The most tantalizing predictions of cyberpunk never came true. There are no gangs of cyborgs ruling over Manhattan shantytowns and there are no corporations larger than the federal government. But the sci-fi subgenre envisions such dystopias being underpinned by something subtler: the state of man’s soul when there are no longer limits.
The 1980s provided fertile ground for the piercing new vision of science fiction pioneered by William Gibson and his contemporaries. The global capitalism of Reagan and Thatcher ceded agency from nation-states to nation-agnostic corporations. Less obvious but just as important was the fact that the space race was over and Star Trek’s naivety was laid bare. Computers, not spaceships, would become the measure of progression towards the future. The sleek, utopian vision of the mid-century futurism was further discredited by soaring crime in urban centers.
Modernity that was once expected to bring matching space-unitards instead birthed radical self-expression. The overabundance of choice, these authors suggested, leads to decadence, decay and a society where people can’t see clearly without losing their humanity.
And so the heroes of cyberpunk are outsiders—the punks to which the genre owes half its name. In cyberpunk, there are no more grand narratives about progress and triumph. Humans have nowhere to go and decay is globalized; this is sci-fi without the comforting thought of alien life. Readers experience an Earth where the concept of “place” has passed its expiration date. Protagonists, like the megacorporations they tangle with, exist across borders, anywhere being as familiar or foreign as anywhere else. Neon Japanese syllabary studs skyscrapers that loom over the crowded downtowns of Western cities. Virtual reality is at once a catalyst and a coping mechanism for social breakdown.
What is an individual to do in the face of such callous deterritorialization? Why, he takes individualism to its perverse conclusions, Gibson’s Neuromancer suggests. Take the following passage:
His face was a simple graft grown on collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides, smooth and hideous.
The novel implies that the character might appear a little later with a completely different face. Self was another uncertainty that had been sloughed off by ceaseless momentum. Even the author’s jargon serves to impart a feeling of unfamiliarity.
We’re starting to live in a time when such terrible and wondrous things are not only technically possible but socially acceptable. Headlines were made last yearover a fetal lamb being grown in an artificial uterus. The creature, invaded with tubes, suckles and kicks inside a bulging, rippling enclosure. The juxtaposition of twitching organism and medical plastic is simply cyberpunk. Gender is going the way of that thug’s cartilage-grown face. Male and female is looking more like Coke and Pepsi, with some opting to make their own artisanal cola blends. As rootlessness moves from exception to rule, obligations to others begin to look like hindrances. It isn’t difficult to see how three-parent babies in polycarbonate wombs fit into all of this.
Change is fast these days. We can feel acceleration that was once only perceptible between generations. At the same time, the past is more crystallized than it’s ever been before. Today’s everyman, immersed in a data-sphere orders of magnitude more efficient than any library, can see more clearly than ever that things were different in an ever-familiar past. A world with meaning resolves ever sharper as we speed away from it.
But the left-liberal ethic that was once a vantage point from which the genre’s founders saw so far is now fogging their sight, restricting them to toiling within the status quo. Cyberpunk has come true in ways that makes progressives uncomfortable if they are unpacked. The genre’s founders married a criticism of corporations to the dreary aesthetic of rootlessness, but progressivism only offers a critique of the former on its own merits. Take away the violence and grit and you get Brave New World, a setting that the gender ideologue can’t levy an argument against. Consumerization of the body, reproduction, and social relations lost their conspicuous ugliness when they were rebranded as “liberation.” (Outside of sci-fi, the only major literary figure who tackles these issues, Michel Houellebecq, is painted as a reactionary.)
Gibson’s forthcoming book, Agency, has a plot one would expect from a lesser author: the future is awful because Donald Trump was elected president. This might seem like a perplexing lack of creativity, but consider the intervening third of a century. Gibson was in the business of scrutinizing Frankensteinization when it was a distant flight of fancy. But becoming a Frankenstein monster of hormones and surgery is here and celebration is mandatory. Dialing down one’s own ability to notice things to the level of a Daily Kos commenter becomes a matter of survival. This new subject matter reflects the aesthetics of culture that snapped his leash: lifeless and brutal in its insipid repetition.
Stories motivated by political disappointment are doomed to be forgotten as the election cycle resets. Cyberpunk, on the other hand, is more popular now than even during its literary heyday of the 80s. The blockbuster Ghost in the Shell hit theaters in March 2017 and was followed by Blade Runner 2049 in the following October 2017. Their combined budget probably exceeds that of every cyberpunk film that came before (there aren’t many.) Cyberpunk 2077 is set to cost around $100 million, making it the most expensive video game ever developed. If we put on our VR goggles, all of this means something. Capitalism is a computer that processes desire.
Cyberpunk is not becoming marketable because it offers a solution for society. The message is clear that, in face of inexorable rot, the individual loses his sanity or loses his soul. What the genre does offer is a third choice: to view breakneck dehumanization as a roller coaster ride. There is grim exhilaration in accepting that the awesome decline cannot be stopped. A future that was once dark and hopeless is now dark and beautiful when one dives headlong into it. Ugliness becomes thrilling and alienation becomes adventure. The homogeneous, numbing light of Brave New World’s dystopia is replaced by the dreamy atmosphere of neon-lit alleyways. Sisyphus can’t change his fate, but he can refuse to nod and clap, blank-eyed, at the world’s loss of meaning.
Robert Mariani is co-founder of Jacobite. Follow him on Twitter.
A version of this article was originally published at The American Conservative.