Cyberpunk and the Dark Future of Yesterday

Why would lasers be bad for cyberpunk dystopia? Wouldn’t a cyberpunk setting imply solving the energy storage problem?


In a minor quibble, I didn’t say, “bad,” I said that “beam weapons wouldn’t fit” with a cyberpunk setting. So, let’s dig into what Cyberpunk as a genre is, where’s it’s ended up, and why I don’t think high-energy weapons fit very well with the genre, even though they are part of it.

The original literature that would become cyberpunk came from William Gibson. For someone living in 2020, it’s hard to articulate just how much the presented world departed from contemporary reality. Early cyberpunk, both from Gibson and also Neil Stephenson focused heavily on worlds heavily influenced by the internet in an era when home computers were still a rarity, used by hobbyists and (the rare) home business.

It’s also important to reference just how radical a departure cyperpunk was from contemporary science fiction, when Neuromancer first hit the market. This was written in the aftermath of authors like Asimov and Clarke. While there were subversive elements, (Phillip K. Dick comes to mind), but a lot of contemporary science fiction was written with the philosophy that technological progress would lead to a better world. If you wanted dystopic material, you needed to look to authors like Margret Atwood, or the post-apocalyptic genre that fed on late-Cold War anxieties.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) came into the picture at roughly the same time, but this wasn’t trying to create a new genre. Blade Runner was heavily inspired by mid-century film noir, and was using that visual language while adapting one of Phillip K. Dick’s novels (Do Andorids Dream of Electric Sheep?) The novel presents a world that is in the process of going into complete ecological collapse. There’s a lot of elements that the film never discusses which still influence the world, and the resulting urban collapse mixed with neo-noir aesthetics created much of the visual language we associate with the cyberpunk genre today.

The thing is, the world that Gibson created is shockingly low tech compared to what you’d probably associate with modern cyberpunk. Most of his work (at least, what I’ve read of it) follows a similar pattern. cyberpunk is the world with a few technological embellishments, and the utter economic devastation of Reaganomics writ large. (Remember, we’re talking about books written in the 80s.)

A lot of the aesthetic elements which came to be synonymous with cyberpunk build out of a snapshot of the 80s. Japan’s economic bubble was at it’s most aggressive, and as a result many writers envisioned a world where Japan’s influence would be felt heavily world-wide. In the moment, this felt like a natural progression from what people were seeing. Today (without context) it feels like an arbitrary inclusion. Japan’s bubble burst decades ago, and the vast majority of Japanese businesses which were investing abroad ended up selling off their foreign assets, either to stay solvent, or during bankruptcy.

To a degree, cyberpunk was a remarkably prescient genre. Gibson (and others) accurately predicted that computers would be become far more prevalent in everyday life, and their networks would expand well beyond the military and academic networks which existed at the time. They predicted the dramatic rise in corporate power, and economic inequality of the last 40 years. Squint a little, and you can even see hints of the gig economy popping up decades before it would filter into the real world.

Reading early cyberpunk, it can be easy to miss some of the satirical elements, because they’ve become reality. I’m thinking specifically of the private security for gated communities in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Though, the part where Snow Crash‘s protagonist is basically an early Second Life adopter in a world where people still care about Second Life is also on point.

So, it’s 2020. Blade Runner was set in the distant future of last year. Many of the original genre’s predictions for the future became today’s headlines. If you wrote a crime thriller set today, and hopped in a time machine to sell it in 1985, it’d be cyberpunk. No bionic implants (probably), but smart phones, computer forensics, the internet, traffic cameras, DNA testing, goddamn Wikipedia, livestreams. This is a cyberpunk dystopia. And, much like the early cyberpunk literature, all the cool stuff that sci-fi had promised its characters, like ray guns, flying cars, and space travel, we miss out on all the cool stuff cyberpunk promised us, like cybernetic limbs, smart guns, and affordable rent.

This is not the genre you were probably thinking of, and you’re not wrong. There’s a second cyberpunk genre that exists parallel to the first. Cyberpunk is a dystopic genre of retrofuturism. As the real world calendar has clicked forward, the timeframe for this sub-genre kept pace. For example the classic RPG Cyberpunk 2020, is now set in 2045, because it’s been 32 years, and 2020 isn’t the distant future. (And, yes, that is Mike Pondsmith’s setting, which is the basis for the repeatedly delayed Cyberpunk 2077.)

Influenced by many things, cyberpunk retrofuturism is the sci-fi setting that cuts uncomfortably close to the real world, except they’re still using CRT monitors, have advanced cybernetic augmentation, more neon lights, and a general aesthetic that looks more like Miami Vice than what you see when you look outside.

To be fair, on aesthetic level, I really like 70s and 80s retrofuturism. It’s an aesthetic I grew up with. Being told, “this is what the future will look like,” it’s been disappointing to get older and not see that emerge.

While I know it aggravates William Gibson, there’s nothing wrong with simply stealing that aesthetic, calling it cyberpunk, and running wild with it.

Both of these genre interpretations are valid. If you want a retro-future dystopia, both can be simultaneous inspirations. I’d argue that, if you remember where the genre came from, and use is at a vector for tech-social commentary, your resulting work will be stronger. Cyberpunk began as science fiction, and the genre allows you to cut deeply into real world society and politics.

If you want to talk about systemic racism, economic inequality, erosion of civil rights, or any number of other very relevant topics, cyberpunk has you covered. It’s always been political commentary.

So, why do I think energy weapons are a poor fit? It’s not the technology is too advanced. It’s that it’s too shiny; too cool.

Cyberpunk, held up that utopian vision of the future, shattered it, and threw the broken shards into a rain soaked gutter.

Beam weapons are part of that package. They’re cool. They’re space age. They feel futuristic, slick, and new. They’re a marvel of technology, and as a result, I feel they don’t fit thematically with cyberpunk as a genre. This is not me telling you, “you can’t do this.” It’s not that the technology is impossible. It’s that beam weapons run contrary to the idea of a sci-fi future betrayed and subverted by corporate greed.

Now, context is everything. If you’re looking at cross-threading the space opera with cyberpunk, yeah, energy weapons being the norm may make sense. If particle beam rifles are a major plot point in your story, set in the near future, if your themes support it, it could work.

It’s important to stress that my opinion is based on what cyberpunk is, as a genre. It is not tuned to the story you may want to tell. If you have a reason you want to mix energy weapons in, go for it. How you handle the presentation, and how you use them, will determine if your story benefits from their inclusion, or if they become a distraction.


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