Somehow, human society has limped its way into 2020. Last year was a particularly prophetic one as far as cyberpunk goes– both Blade Runner and Akira, both staples of the genre, take place in 2019. I’ll be the first to admit that neither gets much right in terms of the visual appearance or shape that modern technology would take–we still don’t have hovercrafts, replicants (in either physical form or strictly in terms of software), commercial space travel, arcologies, or catastrophic psychic warfare, and neither film was able to anticipate the rise of the internet in their limited runtimes. That said, the spirit of both works rings truer than ever. Civil unrest is bristling conspicuously beneath the thin facade of peaceful society. Global warming is wreaking havoc on our weather patterns. Teens are getting hooked on drugs, legal or otherwise–hell, who isn’t taking something these days to help cope with how broken society is? And of course, we can’t leave out the fact that there are gun violence, immigration, and internment crises the world over due to policies based in corporate fuckery and weaponized in the form of propaganda that preys on the fear of the “other”.
I sincerely believe that 2020 marks the beginning of the end, my friends. Whether we’re going to see global economic collapse, nuclear armageddon, ecological devastation, total corporate takeover, or the coming obsoletion of the human race in the next decade wasn’t specified by the supercomputers.
And that’s just the short list of anxieties that are suffocating us all at any given moment. When you factor in personal struggles like financial woes, trauma, the search for personal identity, and mistrust of everything you’ve ever learned, it’s little wonder that nearly everyone I know is practically crippled by anxiety and depression. And none of us knows what the fuck to do about it. It’d be great if we could all get therapy, but hey, few of us can afford healthcare that’ll cover what we need.
The very, very thin silver lining in all of this is that we’ve at least begun to work on destigmatizing mental illness over the past few years. While I don’t relish the idea of categorizing people by their dysfunctions, our growing willingness to talk about them is highlighting major fractures in our society, as well as humanizing those afflicted. After all, it is well-documented that mental illness and drug abuse are heavily correlated, and while those with psychiatric disorders are not more likely to cause a person to commit a crime, I believe that the state of the mental health of those who do lies at or near to the core of their motives.
Our regular readers may have noticed that we’ve gone pretty dark over the past few months. While I can’t speak for my fellow ND writers, my own lack of content stems from the steady deterioration of my mental health over the past year or so, which culminated in a horrifying drug trip and subsequent collapse of the grasp I once had on my personal identity and sense of reality. While I am still undergoing this crisis on something like a bi-weekly basis, though fortunately to a lesser extent, I have begun realizing the hold that simulation and chemical stimuli have over my life.
Now, I’m not saying that fiction is an accurate barometer for reality, but quick–name your five favorite characters in the cyberpunk mythos. I’d be willing to bet that there’s at least one character who suffers from some sort of disorder or drug problem. Case from Neuromancer is hooked on amphetamines. Likewise, his modern successor, Elliot Alderson from Mr. Robot is both schizophrenic and is addicted to morphine. John Anderton from Minority Report takes a future-drug known as neuroin to cope with the traumatic disappearance of his son. Lenny from Strange Days is strung out on simulated memories–a common motif that crops up constantly in cyberpunk media. You will never find Spider Jerusalem sober. The Capsules, Neo-Tokyo’s rogue biker gang of emotionally unstable teens, love popping pills so much they named their gang after them.
My favorite example, however, lies in Makaku, the superpowered cyborg from Battle Angel Alita‘s first and second volumes. A sadistic brain-eating cannibal, Makaku’s levels of cruelty and disregard for human life rivals that of any psychopathic billionaire, fictional or not. Makaku makes the perfect shonen villain–relentless, remorseless, and evil to the core. However, closer to the end of his featured storyline, we discover that Makaku harbors an intense trauma; after having been abandoned as an infant by his mother, he raised himself in the streets of the Scrapyard, ignored and downtrodden until a lethal acid attack by a group of thugs left his body melting away before his eyes. Afterwards, his brain was transferred into a cyborg body consisting only of a head and a spinal cord. It’s through this backstory that we realize Makaku was merely on the lowest rung of a trickle-down system of suffering and misery. A child with no moral compass ripped from his body and placed inside a monster.
The reason Makaku’s backstory made such an impact on me is that, while grossly and violently embellished, it speaks truth to power. Though his actions after his brain transplant are abhorrent, Makaku was initially the victim of an oppressive post-capitalist system. Consider how this relates to our reality; very few people, if any, turn to the low life of drugs and crime just because they can. While the inhuman actions of criminal organizations like drug cartels and mass shooters should not be excused based on their origins, society, particularly society that seems to pick “winners” and “losers” at random in a cosmic sense, creates its own monsters. With that in mind, is it really any wonder that Jack the Ripper, the first documented serial killer, came about after systemic human rights violations were repeatedly incurred as a result of Great Britain’s industrialization?
Point being, it seems like half of the characters in cyberpunk media is struggling with some sort of mental or emotional instability that reflects cultural anxieties. Ultimately, if you dig deeply enough, you will find that all existential pain is systemic in some form or another. In the following section, I’m going to be talking about my own experiences, including violent thoughts, a drug trip gone awry, and suicidal intentions, so either buckle up or find something else to do or read that may not be quite as disturbing.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt truly free. My upbringing might not be what you’d expect from a cyberpunk–I was raised Christian and moved to a small town when I was a child. Soon after the move, despite being a cis white male, I was bullied and ignored by my peers and authority figures, which led to a preference of the company of video games and movies to that of other people. I felt unable, both through my religious upbringing (which I have since discarded) and my environment to fight back. I knew that, if I had, the hammer would come down harder on me than it would on anyone I got into a fight with, because I was described as a “good kid”. I was an outsider in the place that should have been my home for seventeen years. I was living in my own personal dystopia, and even now I can feel a frothing hatred that has led to past fantasies of school shootings, nuclear apocalypse, throat-slitting. A general desire to watch the buildings around me and the people inside them crumble into ashes. Coupled with my religious guilt into my teens, I turned this anger inwards and began self-harming.
My only escape was venting these fantasies into writing, stories in which extensions of myself could commit horrible deeds without facing repercussions in real life. Between that and all of the other simulated worlds I’ve sunk my time in, I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever had the tightest grip on reality. When I was fifteen, I experienced my first mental breakdown, in which I began to question whether or not the world I knew was real. In my late teens and early twenties I became fascinated with dystopian fiction and films, particularly V for Vendetta, Fight Club, The Matrix, and the works of Philip K. Dick. Shocker, right? My attraction to stories about systemic abuse reflected my own reality–while not nearly as nightmarish, I could relate to the struggle to find and act on personal identity in a stifling world, filtered through the lens of mindless Bush-era “patriotism” and pathetically insecure, dim-witted notions of masculinity. Furthermore, in a world rampant with misinformation perpetuated by religious, federal, and corporate propaganda, as well as my own anxieties about the fabric of my reality suddenly tearing to shreds, I could see myself in Neo, Fight Club’s Narrator, and just about any protagonist PKD committed to paper.
The funny thing about depression is you don’t always know when it starts. There is a possibility I’ve been depressed since my family moved, but it seems more likely that I never felt the full effects of a depressive state until I was fifteen. But since I joined the workforce full-time, I have never not been depressed, because if you decide to drop out of college since it’s worthless and you’re going to end up a miserable wage slave with no access to decent healthcare or social security anyways, your prospects can look pretty grim. If you are lucky enough to have never been depressed, stay that way, but understand that terms like “laziness” and “defeatism” are oftentimes applied to people who literally have little to no energy they can muster on their own. In my own experience, depression is an emotional, mental, and physical crash that occurs after a heightened state of anxiety, which is disabling in its own right. The physical and mental toll of being unable to control your own thoughts is enough to take enough out of you for weeks to months at a time. It exhausts every part of you, and the best you can hope for if you have no access to treatment is knowing that you cannot feel positive emotion towards anything. At worst, it feels like a wound you cut open yourself that won’t close, to the point that suicide seems like the healthiest option for yourself and everyone you know. It’s a prison, a maze with no exit.
I understand that everyone has problems, and many people have much worse problems than I do. It’s sad to think I was one of the lucky ones. I managed to hold out against drugs for longer than a lot of people I know, and I’m grateful for that. I didn’t start smoking weed regularly until I entered the workforce, which I resorted to in order to dull and slow my thoughts, as well as to bring on a sense of euphoria that I would otherwise be unable to experience. Sometimes, it helps. Others, it merely increases my anxiety, sometimes to the point of panic attacks, which I do not usually experience sober. But in August of last year, following a long string of shitty life decisions that led me to a dramatic increase in consumption of the electric lettuce, I had my first ever bad trip, which played upon my buried anxieties regarding reality, compounded by a worldview radically changed by cyberpunk philosophy.
The day after the trip, I found myself lethargic and completely unable to will myself out of bed, a combination of anxiety and listlessness. Before long I began to feel my thoughts spiraling out of control, and while before I was able to exhibit control over suicidal thoughts, this time I couldn’t. I was unable to turn them off. After checking myself into an outpatient clinic, I still ruminated on images of hanging, wrist-cutting, beheading, overdosing, sticking a pistol in my mouth and pulling the trigger for a good two days. This time was voluntary. I felt worse about who I was than I ever had.
Despite all this, I still smoke. I wish I didn’t need drugs. I shouldn’t need them. But I know that even if I’m risking peering beyond the mantle every time I use, I’d rather look that fear in the eye than remain locked in a reality where I know I’m powerless.
I often think about how we define the term dystopia in a real-world context. If interpreted literally, the term can be seen as the antithesis of utopia, or “good place”. This, of course, can describe many different scenarios humankind can (and has) found itself in, from eternal conflict in post-apocalyptic wastelands to tightly-controlled, regressive societies. In a literary sense, dystopia has come to represent the latter, more often than not accompanied by science fiction elements. But if the purpose of dystopian fiction is to highlight the things that are going wrong with society by blowing them out of proportion, how are we to identify a dystopia in real time?
After all, it’s not as though the world has ever been perfect. We are a species that has arisen from the eternal conflict of our consumer-based biosphere, and natural evolution works far too slowly to weed out our more violent tendencies. What we could once construe as byproducts of our survival instincts–our desire to destroy what we fear, our propensity to fall prey to groupthink–have been warped by the formulation and progression of “civilized” culture. Since the beginning, mankind has turned its attention away from the dangers of the natural world to each other. History has shown us countless times that someone always pays the price for what we call progress, from nameless tribes erased from existence prior to written history, to endless warring imposed by the Mongols and Romans, to contemporary atrocities committed by the good ol’ US of A. Our need to enslave, to dominate, to sacrifice others is embedded into our DNA. Capitalist culture in particular plays on the worst of humanity’s instincts, pitting us against each other in a meaningless fight for survival while a lucky, chosen few have enough resources to purchase entire nations through social Darwinism.
And yet, while it almost sounds cheap as I’m typing it, there are those in modern day society who claim to be able to find peace. People who find fulfillment in their daily lives, the consequences of unethical consumerism be damned. To them, the world might be a messed up place they can’t change, but it’s not a dystopia.
So is that really all that dystopia boils down to in the end? A point of view weaponized by those who feel constrained by society? Or do we simply lack perspective as a whole in the vein of Fahrenheit 451? Is dystopia measured by the amount of pain inflicted by an intentionally broken system? Or better yet, if a single person falls victim to the powers-that-be, do we all feel the effects of that suffering in one way or another?
I misled you before. The term “utopia”, first penned by Sir Thomas More, was not originally coined as an Anglicized translation of the Greek words for “good place” (eu=good, topia=place) but for “no place” (ou=no). In other words, creating an ideal, perfect world is an impossibility. So perhaps we’ve always been living with a dystopia hidden in plain sight. Before you dismiss this as pure postulation, consider the ways in which you’ve been controlled throughout your lives. The most powerful empire in the world has almost constantly been laying waste to smaller, foreign countries since 1950–not for the reasons it claims, but for political and, more recently, corporate footholds. While the CIA’s MKULTRA project may not have yielded promising results in the field of direct mind control, many of us accept without pause what mass media feeds them, supporting whatever biases their culture has already ingrained into them and ignoring objective truth. We are drowning in red tape, and the energy we spend managing our own lives isolates us from others, preventing us from enacting any lasting change in society. Instead, we glue our eyes to screens, filling the void with entertainment, no matter how substantial or informative it may be. If that’s not enough to quell the ever-present knowledge of our restrictions and alienation, we turn to drugs. We constantly live defensively, distrusting our neighbors and communities through propagated fear. In this world, there is little to no chance that we as individuals will ever reach our full potential. It has been this way for over a century, someone always has it worse than you, and the noose only grows tighter as we cede our rights to the whims of corporate empires. As the pool of the wealthy elite, those who are the only ones with true power in our current system, grows smaller as time goes on, they shape society to their selfish desires, no matter how good their intentions may be.
If you’re like me, you’re angry at everything, but you’re tired, and you’re on the verge of a mental breakdown at any given moment. Whether or not society has labeled you mentally ill, troubled, or any of a variety dismissive terms, whether or not they’re truly applicable, you’re still human. You deserve better than a life of survivalism, post-reality, and madness in the shadow of the oligarchy.
So I’ll leave you with this, punks: Have you been living in a dystopia for as long as you can remember? And, if your answer is yes, what are you going to do about it in the coming year? Vote? Riot? Care for the person next to you? Unplug or put the needle down? Whatever you do, do it to make the world a little less grim, and yourself a little less dead.