When I was a kid, (just stop it okay, don’t. I know how that phrase sounds and I know how old I am so just don’t. Stop.) role-playing games like D&D were at the height of their popularity. Video games were still in their infancy, with only slightly better than 8-bit graphics on the best of systems. Generation X came into its own and it was looking to shed some of its disposable income. The Cold War was getting slightly warm as Ronald Reagan was pushing MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction – yes that was an actual plan) and the Soviet Union and we were all worried about how we would fair in the day after Armageddon. Small conflicts involving the superpowers seemed to be popping up more than need be in the third world and men my age were afraid of a new Vietnam War that would scar our generation. Unrestrained capitalism made us all worry about whether we would have jobs or the means to make ends meet and this new thing called the internet and the world wide web promised to change everything.
Into this target rich environment of 1988, R. Talsorian Games, Inc. introduced Cyberpunk 2013. Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s unfaithful but iconic adaptation of Philp K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, was slowly building up cult status. If you haven’t seen Blade Runner or read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, you should go do one, or better yet both, right now. In either case, you should also watch the YouTube video on the differences between the movie and the novel by CinFix. Go ahead. The blog will be here when you get back.
At the same time, William Gibson published what is widely considered the seminal archetype of the cyberpunk genre Neuromancer. With this work, and the books of Walter John Williams and Bruce Sterling, the genre suddenly introduced to rockerboys and girls who used their fame to rail against the man, and turbocharged salary men selling anything and everything to get ahead and secure that corner office. Reporters and media types, each, revealed to be fighting against their soulless corporate bosses; or doing anything to boost their ratings or pocket books, or both. “Little people” trying anything to be noticed threw their hats in the ring as well, risking both body and soul.
Against this backdrop, unscrupulous purveyors of tech, both mechanical and biological, would provide whatever you wanted, regardless of whether you needed it, for the right price. Big government was either too corrupt or too powerless to help, local law enforcement forced to become more and more militarized just to maintain some sort of parity with the lawlessness and the capabilities of those they swore to serve and protect.
The recent Microsoft Xbox E3 2019 included the announcement of the release date for the long awaited Cyberpunk 2077 as April 2020. Additionally, it revealed Keanu Reeves would star in the game as Johnny Silverhand, who was an NPC from the role-playing game used to help explain the in-game universe and how the mechanics of the game worked. Reeves himself is no stranger to the genre. He helped introduce it by playing the titular Johnny Mnemonic in the much-maligned adaptation of William Gibson’s short story of the same name. He is also arguably best known for his portrayal of Neo in the increasingly befuddling Matrix trilogy of movies. All of which are steeped in cyberpunk.
In addition to their style, tone, and bleak outlook, there is another aspect all of these stories have in common, time. Each is set in an increasingly distant near future. Cyberpunk 2013, released in 1988 is set 25 years in the near future. Its successor, Cyberpunk 2020, released in 1990 has our society’s demise set 30 years out. The new video game, Cyberpunk 2077 – yup, you guessed it – is set a whopping 57 years in our collective future. The source material for the genre (Blade Runner and Neuromancer) set the aftermath of Armageddon 37 and 51 years away, respectively. Although it is interesting to note that Blade Runner, much like the Back to the Future franchise, is fast approaching actual history as the story is set in 2019.
I think these visionaries were too pessimistic in their estimates. Why should we have to wait so long to watch our world fall apart around us and see our humanity be slowly sapped by soulless corporations and our bodies and minds relentlessly devoured by the technology that has propelled us to greater heights while removing our humanity? Just look at all the amazing things we have been able to accomplish so far.
Granted, we don’t have near human replicants stalking the dark streets of our megacity arcologies trying to eke out a little more life. Nor do we have corporate owned city-states hanging like gigantic steel snowflakes at Lagrangian points flouting both tax law and moral virtue. You need to look beyond the more flamboyant aspects of the genre to the more mundane or at the very least, slightly less flamboyant aspects we have accomplished.
While arcologies and the hyper-dense sprawls of the dystopian future don’t yet exist, megacities and their sprawls do, with there being 100 cities with a population anywhere from 4 million to 38 million people. Virtual worlds you can plug/jack/interface directly to your brain also don’t yet exist; but VR headsets are readily available and Google is testing an augmented reality feature for Google Maps. The long wars of the Middle East and Central Asia, which the United States has been embroiled in, are coming up on producing the second generation of soldiers fighting on the same battlefield as their parents. These same wars have produced fewer fatalities but more casualties, allowing medical advancements, especially in limb replacements, almost on a par with the works of Gibson.
The same changes that have altered geography, architecture, technology, medicine, and warfare have had similar and far-reaching effects on society and social constructs. I’ve stumbled across a YouTube channel called Storror, a Parkour or freerunning group traveling the world risking their lives for the best run, often on the top of a thirty story building in Hong Kong. Even the more benign channels I follow, Currently Hannah, Sorelle Amore, and Peter McKinnon, have enough of a voyeuristic attitude to them – even in the friendly and pal-ish nature of the vlogs – that they are reminiscent of the braindancers of Williams and Sterling.
Even governments are not immune, seeming to eschew their supposedly founding tenets of democracy. They have become either too weak to defend themselves, and therefore us, or so corrupt they willingly sacrifice us for corporate profit. Heads of state are too interested in furthering the bottom line then in protecting those they are obliged to protect. They don’t seem even to understand the problem of sacrificing a journalist or member of an NGO as they line the pockets of capitalism.
The capitalistic future we find ourselves in, however, has been partially tamed. This tamed version of the future is responsible for medical miracles allowing brave soldiers to walk again. The spread of capitalism – with varying levels of regulation – has lifted more people out of poverty than any other economic system. Technology connects people around the globe providing support, and hope, and education. It also reveals truths both good and bad. Making us aware of what we find important, and precious, and rare. That which we will fight to keep.
And therein lies the hope.
This present we find ourselves in may seem bleak. It is almost as bleak as the dystopian future of the new age noir presented in cyberpunk. Nevertheless, there is also that hope, as tenuous as it may be. If we can keep in mind what we see in front of us now, and heed the cautionary stories that place these dark days just that little bit further down the road, we might be able to keep the darkness at that increasingly distant near future. If not, then we’re all just meat-bags waiting for some ripper-doc to use us for spare parts.