2017 and the Rebirth of Cyberpunk

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As far as cyberpunk culture goes, I’m a relative newcomer. I was unaware of the consolidation of futuristic, dark neo-noirs and conspiracy thrillers with urban environments as their backdrops as an entire genre until the summer of 2014, when I first watched the anime series Psycho-Pass. Three and a half years later and it seems like this is the only thing I think about anymore. Of course, I’d say most people who know movies, video games, tabletop games, or sci-fi novels know what cyberpunk is, even if they’ve never heard of the term; with media like Blade Runner, Neuromancer, Cyberpunk 2020, The MatrixDeus Ex, Akiraand so much more permeating the cultural zeitgeist, cyberpunk has had an irreparable influence in shaping the modern face of science fiction–hell, modern media at large. That said, my perception of what cyberpunk actually is continues to change on a daily basis as I try to get my head around 35+ years of authors trying to predict just how terrifying the future is going to be.

When I first left my own Platonic Cave, after watching shows like Ghost in the Shell: Arise, seeing movies like Tron: Legacy, and playing games like Mirror’s Edge, I was under the impression that the future these stories foretold was going to be unbelievably clean and sleek. To me, cyberpunk had only begun in 2014. The disorienting, industrial nightmares fueling the material of The Matrix, Alienand Dex seemed like one-offs, particularly pessimistic visions of the future that didn’t fit with the modern perception of the culture. I saw cyberpunk as a subgenre of science fiction about trying to retain individuality in an increasingly normalized, restricted society. And in a way, that’s true. Despite the gorgeous, clean lighting and slick, shiny visuals, contemporary cyberpunk like the aforementioned Psycho-Pass and Mirror’s Edge, as well as 2013’s Remember Me all feature characters who are trying to hold onto their identities in the shadows of the systems governing their lives. These systems aren’t necessarily malignant, like a less-nuanced dystopia you might see in, say, V for Vendetta, but are so rife with crushing complacency and apathy that the effect is essentially the same. And for some time, I thought this was a trend that was taking hold in modern cyberpunk.

remember me modern cyberpunk
It was all just neo-cities and ultraviolence back in the day.

But last year, something changed. In 2017, we got five fairly major cyberpunk releases that seem to be a return to the ugly, expressionist cyberpunk of yesteryear without a sense of irony. The live-action Ghost in the Shell, Blame!, Observer, Ruiner, and, of course, the impeccable Blade Runner 2049while not all received particularly well, seem dedicated to reviving what I am, for the purposes of this article and future references, referring to as first wave cyberpunk.

My first instinct at a point like this is to break things down. And before I go any further, I should state that, since my knowledge of the genre is only about three years in the making, the following is only the opinion of a 20-something layman who thinks absolutely too much about a category of sci-fi that is still relatively unknown by the masses.

First Wave Cyberpunk

Initially formulated in the early 1980s by media like Blade Runner and Neuromancer, first wave cyberpunk is characterized by incredibly dark and mechanical versions of humanity’s future. While cyberpunk across the board seems to have come to the consensus that everything looks cooler at night, the first wave draws upon heavy shadows to present to its audience a future that is cloaked in uncertainty. This is a holdover from the expressionist movement, a visual style that holds its worldview as a waking nightmare and is most notably seen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolisa film that, despite being the better part of a century in age, contains science fiction elements that endure to this day–such as simulacra, imposing corporate towers, and rampant industrialization.

metropolis new tower of babel industrial
Metropolis’ imposing corporate stronghold, the New Tower of Babel

The element of shadowplay was, more often than not, the only element of expressionism that survived as it was passed down through the film noir, a subset of crime movies that came into its own in the 1940s. Noir, one of the most influential genres in the history of film, played with lighting less as a method of expressing existential nihilism (although don’t get me wrong, noirs are chock full of that) and more of a way of making things look hella stylish. However, things seem to have come full circle with Blade Runner, arguably the first fully-realized cyberpunk piece committed to celluloid, which both draws heavy influence from detective noirs like The Big Sleep and uses dim or otherwise stark lighting to accentuate a future that seems alien and terrifying.

the big combo film noir end
The Big Combo’s iconic ending shot, an illustration of expressionism at work. Compare to Blade Runner’s blue smoke and neon aesthetic.

First wave cyberpunk was not concerned with portraying the world as it will be. We would have had to really fuck things up for our world to get as bad as Blade Runner’s Los Angeles of 2019, or Cyber City Oedo 808’s Tokyo, or hell, even Max Headroom‘s megalopolis. Part of the fun of these early works was taking bits and pieces of what we observed in society at the time and blow them way out of proportion. First-wave cyberpunk commonly drew upon massive conduits and other hyper-industrial constructs for imagery, as well as tangles of thick cables constantly tethering us to our tech, cyborgs that are more machine than man, and visors–so, so many visors–that keep its denizens from seeing the world as it truly is. It was always warning us of the dangers of technology left off its leash, while simultaneously bringing forth truths about what it means to be human in the face of all this. This is why it was a genre that endured for so long, culminating in the be-all-end-all of logical extremes in The Matrix’s virtual revolution and manifestations of messianic tropes, bringing cyberpunk into the peripherals of the early 2000s mainstream.

Of course, all good things must come to an end. In and around 2003, with the closure of the infamous Matrix trilogy, the manga run of Blame!, and the comic series Transmetropolitaneach very extreme examples of worlds gone mad–we seemed to have gotten our fill of this incarnation of what cyberpunk once was. Of course, I may be wrong about this, but it seems like only every now and then we’d get a genuine attempt to return to the tropes driving the original movement–the 2006 anime Ergo Proxy and the 2013 novel Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity being prime examples. But these attempts seem to have been few and far between, and though first wave cyberpunk has seen something of a resurgence in the past few years, its constituents seem to be either ironic takes on their sources of inspiration or drawing on the kitsch appeal of what can now be considered retrofuturistic.

Visor? Check. Cables? Check. Scary-looking city as a backdrop? Check. Ungodly fusion of man and machine? Check and check.

Post-Cyberpunk

Part of the reason first wave cyberpunk fell out of the limelight may have had to do with the rise of post-cyberpunk, a genre designed to deconstruct cyberpunk’s “high tech, low life” ethos. It does this by dissecting the main elements that comprise cyberpunk as a genre–specifically, the techno-dystopia, or a system designed to limit the potential of the individual through the advancement and control of technology. While it has its roots in the 1990s starting with Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (or so I’m told), Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) is a clear-cut, fairly-well-known example, as is Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (another 2002 release). Post-cyberpunk commonly depicts a future where everything’s not horrible, because technology isn’t used against the individual by the system in place–at least, not on a large scale for an extended period of time. The futures post-cyberpunk show us are, at best, fairly light and idealistic (Paprika, Dennou Coil), and at worst, more of the same as what we have now, just with better toys (Inception, most of Dollhouse). Therefore, since alienation is a little less common, the main characters are less likely to be “punks”, outsiders, antiheroes, etc., and take up the roles of more traditional protagonists.

For instance, in Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, is addicted to a cyberpunky future drug known as neuroin and serves a government that locks its prisoners in a filing-cabinet-esque institution, disabling their mental functions to a comatose state without a fair trial. While this, of course, is a pretty scary system to live under, it’s revealed that (15-year old spoiler alert) the system is dismantled upon the movie’s conclusion. Similarly, the more-recent Transistor‘s conflict revolves around a well-known artist hunted by a malicious AI under the control of an Illuminati-wannabe group, taking place against the backdrop of a beautiful, idealized city in the middle of a golden era of expression akin to the Jazz Age. Even when post-cyberpunk of this variety tackles world-ending stakes, the heart of the problems that arise in the story is rarely the system itself, but factors surrounding it.

However, in more recent years, post-cyberpunk has gone about deconstructing the cyberpunk genre in a different way. Instead of focusing on the dystopian elements of cyberpunk, many post-cyberpunk stories from the original Mirror’s Edge onward seems to pose this query: what if we don’t need new technology to exert control over society? After all, if Queen Elizabeth could create a totalitarian government, our leadership sure as hell can. It’s no secret that we at Neon Dystopia are crazy about Mr. RobotSam Esmail’s magnum opus set in a dystopian world that is essentially identical to our own. Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs and its sequel follow a similar premise, as does BBC America’s Orphan Blackdespite each title taking a few liberties with what we are currently technologically capable of. Syfy’s series Continuumwhile also containing the fantastic element of time travel, makes an interesting point to connect the dots between the technology we have today and how it can be used against us tomorrow. But, despite how post-cyberpunk may manifest itself, one thing’s for certain: it’s still got the cyberpunk sense of style.

mirror's edge 2008 faith
Faith even has a computer chip tattoo sleeve–if that’s not cyberpunk, then I don’t know what is.

Second Wave Cyberpunk

I’m aware that it’s generally accepted that modern cyberpunk is really just an offshoot of post-cyberpunk, but just hear me out. At the end of the day, of course, you’re allowed to think whatever you want; the way everyone defines cyberpunk is different, and it’s important that it stays that way. But the way I see it, the tropes of grim, Kafkaesque science fiction had grown tired to both audiences and creators alike by the time 2004 rolled around. Perhaps partially in response to the rising post-cyberpunk movement, cyberpunk culture had found itself in a position to evolve. And evolve it did; while adhering to certain elements that define cyberpunk as a whole, second wave cyberpunk strives to present us with futures that are more plausible than their predecessors, but still aren’t necessarily ideal. Of course, the second wave has its own roots in films as early as 1988’s Akirabut was never fully-realized until films like Ghost in the Shell and Strange Daysboth 1995 releases, which immersed their audiences in settings that were much more familiar than Blade Runner’s LA.

ghost in the shell 1995 newport city chase scene
Ghost in the Shell, 1995

The demand for this type of cyberpunk has especially risen since Deus Ex: Human Revolution seemed to have jumpstarted a desire among fans for more of this semi-realistic depiction of tomorrow. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tron: Legacy–a film that, while swapping out most “punk” elements for a Disneyfied plot structure, has been massively influential in overall cyberpunk design, with its fashionable, impossibly-smooth construction and lighting that always feels as pure as it is artificial.

tron legacy city recognizer
Tron: Legacy’s crazy-sleek city

Second wave cyberpunk shows a higher degree of fidelity to making predictions that reflect the progress humankind has made with its technology and architecture than its predecessor–but this isn’t to say that it’s lost its teeth. Corporate dominance inching toward complete control over the individual is a common factor in the second-wave, as are extensive city sprawls, and a general sense of the things we own owning us. Incomprehensibly massive structures and nightmare-fuel imagery are less common, but not out of place.

On the other hand, to make the world depicted more authentic, a sense of neo-industrialism seems to have taken hold. As green energy becomes more widespread and a robotic workforce becomes imminent in our own world, idealistic science fiction concepts might crop up here and there, like Human Revolution’s Panchaea, a gigantic facility designed to combat rising ocean temperatures. Of course, it also turns out (again, spoilers) that Panchaea’s construction was pioneered by a maniac member of the Illuminati and almost literally runs on human souls, so take that as you will. Because here’s the thing–just because these visions of the future may be prettier or more realistic doesn’t make the conditions of the average person any less soul-crushing. If an AI overlord, like the Sibyl System in Psycho-Passwas to dictate that a person like you or I who deviates emotionally from the norm is no longer fit for society, resulting in indefinite imprisonment (or on occasion, very bloody explosions), how is this better than Blade Runner’s own system built around slave castes of replicants? Just because second wave cyberpunk tends to be much more pleasing to the eye than its predecessor, make no mistake: that doesn’t make it any less totalitarian.

The Shape of Modern Cyberpunk

So what does it mean when cyberpunk tropes that appeared to either be dead or dying are suddenly being brought back into the fold? Even though Ghost in the Shell 2017 and Observer have their own retrofuturistic quirks, it’s clear that they, along with Ruiner, Blame!, and Blade Runner 2049 weren’t made in an attempt to imitate first wave cyberpunk, but to revive it. To make something new. They bring back the hyper-industrialized cities of the first wave and slap a fresh coat of paint on them. Blame!, based on the manga from the late ’90s and early 2000s, updates some of its own imagery to fit the modern perception of cyberpunk, swapping out massive braids of electrical cords for wireless tech. Blade Runner 2049 also presents us with an overwhelmingly colossal corporate headquarters that puts the oft-referenced Tyrell ziggurat to shame. Ruiner takes the concept of a cityscape so warped and enmeshed by industrial conduits and urban development that the lower levels see no natural light, steeped in a bloodbath the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Hotline MiamiHell, we just got wind that Netflix is releasing yet another cyberpunk series based on Richard Morgan’s classic novel, Altered Carbon in February of this year, on top of other releases like The Last Night and The Red Strings Club. It looks very much like they will be chasing this same trend.

Concept art for Blade Runner 2049Tyrell Corp in the foreground, Wallace Corp in the background.

If you’re a fan of the Jungian school of psychology (as I am), you might find that the art produced by the people of any given time period reflects the mental state of creators and fans alike at that time. If this is true, then it might be safe to assume that our current collective vision of the future is, well, pretty damn bleak. Cyberpunk has always been pessimistic, but the past couple years up till now have gotten us dwelling on futures that border on pure nihilism, because maybe, just maybe, things just aren’t going to get better. Just look at how far gone everything seems to have become–we’re destroying our planetwide ecosystem, and nobody seems to care enough to try and stop it, myself included. The rate of violent crime may be continually decreasing (which I personally am not unconvinced is a sign of living in a police state) but the death tolls of mass shootings are skyrocketing. And I can’t speak for nations outside of the US, but corporate involvement in our politics has become so much of a problem that, no matter who it is we vote for, we’re just pushing some one percenter’s agenda. Just watch this scene from Mr. Robot, you’ll get the gist of it.

Also, spoilers.

Maybe we’re just past the point of saving ourselves from a gruesome fate. And maybe, deep down, we know we deserve it. I suppose we’ll see in 2018 if that changes at all.

12 Responses to “2017 and the Rebirth of Cyberpunk”

  1. ??MajiK??

    This is the best article on this subject ive seen to date in the recent months that ive seen such articlea pop up. Thank you for your indepth view and analyis as I have noticed you covered subjects and me tik ed titles that I hold dear but most people are ignorant too. Bravo.

  2. Do not forget “Person of Interest” as a second wave of Cyperpunk. It may start as a cop procedural with a twist, at first. Yet the morphing of the story line to a full out AI war though is thoroughly Cyberpunk.

    • Eireknight

      Person of Interest is definitely dystopian… the weight of that isn’t apparent until the last couple of seasons, but that’s actually perfect. The start as a procedural actually eases you into the idea that this is a world like our own, but it totally isn’t and is at the same time.

      Maybe we need another category, pop-cyberpunk, to explain subservice cyberpunk masquerading as a pop property.

  3. “That said, my perception of what cyberpunk actually is continues to change on a daily basis as I try to get my head around 35+ years of authors trying to predict just how terrifying the future is going to be.”

    I don’t think it’s a matter of trying to predict the future. I think it’s more a matter of pointing the present in a particular direction and seeing where it might end up. The basic ‘what if?’ question to launch a story, as contained within a particular aesthetic and/or point of view.

    At the same time, the characters and story worlds have to be (mostly) recognizable so we can follow along. Cyberpunk (and all its iterations) uses futuristic technologies that are bolted onto present-day tech so that it has a hook to the past – our present. That hook also conveys a sense of time in motion, from the present/past toward that future ad beyond. I guess it’s more of a potential vector than a prediction, if that makes sense.

    The technologies that shape the story world can then be used to test the main character’s belief system about how their world works. If it’s a classic hero’s journey, they start out being stuck because of a flawed belief about how their world works. The plot then disabuses them of that belief. To me, the main difference between cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk is that the former is mostly tragic while the latter is more comic.

  4. Neon Snake

    “the following is only the opinion of a 20-something layman”

    Well, as a 40 year old who’s been immersed in it for 25 years or more, I’d say you’re pretty much spot on. Good article.

  5. Zachery Gaskins

    Also worth following is Android: Netrunner card game by Fantasy Flight (which includes a seris of books and a worldbook that will inform the new Genesys generic RPG system) which takes the 80’s cyberpunk of the original version and reboots into a glitzy neonoir setting that pulls from a number of sources into a future that is both old and new, and focuses on the impending replacement of human labor by AI (or worse, quasi-legal biological clones purpose-built to be survivable in harsh conditions and yet subservient and polite). The struggle erupts from both these two new forms of life attempting to assert their own freedom while the disenfranchised, unemployed poor blame them for no longer having job prospects, forcing them to suckle at the megacorporate teat.

  6. Eireknight

    Good article. I agree with most of it. Your assessment of the stages makes some sense, and your observation that the appetite for different types of Cyberpunk as the world was at different stages of strife is, I think, spot on.

    I’d also suggest considering some of PKD’s works, like A Scanner Darkly, as proto-Cyberpunk. Early sci-fi was definitely influential to the development of Cyberpunk themes.

    I’m 38 and have been into Cyberpunk since the early 1990s. I was really heavy into the BBS scene back in those days and if you’ve ever done any reading into what teenagers did on the BBS scene in those days you can probably connect some dots there. 🙂

    My one gripe about your take on First Wave Cyberpunk is that I actually would say that writers like Gibson actually *were* trying to forecast, to some limited extent, what the future of tech would look like. There was definitely some fast and loose play and a greater focus on social commentary, but all of these authors were more or less technologists. It’s really easy to forget, growing up in a world where the Internet is easy to get onto and modern UX exists, that in the 1980s we were dealing with boxes (decks) that you’d plug into your TV and you’d just get a grey/green screen with a CLI prompt. People working on those systems weren’t far removed from punchcard systems. The kind of UX design that we have right now was completely missing. In that environment, every attempt at guessing what future UX would look like was inherent futurism.. and in some ways they weren’t as far off as we might judge.

    In the 1980s, the specter of nuclear war loomed large… the corporations were really booming… the Cyberpunk authors were the first ones to really realize that a new class of people was rising up who had technical skills but no other political economy, and that eventually knowledge would be a tradable power that would elevate that group but also make them different than others. They also envisioned that this and other strife would change the nature of our cities, how we interacted, etc.

    People like Gibson and Stephenson talking about concepts like the sprawl was accurate, if embellished, projection of the future.

    So while Cyberpunk is kind of a sci-fi lens on futurism embellished for stylistic purposes, those authors were actually concerned with discussing potential future directions… it’s just that in hindsight the things they predicted look more fantastical to us because we have the benefit of hindsight.

    Hell, the differences between tech in the 1990s and now are pretty dramatic, and they’re less dramatic than the differences between the 1980s and the 1990s. Consider that the art of Phreaking is basically dead because the phone infrastructure doesn’t look like it used to in such an extreme way.

    Food for thought, my friend.

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