Tuesday, 23 March 2021

A Potted History of Cyberpunk: Part 2


Part 1.

Neo-Tokyo is About to Explode

The backstory to Akira has Tokyo destroyed by an unknown phenomenon in 1992. Hours later, World War III begins and devastates the world, leading to the annihilation of most of the world’s major cities. Thirty-eight years later, the city of Neo-Tokyo has arisen out of the ashes of the old world, a city of gleaming mega-skyscrapers surrounded by the desolate ruins of the old city. The story follows a biker gang led by the charismatic Kaneda and backed up by his best friend Tetsuo. Tetsuo becomes afflicted by strange abilities, the result of a government experiment into psychokinetic energy, and loses control, going on a murderous rampage that attracts the attention of the government. Kaneda’s attempts to help his friend are complicated by the growing danger that Tetsuo presents to his friends and to innocents, and by a government conspiracy to cover up their culpability for these events.

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira was a cyberpunk epic, more than 2,000 pages long, (both drawn and written by Otomo) serialised in Young Magazine over eight years. It began in 1982, attracting immediate critical acclaim and attention, with Otomo soon being courted to develop a film adaptation. Otomo rejected initial overtures, insisting on having full creative control and being allowed to use a fluid animation style far beyond that seen in most anime productions, which necessitated a massive budget. The rising fame and acclaim of the manga saw his requirements eventually met and the feature film version of Akira (featuring a hugely compressed version of the manga’s storyline, with many subplots and characters omitted) was released in 1988, more than two years before the manga itself concluded. A phenomenon at home and in the West, Akira played a key role in the rise in popularity of anime outside Japan and also the rise of the cyberpunk genre in Japan.

The manga even improved real-life technology: a colourised version of the comic was the first comic to ever use digital colouring techniques, which would later become standardised in the industry.

Akira was hugely influential and important in the development of cyberpunk, but its influence was not felt outside of Japan for some years.


The Cyberpunk Visionaries at…Disney?

Disney were an unlikely choice to produce the second movie to expand on cyberpunk’s visual identity. As it happened, the development happened almost by accident. Animator-director Steven Lisberger had grown fascinated by computer graphics in the late 1970s and had become intrigued at the idea of creating a film completely based around them. Computer graphics were increasingly used in films – such as the targeting computers and simulation of the Death Star trench run in Star Wars (1977) – but the hardware was simply not up to the task of rendering an entire movie in anything like a reasonable time frame, or at an acceptable level of detail.

Lisberger was frustrated, but decided that traditional forms of animation could be used to simulate computer-generated imagery, in particular the use of backlit animation, which was seen as a bridge between the disco aesthetics of the late 1970s and the computer-driven effects that started coming into more widespread use in the 1980s. He took the idea to several studios, but none bit apart from Disney. Disney wanted to make more daring and interesting films, and took a chance on the idea after being impressed by test footage. However, Lisberger quickly discovered that Disney was incredibly cliquey. The animation division was less-than-friendly to outsiders and he was unable to recruit any Disney animators to work on the project, having to outsource to a Taiwan studio instead.

The resulting film, released in 1982, was TRON. An oddball film, it features a man who is literally teleported into a computer system controlled by a hostile AI. Inside the computer system he finds programmes trying to “rebel” against the dictatorial control of the AI and helps them in their struggle, eventually succeeding despite incredible odds. The film was a modest success and its dazzling visuals – particularly the lightcycles and tanks – were acclaimed. The story wasn’t entirely coherent and perhaps a tad too fantastical to be hugely influential on the nascent subgenre, but it did overcome the perception that cyberpunk could be more cerebral than visually spectacular.

In the meantime, it fell to a batch of American literary authors to bring the idea to a wider audience…and give it a name.


Enter Cyberpunk!

In 1980, American SF author Bruce Bethke wrote a story about a young man, Mikey, who is a troublemaking computer hacker who has online friendships and interfering parents. Mikey uses his skills to overcome interference from his parents in his life. Bethke pondered various titles for the story but settled on “Cyberpunk” – or, in the novel-length version, Cyberpunk! – as a name to sum up his rebellious protagonist.

“Cyberpunk” did the rounds of various magazines and collections before being finally published in 1983 in Amazing Stories. Though the story was delayed before being published, the title became known in editorial circles and started being used more widely; editor Gardner Dozois is credited with helping spread and normalise the term in discussing an increase number of stories utilising the same approach: near future, computer-heavy, usually involving an interface between human and machine and featuring rebellious protagonists. A key moment came in 1984 when Dozois wrote an article for The Washington Post which popularised the movement to the masses for the first time.

Cyberpunk had a visual and audio aesthetic, thanks to Blade Runner. It had a name, thanks to Bruce Bethke. But what it was still lacking was a work that codified and summarised the movement, a Lord of the Rings which everyone could point to and say, “Yes, that’s what this is all about.”


Dead Televisions

William Ford Gibson was born in Conway, South Carolina, in 1948. Mostly raised in Virginia, his family moved around a lot when he was young. After the abrupt death of his father, he found his home town confining and small-minded, and escaped by reading a mixture of science fiction and Beat literature. He moved to Canada in 1967, ostensibly to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War, but he later noted he wasn’t in much danger of being drafted after he spent an interview with the draft board talking about an ambition to imbibe every “mind-altering substance in existence.”

In 1977 Gibson published his first story: “Fragments of a Hologram Rose.” The story relates the experiences of a jilted lover who relies on artificial dreams to sleep in a polluted, enigmatic story. Gibson’s output was limited and his discontinued writing for several years, until he attended an SF convention and met author John Shirley, who shared his interest in punk music. Shirley introduced Gibson to Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner. All four were interested in the idea of fusing science fiction with postmodernism to bring more contemporary ideas to the genre, a furthering of the “New Wave” of the preceding decade but on a greater scale. Inspired and fired up, Gibson wrote a short story called “Burning Chrome,” a story of two freelance hackers who fall in love with the same woman. They undertake various crimes using advanced software called “icebreakers” to operate in “cyberspace” – the first time the term ever appeared in print – against the backdrop of the Sprawl, a massive mega-city that has accumulated out of the Eastern Seaboard metropolises. Gibson had preceded that story with “Johnny Mnemonic,” a story about a man with a cybernetically-enhanced brain carrying password-protected information, the contents of which he has absolutely no idea.

A key moment came at ArmadilloCon, a science fiction convention held in Austin, Texas in late 1982, when Gibson, Shiner, Sterling and Shirley appeared on a panel called “Behind the Mirrorshades: A Look at Punk SF.” On the panel and in discussions in rooms and in bars afterwards, the foursome and assorted other writers and fans thrashed out the idea of a new form of SF which mixed fashion, drugs and politics, whilst embracing some of the new, cool aesthetics of the time: Japan, MTV and early experiments in CGI.

The development of Gibson’s writing abruptly curved upwards in 1982 when editor Terry Carr of Ace Books offered to publish Gibson’s first novel, an offer which Gibson was both awed and slightly confused by, as he didn’t have a novel in development. In fact, he considered himself to be at least five years away from being capable of writing a novel, but scrambled to meet Carr’s request, recognising that the opportunity was not to be squandered. Gibson continued to develop ideas from his short fiction, setting the novel in the Sprawl which both “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome” had inhabited, but expanding a story across a grander scale. Gibson suffered reversals of confidence during the writing process – panicking after a viewing of Blade Runner that he’d be accused of ripping the film off – but ultimately completed the novel after rewriting it a dozen times.

The novel, published in July 1984, was entitled Neuromancer, the title being a play on “necromancer,” a term for someone able to raise the dead. The novel follows computer hacker Henry Case, a washed-out computer hacker hired for one last case – heavy shades of noir fiction – and encounters mysteries and events culminating in the discovery of a powerful AI straining to overcome the limitations placed upon it by humanity.

Neuromancer was an immediate critical success, winning the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards on publication, and Gibson was encouraged to write a sequel (despite trying to sabotage the prospect during the writing of Neuromancer itself by closing down narrative avenues for the story to continue). Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive(1988) were almost as well-received as Neuromancer itself, the three books becoming collectively known as The Sprawl Trilogy. A collection of Gibson’s short fiction, Burning Chrome, was published in 1986 as an addendum to the trilogy.

No sooner had Gibson completed the work, then he distanced himself – somewhat – from the subgenre he’d helped popularise and moved into the realm of alternate history, joining forces with Bruce Sterling to write a novel set in an alternative, more advanced Victorian setting. The result was The Difference Engine, which helped give rise to the “steampunk” genre.


Dicing on the Edge

In 1986, Walter Jon Williams released the novel Hardwired. Williams was an author in the right place at the right time: he was halfway through writing his novel about futuristic rebels equipped with neural interfaces fighting corporations based in Earth orbit when Gibson dropped Neuromancer, and the book was well-placed to capitalise on the booming interest in cyberpunk that followed. Whilst cash-in books in the wake of cyberpunk of were not uncommon, Williams found that Hardwired garnered a much more positive reception, with strong sales and critical praise.

Williams was also a tabletop gamer, and for some years had been playing in a postmodern superhero roleplaying game run by his friend George R.R. Martin and also including members of an informal Albuquerque-Santa Fe SFF author collective: Melinda Snodgrass (who was about to start work on Star Trek: The Next Generation), Victor Milan, and John J. and Gail Gerstner-Miller. Martin had the brainwave of turning the roleplaying game into an anthology series, resulting in the Wild Cards series, with a number of authors from the nascent cyberpunk movement getting involved, including Pat Cadigan and Lewis Shiner. Wild Cards wasn’t cyberpunk, but used some of the same literary languages and weaponry to invigorate the superhero genre (across the Atlantic, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had the same idea in a new comic series they were writing for DC, Watchmen) in the same way that cyberpunk had done for science fiction.

Influences extend backwards and forwards, and even as Williams took part in the direction of moving from a tabletop game to writing fiction, another group of writers took the ideas he had put forwards in Hardwired and translated them into a tabletop roleplaying game. Most notable in this group was Mike Pondsmith, who had worked in board games and tabletop roleplaying games for many ears. Pondsmith had played Dungeons and Dragons (1974), which he was cool on, and Traveller (1977), a space opera roleplaying game which he was much more enthusiastic about, going as far as rewriting the rules to his own specifications as a game called Imperial Star (which he kept to himself for legal purposes).

Pondsmith’s first solo-developed game was Mekton (1984), which replicated anime-style mech combat in an original setting (albeit one based, in aesthetics at least, on Mobile Suit Gundam). The game was a success and he founded his own company, R. Talsorian Games, to exploit it further.

Pondsmith had heard news about the growing cyberpunk movement but had not read any of the work coming out of it. As well as working on his own games, he was providing support to TSR on their Forgotten Realms adventure line and was also consulting with West End Games on their Star Wars licence. However, a group of friends and co-designers (including Mike Blum, Colin Fisk, Dave Friedland, Will Moss and Scott Ruggels) suggested they work on a cyberpunk game and encouraged Pondsmith to read Hardwired. Impressed by the novel, Pondsmith and his friends set about re-engineering it into an original setting: a futuristic Californian metropolis called Night City in the improbably distant future of 2013. Perhaps a tad cheekily, they realised the genre name “cyberpunk” had not been trademarked and snatched it up for their game.

Released in 1988, Cyberpunk: The Roleplaying Game of the Dark Future (the first edition of the Cyberpunk RPG line) was an immediate smash hit success in the world of roleplaying games. Whilst tabletop roleplaying games had expanded from their fantasy origins to incorporate a number of different genres and ideas, Cyberpunk’s emphasis on a near-future setting, complete with familiar (if enhanced) weapons and politics was refreshing. The rules for hacking and cyberspace also added a different feel to the game.

Cyberpunk was a hit and numerous expansions and supplements followed. Pondsmith repaid Walter Jon Williams for the original idea by licensing Hardwired for a series of supplements incorporating its setting and ideas into the game. The second and arguably definitive edition of the game, Cyberpunk 2020, was published in 1990. The fourth and more recent edition, Cyberpunk Red, was published in (appropriately) 2020.

Cyberpunk’s success inspired other games to dive into the same genre. The popular universal rules system GURPS (1986) developed several cyberpunk spin-offs, but arguably the biggest and most successful derived game was Shadowrun (1989), which somewhat bizarrely fused Cyberpunk with Dungeons & Dragons.

By the start of the 1990s, cyberpunk had become more widespread and popular, but also seemed to be running out of steam. Gibson had moved on to other genres, and space opera was making a resurgence. Articles and thinkpieces asking if cyberpunk was dead started appearing. It was clear that cyberpunk was not dead, but it was going to have to evolve to survive.

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