Cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk. Thoughts on the aesthetics and themes of the technology centered genre.

Cyberpunk fashion

It's all going to hell and we can't wait to get there.

Cyberpunk is not dead. Cyberpunk, like the technology is describes in vertigo inducing blasts of techno-babble, is simply evolving. William Gibson had said, “The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed.” This statement came around a time when our digital world was just starting to emerge as the shared nervous system of the entire planet that we are constantly accessing and connected to.

Cyberpunk was and is an ugly, chaotic, nihilistic genre but what can you expect when the portmanteau name has the word, “punk,” in it? One of the reason’s for cyberpunk’s attitude was that borrowed heavily from the noir genre. Noir essentially plunged into the sordid underground urban landscape in which there are no, “good guys,” just not-so-bad-guys. Crime, violence, and sex were all on display (and often mixed together) in noir and cyberpunk borrowed liberally from this menagerie of human monstrosities. The result was something brutal yet, like Raymond Chandler and Dashell Hammet’s works, romanticized so that, despite the graphic nature of the content, we can’t help but feel we’re watching some kind of  twisted poetry. Yet, as technology was distributed and came to saturate every aspect of our lives, cyberpunk could no longer maintain its position that it was dealing with a fringe group of elite-bottom feeders who slapped together personalized cyber-rigs and raided the digital world. Instead, every five year old is now wired in and surfing cyberspace. Obviously, cyberpunk needed had to make a change.

Post cyberpunk came on the scene, updating cyberpunk’s themes and imagery while still maintaining a strong focus on the role of technology and its influence on human affairs. A new series of authors have taken cyberpunk out of the gutters and placed it right into the living room, the school room, and even the swank café. Yet, as Snake Plissken said at the end of Escape from LA, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This is certainly true for much of cyberpunk and post cyberpunk in terms of how technology is not used an accessory or a means to an end but often is the end itself. Even more than that, there is a certain aesthetic sense that one can’t help but pick up on when reading or watching something that could be considered cyberpunk or post cyberpunk.

One thing that is found across cyberpunk and its progeny is the techno-porn. In a novel such as this, the technology becomes a character in itself. In hard-boiled detective fiction, the femme fatale of dame was the object to be chased after in addition to the main mystery. In cyberpunk and post cyberpunk, the technology itself is fetishized to an extent, raising issues of body violation and sexuality. Reading through the descriptions of cyberspace beamed directly into a person’s brain in Neuromancer, watching Tatsuo being scanned and tested in Akira, or watching the assembly trailer for Terminator 2, we are given technology as not just science but art. It might seem strange in this day and age in which aesthetics are held second to utilitarian functionality, but older cultures, such as Greeks, would adorn their weapons wich words, names, or pictures because the beauty of the object can both record history and create stories that imbue the object with more than just its base purpose. The converting of an tool into a piece of art brings the object closer to a place in our subconscious where symbols are made and giving meaning and emotional associations. The cyberpunk and post cyberpunk resurrect this practice, turning the hard and technical into the ethereal and beautiful. Speaking of ethereal, cyberspace and its portrayal is a majorly important component that adds a unique edge to these two genres.

Cyberspace is no doubt psychedelic and probably owes a lot to the mind-expanding drugs. The glittering vistas we are given in Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell are a major change from the gritty urban environments that fill our senses and, again owing to the psychedelic experience, are moments of transcendence. Of course, being centered on materialism, the only transcendence we can hope for is one we’ve constructed ourselves: cyberspace. In these moments, we leave the body and the flesh and experience a world of pure mind. In post cyberpunk works such as Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge, the separation of the body and mind becomes less extreme with cyberspace being overlaid on the physical world via augmented reality. The same is seen in Charles Stross’s mind-bending Accelerando. There is a movement in some of these works away from a total submersion in virtual reality to a fusion of the real world the digital though there are plenty of post cyberpunk works in which full immersion is present. But the point is that there is a synthesis going on in which the cyber world and the physical are becoming less and less defined as a general trend towards altering our perceived daily reality takes place. In a way, it is the completion of a trend started by cyberpunk as the digital becomes so central to life that it merges with the ordinary world.

The ordinary world in both genres is often twisted to the point that it is no longer ordinary. Part of the cyberpunk tradition is the creation of a web-like tangle of different groups all struggling for something and, in a post-modern fashion, all these tangential threads meet at some point or at least have influence on each other though they may not realize it. This messy stew of motivations is often in a mystery context as the protagonists struggle to understand the motivations of shadowy and powerful individuals and groups that shuffle them around like pawns which is another major theme. People, as individuals, are always caught between agency, or free will, and being controlled by forces in the corporate and political environment.

Finally, I think a major component to cyberpunk is the color palette. Watch the matrix and notice what the two colors, blue and green, do. Notice how we come to identify the two worlds just by color alone. The same is done in across the board for the most part, there being exceptions of course. But looking at Terminator 2, with its primarily blue, machine tone, the blue and green palette of Ghost in the Shell, and the hazy tones of Blade Runner, we get a feeling from these films that goes beyond just being entertained. These colors work on us at a deeper level than we are consciously aware of. It seems that the colors most commonly used through cyberpunk works are tied to coldness while still being vibrant. For instance, neon and other artificially bright colors are common throughout Total Recall a wonderful example of cyberpunk themed entertainment. The richness of the color suggests a hyper-reality, or a stylization of reality as well as futuristic world. It also ties back to our natural love of shiny object, just like birds. But again, whether the primary source of color is cyberspace or a neon drenched city, color adds mood and personality to the films and books that it is present in.

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