Want to understand the surveillance-state dystopia our world has descended into? Need a primer on our cyberpunk present? Desperate to know what comes after the plague?
Well friends, you’ve come to the right place. I doubt there are many humans in the world with a Doctorate in Cyberpunk, but I am one of them. So let me put this vast reservoir of knowledge about an ever-more-relevant, and incomparably cool (neon-lit, black leather cool), subject to work, for you.
We live in a world where China has unfurled a system of high tech mass surveillance across the country. It is testing ‘social credit schemes’ that rate the social and political rectitude of citizens, and punishes them if they diverge from the party line. In the US and elsewhere, giant corporations have more power than ever before, impoverishing their workforces while the owners simultaneously become the richest people in human history. In an acutely cyberpunk moment, giant corporations like Disney and Nike promote their products as a moral imperative. Russia meanwhile prosecutes psyops against democracies through cyber warfare, using personal data harvested by western social media companies. Deepfakes, fake news, and server hacks; high-tech disinformation campaigns from a rogue mafia state led by a former KGB colonel. As we will see, Covid-19 is accelerating these and other trends, solidifying our cyberpunk present and propelling us into a dark, cynical, neon-lit future.
As Ursula Le Guin said, science fiction is not predictive, it is descriptive. That is, science fiction writers (some of us, anyway), take the DNA strands of the future we can see already in the present, and write about those. To be sure, the further we try to project forward, the more difficult the exercise becomes – but, without question, the world today, and the one we are careening into, was imagined decades ago.
In this spirit, I begin this primer with an author who was not even writing science fiction, but who nonetheless established a narrative template that formed the basis for cyberpunk.
Hardboiled Fiction – Film Noir
Dashiell Hammett: Nightmare Town (1924), Red Harvest (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931).
If we take Blade Runner (1982) as the Sistine Chapel of cyberpunk – and we should – then we must acknowledge this masterpiece draws its influences heavily from the past. The hardboiled traditions embodied in the film – the cynical detective, the femme fatale, the neon-drenched city at night, the perpetual rain, moral ambiguity, corruption, and alienation – hark back to the cinema of the 1940s and the literature of the 1930s.
The literature of this era was concerned with the trauma of the modern world. Rapid urbanisation, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the horrors of fascist Europe; these are the foundation stones of the noir cosmology. The creator of the hardboiled style – Dashiell Hammett – was a private eye before he was a writer, working for the Pinkerton Agency during a time when they were known for thuggish union-busting. He witnessed first-hand the crushing underfoot of working people at the hands of the monied elite.
It is perhaps no surprise then that Hammett’s early Novella, Nightmare Town contains a trenchant critique of capitalism. Hammett uses the rather improbable scenario of a whole town collectively willing to conspire to make prohibition-era alcohol for an East Coast crime syndicate. Worse, they lure people to town for work, kill them, and take their identities, planning to later burn down the town and claim the insurance. Aside from corruption, we see in this work the seeds of paranoia and conspiracy that are hallmarks of cyberpunk.
Watch: Miller’s Crossing (1990). Coen Brothers neo-noir using elements of Red Harvest and The Glass Key.
Read: The Maltese Falcon. Why now: First, it’s a fucking great read. Hammett is one of the most elegant and spare prose stylists around. Second, he provides us with a cyberpunk archetype: the private eye. Now it need not be specifically a private eye, but rather what this character represents: a loner who works to their own, often opaque, code; who exists somewhere between the criminal underworld and ‘civilised’ society. Third, Hammett was – according to Raymond Chandler – unique among crime writers of his time, because: “he wrote of a world in which gangsters can rule nations.” He imagined a reality where crime seamlessly pervades the body politics and defines a whole culture. Today, we live in a world where Putin rules Russia, Trump the US, and Xi Jinping China.
Philip K Dick: Minority Report (1956), We Can Remember it for you Wholesale (1966), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), James Tiptree Junior: The Girl Who Was Plugged In (1973)
While hardboiled literature was a formative influence on both Neuromancer and Blade Runner, we must also look to some of the great science fiction writers to complete this picture. The works of Philip K Dick, insofar as they depict social decay, surveillance paranoia, and the questioning of technological progress, flow directly into cyberpunk. For James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), she imagined a world in The Girl Who was Plugged In where celebrities are also social media influencers – glorified manikins for product placement, where the masses are manipulated and enthralled by targeted advertising, and where the Earth is stripped-mined in order to create ephemeral consumer products.
Directly, the three PKD stories were made into the cyberpunk films Minority Report, Total Recall, and Blade Runner respectively (though with Tom Cruise and a happy ending, Minority Report is borderline). Indirectly, the ideas in these stories are also influential: the relationship between technology and free will (Minority Report), between memory and identity (We Can Remember…), and the pure commodification of the android (and human) body (The Girl…). All stories are concerned with the dehumanising possibilities of technological advancement.
Read: Philip K Dick short stories. Why now: The drug-fuelled paranoia of Philip K Dick is more relevant than ever. Locked down in our homes, social media giants and governments have hit the motherload of personal data. We know that these entities, through social credit programs, or through increasingly sophisticated algorithms, try to erode free will. As a Chinese citizen, speaking of tech controls in their country was quoted as saying in a recent article in The Guardian: “I thought the days when humans are ruled by machines and algorithms won’t happen for at least another 50 years, this coronavirus epidemic has suddenly brought it on early.”
Imagine how Philip K Dick would react to a world where tech companies could predict our behaviour better than we ourselves could. Where each of us carry a tracking and monitoring device for their benefit – the smartphone – in our own pockets, and do so willingly.
Birth of the Cyberpunk Era
Ridley’s Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Williams Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) are the twin foundational events of cyberpunk. Cool, cynical, dark, prescient; Blade Runner provided aesthetic template for a generation of film-makers; Neuromancer – though it came two years later – is widely considered to have initiated the cyberpunk era.
Like the private eye, Rick Deckard as a ‘blade runner’ exists somewhere between the law and the underworld. He is not a police officer, but rather a state-sanctioned hitman used to kill ‘retire’ androids. These androids (or Replicants) are a slave caste created by Tyrell, a megacorporation, for use in establishing the ‘off-world colonies’. Earth has become increasingly uninhabitable (in Do Androids Dream… the cause is ‘World War Terminus’ in Blade Runner and its sequel, environmental catastrophe is hinted at). Here I’m reminded of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, planning their own off-world colonies as we make the Earth uninhabitable through climate change. The rebel Replicants – led by Roy Batty, played by an incandescent Rutger Hauer – believe furiously, desperately, in their own existence, whereas to society they are seen as mere commodities. As Batty says to Deckard, after terrorising and chasing him though an abandoned building: “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it’s like to be a slave.”
In Neuromancer, William Gibson cited hardboiled fiction as informing his vision of the mean streets of the near future. The term ‘cyberspace’ was coined by Gibson, as was his conception of ‘the matrix’. Hackers, mirrorshades, street samurai, corporate conspiracy, Japanese dystopian cityscapes, neural jacks, drug addiction, cybernetic augmentation, sentient A.I., the Russians! ooh baby, give it to me.
What both these stories did was choke off the exhilaration of futurity. That is, where much of the science fiction that had gone before saw technological progress as an intrinsic good, Neuromancer and Blade Runner saw the dark potential of such power. The heroes of this literature are not heroic explorers, or captains of industry, or presidents. The anti-heroes are the conflicted androids and private eyes that have seen the corruption of the power, and the suffering of the marginalised and dispossessed.
Watch: Blade Runner. Why now: Released in 1982, Blade Runner described a future history of urban decay, multiculturalism, corporate greed and corruption, boundless commodification and existential alienation, and was unerringly right on all counts. I hope it isn’t right about an Earth depopulated by environmental (or biological) crisis, as well.
Katsuhiro Otomo: Akira (1988), Mamoru Oshii: Ghost in the Shell (1995).
East Asia was, obviously, a key aesthetic influence on both Neuromancer and Blade Runner, works that fused their near-future visions with the techno, teaming, sometimes squalid city-life of places like Hong Kong and Tokyo. But beyond this clear aesthetic connection, at the core of Japanese cyberpunk is a cultural experience unlike any other.
Japan is the only nation to have experienced the horror of nuclear war, to have suffered the fullest measure of the destructive power of modernity. The atomic bomb: the apotheosis of scientific discovery, brought about the most barbaric single moment of mass violence in human history. The devastating aftereffects – orphaned kids, radiation sickness, a loss of national independence, the destruction of nature – have been an ongoing influence on cyberpunk anime. For example, At the finale of the seminal Akira (1988) – set in a dystopian 2019 – a white incandescent blast swallows Neo-Tokyo, leaving a skeleton city in its aftermath.
Japanese cyberpunk is obsessed with the way technology transforms society and the human body, and as a means of pervasive control. Sometimes this means a tendency toward body horror – the physical invasion of the body and the mind as a metaphor for the radical changes technology can have on the nature of humanity, and of the self.
“Cyborgs are not about the future, they are about contemporary society and its current transformations,” according to SF scholar Sharalyn Orbaugh. I agree. We are all cyborgs now – whether prosthetics, organ transplants, pacemakers, digital exo-memory (smartphones); the outsourcing of brain function to the algorithmic decision making of major corporations, to choose the products we will purchase; the news articles we will read; the intimate relationships we will embark upon. Our bodies and our minds have been invaded.
What to watch: Ghost in the Shell (1995). Why now: Sexy. As. Fuck. Major Motoko, sure, but also the tech, the vistas, the haunting music – one of most aesthetically gorgeous films of all time. Work of fucking art. But there’s more to it, than this. Ghost in the Shell combines ultraviolence with deep contemplation on the nature of human identity. The questions posed by the anime are not merely philosophical, but as argued above, are pressing down on us in every aspect of our modern lives.
Richard Morgan: Altered Carbon (2002), Charlie Booker: Black Mirror (2011 – 2019)
It’s worth clarifying here that The Matrix, often listed as one of the best cyberpunk films, is not part of the sub-genre. It has the veneer – even a cyberpunk fetish – but is ultimately a hero’s journey narrative, ticking every box of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth: the call to adventure, the mentor (Morpheus), the chosen one (Neo), all of it. The Matrix is about a chosen one fulfilling a prophecy. Friends: happy endings are not cyberpunk. Look at the world around us. Do you think this is going to end well? As a reviewer said about my short story collection, Neon Leviathan:
“I’m reminded of a quote from Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which the old donkey Benjamin says, “Life will go on as it has always gone on—that is, badly.” …every story seems to emulate this one Orwellian quote in one way or another. And that, I think, is the appeal of Neon Leviathan. The malleability of identity and perceived reality aside, life always goes on as best it can. It might not be glorious, it might not be happy, it might not even be what we’ve been made to believe it to be, but—in the end—humans will persevere in whatever way they can, just as they always have.”
What to read: Altered Carbon. Why now: This novel blew me away fifteen years back, when I first read it. It really captured the essence of cyberpunk, I thought, in its hardboiled style, its ultraviolence, and its social commentary. But it wasn’t a mere throwback. It was new, at the same time, showing that the sub-genre still had a lot to say, and could say it with style.
The enduring spectre of the billionaire class (Elon Musk, Twiggy Forest, Gina Rinehart, all the rest) living in gilded bunkers while arguing for a return to work, demanding an expendable worker class to sacrifice themselves on the altar of economic growth, is pure cyberpunk. Altered Carbon shows that one of the most dehumanising things of all is extreme wealth. The immortal billionaires in the novel (‘Methuselahs’) are monsters, their extraordinary privilege completely alienating them from a sense of common humanity.
What to watch: Black Mirror. Why now: The show is at its best when talking about the surveillance state – by mega corporations, by governments, and by individuals of each other – and showing the ways in which these forms of surveillance can destroy us. Its exploration of the ethics of new technologies is – usually – nuanced and intelligent, and a warning of how we may collaborate with the methods of control enabled by our gleaming new technologies.
The thing about the DNA strands of the future observable here in the now, is this: there’s quite a lot of them, for a multitude of different timelines. Yes, we live in a cyberpunk present, but we don’t have to continue this descent, into a future where China is the global superpower, the US has fallen apart, inequality is staggering, climate change unchecked, and the technologies of surveillance and control pervasive. I don’t write about these things in my work because I want them to happen, I write about these subjects as a warning: if we fuck this up, it’s only going to get worse. As cool as the dark, neon-drenched, ultraviolent future appears, better ones surely exist.
Editorial intervention from Adrian Collins
Cyberpunk and grimark are like a pair of ugly cousins out doing mischief–they work incredibly well together, sharing themes seamlessly. Hopelessness, grit, morally ambiguous characters that you root for as they stumble through the plot, barely surviving a world designed to stomp on their throat and rip their hearts out. And so often these stories–especially the sci-fi ones–are such an excellent commentary on both the things wrong with our society today, and how much worse they could get in the future.
Tim’s ability to depict these feelings, these gut punches, this scarily real Asia Pacific future is why GdM published his collection, Neon Leviathan. I fell in love with this brutal future world, and I think you’ll love it to.
Don’t believe me? Then believe Richard Morgan, author of the text listed in this primer, who said:
“Haunting and iridescent – combines the paranoid weirdness of the best Philip K Dick, the chilly but cool-as-fuck future gleam of cyberpunk, and an achingly beautiful literary inflection reminiscent of mainstream heavyweights like Murakami or Ishiguro. T. R. Napper’s futures feel at once gritty and vertiginous and close-focus human in the way only the best SF can manage. Whatever roadmap he’s working from, I can’t wait to see where he’s taking us next.”
Or Adrian Tchaikovsky (Children of Time) in the foreword to the collection:
“Each one of the stories in this volume is a carefully-crafted masterpiece that, whilst it presents a narrative of its own, is nonetheless a window into a larger world, a current of history that flows a winding path from one to another, carrying us with it.”
“Napper’s own personal history feels as though it pervades the collection. An Australian with more than a decade overseas on the sharp end of foreign aid, he’s seen a great deal of how human nature can twist under pressure, or under temptation…[his stories] have an acute sense of place, not just in a generic cyberpunk future but an Australian and Southeast Asian one that builds on tensions of race, sovereignty, class division and international relations, all currently front and centre in today’s news.”
Anna Smith Spark (The Court of Broken Knives)
“Brilliant… it’s rare for people to write well and deeply about the aftermath of violence, about its effect on the perpetrator, but Napper does this so, so well.”
You can buy Neon Leviathan below, or if Amazon is being a bit slow in your country, you can check out Book Depository, or head over to the author’s website for the full list of smaller global retailers.
Reading and watching list
Not everything on this list is cyberpunk; for your delectation I have also included some noir, neo-noir, proto-cyberpunk, and science fiction noir. The latter category has a large – but not complete – crossover with cyberpunk.
Watch: Double Indemnity (1944), The Third Man (1949), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Yojimbo (1961), Soylent Green (1973), Chinatown (1974), Escape from New York (1981), Terminator (1984), Robocop (1987), Bubblegum Crisis (1987), Total Recall (1990), Battel Angel Alita (1993), Strange Days (1995), Gattaca (1997), Cowboy Bebop (1997-98), Memento (2000), Infernal Affairs (2002), The Proposition (2005), Looper (2012), Ex Machina (2014), The Rover (2014), Person of Interest (2011 – 2016), Upgrade (2018), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), First Reformed (2018), Mr Robot (2015 – 2019), Mr In-Between (2018 – ).
Read: James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Graham Greene, Brighton Rock (1938), Albert Camus, The Outsider (1942), Geoffrey Homes, Build My Gallows High (1946), Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1956), Charles Willeford, The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971), George V Higgins, The Digger’s Game (1973), William Gibson, Burning Chrome (1982), Rudy Rucker, Software (1982), Bruce Sterling (ed.) Mirrorshades (1986), George Alec Effinger, When Gravity Fails (1986), Pat Cadigan, Synners (1991), Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992), Natsuo Kirino, Real World (2003), Peter Temple, The Broken Shore (2005), Vu Tran, Dragonfish (2005), Megan Abbott, Queenpin (2007), Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007), Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief (2010), Madeline Ashby, Companytown (2016), Sam J Miller, Blackfish City (2018), T. R. Napper, Neon Leviathan (2020).