There’s a long tradition in the arts, whether it’s literature, film, music, or all of pop culture in general: once in a while someone comes along and proclaims a genre irrevocably dead. The jury is out cyberpunk for decades.
A crash course in cyberpunk
For those unfamiliar with the genre, cyberpunk is typically set in a futuristic, technologically advanced dystopia ruled by an all-powerful corporation. Its protagonists tend to be outcasts, disenfranchised and on the wrong side of society, who use technology to bring down the system.
The origin of cyberpunk is a complex story of cultural changes occurring simultaneously in different parts of the world, giving rise to future perspectives related to the role of technology. To offer a very abbreviated summary, American cyberpunk goes all the way back to counterculture novels, such as William S. Burroughs. naked lunch. In the 1960s, Samuel R. Delany Nova and Philip K. Dick Do androids dream of electric sheep? explored themes that would soon become well-identified tropes in the genre. The latter inspired Ridley Scott’s iconic film blade runner, released in 1982, and is now identified as cyberpunk. All of this led to 1984, when William Gibson’s novel, neuromancercame to define the genre.
Virtually parallel, halfway around the world in Japan, punk culture and Japan’s rise as an economic and technological power gave rise to cyberpunk in the 1970s and 1980s. Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga series Akira established the genre in 1982 and was adapted into an anime in 1988. Cyberpunk themes have since found their way into manga, games, and anime.
“Cyberpunk is dead”… No
The genre has often been proclaimed dead because it hasn’t said anything new for decades. All new work purportedly sticks to the pattern defined in neuromancer: a lone hacker brings down an oppressive and mega-evil society. I do not subscribe to this theory; in fact, I dispute it.
However, cyberpunk is not free from criticism. Where the existing reviews have been most valuable, in my opinion, is when they look at representation. Across the genre, cyberpunk has tended to be Orientalist, both exoticizing and appropriating Asian cultures while expressing xenophobic paranoias about a non-Western technological superpower. It is predominantly white, male, heteronormative and relegates women and gay people to the margins. BIPOC identities have either been fetishized or find no representation, and futures imagined by their own voices outside of all of non-America and the Western English-speaking world are rare.
It’s changing – not as fast as I’d like, and not as widely as I would have hoped – but it’s a start, and it’s a sign of things to come. This is also where I think cyberpunk, and in particular the cyberpunk novel, is most alive.
Cyberpunk is alive, evolving and relevant
The world does not revolve around the experience of English-speaking white cishet western men, and neither does the future.
The cyberpunk perpetually criticized across the line – a disenfranchised lone hacker against an evil corporation – might be old hat in the context of the white male cishet narrative, but it takes on an entirely different meaning when the hacker, or a tech rebel equivalent, represents a marginalized identity.
We live in a reality where women, queer people and BIPOC are technological minorities, where the glass ceiling is real and where discrimination persists. When the lone hacker is female, or belongs to one of these marginalized intersections, what evil society represents comes with added dimensions, their disenfranchisement is compounded, their agency and identity expression is controlled by the patriarchy. It is strange that when we consider the “canon”, we perceive a work that is largely heteronormative, conforming to the gender dichotomy and reinforcing gender stereotypes, in a genre where reality is fluid, where self-expression through body modification is a must, where virtual identities can take any shape or form, and systems of power are regularly upended.
There is a small but growing body of work that seeks to address issues of representation in gender. Trouble and his friendsLambda Award-winning 1995 cyberpunk novel by Melissa Scott is told from a feminist perspective with queer protagonists. Aubrey Wood’s upcoming debut, bodhisattva bang bang, features a transgender hacker in a novel that explores personality while being an edgy detective mystery. My first novel, The Ten Percent Thiefis resolutely feminist.
The narrative changes completely when a character representing an identity that has been historically denied – both in real life and in the history of the genre – takes on the system. The power dynamics change, the system is much more insidious, and they have to deal with challenges that a white cishet male protagonist will never experience.
Techno-dystopian futures have also tended to focus on the Western English-speaking world and its culture, history, and concerns. While cyberpunk novels have taken place in the rest of the world, the future has generally been imagined through the prism of predominantly white male writers.
Modern technology has been in different eras around the world. In India, resources to acquire technologies developed externally or to develop technologies in-house have often been limited. India, like many countries with a history of colonization, has spent much of the last century catching up. The idea that Indians could start their own businesses, develop sophisticated technology and write code only caught on in the 1990s, and with it came the first stirrings of the evil tech society in its current global form, easily recognizable.
Plausibly, at least as long as capitalism persists and history repeats itself, everyone eventually gets to the point where evil tech corporations are real entities, and when paired with the occasional totalitarian government, things go very wrong. When transposed to fiction, evil society and its methods of subjugation are shaped by the timeline of its arrival – how bad things were when it got there, and what who was leading then? – as well as the cultural ethos that a novel might be. Inevitably, it also impacts that culture, for better or for worse. by Lauren Beukes Moxyland follows the lives of four characters in the near future of Cape Town ruled by a corporate apartheid totalitarian government. Chen Qiufan Tide of wastetranslated from the Chinese original by Ken Liu, explores an alternative class system on an island covered in trash, based on his experience visiting Giuyu Town.
India is currently home to an explosion of startups. Local technology is widely and successfully developed, but its development is largely top-down and capitalistic, amplifying India’s existing socio-economic disparities and blocking access to technology. At the same time, post-truth information is proliferating via messaging apps, often targeting minorities, while data privacy is constantly threatened by a totalitarian regime. Indian cyberpunk, like that of Samit Basu The city within, interrogates this network of capitalism, governance and surveillance, set in a near-future Delhi mired in conspiracy. my novel, The Ten Percent Thiefexplores existing technological concerns in India, from surveillance and thought policing to reinforcing social disparities, projecting a worst-case scenario into the near future.
Sometimes the lone hacker is BIPOC and lives in America. Dystopian futures can exist anywhere.
Diverse voices of the genre, which push the boundaries and breathe new relevance into it, are often overlooked in the mainstream, especially when it comes to film, television, and game adaptations. Instead, the exoticism and appropriation of cultures seen through Western eyes persists through these media, from Blade Runner 2049 For Cyberpunk 2077.
Cyberpunk evolves, and as representation in the genre grows, the long list of storylines associated with technology, told through voices representing multi-faceted intersections of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, culture and geography, is also increasing.
In a world where smartwatches track menstrual cycles and fertility; hate speech, transphobia and racism find a platform on social media; and billionaire tech-bros in cahoots with fascist governments have access to multiple rooms full of personal data, the questions about technology raised by various cyberpunk narratives are complex and necessary. It needs to be talked about in the mainstream, and the “canon” is in desperate need of an update. The future of cyberpunk has arrived, and it represents a billion different possibilities.
The Ten Percent Thief will be released on March 28. You can pre-order here.
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