After Cyberpunk

18. April 2019

That cyberpunk, at least in its classical manifestations, is dead has been common knowledge since at least the end of the millennium, and perhaps even earlier (some date it to Snow Crash (1992), others even to Count Zero (1986); Delany in particular claims it ceased to exist following the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion). That cyberpunk still appears compelling is evident, and there has thus been a curious phenomenon where the same people who seek to revive cyberpunk also charge revivals of cyberpunk with being merely nostalgic and culinary. This article is not, and does not pretend to be, an academic analysis. Rather, it is a fragmentary attempt to comprehend, however sloppily and incompletely, what cyberpunk was and how we follow from it, to shed light on the task of radical science-fiction in the 2020s. One obvious answer to this problem is climate fiction; for personal reasons (that is, because I already read enough about climate change and it just makes me want to kill myself as soon as possible instead of fight for a better future) I won’t pursue this thread here, although I do admit that it is necessary for science-fiction to acknowledge and come to terms with this form of institutional arson, however obliquely.

Contemporary conversations around new radical fiction in general seem, for very understandable reasons, to be in thrall to the idea of socialist realism in a contemporary form (perhaps “social worker realism”?): work should not experiment with form, and should confine itself to a simplistic narrative of revolution (or more modestly, empowerment); else, they should feed the pain economy of trauma memoirs, and every work should be obviously didactic: a 101-class on social oppression. Thus, for instance, insistence that cyberpunk has anything to do with punk beyond the name, and indeed also the insistence that cyberpunk’s relationship to technology be wholly negative rather than ambiguous, at its apex a simplistic story of alienation from an imagined human essence. Again, these all come from understandable positions, but must be left behind. Nothing is more insulting than a token, nothing more uninteresting than Dickens or Gorky in the 21st century. At the same time, cyberpunk in particular (which is, after all, all about capitalism) must be thought in relation to race (see, for instance, the reliance of Western cyberpunk on Orientalist caricatures of Japan in particular) as well as transness and disability (see the figure of the cyborg); to think it in relation to these things does not necessarily sanction a “social worker realist” approach. We must insist on following Kafka, Proust, and Beckett, though we may learn from Brecht; and, less remotely, Ballard, Acker, Le Guin, Dick, Delany, and Butler. See also, for instance, the theory-fiction reading list

Note 23. May 2020: Earlier versions of this essay linked to articles on Commune Magazine, however, in light of recent events I've removed this reference; I can no longer in good faith link to them

Taxonomy of Cyberpunk

For the purposes of this article, a taxonomy may be helpful:

  1. Urcyberpunk (Nova, The Stars My Destination, Metropolis, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Solaris, Roadside Picnic, True Names)
  2. Early Body Horror (Die Verwandlung, Eraserhead, Videodrome)
  3. Technoir (Blade Runner, Neuromancer, Dark City)
  4. Low Cyberpunk Film (Terminator, Total Recall, Tron, RoboCop)
  5. Classical Anglophone Cyberpunk (Brazil, Max Headroom, Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, Mindplayers, Empire of the Senseless, Ware Tetralogy, Parable of the Sower, Snow Crash, Fanged Noumena)
  6. Japanese Industrial Film (Halber Mensch, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Death Powder, 964 Pinocchio, Rubber’s Lover, AKIRA)
  7. Classical Japanese Cyberpunk (Appleseed, AKIRA, Patlabor, Ghost in the Shell)
  8. Psychological-Apocalyptic Horror Anime (Angel’s Egg, AKIRA, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain)
  9. Late Cyberpunk and Post-Cyberpunk (The Diamond Age, GURPS Cyberpunk, Serial Experiments Lain, The Matrix, The Minority Report, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Texhnolyze, Ergo Proxy, Dennou Coil, Transmetropolitan, Flatline Constructs, Digital: A Love Story)

Important to note here are the distinct genealogies of Anglophone cyberpunk and Japanese cyberpunk; while both derive from New Wave Science Fiction, Anglophone cyberpunk historically was more indebted to film noir and Japanese cyberpunk to body horror (this is the reason I include psychological-apocalyptic horror anime; they may stand outside of cyberpunk but clearly derive from Japanese industrial film, named here in analogy to industrial music, another influence as its earliest text was a music video for Einstürzende Neubauten’s 1984 album Halber Mensch).

Contemporary Filters: Vaporwave, Californism, and Solarpunk

Vaporwave, one of the few genres to take seriously the idea that “all that is solid melts into air,” engages with cyberpunk in a nostalgic way, through retrocomputing and a retrofuturism dubbed by some as “Cassette Futurism”: an æstheticization and projection of the qualities of computing in the 1980s: widespread use of physical media instead of (by our standards, primitive) networks, widespread use of command-line interfaces and primitive graphic interfaces, the use of CRT screens, beige cases, and an interest in intriguing yet dead historical computing systems (interestingly, this latter quality already began in Serial Experiments Lain). While æsthetically interesting, vaporwave as a project (as distinct from retrofuturism more generally) is fundamentally backwards-looking, totally focused on subverted 80s nostalgia. And yet this is not to condemn an interest in retrocomputing, for there are many dead projects of interest that would be worth studying and perhaps reviving in new form, excellent for exploration in SF: Cybersyn, the Lisp Machine, BeOS &c.

California, both Silicon Valley and Hollywood, has, intentionally or not, totally failed to understand cyberpunk in its attempt to revive it. Of this, one need only point to Ready Player One, the 2017 remake of Ghost in the Shell and the upcoming AKIRA remake with the latter, and with the former to the construction of a mass surveillance apparatus while at the same time professing a love for the genre. The ultimate expression of this is in the neo-reactionaries, whose influence on the far-Right had peaked in 2016 as captured in “The Silicon Ideology”, which seemed to identify them as the intellectual wing of the alt-right as opposed to the (far more boring, but currently dominant) warmed-over paleoconservatives. It should not surprise one that the belief system behind the Californist response descended from the Extropians, the very group Bruce Sterling polemicized against in his seminal western cyberpunk-founding Cheap Truth.

Solarpunk, as a post-steampunk æsthetic, shares with it the similar annoying white tweeness (which has perhaps found its apex in “hopepunk”; one wonders where one finds the point in worshipping a genre which thought that a return to “Johnny B. Goode” was rebellious, as opposed to, say, This Heat or Throbbing Gristle) and consequent lack of interesting fiction as a genre, but unlike steampunk, has a number of æsthetic ideas that could be productive if put in a different context, without the enforced cheer and the didactic form. It is indeed necessary to rethink and reimagine our built environment, food and energy production and distribution, technology, waste, and this is a key task of science-fiction, yet the latter is not reducible to the former.

The Obsolescence of Cyberspace

One particular element of cyberpunk that has apparently disappeared is the idea of cyberspace, though some elements, such as the idea of a brain-computer interface, remain. The concept of a networked virtual reality that would supplant mundane existence, with participants (usually) free to represent themselves as they willed, with anonymity and excitement, has petered out as both computer networks and virtual reality have developed; no one, for instance, uses Second Life anymore. In the current, centralized internet, anonymity is a joke and most activity relies on a few, massive, centralized platforms as opposed to a grand mesh of small sites or even distributed platforms such as those within the Fediverse–cyberpunk largely predicted dominance by mega-corporations, but only inconsistently the way in which this would dominate the net (sometimes counterposed as anarchic) in both form and content. If cyberspace is to survive as a positive element (rather than merely the place where the culture and surveillance industries meet, still a viable route for fiction), it must embrace the surreal. It must stand in total contrast to the current internet, which has, in betrayal of its potential, chosen to collude with the culture industry and present a mundane, defanged æsthetic (to say nothing of the forgotten potential of experimentation with the structure of information), such that even software buttons cannot have sharp edges.

Cyberpunk and the Built Environment

Perhaps the most utopian element of cyberpunk, apart from the possibilities of total bodily autonomy whether mediated through cyborghood or cyberspace, is the megacity. As a prediction (which is certainly not the most important, let alone only, criterion in science-ficton), it is perhaps too optimistic in the United States; the retrospective landscape of vaporwave (glittering downtown surrounded by soulless suburban sprawl) seems unfortunately closer to the mark. Like our own cities, cyberpunk cities are heavily stratified, and yet they are deeply heterogeneous, places where one can get lost and find anything. Rarely are they dominated by highways, automobiles, and suburban land use; they are properly, positively alienating as cities should be. This quality–a positive alienation, total xenophilia–is perhaps the most important “missing component” in solarpunk, which seems despite a commitment to diversity totally empty, homogenous, and wholesomely suburban; reading “Meltdown” (1994) and “Machinic Desire” (1993) would do them good, and reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue would do everyone good.

Cyberpunk and the ξένος

In order to properly understand cyberpunk, one must not, on the basis of a few works, decide that the whole genre is either xenophilic or xenophobic–or indeed, that a particular work is wholly on one pole or the other: take, for instance, Blade Runner (1982): both indulgent in Orientalist xenophobia and a xenophilic investigation of Replicant personhood. The path forward is to relentlessy commit to xenophilia: to throw away the primitivism of simplified, crude cyberpunk, to expunge oneself of the Orientalism that is ever-present both in western cyberpunk and in vaporwave, to engage respectfully with futurisms outside of the white-western frame (and in particular Afrofuturism), to embrace cyborghood and thus explore disabled and trans subjectivity. We must embrace Neo’s final monologue:

I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules or controls, borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

Close this world, open the NeXT. Death to Videodrome, long live the new flesh.

The net is vast and infinite.