Cyberpunk

Metropolis

From Metropolis

Cyberpunk

Mark Wegierski visits a dark future

The term “dark future” is a synonym for dystopia. It refers to any work where the hypothesized future of mankind is bleak. Typical “dark futures” are shown in the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction. Other terms for “dark future” are “gritty future” (as opposed to the gleaming, antiseptic, super-scientific utopia) or “air-conditioned nightmare”.

Cyberpunk is a science fiction subgenre that arose in the early 1980s. Its paradigmatic work is William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), and in film, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). The main ideas of cyberpunk are a dystopian future of urban decay focussing on a polluted, highly technological planet, ruled by megacorporations; and the extensive presence of computers as well as the “cyberspace” or “Net”.

Literary Examples

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) was a “well-managed” world – in contradistinction to the later “gritty future”. But it was nevertheless a dystopia because of the resultant killing of the human spirit. Huxley’s vision was an endpoint to the unrelenting advance of current-day corporate and social liberalism, i.e., of the so-called managerial-therapeutic regime. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) anticipated what might have happened if Soviet totalitarianism had triumphed worldwide, and may also be read as a meditation of enduring significance on ideological control. (A rather sad commentary on American culture is the lurid, B-movie cover illustration for the book’s first American printing.)

An overlooked classic from the 1950s is the satirical The Space Merchants (sometimes titled Gravy Planet) by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, a critique of 1950s-style capitalism. It presents a polluted planet of consumptionist capitalism where oak wood is worth more than gold, as there are few living trees left. An interesting aspect of this work is that the forces opposing this “world” exist in an underground organization called the World Conservationist Union. They are derided as “Consies” – a word which might equally suggest “Commies” or “conservatives”. In fact, the tendency existing in opposition to this “world” can easily be characterized as embracing both socio-cultural and pro-ecological conservatism, although the authors might not have explicitly intended this as the message of the book.

From A Clockwork Orange

From A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962) depicted the dehumanized environment of contemporary capitalism, while John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), focussed on an overcrowded, polluted world and may be termed proto-cyberpunk. Also by Brunner is The Sheep Look Up (1972), a critique of extreme pollution problems and public apathy in regard to these. He weighed in again with The Shockwave Rider (1974) addressing the dangers of a computerized world. William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is the definitive cyberpunk work, despite later challenges, e.g., from Jeff Noon’s Vurt (1993). The very popular sequels to Neuromancer were Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). Three newer, prominent works of William Gibson, are Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). French author Jean Raspail’s bitter allegorical novel, The Camp of the Saints (1973) predicts the destruction of the West under the impact of Third World immigration. And David Wingrove’s mammoth Chung-kuo series (which, from its beginning in 1990, has now reached at least eight thick volumes) portrays a dystopic future dominated by the Chinese.

Cinema and Television Examples

The proto “dark future” film was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) (loosely based on Karel Capek’s play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920)), which exerted  enormous influence. Much of the sense of the “dark future” is created through architecture and cityscape. Consider the following quote;”…immediately after the Russian Revolution, a new artistic and architectural style sprang up [in the Soviet Union], called Chicagizm, based on the notion of a new city in a new world without a past” (from the interesting but quirky book by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism Revisited (Washington, D.C.: Regnery-Gateway, 1990, p. 430)). One thinks of the 1920s skylines of New York and Chicago, the former of which appear in Metropolis. The rise of modernist architecture and decorative art trends, notably Bauhaus, Art Deco, the International Style, and, finally, postmodernism – played an enormous part in the construction of future visions. Indeed, the “dark future” cityscape is inconceivable without the skyscraper. As the century progresses, mediascape/soundscape is added to cityscape, and “information overload”/”media barrage syndrome” as well sociopolitical postmodernism emerges. Such things as style, edge, mood, atmosphere, or ambience are an important elements of this vision. (One thinks in this context of the name of a lesser-known 1980s rock-group, Ambient Noise.)

Unarguably one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made – which interacts with so many of these discourses – is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971, portrayed violence in an artistic, semi-celebratory way. Some other prominent movies of the 1970s included Soylent Green (1973), admittedly a travesty of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966), but its dark twist about cannibalism as the outcome of overpopulation, is well aimed. Rollerball (1975) is set in a corporate-ruled world, where violent spectator sports are used to channel the population’s discontent and aggression, and Logan’s Run (1976), clearly derived from a concept similar to that of Brave New World.

Rollerball Fist, blastr.com

Rollerball Fist, blastr.com

The movie Silent Running (1971), although set in space, depicted a depleted environment, where “everyone had a job”, but the only wildlife left was in a few large “space domes” in deep space. Ridley Scott’s original Alien movie (1979) could be seen as akin to Blade Runner. There was a wave of similar movies in the 1980s and 1990s; notably, Paul Verhoeven’s Robo Cop, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic (based on William Gibson’s early short story), Judge Dredd, based on the comic book Freejack (with Mick Jagger as a bounty hunter), Total Recall, a corporate dystopia set on Mars) and Tim Burton’s new Batman epics. Burton’s vision was based on the breakthrough graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller.

The 1980’s British made-for-television film Max Headroom and the American television series, set “twenty minutes from now,” could be seen as portrayals of the “air-conditioned nightmare” of “the near-future.” Ironically, Oliver Stone’s The Wild Palms television mini-series (1993) (derived from the comic series in DETAILS Magazine), was buried by the hockey playoffs! Very few persons bought The Wild Palms Reader (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993). Among the interesting print spinoffs of the Alien/s movies, is Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual, by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, edited by Dave Hughes) (New York: HarperPrism/HarperPaperbacks, 1996).

The movie Millennium (1989) involved the problematic concept of time-travel but nevertheless raised the disturbing prospect that the Earth will become so polluted that it will be unable to sustain human life, even with the most sophisticated technologies. One also recalls the films Escape from New York (1981) and its 1990s sequel, Escape from L.A. They presented an authoritarian U.S., where Manhattan Island is a walled-off penal colony for the country’s violent prison population. The movie Tron (1982), set in the current-day period, was interesting because it was one of the first big-screen, big-budget American films to consider the idea of “virtual reality” or “cyberspace”, i.e., what “life” might look like “inside” a computer.

Three 1990s movies exploring virtual reality are The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, and Existent. The popular Mad Max film series made speculation about a post-apocalyptic (typically, post-nuclear holocaust) world widespread. The Tank Girl comic and movie (also set in Australia) is derivative of it while WaterWorld could be characterized as “Mad Max on water.” A camp 1980s treatment of the “post-apocalyptic” theme is Streets of Fire, with its rock-music soundtrack.

Mad Max

From Mad Max

The children’s television series, Captain Power, and the Terminator movie series, involved the scenario of evil machines taking over the Earth. Another television series with a cyberpunk feel was The New War of the Worlds. The 1990’s movie Demolition Man was a clever satire on the “dark future”. Finally, in the near-future, technothriller genre, there is the 1990s television series La Femme Nikita, based on the French and (the later) American movie.

An earlier 1990s television series was TekWars (based on William Shatner’s fiction-writing efforts) which tended to become increasingly light entertainment, despite the cyberpunk premise. In the U.S. 2000-2001 television season, two shows with a cyberpunk feel, based on the premise of a take-over of the U.S. by a military government – Dark Angel, and Freedom, were premiered. Of these, Dark Angel proved popular, while the Freedom series was quickly cancelled.

Another variant of the dystopic genre are depictions of near-future (often nuclear) conflicts. Red Dawn (1984), portraying a bunch of American teenagers fighting as guerillas against an invading Soviet army, was a film very much in the spirit of 1980s sensibility. In this same period, there was the absurd depiction, in a television mini-series, of a postwar America under Soviet occupation. It was indicative that America was shown in the best possible light (i.e., life in the countryside, in “the Heartland” was portrayed – which appeared far more traditionalist than it does today). The action took place in small towns and with beautiful scenery in the background. The Soviets were curiously mild — which seemed highly unlikely. “Special occupation units” (commanded by a Nordic-looking German), with black uniforms and helmets also made an appearance – a return, once again, to World War II stereotypes. Persons of Eastern European descent viewed the plot with incredulity. How likely would it be, that the Soviets would consent to the elimination of their shock-troops by the American partisans, or that the army of the post-American puppet-state would arrange with the partisans the delayed arrival of support to the shock-troops, in order to give the freedom-fighters time to finish them off? Clearly the show’s producers had not read a single, serious historical work.

The Surreal Thriller

Oliver Stone’s The Wild Palms is related to another interesting subgenre in television and film, the so-called “surreal thriller.” The paradigmatic example of this is the superb British series, The Prisoner. The Avengers/The New Avengers are similar in style, albeit more comically oriented. This subgenre has continued in America, with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and, of course, The X-Files (the jewel in the crown of the Fox network). A pale imitation of the latter, Nowhere Man, also briefly appeared. In the 1996-1997 American television season there were three new imitations, Dark Skies, Profiler, and Millennium.

An interesting 1970s movie, Welcome to Blood City, begins as an odd-seeming Western, but turns out to be a nasty “virtual reality” experiment designed to produce “superkillers” to serve the government. Somewhat related to this subgenre are the Westworld and Futureworld movies, which portray an elaborate entertainment complex staffed entirely by human-looking robots, a theme which was also explored in The Stepford Wives. David Cronenberg’s Videodrome also has surreal elements, and implicitly addresses some interesting ideas about the effects of media on society. Two very popular old shows containing surreal themes, which were revived at various times, include The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. All these shows have served to keep the pot of speculation about nefarious government misdeeds simmering and  have doubtless impacted on the political thinking of many people.

Conclusion

The ideas explored in subgenres like cyberpunk are ostensibly unsympathetic to a traditionalist critique of society. Nevertheless, although they portray a “gritty world”, many people reading this kind of work identify with the independent “cyberjockeys”, and experience exhilaration in this literature. These readers are often intelligent “white geeks”, marginalized in today’s world, which exalts minorities and “the supercool”. Likewise, those living a tedious and uninteresting life are captivated by the sense of adventure in this admittedly dystopic world.

Cyberpunk suggests ideas that are neo-Romantic, a Romanticism based on one’s humanity, rather than on nature. Nature, in fact, is virtually non-existent therein, but the human person, in this gritty, poisoned world, must find meaning where there are virtually no other living creatures except cockroaches.

Extending this idea to contemporary reality suggests a solution to the latter-day “crisis of identity”. The human person, who no longer has the sense of roots “imposed on them”, and who  is no longer living in the holistic “bounded horizon of meaning”, makes a free choice to identify with his/her traditional roots. Insofar as we live in a society that ostensibly valorizes free choice, then to opt for traditionalism represents a challenge to today’s system.

Metropolis

From Metropolis

Sociologist Mark Wegierski writes from Toronto

[Editor’s Note – An earlier version of this essay appeared in Right Now, no. 51 (May-June 2005), pp. 14-15]

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1 Response to Cyberpunk

  1. David Ashton says:

    Excellent, very interesting article.

    You should write a big book on Dystopias.

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