Cyberpunk, sadly, died in infancy. What’s worse is, it was replaced by a changeling.

When I talk about cyberpunk, I’m really talking about the politically-charged visionary science fiction written by Bruce Sterling’s cohort in the late 1970s and early 1980s that combined the stylistic experimentation of the New Wave movement, the social consciousness & focus on economic injustices of naturalistic fiction, the moral complication of hardboiled/noir fiction, and the bite of the then-recently-deceased punk movement. By the time Neuromancer got published, most of the really interesting stuff in the cyberpunk movement had already stopped; the occasional really good cyberpunk after that point (such as the Ghost in the Shell manga — not the film or the show — or Akira, or Altered Carbon) were rare, because immediately upon breaking into the mainstream, cyberpunk was consumed by the Spectacle and became an aesthetic instead of a movement.

As a result, it has a really complicated legacy.

Gibson never really stopped writing about the same kind of material he wrote about in Neuromancer. He still explores the sociology of extreme economic inbalance. Likewise, Bruce Sterling is as good as he’s ever been. John Shirley & Rudy Rucker, despite being central to the group, were always doing their own thing and continued to do their own thing without really being able to be clearly categorized as cyberpunk. But, post-1992, nothing Gibson wrote was really considered cyberpunk, and Sterling transitioned even earlier.

Because it’s considered an aesthetic, cyberpunk is strongly associated with specific imagery, and the imagery is tied to various periods. People make odes to first-generation cyberpunk (prior to 1990, essentially) by fetishizing 80s tech (see Jackrabbit, for instance), and while this aesthetic is one I find only minimally problematic, it misses the underlying point in the same way that Steampunk misses the underlying point of The Difference Engine.

By the early 90s we started removing even the punk aesthetic from cyberpunk aesthetic, and cyberpunk was almost entirely politically neutralized by 2000: we associate cyberpunk often with Hackers (1995), wherein the political content is limited to vague and half-hearted anticapitalist sentiment and a cliched-by-1994-standards environmental message tacked on as an afterthought, The Matrix (1999), which gives a pretty good representation of the Spectacle but whose political content has nevertheless been completely misunderstood by a core audience who has reinterpreted it as anti-woman and anti-semitic, and Swordfish (2003), which was slicker and in retrospect smarter than all the others but extremely politically confused. The idea of a cyberpunk protagonist in 1990 was a low-level criminal with a drug addiction — a tweaker who needs a bath. The idea of a cyberpunk protagonist in 2000 was a rich white teenager with bleached hair, sunglasses, and a leather duster. By 2005, the ideal cyberpunk protagonist willingly worked for the government. Today, as the original cyberpunk works are more relevant than ever, people ignore the books in favor of movies that show pretty people in leather performing magic.

A return of cyberpunk aesthetic will do nothing for us. A return of cyberpunk sensibility, on the other hand, could be extremely helpful.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.

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