If you’ve ever read one of my stories, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m pretty in love with cyberpunk. The interplay between society, individual freedom, and technology is a source of infinite material. A playground I could romp around in, shoving small children into the sandbox, all day long.
But there’s a problem. Namely, cyberpunk is dead. Or so was claimed a couple decades back by Bruce Sterling (a guy no stranger to cyberpunk himself). For a long time this made me really sad because I thought, “Man, I’m in love with a corpse.” Which, ya know, is frowned on in 45 of the lower states.
Nobody wants to be that guy who likes a thing that has suddenly gone out of vogue. It’s like being a reverse hipster (not as bad as a regular hipster, just sadder). Or showing up to a party that’s already over. All that remains is to clean up the leaked fluids, gather what remains of your pride, and shamble on home.
It nags at me, though. The question: Why is cyberpunk dead? Can it be revived? Perhaps it was just really, really tired and needed a long, couple decade long nap?
This, of course, coming from a guy who plays liberally with a host of cyberpunk tropes in every single one of his stories. Which just means I’m a hopeless optimist for the genre to make a resurgence.
Here’s the thing: Cyberpunk ain’t coming back. Not like it was back in the 80’s and 90’s at least, when masters like Gibson and Stephenson and Sterling were doing their things. No more leather dusters and mohawks cruising the Tokyo slums looking to jack in.
But that’s okay, ‘cause here’s the good thing: Cyberpunk never really left. (Ha, plot twist. How’s that for being entirely contradictory? That’s just me trying to keep you on your toes!)
Cyberpunk has evolved. Into something better? Maybe. Maybe not. Certainly different if nothing else. But here’s the awesome part: It’s been hiding right under our noses the entire time.
One of the attractive qualities of science fiction is that it deals with the future in a way that allows us to process our reconceptualize our present. Extrapolating technological innovations and the inevitable social ramifications is, at it’s heart, what science fiction is all about. Whether we’re dealing with laser wielding aliens, or mega-AI-driven-corporations, or even post-apocalyptic mutant wastelands, we’re always looking forward.
The problem with cyberpunk is that it wasn’t looking far enough forward. It projected the world a few decades out which meant that as soon as the present caught up to the future, the genre as an archetype was done. All the predictions either came true or they didn’t. Suddenly, cyberpunk was dated.
Whoops. Talk about writing yourself into a corner.
Want some examples? Of course you do!
Let’s pick apart some examples from Neuromancer (which you should definitely read, if you haven’t already, because it is one of the all-time classics of the genre), and show what happens when the future becomes now.
Cyberspace/Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…a graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” – William Gibson (Neuromancer)
Alright, so already way back in the 80’s, this was the working definition of cyberspace as given to us by Gibson. Now, in his world, “console cowboys” navigated a virtual cyberspace in a very real sense. It was a physical environment made tangible by powerful computers, electrodes, and a healthy amount of induced hallucination.
Now, perhaps we as an internet using people have not progressed quite to that point, but the rise of personal computers, the world wide web, smart-phones, and every other piece of technology that keeps us connected 24/7 isn’t so terribly far off. Compound that with some of the consumer grade tech (think Google Glass and Oculus Rift) flowing down the pipeline later this year, and bam… we’re jacking into the network in ways predicted way back in the 80’s.
Interestingly, the biggest hitter in the cyberpunk genre in the past decade was successful precisely because it capitalized on that 1980’s nostalgia while also ladling in a healthy amount of immersive tech.
What story is that?
Ready Player One came on the scene in a huge way and it wouldn’t be too hyperbolic to claim it sort of redefined the genre. But, though it tapped into gamer culture, and tinkered with the idea of an immersive 3 dimensional virtual reality somewhat similar to the old guard (think Snow Crash and Neuromancer) it doesn’t really resemble traditional cyberpunk in any sort of meaningful way.
That’s not a bad thing of course, just different. Genres grow. They expand. They evolve. They have to, otherwise they stagnate and die. Epic Fantasy went through a similar period back in the early 2000’s as people grew tired of the same old good-vs-evil, farmer boy with a quest storyline. But now look at Epic Fantasy, it’s healthy and vibrant and flourishing.
One of the interesting cultural things about Ready Player One is that there is already a huge community of gamers (Second Life is the big hitter) already angling for that precise reality. So, like its forefathers, Ready Player One has already dated itself. Then again, it sort of did that by default by relying so heavily on 1980’s references, so whatever.
“Booths lined a central hall. The clientele were young…They all seemed to have carbon sockets planted behind the left ear…Behind the counter a boy with a shaven head stared vacantly into space, a dozen spikes of Microsoft protruding from the socket behind his ear.” – Gibson (Neuromancer)
Cyberpunk as a genre always took wearable tech to its logical extreme, whether that be portable decks, goggles, electrodes, or what Gibson termed microsofts (which incidentally has nothing to do with the company Microsoft). We as a culture are still lagging behind cortical stacks as seen in Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, but we’ve definitely arrived at a place where at any given moment you’re within arm’s reach of a smart-phone. Shit, that’s literally true if you’re wearing a smart-watch.
Wearable tech on the whole, however, hasn’t really taken off yet. Google Glass’s attempt at augmented reality didn’t really work out?
This is just opinion, but I think it has to do with the fact that we as a culture aren’t quite ready to be tied that intricately to our technology. Sure, we absolutely, totally are reliant and addicted to our tech, but we prefer the illusion of freedom. At any point, I can put my phone down and pretend I don’t need it. That becomes a different story when I have a port implanted behind my ear.
Then again, there’s the question of infrastructure and digital lag. Unfortunately (again as witnessed by Google Glass) our software just isn’t sophisticated enough to create a seamless transition to augmented reality via wearable tech. Sure, we’re definitely getting there (likely within the next decade), but at the moment, wearable tech just ain’t quite there yet.
I hear you clucking over there, “Well, Anthony, doesn’t that mean there is still space for the exploration of wearable tech within cyberpunk?”
Yes, absolutely there is. But, as we inch closer and closer to that reality, people become less and less comfortable exploring what might come of it. We like to think of the ramifications in terms of the far future, not near. There are lots of people out there right now who would be psyched on a cortical stack, but there are many, many more absolutely horrified by the concept.
This in a nutshell is why cyberpunk is such a hard sell now adays.
Prosthetics and Plastic Surgery
In Neuromancer there’s a character named Molly who has mirrored cybernetic eyes built into her sockets. It displays the time, random data, and allows her to see in the dark. There’s a bartender with cybernetic arms that whirr gently as he moves. Joe-boys are fellas with huge vat grown muscles.
Unfortunately, none of this is science fiction anymore. Plastic surgeons have recently performed the first face transplant, and enhancing biceps, breasts, butts, and calves are so routine that they’re practically outpatient procedures.
The most interesting part of all this is the application of prosthetics, in my opinion. Today we are seeing individuals with degenerative muscular disorders, paraplegics, and individuals who’ve suffered catastrophic brain damage, navigating their world via neurally linked prosthetics.
For now the technology is mostly reserved for individuals with pressing medical need, but it won’t be too far out in the future that we begin seeing cosmetic/commercial applications of this tech.
But again, this is bad news for cyberpunk, because as these technologies become more and more integrated and feasible, they lose that edge of wonder and freshness that once categorized the genre. Yes, we will see individuals in the future with bionic arms. No, that isn’t terribly imaginative anymore.
Good science fiction has always been defined by its ability to innovate and surprise and predict. And sure, cyberpunk predicted these things, but now what’s it going to pull out of its hat?
This is the idea that you could record and upload experiences/emotions from one individual to another. A sort of shared, collaborative experience. This is one of those areas of cyberpunk that is unfortunately a ways away, though there has been significant work done in recent years.
Problem is, the human brain is crazy complex. The Human Connectome Project is in the process of mapping every neuronal juncture in the brain, but at the end of the day, there are just a shit ton of connections.
Don’t believe me? Check out The Connectome’s Website and see some pictures that will absolutely blow your mind.
Perhaps it’s because how far out this concept still is, but it’s actually a fairly popular one in modern culture. I myself riffed heavily on it in my short story Purgatory where we follow through the eyes of Jarek, an Imagineer for ImagineNation, who’s job it is to daydream experiences for others to experience.
Though this would be mega-cool, and would totally revolutionize how we interact with art and media, it’s not going to be happening any time soon.
The idea that we can dump a person’s memories, skills, and personality onto a hard-drive. This is my most favoritest trope within the cyberpunk genre and I deal heavily with it in Time Heist and Mind Breach.
The reason this concept fascinates me so, is that we are getting to a place within the digital age that so much of our lives is out there on the interweb. Eventually, a sophisticated enough computer system, able to mind the data deep enough, could theoretically reconstruct any one of us based on a personality metric. It could not replicate memories, of course, but that’s where the idea of copying the connectome, retracing each individual neural pathway to create a comprehensive neural map, comes into play.
This chain of thought opens up countless possibilities. Each avenue of consequence forking into a thousand others. What’s it mean to be alive within this context? If you separate the mind from the body, what is left over? Are you still living? Is a replica of you still you?
I explore this idea in a short story On the Protean Shore which is due out in an anthology revolving around the them of Afterlife sometime later this year.
A lot of ethical, philosophical, legal, and spiritual ramifications to this sort of technology arise. Thankfully, it is still a ways out, but that is precisely why this is one of the hottest tropes to emerge from modern day cyberpunk.
Alright, my beautiful readers, by now you’re saying to yourself, “Boy howdee, I want to read some cyberpunk!” No sweat, I got your back. Below are three of my favorite cyberpunk novels to come out in the past 10 years. Check them out and let me know what you like, or what you don’t like.
Then again, maybe you’re done with cyberpunk. If that’s the case, get down to the comments and let me know why? What happened? Where’d the love go? Or maybe you’ve never been into the genre. That’s cool, why is that?
Oh, and do me a solid, get down to the comments and leave a recommendation for any awesome cyberpunk you’ve stumbled upon recently.