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Tech by VICE

What Happened to Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk writing was “not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.”

by Claire L. Evans
Jun 8 2012, 3:30pm

Part II of Claire Evans’ cyberpunk series asks 10 leading sci-fi thinkers/writers what cyberpunk has become. Find it here.

Cyberpunk, in the popular consciousness, conjures a glut of dissociated images: Blade Runner’s slummy urban landscape, hackers in sunglasses, Japanese cyborgs, grubby tech, digital intoxication, Keanu Reeves as Johnny Mnemonic. But it began as an insanely niche subculture within science fiction, one which articulated young writerly distaste for the historically utopian optimism of the medium and, in turn, provided an aesthetic reference point for burgeoning hacker culture, before metastasizing into a full-on cultural trend.

One of the movement’s chief ideologues, Bruce Sterling, wrote in the introduction to his seminal anthology Mirrorshades that technology in cyberpunk writing was “not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.” In cyberpunk novels, technology isn’t controlled by white-coat boffins in a distant lab on the holy altar of Science, but in our homes, on our streets, in our bodies. Unlike their predecessors in science fiction, the cyberpunks didn’t evangelize gleaming rockets or futuristic weapons. Theirs was a world of technological jetsam, of bionic drugs, of machines in varying states of obsolescence, of cyclopean corporate greed, of subverted tools, of sprawl, error, and menace. With a “faintly hallucinatory sheen around the edges of its dirty chrome fittings,” as another of its major prophets, John Shirley, put it.

Top: still from Johnny Mnemonic. Bottom: photo by Isle of Man

In the cyberpunk world, we don’t behold technology from a safe distance. We jack in, and in doing so, alter our minds. Enter cyberdelics, the cyberpunk spin-off that blended the psychedelic movement with underground technologies, and was championed by people like Timothy Leary and R. U. Sirius. The trend largely ended with the dot-com era; other derivatives of cyberpunk, like steampunk, atompunk and decopunk, manage to persist.

Still from the Neuromancer video game.

Fun as it all sounds, cyberpunk has been out of vogue for over two decades. Sterling pronounced it dead in 1985; a 1993 Wired article rang a more formal death knoll for the movement, predicting, just as the hippies eclipsed the beatniks, the arrival of a new culture in its stead. “The tekkies,” it announced, “will arrive sometime in the mid-1990s, if not sooner.”

Arguably, cyberpunk was less a movement than a tiny subculture – the same Wired article swears there were never more than a hundred hard-core cyberpunks at any time – almost immediately reified, first by the mainstream science fiction establishment, then by mass-market media. As a result, most of the cyberpunk written after the late 1980s was merely genre fiction, and most of its adherents superficial, viz. the hacker glossary Jargon File’s definition of “self-described cyberpunks” as “shallow trendoids in black leather who have substituted enthusiastic blathering about technology for actually learning and doing it.” The Hollywood “Netsploitation” movies of the mid-90s (Hackers, The Net) signaled what those hard-core guys already knew: the tekkies’ arrival on the scene notwithstanding, cyberpunk burned out not long after it first lit up.

Top: dummy magazine covers from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, by Tom Southwell, 1982. Bottom: German BMW print ad emulating Blade Runner, 2006

In a sense, it’s a generational thing. In 1980, the writer Bruce Bethke – whose short story “Cyberpunk” inadvertently christened the genre – was working at a Radio Shack in Wisconsin, selling TRS-80 microcomputers. One day, a group of teenagers waltzed in and hacked one of the store machines, and Bethke, who’d imagined himself a tech wiz, couldn’t figure out how to fix it. It was after this incident that he realized something: these teenaged hackers were going to sire kids of their own someday, and those kids were going to have a technological fluency that he could only guess at. They, he writes, were going to truly “speak computer.” And, like teenagers of any era, they were going to be selfish, morally vacuous, and cynical.

Put this way, if punk rock was a counterculture for the television age, then cyberpunk aimed to articulate the teenage anomie of the dawning computer era. Blame the German BMW ad that borrowed liberally from Blade Runner, the decidedly un-punk 1993 Billy Idol record named for the movement, or Matthew Lillard’s braids in Hackers, but people sometimes forget the second half of the portmanteau: punk. The genre was conceived to bring countercultural ethos into the 21st century. Cyberpunks hated Buck Rogers like punks hated disco, and they were twice as nihilistic.

Of course, this means that with time, and the inevitable shifting of “the Man” that ensued, most cyberpunks grew out of their anger, or abandoned their co-opted subculture with disdain. It also means, however, that some of the kids who grew up reading William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, and Bruce Sterling became the adults who run the world. And like true old punks, the values – and fears – of their formative years have carried through.

So, back to the question: what happened to cyberpunk? The answer is simple. It’s under our noses.

Privacy and security online. Megacorporations with the same rights as human beings. Failures of the system to provide for the very poor. The struggle to establish identity that is not dependent on a technological framework: the common themes of the cyberpunk classics are the vital issues of 2012. Quite simply, we’re already there, and so of course cyberpunk as a genre is unfashionable: current events always are. Even William Gibson and Neal Stephenson don’t write science fiction anymore. Why bother? We live immersed in the cyberpunk culture that its O.G. prophets envisioned.

Cyberpunk speculated a world where high-tech lowlifes might wheedle themselves inside of monolithic systems – and might, in using the tools of the system against itself, claim some of the future for themselves. And while precious few of us are stalking through Tokyo slums in leather trench coats and mirrored shades, hopped up on cybernetic enhancements, activism coordinated in digital hangouts has effectively toppled governments. We don’t pal around with mercenary cyborgs, but crypto-anarchic hacker collectives are bigger players on the global stage than most nations’ armies. Policemen and more secret entities now rely on robot eyes to scan for suspicious activity while unmanned vehicles and cyber weapons wage their own quiet wars.

CCTV headquarters, OMA, Beijing, 2009

Nearly every large metropolis now has its own second life of location-based game layers; whole buildings are wrapped in screens. There are ads for video games on video billboards, and ads on billboards inside of video games – sometimes even ads for other video games. And, really, anyone with the know-how can buy designer drugs on secret websites using an experimental decentralized online currency.

One of the things that defines science fiction is precisely its tangled hierarchy: do we have Mars rovers because aerospace engineers grew up reading Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, or did Clarke and Heinlein predict the future? Does Anonymous launch DDoS attacks on government websites, rupturing the system, because they all read Neuromancer when they were 15, or is William Gibson just that good? Probably a little of both, in that case.

It’s impossible to know, but we can assume that our idea of technology, our sense of what it can do and how we can live with it, is always going to be at least partially informed by the speculative fiction that first introduced us to it. This is maybe cyberpunk’s most obvious lesson, but it bears repeating: the bigger and weirder you dream, the bigger and weirder the future gets.

Part II of Claire Evans’ cyberpunk series asks 10 leading sci-fi thinkers/writers what cyberpunk has become in the year 2012. Find it here.

Top image: Barclay Shaw