There’s a long-standing tradition in the arts, whether it’s literature, film, music, or all pop culture in general: every once in a while, someone comes along and proclaims a genre irrevocably dead. The jury’s been out on cyberpunk for decades.
For those unfamiliar with the genre, cyberpunk is characteristically set in a futuristic, technologically advanced dystopia, run by an all-powerful corporation. Its protagonists tend to be outcasts, disenfranchised and on the wrong side of society, who use technology to take down the system.
The origin of cyberpunk is a complex story of cultural shifts occurring simultaneously in different parts to the world, giving rise to perspectives on the future concerned with the role of technology. To offer a highly abridged summary, American cyberpunk can be traced all the way back to counterculture novels, like William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. In the 1960s, Samuel R. Delany’s Nova and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? explored themes that would soon come to be well-identified tropes in the genre. The latter inspired Ridley Scott’s iconic film Blade Runner, which released in 1982, and is now identified as cyberpunk. All this led up to 1984, when William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer, came to define the genre.
Practically in parallel, halfway around the world in Japan, punk culture and Japan’s rise as an economic and technological powerhouse was giving rise to cyberpunk in the 1970s and ‘80s. Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga series Akira established the genre in 1982, and was adapted into an anime in 1988. Cyberpunk themes have found their way into manga, games, and anime ever since.
The genre has often been proclaimed dead because it’s allegedly said nothing new for decades. All new work purportedly sticks to the template laid down in Neuromancer: a lone hacker takes down an oppressive and mega-evil corporation. I don’t subscribe to this theory; in fact, I challenge it.
However, cyberpunk doesn’t get a free pass from criticism. Where existing criticism has been most valid, in my opinion, is when it looks at representation. Across the breadth of the genre, cyberpunk has tended towards being Orientalist, both exoticizing and appropriating Asian cultures while expressing xenophobic paranoias about a non-Western technological superpower. It’s largely white, male, heteronormative and relegates women and queer persons to the margins. BIPOC identities have either been fetishized or find no representation at all, and futures imagined by own voices from outside all of un-America and the Western Anglophone world are scant.
This is changing—not as fast as I’d like, and not as extensively as I’d hope for—but it’s a start, and it’s a sign of things to come. It’s also where I believe cyberpunk, and in particular, the cyberpunk novel, is most alive.
The world does not revolve around the cishet white Western Anglophone male experience, and neither does the future.
The perpetually criticized cyberpunk through line—lone disenfranchised hacker versus evil corporation—might be old hat in the context of the cishet white male narrative, but it takes on an entirely different significance when the hacker, or equivalent tech rebel, represents a marginalized identity.
We live in a reality where women, queer individuals, and BIPOC are minorities in technology, where the glass ceiling is real, and discrimination persists. When the lone hacker is a woman, or belongs to any of these marginalized intersections, what the evil corporation represents comes with added dimensions, their disenfranchisement is compounded, their agency and the expression of their identity are checked by the patriarchy. It’s strange that when one considers the “canon,” one views a largely heteronormative body of work, conforming to the gender dichotomy and reinforcing gender stereotypes, in a genre where reality is fluid, where self-expression through body modification is a staple, where virtual identities can take any shape or form, and where systems of power are routinely upended.
There’s a small but growing body of work that seeks to address issues of representation in the genre. Trouble and Her Friends, Melissa Scott’s 1995 Lambda Award-winning cyberpunk novel, is told from a feminist perspective with queer protagonists. Aubrey Wood’s forthcoming debut, Bang Bang Bodhisattva, features a trans girl hacker-for-hire in a novel that explores personhood while also being an edgy detective mystery. My debut novel, The Ten Percent Thief, is unapologetically feminist.
The narrative changes completely when a character representing an identity that has historically been denied agency—both in real life, and within the genre’s history—takes on the system. The power dynamics shift, the system is far more insidious, and they must contend with challenges a cishet white male protagonist will never experience.
Tech-dystopian futures have also tended to focus on the Western Anglophone world and its culture, history, and concerns. If cyberpunk novels have been set in the rest of the world, the future has usually been imagined through the lenses of predominantly white male writers.
Modern technology has been on different timelines across the world. In India, resources to acquire externally developed tech, or to develop tech internally, have often been limited. India, like many countries with a history of colonization, spent much of the last century playing catchup. The notion that Indians could build their own companies, develop sophisticated tech, and write code caught on only in the ‘90s, and with it came the first stirrings of the evil tech corporation in its present, easily recognizable, global form.
Plausibly, at least so long as capitalism persists and history repeats itself, everyone eventually gets to the point where evil tech corporations are real entities, and when they’re paired with the occasional totalitarian government, things go very wrong. When transposed to fiction, the evil corporation and its methods of subjugation are shaped by the timeline of its arrival—how bad were things when it got there, and what was cutting edge then?—as well as the cultural ethos that a novel might be set in. Inevitably, it also impacts that culture, for better or for worse. Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland follows the lives of four characters in near-future Cape Town run by a totalitarian corporate-apartheid government. Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide, translated from the original Chinese by Ken Liu, explores an alternative class system on an island covered in trash, based on his experience visiting the city of Giuyu.
India is presently home to a startup explosion. Homegrown technology is being widely developed, and successfully so, but its development is largely top-down and capitalist, amplifying India’s existing socio-economic disparities and gating access to technology. In parallel, post-truth news runs rampant via messaging apps—often targeting minorities, while data privacy is under constant threat from a totalitarian regime. Indian cyberpunk, like Samit Basu’s The City Inside, interrogates this web of capitalism, governance, and surveillance, set in a near-future Delhi that is mired in conspiracy. My novel, The Ten Percent Thief, explores existing technological concerns in India, from surveillance and thought-policing to the reinforcement of social disparities, projecting a worst-case scenario in the near-future.
Sometimes, the lone hacker is BIPOC and lives in un-America. Dystopian futures can exist everywhere.
Diverse voices in the genre, who are pushing the envelope and infusing it with new relevance, are often overlooked in the mainstream, especially when it comes to film, television, and game adaptations. Instead, exoticization and appropriation of cultures as seen through the Western gaze persists across these media, from Blade Runner 2049 to Cyberpunk 2077.
Cyberpunk is evolving, and as representation in the genre grows, so does the long list of what-ifs associated with technology, narrated through voices representing multifaceted intersections of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, culture, and geography.
In a world where smartwatches track menstrual cycles and fertility; hate speech, transphobia and racism find a platform on social media; and billionaire tech-bros in cahoots with fascist governments have access to sever rooms full of personal data, the questions about technology raised by diverse cyberpunk narratives are complex and necessary. They need to be talked about in the mainstream, and the ‘canon’ is in dire need of an update. The future of cyberpunk has arrived, and it represents a billion different possibilities.
The Ten Percent Thief will be published on March 28. You can preorder here.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.