the frontier between virtual and real really lies. Matrix, The Lawnmower Man, Serial Experiments Lain, Tron and Avalon undeniably draw much inspiration from games, using them in and of themselves as a diegetic element, or in a more meta-narrative fashion.
If cyberpunk already pondered on the role of free will in virtual simulations, video games are on the other way around able to bring —quite literally— the fractal dust Gibson always dreamed of. System Shock, Shadowrun, Shin Megami Tensei, Hideo Kojima with Policenauts and Snatcher…
…and last but certainly not least, Deus Ex.
While somehow faithful to run-of-the-mill cyberpunk dystopia, its genocidal shadow leaders and cyborg dealers crawling inside New York’s sewers grid, something is shifting the tone in a very different direction. In essence, it’s not a game where you assume the role of some anti-hero of questionable taste. You play as the post-human überdude unable not to drop dumb one-liners and, in the end, taking on the whole dystopia alone with his sunglasses and trench coat… successfully. JC Denton was created inside a secret laboratory with the objective in mind to bring about the next missing link in human evolution. It’s not about being JC-in-story; it’s about JC (funny initials if you didn’t notice, by the way…) being the focal point of that story. Such a process is, in part, carried on by game design as an implicit narrative tool: you have to make choices all the time —of dialogue answers, of gameplay style, on how you advance in a level, and finally of humanity’s future. Dead-channel-tuned dystopia gets entirely forgotten in its Invisible War sequel, shifting to tones of futuristic, post-cyberpunk blue.
On cyberpunk’s carcass, a new attempt increments, namely postcyberpunk. While already spoken of in the early nineties for Neal Stephenson’s parodic novel Snow Crash, the expression really gains weight in 1998 with Lawrence Person’s Notes toward a Postcyberpunk manifesto, seeing the starting point to be Bruce Sterling’s 1988 novel Islands in the Net. Much like Deus Ex illustrates it, postcyberpunk defines itself in uncoupling with dystopian psychosis to give a more optimistic, at least supposedly more nuanced vision of the future.
In contrast to its predecessor’s proletarian roots, postcyberpunk likens itself to popular, middle-class, sleeker, tamer science-fiction. Black-clad, stimmed-up hackers give way for something like Deus Ex latest sequels’ Adam Jensen —admittedly cloaked in black, gruff and disillusioned, yet shining in his empathy, sense of justice and desire for a better world when all seem to have lost hope already. Able to love, forgive and make sacrifices.
This brave new cyberpunk also pretends to more up-to-date technologies being shown with more of, you guessed it, nuance. Ones with unavoidable shortcomings indeed, yet vital parts of their universe nonetheless. A limb, obviously not gangrene-proof, but also very much needed: one you should try and cure before making irreversible choices. Then, cyborgs of meat and steel, androids and holograms. Now nanotechs, information age and Internet of things, people, ideas, capital, everything —you name it.
Where cyberpunk aggravates and warns is where post-cyberpunk tries to constrain itself in short-term, cheering for a more optimistic, representative of mister everybody kind of futurology. Day-to-day life is hard sometimes, you being alienated one way or another on some level —without being the overflowing anarcho-capitalist hellhole of classics. If said classics could be seen as philosophical tales, postcyberpunk should in turn be a somehow conceivable bet on how things could look like in twenty years or so.
Gibson himself made his post-cyberpunk turn-of-the-century with his novel Idoru. An ordinary middle-school girl gets thrown into machinations involving a member of her favorite band and the Japanese AI idol he wants to marry. Nanotech builders stolen to the Yakuza and tabloids manipulating information to forge scandals on celebrities. Ordinary people took in extraordinary events of an otherwise —AIs and nanotech aside— down-to-earth society, however quietly visionary in its representation of culture and information merging into infotainment (and on a side note, its anticipation of Hatsune Miku).
Laudable and reasonable as it may seem, postcyberpunk becomes, in its disassociation from specific problematics, hardly more than a commodity for the regular consumer. If accessibility is not a flaw in itself, it often becomes the pointer to a fundamental change —that is, content standardization.
layer_04~ ALIEN WORLD
Lawrence Person himself denies explicitly class analysis in his manifesto:
[…] here in the United States, economic mobility has rendered the concept of “class” nearly obsolete.
One of postcyberpunk’s apparent shortcomings is its barely-concealed condescension toward its elder, framing itself as a real artistic upgrade, more mature, more grounded, less whimsical and romantic. Brought upon with the Cold War ending and the start of a New World Order, with subsequent US imperialism already decried by cyberpunk’s first authors, one should stay lucid about what postcyberpunk silently embodies: neoliberalism’s absolute dominion over culture. Wouldn’t you agree such an observation seems… kinda cyberpunk?
|> Gentrified & Bluepilled
Nothing is ever all black, white, or even shades of grey. In the colored world out there, cyberpunk must weather the same humiliation as any other counterculture, while getting the opportunity to keep on surviving against time through extraordinary works like Lain, Deus Ex, GitS: Stand Alone Complex, or stories from Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson and even good old Gibson. A survival coming with a trade-off —gentrification.
The birth and initial growth of postcyberpunk could be considered as students and artists coming to a poor neighborhood. As the district slowly comes back to life with group activities, animations, pubs, restaurants and clubs, more life attracts more life, and the cost of living here slowly but surely increases with demand. The original population gets progressively evicted, pushed back to the outskirts. The first breath slowly evaporates, leaving even richer populations to come in with all work already done before they’d arrived. One terminal stage not without reminding cyberpunk’s assimilation in mainstream culture as mild entertainment.
People left to assume it is by consuming products on-brand with their chosen movement they will be able to create an identity for themselves, gain belonging in a tribe. Global system inflaming cult and cultural communitarianism to absolute extremes; one should only define oneself by the kind of people they frequent and which commodities they consume, which derived products from which Netflix series.
Accomplish yourself in opinions and what you think of the world only. Don’t you dare interact with that world you keep talking about. Aesthetics and social standing. Virtual, illusory clout-chasing to make you feel powerful and relevant enough just by reacting to things all day —God forbid you do things on your own. Genre always had that powerful sectarian potential, which will be soon repurposed as a formidable marketing tool. Coupled with capitalization on nostalgic bursts of many, all sums up as makeup for one very cynical clown sitting in the control room.
|> A clown world, consisting only of pain.
Snake biting its own tail. He, who, disgusted by cultural uniformization, wishes to go back to the roots… promises himself to eat on the same plate as anyone else. Truth is, mass entertainment is all too aware of itself —it wouldn’t miss an occasion to leech on the disdain people have for it. Everybody wants less clean, less sleek, more organic and authentic? So be it, let’s give them their harmless dopamine hit and reap the benefits.
Now you have your sequels twenty years later, your remakes. You have your AAA dissidence and cool subversion. Worse than dead, the idea of counterculture became a sordid subject of necromancy, manipulated by all it ever loathed, its legacy façading in place of what you really get. Quick satisfaction fix served for well-groomed hedonistic apes, now slaves to their own reward circuit —fucked beyond repair by birth-till-death directives to give yourself pleasure without any restraint, then feel bad about it, then feel better by self-pleasuring, all the while you slowly sink in madness and duplicity.
Let yourself die mentally in front of self-replicating flavors of fiction they say, be it fictitious fiction to escape to, or fictitious reality to fire up your lizard brain and somehow make you feel alive by fear, still able to consume and cope with the big scary world they showed you. Atrophied down to the very last neuron and pacified by addictions increasingly harder to beat and exponentially alluring ways to fill the voids scouring us, we ask for cyberpunk.
We ask for genuine, good old OG cyberpunk —because that’s all we need, after all.
There is no sense in cyberpunk anymore — we already live in it.
The only noteworthy purpose left to cyberpunk now is to accept these facts. Envision them with resignation.
Excellent works such as Blade Runner 2049, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided or VA-11 HALL-A have kept popping in the last few years. A long way from the eighties’ original romantic hopelessness, deaf to fake optimism, such productions accomplish themselves in realizing we are neither hero nor nihilistic anti-hero outside of society. That we all live in this reality, may it be a faked one or not, suffering being very real for most. That only in the destruction of our pipe dreams and phony ideals —swift and with extreme prejudice— are we truly alive.
Reforming the system is an illusion of choice. Revolution is something you tell yourself to wake up the next morning, in the hope something happens somewhere, someday. No counterculture —just memetic warfare. Every school of thought as an encapsulated module in a single application, all manipulated by the same functions, same controllers, inside the same runtime.
Today’s cyberpunk —let’s call it neocyberpunk— unsatisfying role is to procure the liberating despair we very much need to find or remember what truly matters to us.
It’s all about struggling to build your own havens of peace amidst the chaos, being where you can really act and make a positive impact on your community. Given we’re all condemned to live in our own makeshift realities, I wish you find yourself a humane one and fill it with people you really care about.
It’s not over until it’s really over.
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Attempts to critique cyberpunk as a genre in 2020 as being “gentrified” without acknowledging the work currently being done outside of corporate media (besides one paltry mention of VA-11 HALL-A)? Especially by marginalized creators? Really? Then again, to actually do a full examination of cyberpunk works outside of the mainstream media is to acknowledge that much of that is being done within postcyberpunk.
Postcyberpunk as defined here is largely a joke, with older cherrypicked examples and no attempt to examine it beyond “somewhat more optimistic than cyberpunk and more accessible, therefore, bad.” Hoo boy, I have bad news for all those people who make postcyberpunk social commentaries; if they’re not gritty, they’re not valid! Let’s shut the whole genre down! But call “real” cyberpunk “neocyberpunk”, because what’s one more frivolous subgenre name out there on the internet, amirite?
For real though, this is less a legitimate examination of the state of the genre as much as it is bashing works for not fitting fully into the same mold as 80s-2000s cyberpunk. Or, shock and horror, being highly accessible entertainment that might only have light societal critique, if not at all! It’s punk vs pop punk all over again!
And what’s with this high and mighty “mainstream consumers are media consumption zombies” attitude? People not looking beyond what media is given to them to explore other options is a common fallacy that no one is immune to. I can’t take this article seriously for complaining about “the snake eating its own tail” while limiting itself to well known examples of the genre. Not including independent media, a platform that’s less homogenized due to only having to fit creator desires instead of corporate interest, is a huge oversight.
This was a really fantastic read, very well put together, and your analysis about cyberpunk becoming too safe is spot on, and very easy to confirm when you realise that very few modern works are as raw as stuff like “System Shock” and “I have no mouth, and I must scream”. There’s a lot of good stuff coming out though, especially in the TTRPG space, but what I wouldn’t give for some gritty cyberpunk anime, sure we have mecha and man-machine fusions aplenty but it’s all so clean. Those scenes from the end of Akira are still so striking, give us more!