In the word ‘cyberpunk’ it is that ‘punk’ suffix that gives the term its edge of anarchic cool, the successful branding of which has arguably contributed to the enduring influence of the genre. The adoption of cyberpunk’s suffix by an endless number of descendants (steampunk, dieselpunk, solarpunk, etc.) has been used to evoke a DIY aesthetic that, especially in the case of solarpunk, is intended to inspire communal and societal changes to fight climate change, or at least to form social groups that might withstand the disruption and danger of climate phenomena, and even flourish under these conditions. However, the legacy of punk is a site of contradiction and debate that, on closer inspection, does not always signify the rage against the machine, and the desire to build new systems that the term may evoke. As climate change provokes urgent responses, from literature as from other spheres, it is a good time to look back on the history of punk and cyberpunk with a view to considering how the punk spirit might offer possibilities for, or place limitations on, the kind of social responses the Anthropocene demands.
The origins of punk can be found in the society the punks reacted against; the images that immediately spring to mind are of young people sick of the conformism of seventies culture. In 1970s Britain, upstanding citizens dressed themselves and their houses in browns and beiges; the appearance of respectability, symbolised by a drab colour palette, was prioritised over colour or self-expression. The punk spirit was to spit in the face of this respectability; young women wore clothes that exposed their breasts, or combined accessories associated with young girls with the accoutrements of sex work; Doc Martens were combined with skirts and dresses for the first time; and as punk musician Viv Albertine relates, her band the Slits were spat at, threatened, and even stabbed in the UK for their bricolage fashion choices that included combining ballet tutus with Girl Guide uniforms and wearing their underwear on the outside (0:01:40). The music was, famously, based on the ‘Learn three chords, start a band’ model that prized attitude and rebellion above musical competence (let alone prowess).
This romantic spirit of the punk movement is what tends to be remembered, but the legacy of punk has since been challenged. While the punks protested against middle-class, bourgeois respectability and its vanilla cultural symbols, the punk spirit had no discernible goal or political influence over the societies it rocked. This criticism has, in some cases, gone so far as to put punk into the continued neoliberal tradition of individualism, an individualism that is co-opted and reincorporated into the system it claims to protest, and used by its members to justify whatever money-seeking activities they choose to pursue. In a recent documentary by Adam Curtis – a filmmaker whose productions could be described either as documentaries, or as hallucinatory, opinionated collages – recently made this argument in his epic three-hour film, Hypernormalisation (2016, 0:07:24), which argued through footage of a young Patti Smith that the New York punks pursued their own individualism, turning to the self-expression of art and culture with a view to changing their audience’s inner space rather than attempting to change the systems in which they found themselves through collective action. By resisting the urge to conform, they also planted seeds of distrust in forms of collective action.
In cyberpunk, the ‘punk’ suffix has certainly been used in a romantic, evocative sense as its hagiography has been codified. Bruce Sterling’s preface to the seminal Mirrorshades anthology (1985) drew connections between the cyberpunk literary movement and the punk tradition from which the movement takes half of its name. He writes that ‘like the punks of ’77, they prize their garage-band esthetic. They love to grapple with the raw core of SF: its ideas’ (viii), styling the cyberpunks as renegade mechanics, rolling up their sleeves and dealing with the dangerous, glowing power-sources of science fiction literature, challenging the genre by focusing on science fiction’s spirit, a soul that may otherwise have been obscured by the bells and whistles of outmoded styles and tropes left over from science fiction’s so-called Golden Age. In her early overview of the genre, Dani Cavallaro finds a tension between the ‘cyber’ and the ‘punk’, a tension that, she argues, shapes the genre:
The ‘cyber’ and the ‘punk’ components of cyberpunk constantly interact to produce varying constellations of the relationship between the glossy world of high technology and the murky world of addiction and crime. What is arguably most distinctive about cyberpunk is that neither of these two elements ever gains priority over the other, the genre’s effectiveness actually depending on their dynamic interplay. (Cavallaro 2000: 24)
Here the ‘cyber’ is taken from cybernetics, signifying order and control, while the punk element of the genre is the grimy DIY element that finds ways to appropriate the offerings of high technology to serve the purposes of street-level culture and associated illicit practices. However, in this simplistic division of the genre into its two component parts, the complicity of the punk spirit in that 1980s individualism has been overlooked by those seeking to elevate the genre by reading it as a rebellion against a capitalist system rather than a rebellion against the standard-bearers of science fiction. The temptation to read the generic rebellion of cyberpunk as something that impacts society on a macro scale can be resisted by remembering the ambivalence of the punk movement to real systematic change. Cyberpunk may show the reader the power of the zaibatsus, the mega-corporations, over the waning nation states—a situation read from the runes of 1980s privatisation and thus continues to appear prescient to societies ever more affected by the flight of power from democratic institutions. Cyberpunk may make these power systems clearer to those who had not previously observed their mission creep, but its power to change anything systematically is undermined by its very punk spirit which romanticises the battle between the individual and the surrounding systems of conformity, coupled with its literary roots in that all-American literary genre of the hardboiled detective novel—another form that valorises the individuality of the (male) protagonist against the corrupt political and social jungles through which he moves.
In the past, and at the height of the movement, it would be fairer to think of cyberpunk as offering description and diagnosis of its society, rather than a blueprint for change, but the outside pressure of society and the impending catastrophes of climate change, are beginning to impact the legacy of cyberpunk. Rather than considering cyberpunk a genre of its own, it might now be wiser to think of the metaphor of the toolbox; cyberpunk offers tropes, aesthetics, and even an attitude that are capable of being put to use in tackling systemic social issues. At the same time, the retooling of cyberpunk is changing what we might expect from a genre based in that punk individualism and detective noir. The first place to see this development is in William Gibson’s most recent novel The Peripheral (2014). Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is the ur-text of the cyberpunk movement and encapsulates many of the themes and features I have so far described: a masculine protagonist, a noir sensibility reminiscent of hardboiled detective fiction and film, and the description of an individual’s efforts to survive on the streets in the face of powerful zaibatsus and shadowy international conspiracies. Gibson’s style and the themes of his work have developed significantly over the years, particularly in his Blue Ant trilogy, set in a future so near it is now. But in The Peripheral the climate crisis is placed front and centre.
The plot takes place in two different timelines: a near-future America and a far-future London in which powerful oligarchs have found a way to access and exploit versions of the past known as ‘stubs’ – so-called because these pasts will not lead to the present of the oligarchs thanks to the branching of possibilities caused by their intervention. An event called the ‘Jackpot’ separates the two timelines, since it annihilated the majority of human life, leaving the robotic humanoid ‘peripherals’ of the novel’s title to stand in for the missing humans. There are a number of continuities between The Peripheral and Gibson’s previous work, particularly Neuromancer, as I have argued at length elsewhere (McFarlane 2016). However, the ways in which the cyberpunk toolbox is used is significantly different in the face of climate change and the rise of the oligarchy. As in many of Gibson’s other novels we see characters struggling to live in the interstices of the powerful corporate and military systems that shape their societies, but the depiction of the response, channelled through the young female protagonist Flynne, is collective, and the characters harness the injuries capitalism has inflicted upon them to take part in a collective action to save their timeline, their diversity becoming their strength. The far future is a warning to the present, a call to arms and to activism that results in real change; a structure that stands in marked contrast to Neuromancer’s lone cybernaut, Case, a puppet for the larger forces in the novel who struggles to control his inner demons, barely even dreaming that it might be possible to change the course of the systemic problems and possibilities that shape his environment.
Another recent example is Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017), set in a near-future Canada where technology is used (slightly more so than today) to track the movements and behaviours of Canadian citizens causing a number of them to ‘walkaway’ and live in their own communitarian societies. The themes of the novel include collectivity and the possibility for cooperation beyond a police state and without respect for private property. Limpopo, the first walkaway the reader meets at length, explains to Hubert Etc. (a recent walkaway), how climate change provokes collective responses:
The Anthropocene is about collective action, not individuals. That’s why climate change is such a clusterfuck. In default, they say that it’s down to individual choice and responsibility, but reality is that you can’t personally shop your way out of climate change…Nothing you do, personally, will affect that, unless it’s you, personally, getting together with a lot of other people and making a difference. (102)
In a metacommentary, Hubert Etc. responds by saying, ‘But it’s hard to pretend that you’re not the protagonist in the movie of your life…being around here rubs your nose in it’ (120). This difficulty is highlighted in the text as the novel begins from Hubert Etc.’s perspective and, once he walks away, switches immediately to Limpopo’s and goes on to move from character to character throughout the novel. Rather than the masculine, single-protagonist perspective of the hardboiled detective, or the prototypical cyberpunk hero, the reader is forced to inhabit multiple perspectives, and to see the move away from individualism in the literary bones of the book, not simply in the plot or in the ideas these characters espouse. As well as knitting these collective ideas into his literature, Doctorow is a perfect example of cyberpunk’s legacy in political activism, working as a consultant on data protection, co-editing the website Boing Boing, which regularly raises awareness about data issues as well as entertaining its readers, and putting his money where his mouth is by offering his novels as free, open-source downloads from his website.
It has already been argued elsewhere that Bruce Sterling’s preface to the Mirrorshades anthology killed the genre through codification, the genre’s birth notice equally acting as its epitaph. Cyberpunk has, therefore, long been dead, but perhaps what we are currently seeing is its living legacy moving beyond the individualism of punk to something that genuinely challenges the conformist societies to which it objects. The new cyberpunk—if the name can still be used—might find a new communitarian spirit in an era that requires communitarian solutions.
Bio: Anna McFarlane (@mariettarosetta) is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Glasgow researching genre literature and traumatic pregnancy. She has worked on the Wellcome Trust-funded Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities project. She is the editor of Adam Roberts: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2016), and Blog and Reviews Editor for the journal BMJ Medical Humanities.
Albertine, Viv (2014) Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. London: Faber & Faber.
Cavallaro, Dani (2000) Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson. London: The Athlone Press.
Doctorow, Cory (2017) Walkaway. London: Head of Zeus.
McFarlane, A. ‘“Anthropomorphic Drones” and Colonized Bodies: William Gibson’s The Peripheral.’ ESC: English Studies in Canada, vol. 42 no. 1, 2016, pp. 115-131. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/esc.2016.0007
Sterling, Bruce (ed.) (1985/1994) Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. London: HarperCollins.