Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Cyberpunk is dead, long live cyberpunk!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 13, 2017

In his introduction to the new cyberpunk anthology Altered States II, Isaac Wheeler of Neon Dystopia suggests that a lot of what cyberpunk envisioned back in the 1980s has come to fruition today. We’re living cyberpunk. Not just technologically (in some ways, our technology has exceeded the wildest dreams of the authors in the 1980s), but culturally. He notes the Occupy protests and the hacker group Anonymous as examples.

In a lot of ways, though, the modern world has made cyberpunk as a subgenre obsolete… at least from the classic fiction that defined it in its heyday in the 80s and early 90s. Like the planetary romances of the pulp era set in our own solar system, once science and culture catch up to it (or pass it by), it becomes less science fiction and more fantasy. Or at least, it feels dated. It’s been over 30 years since Neuromancer, so of course it’s not going to hold up perfectly, especially when it was so culturally rooted in the western world of 1984.

As a fan of those old planetary romances and of steampunk, I don’t mind this too much. Dated doesn’t bug me. I still love Neuromancer, Islands in the Net, Snow CrashHardwired, When Gravity Fails, and the other classics of the era. I don’t expect my SF to be a predictor of the future. Considering the worlds described in these stories, I really don’t want them to be. But the sorts of things that would work in those older stories might not work in a new fiction. That’s exactly why you might think that as a subgenre, cyberpunk is nearing extinction.

But… it’s not. Nope, it’s not been the hot trend for a long time, but it’s still out there. It’s morphed and adapted and subdivided and melded. The membrane walls surrounding the style have been permeated or broken down completely, intermingling with countless other types. Yay, diversity! So now we’ve got Post-Cyberpunk, Nanopunk, Biopunk… and just plain ol’ science fiction with borrowed elements from cyberpunk. And of course, straight-up cyberpunk itself, with modern updates: A gigabyte is no longer a large amount of storage space, and it certainly won’t be in 50 years. The Soviet Union is not going to be a going concern. Although… this is all spec fic, why not have a story in an alternate history / alternate future? Gibson did that himself in his story The Gernsback Continuum. Someone could write The Gibson Continuum today.

For me, I didn’t really ever view cyberpunk as an SF literary protest song, as some did. Maybe as a cautionary tale, sure. For me, I saw cyberpunk as the juxtaposition of two things. First, it’s  an exploration of the impact of technology on a personal level. Exactly the kinds of things we’ve seen now with smartphones and the Internet. Naturally, cybernetics are an excellent symbol for this… it’s hard to get more personal than replacing your body with machinery. How does that affect you as a human being? How does it change how we relate to each other? How does it impact society as a whole?

Secondly, cyberpunk is about the struggle of an individual against overwhelming collective forces… a common conflict in many stories across genres. The collective forces might not be united… in cyberpunk, they often aren’t… so it may not be a totalitarian regime. In classic stories, these forces often took the form of megacorporations, crime syndicates, the government, or … hey, they might be all one and the same these days. Technology is both the weapon of the oppressor and the revolutionary.

Perhaps a third element might be the more grim, depressing view of the future. While this was hardly a new invention of the genre (just go back and watch Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, released in 1927) or even an uncommon approach in science fiction at the time, the nature of the conflict (see element #2) all but requires an oppressive world. I don’t really require this in my personal definition, but in general, cyberpunk embraced the idea. Cool.

From that perspective, there’s absolutely nothing “dated” about the genre, beyond it feeling like we’re living it a bit.  But isn’t that the source of all great speculative fiction… abstracting the human experience and putting it in a form that allows us to explore it safely? And maybe cyberpunk isn’t quite so distinctive now as it was in the 1980s. Big deal. If anything, I figure it probably needs another shot in the arm (never mind what kind of drugs might be in that shot!), a little update for the modern era, and it’s good to go.

The authors in Altered States II: A Cyberpunk Sci-Fi Anthology have done this (except for the reprinted classic).  I’ve enjoyed several of the stories so far. These are probably not worlds you’d want to live in (or even that you could live in, in the case of the robot-story Expiration Date). But they are entertaining and hopefully thought-provoking tales taking cyberpunk into their own directions.

My story in the anthology, Doubleblind, represents my own exploration into the subgenre from a modern vantage point. After being steeped in the stuff back in the 1990s, it was a lot of fun to explore how much has changed,… and how much might stay the same. That’s definitely something I want to do again, because I think the modern world represents a TON of ripe fodder for turning into cyberpunk tales.

You can pick up the book at Amazon, currently in eBook format but soon to be out in paperback as well:

Altered States II: A Cyberpunk Sci-Fi Anthology



Filed Under: Short Fiction - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • MalcolmM said,

    I would agree to some extent with those who say we are living in a Cyberpunk world.

    I’m always amazed the extent to which people need to be online in some way at all times, in their own Cyberspace. When I travel by public transit and see that almost everyone has their head down, fixated on their phone or tablet, it seems very Cyberpunk like. If Google glass had caught on it would complete the picture.

    Cyberpunk worlds are often worlds with a powerful corporate elite, with everyone else struggling to get by. Seems to be not that far from the world we live in today.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I think we’ll have the equivalent of Google Glass sooner or later.

    In some ways, I think that the more that things change, the more they stay the same. This was driven home to me when I was researching telegraphy in the late 1800s, and found out how everything we think is “new” involving the Internet, texting, email, wire fraud, identity theft, etc. was happening on a much smaller scale on the telegraph lines.

    In the 1950s, people had their head down in a newspaper. And we’ve always had a world where power, wealth, and privilege is concentrated into the hands of the very few. It’s just that the forms, measures, and names keep changing. It’s understanding those forms, and the impact that has on society, that keeps changing. Little details matter, and its weird how people will adapt and change to those details, and game the system in one way or another.

    I guess the promise of cyberpunk… and the modern world… is that technology can be the great equalizer. Thus the rise of indie-dom in the real world, and how the Panther Moderns, Molly, and Case are able to raid one of the most powerful corporations in the world in Neuromancer. In practice, it can go both ways, as tech is originally too expensive for the common man, but eventually it comes within reach.

    It’s fascinating stuff to think about.

    Dang, now I want to read Neuromancer again.

  • McTeddy said,

    I found an mp3 of Gibson reading Neuromancer that I’ve been listening to recently.

    It’s actually weird to be reading Neruomancer after years of Shadowrun because EVERYTHING was a reference. I knew it was an inspiration, but wowzers.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – I know. I didn’t play Shadowrun, but I did play Cyberpunk (by Mike Pondsmith… the game the upcoming CDProjekt RED game is based on), and yeah. But I read the book about the same time I discovered the game, so it all came together at the same time.

    Fortunately, I’ve been able to enjoy the new Shadowrun games for the PC just fine. 🙂

    Sadly, as I wrote this post, I realized that I have a crapton of new(er) Cyberpunk books and stories to read – not just from this anthology. I need to read Eric James Stone’s Unforgettable, and I haven’t read all of the books from a cyberpunk StoryBundle.com bundle I picked up a couple of years ago.