Is cyberpunk relevant today?

Before getting into the meat of today’s post I want to wish luck to all the others out there participating in NaNoWriMo this year. I wrote about 2,800 words yesterday and, once I finish this blog post, will work on my writing for this evening. I hope the writing is going well for all my fellow NaNoers (though I must confess, given that the daily minimum to hit 50,000 in November is less than two hundred words more than the daily minimum I’ve set for myself already, the shine has come off the challenge a bit and it doesn’t feel quite so daunting).

The science fiction subgenre of cyberpunk took the mid-to-late 1980s by storm following the publication of William Gibson‘s Neuromancer. Many writers have spoken at length on what cyberpunk is and why is struck a chord with the 1980s counter-cultural movement. In the years since cyberpunk has become integrated into the vast continuum of science fiction and its tropes have become part and parcel of many types of science fiction.

I consider my current work in progress a piece of cyberpunk fiction, though as with any subgenre born nearly thirty years ago there have been so many permutations that I wouldn’t dare call it PURE cyberpunk. But at its core The Selenian Quarantine is thematically a work of cyberpunk.

Being born in the mid-80s–indeed, Neuromancer’s publication came more than a year before my birth–I was never really exposed directly to the culture that spawned the punk movement and with which the book, and ensuing genre born around it, resonated so thoroughly. Nonetheless I consider Gibson, Sterling, Rucker and the other cyberpunks to be massive influences on my writing right alongside the traditional big three of science fiction.

The singular “flaw” of cyberpunk, as I see it, is the fact that given its near-future time frame and extrapolation of current technologies into that future, we very quickly diverged from the technological paths taken in those early works. Today’s iPhone seems more powerful than the decks of Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, though lacking of course the immersive cyberspace environment. That is in no way an indictment of Gibson’s work, indeed much of the technology and lingo we have today was born out of trying to create real world applications of the technologies he envisioned nearly thirty years ago.

But given this flaw, people often ask if cyberpunk can be relevant in today’s world. I say yes, yes it can and indeed it is. Not necessarily because of the technological future it builds for us–after all, what science fiction author can ever be said to get the future exactly right?–but rather because of the themes it explores. 1980s America was a corporate smorgasbord during the Reagan/Bush Sr. years. 2000s America was a corporate smorgasbord during the Bush Jr./Obama years, culminating in our more modern case with the spectacular collapse of our financial markets late in the decade.

With occupy protests across the nation, people in the top 1% basically doing their best Marie Antoinette impression from the rooftops of their skyrises (let them eat cake!), and a growing distrust of both multinational corporations and an ever bloating government, one can’t help but imagine the cultural forces that shaped the 1960s and 1970s and led to the rise of the punk movement are once again on the move.

Likewise the Great Recession mirrors the gas shortages of the 1970s and the general feeling of malaise and decline–American exceptionalism was no more, our noses were bloodied and we seemed powerless to stop the bleeding–is as palpable today as it was during the Carter years. America seems on a crash course with its own downfall, as it was then, and that is almost exactly the cultural zeitgeist that spawned the punk movement that latched on to the work of an unassuming debut novelist born in South Carolina.

The lessons cyberpunk taught us then are just as relevant and revelatory today. The world seems to function in cycles, and though the economic success of the 1990s tended to push aside cyberpunk and replace it with a less dystopic post-cyberpunk and downright optimistic cyberprep, it appears we are cycling back to a low-point. Punk rises again.

In suffering we find creation, and cyberpunk is a manifestation of the suffering we all feel. Though steeped in the technological extrapolation that is its trademark, at its core cyberpunk is the story of human suffering in a world that has gone to shit. It is a story of people abandoned by the world, forced to find a way to eke out a life in a world that is at best apathetic about them, and at worst downright hostile toward them.

Those are themes I think many of us can relate to in these times.

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2 responses to “Is cyberpunk relevant today?

  1. Looking forward to reading your work. Cyberpunk is my favorite genre and I love near-future novels of any kind.

    • Thanks Margaret! I have to agree, cyberpunk (and near-future in general) is just a fascinating genre in the way it extrapolates current technologies and current human behavior.

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