By Ian Croft
Cyberpunk. A sub genre of science fiction generally depicting a dystopian future where technology and mega corporations rule over the masses which live in slums and poverty. This genre originated between the 1960s and 1970s during the New Wave science fiction movement. Originally considered just a part of science fiction and not its own unique genre cyberpunk managed to eventually separate itself into its own sub genre by a combination of its dystopian setting and its embrace of punk, hacker, and other countercultures. Where some may see it as a grim, bleak genre I see it as a celebration of change and independence while presenting a cautionary tale of being complacent about the potential dangers within the inevitable advancement of technology. I feel that the genre of cyberpunk can be divided into three different eras: the fear of technology, the fear of the East, and finally the fear of corporations. Although all of these fears can be present within any cyberpunk story, whichever fear is forefront tended to shift over time.
Cyberpunk being the nihilistic dystopian alternative view of the future compared to the utopian view of the future that many science fiction writers were publishing at that time, this naturally had the first fear that would be presented is that of technology. This fear is most commonly expressed through narrative themes such as the loss of humanity or the loss of independence through either forceful or willing technological augmentation. The repressed masses in these stories tend to be individuals who are un-augmented whereas those who have become augmented slowly turn into soulless husks of their former selves as more of their body is replaced with technology.
This fear could also be expressed by humanity being hoisted by their own petard as they try to play God in creating new life either through robots or artificial intelligence. In the latter case the machines that are AI rise up and either nearly wipe out humanity or enslave them. Heroes of the stories tend to be un-augmented who rise up to fight in the name of the individual and freedom from ubiquitous conformity. These stories can also have reluctant heroes who have been forcefully augmented and having more internal struggle as they try to cling onto their humanity and individuality in the face of having portions of them selves being replaced. Examples of cyberpunk stories that utilize this type of fear are The Matrix (1999), where humanity has been reduced to nothing more than batteries for the machines and AI’s that they built, and the game Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011), where Adam Jensen has been forcefully augmented to save his life leading him to struggle with his sense of self while fighting against augmented terrorists.
“Yellow Peril” or Xenophobia
With Japan finishing their modern-day industrializing in the late 1900s many businesses utilized their newly-established industry for cheap labour in the mass production of goods. This increase in capital coming into Japan allowed them to be more of an economic powerhouse and have a greater presence on the international stage. Alongside this Japan was also exporting elements of their own culture into the West. Both the greater international power and greater presence of their culture lead to what I generally considered to be another era of cyberpunk. This type of fear led to stories depicting a dystopian future where no matter where you go the local currency is yen and you can’t go more than a few steps before seeing another glowing neon sign advertising you something in Katakana. This fear embodies that no matter how entrenched your culture is it will be eroded away as governments and businesses look for cheap inexpensive labour outside of their own countries. Unlike the fear of corporations or technology I find that this fear is mostly used just in the setting rather than the elements of motivation for either the protagonist or the antagonist of the story. A piece of media that embodies this sphere is the original Blade Runner movie released in 1982. Throughout this movie we constantly see advertisements in Katakana and despite the movie being set in Los Angeles when we are first introduced to Rick Deckard we do not see him at a classical western type restaurant such as the burger joint. When he’s grabbing food we see him at a ramen shop. In the exact same year that the original Blade Runner film was released Katsuhiro Otomo debuted his new manga series Akira (1982). Akira is a perfect representation of how the cyberpunk genre was presented in Japan and the differences in this genre between the east and the west. Where the West had the fear of their culture being eroded away by Japan Akira, and Japanese cyberpunk had the fear of the corruption of government. These stories depicted the government having total power over their entire country and utilizing the police force to maintain absolute order and obedience. Heroes of these types of stories recognized the corruption within the system but were often members of that system either as moderate ranking individuals within the police or low-level politicians.
Finally there is what I consider to be the newest era of cyberpunk stories that rely upon the fear of corporations, in particular mega corporations. For anyone who is not aware a mega corporation is just like your average corporation except they are big enough, have enough influence and money that they can function like their own country. Mega corporations also employ their own private security which more or less function as their own personal military. Yet despite all of the power that these mega corporations have their bottom line is still to make money so they usually do not engage in open warfare against other mega corporations. Instead these mega corporations engage in corporate espionage utilizing mercenaries to maintain a degree of plausible deniability. Heroes in these stories can either be people who are working for these corporations as mercenaries such as what is seen in the tabletop role playing game Shadowrun where you play as a Shadowrunner who quite often is contracted by one mega corporation to help further their goals or to hinder another mega corporation. The other types of heroes that can be found in these stories are individuals who go against all the odds and fight against the mega corporations. This can be seen in the 2018 movie Ready Player One as Wade Watts manages to unify all the players of the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation before the mega corporation Innovative Online Industries is able to gain full ownership of the simulation. This type of story can also be seen within Cyberpunk 2077 were the mega corporation Arasaka looks to be functioning as the main antagonist within the story.
Yet despite works discussing these three fears all three of them have come to fruition in one way or another. Smart phones have been such a integrated part of daily life that many people can’t imagine leaving their home without one. These devices can record every single conversation you have and are constantly able to know your exact location. Many governments and businesses have bent over backwards for China. Completely ignoring the numerous human rights violations in the country, their blatant expansionist tendencies, and the authoritarian control that the government holds over the people just so they can get cheap labour or market their large population.
The utter monopoly that Google holds over the Internet or the ubiquitous nature of Disney when it comes to entertainment. Not to mention the increase in the wage gaps between the CEOs at the top of these corporations and their low level employees who are struggling to earn enough money to buy a house.
Cyberpunk has shown all of us what could happen if we allow these things to remain unchecked. Yet we are not doomed as long as we are able to recognize how these things can lead us down into the path of dystopia, we can work against them and keep Cyberpunk as science fiction.