Is Cyberpunk a Dead Genre?
Human upgrades for low life
An iconic work of cyberpunk
It came from the 80's
The cyberpunk genre is a subset of near future science fiction born out of the 1980s, although many influences date much earlier. Borrowing stylistic elements from punk rock it was distinctly distopian in it's world view. Characterized by books like Neuromancer or Snow Crash that attempted to depict a near future period that we have either already reached or are quickly approaching. It is a genre marked by ideas of man and machine merging, that have yet to come to pass, and a digitally connected world that got here a few years ahead of predictions. As we move into the period of time that cyberpunk strove to predict does this spell the death of the genre or will tales with this style continue to be told but cast farther into the future?
Prosthesis aren't nearly as good as hoped, yet
The cyber in cyberpunk comes in part from the cybernetic modification that many of the characters have gone through. Sadly for many disabled people, the science of prosthetic limbs and organs has not advanced nearly as fast as many cyberpunk authors hoped. Replacements for eyes and ears are still years away as are limbs that have full tactile response as well as replaceing basic function. Many of the more extreme modifications like infrared vision require the basic technology to build off that we still lack. Others like built in weapons and armor were never actually practical. After all why would one go through difficult and dangerous surgery to have something implanted that would permanently exclude them from using commercial air travel, especially with other alternatives available. Still, improbably concealed devices and weapons are a staple of espionage fiction. Cybernetic devices and weapons will likely continue to be included in future stories of international and industrial spies of tomorrow even long after real world prosthesis have equaled what cyberpunk has been predicting.
Research on neural interfaces
It worked out differently
The other part of the cyber in cyberpunk comes from the use of computers and computer networks in the genre. A staple of cyberpunk fiction and games is the existence of direct neural interfaces allowing control of machines and computers at the speed of thought. Although the direct neural interface is still being researched many things it was used for do exist. Computers today are interconnected in ways that few imagined back in the 80's. Today's computer criminal hackers may not have cyberdecks to aid their activities but many are engaged in forms of electronic crime that weren't even thought of back when those devices were predicted. Nor did the creators of the cyberepunk genre have enough foresight to consider how pervasive use of computers and the internet would become. The idea that cell phones, digital cameras and portable computers would merge into smart phones and what uses we would put them to never occurred to anyone back then. So, although we have not interfaced with computers and networks quite the way cyberpunk predicted we have integrated them into our lives far more extensively than we used to imagine possible.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Real world counterparts to cyberpunk attitudes
Integral to the integration of man and machine and human “upgrades” depicted in cyberpunk is a seriously dehumanizing element. The genre features characters (many in games or game based fiction, fewer from other sources) who voluntarily have healthy body parts removed to replace them with cybernetics. These fictional characters are akin to a severe sufferer of Body Dysmorpic Disorder in the real world who attempts to “fix themselves” through excessive plastic surgery. Like their real world counterparts these fictional characters seem to be striving for an ideal self that can't exist without artificial help. For some this ideal has less to do with appearance than functionality. Characters in cyberpunk seem to regard themselves as commodities to be upgraded to improve their saleability in the labor market, rather than as people.
The seat of power in cyberpunk
The propensity of characters to comoditise themselves fits well with the overreaching power of corporations in most cyberpunk settings. While many in the real world decry the excessive influence of corporations and their money on politics they can take some comfort in knowing it's not quite as bad as some cyberpunk predicted (yet). In some cyberpunk stories big companies have as much power and influence over the world as nations. Sometimes the corporations have entirely replaced nations. While some in the real world suggest privatizing certain governmental functions to improve their efficiency cyberpunk portrays the downsides of giving power to those interested in the bottom line over the public good with no accountability.
The future of cyberspace?
So is it dead?
So, is there a future for the cyberpunk genre? The Mohawk's and leather might come back into fashion someday. The themes of cybernetic augmentation and dehumanization are still being explored though not always together. Corporate power and the abuse thereof is certainly still fodder for exploration in fiction. One element of cyberpunk however, has lost it's luster. Cyberspace in no longer a mysterious frontier known only to a few. There are people today who seem to spend more time online than paying attention to the real world and we worry about internet addiction. While films like The Matrix explored what might be done with full sensory virtual realities most see them becoming toys not tools for hackers. Technological elements of cyberpunk are probably going to continue to be part of science fiction until the day they become fact. The thematic elements of the genre are also likely to continue to influence storytelling. As a whole however cyberpunk has become a dated and outmoded view of the future. Before pronouncing it absolutely dead though one must remember that Verne and Wells visions of the future seem to be experiencing a resurgence in the form of steampunk. Who is to say that cyberpunk will not feature a similar resurgence someday.