For a genre that often really tries to ground itself in, if not a realistic, then at least a vaguely probable future, cyberpunk misses more than it hits when it comes to human sexuality: especially considering the technological and social changes that are taking place right now.
These too-often misses are even more egregious when also factoring in cyberpunk’s outlaw attitude: that the characters are predominantly cultural and social outsiders. Normally these kinds of people would be the ones who would be pushing the limits of eroticism—creating their own forms and pleasures without regarding what anyone might think of them.
Instead, we mostly have protagonists who are woefully, painfully mundane when it comes to sex. Sure, there might be a secondary, or even tertiary character who might be LGBT or (oh my god) kinky but they are never featured players: existing mostly to give the book, movie, or whatever the illusion of being provocative and outrageous.
For example in the (and, yes, I am going to go there) seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, there is only one brief sex scene. In fact, most of Gibson’s work steers well away from anything except heterosexual characters having heterosexual sex. In a word: Yawn!
The same can be said of Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon series, which completely and frustratingly misses just about every opportunity to thoroughly explore the ramifications of being able to exchange physical bodies. Not only that, but his frankly horrible sex writing generates more squirming nausea than anything close to arousal.
A few authors, to give them credit, have pushed back against this unimaginative view of sex in the near future. In Richard Kadrey Metrophage there’s a polyamorous relationship and even a ménage à trois—though it comes off as more titillating for titillating sake than really being an exploration of future sexuality.
Much better is the sadly far-too-often overlooked cyberpunk classic Bad Voltage by Jonathan Littell which, while it doesn’t speculate on the future of sex, does feature a wonderfully depicted bisexual character—so much so that this book really should be held in higher regard as doing both cyberpunk and queer characters right.
Similarly excellent is George Alec Effinger’s Marîd Audran series, beginning with When Gravity Fails, which creates a world where transgendered characters aren’t just present but accepted as part of his speculated Arabia of the next hundred years.
And we can’t forget proto-cyberpunk works such as Jean Marie Stine’s brilliant Season Of The Witch—where sex reassignment is common and even used as punishment for sexual assault—and the mischievously delightful sexual decadence of Alfred Bester’s Golem 100 and The Computer Connection.
There are no doubt other books that do well, what so many others do so badly—and please share your favorites—but the fact remains that even when cyberpunk does get close it is still far too dull when compared with what the next few decades will bring to the human sexual experience.
But before I get into this, do keep in mind that what I’m about to write about isn’t pure speculation, but rather is based on current trends as well as real scientific developments. Though, as always, I’m as guilty as cyberpunk when it comes to really accurate future forecasting.
That out of the way, one of the biggest changes that are going to happen—and sooner rather than later—is society moving beyond the idea of gender.
We are already seeing the beginning of this in the growing movement recognizing that gender is a personal identification and not limited by physiology: that what and who you are is your own decision and no one else’s.
What this means is that in the next few years gender won’t be limited to blue and pink but instead, there’ll be—and, yes, I’m going to go there again—a rainbow of possibilities. Instead of labeling anyone anything we will instead get used to simply asking, politely, what a person’s gender preference is.
If you’re thinking about sex in all this, which is very different than gender, then keep thinking: with genetic processes like CRISPR andcybernetic augmentation, won’t the equipment people have down their trousers (or anywhere else on their bodies) will be just as variable?
Then there’s the impact of altering reality. No, I don’t mean Arthur C. Clarke levels of technology but rather when virtual and especially augmented reality become commonplace.
When this happens, we’ll be able to enter a completely unique, but ultra-realistic world, or have it visually combined with the one we already see around us. Human sexuality will then explode with new forms, styles, and pleasures—our erotic imagination allowed totally free reign.
But one of the biggest changes is going not to be through technological innovation but social evolution. We are already seeing much of it already, from #metoo to gay rights: the growing acceptance that human society has to make some serious alterations in how we think about sexuality.
Part of this is passing beyond old cultural behaviors and beliefs, especially ones that have outlived their usefulness while embracing new modes of behavior. Clear consent will hopefully become an integral part of life, with people accepting it both as a sign of respect but also as a way of being empathetic to the sexual needs/concerns of other people.
Marriage will shift as well, with other forms of emotional and sexual interactions becoming equally prevalent: polyamory, relationship anarchy, asexuality, and even BDSM relationships becoming an accepted part of human society.
There’s a lot more to go into, including the impact of being able to modify our own neurochemistry as well as the impact of artificial intelligence and robotics, but I think the point is made: cyberpunk needs to step up its high-tech/low-life game when it comes to looking at the future of sex.
The good news is that the future isn’t going anywhere. There’ll always be time for writers, filmmakers, and artists to let go of the dried up old past of sexuality and instead give us some truly imaginative and speculative glimpses of what the future might bring.
To quote from William Gibson himself: “The future is there… looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become.”
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