Thursday, 28 January 2021

A Potted History of Cyberpunk, Part 1

Cyberpunk 2077

Thanks to the high-profile release of the video game Cyberpunk 2077 and its attendant controversies, more people are talking about cyberpunk as a genre and concept than at any time since the 1980s, and probably even more than then.

Defining the genre was tricky even thirty years ago, with the letter pages of SFnal magazines and fanzines occasionally descending into heated battles as people debated what was part of the genre and what was not, who was part of the movement proper and who were its progenitors. There was also a long-running argument – still hashed out today – about works that truly embodied the spirit of cyberpunk versus those merely borrowing its aesthetics for commercial purposes, or perhaps those who held that cyberpunk was a more tightly-defined literary genre as opposed to a setting.
Netflix's Altered Carbon

What’s in a Name?

At its simplest, cyberpunk is a portmanteau of two works: cyber – referring to computers – and punk – referring to anti-authoritarianism and rebelling against the established order. In his Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (1995), SF critic John Clute offers a bald summary of the term: “stories set in a computer-dominated environment with a streetwise, anti-Establishment culture.” In Burning Chrome (1986), Bruce Sterling and William Gibson (two of the genre’s most notable figures) defined it as “low-life and high tech.” In the titular short story from that collection, originally published in 1983, Gibson coined the phrase “the street finds its own uses for things,” which has become a widely-quoted aphorism for the street-level use of advanced technology.

However, when the term “cyberpunk” is mentioned, it also brings up certain images. Usually a vast, futuristic city, sometimes a future version of an existing location like Tokyo or Los Angeles or a completely new conurbation, such as California’s custom-built Night City, or a new urban mass that amalgamated out of previous cities, such as Mega-City One or the Sprawl, two separate ultra-cities which both formed out of existing US cities along the Eastern Seaboard of North America. A lot of people wear sunglasses, even at night. Chrome is everywhere, and is cool. Virtually everyone is a cyborg, from extreme techno-fetishists who have replaced limbs with weaponry or techno-enhanced prosthetics to the everyday people who look just like we do, but might have bionic eyes or a computer interface port behind their ears.

A key complaint and criticism of cyberpunk is that whilst “cyber” shows up in almost all examples of the genre, the “punk” element may or may not be present. Punk usually refers to low-level, “street” kids and people who are non-conformist, anti-authoritarian and anti-corporate, who work for themselves and despise the idea of selling out. In cyberpunk works, the protagonists are often idealistic, seeking to bring down the supercorporations who now wield unfettered power, or sometimes the government which has become enhanced by corporate power.

Cyberpunk is also generally held to be Earth-based, or at least planet-bound. Space travel is often available in a cyberpunk setting but is not a key part of the genre; offworld colonies are sometimes used as a place of escape or refuge for the ultra-rich, leaving the poor masses behind. Sometimes space operas visit Earth or other planets to find vast, semi-dystopian cities and people integrated with technology, such as Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy with its vast, cyberpunk-ish arcologies on Earth or even those instalments of Star Wars which dwell on events on the city-planet of Coruscant, but generally these are held to be space operas first and foremost, with cyberpunk elements of secondary interest.

The genre is often held to be inherently a dystopian vision of the future where technology has run amok and been used to solidify the power of corrupt governments, corporations and other elites at the expense of the masses, who use what technology they can to fight back. Utopian cyberpunk is an oxymoron, with some holding that the closest would be something like Star Trek, in which advanced technology is available to everyone and is genuinely used to improve the lifestyles of all humanity, which in this setting has abandoned capitalism and the acquisition of wealth and power as personal motivations.

Cyberpunk is also often said to be a direct successor to the noir thriller genre, often employing a detective – either a traditional gumshoe, a police officer or a hacker analogue – as the main character or in a supporting role. If the main character is a police officer, they frequently become disillusioned by the corruption exposed during their investigation and quit in disgust, or come into conflict with the system and go rogue. Director James Cameron in fact proposed “technoir” as an alternative name for the genre in his 1984 film The Terminator, but it never really caught on.
Doctor Who's Cybermen in their 1966 debut appearance, in The Tenth Planet.


Antecedents of cyberpunk are numerous and arguable. A key early ancestor is Alfred Bester’s Tiger! Tiger! (1956), better-known under its revised title of The Stars My Destination. The novel predicted a world where corporations would become more powerful than governments and that the human body would be enhanced by machine implants. The protagonist is, unusually for science fiction of the era, an antihero, a ruthless man named Gully Foyle who is driven arguably sociopathic after he is left to die, marooned in space. His unwavering commitment to destroying his enemies leads him to commit numerous crimes under the justification of his own righteousness; his faith wavers at key moments but at the end of the story he has become a religious icon for his commitment and his revelations about the nature of reality. Foyle is not a laudable figure – he is a rapist and murderer – but his status as an antihero and one-man force of destruction has made him something of a progenitor of later cyberpunk protagonists (or antagonists).

Other works contain elements of later cyberpunk without perhaps fully committing to them: William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine (1961) features cyberspace-like rationalised hallucinations, albeit achieved through drugs and biological means (a theme revisited in Jeff Noon’s popular 1993 quasi-cyberpunk work Vurt). Isaac Asimov’s Robots saga, beginning with I, Robot (1950), asks hard questions about the morality of creating artificial intelligence and what limitations should be put on them, whilst Samuel R. Delany’s Nova (1968) features cyborgs hanging out on the street. British SF TV series Doctor Who several times addressed the issue of merging biological and machine life, with first the Daleks (debuting in the serial The Dead Planet in 1963) and then, more relevantly, the Cybermen (The Tenth Planet, 1966) addressing what happens when man becomes more machine than biological.
Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), a key cyberpunk progentior.

Early and Semi-Cyberpunk

The first work which is often cited as cyberpunk is Philip K. Dick’s 1968 short novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The novel revolves around a bounty hunter named Deckard who is contracted to terminate six androids who have escaped from the offworld colonies and fled to Earth to live normal lives among the population. Deckard pursues them across a post-apocalyptic, semi-dystopian North America where the populace huddles in futuristic cities such as San Francisco and Seattle. A common pastime is using “empathy boxes” to link to a communal virtual reality centred around suffering and martyrdom. It is also revealed that almost all animals have been wiped out in a nuclear war, leading to people acquiring robotic animals as pets, with only the ultra-rich able to afford real animals.

The status of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – and its later loose film adaptation, Blade Runner (1982) – as cyberpunk remains contentious as many elements of the genre are missing, such as the role of ultra-powerful corporations. Deckard is also very much not a punk hero, lacking idealism at all and in fact suffering existential ennui which he hopes to assuage by acquiring a real goat to replace his robot sheep. He later has an affair with an android, and experiences doubt over whether he himself is an android or a real human. The novel has a somewhat surreal ending where he finds himself performing the same tasks as the martyr in the empathy boxes’ virtual reality and finds a wild toad, which later turns out to be a robot.

Some of Dick’s later work also employs cyberpunk tropes, perhaps most notably Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974). Set in a dystopian near-future where the US democratic system has collapsed after a second civil war, it concerns a protagonist, Taverner, who status as a genetically-engineered TV star is abruptly lost when his identity is somehow erased from existence. Trying to desperately avoid being identified as a non-entity, which would reduce him to one of the near-starving, poverty-inflicted majority whose rebellious instincts are only kept in check by television and vacuous entertainment, he goes on the run and eventually is able to restore his identity. The story and background themes, particularly the student-led revolution which is gathering against the technologically superior elite, are at least cyberpunk-adjacent.

Alice Sheldon explored themes which would later be labelled as cyberpunk in her 1973 novel The Girl Who Was Plugged In, published under her pen name of James Tiptree, Jr. The novel takes place in a dystopian future where powerful corporations create genetically-engineered celebrities, who are controlled by operators via a neural interface. These celebrities engage in elaborate games of product placement to get around strict laws on corporate advertising. The book delves deeply into the idea of identity and the idea that the face a person wears is not necessarily their true one, here taken to extremes through technology.

J.G. Ballard explored societal alienation – a common theme in cyberpunk – in numerous works, but a particularly interesting take was in Concrete Island (1974), where a car accident leaves the protagonist stranded on a median strip, the titular concrete island, between several motorway intersections where traffic is constantly moving at dangerous speeds. Unable to leave without being killed, the protagonist joins the subculture of the concrete island, where other rejects from society have gathered, which soon devolves into conflict. The book recalls the spaces outside the city or between the lines of civilisation in cyberpunk, where characters fall and it is questionable if they will emerge again. More directly evoking cyberpunk is Ballard’s High-Rise (1975), where the main character Robert moves into a high-rise apartment block on the outskirts of London. The apartment is a self-contained city in itself, with its own bank, supermarket, shopping mall, gym and school. The high-rise provides so many amenities that its inhabitants can choose to never leave. Some, fearful of reports of crime outside the block, take up that option. Power failures and social and class stratification soon set in, with the richer inhabitants of the upper floors hoarding their wealth against the poorer (but more numerous) inhabitants of the lower levels, leading to a highly localised civil war and revolution (of which the outer world proceeds in apparent ignorance). The novel foreshadows the arrival of the mini-arcology or self-contained “megablock” that becomes a key feature of many cyberpunk stories, whilst thematically the idea of an “ideal society” rapidly devolving in class warfare is pure cyberpunk, with technological warfare (in this case, exemplified by the building’s lifts becoming strategic chokepoints) being a key part of the struggle. The novel was filmed in 2015 by Ben Wheatley with Tom Hiddleston in the title role, to great effect.

In 1976, Doctor Who tackled a key cyberpunk theme in the serial The Deadly Assassin, when it had the Doctor return to his homeworld of Gallifrey to do battle with his arch-nemesis, the Master. At a key point in the narrative, the Doctor has to seek information in the repository of all Time Lord knowledge, the Matrix (a not-uncommon name for such a database). Because the repository is so vast and complex, the best way to use it is via a neural interface to generate a virtual reality through which the Doctor can move in an illusion of the computer system being an actual place. This is one of the earliest examples of such a conflation of computer systems, virtual reality and brain interfaces being used in a manner that would later become extremely common in cyberpunk.

An interesting take on the genre appeared in 1977, when Christopher Priest published A Dream of Wessex. Much of Priest’s work is concerned with layers of reality, doubles, shifting or blurred existences and identity surviving across universes. Given this interest, it is remarkable that only once, in Wessex, he used technology to explore the idea. In this novel an elite group of thinkers create a virtual reality interface which can transport the collective unconscious of some of Britain’s greatest minds into an illusory world where their intelligence and experience can be mined for ideas on how to ensure humanity’s long-term survival. The idea of forcibly transporting people into a cyberspace against their will as a way of extracting information is a common cyberpunk trope, but the idea of doing it stealthily so the target is unaware of what is happening is intriguing.

In 1978, the BBC launched a new science fiction TV show, Blake’s 7. Blake’s 7 is primarily a space opera about a band of plucky rebels trying to bring down the dystopian Terran Federation, but some cyberpunk themes do proliferate. The rebels are a mixture of genuine idealists, profit-driven criminals and career sociopaths (reflecting the often-mixed band of protagonists encounter in cyberpunk fiction). The population on Earth (apparently reduced by atomic war) are kept under constant surveillance and control in domed mega-cities, made docile by drugs and ruled over by corrupt officials. The war with the Federation often takes the form of a game of technological one-upmanship, with Blake’s early advantage of finding an advanced alien starship swiftly matched by the Federation’s improving spacecraft and weapons technology, particularly in the field of AI where many of Blake’s victories are helped by his securing of the ORAC supercomputer. Memory and personality alteration through technology, drugs and brain implants abound. Blake’s 7 is notable for its mature exploration of such themes (as compared to its American contemporary, Star Wars, and its much more superficial and heroic struggles) and also its nihilism: in the final episode the much-reduced crew are betrayed and brutally gunned down by the enemy after their erstwhile leader, the cynical Avon, had effectively had a personality breakdown.
John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975), arguably the first novel to fully embody the key themes of cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk’s Forgotten Visionary: John Brunner

In 1968, British SF author John Brunner published the first of three thematically-linked novels which would effectively set the stage for cyberpunk. The first of these novels is the best-known, Stand on Zanzibar, set in an overpopulated world which is threatened with ecological catastrophe by population pressure. Overpopulation is a key plot point in cyberpunk (often explaining the vast cities where the action tends to unfold), but beyond that Brunner engages with other ideas: a powerful supercomputer forms an important part of the plot, whilst television has become interactive, with viewers becoming part of the programme itself. Genetically-engineered bioweapons proliferate, and nightmarish supercorporations dominate the world.

The Sheep Look Up (1972) explores further the notion of the Earth becoming uninhabitable due to toxic waste, pollution and climate change. The declining quality of the environment sparks societal collapse and war. Attempts to regulate ecological damage are watered down for economic reasons. Ecological protestors turn to violence when their peaceful protests are ignored, eventually sparking a terrorist campaign against the US government. The "cyber" is missing from the argument, but the "punk" is very much present, and the novel's depiction of ecological catastrophe would become a familiar cyberpunk trope.

The third of the three works is The Shockwave Rider (1975), a novel which is less proto or early cyberpunk, but actually just proper cyberpunk. The book takes place in a near future dystopian city where the protagonist uses his computer hacking skills to escape detection and avoid pursuit. The term "worm," for a computer virus, was first coined in this novel. The book's story is pure cyberpunk, where the protagonist, Nick, is a computer programmer who becomes aware that an education program reported as educating children is in fact indoctrinating them to further the interests of the state (effectively a criminal oligarchy), as well as genetically-engineering children to their own ends. Nick rebels and goes up against the state in an escalating battle that ends with them trying to drop a nuke on him; his response is a powerful computer virus that exposes their schemes and plans and blows open the government's duplicity. The novel, unusually for Brunner and for a lot of cyberpunk, ends optimistically.
Judge Dredd (1977-present), a key satire of cyberpunk tropes told from the POV of the fascist enforcers of the corrupt government's laws.

The Anti-Cyberpunk

A strong early example of cyberpunk, or at least an example of anti-cyberpunk (or even a satire of the genre), is the British comic book character Judge Dredd. Debuting in the pages of the 2000AD in 1977, Judge Dredd is a law enforcement officer on the streets of Mega-City One, a vast super-metropolis stretching along the Eastern Seaboard of the former United States. The Judges are judge, jury and sometimes executioner all in one, able to dispense summary justice to the half-billion inhabitants of the crowded streets of the city, sometimes getting it right and sometimes (in the case of some Judges, maybe almost always) getting it wrong. Dredd and his fellow Judges are, effectively, the fascist enforcers of a totalitarian, unelected state who are not above using corporations and their latest gizmos and entertainment products to keep the population quiescent. Revolutionary fervour intermittently burns but is expertly redirected by a form of ultra-local nationalism: people are extremely loyal to the mega-blocks they live in, and rather than directing violence against the police state which keeps them cooped up all day (the unemployment rate runs at something between 92% and 98%, due to robots, AI and automation running almost all services), they instead tend to declare war on neighbouring blocks, resulting in psychotic “block wars” which act as pressure valves on the city’s malcontents. Dredd is unusual in that he believes absolutely the propaganda of being an unwavering avatar of the law, sometimes leading to him siding with the people against their oft-corrupt rulers, but more often than not unquestioningly following their orders.

If Joe Dredd is not a cyberpunk protagonist, he at least illuminates cyberpunk themes, and in fact arguably has done so more consistently and more frequently than any other character: the comic and Dredd himself continue to run today, with the timeline advancing in realtime, so forty-four years have passed in the story and for the character. Dredd himself experiments with rebelling against the system, at one point betraying his fellow Judges to support a pro-democracy call for election…which formally elects for the oppressive status quo to continue. Judge Dredd’s relentless cynicism and satire makes for one of the most interesting explorations of hte genre, if one that too many readers seem to take on face value as a mindless action story.

Ridley Scott's seminal 1982 film, Blade Runner, which gave cyberpunk both its key visual and musical identities.

Visualising the Genre

In 1982, two major works were released which had a profound impact on the nascent genre, particularly its visuals. Most notable was the film Blade Runner, a very loose adaptation of Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Like the novel, the film features a bounty hunter named Deckard (here played by a taciturn Harrison Ford, keen to shed the wisecracking image of Han Solo and Indiana Jones) who is commissioned to track down a band of rogue androids. Unlike the novel, the action does not criss-cross the western United States, instead being restricted to just one location, Los Angeles in 2019. Blade Runner’s Los Angeles would become perhaps the most definitive visual take on a cyberpunk city ever: a sprawling urban landscape of endless industrial complexes surrounding a conglomeration of vast skyscrapers emblazoned with familiar logos, whilst the techno-pyramid of a monstrously powerful super-corporation squats menacingly above the poor masses just trying to get by on the streets.

The film’s status in cyberpunk is sometimes disputed. There’s nary a brain/AI interface in sight and if Deckard becomes a rebel against the system, it’s something of a reluctant one. But so much cyberpunk draws on Blade Runner’s aesthetics, and its central question of what it means to be human in the midst of so much existentially-overloading technology is so core to the genre, that such arguments feel forced. Blade Runner is almost the last work in the visual imagery – if only superficially – of cyberpunk. It also had a strong impact on the audio perception of the genre: Vangelis's synth-heavy soundtrack inextricably bound cyberpunk to the sound of synthesisers and any cyberpunk work which suggests that maybe people in the future won't be in love with a 1980s musical fad faces an uphill struggle gaining acceptance with some fans (particularly Cyberpunk 2077 and its apparently controversial idea that people might have a more eclectic and wide-ranging musical taste by the late 21st Century).

The other work would come from Japan. Katsuhiro Otomo had already been playing with cyberpunk forms in his debut manga, Fireball (1979-81). Set in a future city secretly ruled by the ATOM supercomputer though human proxies, the story follows a band of rebels who are trying to expose the truth and inspire a revolution. Otomo quickly realised that the setup was too simplistic and hurriedly wrapped the story up to explore another idea. This resulted in Domu (1980-81), a more contemporary story exploring the psychic link between an old man and a child. Although more satisfied by this story, Otomo realised that there was scope for a much, much more ambitious story combining the two elements into one.

On 6 December 1982, Otomo published the first issue of a new serial in Young Magazine. The story appeared under a very simple, short name: Akira.

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