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My cyberpunk city, my cyberpunk world
The electric sci-fi dreams of my youth became the reality of my adulthood.
One tradition, back when I worked at Bloomberg, was that every year I’d write one post inspired by a popular TV show — I did Superstore, Kim’s Convenience, and Atlanta. I’m continuing the tradition over here at Noahpinion; last year’s was Squid Game (though I didn’t talk about the show very much). This year’s show is Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, which you can watch on Netflix. It will contain light spoilers.
The canonical work of cyberpunk came out decades after the genre itself fell off the cutting edge. People will point you to Neuromancer, or Snow Crash, or Ghost in the Shell, or even The Matrix, but none of these, or any other seminal works, fully captured the gestalt in the way that, say, Lord of the Rings defined epic fantasy. Cyberpunk assembled itself in our minds, a vision composed half of a technological and social future we felt was coming, and half of the adventures we imagined ourselves having in that future.
And then those adventures became not just possible, but inescapable and terrifying. In 2019 I found myself standing on the roof of a skyscraper in Hong Kong next to a friend in a gas mask as the city’s youth and mirror-faced riot police battled each other with tear gas and firebombs in the electric forest of the megalopolis below. Those brave, doomed Hong Kong protests were, in fact, just one part of a multi-year global uprising in which people around the world fought their governments and their local police forces in the streets, coordinating and inspiring each other and outfoxing the authorities using a global wireless communication network linked to pocket supercomputers running pseudonymous social media services. The uprising continued even in the face of a sudden global plague that had much of the world hiding in their rooms, linked only by video chat, ordering their goods on the web.
In the wake of the plague came war. Drones, laughed at just two years ago, quickly became the indispensable, universal battlefield weapon. Where soldiers once sent poetry from the front, now they sent high-quality videos, often with a soundtrack from popular music. If cyberwar was less of a battlefield factor in Ukraine than expected, it was only because the defense proved so much better than offense. And the war extends its tentacles into the social media space, a shadowy realm where it’s hard to tell the difference between the bots, government operatives, and online fandoms spewing out clouds of information and disinformation — great-power politics played out in forum flame-wars.
Far from the war, I walk through the streets of a strange cyberpunk city. I step around the homeless, destitute people who fill the streets, forsaken by their increasingly distant government. Strange people roll past me on one-wheels carrying boomboxes blasting 90s rap, fly drones in the park, scoot around in homemade go-karts, or drive miniature fake firetrucks blasting sound effects from Godzilla. And laid over this gritty, failing, beautiful metropolis like a second city: the network of the eccentric barons of techno-capital and their hired geniuses, the corporations that own space and create miracle medicines and godlike pseudointelligences, all connected by digital threads of memes and money and the occasional trans-national cyber-scam.
That girl with the chrome hair and the black leotard and the gizmos implanted under her skin? I know that girl, she lives down the street from me.
We felt this future coming; we didn’t need prophets to tell us about it. We saw how information technology was wiring up the world, how inequality was breaking society into pieces, how governments were struggling to deal with it all. The elements of the genre we now know as cyberpunk were pasted onto that consensus mental collage. Gibson, Stephenson, Shirow, Oshii, Sterling, Cadigan, and all the other cyberpunk creators were simply offering us alternative little slices of a future we all felt being born around us. And now we’re here.
The canonical work of cyberpunk, the most perfect aggregation of the genre’s memes, is not even a single work; it’s a fictional universe that began as a tabletop role-playing game created by the American Mike Pondsmith in the 80s, became a Polish-made video game in 2020, and then became a joint Japanese-Polish animated TV series in 2022. Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is absolutely gorgeous, with an animation style that’s part 1990s throwback and part modern computer wizardry. The style perfectly matches the story, which begins as a grinding tale about poverty and inequality, morphs into a stylized nihilistic celebration of violence, then finally ends as a heart-wrenching meditation on human futility and broken dreams.
I strongly recommend it.
Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, like its video game antecedent, is a retrofuturist show about some of the possible paths we imagined back in the 80s and 90s. A few things are familiar parts of our real modern world — chat apps, privatized space launches, drones, ubiquitous advertising, the promise of fabulous corporate riches that can only be accessed through hideously expensive education. Then there are a bunch of things we don’t have, at least not yet — bionic implants, floating holograms, flying cars, robot exoskeletons, direct neural interfaces, and so on. That fictional tech drives the plot, but the real parts make it feel as if this is more of an alternate 2022 than a future 2077.
The setting, called Night City, is a mashup of SF, L.A., Hong Kong, New York City, and Tokyo. But even though its far denser than the real thing, Night City’s San Francisco vibe comes through most strongly, probably because of the glaring inequality and deteriorating public services:
William Gibson once declared that “Science fiction is never about the future because it can't be, because that's impossible. It's only really about the moment in which it's written.” But it can also be about the past, and the paths not taken. Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is a little like the 1930s retrofuturist fantasy that intrudes on people’s subconscious in Gibson’s 1981 story “The Gernsback Continuum”, but updated for the neon future Gibson himself was imagining at the time.
That vision, part real present and part retrofuture, has now essentially crystallized — “cyberpunk” aesthetics and plots will look essentially unchanged from Pondsmith’s vision when 2077 rolls around. Like Tolkienian fantasy and space opera and the zombie apocalypse, cyberpunk is now one of our standard forms — a comfy, familiar fantasy universe that we can slip into like an old sweater.
The real question, as I see it, is what the next future is. In the 80s and 90s, the vision of a world dominated by information technology and capitalist inequality infiltrated our collective conscious. But what vision is seeping in and assembling itself now?
I asked this question in a post about two years ago:
Honestly, a good answer still hasn’t come to mind.
For example, it’s obvious that solar and battery technology are already reshaping the world; clean, abundant energy could allow the human race to advance our living standards while coexisting in much greater harmony with nature. In my earlier post, I identified this sort of “solarpunk” future as cyberpunk’s likeliest successor. But solarpunk has frustratingly refused to solidify as a popular genre of fantasy — you probably can’t name solarpunk novels, solarpunk movies. Some of our intellectuals indulge in primitivist degrowth fantasies or decry the downsides of lithium mining and electric cars, while others pine for nuclear power.
Biotech, too, is generally believed to be in a revolutionary phase. But other than the kind of biomechanical implants that are a staple of cyberpunk sci-fi, I don’t see many visions of a future where the ability to modify our own bodies, brains, and genetic codes leads to a transformed world. The biopunk genre petered out in earlier decades without ever really going mainstream, and my favorite biopunk books, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl, won some deserved accolades within sci-fi fandom but didn’t spark the imaginative revolution I had hoped they would.
If there is one technology we have imagined reshaping the world, it’s artificial intelligence, which is improving by leaps and bounds. Just this week, OpenAI wowed the world with a question-answering application called ChatGPT, and AI art has flooded social media. Combine AI with batteries, and the stage is set for a revolution in robotics. These were (and are) certainly a staple of cyberpunk. And in fact, I do see a lot of contemporary creators trying to imagine a robot- and AI-driven world — Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, various Netflix short film anthologies, the movie Ex Machina, various Pixar and Disney movies, etc. But with the exception of apocalyptic “rise of the robots” futures like the Terminator movies, I haven’t yet seen recent AI-and-robot fantasies coalesce into anything like the fleshed-out future of cyberpunk, space opera, or other genres. To borrow a bit of jargon from the tech industry, maybe robots and AI are a “feature, not a product” when it comes to sci-fi.
Perhaps the reason a fleshed-out future hasn’t emerged to replaced cyberpunk is less about technology and more about society itself. In the 1980s we were just coming out of a period of unrest and uncertainty, and the trends that were going to define the next few decades — the end of mass manufacturing unemployment, rising inequality, globalization, and the fragmentation of culture — seemed suddenly clear. But the 2020s are a little more analogous to the 1970s — we may have passed the peak of unrest (I hope), but we’re still in a time of great social uncertainty and exhaustion.
Look back at the sci-fi of the 70s, and you’ll see a whole lot of experimentation in a bunch of different directions — social sci-fi, hard sci-fi, post-apocalypse, eco-utopia, neo-pastoralism, and stuff that was just plain bizarre. Maybe that’s where we are right now. We can’t really tell whether inequality is going to continue to go up or start falling, whether education will still be the path to wealth, whether nations will fragment as physical distance becomes irrelevant, whether AI will bring down all the big corporations, or whether engineered bioweapons will kill us all.
Future visions also have to figure out how to deal with the rise of China — something that’s notably absent from most cyberpunk media. A highly unified super-state with the nationalism and state capacity of a mid-20th-century power but with dystopian 21st-century surveillance technology was not in the cards for our globalized, corporatized, atomized future. It’s getting harder for near-future visions to wave away that alternative social model, or the looming competition it implies.
In an uncertain time like this, it can be almost a comfort to slip into a fantasy world as familiar as cyberpunk — to imagine just for a moment that that world of neon and chrome and noble corporate mercenaries is “the future”, instead of facing a present that’s all too similar. Lots of adventures are more fun to watch on a screen than to live through.