The Future Today and Yesterday: The Strange World of the Cyberpunk Genre

Cover to Steve Jackson Games Cyberpunk
Cover to Steve Jackson Games Cyberpunk | Source

Living on the edge of forever never was so downbeat or, for that matter, exciting.

The landscape of society is bleaker than bleak can be....

No one one finds joy in milling about in public during the day. Sunlight hours are spent locked away in a high rise apartment that houses almost obscenely high tech gadgetry of varying necessity. Shades are drawn down on the windows so no one can see inside. Denizens of these high rises spent their days using designer drugs and conversing with faux personas that only seem to do conversing online. With alarming frequency, these denizens are either involved in illegal activities or they are to spent their evenings eliminating threats to civilized order.

At night, the assassins, the information brokers, the designer drug sellers, the half human/half machine entities all venture out into the overcrowded modern metropolises they call their home but have grown to loathe.

Does it sound like a downbeat world? It is. However, it is never a world that will be lacking for excitement.

It is the science-fiction cynical wonderland of the cyberpunk genre.

A Dark Literary and Cinema Genre Forever Changes Science-Fiction

Is the future something to look forward to? The answer to such a pointed question often depends on how one looks at the present. For those fans of the cyberpunk literary and film movement, the future is both exciting and frightening. There are a lot of wonderful and even geeky things the future holds for those wish to experience a world that is little more than a video game come to life. While filled with wonder, those envisioning such a world are frequently also filled with psychological despair.

The future can also be a scary place when you do not like the trajectory the present is taking. For those looking to the future for escapism, there is also a fear that all the negative aspects of the present day world become worse and more exaggerated in the future.

The future in this genre is a dark one and it is the unavoidable consequence of the path humans have been taking for hundreds of years....this is at least how fans and writers in the genre see things.

Cyberpunk is rooted deeply in the notion the future will be a dark world in which a societal fascist fusion has taken place. Corporations and the government become one in the same and there are a corrupt unitary whole. Society is overflowing with designer drugs that not only allow you to escape the real world, the drugs also allow you to have your senses and abilities enhanced to survive in this world.

There will be those that try to fight the power and those that have been conquered by it. And then there will be those antiheroes that try to eek out a living performing some grotesque task left only to those capable of living independently in a regenerate future where the human spirit is broken and most have become a cog in the machine.

The strange antiheroes of the genre are often the one symbol of hope in a bleak world. The characters are much like the cowboys of the mythic western past. They are individuals that have not been conquered by their environment and are able to rebel from it. These antiheroes really make the genre worth reading because without them, the stories would simply embody far too much despair to be entertaining.

The characters in most cyberpunk works are loners that live on the edge or the fringe. Often, they make their living because they are good at providing services that are necessary in a dark dystopia. Most of these antiheroes despise the world they live in and, to a degree, they truly do despise themselves. There is guilt over the type of work they do and they really live on the abyss. Yet, they maintain a certain moral code along with a tragic heroic component that gains reader sympathy. Frequently, we feel the hero of these works might have been something special in a different world, but they are trapped in the flawed future of the dystopia they live in.

Well, future for the reader, it is the present for the hero.

A Paradoxical Future of Dystopia and Hope

The future of the cyberpunk world is never one that is appealing. It is urban decay amidst the greatest technologically advances known to humanity. Is this an incoherent vision of the future? Not really. It is simply the cynical (some may call realist) notion that technology can advance while the human spirit declines.

The latter point is really what makes cyberpunk compelling. The incredible toll that such a dystopia has on humanity is what makes it morbidly intriguing. Again, we do have to look at the compelling antiheroes cyberpunk tales revolve around when trying to understand the entertainment value of the works. These heroes have not yet let the dystopia truly break them down.

Utopia No More

While most will look at the high tech and computer based components of cyberpunk as its defining characteristic, this really is not what defines the genre. Rather, the one component that truly does make cyberpunk what it is is the image of a dystopia. In many ways, the classic image of the future utopia that was born of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century maintains mainstream appeal in the form of Star Trek and Star Wars, many hardcore fans of science-fiction turn to cyberpunk for serious works because cyberpunk essentially disregards Utopian themes. In truth, cyberpunk has a vision of the future that utopia cannot and will not exist.

Traditional science-fiction is seen more as a form of fantasy escapism. Cyberpunk is seen more as a much more possible reality. Cyberpunk is always set in a near future of our current world. In cyberpunk, we see an image of the future that is only 20 or 30 years away. In a sense, the future really is now because we can really only advance technologically to the greatest degree in two or three decades.

The Future is the Present

This really is the grimmest theme of cyberpunk: it really is not about the future imperfect. It is about the present imperfect.

Cyberpunk is an angry genre and much of the anger is reflected at defects its sees in the current landscape of society. The future presented in cyberpunk is not a radical departure from our current world as would be the case in a science-fiction film such as Planet of the Apes. Much of what we see in cyberpunk is the exaggeration of our current world.

Think in terms of the classic telephone of 30 years ago to the mobile phones that exist today. It is essentially the same thing that serves the same purpose but with incredibly enhanced technology that built upon itself over several years of innovation. Basically, all the future technology you see in the cyberpunk worlds is really just imagining current technology evolving. The current image of the world, however, does not change so much, What does advance is regression: the bleakness of the current world becomes more widespread and it solidifies among civilization.

The personal private Idaho of the reader and the writer has now enveloped entire nations and cultures. The world of cyberpunk is bleak and dangerous. In order to survive in it, one has to become part of the animal life that exists within its high tech gutter. Again, much of the imagery of the cyberpunk world is symbolic of what exists in the modern world. The foul way people treat others both in the corporate world and on the streets and in the political arena appears everyday in online new reports on on cable news. The cyberpunk world simply takes such imagery and exaggerates it into a futuristic foreign landscape. However, we recognize and often identify with what occurs in cyberpunk worlds because they are not very far removed than what we see everyday, The writers or video game designers that bring cyberpunk to life in fantasy form are doing little more that recreating a different image of actions and themes present in reality.

Is cyberpunk then, a cautionary tale or a warning of what is to come? Actually, it might be a call to open ones eyes to the present. Willful blindness in the search for utopia in the present just may very well be what leads to the dystopia of a future imperfect.


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