January 30, 2006
Post-cyberpunk? Why not Cyberpunk 2.0!
There has been a movement afoot to create a new sub-genre called post-cyberpunk. I’m not sure where this all started, but Wikipedia claims it started with an article by Lawrence Person, titled “Notes toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto.” The essence of the distinction appears to be that in cyberpunk, the future is seen as bleak and largely caused by technology, whereas in post-cyberpunk, technology IS society. Post-cyberpunk proponents claim that their heroes fight truth, justice and the postcyberpunk way (enhancing the established social order versus destroying it), whereas in cyberpunk, the heroes are at best, neutral.
While Person’s article is a good read, and while this may have been a relevant distinction after the initial burst of cyberpunk works in the 80s followed by the relative lull of the early 90s (which also prompted an update to the “Paul is Dead” chant, then known as “Cyberpunk is dead”), I have serious doubts about its applicability today. At this point (2006), I think its usefulness as a term has past. Most who use this term seem to just “naturally” assume that post-cyberpunk means all cyberpunk-like things that were created after 1989. As the genre has progressed, it seems to me that post-cyberpunk has become a distinction without meaning. Cyberpunk has long since expanded past its literary roots, and has invaded most every form of media possible. From a myriad of muscial examples such as Rammstein to RPGs such as cyberpunk 2.0, to various video games such as Half-life and Deus Ex, to fine art such as the DarkArt’s site, to graphic novels like Transmetropolitan, cyberpunk has emerged as a far greater holding bin than was originally conceived. With this in mind, as the self-appointed keeper of all that is good and right in cyberpunk (this is what others are doing, no?), I’m officially raising the bullshit flag on this term. In other words, “It’s dead, Jim.” This emperor has no clothes.
As epic fantasy has certainly expanded past Tolkien, is there a post-epic-fantasy subgenre I don’t know about? More to the point, is there a larger “post-science-fiction” sub-genre that I’m not aware of? Is Sin City an example of “post-neo-noir”?
Wikipedia states that “Postcyberpunk possibly emerged because SF authors and the general population began using computers, the Internet, and PDAs to their benefit, without the massive social fragmentation of this Digital Revolution predicted in the 1970s and 1980s.” Yes, this is certainly true. In film, probably the worst example of this was Strange Days (Bigelow, 1995 - review coming), which predicted a dystopia by the year 2000. However, while many realize the dystopia is not around the corner, they have hardly given up on the concept. Bilal, who wrote the Nikopol trilogy, predicted mass dystopia by 2023, however in his film, Immortel, he changed his prediction to having it take place in the year 2095. Nor have scientists hardly changed their predictions, as increasingly, many now believe irreversible global warming is almost definitely going to occur.
Furthermore, many of the works cited as post-cyberpunk hardly elicit positive futures - “technology IS society” seems hardly that different in these from “technology has destroyed society.” Stephenson’s Diamond Age and Snow Crash, both cited as post-cyberpunk staples, hardly provide us wonderful visions of the future. On Wikipedia’s Postcyberpunk page, we have Besson’s the Fifth Element listed - again, while the story is lighthearted, this is hardly a world anyone wants to live in. We have massive trashpiles in airports, complete control of the populace by corporations, insanely horrid living conditions, and horrible tastes in clothing! Shirow’s GITS mangas are also listed, which again, while the focus of the main leads involves fighting the evils of the world, this also hardly provides us a wonderful view of the future. In both of Oshii’s movies, the case can be made both leads, first Motoko and then Batau, are giving SERIOUS thought to their course in life (as does Motoko in the original Shirow GITS) - their belief that they should be spending their time improving the social order is certainly questioned. While GITS SAC generally does away with most of the deep philosophical man-machine questioning thoughts such as those post in the Oshii movies, this is hardly the basis to create a new sub-genre. For instance, while “Ghost hacks” are made to sound cool in GITS SAC, they certainly are NOT beneficial to the average Joe.
In staying with the animation theme, if we just look at a sampling cyberpunk animes created since the time of the Post-cyberpunk manifesto (1998?), very few of them qualify as post-cyberpunk:
- Serial Experiments Lain (1998) - Nope
- Malice@Doll (2000) - Nope
- F8 (2001) - Nope
- Final Fantasy (2001) - Yes
- Appleseed (2004) - Yes
- GITS SAC (2003) - Yes
- Armitage Duel Matrix (2002) - Nope
- Texhnolyze (2003) - Nope
- Animatrix (2003) - Nope, not for the most part
- Wonderful Days (2003) - Nope
- Texhnolyze (2003) - Nope
- Galerions Rion (2004) - Nope
Worse, if we look at the 80s “cyberpunk” movies, does this mean that Robocop was not trying to improve the social order? What about Reece and Sarah Conner in The Terminator? We can make the case that Robocop is looking to overturn the current order, but if I’m looking at it, I find very few characters who are more clearly on the side of good, looking to preserve the current social order than Reece. Still weirder, does this mean that the original Star Trek series and all of its successors qualify as post-cyberpunk? Because, truly, I cannot imagine a better example of “technology IS society” where all the heroes fight on the side of truth, justice and the american (post-cyberpunk) way. If so, how is this different from science fiction as a whole? And if you say that Star Trek occurs too far into the future, does this mean that the TV series, “Buck Rogers in the 21st century” should qualify as the ultimate post-cyberpunk show?
But who knows, maybe I just don’t understand the distinction well enough to appreciate it. Then again, I can take comfort in knowing I’m not the only one. If you look for a post-cyberpunk list on Amazon, you run across this wonderful example, which has everything from Bladerunner to Neuromancer on it.
In thinking about it, it’s the “post” that bothers me the most. The “post” indicates both that something (cyberpunk) is dead (which, clearly it’s not as game, art, books and movies are still being made at an increasingly alarming rate), and that we, in the midst of this plethora of choices, are gifted enough to discern the key difference that matters going forward. This is similar to people labeling stating that we have “left the information age” and are now in the “net-centric” age. How ’bout we make those pronouncements about today in 20-50 years from now instead? And yes, the phrase was probably catchy back in 1998. After all, Posthuman was big then too. And while Posthuman sort of means something real, as in hearing the term, most everyone can make a visceral connection with it and at least guess at its meaning, post-cyberpunk seems far less so. And if all it has going for it now is a catchy title, “post” has lost its caché.
If we want something really edgy, Web 2.0 has the current monopoly on cool buzz-speak. So if we want to modernize the term cyberpunk, lets catch the wave and settle on Cyberpunk 2.0! Like Web 2.0, we can assign anything currently “cool” to this term. Additionally, Cyberpunk 2.0 has the added advantage of having a built-in upgrade path. When a new, edgier cyberpunk flick arrives, we can proclaim it the advent of the “Cyberpunk 2.1″ era. And when something REALLY cool comes along, we can crown it “Cyberpunk 3.0,” or better yet, “Cyberpunk XP!”
Or, um, we could just agree that the genre has continued to grow in all its forms of media, so much so that it encompasses a far wider range of future possibilities - all of which deal with massive changes in society and humanity brought on by technology - most of which have some serious potential negative side effects. If we find it important to create a sub-distinction in the genre that involves the trend towards the using technology for the betterment of mankind instead of its downside, I recommend we create term that doesn’t imply co-equalness with cyberpunk. The co-equal nature of “post-cyberpunk” combined with its absolutely muddy connotation (does post-human always imply goodness?) does not help clarify the landscape.