Whether it’s literature, film, music or pop culture as a whole, there’s a long tradition in art: Every now and then someone comes along and declares a genre irrevocably dead. The jury’s out cyberpunk for decades.
I’m a black writer from India, something that sits completely in contradiction with all canonical cyberpunk I’ve ever read, and I’m here to tell you why the genre has never been more alive.
A crash course in cyberpunk
For those unfamiliar with the genre, cyberpunk is characteristically set in a futuristic, technologically advanced dystopia run by an all-powerful corporation. Its protagonists are typically outcasts, disenfranchised and on the wrong side of society who use technology to bring down the system.
The origin of cyberpunk is a complex history of cultural shifts happening simultaneously in different parts of the world, creating perspectives for the future that explore the role of technology. To provide a highly condensed summary, American cyberpunk can be traced back to counterculture novels such as that of William S. Burroughs Naked lunch. In the 1960s, Samuel R. Delanys nova and Philip K Dicks Do androids dream of electric sheep? explored themes that would soon become well-identified tropes of the genre. The latter inspired Ridley Scott’s iconic film Bladerunner, which was released in 1982 and is now identified as cyberpunk. All of this led to 1984, when William Gibson’s novel neuromagecame to define the genre.
Virtually parallel, halfway around the world in Japan, punk culture and Japan’s rise as an economic and technological powerhouse led to cyberpunk in the 1970s and 1980s. Manga series by Katsuhiro Otomo Akira founded the genre in 1982 and was adapted into an anime in 1988. Cyberpunk themes have since made their way into manga, games, and anime.
“Cyberpunk is dead”… No
The genre has often been declared dead for allegedly saying nothing new in decades. All new work is said to adhere to the template set in neuromage: A lone hacker brings down an oppressive and mega-evil corporation. I don’t subscribe to this theory; in fact I challenge it.
However, cyberpunk does not get carte blanche from criticism. The existing criticism was, in my opinion, most accurate when it came to representation. Across the genre, cyberpunk has tended to be orientalist, exoticizing and appropriating Asian cultures while expressing xenophobic paranoia about a non-Western technological superpower. Predominantly white, male, heteronormative, it marginalizes women and queer people. BIPOC identities have either been fetishized or have no representation at all, and futures envisioning distinct voices from outside all of Un-America and the western Anglophone world are sparse.
That’s changing—not as quickly as I’d like, and not as broadly as I would have hoped—but it’s a start and a sign of things to come. I also think that’s where cyberpunk, and the cyberpunk novel in particular, is most alive.
Cyberpunk is alive, evolving and relevant
The world doesn’t revolve around the cishet white Western Anglophone male experience, and neither does the future.
The perennially criticized cyberpunk announcement — a lone, disenfranchised hacker versus an evil corporation — may be old hat in the context of the cishet whites’ narrative, but it takes on a very different meaning when the hacker, or tech rebel equivalent, is a represents marginalized identity.
We live in a reality where women, queers and BIPOC are minorities in technology, where the glass ceiling is real and discrimination persists. When the lone hacker is a woman or belongs to one of these marginalized interfaces, what constitutes the evil corporation takes on additional dimensions, her disenfranchisement is amplified, her agency and expression of her identity are scrutinized by patriarchy. It is odd that when one considers the “canon,” one considers a largely heteronormative body of work that conforms to gender dichotomy and reinforces gender stereotypes, in a genre where reality is fluid, where self-expression through body modification is a staple of virtual identities can take any form and systems of power are routinely turned on their head.
There is a small but growing body of work that attempts to address issues of representation in the genre. Trouble and her friendsMelissa Scott’s 1995 Lambda Award-winning cyberpunk novel is told from a feminist perspective with queer protagonists. Aubrey Wood’s forthcoming debut, Bang Bang Bodhisattva, features a trans hacker for hire in a personality-exploring novel that’s also an offbeat detective-mystery. my debut novel, The Ten Percent Thiefis uncompromisingly feminist.
The narrative changes completely when a character who represents an identity that has historically been denied – both in real life and in the history of the genre – takes over the system. The power dynamic shifts, the system is far more insidious, and they face challenges that a white male cishet protagonist will never experience.
Tech-dystopian futures have also tended to focus on the Western Anglophone world and its culture, history, and concerns. When cyberpunk novels are set in the rest of the world, the future has usually been imagined through the lens of mostly white male authors.
Modern technology has been around the world on different timelines. In India, resources to acquire externally developed technology or to develop technology internally have often been limited. India, like many countries with a colonial history, spent much of the last century catching up. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the idea of Indians building their own businesses, developing sophisticated technology and writing code caught on, and with that came the dawning of the evil tech corporation in its readily recognizable global form today.
At least as long as capitalism lasts and history repeats itself, plausibly 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. Translated into fiction, the evil enterprise and its methods of subjugation are shaped by the timeline of its arrival – how bad were things when it got there, and what was fashionable at the time? — as well as through whatever cultural ethos a novel might have, it inevitably affects that culture too, for better or for worse. Lauren Beukes Moxyland follows the lives of four characters in near-future Cape Town, run by a totalitarian corporate apartheid government. Chen Qiufans waste floodtranslated from the original Chinese by Ken Liu, explores an alternative class system on a garbage-covered island based on his experiences visiting the city of Giuyu.
India is currently home to a startup explosion. Domestic technology is widely and successfully developed, but much of its development is top-down and capitalist, compounding India’s existing socio-economic disparities and blocking access to technology. In parallel, post-truth messages circulate through messaging apps – often targeting minorities, while privacy is under constant threat from a totalitarian regime. Indian cyberpunk, like Samit Basu’s The City Inside, questions this web of capitalism, government and surveillance, set in a near-future conspiracy-locked Delhi. my novel, The Ten Percent Thiefexamines existing technological concerns in India, from surveillance and mind control to increasing social inequalities, and projects a worst-case scenario in the near future.
Sometimes the lonely hacker is BIPOC and lives in Unamerica. Dystopian futures can exist anywhere.
Various voices in the genre, pushing the boundaries and giving it new relevance, are often overlooked in the mainstream, especially when it comes to film, television, and game adaptations. Instead, the exoticization and appropriation of cultures as seen through the Western gaze continues in these media Bladerunner 2049 To Cyberpunk 2077.
Cyberpunk continues to evolve, and as the genre’s representation grows, so does the long list of what-ifs associated with technology, told through voices representing multi-faceted intersections of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, culture, and geography.
In a world where smartwatches track menstrual cycles and fertility; Hate speech, transphobia and racism find a platform in social media; and billionaire tech bros in league with fascist governments have access to multiple rooms of personal data, the questions about technology raised by various cyberpunk narratives are complex and necessary. They need to be discussed in the mainstream, and the “canon” is in dire need of an update. The future of cyberpunk is here, representing a billion different possibilities.
The Ten Percent Thief will be released on March 28th. You can pre-order Here.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Wonder, war of starsAnd star trek What’s next for the releases DC Universe in Film and TVand everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.
https://gizmodo.com/cyberpunk-south-east-asia-sci-fi-author-guest-post-1850261429 Cyberpunk Is Alive, Evolving and More Relevant Than Ever