Science Fiction Studies

#144 = Volume 48, Part 2 = July 2021


Chad Andrews

Beyond Cyberpunk Culture

Anna McFarlane, Lars Schmeink, and Graham J. Murphy, eds. The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture. Routledge, 2020. xx+454 pp. $200 hc, $42.36 ebk.

Almost thirty years ago, John Fekete opened his review of the early cyberpunk anthology Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction (1991) by surveying early 1990s technological innovations that had penetrated into daily existence. “We see though eyeglasses and contacts,” he wrote, “we eat with dentures. We remove cataracts and replace the lenses. We insert video cameras inside our bodies to aid in ‘keyhole’ surgery; we remove our gall bladders and throw them away” (395). Acknowledging that these are “just the medical interventions,” he goes on to conjure novel experiences in entertainment and communication: “We also time-shift our simulation programming on television, put disembodied interlocutors on hold on our telephones, and post messages in electronic space through computer modems. We jog through our cities acoustically jacked into our Walkmans” (395).

Of course, today a Walkman is about as cutting-edge as a toaster oven, and Fekete’s survey is a reminder that our technoscape, to use Arjun Appadurai’s term, has taken enormous and unexpected leaps. We still see through eyeglasses and contacts, but we also reshape and transplant corneas, and in certain cases of genetic blindness we use retinal implants to create artificial vision, or gene therapy to alter problematic strands of DNA. We continue to watch television, but it is usually streamed into our homes, gigabyte after gigabyte, as part of a relentless torrent of personalized data. Our phones are part of this network too, and are now advanced computers that we carry in our pockets, closer to the personalized quantum computers, or “qubes,” from Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (2012) than to the “dumb,” corded fixtures of old. We even speak to them, though the conversations fall short of Turing’s high standards.  

So, technology and technique—in the sense that Jacques Ellul used the term—have transformed dramatically over the last three decades, which is really no surprise. Bob Dylan, himself a kind of early punk, told us over fifty years ago that the times are a-changin’, and our technological society certainly has—in ways both large and small, terrifying and promising, obscure and transparent. And cyberpunk literature changed as well. Storming the Reality Studio was the first anthology to grapple with the subgenre’s emergence as a nascent form of postmodern literature, and although Fekete finds its editorial framing problematic, relying on “rusty sociographic theories” (397) to position cyberpunk as a mimesis of “the truth,” the anthology’s essays were some of the first to consider cyberpunk in relation to wider trends in literature, media, technoculture, and other areas. In some ways, this current collection picks up that particular torch, now with four decades of material and developments to analyze. The editors read cyberpunk as not only postmodern literature, but as a broader and pervasive cultural and discursive formation, one they label “cyberpunk culture.” That thesis, that cyberpunk has continued on as a widespread cultural phenomenon, recalls Fekete’s own suggestion that cyberpunk “signals only the early stages of a thoroughgoing literary interest in whatever may be conceivable for a technological imaginary, and especially for its still only embryonic post-liberal varieties” (402).

For Fekete in the early 1990s, then, cyberpunk exhibited a stylized and attractive portrayal of the “technological interface in SF,” one that promised a future of similar explorations, though for him the future of that writing “lies beyond that collocation” (402). This particular Routledge Companion explores the very future that Fekete could only guess at, but the editors are committed, it seems, to an overarching trajectory defined by and oriented around cyberpunk specifically—hence the term “cyberpunk culture”—as opposed to the vague and open-ended “beyond” that Fekete gestures towards in his review.   

In other words, according to the editors of this collection, cyberpunk did not go anywhere. Quite the opposite, in fact: “Cyberpunk is everywhere,” they insist, “even if its earliest practitioners have moved into other conceptual territories” (1). They point to some of the usual examples to demonstrate the genre’s influence—although they prefer the more open-ended and discursive “mode” over “genre”—over the last four decades, including Blade Runner (1982) and its impact on cinema and photography; the “cyberspace” concept popularized in William Gibson’s early work, particularly its first appearance in “Burning Chrome” (1983); and the mass popularity of The Matrix (1999) and its many iconographies, including the use of “green digital rain” (1) as a stylized metaphor for the absolute control exhibited by modern techno-bureaucratic structures. The Companion aims to further explore the “diversity and far-reaching influence” (2) of cyberpunk, utilizing a tripartite structure that collects essays within three broad categories: “cultural texts,” focusing on cyberpunk’s origins in literature and film; “cultural theory,” with articles exploring ways in which the subgenre can be seen to interact with political, ethical, and theoretical concerns; and “cultural locales,” the shortest but most distinctive section, with overviews of the emergence of cyberpunk in territories such as Latin America, Cuba, India, and Germany, where the form developed along lines that are less studied than the American trajectory.

The Companion is a colossal text, and I mean that literally. Including the introduction, it contains fifty essays that are categorized unevenly across its 454-page girth: 29 essays under the “texts” section, 14 under “theory,” and a meagre 6 under “locales.” The “locales” chapter is of course limited by the regions where cyberpunk took root as an identifiable form, but surely this occurred within geographies beyond those represented here, especially if cyberpunk is as pervasive as the editors claim. Interspersed within the first section’s more conventional essays are nine “case study” entries. These each work in tandem with a preceding entry to explore more thoroughly a particular narrative or form—so the article on “Feminist Cyberpunk,” for example, is followed by a case study that explores Pat Cadigan’s novel Synners (1991). These are very welcome inclusions, and the commitment by the editors to have the case studies explore “the oft-overlooked, kipple-cluttered corners of cyberpunk” (2) instead of more canonized works is admirable, though I am not sure how niche or overlooked examples such as the much-discussed anime films Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) actually are (though others, such as the 1989 tabletop roleplaying game Shadowrun, undoubtedly qualify). Both the conventional and case study essays are kept short and succinct. Though this could be seen as another example of academia bending to the general withering of attention spans, in this case the streamlining of content is a benefit, allowing readers to grasp arguments quickly and to locate correlations and synergies among various texts and developments. This is particularly helpful with such a large collection.  

The collection’s diverse entries show that contrary to the editorial framing, cyberpunk is not ubiquitous. Instead, the form has merged with other styles (in some cases) and transformed in profound ways (in others) to produce an almost kaleidoscopic explosion of subgenres and aesthetics. Some of these adhere closely to the stylistic and philosophical mold of early cyberpunk, but a significant number—the lion’s share, really—have materialized out of a convergence of developments in posthumanism, feminism, film noir, computer imagery, animation, singularity theory, ecocatastrophe, surveillance, indigenous studies, and more, all evolving along lines that may intersect with cyberpunk, certainly, but not in a restrictive or all-encompassing manner. The range and diversity of these entries demonstrate, then, a kind of balkanization over the last forty or so years, with cyberpunk playing a role, undoubtedly, but not as an overarching category or mode. And really, if cyberpunk existed today as the defining framework of this cultural cluster, would it really be cyberpunk? After all, nothing could be less punk than sticking around for too long. As Graham J. Murphy points out in his chapter on the early cyberpunk authors, “The Mirrorshades Collective,” there was already a sense in the 1980s that cyberpunk had “died by a thousand paper cuts” (21), best evidenced, perhaps, by Lewis Shiner’s claim in a 1991 New York Times editorial, “Confessions of an Ex-Cyberpunk,” that the original writers were quickly turning “form into formula” (qtd. in Murphy 21). In this way, Murphy explains, the publication of Mirrorshades (1986), the first anthology of cyberpunk stories, “may actually be regarded as cyberpunk’s funeral procession, perhaps even its tombstone, for a movement that had quickly gone mainstream” (21-22). Neil Young, also a kind of punk, sang that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” a notion picked up by Kurt Cobain (definitely a punk) in his suicide letter—perhaps this was the case with cyberpunk, which exploded supernova-like to dazzle its audiences, if only briefly, instead of lumbering along for decades as a cultural form or mode. Persistence and punk may very well be mutually exclusive, especially with the gears of capitalist monoculture churning endlessly in the background.

Again, this is not to suggest that the form does not continue to be powerfully influential. In a chapter on “Television,” for example, Sherryl Vint shows how cyberpunk-inflected themes dealing with AI and cyberwarfare played out in wildly popular shows such as The X-Files, both the original series (1993–2002) and the reboot (2016–18). In fact, Gibson co-wrote two episodes for the show, one titled “Kill Switch” (1998) and dealing with a rogue AI that emerges out of a cluster of viruses, an idea pulled almost directly from Neuromancer (1984) and its sequels. She also traces cyberpunk ideas through more contemporary shows such as Dollhouse (2009–2010) and Reverie (2018), both dealing with virtual reality in ways that seem directly inspired by cyberpunk preoccupations in the 1980s.

In a chapter on “Video Games,” Paweł Frelik similarly traces the imprint of cyberpunk across a span of video game properties. Though he underscores the uniqueness of the genre, where games are distinguished by the “activity elicited by the game from the player” (184) instead of theme or aesthetic, and though he opens with an insistence that “There is no such thing as a cyberpunk video game” (184), it is clear that aspects of the subgenre—particularly its portrayal of augmented, streetwise hackers playing David to the Goliath of multinational corporations—have been interpreted and integrated countless times in video games, including the recent and aptly named Cyberpunk 2077 (2020), which is itself based on a tabletop roleplaying game from the late 1980s. The follow-up to Frelik’s article is a case study of the Deus Ex franchise(2000–2016), where Christian Knöppler discusses how each of the main entries in the series adhere explicitly to the genre’s original conventions: “an augmented established agent gradually uncovers corruption and joins with rebellious countercultures to reach a climactic confrontation” (195). In contrast to Frelik’s commitment to media-specificity, Knöppler is happy to draw direct parallels, insisting that “Deus Ex is a cyberpunk game series, and the tropes of the genre manifest in a multitude of aspects” (195).

In television, video games, and other realms of media, textuality, and performance, cyberpunk undeniably left its mark. But again, does this amount to anything as definitive or substantial as a culture? The early space operas of E.E. Smith left their mark as well, and one can easily trace a line that stretches, for example, from The Skylark of Space (1946) to the narratives of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series (1987–2012), or even to more contemporary space operas such as Arkady Martine’s stunning Teixcalaan series (2019–). And then there are related trajectories in separate media, such as the monolithic Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, as well as developments in separate fields entirely—advancements in aerospace, exoplanet research, Mars colonization, and so forth. Elon Musk named a drone ship platform after an AI ship from one of Banks’s Culture novels, the Of Course I Still Love You, a gesture signifying something like a confluence of interests or inclinations (Norman 1). But insisting on a space opera culture—or even a cultural formation—seems tenuous at best, and I see no reason why the case for cyberpunk would be any different. Yet for some reason there is a kind of obstinacy that clings to cyberpunk, a conviction that the form is alive and well, that it remains not only relevant but defining, a kind of Platonic form that sets the parameters for a multitude of disparate texts. As the editors put it, “cyberpunk remains alive and relevant because it is our quotidian reality” (3). There is much in this Companion that is relevant, even essential, but as I have suggested, the articles show a proliferation and diversification of forms rather than a single mode or culture—and certainly nothing approximating a single “quotidian reality.” In fact, there is a kind of privileged representationalism at play in that notion of reality, as if cyberpunk is exclusively capable of capturing the truth of “the real,” a very un-postmodern conception that Fekete takes Larry McCaffery to task for as well.

In a chapter on “Ecology and the Anthropocene,” Veronica Hollinger argues that “While not obvious sites of ecological and environmental concerns, cyberpunk and its offshoots have always been embedded within the crisis known as the Anthropocene” (326). She goes on to locate representations of a destabilized or erased natural world in texts such as Neuromancer, Lewis Shiner’s “Mozart in Mirrorshades” (1985), and Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995). While not necessarily vehicles for ecological thinking, these and other narratives are haunted by ecological disasters that lurk in the background, often between the lines or within an absent paradigm. But she also discusses Gibson’s more recent novel The Peripheral (2014), where eco-catastrophe features more prominently. The novel deals with two distinct timelines, one centered around London seventy years into the future after a catastrophic event known as “the jackpot,” a “devasting forty-year collapse of the Earth’s biosphere” (331). The other is near-future and thoroughly “embedded in the Anthropocene; in stark contrast to Neuromancer, its setting is an economically depressed rural area of the southern U.S.” (331). Outside of a footnote referring to its eventual publication, Hollinger does not discuss the novel’s loose sequel, Agency (2020), which appeared the same year as this collection (2020), but Gibson goes on to explore the “sad and empty” (331) corners of post-jackpot London in that novel as well, along with the near-future militarism and ecological dread of an alternate timeline where Trump was never elected, but where simmering economic and environmental crises still build toward the jackpot. While the thrust of Hollinger’s argument is not to divide early cyberpunk from post-cyberpunk along ecological lines, it is clear that Gibson and others are now doing something new—and not just a new form of cyberpunk (Hollinger uses the term “post-cyberpunk”), but a literary strain concerned—perhaps even primarily—with the politics, practices, and technologies of our Anthropocene age. On my reading, sf is alive and well here, but the tropes and iconographies of cyberpunk are either diluted or missing altogether; there is very little that is “punk” in these novels, for instance, and cyberspace is nowhere to seen.

Other chapters in this Companion demonstrate a balkanization of forms as well. Christopher D. Kilgore’s chapter on “Post-Cyberpunk” sketches a history of narrative innovation encompassing Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) and Cryptonomicon (1999), Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless (1988), Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (UK title, Body of Glass) (1991), and others, all distinct enough to warrant a clean “post” break from their precursors; Stephenson’s work, for example, “re-orients cyberpunk concerns by projecting them onto past events” (51). In Isiah Lavender III and Graham J. Murphy’s section on “Afrofuturism,” it is clear that narratives coming out of Africa and its diaspora, while overlapping with cyberpunk in certain areas, are part of a broader formation that enables “black people to see themselves in the technocultural world as more than the flesh machines they have been regarded as for much of history in the New World” (360). And in the “cultural locales” section, essays on “Latin America” (M. Elizabeth Ginway), “Cuba’s Cyberpunk Histories” (Juan C. Toledano Redondo), “India” (Suparno Banerjee), “Germany” (Evan Torner), and others demonstrate the incredible range of themes and styles that coalesced in different regions, sometimes simultaneously with the first rumblings of cyberpunk fervor in America, as was the case in Japan. In his chapter “Japan as Cyberpunk Exoticism,” Brian Ruh explains that while western cyberpunk “rapidly became popular in Japan” (402), influencing several works, the form “soon became associated with Japanese authors who were not consciously trying to work in such a (largely Americanized) style” (402).

There are other examples in the Companion of sf literature and theory that escape the gravitational pull of cyberpunk, far too many to summarize in this review. Each entry is a worthwhile and meaningful contribution to sf criticism, and to our understanding of cyberpunk’s evolution, influence, and disbursement over the last several decades. Given the enormous range and distinctiveness of the works and developments covered here, however, “cyberpunk culture” falters as a meaningful rubric. A less constrained framework such as “technoculture” could work, perhaps something along the lines of “technocultural discourse.” As Debra Benita Shaw explains in Technoculture (2008), the analysis of that field constitutes an “enquiry into the relationship between technology and culture and the expression of that relationship in patterns of social life, economic structures, politics, art, literature and popular culture” (4). The texts, movements, theories, and patterns covered in this Companion appear to fit the bill.

As a productive category, “cyberculture” could be a suitable alternative as well. In her forward to Prefiguring Cyberculture (2002), N. Katherine Hayles suggests that a “desire to give a fuller account of the relation of cognition and subjectivity to cultural, social, technological and economic contexts forms another strong thread through these essays” (xiii). Positioning the subject on one hand, and the complex and ineffable machineries of technocapitalism on the other, the works covered in the Companion move along similar lines. Regardless of framing—after all, as John Rieder has argued, “a genre is whatever the various discursive agents involved in its production, distribution, and reception say it is” (191)—it is clear throughout The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture that many of the texts and practices it covers extend beyond cyberpunk culture, assuming there ever was one. Informed not only by cyberpunk but by an enormous multiplicity of texts, cultural practices, and theories, the culture of cyberpunk is now something other, something more dispersed, varied, and—as a result—more interesting. A similar notion appears to guide the collection Beyond Cyberpunk (2010), edited by Murphy and Vint, who explain that the essays “move beyond the narrow strictures of cyberpunk and contribute to an ongoing discussion of how to negotiate exchanges among information technologies, global capitalism, and human social existence” (xiii). Generalized and more open-ended, this is a framing that suits the Companion quite well, and it aligns with Fekete’s somewhat ironic prognostication, almost thirty years ago, that though cyberpunk may die, “it will have given birth to something new and viable. Long live cyberpunk” (403).

Fekete, John. “The Post-Liberal Mind/Body, Postmodern Fiction, and the Case of Cyberpunk SF.” SFS 19.3 (1992): 395-403.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Foreword.” Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History. Ed. Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and Alessio Cavallaro. MIT, 2002. xii-xiv.
Murphy, Graham J., and Sherryl Vint. “Introduction: The Sea Change(s) of Cyberpunk.” Beyond

Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives. Ed. Graham J. Murphy and Sherryl Vint. Routledge, 2010. xi-xviii.\Norman, Joseph S. The Culture of “The Culture.” Liverpool UP, 2021.
Rieder, John. “On Defining SF, or Not: Genre Theory, SF, and History.” SFS 37.2 (2010): 191-209. 

Shaw, Debra Benita. Technoculture: The Key Concepts. Berg, 2008.

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