Death of Cyberpunk
Posted: Aug-29-2016 at 7:09am
Cyberpunk as a genre is creatively dead. It was once great, but is no more. 'Gritty' has no meaning, former punks drive minivans, and Beijing looks like Blade Runner.
1) the socio-technological predictions of the early works came true
2) blending noir and SF is no longer refreshing, and
3) most contemporary SF writers lack the edgy life-experience of Gibson and Dick, and so fail to give modern Cyberpunk any bite.
More than you asked for:
1) The once wildly outlandish socio-technological aspects of the genre have become a day-to-day reality for millions of people. We have the internet, AI, hackers, socio-technological wealth disparity, designer drugs, human augmentation, and post-industrial wastelands full of poor people with smart phones acting as paparazzi. Few future-Earth SF novels are written without some or all of these. Cyberpunk's borders have been over-run.
2) The integration of SF with crime and noir tropes has been explored and dissected ad infinitum. 'Gritty' and 'dark' characters, struggling with inner as well as extra-demons are de rigeur. The same goes for non-linear plots, deep cynicism towards the world, and a general sense of uneasiness. Elements that felt refreshing in early Cyberpunk are now shackling writers to pastiches of hard-boiled detectives in space, or outdated stereotypes of hackers.
3) Perhaps most importantly, the social vision and biting commentary of Cyberpunk has lost its edge. You hate big corporations? Shame I bought your novel/film/tv-series through Amazon. What's worse, Gibson's image (and concept) of a console cowboy - an anti-corporate computer jockey wearing dark clothes, feeling simultaneously rejected and above society, mostly existing in real-world poverty and online glory - is both startlingly recognizable in the modern world - as well as proving naive and overly simplistic. Additionally, the brand of counterculture that watermarked and inspired the genre has become dated and old-fashioned. Everything from hippies to punks have been trademarked, branded, and marketed to. New counter-cultures undoubtedly exist in 2016 - but Cyberpunk as a genre has lost the pulse of the social revolution that made the classics feel so vital. Sure these things are alive in SF, but don't look for them in Cyberpunk.
Dick in particular conjures a genre archetype for the imagination, and we can for the purposes here fit it into a wider context of post-WW2 American counterculture, the advent of the '60s and the antiwar movement of that decade and the next that brought great distrust of government and corporations. A recurrent character in Dick's books is the everyman who is just trying to get by, perhaps enjoy the few escapisms available to him, whilst the inherent unfairness of the 'game' of modern society denies that to him.
As pointed out above, a lot of the inspiration for this kind of material is viewed with disdain if expressed as a viewpoint by a millennial, and thus has been sapped of its impact. We might compare this, as many genres are, to the way Mannerism followed the Renaissance. In Mannerism, the goals of the Renaissance were taken to overperfected extremes, to the point that they stopped being interesting.
All of this to say, maybe we should look to styles that succeed in Mannerist periods, and ones that provide the basis for a new Renaissance. If I'm allowed to draw on Science Fiction's close cousin, Fantasy writing, I would argue that theGame of Thrones obsession is a Renaissance in that form, in that it is doing something new. I think mainly of the way the author is happy to kill off main characters, and the fairly raw violence and sexuality - more raw, I'd point out, than HBO is willing to show visually. People find this refreshing, and it will surely inspire a successive generation to try to recreate it. To stay within Fantasy, a successful Mannerist writer might be Tolkien, who wrote in a very polished format that drew upon the success of the novel in the previous century, and the adventure short story that had become successful. An Oxford Don, he wrote about a polite but troubled society facing barbarians at the gate. I might also argue the Dune series as a Mannerist piece responding as a refined amalgam of the creative short stories of bright-eyed scifi writers in the 1950s.
I think the most exciting works in the genre of Science Fiction at the moment actually come in the video game world. I think the Mass Effect series was able to create a much more engaging world than many a film or novel in recent times. World-building is the strength of that medium of storytelling, as it brings to life cities that only a great author could conjure, and a film would have to pay lots of money to make feel truly lived-in. Mass Effect, it has to be pointed out, is a very "Hollywood" work, very traditional in lots of senses, but a first for its medium in terms of ambition and scope dealing with the subject matter. If you want a good sci fi story, video games are the first place I'd look these days...
Edited by SFReader - Aug-29-2016 at 7:09am
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