Cyberpunk is dead. It’s been 37 years since Neuromancer was published, making the genre officially a geriatric millennial. Its aesthetics are used up. Its critique tired. Its literary power petering out like a fritzing cybernetic arm tossed in the automated dumpster beneath a blinking neon hologram.
At least that’s what people say. But I’d like to argue cyberpunk can be salvaged. There’s juice left in its veins and wires. Indeed, it might be the genre best equipped to jack into and tackle our current and upcoming crises.
Cyberpunk was born in the 1980s when conservatives were dismantling government services, corporate power was consolidating, wealth inequality was widening, and the existential threat of nuclear war hung over everything. But if we replace “nuclear war” with “climate change” then we might as well be describing today. If the worlds of cyberpunk feel played out, that’s in part because we live in a cyberpunk reality. One in which billionaires have so much money they race each other into space in cowboy hats while the poor can’t afford basic medical treatments. In which governments debase themselves for the “opportunity” to pay for an Amazon headquarters and people whip out their pocket computers to trade cryptocurrencies that are helping destroy the planet.
Everyone has their own definitions of genres, but to me the essence of cyberpunk is not tied to the 1980s visual trappings that have defined it in video games and film. Cyberpunk isn’t merely neon signs or street toughs with high-tech leather jackets (or its problematic “Japan panic” legacy.) For me, the core of cyberpunk is first as science fiction that fundamentally recoils at the growing power of corporations and unchecked capitalism. That, as Fredric Jameson once said, cyberpunk is the “supreme literary expression…of late capitalism itself.” Secondly, that it is a genre that understands that technology is not clean. Technology is never implemented in smooth and even ways—it is always messy, always unequally accessed. Always (in our world) in service of power and systems.
These traits are at least as relevant today as they were in the 1980s, and perhaps far more so. Still, all genres must adapt and evolve. Not to survive exactly—sameness tends to do well in the marketplace—but to stay relevant. To keep up with the times, cyberpunk might need to shift the focus of its bionic eyes to a realm it’s tended to overlook: the body.
Cyberpunk’s Escape from the Meatspace
When I first started writing my novel The Body Scout, I had a simple motivating concept: write a cyberpunk novel where the “cyber” has been replaced with flesh. I wanted to write a novel that kept what felt vital to me from cyberpunk—the clash of high tech and lowlife, the critique of corporate capitalism, an excited yet skeptical eye toward the implementation of new technology—but use it to investigate the emerging technologies of the body. CRISPR gene editing. Designer drugs. Experimental treatments. The body feels to me like the next big realm of scientific manipulation and corporate power, for both the better and the worse. How will these impact our minds and bodies? How will different ideologies and individuals react?
(Sidenote: I’m of course aware of the term “biopunk” as well as “solarpunk” and “steampunk” and a million others. Are stories about AI-powered utensils “cutlerlypunk” now? Fighting the proliferation of punk suffixes in science fiction is a lost battle, but “cyberpunk” still conjures the anti-corporate, fuck-the-system feeling of punk in way the others don’t. And aren’t all technologies inextricable from “cyber” these days? It is algorithms, robotics, and computers that shape and implement biotech, gene mapping, and the rest.)
I also have a confession: I’m bored of the virtual. Like many, I’m a Very Online person who wastes most of his day on social media apps only to go to bed with strained eyes and aching wrists. (All technology hits us in the body in some way or another.) Yet the idea of plugging my brain into virtual reality for social gatherings or uploading my consciousness into the singularity feels increasingly…silly. Haven’t you seen the consciousnesses that are on Twitter and YouTube comments sections? Are those the ones you want to mingle freely with in the singularity? Seeing that, I wanted to write entirely about how technology is warping the body. What benefits and risks we face as our physical forms are ever-more mingled with technology…especially when that mingling is unequal and for profit.
Of course, thinking about the effects of technology on the human form is not new to cyberpunk. All genres have tendrils of influences and precedents that stretch back in time, but it seems fair to pick William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer as ground zero. Gibson’s novel towers over the genre as surely as the Mount Doom of Tolkien rises above the realm of epic fantasy. And Gibson didn’t forget the body. From the first page of Neuromancer we are in a world where flesh and machine are in tension. We begin in a crowded bar filled with addicts and a bartender with a “prosthetic arm jerking monotonously…his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay.” Our hero, Case, is suffering pain from his damaged nervous system. He has fallen “into the prison of his own flesh” without being able to access the matrix of cyberspace. Cyberspace is how Case escapes from the world of flesh. The meatspace.
Other ’80s works like Akira, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Donna Haraway’s classic “A Cyborg Manifesto” were even more concerned with the mingling of the human form with technology. But by the 1990s it seems the genre—in the US and UK at least—focused ever more on the virtual realm, often in a giddy way. In the ’90s, the web was the “information superhighway” where anyone could be what they wanted unrelated to the real world. Later cyberpunk novels like Neal Stephenson’s satirical Snow Crash built on this idea of escaping into cyberspace, imagining a cyberspace that is a fantasy video game world. Escapism within escapism. Even the virtual representations of bodies were incorporeal. (In Stephenson’s Metaverse, avatars can do almost anything and turn “ghostly and translucent” so you can see through them.) This helped spawn a million cyberpunk videogames that aimed to create the feeling of being inside the imagined virtual realms.
The Matrix recreated this videogame feeling in film, sealing bodies in battery pods so we can focus on superheroics in a simulated world. While The Matrix remains a stellar action film—the fight scenes still far more thrilling than today’s MCU fare—its cyberpunk critique is muted. Who wouldn’t agree that evil robots enslaving humanity would be bad? (That is unless we read the movie as a trans metaphor, as the directors suggest. The film becomes more than just action fun when we return it to the body.)
Cyberpunk is typically thought of as a dystopian genre. But what had begun as a cautionary tale became a celebration. Isn’t all of this really damn cool? Wouldn’t you like nothing more than to be a hacker god swinging swords and dodging bullets free from your corporeal form?! As cyberpunk went further down this path, the body disappeared more and more. At the same time, the fundamental critique seemed to evaporate. Dystopian elements were still tacked on, but in the background like neon holograms. For visual style, not warning. Meanwhile real-world dystopian tech companies and right-wing movements felt free to pluck cyberpunk language (“red pill,” “metaverse,” etc.) for themselves. The end of this cyberpunk path is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, where the most exciting thing in the universe is to play a video game populated with corporate trademarks.
The Case of the Missing Body in Fiction
Earlier this week, I was having dinner with a fellow creative writing professor who—unprompted—brought up a complaint about student work. “There are no bodies in their stories,” they said. “The characters don’t have sex or chronic pain or eat. It’s like they don’t have bodies at all.”
The disappearance of the body in fiction is hardly limited to cyberpunk. Increasingly it feels like while we (rightfully!) expect more diversity of characters in our fiction, too often the actual physicality of these characters is ignored. The author Brandon Taylor coined the term “character vapor” to describe this phenomenon. Formless characters who float through scenes like mist spouting witticisms or thinking sad thoughts. Perhaps they are described smiling at one point or picking up a glass of water. But there’s little feeling of the body. No sense at how our forms exist and move in the world. How actions and technologies and systems impact them.
I’m not sure what has caused the shift in the general literary landscape. Maybe readers are just squeamish these days. Science fiction has always had a tendency toward bodily erasure though. As a genre of big ideas, it is maybe understandable that the focus is often concepts more than characters. Reading many SF classics like, say, Asimov’s Foundation and you encounter characters no more corporeal than computer code. But it isn’t just a focus on ideas over characters, it is also that one of the animating ideas of classic science fiction was the transcendence of the body. Food transformed into pills. Medical problems erased with a magic wand. The mind divorced from the body, able to be swapped into androids, fresh clones, and computer systems without ever worrying about the problems of flesh.
This is by no means universal. Unsurprisingly it is more often marginalized authors whose bodies are subject to the daily scrutiny of society—POC authors, trans authors, fat authors, disabled authors, etc.—whose work best interrogates the body. No can tell me that Octavia Butler forgets the corporeal in masterpieces like Wild Seed and Kindred. But compare the fleshiness of Samuel Delany’s proto-cyberpunk Nova or the brilliant Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand to the sterility of Ready Player One. The former is the work of someone who has thought deeply about how human forms move, ache, fuck, and generally exist in the universe. The latter seems like it understands the body only through the cartoons and video game avatars the characters idolize.
Science fiction—and especially cyberpunk—loses something essential when the flesh fades away in the pixels. Because cyberpunk is the genre that can examine what emerging technologies are doing to us. How they will impact and change humanity. How technology is deployed in the service of ableism, racism, transphobia, and other systems of oppression. And what it means when these technologies are controlled by different interests and unequally distributed.
The most haunting bit of science fiction I’ve read this year is the opening chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, in which the effects of a climate change-fueled heat wave on human bodies is wrought viscerally on the page. “It was getting hotter,” the novel opens. People drenched in sweat fight over access to A/C units. There’s no escape from the heat, no virtual world to disappear into. The main character, Frank, seeks refuge in the lake that’s already “hot as bath water” with “heads dott[ing] the surface everywhere.” By morning Frank “had been poached, slow-boiled, he was a cooked thing.” Around him are endless dead bodies.
By rendering of the physical realities of climate change on the body, Robinson makes it feel more real than charts and stats. This is what science fiction can do so brilliantly when it remembers to focus on our real human forms. And this feels like what cyberpunk must do in a world in which corporate power and new technology increasingly plays out in, on, and around our bodies.
We’re All in the Cyber-Meat Space Now
The internet exists in the world of my novel, but it is something banal. In the background. (For an excellent cyberpunkish novel where the internet does disappear, read Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan.) As someone born the same year as the original Blade Runner, I’ve spent my entire conscious life in a world shaped by computers. I’ve seen the waves of changes and the narrowing of the internet from an “information superhighway” of possibilities to a mirror of the real world where a few corporations control power, wealth, and information. The idea of a wildly exciting Metaverse in Snow Crash has given way to the drearily office cubicle x Playmobil aesthetics of Facebook’s “metaverse.”
Mostly, it seems hard to think of cyberspace as anything separate. As a “space” at all. In 2021, cyberspace and meatspace are linked together though a million veins, wires, arteries, and cords. The fluids intermingle. The interesting and horrifying parts of the internet are increasingly those that play out in the real world. When I log onto the internet today, what I see is not people zapping around virtual reality bars with samurai swords. Instead, I see friends posting GoFundMe campaigns to pay for their dental work or insulin shots. Or pictures of cities obscured by wildfire smog. Or viral clips of police brutality that send more bodies into the streets to march.
There is no Metaverse or OASIS into which we may escape. Only rabbit holes of disinformation and levers of power that affect the bodies of the real world. In anti-vaxxers who die in hospital beds, their bodies unable to deny the diseases the feeds said didn’t exist. Meanwhile, the worlds’ poor beg corporations for access to the very same vaccines.
Climate change is perhaps the most pressing issue we face, and it too is a question of the body. It is real human bodies that are being uprooted by climate change, their homes burned by wildfires or sunk into the rising seas. Human bodies that get sick and die with new pandemics made more frequent and more deadly by the global marketplace, deforestation, and ever-warmer air. And, as always, it is systems of power that determine which bodies get access to the “solutions” to climate change that we devise.
This late stage of late capitalism is inextricable from the crisis of healthcare, the destruction of physical living spaces from climate change, and increasing medical inequality. We are living in a world in which we are all cyborgs, our bodies constantly connected to machines and adaptive technologies of all kinds. Each day, new technologies and medicines are being invented that will manipulate our bodies (for better or worse) and merge us more with machines. Biotech, genetic manipulation, cybernetic enhancements. These too are likely to become common as commonplace in the near future as the internet is today.
In the introduction to the 1986 anthology Mirrorshades, Bruce Sterling said that unlike other science fiction, in cyberpunk “technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin…” This is what cyberpunk can do so well when it remembers the body. It’s what Neuromancer did and what recent works by authors like Nalo Hopkinson and Annalee Newitz have done. Cyberpunk can remind us that technology is visceral. We feel it (quite literally) in our skin and guts.
In the 1980s, both punk rock and cyberpunk offered a needed counterweight to the excess consumerism and trickle-down conformity. In 2021, our corporate overlords’ profits depend on erasing our physicality to sell us VR office meetings, filtered and photoshopped beauty standards, and surveillance marketing that reduces us to data points. Meanwhile our politicians do nothing as the planet burns and inequality deepens in both bank accounts and bodies. Those in power want us to believe that we will slide seamlessly and inevitably into the world of their making. It’s the right time for literature that reminds us that these emerging technologies are fraught and unequal, that the path we’re on will play out across real bodies suffering in the real world, and that the future is far from inevitable.
© 2022 Lincoln Michel