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It’s Time to Reimagine the Future of Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk is like cyberspace: instantly recognizable, but so ubiquitous as to be intangible. An aesthetic movement and a commentary on capitalism, it can be a genre, a subjectivity, an adjective, a political approach, a time period. (Though the same could be said of the words Renaissance or Victorian.) It can tackle artificial intelligence, embodied identity, digital immortality, or simply, in the case of Pat Cadigan's Synners, whether a marriage can survive electronic pornography addiction. Like the best fiction, cyberpunk still slips on like a pair of fingerless gloves, even if—in the 21st century, partially situated in the future it imagined—it's hard to see where fiction ends and reality begins.

Despite all of this, cyberpunk often gets reduced to an aesthetic: black leather, mirror shades, implants—pieces of flare that look cool when lit by neon and computer screens. But to define cyberpunk by its look is to do it a disservice, especially since those sartorial choices are the whole point in the first place: armor against a world in collapse. In a future so hostile that no one is fit to survive, those who do have been fitted for something new—new brain, new heart, new nerves—perhaps in exchange for a lifetime of indentured servitude. Cyberpunk foretold a desperate world of unlicensed physicians doing back-alley body modifications, and while so far all they do is perform illegal butt lifts, with Crispr, who knows?

Perhaps the genre gets pigeonholed by its look because, going back to old testaments like Neuromancer or Snow Crash, it seemed allergic to any talk of feelings. Ideas, sure; sentiment, no. Like the noir fiction with which it so frequently overlaps, cyberpunk is full of wounded characters whose pursuit of physical invulnerability keeps them emotionally unavailable to everyone but the audience. It's telling that people turned against the Matrix films when they had the audacity to be lushly, erotically romantic—when climaxes hinged on a hero knowing how to reach inside his partner and touch her just right. Viewers weren't ready for a Wife Guy who wanted to walk away from his messianic power; it was like watching an entire trilogy of The Last Temptation of Christ's final 15 minutes, right down to the long hair and linen.

Still, 40-ish years since its incept date, cyberpunk maintains a vast claim on the aesthetic landscape—one often ironically divorced from the dark, anti-capitalist messages those visuals sought to convey. It has inspired video games like Cyberpunk 2077 (naturally starring Neo himself, Keanu Reeves), an Urban Decay eye shadow palette characterized by deeply '90s duo chromes, a collaboration between Yohji Yamamoto and Adidas, and roughly 4 million posts on Instagram. For everyone who watched Stand Alone Complex on Adult Swim (or, let's be real, a DivX player), there's now a bespoke keyboard aglow with bisexual lighting, a liquid meal plan, or a “smart” vibrator. For everyone else, there's cottagecore.

Here's a fun game: First, check out Mondo 2000's tongue-in-cheek 1993 piece “R.U. a Cyberpunk?” Note the abundance of straps, holsters, and handheld cameras. Then, go look at photos from January 6, 2021, or the bow-and-arrow-wielding protesters who took to Hong Kong's streets in 2019, or MRAPs rolling through Portland. Ask yourself: If a specific future has already happened, what happens to stories about that future? Now that time has caught up with them, are these visions simply contemporary literature, no more speculative than stories about donated kidneys and grown men dating high schoolers?

“Above culture, clothing, and genre, cyberpunk is a lifestyle that blends a combination of ‘low-key living’ with a deep understanding of social fabric backdoors and full access to high-tech gadgets,” fashion writer Mandy Meyer wrote in The Vou. Yossy, the founder of Japanese cyberpunk fashion brand Helvetica, has stressed that the clothing should use innovative materials yet be functional, telling Shell Zine it “should strengthen the wearer, like an exoskeleton, and at the same time be comfortable and not too stuffy or formal.” Mostly this means dressing like you live in Seattle, because in cyberpunk it's always raining.

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In this regard it's difficult to discern the line between the influence of a genre on design aesthetics and the grudging march of time (and brands) into the endless fires and floods of the 21st century—a context wherein the tactical is practical. Dreams of jetpacks have been replaced by designs for bulletproof backpacks. From a genre perspective, the future resembles science fiction less than it does a murder mystery: A whole planet is dying while its inhabitants argue about who stuck which knife in.

Before cyberpunk was reduced to an aesthetic, it was a philosophy. Whereas earlier generations of science fiction located conflict outside the body, on the battlefield or in the stars, the post-Watergate, post–Roe v. Wade, post-Vietnam generation of mostly American sci-fi writers imagined that the next theater of combat would be the human body and mind. Today, when it seems like every Facebook group is a Potemkin village and Texans can put bounties on abortion providers, that suspicion seems well warranted.

The most prescient aspect of cyberpunk was not any one particular innovation, like razor fingernails or brain-machine interfaces or even a ubiquitous metaverse awash in pornography, advertising, and the viruses endemic to both. Instead, it was the genre's focus on the ongoing commoditization of human workers by a narrowing field of multinational corporations. Instead of creating same-jackboot-different-day dystopias like Logan's Run or Make Room! Make Room!, cyberpunk writers asked, “What if capitalism is the dystopia?”

Some of the most influential texts in the genre are about labor and bodily autonomy. Blade Runner is a story about runaway slaves, and Blade Runner: 2049 is about the reproduction of slaves. Neuromancer is about a man selling his hacker skills to earn back the full function of his body's nervous system. Akira features government experimentation on children's bodies so they can better perform militarized work. Snow Crash presupposes a Los Angeles populated with precarious gig workers delivering pizza. Ghost in the Shell wonders who truly “owns” a cyborg body if an employer pays for its upkeep. The Matrix operates on the premise that all human bodies can be “grown” into batteries whose primary purpose is to keep artificial intelligence functioning.

Writing for Slate, Kelsey D. Atherton summed up cyberpunk's present-day parallels thusly: “Replace the Tyrell Corporation with Amazon and reframe the replicants as ‘essential services,’ and suddenly you have a world of workers terrified that their jobs are inherently a death sentence—moving straight from fiction to reality.” Technology studies scholar Damien P. Williams agrees: “I think cyberpunk is still relevant, but in a different way; rather than a warning about where we're headed, it's a mirror about where we managed to end up.”

Not everyone concurs. In the face of a burning planet, the idea of using technology to achieve immortality seems naive at best. Young people in China are “lying flat” instead of working, and refugee children in Sweden have “resignation syndrome”; in a world where despair is a #mood, the desire to extend life indefinitely is a little vampiric, if not simply gauche. “Cyberpunk was relevant and important to boomers obsessed with questions of law and order, and who were determined to avoid the realities of human aging and embodiment. In 2021, we have new and different mass obsessions, making cyberpunk seem quaint,” says Hugo nominee and Nebula Award winner Kelly Robson. “In conclusion, fuck cyberpunk.”

Considering the world has caught up with, if not surpassed, the genre's imagination, its place in fiction might be limited, or limiting, in the way that rehashing Tolkien might be limiting for a fantasy writer. This is one of the challenges of telling a future-set story: Eventually time catches up, like a rubber band snapping back into shape. And sometimes it stings. Readers often assume that authors are happy when they “predict” future events “correctly,” but rarely are we asked about the queasy feeling of watching one's worst vision come to pass. Describing his debut novel for CrimeReads, Lincoln Michel says, “The Body Scout is an attempt to replace the ‘cyber’ in cyberpunk with flesh and look at what happens when the human body becomes the major realm of technological innovation and corporate control … These days, the greatest dystopian novel might be the evening news.”

Just because cyberpunk's history looks like the present doesn't mean it can't point toward the future. Ten years after Bruce Bethke published his 1983 short story “Cyberpunk,” Octavia E. Butler released what is arguably one of the most influential novels in science fiction, Parable of the Sower. It tells the story of a young Black woman named Lauren Olamina living outside Los Angeles in 2024, watching as an authoritarian president is elected, human rights eviscerated, company towns built, and old neighborhoods destroyed. Lauren does what heroes do: She prepares. She gathers her wits and her seeds and leads her community toward freedom and, ultimately in the book's sequel, the stars. Like most of Butler's novels, it shifted the narrative focus from individual rebellion and success to communal liberation and legacy. If cyberpunk warned about capitalism's cancerous late stages, Parable asked, “So what are you doing about it?” And while cyberpunk as a genre took on metaphors for slavery and autonomy, Butler's books examined the actual transatlantic slave trade.

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Butler's fiction focused on, among other things, genetic engineering, the embodied experience of aliens and posthumans, what an individual owes to her family and community, power and its uses, terrible sacrifices in the name of survival. Recalling a dinner with her in Essence, author and scholar Tananarive Due says Butler expressed the central question of her work as “How can we make ourselves a more survivable species?” Although she is considered the mother of Afrofuturism, her narrative patterns also repeat across all of cyberpunk's genre successors: hopepunk, biopunk, solapunk, and more. She echoes in Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber, Premee Mohamed's The Annual Migration of Clouds, Louise Erdrich's Future Home of the Living God, Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon, Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Tade Thompson's Rosewater, L. X. Beckett's Gamechanger, and more. In Toronto, Black Lives Matter activists just purchased a 10,000-square-foot community hub for Black artists and activists and named it the Wildseed Centre after one of Butler's books. Whether or not any of this qualifies as cyberpunk activity, it's still exemplary of what the movement could look like.

In her notes, Butler said: “The struggle is to hold it together, keep it alive, and teach it to be and do its very best.” She was summarizing Mother Olamina's ongoing mission, but she was also describing the 21st century in searing detail. This is the work of forward-looking science fiction. For better or worse, so much of cyberpunk's android dreams have come true. Now we have to imagine how to build ourselves anew.


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