In appreciation of this month’s Cyberpunk 2077 release, Project Coup looks beyond the ‘high tech, low life’ tropes of the cyberpunk movement and dives deeper into its origins.
Like many cult followings, cyberpunk finds its roots in literature. Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács argued that historical novels illuminate the present by offering critical visions of the past. Cyberpunk turned this on its head, amplifying the societal conditions it came to life in through critical visions of the future.
Evolving into a distinct genre in the 80s and taking root from the 90s onwards, the growing cultural phenomenon mutated the corporate aesthetic into something grotesque. Science fiction writers, such as Philip K. Dick, observed the philosophical and social effect of technology on human nature, with works like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which would later be renamed to include the legendary Blade Runner).
While researching his post-World War II novel Man in the High Castle, Dick discovered the journal of a German officer who, in it, complains that the cries of starving children keep him awake at night. The complete absence of empathy in the diary entry inspired Dick’s conception of the android that resembles a human being.
Entire subcultures emerged from this examination of what it truly means to be an authentic human. One of the best-known cyberpunk works is William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which introduced the trope of the washed-up hacker hustling in a dystopian underworld, as well as the now familiar ‘matrix’ paradigm.
Before these novelists were imagining dystopian futures, the comic book world was sketching out its vision of a seedy dystopian metropolis, complete with laser gun, neon lights and skyscraper tropes. Writers like John Wagner crafted far-sighted depictions of cyberpunk’s essential underbelly of crime, corruption, and corporate authoritarianism.
Based on North America’s east coast, Mega-City One depicts a world 122 years ahead of the comic’s initial 1977 publication date, and this is where readers meet iconic and formidable figure of the cyberpunk movement, Judge Dredd. Dredd is a clone made from the DNA of chief judge Fargo in the year 2066, along with Judge’s brother Rico.
The name Dredd is given to him by the scientist who cloned him, designed to instil fear in the citizens he polices. It succeeds – as a Street Judge under dictatorial justice department rule, Dredd has the power to dole out on the spot, brutal punishments.
Dredd carries a ‘Lawgiver’ side arm that can fire a range of ammunition, but which self-destructs in the hands of civilians, resulting in some gnarly and often fatal injuries. He also carries a day stick, named so to reflect its purpose of beating the living daylights out of law breakers.
Cyberpunk soon migrated off the page into movies, music, video games, and increasingly theory, as it reflected the concerns and aesthetic preoccupations of post-modernity.
Early literary and comic book illustrations of socio-ecological systems presided over by brutal authoritarianism lent themselves beautifully to the big screen zeitgeist of the 70s, where early sci fi movies like Westworld spoke to political themes of power struggle and fetishized the expansion of AI even as it served as a cautionary tale.
This was a time of rapid neoliberalism, where the increased power of multinational corporations led to the decreased significance of national bounds, and widening inequality. Cyberpunk emerged as a movement unafraid to look these conditions in the eye and magnify them, forcing its audience to connect accelerated capitalism with increased social marginalisation.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner brought PK Dick’s work to life on the big screen, but bought into an edgier, more materialistic interpretation of peak 80s science fiction, preserving the book’s post-war motifs and corporate power paranoia while ditching its themes of piety and social obligation.
In the same year, the debut of Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga series Akira would be reworked into anime that would massively popularise the cyberpunk genre in Japan. PK Dick’s work made its way into other big budget films like Total Recall, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly.
The genre is ripe for playful intertextuality. Cyberpunk 2077 pays tribute to Mad Max: Fury Road by showcasing the Reaver – a custom-built wraith gang vehicle based on the movie’s quadra type-66 car.
The cyberpunk world is clearly nothing new for Keanu Reeves, who plays Rockerboy Johnny Silverhand in the game. It’s been 21 years since The Matrix blew our collective minds with its slick melting pot of literary and comic-book influences, Hong Kong action cinema, and other varied muses.
And though it’s certainly aged – try watching it through your kids’ eyes – the film’s attention to the colonisation of human beings by technology feels more relevant than ever. Neo’s awakening serves as an allegorical warning to all of us that, although ignorance is indeed (marketed to us as) bliss, there’s a choice to be made between living in an artificial world or a real one.
‘High priest’ of postmodernism Jean Baudrillard is best known for his radical meditations on semiotics, concepts of simulation and hyperreality, and how society is shaped through media and technological communications.
His work inspired artists, whose work in the late 80s picked up where his left off, and literary sci fi began to intersect with sociology and philosophy. This characterised the breaking down of boundaries that was both internal to the cyberpunk genre and reflective of it, fostering a symbiotic relationship between art and theory.
In turn, Cyberpunk as an artistic genre influenced a new generation of social theorists who applied it as an analytical lens to metaphysics and epistemology. Change came fast, so had to be anticipated as it was happening.
A few years ago, while I was doing an internship in Shenzhen (an ultramodern mega city not unlike those imagined in the early cyberpunk imagination), I met Ben Goertzel, chief scientist of Hanson Robotics, creators of Sophia, and CEO of SingularityNET, a project combining artificial intelligence and blockchain, with a view to democratising access to AI.
Ben has fascinating ancestry – his great grandparents were radical Eastern European socialist and communist Jews, and his family has a diverse array of PhDs in both social sciences and quantum mechanics. This holistic combination is evident in his work, though he talks about being mainly inspired by Star Trek when he was three years old.
Ben discusses the stages of AI in nurturing terms: A ‘baby-like’ artificial intelligence is initialised and then trained as an agent in a simulated world to produce more powerful intelligence.
Goertzel addresses the dwindling importance of jobs in the free market system, where the computer-literate elite will be empowered while other jobs, such as in manufacturing, are at risk of becoming obsolete. Cyberpunk projects this same vision of a post-national, globalised society where power is grabbed by those who know how to manipulate information.
Some recognise cyberpunk’s corporate terrorism narrative as a familiar feature of the world we live in today. As inequality continues to grow, trans-national entities exploit their status and horde billions through tax loopholes, Amazon wields power over governments, Facebook is revealed to have insidious sway over election outcomes, and Google creates AI for the Pentagon.
Cyberpunk links human beings intimately with technology, which is also pretty close to the mark in how we live our lives today, with phone apps delivering dopamine hits in ever more sophisticated ways as our bodies and psyches are penetrated by tech. As cyberpunk imagines, our hyper technologized lifestyles come with augmented benefits and disadvantages, with the internet as a site of both liberation and mental oppression.
I asked fellow incapable DJ Rapid to give his early impressions of the game: As an FPS RPG with a strong focus on world building, like CDPR’s Witcher series before it the meat of the game is in the side quests where you come across little slices of people’s lives in Night City – stuff like talking down an AI taxi cab from killing itself and replaying someone’s memories to find clues to solve a murder.
The fighting mechanics are serviceable though not really anything to write home about. Sadly, there’s quite a lot of bugs which can break the immersion and that’s the key of CP2077 – it’s meant to be an immersive sim in the vein of Deus Ex. So far it’s set the scene and handled standard cyberpunk themes like trans humanism and hyper capitalism.
Listen to Rapid’s Shallow Dive show on Saturdays from 5pm.
The official Cyberpunk 2077 soundtrack is a slamming fusion of rock, punk, hip-hop, thrash metal and more, featuring tracks by, to name a few, Run the Jewels, A$AP Rocky, and Grimes, who plays virtual character Lizzy Wizzy, lead singer of The Metadwarves.
The game’s composers state their inspiration as ‘90s attitude’, channelling Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails and Beastie Boys. Fans have already spotted one of the game’s characters sporting a tattoo of Radiohead lyrics, encapsulating cyberpunk’s uniquely intertextual, retro-futuristic charm.
A theme that feeds heavily into cyberpunk is the tension between the haves and have nots and a festering mistrust of authority that’s ripe for constructing underdogs and antiheroes. Those of us who fantasise about being part of a future proletariat gone rogue will enjoy taking a break from reality in whatever cyberpunk form suits our needs, be it literary, cinematic, theoretical, or on the PS5.
Any leftists wanting a futuristic vision that poses meaningful challenge to the political hegemon would be pinning too much on this genre, which wears its dystopian identity in literal neon flashing lights. With individualism at its core, Cyberpunk has plenty in common with the structures it attacks, so it’s unlikely to inspire collective goals of building new power networks that successfully undermine corporate dominance.
As a self-contained genre, cyberpunk projects a raw-edged vision of the future that is starkly different from science fiction. Its anti-establishment, maverick sociological narrative embraces early punk rocker subcultures, painting a horribly beautiful world of high technology, inhabited by denizens mostly deprived of society’s luxuries.
Cyberpunk is a captivating genre for anyone interested in sociopolitical development. At its core it is what Frederick Jameson calls ‘the supreme literary expression, if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself’.
Tune into Project Coup on Tuesdays at 5.30pm.
Written by Gemma Waldron