Authors Note: This was written originally around the release of the long gameplay trailer for Cyberpunk 2077. However like my usual self I couldn’t get it quite right and shelved it for a long time. While I think I am finally happy with it I did not change any out of date references or phrasing. I hope you enjoy!
I love Cyberpunk.
Clever readers may notice this is coming out suspiciously close to the gameplay reveal for CD Projekt Red’s upcoming game Cyberpunk 2077, which I am absurdly excited for. You’d be right in assuming that is what prompted this post but I’ve been mulling over writing it for a while, especially since talking about my preference for Sci-Fi overall.
But why? Although I think the question is silly, because just look at the game, I do think it might be fun to talk about why this genre just does it for me on every level. While I wont place all the credit for it on this little tidbit I have to say that it provides me with some great synergy for my passion–
“Minnesota writer Bruce Bethke coined the term in 1980 for his short story “Cyberpunk,” which was published in the November 1983 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories.“
From – Wikipedia
I’m not one to just loosely throw around the word “destiny” but a writer from my home state published the story which named the genre in the year and month I was born? How cool is that? Sure, he technically made the word up three years prior but it also took me nine months to gestate so I’m calling it a wash.
My fate aside, as Bethke points out in his own post he doesn’t claim, nor should he be given credit, for creating the genre itself even though being the genesis of its name is no small feat. He correctly points out years ago in a short missive called The Etymology of Cyberpunk that there are plenty of authors who came before and after who define the genre and few more than William Gibson.
One of those authors is Mike Pondsmith who I’m going to turn you over to for a few minutes to tell you about his baby, at least in regards to the fiction that the game itself is based on. As he mentions in the video one quote by William Gibson really describes the heart of a cyberpunk setting to me moreso than body mods and mega-corporations–
“The Street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturers never imagined.“
- Burning Chrome by William Gibson, July 1982
Looking back on growing up in the 80’s and 90’s this sentiment really resonated with my memories of the early days of the internet and how much of it was built by individuals thinking up new ways to use old concepts. Or in some ways completely inventing new methods for a landscape that was functionally the wild west. Going back even further to the 50’s, 60’s and, 70’s to the culture of Phreaking and it all strikes me as very street-level cyberpunk. The folks who engaged in these hobbies, and even perhaps largely because of it, didn’t have much but they made the most of it. Sometimes it was so effective that it actually garnered the attention of the corporations who for so long were too big to notice or care. When you have the time read up on the history of people like Kevin Mitnick or John Draper aka “Captain Crunch”. When I look at these guys I see Doctor Solomon Eddie from Minority Report using technology just a century or two away from being a scene out of that or Blade Runner.
I love a lot of what Pondsmith says about getting the feel of it just right because it is an extremely evocative setting. It’s one of the few where you see a picture of a scene out of it and immediately you know what you’re looking at. It’s one of the many contradictions of the setting that I so enjoy getting tangled up in, that it is so easily identifiable and yet so deeply complex. A future where technology is rampant and available and yet the human condition stubbornly persists. Kept in this constant tug of war between moving towards a better future versus being bound interminably by our baser instincts. For however technologically advanced we become we will never leave behind our roots in spite of believing for so long that technology will be our salvation. It flies directly in the face of some of my favorite Science Fiction like Star Trek which endeavors to show the best that humanity can be in spite of themselves. I enjoy idealistic fiction that seeks to outline our grand potential but there is something alluring about settings that embrace our flaws–opting to go wide on the concept of humanity instead of simply high or low.
Let Us Not Go There, ‘Tis a Silly Place
- a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.
You see this word associated with cyberpunk more than just about any other with the exception of maybe neon or body-modding and for good reason. The cyberpunk setting is one that most reasonable people would probably opt to not live in because for the vast majority it is unpleasant to say the least. All the things which make up the definition of a dystopia are usually present along with a whole lot more, so why is that so appealing to me? Because I think underneath the neon sheen, cybernetic mods, mind-bending maze like cities the cyberpunk setting tells a perhaps unpleasant truth about us. There is an area I live not more than twenty minutes from and every time I’m down that way I can’t help but think of it as a microcosm of what we’ll eventually become. At one end of a road that curves through several shopping centers you can see the most recent in business architecture and design with all the stores and restaurants you would expect to find there. The longer you go down this road however the further back in time you travel like layers of a living archaeological dig. None of the buildings are abandoned, in disuse or even look like they aren’t being maintained but the strata of years is unmistakable. The dystopian cyberpunk setting is a tacit admission of the evil wrought upon our world and ourselves but also a clear statement that we as a society have no plans to stop or even slow down. We merely continue to build up, out and, away from things that remind us of a moral responsibility we continually try to leave behind. In some of these settings like Richard Morgan’s 2002 series Altered Carbon humanity is not even confined to a single planet any longer and yet the rot simply follows them outward into the galaxy even though the lowest places on Earth are never abandoned. Humanity continues and thrives through sheer stubborn ingenuity and because I know I’ll never hear the end of it if I don’t, you could even say that…
Cyberpunk is almost Gotham-esque in that way that it shows a setting that is both attractive for its eccentricities and repulsive for it’s brutality. The question isn’t really about whether or not you would want to live there but rather how those with no choice survive and thrive for lack of any other option.
Outside of the moral bankruptcy that has built this dystopian future it is often stunningly beautiful to look at. Watching movies like Blade Runner and even the sequel 2049 there are plenty of Star Trek: The Motion Picture like glory-shots of the landscape, such as it is. Where many would rightly marvel at long panning nature shots in things like The Lord of the Rings movies, I love looking at the Escher-like makeup of Mega-Cities and imagining each stage of its patchwork construction. In spite of what my mind knows I’ll find there I still want to explore every skyway and sub-street to see what they offer. Even the neon which you would think suffers from invoking the tacky nightmare that is the Las Vegas strip instead piques my curiosity and even looks inviting against the often dreary backdrop. The bright dancing colors provide a certain reprieve from the dour rain-slicked surroundings to the point of looking happy regardless of the reality contained within. This piquing of my curiosity was the main reason that the cancellation of Star Wars 1313 hit me so hard, because we had come so close to being able to explore the planet of Coruscant which was home to the Galactic City. Five thousand one hundred and twenty seven layers of city sprawl built up from the original surface of the planet; the game itself was so named for level 1313 where the criminal underworld of the planet thrived. It was a near perfect confluence of two of my most cherished settings.
A book called Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson has some of my favorite descriptions of this setting running the gamut from privatized rural burboclaves, Uncle Enzo and his Mafia management of Cosa Nostra Pizza all the way to the sovereign micro-nations like Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong. The names of each suggesting a story of their origin and by association describing a tiny portion of the setting’s history. For me cyberpunk has a way of letting you sight-see through a long and complicated past without holding you down and force feeding you long diatribes. Like if the educational movie scene in Jurassic Park was made exclusively for masochists by the people who put together the Encyclopedia Britannica. Snow Crash itself suffers from a bit of this which as a fan was disappointing but I would try to get everyone curious about the genre to at least read the first 150 pages.
“Cyberpunk is not about saving humanity, it’s about saving yourself.“
- Mike Pondsmith
One of the other things I love about this genre is the approach it takes to augmentation and creating what are essentially super-humans by mixing technobabble that would make Star Trek writers balk with a little side of body horror–
A similar scene to this also played out in the movie Minority Report which to this day still gives me the shivers. Aside from making me uncomfortable I like that it doesn’t shy away from the obvious cost, outside of monetary, that these modifications would extract. Most of the body-mods we see now are aesthetic in nature but we’ve also started experimentation with implantable technology. I’d be lying if I said I don’t desperately wish to still be alive when humanity gets this far into experimenting with melding technology into our bodies. There are so many fascinating moral and philosophical questions that come along with the entire concept of changing our bodies so fundamentally. It probably ranks right up there with one of my favorite philosophical discussions regarding the transporters in Star Trek. Is the person who materializes on the other end still the you who left? How would you know?
In Altered Carbon human consciousnesses are often needlecasted from location to location and into other sleeves (bodies) but are all presumed to be the same person regardless of the number of transfers. The societies rich use clones and backups of their consciousness transferred at regular intervals to prevent permanent death. For as admittedly fascinated as I am in the concept part of me still feels a great amount of anxiety about not knowing for sure what would happen to someone who undergoes such a procedure. On one hand it is life, we just can’t be absolutely sure it’s the same life.
Philosophical questions abound in a setting where the lines between the biological and technological are constantly blurring. In no small way are these questions put in sharp relief by the ever advancing technology of the real world all around us. Prosthetic limbs are becoming bionic, A.I.s are becoming smarter and more widespread every day, automation continues to creep. Even virtual reality has taken some pretty grand steps over the last couple of years and will only continue to improve.
The Final Frontier
Cyberpunk to me is the ultimate expression of life being what you make of it. Nothing is given, everything is taken and if you were a champion Hungry, Hungry, Hippos player in your youth, you would fit right in. It beautifully contrasts depictions of unrestrained greed and the tightrope balance of maintaining the status-quo for the “good” of everyone.
If the upper echelons fell would a utopia rise in their place elevating all humans to perfect equality and prosperity? The reality of the street says no. Their institutions would be torn down, picked clean and life would continue as it always has with new power replacing the old. A cycle as old and as cynical as life itself and one humans are ill-equipped to overcome.
Hope remains because it is the ever present human condition as we look to our imagination, the horizon or even the stars and think to ourselves, what if. Entwined with the delusion of the powerful that how they exist benefits humanity it is a system that feeds itself until it burns out and begins again.
Many people may rightly call this description pessimistic or depressing and I don’t think I could properly argue why it isn’t. What it is to me is honest in a way that I don’t believe we can ever truly be with ourselves as a species. I can look at Star Trek and marvel at what a united humanity could achieve if we left all our innate pettiness and greed fall by the wayside. Even then in it’s most honest moments the humans of Star Trek still fall prey to all the things they had purported to leave behind with only a valiant few willing to stand up and be better. These undertones exist because to suggest anything else for humanity would be unbelievable to the point of being slapstick.
Among the towering mega-cities of capitalistic excess, the savage reality of the sprawling, forgotten metropolis below there is a beauty which I cannot help but be enthralled by. Although if I am perfectly honest, I don’t think I would ever want to see it become a reality.
I am however more than willing to explore a version of that life in an immersive RPG like 2077, so for now I’ll focus on that and less on the existential dread of our collective future.
See you in the MetaVerse.