The most tantalizing predictions of cyberpunk never came true. There are no gangs of cyborgs ruling shantytowns in New York City and there are no corporations larger than the federal government. But the sci-fi subgenre envisions such dystopias being underpinned by something subtler: the state of man’s soul when there are no longer limits.
The 1980s provided fertile ground for the piercing new vision of science fiction pioneered by William Gibson and his contemporaries. The global capitalism of Reagan and Thatcher ceded agency from nation-states to nation-agnostic corporations. Less obvious but just as important was the fact that the space race was over and Star Trek’s naivety was laid bare. Computers, not spaceships, would become the measure of progression towards the future. The sleek, utopian vision of the mid-century futurism was further discredited by soaring crime in urban centers.
Modernity that was once expected to bring matching space unitards instead brought radical self-expression. The overabundance of choice, these authors suggested, leads to decadence, decay and a society where people can’t see clearly without losing their humanity.
And so the heroes of cyberpunk are outsiders—the punks to which the genre owes half its name. In cyberpunk, there are no more grand narratives about progress and triumph. Humans have nowhere to go and decay is globalized; this is sci-fi without the comforting thought of alien life. Readers experience an Earth where the concept of “place” has passed its expiration date. Protagonists, like the megacorporations they tangle with, exist across borders, anywhere being as familiar or foreign as anywhere else. Neon Japanese syllabary studs skyscrapers that loom over the crowded downtowns of American cities. Virtual reality is at once a catalyst and a coping mechanism for social breakdown.
What is an individual to do in the face of such brutal atomization? Why, he takes individualism to its perverse conclusions, William Gibson’s Neuromancer suggests. Take the following passage:
His face was a simple graft grown on collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides, smooth and hideous.
The novel implies that the character might appear a little later with a completely different face. Self was another uncertainty that had been sloughed off by ceaseless momentum. Even the author’s jargon serves to impart a feeling of unfamiliarity.
We’re starting to live in a time when such terrible and wondrous things are not only technically possible but socially acceptable. Headlines were made last month over a fetal lamb being grown in an artificial uterus. The creature, invaded with tubes, suckles and kicks inside its bulging, rippling enclosure. The juxtaposition of twitching organism and sterile, utilitarian plastic is simply cyberpunk. Gender is going the way of that thug’s cartilage-grown face. Male and female is looking more like Coke and Pepsi, with some opting to make their own artisanal cola blends. As rootlessness moves from exception to rule, obligations to others begin to look like hindrances. It isn’t difficult to see how three-parent babies in polycarbonate wombs fit into all of this.
Change is fast these days. We can feel acceleration that was once only perceptible between generations. At the same time, the past is more crystallized than it’s ever been before. Today’s everyman, immersed in a data-sphere orders of magnitude more efficient than any library, can see more clearly than ever that things were different in an ever-familiar past. A world with meaning resolves ever sharper as we speed away from it.