Cyberpunk exists as a kind of liminal space in the imagination, the hazy middle ground where dichotomies come to play. Cyberpunk settings often manage to be both dystopian-futurist and unnervingly close to present day realities. Aesthetically we have the contrast between dark alleys and black markets played against gauche holographic advertisements and flashing electric signs. Ethics and morals are stretched and thinned into a limitless expanse of grey areas. The old moral quandaries of “good vs. evil” have been more or less abandoned, and instead people are divided into “haves and have-nots.” Technology breaks down some class distinctions and simultaneously builds walls around others. The human species learns and adapts to this ever-changing environment by upgrading itself as if it were just another machine. Somewhere in this liminal space, social binaries begin to break down, most notably, perhaps, historical notions of sex, gender, and sexuality.
The possibilities for thematic exploration in cyberpunk are endless, and it’s no wonder that the genre has seen such a surge in interest and popularity in recent years. We already live in a kind of burgeoning cyberpunk dystopia with 24/7 net-connectivity, the commodification of user data, ubiquitous monitoring by individuals, corporations, and governments, and the ever-expanding network of consumer grade smart devices designed to make us even more connected (and easier to monitor).
Where Karl Marx once decried religion as “the opiate of the masses,” and in 1957, American journalist Edward R. Murrow labelled television as “the opiate of the people,” the 21st century is proving that our addictions evolve as quickly as we do and uninterrupted data feeds and social media have become the latest drug.
I would argue that cyberpunk is the most relevant subgenre in science fiction today.
The alarm bells have been clanging since Bruce Bethke’s short story “Cyberpunk”1 gave us a name and a banner to rally beneath. Authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Rudy Rucker marched on, carrying the torch through the ‘80s. Now that our reality is beginning to show very real signs that these klaxon calls from decades-past were not merely bored children crying wolf, cyberpunk has gained an edge of urgency it didn’t have before.
While commercial cyberpunk IPs have favored a kind of retro-futurist homage to the original creators, contemporary science fiction authors have been quietly adopting cyberpunk themes and ideas and blending them into mainstream sci-fi. Why? I believe cyberpunk is a particularly rich environment in which to explore and dissect modern social constructs. Concepts of race and gender, for example, become meaningless in a world in which people can wear full-body prosthetics that look however they want them to look. The real social divisions come down rather to class; who can afford to express their ideal selves in a physical way?
Because of this, individual identity (with all it’s multitudinous facets), becomes one of the most fascinating aspects of the cyberpunk genre for the modern reader. We are only now beginning to see some forward momentum in public understanding of the various ways that intersectional identities can shape the human experience.
We are none of us reduced to any single aspect of our identities, but we are often limited in the ways that we can express our identities to the world at large. The widespread adoption of cybernetic enhancements, prosthetic limb replacements, computer-brain interface upgrades to our neural systems, all of these will change the way we express ourselves and the ways in which we experience the world.
Thus begins the breakdown of many of the ways we currently use to understand ourselves and our places in society.
As a woman—and an avid reader and science fiction author—I have been drawn to cyberpunk as a genre in which I can explore sex, gender, and sexuality more freely than in almost any other. To me, cyberpunk represents that liminal space that exists between today and Tomorrow—that unknown future we grind our ways steadily toward. It is the threshold that encompasses past, present, and future. Anything goes here. Basement grinders building their own 3D-printed prosthetics exist alongside military grade full cyborgs, and everything in between.
While advanced transhuman technologies will naturally have earth-shattering global consequences, I find myself drawn back to the individual. What becomes of us, individual humans, who exist in these high-tech, fantastically interconnected worlds.
More specifically, what becomes of women?
In A Cyborg Manifesto Donna Haraway digs into some of the parallels between human rights movements and cyborg politics, highlighting what I believe to be one of the reasons marginalized people in general, and women in particular, should be drawn to cyberpunk science fiction. Cyberpunk allows for an organic disintegration of the scientific and political traditions which have held so many people (and, indeed, nature itself) prisoner for centuries.
“In the traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics,” Haraway writes, “—the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other—the relation between organism and machine has been a border war. The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination.”2
Women have been fighting on the frontlines of this war for hundreds of years. What better way to fight than to embrace transhumanism and the blending of the borders between organism and machine?
While Haraway’s cyborg “is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity,” I’m not quite sure I agree.
How much of our sex, gender, and sexual identities exist solely in the body? If a cyborg body contains a human mind, does that mind necessarily become genderless? Gender is a performance, yes. But often it is something we perform for ourselves even in the safety and quiet of our own minds. These are ideas worth exploring in more detail.
In the 1990s series Quantum Leap, Dr. Sam Beckett was able to leap into different bodies in order to experience all the various ways of being human. In a form of extreme voyeurism, he got to see what it was like to be a woman, to be Black, to be pregnant, and disabled. But the implication of these leaps into other bodies is that he retained his original sense of self. In this way, cyborg bodies (and VR avatars, to some degree) may either reinforce or reject our personal identities. Interesting questions arise, such as how long can we exist in a body that is discordant with our sense of self before our perception changes or that dissonance begins to have a negative effect on our mental health?
These kinds of questions are becoming increasingly relevant as we begin to explore, as a culture, all the subtleties of sex, gender, and sexuality that have previously been denied us. Take, for instance, the recent announcement by the Wachowski sisters that The Matrix is a trans allegory. Suddenly the metaphor of the red pill—which reveals reality—and the blue pill—which allows you to continue to live the lie—takes on a whole new meaning.
The complex nature of individual human identities as experienced through an artificial body is one of the most fascinating aspects of the cyberpunk genre, to me. Haraway, too, saw this potential.
“Identities seem contradictory, partial, and strategic,” she writes. “With the hard-won recognition of their social and historical constitution, gender, race, and class cannot provide the basis for belief in ‘essential’ unity. There is nothing about teeing ‘female’ that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices. Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.”
As I stated above, none of us can be reduced to any one aspect of our identities. But the cyborg body may provide ample opportunities to explore the ways in which our identities can be expressed, and therefore to explore what it means to be a woman.
Cyberpunk has a reputation for often being exploitative of women and female sexuality. Movies and videogames favour images of scantily clad female prostitutes and androids, pornographic hologram advertisements, and the hyper-commodification of the female body in many forms. It is an attempt to transfer current norms into a future setting which ignores the existence of trans and non-binary people, as well as the sexualisation of male bodies which already exists.
I recently read George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails (1987) and was absolutely blown away by the author’s progressive ideas about gender and sexuality and simultaneously horrified by the way he—intentionally or not—managed to erase biological females from his world. In the Budayeen, a kind of Muslim cyberpunk red-light district, nearly every single female character is a male-to-female sex change. Strangely, in a world which treats women as sex objects and second class citizens, and sex changes are easy to come by, Effinger had men choosing to become female but hardly any women choosing to become men. It is important to note that these characters are not presented as trans people as we understand the term today, but more as men who are choosing to wear female bodies and personality moddies as a form of entertainment or, often, as a business decision in order to engage in more profitable sex work. Again, the commodification of the female body is presented as more profitable than that of the male body.
Cyberpunk may or may not deserve its reputation when it comes to the representation of women. There are, as with any genre, many examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly variety. What I love about cyperpunk, however, is its massive potential. Women writers and readers are waking up to the possibilities presented by cyberpunk themes, too. Indie authors in particular are beginning to explore cyberpunk worlds through the minds and bodies of female characters in ways that reject the male gaze.
Cyborg rights and politics are analogous with women’s rights in many ways, in particular the idea of where individual rights begin and end in a shared body. Even today, there are places in the world where women lose individual rights when they are carrying a child. How might these laws change and evolve as human bodies begin to be shared with corporations?
In a world rife with consumer grade cybernetic upgrades and prosthetics, at what point does a person give up their individual rights? If a person rents organs and body parts, they have become partial property of the corporations that manufacture their upgrades. What if you own all your own hardware but the software that communicates with your neural interface is paid for by subscription? At some point, it could be argued that the software developer is culpable for your actions. Are they morally obligated to stop you from using their product in illegal ways?
Exploration of these kinds of ideas can get dark very quickly, and perhaps women need to be the ones sounding the alarms for the next generation. We have seen first hand what can happen when our own rights are secondary to another.
Then again, perhaps this obsession with the individual, and the expression of identity through artificial bodies, is itself an attempt to force contemporary ideas and ideals onto an unknown future.
In Homo Deus, historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari speculates that as humans integrate more with machines, the age of the individual will die. Eventually, I believe, he will be right.
But what will supersede the individual in a transhumanist future?
Data, most likely. The human being will become little more than an efficient data processor feeding into a vast network that accumulates and records individual experiences as a means to harvest more and more quantifiable and commodifiable data.
Before this happens, though, I believe we will see the age of the pure individual. Haraway refers to this, somewhat scornfully and perhaps rightfully so, as essential or higher unity of self. It is the period in which individual human beings will be in complete control of their self-expression. It is the period in which we might, finally, begin to define the ‘contradictory, partial, and strategic’ aspects of our personal identities.
What is it like for me, as a woman, to exist inside an androgynous or male body? Which parts of me remain unchanged and which adapt to the physical expression of self? Does womanhood exist without a physical form? Is it possible to be a woman inside a machine? Or do we all, eventually, become sexless, genderless, raceless ghosts outside of our organic forms?
Transhumanism will be the proving ground in which socially constructed ideas like race and gender will truly be tested. Cyberpunk is the training ground in which we can prepare ourselves for the battles ahead.
And yes, maybe someday, we will lose interest in the individual. But not until the individual has been truly able to express itself in all the kaleidoscopic iterations of self out there in the world. Not until we find a way to divorce the individual from the body will we ever understand what it means to be human.
Maybe we won’t understand the individual until we have been reduced to single points in a sea of data, or humanity until we’ve sacrificed it to the next step in human evolution.
For now, we play out here in the liminal space, in cyberpunk.
And we try on all the many ways to be human.
1 Written in 1980 and first published in Amazing Stories magazine in 1983. Read for free at: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/cpunk.htm
2 A Cyborg Manifesto (1991) by Donna Haraway https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/donna-haraway-a-cyborg-manifesto