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Cyberpunk fiction predicted our dystopia, but it might offer a way out

By in Culture

Seven years before the internet became publicly available in August 1991, William Gibson published Neuromancer, a visionary work of science fiction that perfectly predicted the cultural moment we find ourselves in right now.

Cyberpunk has always been one of the most misunderstood sub-genres of science fiction. Despite its neon-drenched trans-humanism and outlaw-hacker protagonists, the archetypal cyberpunk society is dreary, hopeless and has very little room for humanity. It’s an unlikely avenue for escapism, and its near-future worlds are anything but aspirational.

It’s a fundamentally dystopian genre, but as we saw in 2016, political anxiety tends to breed interest in dystopian fiction. Books like the 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here — which tells the story of a homegrown American dictator who gains power after promising socialist reform — re-emerged as bestsellers.

George Orwell’s anti-Stalinist 1984 has become a touchstone for both the centre-left and centre-right alike, serving as a metaphor for the overreach of state surveillance or the authoritarian suppression of free speech depending on who you ask.

What these books can’t account for is the rate at which technology has progressed and the way it’s integrated into every aspect of our lives. Orwell might have imagined a surveillance culture, but he couldn’t have possibly seen that it would be the private sphere doing the surveilling. Facebook is watching you — not Big Brother.

Neuromancer introduced us to The Sprawl — a megacity owned by corporations and the criminals who do their bidding. When the novel begins, the protagonist, Henry Case, is living in a paranoid hellscape exacerbated by his addiction to cheap amphetamines and a maimed nervous system that has left him unable to enter cyberspace.

The novel presents a society so utterly devoid of hope that escaping as a disembodied consciousness among raw data, light and sound is the only way to self-actualize. In this world, the individual is defined as an extension of technology, but the more integrated Case becomes, the more he’s haunted by that which makes him human.

Images of death, trauma and addiction plague the characters, but as subservience to technology demands, they never look back. Neuromancer presents the problem of defining the individual in opposition to technology and the interests of corporations, but it doesn’t offer a positive prescription.

Since Neuromancer, cyberpunk fiction has continued working this problem over. One of my favourite films of the last decade, Blade Runner 2049, does a wonderful job of expanding the philosophical terrain of authenticity in a world that places tech before humanity.

Blade Runner 2049 explores a world where the most basic aspects of humanity have been commodified. The central relationship of the film is a romance between an android and a hologram. It’s an uncomfortable simulation of domesticity in which both parties are only doing what they’ve been programmed to do.

The film presents us a world where the things that make us human and that serve to individualize us are reduced to consumer products removed from any horizon of meaning. There is actual humanity present in Blade Runner — or at least, whatever passes for humanity among androids — but it happens only once the characters embrace authenticity in the face of conformity.

Cyberpunk has always struck me as a strange name for what is essentially dystopian fiction. But all punk subculture is about the search for authentic meaning through self definition, something that was hugely influential on me growing up. It’s a genre that places the individual in opposition to an increasingly technocratic and soulless society.

There has never been much of a strong delineation for me between the writings of Gibson, and say, 80s DC hardcore. The difference is that bands like Minor Threat were responding to the political crises and societal conformity of the contemporary era while Gibson recognized that those same political problems would turn into technological ones over a long enough time span.

Dystopian fiction has always fascinated me, but I see something different in cyberpunk. There’s a deep existential subtext beneath the neon and leather jackets — the basic idea that we must define ourselves in opposition to the tools we use or else risk becoming slaves to them.

Cole Chretien / Culture Editor

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

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