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The Future Today and Yesterday: The Strange World of Cyberpunk

Cover to Steve Jackson Games Cyberpunk

Cover to Steve Jackson Games Cyberpunk

Living on the edge of forever was never so downbeat or thought-provoking.

The landscape of society is bleaker than bleak can be....

No one finds joy in milling about in public during the day. Sunlight hours involve ticking minutes while locked away in a high-rise apartment home to almost obscenely high-tech gadgetry of varying necessity degrees. Shades are drawn down on the windows so no one can see inside. Denizens of these high rises spend their days using designer drugs and conversing with faux personas that only seem to do their conversing online. With alarming frequency, these beings involve themselves with illegal activities or go in the other direction - they spend their evenings eliminating threats to civilized order, whatever remains of it.

At night, the assassins, the information brokers, the designer drug sellers, and the half-human/half-machine entities venture out into the overcrowded modern metropolises they call home and grew to loathe.

Does that sound like a downbeat world? It is. However, the realm is never a world that will lack excitement.

Welcome to the cynical science-fiction wonderland dubbed the cyberpunk subgenre.

A Dark Literary and Cinema Movement Forever Changes Science-Fiction

Is the future something to look forward to? The answer to such a pointed question often depends on visions of the present. For fans of the cyberpunk literary and film movement, the future is both exciting and frightening. There are lovely, and even très beautiful geeky things to experience in a future world representing a video game come to life. While filled with wonder, the envisioned world contains many parts psychological despair.

The future can also be a scary place when you do not like the trajectory the present takes. Those expecting the future to represent joyous escapism may also temper fears that the present-day world's harsh negatives become far worse in the years ahead.

The genre's future is dark and reflects the unavoidable consequences of the path humans veered for hundreds of years. At least, this is how some fans and writers in the genre perceive things.

Cyberpunk is rooted deeply in the notion that the future will be a dark world in which a societal fascist fusion occurs. Corporations and the government become the same, turning into a corrupt unitary whole. Society overflows with designer drugs that not only allow inhabitants to escape the real world, but the drugs also preserve the sense and enhance abilities necessary to survive in this world. Are there side effect? Of course, and the side effects are routinely awful.

There will be those that try to fight the power and those that have been conquered by it. And then come the antiheroes eeking out a living by performing some grotesque task left only to those capable of surviving in a degenerate future embodied by a broken human spirit. The tech-heavy world is centuries removed from the invention of the wheel, but everyone here seems to remain a cog inside one.

The strange antiheroes of the genre are often the one symbol of hope in a bleak world. The characters are much like the cowboys of the mythic western past. These individuals avoid suffering conquest by the imposed society and choose to rebel. Thoughtful antiheroes make the genre worth exploring because, without them, the stories would embody far too much despair to be entertaining. You have to root for someone.

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The characters in most cyberpunk works are loners that live on the edge of the fringe. Most of these antiheroes despise the world they live and despise themselves to a degree. Guilt over the work they perform consumers them, pushing them further to a psychological abyss. Yet, they maintain a moral code along with a tragic-heroic component that gains reader sympathy. The antiheroes might have been something special in a different world, but they now find themselves locked into a flawed dystopian future.

While a horrific future for the reader, the dystopia serves as the real-world present for the antihero.

A Paradoxical Future of Dystopia and Hope

The future of the cyberpunk world is never appealing. It is urban decay amidst the greatest technological advancements known to humanity. Is this an incoherent vision of the future? Not really. It may be the cynical (some may call realist) notion that technology can advance while the human spirit declines.

The latter point is really what makes cyberpunk compelling. The incredible toll that such a dystopia has on humanity is what makes it morbidly intriguing. Again, we have to look at the compelling antiheroes cyberpunk tales revolve around when trying to understand the works' entertainment value. These heroes have not yet let the dystopia truly break them down.

Utopia No More

While most will look at the high-tech and computer-based cyberpunk components as characteristics, other aspects contribute to defining the subgenre. Rather, the one component that makes cyberpunk what it is is the image of a dystopia. In many ways, the classic image of the future utopia born of the early 20th century's pulp magazines maintains the mainstream appeal of Star Trek and Star Wars. The old-school style leads many hardcore fans of science-fiction to turn to cyberpunk for serious works because cyberpunk essentially disregards Utopian themes. In truth, cyberpunk has a vision of the future that utopia cannot and will not exist.

Traditional science-fiction is seen more as a form of fantasy escapism, while cyberpunk embodies a possible reality. Cyberpunk appreciates a near-future not far removed from the current world. In cyberpunk, we see images of a future only 20 or 30 years away. In a sense, the future is now because we can only advance technologically so much in two or three decades. However, we can regress society at a rapid pace.

The Future is the Present

There lies the grimmest theme in cyberpunk: the stores may feature settings focusing on the future imperfect, but the tales are about the present imperfect.

Cyberpunk reflects an angry genre with much anger directed at defects visible in current society. The future presented in cyberpunk is not a radical departure from our current world as would be the case in a science-fiction film such as Planet of the Apes. Much of what we see in cyberpunk represents an exaggeration of current struggles.

Think in terms of the classic telephone of 30 years ago to the mobile phones that exist today. It is essentially the same thing that serves the same purpose but with incredibly enhanced technology, building upon several years of innovation. All the future technology you see in cyberpunk worlds depict the reimagining of current technology. The present image of the world's flaws, however, does not change much. What does advance is regression: the contemporary world's bleakness becomes more widespread, and it solidifies among civilizations.

The world of cyberpunk is bleak and dangerous. To survive in it, one has to become part of life within its high-tech gutter. Again, much of the imagery of the cyberpunk world is symbolic of what exists in the modern world. The foul way people treat others in the corporate world and on the streets, and in the political arena appears daily in online news reports on cable news. The cyberpunk world takes such imagery and exaggerates it into a futuristic foreign landscape. However, we recognize and often identify with what occurs in cyberpunk worlds because they are not far removed from what we see every day. The writers or video game designers that bring cyberpunk to life in fantasy form recreate a different image of actions and themes present in reality.

Is cyberpunk a cautionary tale or a warning of what is to come? The subgenre might be a call to open one's eyes to the present. Willful blindness in the search for utopia in the present may very well be what leads to the dystopia of a future imperfect.

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