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What is cyberpunk?

IT WAS ONE of the biggest entertainment events of the year. On December 10th “Cyberpunk 2077”, a video game developed by a Polish firm called CD Projekt Red, was officially released. Business was brisk, to put it mildly. The firm has yet to release sales figures. But at $60 a pop for customers in America, the game's 8m pre-orders mean it may have earned CDPR nearly half a billion dollars before it had even officially gone on sale. (That barnstorming performance was tempered by fans’ realisation that the game, which is graphically demanding, does not run well on older games consoles, leading some irate buyers to push for refunds.)

As the name suggests, the game (which is based on a pen-and-paper role-playing game from 1988) is a homage to cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction that emerged in the 1980s with novels like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and films such as “Blade Runner”. Unlike many cultural fads, though, cyberpunk’s appeal has endured. In 1999 “The Matrix” introduced a new generation to its tropes (a third sequel is due out next year). In 2017 a critically applauded sequel to the original “Blade Runner” was released. “Altered Carbon”, a Netflix drama based on a novel from 2002, ran for two well-reviewed seasons from 2018. Cyberpunk’s gritty vision of the future has informed much of the science fiction produced since. What explains the genre’s enduring appeal?

One reason is the sort of future it depicts. It is famously stylish, for one thing. As Bruce Sterling, the movement's principal theorist and provocateur, put it, the genre blends “low life and high tech”. Authors are not afraid of going to extremes. The typical cyberpunk setting—as depicted in “Cyberpunk 2077”—is a neon-soaked metropolis where life is cheap, technology has penetrated the very bodies of its inhabitants and anything is available for the right price. Cyberspace, body modification and inhabitants who talk like characters in a Raymond Chandler novel make an ideal setting for page-turning pulp fiction. Unrestrained capitalism (giant corporations usually outmuscle governments) and virtual reality give space for political commentary and musings on the nature of experience and reality. And in 2020, in which a handful of giant corporations really do dominate cyberspace and computers really have taken over the world, the themes it explores have become the themes people worry about in the real world. A healthy dose of camp stops the whole enterprise becoming too po-faced. “Snow Crash”, an influential cyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson, is itself partly a humorous send-up of the genre’s tropes.

It is possible to overstate cyberpunk’s prescience. Its obsession with the invincible power of corporate Japan (the biggest, baddest corporation in “Cyberpunk 2077” is called Arasaka, and based in Tokyo) reflects the neuroses of 1980s America. Its focus on urban decay looks similarly out of time. Forget the junkies and prostitutes of Times Square 40 years ago: these days the centres of many big cities have become safe, gentrified, boring—and desirable.

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But never mind the anachronisms. A deeper reason for the genre’s popularity may be the way that it arrived at the future it depicts. Cyberpunk began as a reaction to the shiny, optimistic ideals of classic science fiction and cultural movements like modernism, whose gleaming, streamlined futures were condemned as naive. Some of Mr Gibson’s aphorisms (“The street finds its own use for things” and “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”) have become received wisdom among thoughtful technologists. Cyberpunk’s central argument is that, out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing perfect can be made. Technology, in other words, can certainly change the world. Whether it will always change it for the better is another question.

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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2020/12/14/what-is-cyberpunk
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