Mourning cyberpunk

I recently sat down to read the graphic novel/manga Ghost in the Shell. I’d seen (and enjoyed) the movie version some time ago and was looking forward both to revisiting the interesting setting and learning a bit more about the story and characters.
I was not disappointed; the graphic novel–actually a compilation of several sequential manga “episodes”–is an excellent read. It’s basically the story of a super-high-tech “black ops” team in a cyberpunk, Blade Runner-esque urban dystopia. It’s largely action-oriented–lots of gun battles and explosions–and features a number of interesting and distinctive sci-fi elements. Among these are the protagonists’ spider-like mechs, the inventive use of invisibility/cloaking suits, and oh-so-lovingly-detailed weapons and vehicles. And of course, plenty of computer hacking, killer intruder-detection programs, rogue AIs, and other assorted virtual mayhem. (And being a manga, it’s got excessive nudity and graphic violence, both of which come with the territory.)
So it was an entertaining read–a modern classic of the genre, even. But it did make me wonder if the cyberpunk genre is really a viable sci-fi setting anymore. Ghost, written a decade or two ago, must’ve cropped up during the peak of popular interest in the cyberpunk genre, with its focus on virtual realities, cyber-warfare, and “hard” sci-fi arms and vehicles.
Some sort of virtual “Net” (or at the very least, the ubiquity of computers and the ease with which information could be acquired with them) is a staple of the genre, it seems to me. Now that the Internet and the Web (dystopian as they are) have superseded that early vision of an “online universe,” can we really go back and suspend our disbelief enough to enjoy a story that revolves around hackers, duels between virtual avatars, and deadly security programs?
I don’t know. It’s unquestionably a fun genre, as stories like Ghost demonstrate. But now that my home PC is smaller and more impressive than the “hacker decks” or “rigs” depicted in most cyberpunk novels and movies, reading cyberpunk stories has a sort of Jules Verne, “isn’t that quaint” feel to it.
What do you think? Is cyberpunk a genre that has lived past its prime, and no longer has much to say to us? Have any new styles or genres taken its place in our Internet-everywhere era?

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1 thought on “Mourning cyberpunk

  1. pcg

    I’m not smart enough to comment on a possible genre replacement for cyberpunk, but I think it’s not quite dead yet. The Matrix trilogy seems to indicate that it’s at least profitable, if not in its prime. It isn’t the days of Hackers, Johnny Mnemonic, and Strange Days… which is probably a good thing.
    But I think the cyberpunk, in a very loose interpretation of the word, genre is alive and well. The fun thing is that one of the best cyberpunk authors at the beginning of things is still one of the best: Phillip K. Dick. He’s been dead for over 20 years, yet his books have been the subject of some of the more recognizable sci-fi (popularized) flicks. Never mind that the honesty to Dick’s stories have been steadily declining, culminating in that steaming pile, Paycheck. (I’m still waiting for an honest interpretation of Ubik. Maybe something by the BBC could capture its campy, B-movie feel.)
    The problem with most cyberpunk books and movies is that it’s not enough to rely on the technology. Masters of the genre are relevant irrespective of the tech, not because of it. Think Snow Crash: it’s one of the best, yet it intertwines so much other culture that the outdated tech just melts away.
    That doesn’t answer your question, since Snow Crash is old. Are there other cyberpunk writers coming around? I don’t know. The timeless cyberpunk novels that *do* have something to say to us are largely because of their NON-cyberpunk contributions, I think. So… um… I don’t know. 🙂

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