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The shape of cyberpunk to come

Has the political substance of cyberpunk as a genre simply been oversold?

CultureScience and Technology

Tokyo, Japan. Referring to Japan’s influence on the genre, science fiction writer William Gibson said, “modern Japan simply was cyberpunk.” Photo by Andre Benz/Wikimedia Commons.

Punk will only die when corporations can exploit and mass produce it.
—Jello Biafra

Cyberpunk 2077, an action role-playing video game, was released by Polish developer CD Projekt Red on December 10, 2020 after many long delays. To the surprise of few, the game was panned by critics and gamers alike. The loudest criticisms called out its bug-ridden gameplay, but more troubling for many was the game’s alleged betrayal of the cyberpunk genre.

Cyberpunk is an American school of science fiction writing that grew out of new wave sci-fi of the late 1970s and early 1980s, typified by the dystopian, industrial, corporate controlled settings of Ridley Scotts Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy. Cyberpunk settings, says the Wikipedia entry, “focus on a ‘combination of lowlife and high tech,’ featuring futuristic technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with societal collapse or decay.”

According to Jacobin’s Ryan Zickgraf, the bleak futures of cyberpunk were “like a middle finger aimed at Reaganism and tech overlords.” Writing for the Guardian, Paul Walker-Emig continues along this line, stating that “Cyberpunk brings into focus the injustice of our system, and reminds us that the dystopia we’ve been facing for decades will become ever more concrete if we do not direct our anger to confront it.” Tumblr user Prokopetz bemoans modern sci-fi, including Cyberpunk 2077, for simply aping “the aesthetics [of cyberpunk] without acknowledging the politics behind them.”

For these contemporary commentators and others like them, cyberpunk represents an anti-capitalist project that critiques corporate conglomerates and promotes a heroic struggle against the system. These radical, populist politics were emphasized in the name itself: cyberpunk. Therefore, any media that portrays a cyberpunk future while failing to explore its political subtext, themes and ideals is a mere product of the reactionary present.

Interestingly, and despite their enthusiasm for this lost era of artistic class consciousness, all of the writers above fail to provide concrete examples of “true” cyberpunk. So where might we find some inklings of this gloriously enlightened past?

An obvious start is the tabletop game Cyberpunk 2020 (1988), of which Cyberpunk 2077 is a direct adaptation. But even a cursory reading of the game’s rulebook sees the argument for a political cyberpunk come apart at the seams.

The foreword states that in the world of Cyberpunk:

[T]he traditional concepts of good and evil are replaced by the values of expedience—you do what you have to do to survive. If you can do some good along the way, great. But don’t count on it.

This explicitly amoral philosophy certainly does not promote action against injustice, and it’s reflected in the games’ mechanics: players can choose to play as crusading musicians preaching revolution, but they can also play as cops or assassins on corporate payrolls. The aim of the game is to accumulate wealth, power, and designer robot limbs, rather than to topple oppressive structures.

Going deeper still to foundational texts of the genre, William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy does not provide any evidence of the genre’s radical politics. The novels’ themes are mostly sci-fi standbys, such as the nature of life and consciousness, artificial intelligence, and personal metamorphosis through technology. The protagonist in Neuromancer (1984), Henry Case, is persuaded to accept a job on the promise of replacement organs he intends to use to continue his life of computer hacking and drug abuse. In his pursuit thereof, he discovers a new form of life created within cyberspace. There is nothing in the novel’s plot or underlying themes that indicates the anti-capitalist bent described by Cyberpunk 2077’s critics.

The sequel to Gibson’s Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), even sees the character Kumiko reconcile with her estranged gangster-CEO father and return to the fold for a happy ending of familial harmony. Mega-corporations and corrupt governments are not a force to be rallied against; they simply exist, and the characters passively work within and around them.

Illustration by William Harrison

Has the political substance of cyberpunk as a genre simply been oversold?

A rebuttal to this charge might be that the simulation of bleak and grimy corporatist futures reveals and admonishes the contradictions of modern society, namely the coupling of technological advancement and economic liberalization with social degeneration and environmental collapse.

But as history has shown countless times, any political, social or economic situation can only be challenged through radical and direct popular opposition. Therefore media can support this kind of popular mobilization if it attempts to inspire direct, goal-oriented, practical action. To do otherwise renders the work superficial and socially impotent. If all it took to be revolutionary was a distaste for corporations, then Dilbert would be anti-capitalist.

Cyberpunk again fails in this respect. Despite their realist approach to storytelling, the cyberpunk texts described above certainly do not attempt to model revolutionary behaviour through their characters and plots. Neither, however, do they take the more subtle tack of highlighting societal contradictions within their narratives.

German playwright Bertholt Brecht accomplished this by deliberately revealing the artifice of the stage play by directing characters to address the audience and changing set dressing in full view of the crowd, among other techniques. The intended effect is to disrupt the viewer’s experience of the narrative and force them to approach the work as a construction and to critically engage with the themes and contradictions playing out before them. Ultimately, the goal is to inspire social change through forcing the audience to think about how the themes of the play are reflected in the similarly constructed world outside the theatre, and how the contradictions can be resolved.

Though similar contradictions are present and indeed inherent to the cyberpunk setting, they are purely aesthetic: in the examples described above, no literary or rhetorical devices disrupt the experience, rendering the viewer passive and uncritical. The result here is the viewer accepts the work as a unified and self-contained whole, rather than a mirror with which to critique and compare our living world.

So, if cyberpunk is not and was never a beacon of progress and revolution, how might we harness science fiction to usher in a new world and new possibilities? Perhaps this is the wrong question.

Returning to the subject at hand: if Cyberpunk 2077 was a perfectly and pointedly political game that expertly communicated a highly relevant message, could it organize action in the material world and bring material results?

By way of comparison, Disco Elysium, a role-playing video game released in October 2019, was quickly celebrated for its immersive narrative gameplay and excellent writing. Notably, the developers are unabashed leftists and used the narrative and gameplay to explore political questions, including a simultaneously excoriating and apologetic treatment of the past and future of communism in the post-Soviet world.

In an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Alice Bell, Disco Elysium’s head writer (and proud owner of a Lenin bust) implies that a driving force behind the game’s narrative complexity is an effort to shape the thoughts of players, and casts video games as the new medium for popular discourse, supplanting the books and poetry of the 20th century.

This ticks all the boxes: an explicitly political game that uses its setting (a French sci-fi slum used as a battleground for competing ideologies) and its gameplay to nudge players to think about the ideas that underlie societies and give force and direction to our actions. Furthermore, the game was a bonafide success: ZA/UM, the publishers of Disco Elysium, reported €7 million in profit in the first six months after its release.

In comparison, Black Ops Cold War, a popular 2020 first-person shooter, made USD$678 million in its first six weeks.

Even our ideal game couldn’t come close to challenging Black Ops’s range of influence and its attendant culture of military worship, and it’s unlikely that any such game ever could.

Given that video games, as with any popular medium, are exchanged as products of a market and are used as sources of amusement to cope with working life, we can assume that gamers seek out and play the games that already appeal to them. Thereby, each gamer sorts themselves into one or more coherent (if loosely-bounded) publics based on the games they purchase and play, each one united by similarities in tastes, platforms and oftentimes politics. Producers then make games to appeal to specific examples of these emergent publics.

The result is that the only people willing to procure and play a dense, text-heavy, explicitly political game such as Disco Elysium, are people who would already enjoy it and who most likely would already be receptive to its themes. Indeed, its sales figures imply this public is vanishingly small. The ultimate consequence of this is that even a revolutionary game remains isolated in a peripheral, homogenous social milieu, unable to even contact the apolitical and the undecided, let alone inspire them to action.

Cyberpunk 2077, and indeed the entire cyberpunk genre, may have squandered an opportunity to provoke thought, but cyberpunk never had the power to save us. A slick, shiny new computer game running at 90 frames per second is no replacement for supporting your community, organizing in your workplaces and challenging the powers of capital wherever they rear their heads. Power stays with us as long as we have the strength, will and vision to use it.

William Harrison is a professional researcher born on and living in Treaty One territory.


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