I remember a time when cyberpunk was the shit! Not just something that was cool, but something that dominated the landscape.

It seems crazy to say that now, since to a lot of people it has lost its edge and even disappeared from the public eye. Today, its themes of rebellion in a world of corporate control, freedom of expression and self-empowerment through technology are still relevant, if not more so, but are frequently used as part of trans-human stories. Humanity has moved on, shall we say.

The Cyberpunk ideal, 1990-ish

Back in the 80s and early 90s, the world was, obviously, a different place. There was no freely accessed Internet and the cultural impact that would come along with it. Computer technology was something at most people’s arm’s length, not even in the form of cell phones (as someone who painfully – and expensively – followed the trends of portable computing (from Psion Series 3, Palm Pilots all the way up to iPaQs and eventually iPhones), it took 16 years before I was satisfied that truly mobile computing had arrived.)  Cyberpunk at the time was less of a “it will happen” and more of a dream. It was us still being hopeful for the future, even though it was grimly dystopian – even if we were held under an oppressive force, we’d still have the toys and the will to use them.

For me, and perhaps many others like me, Cyberpunk was not just a SF movement but a zeitgeist, and perhaps even like the punk genre that inspired it, most of us didn’t realize that it was “over” until someone said “Cyberpunk? What’s that?” (and i for one would argue that its not over, but just that there aren’t many practitioners left.)    Cyberpunk not only encapsulated the future I thought would come to pass, but was also a reflection of who I was, or who I felt I was – something that I can’t really say about any other genre of SF. It was something I didn’t want to leave behind, nor have taken away from me, but suddenly it had transmogrified into a dead genre, which because of the perpetual churn of technology became too real, even mundane. We live in a world very similar to the Cyberpunk ideal: the Internet binds us all together informing and controlling us. Corporations rule lives: jobs, national policy, describing the future with their products, redefining ecologies. Technology has become part of civilized life: blogs, smart-phone assistants, AIs, the “Cloud”. There are the freedom fighters and the malcontents: Anonymous and similar groups having huge impact on the world around them, for good and bad.  Sure, the Steppin’ Razors, implanted sunglasses and some of the other cyberpunk bells and whistles haven’t come around yet, but they’re just around the corner. The thing is, we’re living Cyberpunk – the dream is real.

Some would argue that even while Cyberpunk was in its hay-day it was already real. There’s a reason that William Gibson set his Sprawl in Chiba city, Japan. Japan already was the future city made manifest, riven with vending machines, people sleeping in coffin hotels, its underbelly ruled by stylish crime syndicates and burned by neon glare. Gibson wasn’t the only person to see this, as it was a hallmark of the 1982 Ridley Scott movie, Blade Runner.

Why cyberpunk fell by the wayside and near-future science fiction (as typified by the work of Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, et al) grew I really don’t know. Cyberpunk, at least to me, seems to be the far more interesting of the two genres, even though they appear to be driven by the similar themes. The market for Cyberpunk is none-existent, as far as I can see, yet near-future SF is selling like crazy.

Perhaps it is the fate of everything that is truly punk. There is a time to be bold, raw and caustic – to grate against the gears of conformity and break into new ground and once that is achieved, the newly opened pastures are explored. But for the elements that made that breakthrough possible, the shows over and no longer relevant.  To the average person who’d heard of it, punk is dead, but to the punks themselves, its far from it, grinding on a different area, looking for another breakthrough. The same goes for cyberpunk.

All of this came out of a conversation I had with a fellow science fiction fan who due to a genetic bad-timing had missed out on the whole thing. Ok, maybe not the whole thing, as he had followed the developments of Cyberpunk through video games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and classic movies like Blade Runner. As we talked, I realized that most of what he cited as cyberpunk wasn’t my idea of the genre, which is to be expected, I suppose, but it forced me to ask myself: what was cyberpunk to me?

And my answer was: William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Burning Chrome, Richard Stanley’s “Hardware,” Masamune Shirow’s entire brain (Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell) and the little known “Gun-HED.” Each of these is a mini-bomb of neural connections combining visual, aural and thought-scapes of ideas, styles and feelings. They are densely formed and weirdly textured, provoking meditation on their many layer.

Click for the Trailer

Taking Gun-HED as an example – it had robot/mecha war, artificial-organisms, rough-shod scavengers, futuristic hardware abandoned as it was obsolete/unwanted, rampaging AIs… It was grungy design, inspiring music and streetwise characters getting screwed over by the “man.”  It was used in Industrial band Front Line Assembly’s “Mindphaser” video, itself referencing movies like Robocop 2. The name of Cybor-Tech, the corporation who built the Gun-HED, became the name of a European body-beat/industrial dance group, etc.  In my brain’s inner space, its connections are manifold.

Frontline Assembly’s “Mindphaser” video

The movie itself is a strange mix of old and new. It is set in the aftermath of a war between humans and AIs, with its last bastion being on a mechanized island complex that is home to the AI, Kyron-5. In the final stages of the war, humanity sent its last hope – a mechanized GUn-H.E.D (Gun Unit – Heavy Elimination Device) battalion to destroy it. It was unsuccessful, but the war was brought to an end. The AI still exists and works, but has been kept under control. Scavengers and treasure seekers attempt to strike it rich by finding artifact from the war, and especially the artificial material “Texmexium” which is a potent energy source. The AI defends its island tenaciously with all manner of automated defences and drones, artificial organisms (bio-roids) and the thing responsible for the GUn-HED Battalion’s demise – the Aerobot. The island is the military-industrial complex run amuck, controlling everything, rotting from within, but its never strong enough to crush the human spirit, as several survivors live amongst the ruins, creating a new life from within. Its lead character, Brooklyn, practically name and identity-less, shirks responsibility, fights authority and chomps carrots rather than smokes cigars.  Its character emerges from the set and mecha design, musical overlays, thoughtful moments of triumph and a thick info-dump at the beginning.

There are very few “good” Cyberpunk movies, in my opinion. That is, that exemplify the cyberpunk theme. If there was a checklist for what cyberpunk was (or is…) then I would say that a lot of the movies touted as cyberpunk don’t check off many items on that list and miss the point.

So, is it a good movie? Depends on where your tastes lie, but that’s not really the point. Cyberpunk exemplified the punk ideal. At its root it is an expression of nihilism toward the established norm, shocking it out of complacency. Its about using a sledge hammer (a Great Enoch, natch!) rather than a scalpel. Brute force ideas, creativity, aimed for the underdog and uninformed, not for the aesthetics and sophisticates. (“If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible” – as a wise man once said.) If you’re bristling at the quality of the piece, you’ve missed the point already, or you’re not willing to hear or see it – and in that case, we need a bigger hammer.

Watching and re-watching that movie brought a flood of cyberpunk memories crashing back, and most of all, wondering what HAS happened to it. Is it still alive beyond pieces like Richard Morgan’s “Altered Carbon”, or does it only exist in the genes of its descendent genres and the memories of people like me?

If you know, please tell me!