From Cyberpunk to Postpostcyberpunk: A look at how three generations of near-future fiction have shaped and are shaped by the era of their conception
As a technologically conscious teen, I remember discovering William Gibson’s Neuromancer and falling hard into his cyberpunk world. The gritty streets and clever, but despondent characters spoke to me of the troubled future we were all heading for. I was hooked. I read all the cyberpunk I could.
Soon after I discovered the work of Neal Stephenson, whose writing was given the banner of postcyberpunk. It was then that I started to appreciate that both these styles of writing were in fact very specific generational responses. The writers sit, in the cultural history, ten years apart. Evidently that is as long as it takes for a whole new way of thinking to arise. Where Neuromancer was all high tech and low life, Snow Crash [Stephenson] focussed on protagonists that, though equally marginalised, had moved from the slums into pretty standard, if not comfortable living.
In the mid 80s as Gibson’s books were entering the market, and the cultural consciousness, Microsoft had only just started releasing any kind of user-friendly home computer (the first version of windows came out in 1984) and the internet wouldn’t be culturally and commercially accepted for another decade. The future he portrayed was one of unwilling adaptation, hardship and fear for the everyman. Corporations took the place of countries and individuals out of the loop lived in slums. This countercultural viewpoint was a reflection of the public’s outlook towards its own future. Opposed to the near utopian (at least within our own civilisation) far-future frame that general science fiction was portraying, this was a future that was just around the corner. Something we would all see in our lifetimes and should be wary of. In the Sprawl trilogy [Neuromancer, Count Zero & Mona Lisa Overdrive] the protagonists are archetypal antiheroes. Their main attributes are a working knowledge of the darker aspects of computers and paranoia. This sentiment of expert paranoia became a cyberpunk trope and carried on through the genre.
A decade later cyberpunk evolved. As computer technology grew to be the norm in mainstream culture, our relationship with it became far more accepting. This was reflected in what has become known as postcyberpunk. Championed by Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling, the postcyberpunk world, while remaining gritty and oppressively urban, gained a certain optimism and even a sense of humour. The protagonist no longer lives on the fringes of the urban mess, they speak directly to the reader as skateboarding couriers and pizza delivery men (this was the 90’s remember). They are still particularly clued up on the working of technology, but instead of it being a hard-earned gift that lands them in less than legal jobs, they are just kids who have grown up with computers. They are every child born in the 80s. The concerns of the postcyberpunk novel are much the same as those of its predecessor; multinational corporations and privatised security forces throwing their weight around the real and virtual worlds, but a street-savvy teenager inevitably deals with these problems differently to a gristled ex-hacker running with mercenaries.
Jump forward again to 2012 and it seems as though the genre has evolved once more. Using the novella Holophin by Luke Kennard as an example, it appears we have reached (dare I say it?) postpostcyberpunk. Kennard utilises all the tropes that identify Holophin with the cyberpunk legacy. The near future world is governed chiefly by corporations instead of now defunct countries. The protagonist is a young, exceedingly bright, girl with a flair for computer engineering. The narrative takes place in both the real and the virtual world. So far it all sounds totally in keeping with cyberpunk and postcyberpunk stories, but we live in the 21st century now. We have been essentially living alongside computers, near sentient software and enhanced human beings for over three decades. Any residual fear of the technological future is gone. The thought of computers leading to a hyper-urban noir wasteland is over. Kennard’s future is a pleasant one, not without its dangers, but immediately more appealing than Gibson’s Chiba City or Stephenson’s Burblaves.
The reflection of the writer’s era continues further. Like our own technology, the units that enable the characters to access cyberspace across all three generations of books have got smaller, less angular and less clunky. Gibson’s description alludes to a rather hefty desktop computer in his earlier books. This shrinks and streamlines to a laptop ten years later and now, though it looks like a holographic dolphin sticker, Kennard is essentially describing an iPhone. This becomes all the more apparent when a rival company appears with the Nautilus; their version of the Holophin which has open source software and is free to alter as the user sees fit. Sound familiar? The Android/Apple battle is used as the inspiration for a compelling adventure in cyberindustrial espionage.
It is this method of using contemporary issues that really binds the three generations of cyberpunk books together. Topical concerns get blown up and thrown into a near future setting which somehow makes them all the more real. Where general science fiction is a vehicle for speculation and hypothesis, cyberpunk uses its fictional science to cast a magnifying glass over our everyday lives. Technology has become second nature and without this unique family of fiction we forget to question just how ready we are to give ourselves up to the machine.
Holophin by Luke Kennard is published by Penned in the Margins and launches in limited edition hardback on 1st of September.
Avid science fiction reader and practicing geek, Nick Murray, is considering taking this article further and turning it into a short lecture. If you have any comments about the article please do write them below.