Books

We’re Living In The World Cyberpunk Tried to Warn Us About

I’ve got a theory about why we don’t see too much proper Cyberpunk fiction: It’s because the crazy, techno-fueled dystopia described by writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling arrived on our doorstep years ago. Like a fish, we’re not aware that we’re all wet – and in this case, we’re sharing the water with cybernetic sharks. At this point, speculative tales about hackers, corporate espionage and government surveillance aren’t Cyberpunk – they’re techno-thrillers. There’s nothing wrong with techno-thrillers – I absolutely love them. But they’re not punk. There’s nothing edgy, dirty or underground about them.

The original Cyberpunk grew a long time ago and left the punk part behind, kind of like Gen Xers who traded in their mohawks and chains for conservative haircuts and 401Ks. The younger generation is too busy being cyberpunk to worry about the genre. It’s not science fiction for them: It’s their every day life. When you’re hacking into foreign security agencies, trading virtual currency for illicit goods and doxxing political enemies, Cyberpunk fiction just seems quaint. Throw in security cameras on every corner, government spooks tapping into your grandma’s smart phone (the fact that your grandma owns a smartphone is also proof that Cyberpunk is dead, by the way.), a rapidly expanding menagerie of corporation-created genetically modified organisms, a sky full of semi-autonomous drones, a high-tech assault weapon in every pantry, and you don’t have fiction: You have yesterday’s news.

Just because Cyberpunk grew into techno-thriller doesn’t mean that it wasn’t valuable. Like every other cutting-edge art movement, it innovated and pushed at the boundaries until it was absorbed by the mainstream. That’s what we’re living in now: the Post-Cyberpunk world. Guys like William Gibson knew this before the rest of us, and his fiction reflects that. He doesn’t even consider what he’s doing now to be science fiction now, because the present has become absurdly sci fi. Check out this excerpt from an interview with the Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of your last three books as being science fiction?

GIBSON

No, I think of them as attempts to disprove the distinction or attempts to dissolve the boundary. They are set in a world that meets virtually every criteria of being science fiction, but it happens to be our world, and it’s barely tweaked by the author to make the technology just fractionally imaginary or fantastic. It has, to my mind, the effect of science fiction.

If you’d gone to a publisher in 1981 with a proposal for a science-fiction novel that consisted of a really clear and simple description of the world today, they’d have read your proposal and said, Well, it’s impossible. This is ridiculous. This doesn’t even make any sense. Granted, you have half a dozen powerful and really excellent plot drivers for that many science-fiction n­ovels, but you can’t have them all in one novel.

“Confessions of an Ex-Cyberpunk” author Lewis Shiner wrote that the genre’s integration into the mainstream had stripped it of any real meaning:

I don’t see anything dangerous or threatening about cyberpunk in its current incarnation. But its newfound popularity is revealing. It shows our obsession with material goods, and technical, engineered solutions.

Pop culture’s fascination with the bleak vision of cyberpunk may be short-lived. There seems to be a national need for spiritual values. New age bookstores are doing a land office business in crystals and self-help manuals. People are joining cults and neo-pagan communes. Newsweek recently devoted a cover story to the resurgence of religion among young Americans. How do we keep our families together? How do we deal with addictions to alcohol and drugs and tobacco and sex? What is our place in a chaotic world?

Today’s cyberpunk doesn’t answer these questions. Instead it offers power fantasies, the same dead-end thrills we get from video games and blockbuster movies like Rambo and Aliens. It gives Nature up for dead, accepts violence and greed as inevitable, and promotes the cult of the loner.

In other words, the meat of the genre dried up and blew away, and nothing was left but bones for scavengers to fight over – and this was in the eighties.  It’s not that Cyberpunk didn’t matter; it did. It’s just that the message was received (and apparently rejected) by the mainstream. Like Cassandra’s prophecies, the genre’s messages were ignored, and now we are living in the future that Cyberpunk tried to warn us about. Who knows what the next cutting-edge speculative fiction movement will be? One thing is for sure, though: By the time that you and I hear about it, it will probably already be over.