Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink
In his book The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay argues that today’s social, political, and cultural realities have become science-fictional, that estrangement and dislocation constitute our habitual normalcy in the 21st century.
Therefore, in order to process the “incongruous moments of technology’s intersection with everyday life” (2), Csicsery-Ronay claims we need to draw upon the imaginaries of science fiction (sf) to make sense of quotidian realities that are saturated with such sf concepts as cloud computing, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, wearable technologies, and the increased proliferation of cyborgs in all shapes and sizes, to name only a few science-fictional tropes. But as writer and game designer Kyle Marquis reminded us in a much-circulated tweet in 2013, “unless you’re over 60, you weren’t promised flying cars. You were promised an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia. Here you go.” At the heart of Marquis’s claim is the realization that today’s reality is not sf in the Golden Age sense of the 1940s and 1950s but rather as depicted by cyberpunk, that immensely popular form of 1980s sf which continues to speak to our contemporary moment. One does not have to see all aspects of cyberpunk as dystopian, as Marquis suggests, but one can hardly find fault in generally comparing the cyberpunk imaginary with today’s quotidian reality.
While the term ‘cyberpunk’ may have originated in Bruce Bethke’s “Cyberpunk” (1983) and was then applied to a variety of literary and cinematic texts that were alternately celebrated (often by cyberpunk practitioners) as energizing sf or derided and dismissed by critics as a marketing exercise that quickly ran its course, cyberpunk has had effects far beyond the small group of writers initially identified as the ‘Movement,’ rebranded by Gardner Dozois as ‘cyberpunks,’ and then codified by Bruce Sterling in Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986). While those beyond the sf community might not have even heard of cyberpunk, they will likely be aware of cyberpunk’s impact: consider the imagery made famous by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), imagery replicated time and time again in cinema, animation, and photography; or, the concept of ‘cyberspace’ coined in William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” (1983) and then popularized in his quintessential novel Neuromancer (1984), influencing how computer programmers and engineers envisioned a burgeoning digital realm that today we largely take for granted; or, Walt Disney’s TRON (Lisberger 1982), a financial failure that still drew Generation X-ers to their local arcades with fistfuls of quarters to play the titular video game that envisioned cyberspatial worlds as “untethered from real-world signs and signifiers,” a visual modality that “has had a strong influence upon depictions of cyberspace,” notably in video games (Johnson 139); and, finally, the green digital rain of The Matrix (Wachowskis 1999) that has become visually synonymous with the control of ‘reality’ by technological systems. Cyberpunk is everywhere, even if its earliest practitioners have moved into other conceptual territories.
In this vein, the originating premise of this Routledge Companion can be found in a very simple, yet far-reaching claim by Thomas Foster—namely, that cyberpunk, a term first used as a literary concept to name a narrow branch of sf, has become a “cultural formation [which is] a historical articulation of textual practices” (xv) that now shapes the way we see our place in the world, and this collection aims to track cyberpunk’s diversity and far-reaching influence. We have organized our global contributors into three interconnected sections with which to apprehend this expansive subject matter. In Cultural Texts, we open the collection with a traditional focus on cyberpunk’s literary and cinematic roots, ranging from the precursor texts that lay the foundation for cyberpunk to what we may call first-wave or Movement-era cyberpunk, a period that produced the cultural understanding of what constitutes a cyberpunk text across media. As Cultural Texts exemplifies, however, cyberpunk is also a visual and aural phenomenon and our contributors leave no stone unturned as they explore cyberpunk’s influence in American comic books, Japanese manga and anime, video games, tabletop role-playing games, music, and even fashion. Interspersed with these analyses are ‘case study’ chapters that provide a narrowly focused analysis of a representative cyberpunk text, although as editors we both invited and encouraged our contributors to write chapters on lesser-theorized works; therefore, you won’t find ‘case study’ chapters on Neuromancer, or Blade Runner, or Transmetropolitan, or many of the other ‘usual suspects’ one might expect to find that have been the subject of other academic work; instead, our ‘case study’ chapters offer explorations into the oft-overlooked, kipple-cluttered corners of cyberpunk that hopefully expand the parameters of critical inquiry while also providing readers access points to works they may have otherwise overlooked. Overall, Cultural Texts shows that cyberpunk is truly cross-cultural and offers a plenitude of ways with which to grapple with the technological landscape we occupy.
Part of better understanding our technological landscape is through the application of critical theory, and the chapters in Cultural Theory provide a variety of access ports to a better understanding of how cyberpunk is instrumental to decoding the complexities of our technocultural age. After all, cyberpunk’s emergence coincided with the popularization of postmodernism and it was indelibly linked to postmodernity the moment Fredric Jameson famously remarked in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that cyberpunk is “the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself” (419); in particular, Jameson sees in cyberpunk “as much an expression of transnational corporate realities as it is of global paranoia” and singles out Gibson as “an exceptional literary realization within a predominantly visual or aural postmodern production” (38). Cyberpunk therefore occupied a privileged position in the academy as scholars and critical theorists of all stripes hurried to embrace an initially literary form that spoke so much to the diversity of our cultural and critical moment(s). Cyberpunk has continued to appeal to theorists as it spread into the mainstream and beyond, particularly through its engagement with key contemporary questions such as the role of humanism, the emergence of the posthuman, and the importance of the animal. As the chapters in Cultural Theory demonstrate, the centrality of identity in this human-to-posthuman movement has led to the adoption and subversion of cyberpunk by groups interrogating the future of identity from feminist, queer, Indigenous, and Afrofuturist perspectives, as well as broader cultural interrogations of (sur)veillance and cultural activism, all of which are explored here alongside the political interventions made by cyberpunk media into academic debates surrounding class, ecology, and empire.
Cyberpunk is often erroneously thought of largely as an Anglo-American mode, one that has a tendency of appropriating other cultural tropes and imagery (particularly from Japan) as window dressing for its narrative goals. The chapters in Cultural Locales, the final section in this Companion, show that cyberpunk may have started out as a US phenomenon (or US-Canadian, given Gibson’s primary residence in Vancouver), but it quickly penetrated a number of geographical locales. Cultural Locales focuses on some of the other cultures that have had their own cyberpunk moments—some influenced by the North American wave of cyberpunk, others reacting in specific regional ways to the global networks that increasingly define human relationships and the flow of capital between and beyond nation states. Mapping cyberpunk’s territories outside of North America brings into focus the importance of a cultural mode such as this, one that allows the expression of the complex systems that govern 21st century societies and lives. Of course, it isn’t possible to showcase cyberpunk’s cultural presence in every country. Nevertheless, Cultural Locales offers a significant sampling of how cyberpunk saturated and adapted itself to diverse cultural localities in alternately familiar, disorienting, and surprising ways that affirm cyberpunk as a global phenomenon.
Finally, editing a collection with over fifty contributors poses its own unique set of challenges, not the least of which was considering ways in which our formatting decisions might reflect the wider goals of the collection. We took the decolonizing move of replacing the traditionally capitalized ‘the West’ or ‘Western’ with the lowercase west or western; Marxism has been rendered as the lower case ‘marxism’ to reflect that the field has moved well beyond the theories of Marx himself and therefore past the need for proper noun capitalization; we also avoid nearly all use of the words ‘genre’ or ‘subgenre’ to refer to cyberpunk, instead taking a cue from Foster and Rosemary Jackson in opting for the terminology of “mode,” Jackson explaining it as a better term “to identify structural features underlying various works in different periods of time” (qtd. in Broderick 42). And, finally, we made editorial interventions into our contributors’ papers to foster internal connections among the various chapters rather than allowing the chapters to simply exist as discrete entries, although we are certain more connections can be made. As editors, we also want to take this moment to thank our wonderful contributors who were diligent in working with us from their first drafts to the final products and returning their revisions in an expedient manner, even if word count sometimes proved to be an obstacle: which is a roundabout way of acknowledging we perhaps bear a fair share (if not the brunt) of responsibility for any perceived oversights or weaknesses in individual chapters. Hopefully readers will agree that this collection has a symmetry or internal scaffolding that is difficult to achieve in collections of this nature, and the sinews of that symmetry undoubtedly rest with our contributors. Finally, we gratefully acknowledge the assistance of both Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint who offered their respective insights at particularly thorny moments when a fresh set of eyes was desperately needed; they are silent partners in this project.
In the end, the purpose of The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture has always been to emphasize the importance of cyberpunk as a cultural formation, a means of engaging with our 21st century technocultural age. Through these chapters we have attempted to trace cyberpunk’s explosion from its origins to some of the diverse ways the mode shapes our understanding of 21st century life, wherever we are on the globe. We hope that this collection will invite scholars to consider that cyberpunk remains alive and relevant because it is our quotidian reality.
- Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, Jr. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Wesleyan UP, 2008.
- Broderick, Damien. Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction. Routledge, 1995.
- Foster, Thomas The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory, U of Minneapolis P, 2005.
- Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke UP, 2005 .
- Johnson, Mark R. “The History of Cyberspace Aesthetics in Video Games.” Cyberpunk and Visual Culture, edited by Graham J. Murphy and Lars Schmeink. Routledge, 2018, pp. 139-54.
- Marquis, Kyle. “Yearly Reminder” Twitter, @Moochava, 10 Jul, 2013, twitter.com/moochava/status/354986725388468224.
Published in The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, this is the pre-proof version as HTML, please check the RCCC for page numbers and correct citations.