Can We Please Move Cyberpunk Past The 80s

I accidentally posted my Saturday review post on Friday, so you’re getting the Friday article on Saturday instead.

Cyberpunk was invented in the 80s, and it remains horribly mired in that time period. At the time of writing, cyberpunk as a genre explored a plausible near-future, one which has in many ways come true. Although the cybernetic augments never really came to pass, cyberspace mostly did, as did the megacorporations and the cyberpunks who oppose them. The cyberpunks turned out significantly more amoral than a lot of cyberpunk stories wanted, but a lot of the best ones had their cyberpunk protagonist as exceptional amongst their peers for not being an amoral criminal, and in any case the cyberpunks do exist. We’ve reached the stage where the megacorps are winning serious victories against them and it looks like the cyberpunks are probably going to lose, but they’re real. Military drones, not to mention Amazon delivery drones, put us in clear view of a cyberpunk vision of robotics. It’s basically just the cyborg augments that haven’t happened, and even then we have some promising prototypes.

But a lot of details were got wrong, and some of the predictions never came to pass. The Soviet Union surprised everyone by dissolving way ahead of schedule, and Japan surprised everyone by failing to take over the world. Cyberspace went wireless long before we invented even the faintest prototype of a technology that might one day develop into a neural interface, meaning that the future of neuro-cyber interfaces is more likely to be a USB stick you plug into the port in the back of your neck, rather than a heavy duty cable hooked up to a room-filling supercomputer. Flying cars never became a thing, but the cyberpunk stories that posited them had dropped the ball even on 80s tech. Helicopters already existed and weren’t remotely fuel efficient for personal use by the middle class, and the only thing that would change that is a sudden abundance of fuel, something which no cyberpunk author ever predicted (indeed, many predicted a fuel crunch would get worse than the crisis in the 70s, but it never did).

Cyberpunk as a genre seems constantly rooted in being the future of the past, the predictions of what today would be like according to 30 years ago (2019 is a pretty cyberpunk year, although any year in the 21st century was within the cyberpunk-y range). Cyberpunk stories too often remain glued to the predictions that failed. Japan still looms large over the world, wireless mysteriously dies off somewhere between 2020 and 2070, and flying traffic fills the cityscape like it was Coruscant.

And if that’s what cyberpunk is, then sure, whatever, Fallout does the same thing but for the 1950s and it works fine. No one seems to be making the kind of one or two generations hence fiction that cyberpunk originally was, though, even though it seems like the year 2040-2050. Military drones having taken over more combat roles from flesh and blood soldiers, replacing not just planes but tanks, ships, even infantry, corporate dystopia firmly entrenched, and the world full of last generation’s cyberpunks. Hackers and data thieves aren’t a radical new thing, but a dying breed, lamenting the loss of their digital frontier to expanding corporate power. Are these stories happening and I just don’t hear about them? And if not, why not?

1 thought on “Can We Please Move Cyberpunk Past The 80s”

  1. > Are these stories happening and I just don’t hear about them?

    They are happening. “Cryptonomicon”, “Daemon”, “All Systems Down” are all stellar works. I especially recommend “Daemon”.

    The reason you don’t hear about them is that the ideas of cyberpunk and the aesthetics of cyberpunk kinda split and went their own ways. The things you want, the ideas of cyberpunk, are now mostly just called “techno-thriller”. Or sometimes “post-cyberpunk”. Stephenson’s “Diamond Age” is probably the key transitional novel to post-cyberpunk, and Stephenson makes his point by opening with a hardcore cyberpunk protagonist and immediately murdering him. “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” is probably the strongest modern work that kept both ideas and themes of cyberpunk.

    In terms of games you have Metal Gear Solid 4 and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, which both heavily feature cyberpunk themes (and a cyberninja) and both have correctly predicted much of the current decade.


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