I’ve been inspired lately to write about cyberpunk. For me, cyberpunk is usually Shadowrun, but I think I want to write about cyberpunk more generally. I thought about starting with my shadowrun “mood board” but I realized that no one would ever take me seriously again so instead I’m starting with a random shotgun blast of thoughts that are in my head about cyberpunk (in general). One quick disclaimer: I’m writing from the perspective of a white male in the United States. No matter how hard I try; I will have blind-spots. I look forward to possibly discussing those blind spots in a respectful manner.
First things, first. Cyberpunk is way too stuck in the 1980s. In every way. Cyberpunk still largely seems to cling to the sacred cows of the 1980s in ways that we can’t shake even when we have much better inspiration these days.
I mean, I’m guilty of this too – you’ll see when I do share my mood board – but a big problem is we’ve seen the prophecy of 80s cyberpunk come true in our present and yet we still present the genre as if those prophecies were yet to be fully formed. Corporations are not just “people” in the modern world, they are de facto governments. Private “security” firms are actually private armies for sale. Political radicalization and the 24-hour news industry have effectively ruined our ability to agree on basic facts. The internet is fucking king, queen, and high holy. And the AI threat is real (though not as predicted).
But it’s so much worse than even those 80s visionaries predicted. A lot of cyberpunk ignores the extreme effects of climate change and how that will destroy us. In the 80s we were still in the grip of a Cold War mentality where Sting was singing about how he “hopes the Russians love their children too.” We also hadn’t completely killed the manufacturing plants, industry, and farms at the heart of Springsteen and Mellencamp songs. We were just getting really ramped up to killing them.
And AI, my god, AI. Forget the singularity and the Matrix. Forget Skynet and the Austrian Necrons. AI is so much more god-damn insidious than those creators ever assumed it would be. Almost all our consumption these days is shaped – if not outright driven – by marketing algorithms that are practically mythological gods with their reach and scope. And don’t get me started on drones. No human operator would bother “rigging in” to a drone. You’d only slow it down.
Cyberpunk also largely missed maker culture. 3D printers are a revolution they didn’t see coming. Even Star Trek didn’t have replicators to begin with. The fact that any reasonably competent person can build a mortar, an armed drone, and as many “ghost guns” as they want in their garage is a huge oversight that we need to correct for.
Back to that Cold War and Climate Change idea for a moment. Scaring us with nuclear fire really made it pretty easy to overlook the fact that we were turning the planet into a climate only suitable for literal fires. Cyberpunk doesn’t spend much time on superstorms or apocalyptic wildfires. Apparently, that’s another genre. But it shouldn’t be. Maybe? Maybe that’s what cyberpunk is missing now, that moment of the bill coming due?
So – that’s my random shotgun blast to kick these thoughts off. But before I go – a few nods to some stories I’ve enjoyed that hit on some of these themes.
The Red Trilogy by Linda Ngata does some cool stuff that I can’t really talk about without spoilers.
Daemon by Daniel Suarez also hits on some of the above themes but it’s classed as a “tech thriller” instead of cyberpunk. Don’t bother with the sequel (Freedom TM), it is not nearly as interesting and really lives up to its “airplane book” billing.
The Blue Ant trilogy by William Gibson is also not “technically” cyberpunk but it also gets a lot closer to some of these more modern issues I think we should be exploring and is just an excellent read.
The most recent of these reads is from 2015, so even they are starting to be outdated compared to the march of technology. Still enjoyable though.
Largely, I think that for cyberpunk to be a worthwhile genre going forward it may need to reorient itself a little bit. I’m not sure how – exactly – it does that, or how far it can change without someone telling me that it’s no longer “cyberpunk” (but honestly, fuck that guy).
That’s it for now. I’m going to write more about this. Thoughts, feelings, emotions? I’d love to hear yours.
As always, thanks for reading.
p.s. – Ready Player One is fucking trash but it’s clearly a cyberpunk novel and shows off all the problems with the genre even when it tries to “glow up.” We need better.
p.p.s. – Don’t mention Snow Crash here. Please. That’s like yelling “Freebird!” at a concert. It sucks and it makes you a douchebag.