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THE REVENGE OF CYBERPUNK (and why I want to punch K. W. Jeter in the face)

June 25, 2012 | | Comments 2

Recently, I’ve noticed a resurgence of a genre I thought had faded, or at least had evolved to a state requiring redefinition. Educated readers no doubt know of the origins of the term “cyberpunk” and its popularity peaking in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Although the genre had been given its title in 1983, stories meeting the various criteria had emerged years, if not decades earlier by writers unaware of the genre they were defining. At its core, cyberpunk was characterized by the collapse of government, the rise of dictatorial multinational corporations, the destruction of the natural environment, the viral-like spread of urban sprawls, and the seemingly uncontrolled advancement of technology including its interdependency (or lack of dependency) to man.

Stories falling into this genre didn’t have to meet all these conditions, but common elements required a near-futuristic timeframe and a relatively dismal prognosis for the fate of mankind. Fanatical critics narrowed this genre to only apply to specific novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash as well as movies like Blade Runner and Hardware. However, as the genre gained in popularity, fans become obsessed with bloating it with stories that didn’t actually fall into the category. This could be rationalized by claiming the genre was simply evolving to match the progress of society as we approached the dates speculated in these classic stories.

Cyberpunk waned in popularity in the late 90’s, finding a renaissance at the turn of the millennium as newer stories appeared not following the ironclad rules set down by the genre archetypes. One had to reach beyond American shores to find most of these, with the majority emerging from France and Japan.

The padding of the genre by fanboys irked me considerably, not as much with cyberpunk but with steampunk, a term which didn’t appear until the late 80’s, coined by a writer only attempting to ride the coattails of a then popular genre. What annoyed me wasn’t the genre itself–I’m actually quite fond of it–but how it’s been victimized by philistines who continue to dump anything retro-futuristic into it. This even included retroactively redefining the stories steampunk was based on, known then as Victorian speculative fiction, as steampunk.

Steampunk refers to a specific look from a specific timeframe under specific circumstances. So it troubles me when people lump any retro-science fiction story into it. Other people agreed, but instead of correcting this, they created new “punks” to accommodate the other stories, because god forbid they should be able to hold their own without classification into a genre defined by someone else. So now we have dieselpunk and atomicpunk, each referring to a specific retro-timeframe the setting is trying to base itself from. My personal favorite is the latter atomicpunk, of which much of the science-fiction from the 50’s and 60’s originated, and later emulated by the underappreciated classic Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a movie also often mistakenly labeled as steampunk. But I don’t call it atomicpunk either; I prefer just 50’s retro.

I don’t understand this fanatical desire to dump every form of fantastic or weird fiction into a “punk” moniker. A simple Google search will find other variations, spacepunk, weirdpunk—why don’t we just create a term, omnipunk, that covers them all (checked…already taken). I’m ok with someone using it as a variation of the music, but as a variation of literature, I think it needs to stop. It was ok when it was just cyberpunk, but it’s gotten out of hand. There’s stonepunk, sandalpunk, clockpunk, biopunk (oh, I hate that one), and gothicpunk, the latter making no literary sense to me. It’s gotten so bad, even steampunk had to divide itself, with terms like cattlepunk and stitchpunk being utilized. Do people even know what “punk” means?

…exhale…

I digress, after a mild resurgence about ten years ago, cyberpunk is starting to enjoy a second renaissance, a retro-shout back to the progenitors of the genre. Despite most of these works being rendered anachronistic given the advancements of our age, these original books and films are returning. I had been following Vincenzo Natali’s progress adapting Neuromancer to the big screen, and just recently, news came down that Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash is in development. Both of these films follow up the second adaptation of We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, known to the literary challenged as Total Recall. And this only scratches the surface of cyberpunk’s comeback. At the last E3, CD Projekt Red announced a new RPG video game based on the classic pen & paper R. Talsorian Game, Cyberpunk, written by Mike Pondsmith, a system I was married to through high school. And even further, we’re now expecting a sequel to the classic Blade Runner as well as another Judge Dredd movie.

Seeing these throwbacks finding their way back to the frontline has me concerned, mostly from their anachronistic nature. None of these properties accurately gauged how our future would look. Beyond the fact we have only eight short years to develop flying cars and replicants, most of these films and books couldn’t properly estimate how fast the internet would arrive, how critical it would be our daily operations, and how much sooner this would happen ahead of cybernetics and artificial intelligence, at least to the level of AI presented in these stories. Cybernetics has moved at a snail’s pace but the interconnectivity of the global population is very much a reality. The rise of multinationals was an obvious expectation but their relationships with governments as well as to their competitors was often vastly misrepresented.

Yet I greet this resurgence of one of my favorite genres with open arms, giving me excuse to dust off and continue my NeuroSpasta setting, a cyberpunk game mixing espionage and politics (politicalpunk?). I’ve even had the opportunity to have a peripheral involvement with a new anthology of cyberpunk fiction put together by Jeff and John LaSala, Foreshadows. The future may not be bright, but I’ve been enjoying the present well enough.

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About the Author: Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

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