Cyberpunk came true. So what's next?
The inauguration is over, so we should get a day off. Let's talk about sci-fi!
Screenwriter Aaron Stewart-Ahn tweeted an interesting thread about cyberpunk the other day, which got me thinking about sci-fi and futurism. Here are a couple of his tweets:
Well, to be honest, Stewart-Ahn is probably wrong about the popularity of the well-worn 1980s cyberpunk aesthetic. Blade Runner 2049 was a flop, but Cyberpunk 2077 was a smash hit (despite logistical problems with the release). The Ridley Scott/Shadowrun style has become a familiar retro-futurist meme world that consumers can easily sort of slide into, like zombies or space opera or medieval European fantasy. (Also, Stewart-Ahn’s example of modern cyberpunk — the Hai Phút Hơn dance meme — is an animated girl dancing to East Asian techno music, which is just about as off-the-shelf classic cyberpunk as it gets. Also his idea for a 2021 cyberpunk novel is just Pattern Recognition with diversity. But I digress.)
But yes, it’s interesting that cyberpunk — which I’m a huge fan of, as you know — no longer feels like “the future”. The real reason is that the cyberpunk writers of the 80s were just too good at predicting the future. Much of the stuff they imagined is now just the stuff you see in the news.
In 2021, the Russian government hacked much of the U.S. government and many U.S. companies. Remotely piloted drones are defeating human forces on the battlefield. A whistleblower who exposed government electronic surveillance programs communicates from his foreign exile by telepresence robot. Artificial intelligences beat the best humans at the most complex board games and trade in financial markets. Information warfare and espionage are just standard tools of politics now. Animated singers are sex symbols. Militaries train in virtual reality. Online currencies are worth hundreds of billions of dollars and are used in shadowy underground economies and cybercrime. Computer interfaces are being implanted into pigs’ brains. A blind man can now see thanks to synthetic corneas.
All of these elements are recognizable as staples of 1980s and 1990s cyberpunk science fiction, or close relatives thereof. The cyberpunks anticipated the future of technology to an almost eerie degree. Other than the prediction of industrial technologies by the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, it’s hard to think of when sci-fi authors have been more on the money.
As a side note, I have a theory about why the cyberpunks and the early industrial sci-fi writers got it so right. When new general purpose technologies (engines, electricity, computers, the internet) are emerging, it’s easy for speculative fiction writers to imagine a lot of things you could do with the new technologies. But then when writers observe continuous improvement of existing technologies — Moore’s Law, more powerful engines, etc. — they tend to project it out too far, and wind up writing about fantastic super-technologies that don’t end up getting invented for a very long time. That’s why early industrial sci-fi gave way to space opera, and cyberpunk gave way to Singularity sci-fi about artificial general intelligence, personality upload, and so on.
But anyway, back to the point. Cyberpunk is no longer sci-fi, it’s just the world we live in. Turn on the news, and there’s cyberpunk. Not even just the technology, but the social predictions too. People in San Francisco are living in shipping containers while billionaires are trying to colonize Mars with private space fleets. You can carry a sword and be a street samurai in the state of Texas. Online media megacorporations are able to shut down the President of the United States. As William Gibson wrote, the defining characteristic of living in The Future is that it’s not evenly distributed.
OK, so. We can get our cyberpunk fix just by reading the news, and then play retrofuturist video games if we want that classic 1980s feel. But what comes next? Now that information technology has permeated life, what sort of techno-future do we imagine?
Well, two ideas are biopunk and solarpunk. Many of the biggest new technological breakthroughs are either in clean energy or biotech — solar power, energy storage, vaccines, Crispr, and so on. So it makes sense to envision futures where a flowering of these technologies changes society.
Biopunk isn’t particularly new —Nancy Kress and Greg Bear were writing about futures defined by biotech back in the 80s and 90s, and lots of cyberpunks stuck bio stuff in there too. More recent efforts include Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.
One challenge of biopunk is that it’s hard to translate into visuals — you can make monsters and people with weird body mods, but most of the important stuff in biology happens within existing organisms rather than being represented by bulky, conspicuous devices.
There’s also solarpunk. This one is very easy to visualize — in fact, so far, the genre is largely an aesthetic movement rather than a literary one. It’s mostly based around paintings of futuristic cities where technology and nature have fused:
Solarpunk at this point is basically a gestalt of images and ideas — cities physically merging with nature, powered by clean energy, in a future usually implied to be much more peaceful, diverse, and egalitarian. But so far it lacks any of the narrative and character tropes that define cyberpunk, and lacks much of the technological rigor that defines biopunk.
As an aside, it may seem silly that these genres all get labeled “-punk”, but I kind of like it. The sort of disillusioned individualist urban alienation that defined the 80s punk aesthetic comes and goes, but in a more general sense every technological revolution is in some way an overthrow of the status quo. And in an age where institutions are crumbling, daring to imagine a collectivist rebuilding of society might itself be considered punk.
So here’s a suggestion for the next wave of sci-fi: Biosolarpunk. I mean, for the love of God, don’t call it that, because that name is exceedingly horrible. Just call it solarpunk. But the idea would be to combine nerdy futuristic biotechnology with the chaotic, lush solarpunk visual aesthetic. And of course there will be a substrate of information technology below the surface, having become so advanced as to be invisible and taken for granted. To create compelling plots, maybe tell stories about young people for whom rebuilding (regrowing?) the world is actually an act of rebellion. Perhaps the bad guys are ecofascists, or maybe they’re Gen X type cyberpunks who took alienation too far and became nihilists, or maybe they’re totalitarian governments despoiling the land to feed their industrial machines while oppressing the kids with surveillance technology. You could have mixed race queer Gen Z kids and Vietnamese house music and all that good stuff too. There’s lots to play around with here.
I guess the point here, if a blog post has to have a point, is that while aesthetics change and culture changes and technological booms come and go, the romance of progress always remains.
And, like, if you get bored of the romance of progress, the dancing neon cyberpunk holograms will always be there for you.