- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Cyberpunk Is Now Reality

The most tantalizing predictions of cyberpunk never came true. There are no gangs of cyborgs ruling shantytowns in New York City and there are no corporations larger than the federal government. But the sci-fi subgenre envisions such dystopias being underpinned by something subtler: the state of man’s soul when there are no longer limits. 

The 1980s provided fertile ground for the piercing new vision of science fiction pioneered by William Gibson and his contemporaries. The global capitalism of Reagan and Thatcher ceded agency from nation-states to nation-agnostic corporations. Less obvious but just as important was the fact that the space race was over and Star Trek’s naivety was laid bare. Computers, not spaceships, would become the measure of progression towards the future. The sleek, utopian vision of the mid-century futurism was further discredited by soaring crime in urban centers.

Modernity that was once expected to bring matching space unitards instead brought radical self-expression. The overabundance of choice, these authors suggested, leads to decadence, decay and a society where people can’t see clearly without losing their humanity.

And so the heroes of cyberpunk are outsiders—the punks to which the genre owes half its name. In cyberpunk, there are no more grand narratives about progress and triumph. Humans have nowhere to go and decay is globalized; this is sci-fi without the comforting thought of alien life. Readers experience an Earth where the concept of “place” has passed its expiration date. Protagonists, like the megacorporations they tangle with, exist across borders, anywhere being as familiar or foreign as anywhere else. Neon Japanese syllabary studs skyscrapers that loom over the crowded downtowns of American cities. Virtual reality is at once a catalyst and a coping mechanism for social breakdown.

What is an individual to do in the face of such brutal atomization? Why, he takes individualism to its perverse conclusions, William Gibson’s Neuromancer [1] suggests. Take the following passage:

His face was a simple graft grown on collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides, smooth and hideous.

The novel implies that the character might appear a little later with a completely different face. Self was another uncertainty that had been sloughed off by ceaseless momentum. Even the author’s jargon serves to impart a feeling of unfamiliarity.

We’re starting to live in a time when such terrible and wondrous things are not only technically possible but socially acceptable. Headlines were made last month over a fetal lamb being [2] grown in an artificial uterus. The creature, invaded with tubes, suckles and kicks inside its bulging, rippling enclosure. The juxtaposition of twitching organism and sterile, utilitarian plastic is simply cyberpunk. Gender is going the way of that thug’s cartilage-grown face. Male and female is looking more like Coke and Pepsi, with some opting to make their own artisanal cola blends. As rootlessness moves from exception to rule, obligations to others begin to look like hindrances. It isn’t difficult to see how three-parent babies in polycarbonate wombs fit into all of this.


Change is fast these days. We can feel acceleration that was once only perceptible between generations. At the same time, the past is more crystallized than it’s ever been before. Today’s everyman, immersed in a data-sphere orders of magnitude more efficient than any library, can see more clearly than ever that things were different in an ever-familiar past. A world with meaning resolves ever sharper as we speed away from it.

But the left-liberal ethic that was once a vantage point from which the genre’s founders saw so far is now fogging their sight, restricting them to toiling within the status quo. Cyberpunk has come true in ways that makes progressives uncomfortable if they are unpacked. The genre’s founders married a criticism of corporations to the dreary aesthetic of rootlessness, but progressivism only offers a critique of the former on its own merits. Take away the violence and grit and you get Brave New World, a world that the gender ideologue can’t levy an argument against. Consumerization of the body, reproduction and social relations lost their conspicuous ugliness when they were rebranded as “liberation.” (Outside of sci-fi, the only major literary figure [3] who tackles [4] these [5] issues [6], Michel Houellebecq, is painted as a reactionary.)

Gibson’s upcoming book, Agency [7], has a plot one would expect from a lesser author: the future is awful because Trump was elected president. This might seem like a perplexing lack of creativity, but consider the intervening third of a century. Gibson was in the business of scrutinizing Frankensteinization when it was a distant flight of fancy. But becoming a Frankenstein monster of hormones and surgery is here and celebration is mandatory. Dialing down one’s own ability to notice things to the level of a Daily Kos commenter becomes a matter of survival. This new subject matter reflects the aesthetics of culture that snapped his leash: lifeless and brutal in its insipid repetition.

Stories motivated by political disappointment are doomed to be forgotten as the election cycle resets. Cyberpunk, on the other hand, is more popular now than even during its literary heyday of the 80s. The blockbuster Ghost in the Shell hit theaters earlier this year and will be followed by a sequel to the seminal Blade Runner in October. Their combined budget probably exceeds that of every cyberpunk film that came before (there aren’t many.) Cyberpunk 2077 is set to cost around $100 million, making it the most expensive role-playing video game ever made. If we put on our cyberpunk goggles, all of this means something. Capitalism is a computer that processes desire.

Cyberpunk is not becoming marketable because it offers a solution for society. The message is clear that, in face of inexorable rot, the individual loses his sanity or loses his soul. What the genre does offer is a third choice: to view breakneck dehumanization as a roller coaster ride. There is grim exhilaration in the acceptance that an awesome decline cannot be stopped. A future that was once dark and hopeless is now dark and beautiful when one dives headlong into it. Ugliness becomes thrilling and alienation becomes adventure. The homogenous, numbing light of Brave New World’s dystopia is replaced by the dreamy atmosphere of neon-lit alleys. Sisyphus can’t change his fate, but he can refuse to nod and clap, blank-eyed, at the world’s loss of meaning.

Robert Mariani is the opinion editor at The Daily Caller and the co-founder of Jacobite, a magazine of the post-political right. Follow him on Twitter @robert_mariani [8]

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Cyberpunk Is Now Reality"

#1 Comment By Charles Cosimano On June 2, 2017 @ 2:15 am

Hang on everyone. It’s gonna be one hell of a ride!

#2 Comment By Lauren Mandaville On June 2, 2017 @ 6:00 am

Interesting article. Where I live, much of Star Trek’s optimism still rules the day when it comes to sci-fi ambitions, as demonstrated by the March for Science a little while back, where most of the signs I saw thought science was the only hope of humanity. People don’t seem to realize that science isn’t an agent; it’s something used by people. And unless we get our conception of people straightened out, science isn’t going to save us; it’s going to collapse along with us.

#3 Comment By O. O. Babarinsa On June 2, 2017 @ 9:12 am

As a fan of genre fiction, you’re absolutely on the money here. It’s too the point that a book like The Circle can come out to decry the totalizing effects of an all-seeing tech company … and be met by breaking news of Uber’s latest scandals where they’ve gone around Apple’s terms of service to track users illicitly and used said information unethically.

And living in San Francisco makes the nightmare a daily affair. Seeing tables full of rich 20-somethings playing in VR just a pane of glass from piles of homeless is part of the morning commute here.

#4 Comment By OMM 0910 On June 2, 2017 @ 9:24 am

The blockbuster Ghost in the Shell hit theaters earlier this year

It was a box office flop.

#5 Comment By c matt On June 2, 2017 @ 10:32 am

and there are no corporations larger than the federal government.

Presuming, of course, the federal government itself is not merely a subsidiary thereof.

#6 Comment By M.C. Tuggle On June 2, 2017 @ 11:29 am

“Brutal atomization” is exactly the direction into which we’re being herded. Big business wants exploitable, needy consumers and big government wants compliant subjects. Rob people of their sense of belonging by demonizing traditional society, and, voila, you’ve liberated people from all social ties and constraints.

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On June 2, 2017 @ 12:07 pm

“…Global capitalism…ceded agency from nation-states to nation-agnostic corporations…Decay is globalized…the concept of ‘place’ has passed its expiration date…The megacorporations…exist across borders, anywhere being as familiar or foreign as anywhere else…In face of inexorable rot, the individual loses his sanity or loses his soul. What the [Cyberpunk] genre does offer is a third choice: to view breakneck dehumanization as a roller coaster ride. There is grim exhilaration in the acceptance that an awesome decline cannot be stopped.”

(1) The decline can definitely be stopped.

(2) The election of President Trump is the vehicle by which the US as a sovereign nation-state has already begun to take back its “ceded agency” from the trans-national corporations – has already begun to take back its “ceded agency” from the globalist corporations that have no loyalty to America and that have sent tens of millions of American manufacturing jobs overseas.

(3) The election of Trump is the vehicle for demonstrating that “the concept of place” has certainly not “passed its expiration date.” Supporters of Trump are in revolt against the “anywhere being as familiar or foreign as anywhere else” concept of a globalization. Trump supporters are shouting loud and clear, “We are Americans! America is our place in the world!”

(4) We Trump supporters are fighting back against the globalist rot that pushes “the individual to lose his sanity or lose his soul.” Donald Trump’s campaign of America First economic nationalism means that the “breakneck dehumanization” of globalization — the “awesome decline” of globalization — can be stopped. We’re stopping it!

#8 Comment By C. L. H. Daniels On June 2, 2017 @ 12:08 pm

I recall vividly the sense of total revulsion I felt when I saw video of that lamb in its horrific technological “womb”. That this is viewed as “progress” and not seen as an expression of pure barbarism is a sign of the times. A Brave New World, indeed.

#9 Comment By p3cop On June 2, 2017 @ 12:11 pm

Science will not save us. Science can be a tool or a weapon depending on the hands (and minds) that hold it. Science can be used for good or evil, to save life or to take it. The only difference between a Salk and a Mengele is the heart of man, and science cannot change that.

#10 Comment By M.C. Tuggle On June 2, 2017 @ 1:43 pm

You mention Michel Houellebecq as one of the few voices drawing attention to the social costs of globalization. J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, is another such figure.

#11 Comment By Jeeves On June 2, 2017 @ 2:45 pm

Sequel to “Blade Runner”? A replicant? That’s impossible.

#12 Comment By rhine-gold cowboy On June 2, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

I don’t want to live in Nick Land’s future. It would give meaning to my life to fight that to the death. Sometimes I think the Unabomber was a prophet without honor in his own time, like John Brown.

#13 Comment By Thrice A Viking On June 2, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

Kurt Gayle, I agree with you that the decline can be stopped. Just wish I could share your optimism that President Trump will be instrumental in doing so. I did vote for him, after considering the alternatives, but it was as disheartened a vote as I ever cast.

#14 Comment By Kurt Gayle On June 2, 2017 @ 8:44 pm

Thrice A Viking, I know what you mean. But this is only the beginning. We’ll see how far President Trump can lead us. No matter how far that is, we’ll keep going – no matter what – because we’re a movement now. We’re unstoppable.

#15 Comment By Hal Fiore On June 3, 2017 @ 12:13 am

Doesn’t this describe the process that every country boy since Enkidu has gone through when he moves to the Big City? I know it sure feels like what I experienced when I abandoned the limited possibilities of small-city wannabe suburban Mississippi and landed in the Bay Area in 1974. Suffragette City!

#16 Comment By MrsDK On June 3, 2017 @ 9:01 am

The objective evidence so far shows that the election of Trump is an indicator of this decline — and not at all a force for stopping it.

#17 Comment By Rick On June 4, 2017 @ 9:33 pm

Kurt Gayle…Trump is an oligarch crony capitalist helping further cement our political condition as a no apologies plutocracy.

The only ceded agency that moron is going to take back is more of your income and opportunities for himself and his crony partners.

#18 Comment By Kurt Gayle On June 6, 2017 @ 3:47 pm

Rick says: “Trump is an oligarch crony capitalist.”

President Trump struck me that way, too – certainly in the beginning. And then he began flesh out political and economic positions that are completely antithetical to the positions held by the brand of capitalist that you reference.

Moreover, since he has become President he has been playing a shrewd hand of poker. On the one hand, he knows that he has to deal with establishment Republicans and establishment Democrats who are on the payroll of the very brand of crony capitalist that you refer to. But – so far anyway – he hasn’t sold us out on any of his key campaign promises. He’s still hammering away on those promises. He’s still in the fight.

To be sure, we all wish that some things could move along faster, but to this point in time President Trump has turned his back on the “oligarch crony capitalist” class that he sprang from and is fighting for us ordinary Americans.

Like most Trump supporters, I would vote for him again.

#19 Comment By dorobo On June 13, 2017 @ 9:39 am

Great article. You know what i liked it when it was less popular. It was sort of romantic thing back then watching as a kid those late night b rated movies that only i knew that they were much cooler than anything else on tv 🙂