Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Complications of the Neon Frontier

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I’ll be the first to admit, cyberpunk as a genre has a lot of baggage and it’s hard to get into. But it’s still a genre lots of people enjoy stylistically. The neon, the rain, the ridiculous techno leather, there’s a lot to get into. This is going to be about where cyberpunk came from, what it is, what it can do, and why CD Projekt Red is categorically fucking it up. They’re not the only ones, but they’re doing it right now so they’re in the firing line.

What is Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk started in the 80s with the rejection of the fetishization of the military-utopia that had been highly prevalent since the 1960s. The core tenants of cyberpunk are: as we march into the future, we don’t get better. Things don’t get sunnier, they get worse. Climate change gets bad, class stratification intensifies, corporations grow in size to become the new kind of nation states.

It didn’t start specifically with him, but the cornerstone of all cyberpunk comes from William Gibson and his early short stories, culminating with the 1982 novel, Neuromancer. Neuromancer gave us several things: mirror shades, razor girls, an incredible opening line (which kids these days actually don’t understand because it used to be there was no broadcasts after midnight, so there was genuinely dead air on TV) and most importantly, the word “cyberspace.”

Gibson talked about writing down different words on a yellow legal pad to describe the “shared digital hallucination” and settled on cyberspace because it had the right feeling for it.

Cyberpunk, concurrently, has a second cornerstone in the adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The adaptation, has a much more famous name: Blade Runner.

Its theatrical release, well, sucked. It had a narration so bad that Harrison Ford phoned it in and the studio still used it. There were tons of re-releases on various DVDs with different cuts.

The first time I saw it, it was on the first printing of the DVD as the ‘director’s cut.’ And it was a profound movie to me. It asked complicated questions about personhood, the ending was subversive and complicated, and the extended editions literally feature a sub plot of the “created” confronting their creator.

This is heady stuff! And I’ll be the first to admit, these kinds of philosophical questions get lost in other peoples’ forays into cyberpunk as a genre because everyone remembers the rain and the neon and no one remembers looking God in the eye and saying, “Why did you create me?”

It happens all over the place. Case in point: The Hunger Games was a deep story about revolution and what war and class literally do to people, but what most people took away was a love triangle and grimdark, so that’s what that new surge of YA storytelling became known for.

Moving on.

Cyberpunk had a critical role to play in the revitalization of science fiction. I mentioned the previous two decades’ trend of stories about military utopias: sci-fi in the late 70s and early 80s was stale. Cyberpunk literally created a “new age, a third wave,” of sci-fi as a whole. It was a big deal. And although Neuromancer was an absolute critical success (it cleaned up in that years’ award season), its sales were mediocre. It’s been selling ever since, but yeah, that’s the history. Now we can move into the present.

Cyberpunk Has Had Some Good Literature, and Lots of Bad

The good: Snow Crash, Ghost in the Shell (the original animated movie series, not the remake with Scarlett Johannsson, we don’t talk about that shit), Transmetropolitan, Blade Runner, and Blade Runner 2049.

But you know what has, categorically, dropped the ball on cyberpunk? Gaming. Full stop. Watch Dogs 2, the hacking and social justice game created by Ubisoft, gets accidentally closer to a genuine cyberpunk story, than the “dedicated” cyberpunk games like Deus Ex or from what we’ve seen so far, Cyberpunk 2077.

Cyberpunk 2077 is based on the table-top RPG Cyberpunk 2020, which was an RPG similar to Dungeons and Dragons. And from what they’ve released so far, including a big gameplay demo, they seem to get the aesthetic right, and everything else wrong.

Cyberpunk did something very specific for sci-fi. It dropped shiny, glistening, Apple-store-Mac-style future in the mud and kicked the stuffing out of it. And sci-fi got much more interesting as the result. Cyberpunk did the same thing that the hard-boiled detective did for the Mystery genre. It took the arm-chair detective, dropped him in the gutter, and let the writers explore the worst parts of humanity. There’s more to it, however, than just portraying violent and exploitive fiction for the aesthetic of it.

One of the best examples I have is the extreme care and preparation that went into creating the sequel to Blade Runner. They didn’t just make it bigger, they examined what happened to the world, they figured out how it continued to break down, and they went deeper with it. They pushed the limits of the story-world in a deeply interesting way. There’s stuff about it that I don’t like but on the whole, Blade Runner 2049 does as much for the genre as Neuromancer itself. Point being; the neon isn’t just there for an aesthetic. It cuts through the smog; it’s antiquated, it’s rough, there’s barbs on these edges.

One of the things that stood out so frustratingly in both the most recent cinematic trailer for Cyberpunk 2077 and the big gameplay demo last year was the language. I recently read The Maltese Falcon for the first time a few months ago, and about halfway through, I noticed all these exhausted clichés. I was to get frustrated with it when I remembered something: this is the genesis. Dashiell Hammett did it first.

He’s the pathfinder. This is where the bar was set, and this style is what everyone imitated and often failed to live up to. A cyberpunk world isn’t about just calling people homophobic epitaphs and calling it good and edgy enough.

There’s no cyber without punk.

Cyberpunk punches against corporate tyranny, personal fascism, racism, and exploitation. If the characters of your underworld don’t punch against that too, you’re just contributing to the oppression in the literary sense. I’m not saying that CD Projekt Red is contributing to the social awfulness of the world. I’m not saying that at all. What I am saying is that the language matters, the words you put in these characters mouths, matter.

How they hurt each other, narratively, matters. The verbal sticks they use to beat you (the player) with, are significant, and reaching for homophobia is so frustrating. And also so 90s.

We’re not there. It’s not okay. It’s not punk. From the bottom of my heart, fuck them for doing it.

So here’s where we’re at. Night City is full of the trappings of a cyberpunk world without any evidence that they understand the reason for any of this trim, fit, and finish.

It’s like, in the 1940s, a couple of pilots in the Pacific landed a B-29 in Russia because they’d sustained damage on a raid over Tokyo and couldn’t get back to base. And Russia was literally closer, so they landed. The Russians take possession of the airplane, and they’re instructed to copy every nut and bolt.

And they do. They took their copy-pasting instructions so seriously that they copied the decals, up to and including the nose art. They didn’t know why this plane had that particular art, but they copied it onto every subsequently manufactured plane.And so there’s all these Russian B-29 knock-offs, featuring an American General on the nose. Because something was copied without understanding why.

That’s where we’re at with Cyberpunk 2077. Neon isn’t enough. Razor girls and faux-provocation-nudity aren’t enough.

There’s no cyber, without punk. And unless you’re examining the class structure and corporate fascism of the modern world and then tearing it down, narratively, you’re neither cyber, nor punk.

Image Courtesy of CD Projekt Red

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