Nostalgia for Cyberpunk

I saw the pilot movie for Max Headroom the other day.  I wasn’t lucky enough to catch the pilot or the full series when it first appeared in the US in 1987.  In fact, I wasn’t exposed to anything cyberpunk until 1995, when I saw The Lawnmower Man on VHS (a movie I’d like to revisit sometime).  I didn’t read cyberpunk literature until late into college, when my work crew boss (and college webmaster) recommended Neuromancer by William Gibson.  Afterwards, I ate up anything like Gibson’s work I could get my hands on — the rest of the Sprawl trilogy, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell (the manga, the movie and the TV show!), and others.  But Max Headroom had to wait until just recently before I could see it.

The show follows an intrepid reporter, Edison Carter, who lives “twenty minutes into the future” in a world dominated by TV networks.  After a motorcycle crash, his consciousness is copied into a powerful computer, creating the eccentric AI Max Headroom (so-named after Carter’s last thoughts before the crash).  Carter recovers, and with Max he continues to investigate the gritty secrets of his media-ruled world.

Well, it’s nothing like the cyberpunk I came to love in college.

The original British pilot looks and feels like 1984 with dashes of Mad Max and Threads: bleak and quiet, not glitzy and urbane like most other cyberpunk works.  There was no urban sprawl, only a few collected buildings against a barren landscape.  No one jacked in . . .  no one could.

What it did have in common with those other works was more interesting, closer to the core of cyberpunk than its shiny chrome shell.  Media rules the world.  Artificial Intelligence is possible, but glitchy and unpredictable.  You can fight the system, but you will never win — you can only gain fleeting moments of vindication.  If you have no audience, you have no power.

I bought the DVD set after watching the British pilot.  The new American producers cut the pilot to shreds, re-filming some scenes with American actors but keeping the story intact beat-for-beat.  It was edited to a faster pace, cutting many of those shots of the barren world, and a more upbeat, if still ambiguous, ending was added.  It feels much more like the cyberpunk world that my imagination built inside my mind.  But a little of that odd tone in the pilot is lost.

The cyberpunk subgenre isn’t some amalgamation of all the various influences I had at the time — a little of William Gibson here, some Ghost in the Shell there, with a dash of Phillip K. Dick thrown in for good measure.  Cyberpunk is what happened when writers realized in the 1980s that networked computers would dominate the cultural landscape in a few decades.  They saw the incredible power available the internet (what Gibson termed “cyberspace”) — and the power shift it would create, crushing institutions that didn’t realize its potential in time.  In broad strokes, that’s exactly what happened.  Electronic media has ruined content providers who weren’t prepared for it, such as the Borders bookstore chain.  Twitter is commonly cited as a tool for political activism and revolution, when it’s not being used to follow celebrity minutiae.  We live in that cyberpunk future.

Our world looks nothing like Neuromancer, and that’s okay.  Virtual reality, as realized by 80s and 90s writers, never came true, but many people participate in virtual worlds on an hourly basis in video games.  We can’t jack in, but why would we when a 22″ widescreen monitor is immersive enough?  Asian companies haven’t taken over the world, but they provide quite a bit of competition for struggling US companies in the international marketplace, and Asian culture cross-pollinates with Western culture constantly.  In fact, the profits of many international corporations rival the GDPs of smaller nations.  Cyberpunk writers got the broad strokes right; they simply missed many details.

Just as the golden age of science fiction, with its casual spaceflight and utopian societies, died when everyone realized the world would turn out very differently, so did cyberpunk in 1999 when The Matrix was released, followed by its sequels in 2002.  The films turned common cyberpunk trappings into a Gnostic apotheosis, elevating its hacker protagonist Neo into a martyr god.  By the time the third movie was released to dismal box office receipts, the dot-com bubble had come and gone, computers were ever more commonplace in households (as was the internet), and affordable video games had become lifelike.  Its nightmare simulation world was now old hat.

Sadly, I only discovered true cyberpunk just after its demise.

There isn’t a successor to the subgenre just yet, as cyberpunk had been to the New Wave authors of the 1970s.  Post-cyberpunk is simply an extension of cyberpunk, with the power shifted from corporations to government and surveillance as an overarching theme.  I won’t attempt to predict where the umbrella genre of science fiction will go from here, but there are some interesting directions.

I can say that steampunk is not cyberpunk’s successor.  Steampunk is, in fact, a sibling of cyberpunk; it began as a hypothetical scenario in Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine: what if Victorian-era technology had become more powerful than it had been at the turn of the century?  It encompasses the progenitors of modern science fiction — Jules Verne and H. G. Wells — as well as modern works that feed directly from those pools of inspiration.  Sadly, like cyberpunk, geek culture at large is more entranced by the shiny surface: it may as well all be goggles, fancy hats, airships, and stovepipe artificial limbs.  These trapping are as cool as the mirroshades and black trenchcoats of cyberpunk fashion, but just as shallow.  (Steampunk deserves its own post, so I won’t be covering it in detail here.)

Well, it doesn’t matter if Max Headroom doesn’t fit this idea of cyberpunk in my head.  In terms of American television, it is a witty, inspired show, and one I’ll enjoy watching.  As for the progenitors of cyberpunk, at least one hasn’t returned to the subgenre since creating it: William Gibson.  Today he writes near-future stories like Pattern Recognition, with the affectations of his earlier work stripped away.  Nevertheless, if it’s that late ’80s feel I’m looking for, there are plenty of things to watch and read if it suits my fancy.  Otherwise, there’s plenty of good stories coming out nowadays.