For a few years now I’ve maintained that the cyberpunk genre is pretty much dead: a victim of its own success. The future that its authors predicted came to fruition, leaving cyberpunk, at best, only a moderately fantastic take on a world we already know: a relationship analogous to the steampunk and the Victorian era.
I’ve been reading a new cyberpunk novel, Gerald Brandt’s The Courier, and I think it’s time that I walk back that statement. The Courier is the story of a motorcycle courier named Kris Ballard, a low level nobody trying to make a living in 2140 San Angeles: a mega-sprawl that begins at modern day San Francisco and ends at the Mexican border. After walking in on a murder, she finds herself being hunted by relentless assassins.
The Courier has me thinking that maybe I was stuck on cyberpunk’s dated affectations — mirror shades and fingers tipped with razor blades, data ports grafted into mohawked skulls — and not enough about what the genre had to say about technology’s place in our daily lives. That was a mistake.
I don’t have mirror shades and cybernetic implants, but there are drone supplies and virtual reality gear on the shelves of my local big box electronics retailer. Russian hackers are wreaking havoc in a presidential election, and there are criminals are using untraceable currency to procure designer drugs, weapons, and even killers for hire in some hellish demi-monde of the very same web you’re browsing right now.
Kris’ world looks pretty similar: It’s our world about 20 minutes into the future. Surveillance is everywhere, and there’s no hiding corporate America’s utter subversion of the nation’s government. No one even tries to pretend there’s a democracy anymore.
The world cyberpunk warned us about came and went without much notice. Now we’re living in an age more complicated and wired together than anyone could have predicted — and it’s getting more complex every day. I’d love to call it a post-cyberpunk world, but I’m not feeling especially optimistic right now. The cyberpunks never were.
One of the fathers of cyberpunk, William Gibson once said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” I think he was on to something. Some people are going to have it really good in the future, but there’s going to be a heck of a lot of people who won’t.
Look at the growing gap between the rich and the poor. It’s bad now, but what do you think is going to happen when we succeed in automating the so-called low skill jobs that the working poor need to survive? Take that and our broken health care system, failing public schools, for-profit prison system, and an ecology circling the drain, and you’ve created a perfect environment to create a borderline feudalistic techno-state: one in which masses of sick, starving, and frightened people are lorded over by a long-lived, highly insulated elite and their corporate allies.
Brandt’s book delves into this kind of scenario, depicting a future United States whose citizens live in caste in a caste system that dooms the poor to live in toxic waste and squalor. In the world of The Courier, there’s no disguising this class system: It’s all on the table. We can kid ourselves that there’s nothing like that in our country, but maybe the only difference is that we aren’t honest about how much class plays a difference in our daily lives.
Those original cyberpunk authors — Gibson, John Shirley, Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson, and all the rest — saw the writing on the wall decades ago, and they tried to warn us about it. We didn’t pay much attention. That was our error, but it isn’t one we have to make again. It’s time for cyberpunk to once again cast its gaze toward the future, and its time for us to listen to what its authors have to say.