Previously on snowcrash dot fun, I outlined something obvious: a good cyberpunk video game is one that is an example of both a good video game and a good work of cyberpunk fiction.
Now let’s proceed down the content funnel with the first of the two natural follow-up pieces: What makes something a good work of cyberpunk fiction?
If good cyberpunk video games can be analyzed on their merit as both cyberpunk and video games, then I would propose the following:
Good cyberpunk fiction faithfully develops themes of both cyber and punk.
— me, just now
Great works in this genre tend to take one or two emergent technologies and run with them, describing the unintended consequences of their ubiquity.
Nailing this half of the genre equation really isn’t that difficult. All you have to do is aim to write a piece of science fiction and put an information technology with far-reaching implications at the center of it.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep
Technology: Androids that are practically indistinguishable from human beings.
Consequences: They’re great at doing jobs too dangerous for humans! But they also think of themselves as human and, surprise!, they want rights. Their resemblance to humans makes them difficult to apprehend as fugitives. Copying living things so effectively makes it difficult to know what’s real.
Technology: Highly advanced Artificial Intelligence and a bio-computer interface.
Consequences: AI roams the net! Haitians create a new mysticism to curry their favor. The ultra-rich want to transition away from their mortal flesh and be like them.
The Diamond Age
Technology: Nanotechnology so advanced that matter is assembled at the atomic level.
Consequences: People can fabricate everyday items in their own homes, but it requires a connection to the ‘Source’ which is controlled by a new nobility with Victorian sensibilities.
It’s easy to observe this formula being followed by most episodes of the popular Netflix series Black Mirror. Whether it’s full sensory VR, social credit, or always-on body cameras, a typical episode describes first the glossy, exciting prospects of a new technology before taking a turn towards the dark, unintended consequences.
Hiro Protoganist lives in a storage unit with a roommate. The original Synners short story tells the tale of a washed up rock musician.
The Bridge, The Raft, The Stacks, and the Walled City all describe places outside of and separate from mainstream society. Or maybe, more appropriately, “interstitial” spaces as Shinya Yamazaki is so fond of saying.
Ready Player One in particular is an archetypal underdog legend of a kid from the Stacks rising up, selling out, and then redeeming himself through open rebellion.
The introduction to the Mirrorshades anthology uses a short phrase that I’ve always thought sums this up perfectly: High tech, low class. Cyberpunk stories are filled with technologies so advanced they border on magical, put into the hands of people we wouldn’t trust to walk our dog.
Punk’s Not Dead
In society, where do cyber and punk collide? In my opinion it’s DIY tools and ethic. When the tools to make, record, and distribute rock and roll became sufficiently available to average people, we got punk music. When the tools to make and reproduce print materials became sufficiently available, we got punk zines. When PCs fell into the hands of average people, we got hackers, and we networked them together and got the web. So on and so forth, cyberpunk authors would have us believe, forever.
Cyberpunk is a future where punk’s not dead. Where things like AI, nanotech, drones, augmentations are the new DIY tools available to people who may not even be ready for them.
Some stories describe societies where those tools aren’t yet widely available but people think they should be. For all its fault, Elysium illustrates this problem; most people live in squalor, knowing that there’s technology that can reduce their suffering or even save their lives, but it is placed just out of their reach (or so the elite would like them to think).
The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.
— William Gibson
Ultimately, the best cyberpunk pairs tech with DIY punks in ways no one would expect. Count Zero tries to describe what could happen when AI, set loose on the internet, comes into contact with Caribbean immigrants. The result? According to Gibson, a whole new voodoo. Like dub music - the result of synthesizers falling into the hands of musicians with no preconceived notions of how they should be used - something wild and beautiful emerges. Another, more humorous example is Chappie bringing advanced robotics to the South African slums. In short, it’s a future where punk is still not dead.