Cyberpunk: Looking Back Into the Future

I recently finished reading Walter Jon Williams’ excellent cyberpunk novel, Hardwired, and was dismayed to realize that it had been published in 1986 — just two years after William Gibson’s seminal novel, Neuromancer.  In fact, an online search for cyberpunk novels turns up very few works in this genre more recent than ten years ago.  Sales on my new release, The Dogs of Cyberwar, have been rather sluggish, compared to my earlier publications (though I’ve received some wonderful comments from readers), and I think this is why:  it’s a sub-genre that’s more or less played out.

This is too bad, because I really love cyberpunk, and judging from the reader comments I’ve received, there is still an audience out there for it.  But perhaps not a large audience.  Even a list of cyberpunk-themed films on the great website Cyberpunk Review shows, in my opinion, that there have been few really brilliant films made in this genre in the past decade.  Good ones, yes, but even the good ones aren’t really contributing much to the mythos.

What exactly the mythos is, is of course debatable.   I generally look for various elements, such as a near-future dystopian society, in which corporations have taken over the government and the people have become disenfranchised — meaning, in a nutshell, that they’ve lost any say they might have had in the government (which some might say has already happened in real life).  Computers have become omnipresent and, in many ways, a drug.  (Which, again, many people would say has already happened.)  At the same time, computers and other technology are being used to enhance the human mind and body, and these enhancements are what enables our hero or heroine to fight back against the corporations.

There are, as I’ve said, a number of variations and different themes to be explored.  But what seems to be the problem with the genre right now is that there isn’t much exploration going on.  Authors and filmmakers in the 70s, 80s and 90s appear to have done all the exploring, and now we’re mostly seeing rehashes of by-now-familiar themes.

To be honest, The Dogs of Cyberwar isn’t innovative, except in having gay protagonists.  I’m hardly the first to do this, of course.  Madeleine Urban’s wonderful triptych of futuristic m/m short stories, Far From Home, touches upon cyberpunk themes, and S.A. Garcia recently released Divine Devine’s Love Song.  I’m sure there are many more.  But not too many — I still have difficulty tracking down cyberpunk with gay protagonists.  So I’m happy to contribute to the number of stories out there.

But the point remains that if writers of cyberpunk stories don’t want to see the genre increasingly marginalized, we should delve a little deeper into what it has to say.  And there is still a wealth of opportunity for commenting upon the way our privacy is rapidly dwindling to nothing, the eroding of personal freedoms and rights in the wake of 9/11 (Cory Doctorow’s Hugo-nominated YA novel, Little Brother, explored this theme very well), how social media and the Internet simultaneously free us to communicate in the face of government bans and opens us up to monitoring by the same government.

These are important issues, and there is still much to be said.

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Filed under Cyberpunk, Romance, Writing

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