Found myself nodding appreciatively at this re-reassessment of cyberpunk by Lincoln Michel:
Everyone has their own definitions of genres, but to me the essence of cyberpunk is not tied to the 1980s visual trappings that have defined it in video games and film. Cyberpunk isn’t merely neon signs or street toughs with high-tech leather jackets (or its problematic “Japan panic” legacy.) For me, the core of cyberpunk is first as science fiction that fundamentally recoils at the growing power of corporations and unchecked capitalism. That, as Fredric Jameson once said, cyberpunk is the “supreme literary expression…of late capitalism itself.” Secondly, that it is a genre that understands that technology is not clean. Technology is never implemented in smooth and even ways—it is always messy, always unequally accessed. Always (in our world) in service of power and systems.
“The street finds its own use for things,” yeah—the centrality (and deep truth) of that element often seems to be lost in a lot of the trashings of the genre that have been thrown around recently. Though by no means all of them: Doctorow’s take on k-punk as Luddite lit is typically idiosyncratic, and Madeline Ashby, with the eye of a novelist who is also a practising critical futurist, identifies the fundamental limitations of of the paleofutures—now four decades old—that underpin the genre as most commonly practised.
This is kind of Michel’s point, too, and he gets there by returning to the source and tracing the journey from the meat to the virtual:
Of course, thinking about the effects of technology on the human form is not new to cyberpunk. All genres have tendrils of influences and precedents that stretch back in time, but it seems fair to pick William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer as ground zero. Gibson’s novel towers over the genre as surely as the Mount Doom of Tolkien rises above the realm of epic fantasy. And Gibson didn’t forget the body. From the first page of Neuromancer we are in a world where flesh and machine are in tension. We begin in a crowded bar filled with addicts and a bartender with a “prosthetic arm jerking monotonously…his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay.” Our hero, Case, is suffering pain from his damaged nervous system. He has fallen “into the prison of his own flesh” without being able to access the matrix of cyberspace. Cyberspace is how Case escapes from the world of flesh. The meatspace.
Other ’80s works like Akira, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Donna Haraway’s classic “A Cyborg Manifesto” were even more concerned with the mingling of the human form with technology. But by the 1990s it seems the genre—in the US and UK at least—focused ever more on the virtual realm, often in a giddy way. In the ’90s, the web was the “information superhighway” where anyone could be what they wanted unrelated to the real world. Later cyberpunk novels like Neal Stephenson’s satirical Snow Crash built on this idea of escaping into cyberspace, imagining a cyberspace that is a fantasy video game world. Escapism within escapism. Even the virtual representations of bodies were incorporeal.
Michel’s own approach is to look not at information technology, which he has consciously made banal in his own work, and to focus instead on biotechnology, with the human body once again the focus of the struggle between street and boardroom. But as he notes, cyberpunk, in its slow recuperation as a nostalgic aesthetic, went on to fetishize that which it once critiqued, and to abandon embodiment as the site of struggle.
Cyberpunk is typically thought of as a dystopian genre. But what had begun as a cautionary tale became a celebration. Isn’t all of this really damn cool? Wouldn’t you like nothing more than to be a hacker god swinging swords and dodging bullets free from your corporeal form?! As cyberpunk went further down this path, the body disappeared more and more. At the same time, the fundamental critique seemed to evaporate. Dystopian elements were still tacked on, but in the background like neon holograms. For visual style, not warning. Meanwhile real-world dystopian tech companies and right-wing movements felt free to pluck cyberpunk language (“red pill,” “metaverse,” etc.) for themselves. The end of this cyberpunk path is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, where the most exciting thing in the universe is to play a video game populated with corporate trademarks.
Top marks for summing up succinctly why even just plot summaries of Cline’s work have seemed nauseatingly unappealing to me.
I would note, though, that—for all the other flaws they might be argued to have—Gibson’s most recent novels are still very much focussed on embodiment as the site of struggle; The Peripheral is totally about that conflict, and the way it is shaped by political, financial and even temporal power.. Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere, Gibson recognised the merging of cyber- and meat-space quite early; it’s arguably the central idea of the Bigend trilogy, in which one character notes in passing that (and I paraphrase) “cyberspace has everted”.
Of course, as Michel says at the start, everyone has their own definition of any given genre, and it may be that the discourse around cyberpunk will get stuck on the co-opted late-phase fantasy-virtuality definition for years to come. Mostly it’s reassuring to see someone else respond to that definitional shift in much the same way I have in the last decade or so.
But as someone from the heavy rock side of the musical divide—and there’s a generic cluster that is very much in the cultural doldrums right now, reflexively associated with rockism, Boomers, and the worst-case Durstian cliches of the nu-metal era, even as the former underdog of hip-hop shambles ever further into its own bloated and drug-addled stadium-show hegemony—I’m aware that genres never die, they just shrink to a point where those who’ve always seen something to love in them can go off and make something new out of that discarded form or style.
Michel mentions Maughan and Newitz as both having found ways to return to the political (rather than simply aesthetic) heart of cyberpunk, and his own novel sounds interesting enough that I’ll be ordering myself a copy. The flame is still alight.