Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What is cyberpunk? (Not a manifesto)

Trying to define a literary genre is a problematic activity at best.   In the end it's a bit like keeping hold of a greased pig as it runs wildly through the streets of Wahoo, Nebraska.  One ends up giving up.  

Yet as if to unwittingly prod me into that very act (defining, not the pig riding), Dreamer posted a video on his Facebook wall yesterday.  I had actually seen it before, but the question it asks got me thinking.  What is cyberpunk?  For devotees of science fiction, the term for said subgenre has been tossed about so much that its definition may have reverted to the Supreme Court's definition of pornography: I know it when I see it.  So I'm taking a deep breath and diving in.  Here goes.

Let's start with that old cyberpunk adage of "high tech/low life."  Often in cyberpunk science fiction, the narrative takes place in a near future where advanced technology is everywhere, but the characters and the action are very much rooted here on planet Earth.  What kinds of technology are we talking about?  Everything from cybernetics to ultra-sophisticated artificial intelligences.  However, while technology advanced, society moved in the opposite direction.  The middle ground between rich and poor has all but disappeared and megacorporations run just about everything.  People are often marginalized, finding ways and means to survive that are less than legal or ethical.
In cyberpunk fiction, I view technology as a great equalizer.  The marginalized people take hold of the technology, the cyber, and use it to their own ends to get what they need.  It's that "don't tell me what to do" mentality that is very punk.  In fact, one summation of cyberpunk may be "what happens when technology meets human nature."  A real-life example of this is the post I did on FabFi last May, where young people in Afghanistan built their own WiFi connection to the Internet out of the materials that they had on hand.  Who cares if they're in a remote village?  They're still entitled to be on the Internet.  That real "fuck you" attitude of a punk takes over and gets the job done.
While many cyberpunk concepts have come to pass in real life, the writers in the genre weren't prescient in every case (who could be?)  Case in point: when I met William Gibson at a book signing last September, he said of his novel Neuromancer, granddaddy of all cyberpunk books, that he really thought he got the future wrong.  "There were no cellphones," he said.  Another example is the unforeseen development of reality TV celebrities who became famous really for no other reason than because they were famous.  Factor in the lack of really fresh cyberpunk material in the past few years and more than a few people have called the genre stale, even dead.
The fundamental idea of cyberpunk is still very much alive in my opinion.  As more and more cyberpunk concepts are actualized in the real world, it will become more vital and more pertinent than ever.  Additionally, the genre is quite adaptable, morphing to fit the sensibilities of the time.  Take the landmark TV series Max Headroom (got in DVD for Christmas, highly recommended.)  A character like Edison Carter is still around...he just looks and acts more like Spider Jerusalem from Transmetropolitan
And there's the rub: change.  Truly relevant genres and subgenres mutate as they collide with current cultural events.  In his Facebook post, Dreamer said: "That whole Robocop-themed genre from the 80s? That, my friend, is dead and gone. And good riddance."  Just when that whole genre was beginning to ramp up, Dreamer and I played a cyberpunk RPG.  In our storyline, the characters never fired a single shot from a gun.  He has since relayed this story to other gamers and they were astounded upon hearing it.
I do indeed believe that for a time, Hollywood co-opted cyberpunk and believed it to mean "action movies with a whole lotta computers."  Meretricious displays ensued.  But I also believe that the genre is strong enough to endure such temporary corruption.  Recent books from William Gibson, such as Pattern Recognition, are more than ample evidence of the genre's survivability.

Look at it this way: as long as technology continues to advance, and it will, and as long as there will be pissed off young people, and there will be, you will still have cyberpunk.  
In whatever form it decides to take next.

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  1. Getting the future right is one thing, but I wouldn't want to watch Roombacop (the one with the M16 attachment) scour the hideout for Clarence using its patented spiraling search pattern... or listen to ASIMO-209 admonish an executive with "You have 15 seconds to follow me up and down these stairs."

  2. You've got a screenplay idea there. :)

  3. On Yahoo, Kid Dazzle makes an excellent point: "I think Dreamer was too harsh on "Robocop." Escapism has its place!"

    A very valid point. Were I to guess, I think that Dreamer was referring to the affect on the cyberpunk genre and not the overall quality of the film.


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