The Age of Cyberpunk

A personal perspective from an enthusiast

Posted May, 2021

Overview

A long, long time ago, long before “futurist” was a job title, back when “disruptor” was label for school kids behaving badly rather than the war-cry of a techno-elite, when information still flowed at the speed of the spoken word, and only diseases went viral, before the “information superhighway” was a glimmer of the foresightful, the United States Secret Service raided a role-playing game company that had wondered into the electronic frontier. That frontier is still out there today, though most of us spend our day’s farming video clips and social networks in it’s walled gardens. But back then, the frontier was just being opened by the first home computers, and a few souls had started to imagine where it was taking us. One of the memes that emerged was “cyberpunk”.

At it’s root, cyberpunk is a sub-field of hard science-fiction literature where the world-building focused on how technology transitions (particularly what we call today ‘the internet’, but also virtual reality, biotech, and environmentalism) change society, often with a tragic/dystopian framing. The archetypal cyberpunk setting was a gritty urban landscape where the line between man and machine had begun to blur. The name itself invoked the fusion of Norbert Weiner’s science of mechanization, “cybernetics”, with the vigorous anti-establishment ethos of urban punk-rock music. This is reflected in the visuals of films “Blade runner” (1982, built on Philp K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’), “Robocop” (1987), “Akira” (1988), “Total recall” (1990), and “Ghost in the Shell” (1995). But the literature of the cyberpunk genre was more diverse. The manifesto of this “movement” was written by Bruce Sterling in the preface to the short-story anthology Mirror Shades (1988). There, he describes it as a descendant of anti-nuclear “New Wave Sci-Fi” from the 1960-70s (J.G Ballard, Ursula Le Guin, Philip Jose Farmer, …). Beyond the “Cyberpunk – 2077” iconography, some stories have fantasy and time-travel elements, and some of the settings are more optimistic than pessimistic.

While cyberpunk continues on as a genre, the authors of it’s golden age made unique contributions to hard sci-fi. Their world-building speculatively envisioned the future in the near term (30-50 years out), close enough that we can now actually see how well the authors did. In hindsight, we might say the works of this period accomplishments three things:

  1. They envisioned how future society would be reshaped by looming technological revolutions. Usually this was digital (great line in “When Gravity Falls” where the main character says ‘Computers are as common as washing machines these days.’) but it can be related to genetic engineering, nanotech, drugs, or reshaping the mind (i.e. Vacuum Flowers, Diamond Age, etc. This is, in my mind, the greatest accomplishment of this genre. It is so staggeringly hard to guess the multi-dimensional implications of something like a computer or the internet. Our reality still defied these authors but there are plenty of moments when I was stunned by how close they came to describing some aspect of actual life in the 21st century.

  2. They took a crack at what a post-Cold War world might look like. Some older sci-fi feels to me like it presumed that the cold war would just last forever or somehow just be “solved,” probably because the author wanted to get to the cool stuff in space (looking at you Arthur C. Clarke). Most cyberpunk books presume that history moved to another stage. The various scenarios included all-out war, the collapse of both sides and rise of a third power, a mutual peace that transformed both countries, or the replacement of states by corporations and cities. A cool corollary to this was the rising influence of non-Western powers, usually Japan. That kind of feels flat now given how Japan fizzled in the 1990s, but the idea of a rising Asia is pretty spot on. Either way, it is both bold and accurate to presume that history wouldn’t just stay static for decade after decade.

  3. They accurately predicted that the future would be defined by haves and have nots. This is the “punk” in cyber-punk. The perspective of these stories is often from an outsider who is using technology for their own purposes and feels very influence by the hacker ethos of the 1980s. This theme is such a huge part of our daily lives now that it’s easy to overlook how smart it would be to predict in the 1980s or 1990s that the world was headed towards something like a new Gilded Age rather than something more equitable.

Reviews

Here are my takes on the major/minor works:

Skipped