THE RETURN OF CYBERPUNK, PART ONE
(and why I want to punch K. W. Jeter in the face)
Recently, I've noticed a resurgence of a genre I thought had faded or at least had evolved to a state requiring redefinition. Educated readers no doubt know of the origins of the term "cyberpunk" and its popularity peaking in the late '80s and early '90s. Although the genre had been given its title in 1983, stories meeting the various criteria had emerged years, if not decades earlier by writers unaware of the genre they were defining. At its core, cyberpunk was characterized by the collapse of governments, the rise of dictatorial multinational corporations, the destruction of the natural environment, the viral-like spread of urban sprawls, and the seemingly uncontrolled advancement of technology including its interdependency (or lack of dependency) to man.
Stories falling into this genre didn't have to meet all these conditions, but common elements required a near-futuristic timeframe and a relatively dismal prognosis for the fate of mankind. Fanatical critics narrowed this genre to only apply to specific novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash as well as movies like Blade Runner and Hardware. However, as the genre gained popularity, fans become obsessed with bloating it with stories that didn't fall into the category. This could be rationalized by claiming the genre was simply evolving to match the progress of society as we approached the dates speculated in these classic stories.
Cyberpunk waned in popularity in the late '90s, finding a renaissance at the turn of the millennium as newer stories appeared not following the ironclad rules set down by the genre archetypes. One had to reach beyond American shores to find most of these, with the majority emerging from France and Japan.
The padding of the genre by fanboys irked me considerably, not as much with cyberpunk but with steampunk, a term which didn't appear until the late '80s, coined by K.W. Jeter, a writer attempting to ride the coattails of a then-popular genre. What annoyed me wasn't the genre itself—I'm actually quite fond of it—but how it's been victimized by philistines who continue to dump anything retro-futuristic into it. This even included retroactively redefining the stories steampunk was based on, known then as Victorian speculative fiction, as steampunk.
Steampunk refers to a specific look from a particular timeframe under particular circumstances. So, it troubles me when people lump any retro-science fiction story into it. Other people agreed, but instead of correcting this, they created new "punks" to accommodate the other stories, because god forbid they should be able to hold their own without classification into a genre defined by someone else. Now we have dieselpunk and atomicpunk, each referring to a specific retro-timeframe. My personal favorite is the latter atomicpunk, of which much of the science-fiction from the '50s and 60's originated, and later emulated by the underappreciated classic Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a movie also often mistakenly labeled as steampunk. But I don't call it atomicpunk either; I prefer just 50's retro or art deco.
I don't understand this fanatical desire to dump every form of fantastic or weird fiction into a "punk" moniker. A simple Google search will find other variations, including spacepunk, weirdpunk—why don't we just create a term, omnipunk, that covers them all (checked...already taken). I'm okay with someone using it as a variation of the music, but as a variation of literature, I think it needs to stop. It was okay when it was just cyberpunk, but it's gotten out of hand. There's stonepunk, sandalpunk, clockpunk, biopunk (oh, I hate that one), and gothicpunk, the latter making no literary sense to me. It's gotten so bad, even steampunk had to divide itself, with terms like cattlepunk and stitchpunk being utilized. Do people even know what "punk" means?
I digress. After a resurgence about ten years ago, cyberpunk is starting to enjoy a second renaissance, a retro-shout back to the progenitors of the genre. We've already seen it with Blade Runner 2049 and the T.V. show, Altered Carbon. Despite most of these works being rendered anachronistic given the advancements of our age, original books and films are returning. I had been following Vincenzo Natali's progress adapting Neuromancer to the big screen, and just recently, news came down that Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash is finally moving forward. And this only scratches the surface of cyberpunk's comeback. Later this year, CD Projekt Red will release a new RPG video game based on the classic pen & paper R. Talsorian Game, Cyberpunk 2020, written by Mike Pondsmith, a system I was married to throughout high school.
Board games are not immune to this trend either. When looking up the vast number of cyberpunk-themed tabletop games, one might be surprised to find the majority falling under only three franchise labels, Android, Shadowrun, and Cyberpunk (someone is going to claim four, but I'll explain why that's not really the case).
And I'll go into them all next time…