Because I have nothing better to do than to illegally connect to the ‘net via brain implant in my iso-cube, I like to spend my time researching obscure subjects. The countless, sleepless hours I’ve spent scouring cyberspace for any morsel of data concerning media genres and subgenres have all added up to something big, really big, and I won’t be able to rest until I’ve put all forms of visual media that have been infected by cyberpunk under the microscope. I can’t determine for sure if the crippling loneliness has been driving me insane, but I’m telling you, there’s a pattern, and it all leads back to one idea: memetic evolution.
See, memetic evolution is the overarching concept that all people are linked through the communication of ideas, and that those ideas develop as they are passed from individual to individual. Before we get in too deep, it should be noted that the school of memetics has received a lot of criticism for apparently viewing ideas as self-replicating organisms from a higher dimension, but it’s based on some pretty solid psychological concepts. You need look no further than the most obvious example, the internet meme, to see this in action. However, the concept of the meme (an abbreviation of the Greek word for “imitated thing”–what does that remind you of?) can be traced back all the way to cave paintings and myths. But the spread of mass media, from the printing press to our modern system of debunking false information through social media, has all but driven the traditional myth to extinction. All art (and arguably communication) is simulacra–a representation of our emotions, our worldviews, all the things we can sense vicariously through our nervous systems. In terms of storytelling, we more often than not are aware that what we’re watching is, in some way, unreality. As a fictional revolutionary once said, “Artists use lies to tell the truth.” But that doesn’t stop memetic evolution from occurring, and it results in what we now call genre.
In many ways, you can compare the transformation of ideas over time to biological evolution. Genres, analogous to species, are born under the conditions of their time and have been spawned from other genres. They either die out (anybody remember grebo or sword and planet fiction? I didn’t think so) or thrive and grow, transforming and turning into new genres and/or giving birth to genres over time (as seen in jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, punk rock). However, unlike natural selection, memetic evolution seems to be more representative of what shape evolution will take after we perfect genetic engineering and cloning technology. We have fusion genres, which are codified hybrids of two or more genres that inspired them (such as the sci-fi noir) and revival genres, which are modern imitations of genres we once thought dead, but there are telltale signs that they’re not the original (post-punk revival is my go-to example).
These days, science fiction is no longer a genre–it’s a genus, or perhaps even a family within memetic evolution, applied more often as an umbrella term than a true classification. However, its descendants are no exceptions to this phenomenon, particularly cyberpunk, which draws inspirations from a wide variety of sources, including action movies, postmodern fiction, and punk ideology. Likewise, the cultural impact cyberpunk has over modern media is monumental, adding fractal dirt into the corners of a huge portion of what artists create and we consume today. The shape of cyberpunk itself is always in flux, playing with a wide variety of styles that have and may still give way to subgenres that will evolve from it. Today, we focus on a genre that may even predate cyberpunk’s inception: astropunk.
Space operas represent the closest analogue to fantasy that you can find in science fiction. They provide the opportunity for the writer to tell whatever story they want, and who’s to stop them? Much like other fantastic, fictional technology such as time travel or parallel universe-hopping, there is no way to truly tell what we will be capable of or what we’ll find if we ever manage to get off this miserable, dying rock. Early yarns spun about extraterrestrial travel speculated that there were men on the moon, intelligent life on Mars, sexy women on Venus, and as advances in astronomy debunked all these ridiculous ideas, writers just began to think bigger, beyond our solar system, beyond our star cluster, beyond our galaxy. In many ways, the promises of space exploration run contrary to the cyberpunk ethos–space operas often suggest that we will someday be capable of traveling faster than the speed of light, conveniently transporting us to unexplored or forgotten planets and coming in contact with aliens of shapes and nature that we can’t accurately predict, instilling a sense of wonder and curious exploration that is rarely found in dystopian fiction.
If not relying on speculation surrounding very real technological concepts, cyberpunk at the very least leans heavily on grit, or the idea that the world we know is not a beautiful place (sometimes to an unrealistic degree). This isn’t to say that cyberpunk doesn’t fuck with space travel–the Denver Moon series, Armitage III, the Takeshi Kovacs novels, and even Blade Runner itself are all cyberpunk sagas that depict a post-Earth humanity, but the consequences of leaving our orbit are rarely left unaddressed, and there is little focus on journeying through the void. Nothing in cyberpunk comes without a price, while space operas for a long time seemed diametrically opposed to that worldview, finding freedom in new kind of colonialism or frontierism amidst the vastness and emptiness of space. There are examples throughout the 20th century that subvert these expectations (such as the proto-cyberpunk novel “Orphans of the Sky”) but it wasn’t until the release of the massively-influential Alien that the landscape of the space opera was altered forever.
I personally consider the “birth” of cyberpunk to be with the release of Blade Runner, the first work of art to collect all of our anxieties concerning our terrestrial, shitty future and roll them up into a single package. Alien, which was also directed by the renowned Ridley Scott, was released three years prior in 1979, and we have argued vehemently that it belongs in the cyberpunk canon. And in most ways, it fits–the Nostromo is a dark, cramped, windowless collection of pipes and tubes, space travel is long and difficult, and the film banks heavily on a sense of paranoia, particularly when it’s discovered that there is an android spy indistinguishable from humans among the crew. Even the xenomorph’s biomechanical construction adheres to a sinister nature that suggests a horrifying feat of plausible technology. However, considering Alien’s lore, it’s impossible to determine at this point whether or not we would ever have to face a cosmic terror of that nature. Instead of calling the Alien series a pure example of cyberpunk, I suggest that we instead mark it as the beginning of a sister genre that has steadily gained traction over the years, for which I’m appropriating the poorly-defined term “astropunk”.
Astropunk injects a heavy dose of reality into a genre that was once near-exclusively used as a means of escapism from our dreary waking lives. It depicts futures of our species in which we haven’t conquered the law of relativity, humanity isn’t the center of the universe, and our technology continues to change our perceptions of reality. Alien’s influence has gone a long way to shape the genre; you can see its mark in nearly every space horror flick produced since its release, but truly shines in tech-heavy, confined sagas like Dead Space, Prey, The Chronicles of Riddick, and of course, the System Shock series. System Shock 2 stands out in particular, fusing cyberpunk and the space opera perfectly, taking place on a military spacefaring vessel turned house of horrors. Superficially, the only difference between it and Alien: Isolation is, instead of being hunted by a thing from beyond, the player becomes a rat in the maze of an artificial intelligence gone mad.
Nintendo’s Metroid series is also very clearly inspired by Alien, oftentimes taking place in unsettling, abandoned industrial facilities, but instead of humanity holding a monopoly on trans- and posthumanist technologies, various alien species toy with genetic engineering and cybernetic enhancements, oftentimes applying it to xenobiology. While not a perfect example, the Metroid series incorporates many elements that could have been lifted from cyberpunk fiction. Ridley, one of the main antagonists in the series and a clear homage to Alien’s director, is rebuilt with mechanical enhancements after the events of Super Metroid, and in Metroid Prime 2, Samus comes across a fully-automated city populated by semi-sentient machines.
However, the speculative space opera is not relegated merely to the survival horror genre, oftentimes shifting the focus away from the possibilities of extraterrestrial life entirely. Armored Trooper Votoms is an early anime, but Cowboy Bebop is one of the most well-known examples of a space opera with noticeable cyberpunk elements (though the noir slant definitely helps its street cred) and is rife with tragic stories that are consequential of our technological failings. However, despite its massive impact on pop culture in the years since its debut, Cowboy Bebop remains what the writers predicted it would become: a genre unto itself.
Better examples of astropunk can be found in the excellent Battlestar Galactica reboot, which, despite taking place in a solar system far from Earth, is about an interplanetary society of humans that witness the rise and brutal retaliation of a machine race that has achieved sentience and has created its own variety of human-like androids. Another show in more recent memory that takes a page or two from BSG is The Expanse, which initially takes place two hundred-ish years in the future in our own solar system. The science in the series is handled with immense realism, and while cyborgs, sentient AI, and genetic modification are rare or hinted at at best, the interplanetary dominance of megacorporations fuels a political cold war between the Terran and Martian governments, while humankind’s outer colonies suffer cramped, unsuitable living conditions. Also, major character in the first book/season of the series, Joe Miller, is a corrupt investigator working under a security corporation on a space station on the verge of political upheaval, and his storyline follows the detective noir format to a T.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other video game releases of the past decade, which has seen a huge spike in speculative space operas. This includes independent titles like Gemini Rue, Megasphere, Colony Ship, Heaven Will Be Mine, Tacoma, and Gods Will Be Watching, which narrow their respective focuses due to budget constraints. AAA games, on the other hand, are capable of broadening their horizons, throwing in a little bit of everything you could hope for in a cyberpunk space opera. For instance, you might not think it at first glance, but the Destiny series reeks of cyberpunk influence, patterning its lore after the Middle Ages, but with a technological twist. 700 years in the future, following the collapse of a human empire in our solar system, a godlike artificial intelligence that calls itself the Traveler appears and bestows upon humans and post-humans alike wondrous technologies, ushering in a new era of religious feudalism. However, if certain theories are to be believed, it may be that the Traveler is not acting out of altruism but is in fact manipulating humankind to preserve its own existence, and the cyborg alien onslaught players face represents all of the races that the Traveler has already decimated, chasing the Traveler through space to prevent it from causing further destruction.
Of course, Bungie may have stolen an idea here or there from the gold standard of speculative space operas, Mass Effect. Bioware’s former flagship series goes to painstaking detail to rationalize all of its technology with a sense of realism and includes cyborgs, genetic engineering, and megacorporations. In fact, most (if not all) sentient species in the Mass Effect games have a history that follows speculative science fiction plot structures explored by some of the greatest writers of our time. The quarians, for instance, have been exiled from their homeworld by their creations, the geth, a near-carbon copy of the plot for Battlestar Galactica. The drell face extinction following ecological devastation of their native planet, while the krogan bombed theirs into oblivion with nuclear weapons.
And, of course, there are the Reapers: indomitable, ancient artificial intelligences who use a variety of unsettling, technologically-sound methods of bending the species they subjugate to their will. This ranges from subtle manipulation of the mind (re: brainwashing) through subconscious stimuli which alters an individual’s perception of reality to outright replacement of the body’s cells through nanotechnology, which has the ability to turn entire races into easily controlled, biomechanical zombies. And finally, if that’s not good enough for you, Mass Effect features neon atmospherics populated by lowlives in both Omega, a space station that serves as a hub for galactic crime syndicates following an era of exploitation by corporations and privateers and home to the Afterlife Club, as well as the Silversun Strip on the Citadel, which displays the seedy underbelly of the otherwise-spotless galactic capital.
I don’t think it can be denied at this point that cyberpunk has left its mark on the space opera. Even the most popular space opera of all time, Star Wars, hasn’t remained untouched. 1983’s Return of the Jedi and 2002’s Attack of the Clones display cyberpunk imagery, from the industrial conduit-ridden Death Star II and Darth Vader’s cyborg status to the seedy underbelly of the city-planet Coruscant (and if you’ve seen Ralph McQuarrie’s original concept art for RotJ, the similarities between it and cyberpunk are undeniable). I wasn’t even able to list all of the examples of speculative space operas I’ve found in my research–there are dozens of novels, video games, films, concept albums, etc. that range from interplanetary dystopia to cybernetic romps on distant, hostile worlds.
The rise of this subgenre is no coincidence–as the potential for humanity’s spacefaring days draws nearer, it becomes more and more obvious that we will need to rely on advancing our technology in order to colonize worlds that are not suited for our biology, whether that be artificial intelligence that can make astrophysical calculations much faster than the human brain for interstellar navigation, or genetic engineering to inoculate us from xenobiology and harsh living conditions. If civilization ever manages to reach the dawn of that new, terrifying era, that will be the day that the space opera becomes more machine than man.
Intrigued? Looking for more cyberpunk in your space operas? These are only what I’ve discovered, feel free to post in the comments any material you’ve come across that bring technological madness beyond Earth’s stratosphere.
Oi. What’s your favorite astropunk media? Leave your answer in the comments or on social media. I’m dyin’ in this cube.
Edit 11/14/21: speculative space opera is a mouthful, and astropunk sounds cooler.