Is Cyberpunk Retro-Futurism Yet?

The author of Neuromancer – the book widely considered to have kicked-off the cyberpunk genre – says it’s now a retro-future. That’s pretty interesting, considering how much high-profile cyberpunk seems to still be happening.

For those who don’t follow video games, Cyberpunk 2077 was perhaps the most hotly anticipated game of 2020 (before it ended up releasing late, dogged by accusations of employee abuse and so buggy that refunds were offered on some platforms). Blade Runner 2049 was a lauded, big-budget movie just three years ago. And most of the streaming services have their own recent cyberpunk offerings.

Through five decades, we received a steady, if inconsistent, stream of cyberpunk literature, cinema, television and games. Not only that, but it gave us an almost absurd number of ___-punk sister genres, cribbing the dystopian outsider aesthetic and patching in various kinds of technology.

Death of a Genre?

Unlike most genres that take place in the present or a particular historical era, most science fiction has a built-in shelf life. While most people might be able to look past the 2019 “future” date of the original Blade Runner or the clunky flip-phones of The Matrix, there comes a certain point where an imagined future starts to feel stale.

The parts of these retro-futures that actually came to pass seem somehow more depressing, more mundane, more obvious when we live inside them every day. The predictions that failed often seem further away than they did before, or outright absurd.

Some of cyberpunk’s staying power might owe to pop media’s perpetual mining and re-mining of nostalgia for remakes, reboots, sequels and spiritual successors. Cyberpunk has also accumulated plenty of visual and tonal markers that have been used (and abused) to provide quick and shallow style. For every Matrix, there’s an Equilibrium or Aeon Flux.

It seems clear that if cyberpunk does die, it will be a slow, sighing death. Most science-fiction genres and styles don’t go away completely. They inform the sub-genres and successors that follow, transforming or splintering.

Where is the Center of the Universe?

Back on Twitter, Aaron suggests that the future is in “Gulf Futurism, Sino Futurism, Afro Futurism.” It’s not hard to see that these are all sub-genres with very different geographical and cultural centers from old-school cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is rooted in extrapolations of 1980s American culture. Even when it goes as far afield as Hong Kong, it’s more 1980s British Hong Kong than post-handover Chinese Hong Kong. The neon hanzi are largely window-dressing.

There is certainly a deep vein of anxiety in America that suggests that the country’s cultural and economic influence on the future is waning. That refrain seems to be getting louder, not quieter. Meanwhile, other places in the world are seeing their cultural and economic influence grow at breakneck pace, even as technology upends old norms and traditions.

Gulf futurism centers the world on the Arabian Gulf, while Sino Futurism looks at the future through a Chinese lens. Afro Futurism explores futures and themes not only centered on the African continent, but also on African diaspora and the complex intersections of culture and history that brings.

Cyber, Solar, Bio or Steam

Other Twitter responses mention solarpunk and biopunk, offshoots that focus less on traditional cyberpunk technologies like AI and VR, and instead explore the consequences of things like environmental disaster, climate change, and runaway biotechnology. In a world where climate change becomes more apparent every day, these themes are more relevant than ever.

Meanwhile, there are many other derivatives that shift the aesthetic from futuristic to fantastic. Genres like steampunk and dieselpunk are more fantasy than science-fiction, enjoying anachronistic alternate universe playgrounds that are concerned with the themes of the last century rather than the themes of the upcoming one.

Fodder for the Reading List

Cyberpunk will continue, in some form or another, but it’s getting long in the tooth. Maybe its latest micro-renaissance will prove to have interesting things to say about our modern dystopian world. And even if it doesn’t, it’s interesting to see the genre splintering in so many different directions. If nothing else, these tweets have inspired me to sample some of these other sub-genres.

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