In 1981, a street samurai by the name of Molly Millions uses razor-sharp blades under her fingernails to slice and dice an augmented muscle-for-hire. In 1992, the greatest sword fighter in the world, Hiro Protagonist, uses a samurai sword to decapitate a would-be killer. In 2003, a man named Morpheus uses a samurai sword to flip a car containing twin assassins. And in 2020, the metropolis of Night City is awash with samurai swords, which a street-kid-slash-corpo-slash-nomad named V uses at opportune moments to hack down bad guys.
There may be a pattern here.
Cyberpunk is a genre of tropes. Low life meets high tech. Omnipotent corporations. Hackers and augmentations. Fetishization of Japanese culture. Sunglasses. Cable jacks. Neon everything. These are elements that demarcate cyberpunk from other subgenres of science fiction, and are what made it such a vital force when it emerged in the early 1980s thanks to 2000 AD comics, Blade Runner and, most importantly, Neuromancer. As Sterling states in the 1987 preface to Burning Chrome — William Gibson’s collection of stories introducing the reader to his dystopian Sprawl — science fiction “has survived a long winter on its stored body fat. Gibson […] has prodded the genre awake and it sent it out on recce for a fresh diet.”
Sadly, that diet has long since become predictable. What was once invigorating is now enervating at best and downright outdated at worst in a world that has weaved a dystopian narrative far darker, in many respects, than anything that appears in the literature. We are citizens not of a rain-lashed corporatized metroscape, but of an Anthropocene whose effects are only just beginning to be felt. By and large, Tokyo does not offer a glimpse into the future; China is the behemoth whose outline blocks out the horizon, on track to become the world’s biggest economy, oil refiner, retail market, producer of renewable energies, and more. And neon signs aren’t everywhere; they’re dying because LEDs are much cheaper, more energy-efficient and less obtrusive.
Even the word itself has lost its integrity. The fundamental notion behind something being ‘punk’ is for it to be exactly as it wants to be, without conforming to expectations or including nods and winks simply because this is what is expected. Why, then, do authors of cyberpunk-related content — whether writers, directors, or video game producers — insist on returning to a well of ideas, aesthetics, fears, and dreams that was absorbed into the mainstream long ago?
Recognition is one reason: as indicated in the opening paragraph, if you have a samurai sword in your work, then you’re in familiar company. Laziness is another: why reinvent the wheel when there’s a small army of devotees out there willing to watch it spin? Another, somewhat more compelling, argument that has appeared in the wake of Cyberpunk 2077 is that cyberpunk was always intended to showcase a form of retro-futurism.
However, an article by Wheeler on the website Neon Dystopia refutes this:
Cyberpunk is not and never has been a retrofuturistic genre. Cyberpunk has always been about our future, not a future once imagined […] Jules Verne, although often referenced as such, is not “steampunk,” although it might be a precursor that inspired the genre. Verne was writing about the future, not someone else’s imagined future. And neither were the original cyberpunks.
When Gibson wrote in Neuromancer that cyberspace was “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 the banks of every computer in the human system,” he wasn’t attempting to build a future based on the foundations of a previous era (like, say, Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle); he was predicting the Internet and the effect it would have on the lives of most human beings.
Another example of looking to our future rather than back into our past: In his cyberpunk satire Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson took the Sanskrit word ‘avatar’ — initially used in the MMORPG Habitat in 1986 — and popularised it to the extent that it is now used universally to describe everything from video game characters to chatbots. The world of Snow Crash also served as the inspiration behind Google Earth, Quake and Xbox Live.
By contrast, how many concepts from Cyberpunk 2077 will we look back on in 30 years’ time and say captured our collective outlook? The racially aligned gangs? The objectification and commoditisation of trans bodies? The reheated post-hardcore of the rockerboys? Maybe; probably not. As Coldewey writes for TechCrunch, the game’s future
feels like it was extrapolated exclusively from the forward-thinking but still limited minds of a bunch of smart white guys from the ‘90s […] As Ready Player One [already] demonstrated, there’s a limit to how much can be accomplished by those methods.
Of course, it’s unfair to place the blame squarely at 2077’s door. The rot set in years, even decades ago. The denizens of Night City are merely the apogee of all that is worn out about the genre.
Still, it may be time for an upgrade.
There is a way for cyberpunk to become relevant again and skewer our greatest fears in the process: by focusing on the climate crisis. There is no way around it: global heating is our collective future. It is, as Murtugudde states for The Wire, “the only problem in human history to have affected every aspect of Earth’s physical, biological and cultural systems, and it’s happening now.” That means anyone looking to paint a prescient picture of humanity’s future absolutely has to put the environment first. This goes beyond mere references (“Do you like our owl?”) and delves into how humanity has severed its connection with the natural world, how the promise of green technology rings hollow in many respects, and what it means to exist in a society reliant on steadily eroding topsoil.
While there is no need to tip over into a full-blown post-apocalyptic The Road scenario, an engagement with the existential fears we face in the present could elevate cyberpunk from its current role as juvenile wish fulfilment into something more vital again.
Some elements from cyberpunk’s previous iterations remain relevant to society today, and these are what could be carried over to create a sense of evolution rather than revolution. Corporations, for example, have become even more powerful, more like omnipotent states, than in the 1980s (this handy guide shows how few companies control everything that matters). Far from being played out, this is an aspect that should be integral to any cyberpunk narrative, albeit one that places less focus on tracking down a biochip MacGuffin and more on, say, the implications of placing our faith in 10 companies to oversee the global food supply.
Likewise, the transhumanism movement is only really starting to take off now: developments such as Google’s DeepMind, the Future of Life Institute’s remit to ensure mainstream AI safety and the Palo Alto Longevity Prize (for finding a cure for ageing) all offer intriguing starting points from which to dig deep into an envisioned global society free of most corporeal restraints, but which remains tethered to a poisoned planet.
As touched on above, it would also be refreshing to put countries other than Japan in the spotlight. While cyberpunk creators are quick to use Hanzi in hazy pinks and blues as shorthand for urban dystopia, they rarely incorporate any philosophies, traditions, or cultural elements originating from China into their narratives. Alternatively, India — the country with the fifth-largest economy on the planet by nominal GDP — is practically begging to be given a ‘hindifuturist’ makeover, just as Sun Ra, George Clinton, and other artists combined African culture and science fiction to create the afrofuturist aesthetic that endures today in everything from superhero movies to album covers.
Finally, layer on the cynicism. This is where the punk ideology comes to the fore. Gibson’s novels work because they explore what it means to be human in a world governed by technology, not because Turner, the mercenary in Count Zero, can take out an army of corporate grunts with an implant. Cyberpunk worlds shouldn’t be ones we want to live in or think are cool; they are parables, warnings, glimpses of the undesirable. They serve as a call, now, to steer clear of the murky, plastic-filled waters we’re heading into.
The current practitioners and custodians of cyberpunk have to become iconoclasts in order for it to thrive again. Until the effort is made to view our fears of today, not ideas from yesterday, through the genre’s lens, cyberpunk will, for all its neon frills and glinting blades, remain the colour of television tuned to a dead channel.
Grant Price (b. 1987) is a British-German author currently living in Berlin. His first novel, Static Age, appeared in 2016. His second novel, By the Feet of Men, was published by Cosmic Egg Books in 2019. His third novel, Reality Testing, was released by Down By Law Books in 2021. His work has appeared in The Daily Telegraph and a number of magazines and journals, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has taught writing at the University of Giessen in Germany.