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Discovering William Gibson Beyond Neuromancer

When we think about celebrating cyberpunk, especially in its literary form, it’s completely natural to turn to William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Published in the auspicious year of 1984, the novel gave us a new aesthetic palette in which to think about our increasingly globalised, corporate world. The noir-inspired lone heroes, the femme fatales, the neon lights of data receding infinitely into the darkness of cyberspace’s endless night… these images birthed a new genre, and a new way of thinking about the space behind the computer screen, one that gave the world of computing and hackers a sheen of effortless cool.

            But celebrating cyberpunk in 2020 means looking beyond Neuromancer and thinking about what cyberpunk means to us today. As one of the co-editors of The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, I could point you there for an encyclopaedic account of the ways in which cyberpunk has infiltrated different media, cultural forms, and geographical areas, informing the language we use to talk about our interconnected world and the new forms of power that have been unleashed to shape our societies. But here, I’d like to think further about William Gibson and his work. I wrote a PhD thesis on Gibson which I completed in 2014, and he has since released two more novels: The Peripheral (2015) and Agency (2020). I cover every one of these novels in my forthcoming book Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades (Routledge, 2021), and during my years of studying Gibson I’ve had some thoughts on how cyberpunk continues to give us new ways of thinking about our contemporary times.

            In my opinion, cyberpunk is one of the best responses to the failure of the future. The mid-twentieth century fantasies of space travel and a clean, consumerist world of flying cars, helpful robots, and zero climate change (critiqued by Gibson himself in the short story ‘The Gernsback Continuum’) have given way to a form that deals with the reality of corporate power and climate crisis. William Gibson, and cyberpunk more broadly, continue to offer us useful tools. Gibson’s line that ‘the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed’ captures the sense that the work of cyberpunk is not in extrapolating a future, but in critiquing our present. In The Peripheral and Agency Gibson has turned his attention towards the climate crisis. While these books might not have some of the hallmarks of Neuromancer – the noirish lone hero is gone, and the action is just as likely to take place in a dry and dusty rural America as a rain-soaked neon city – the fascination with human-technology interactions and what these mean for the possibility of social change remain. Science fictional motifs are certainly still there to be had: the titular ‘peripheral’ is essentially a robot, while the action in Agency circulates around an artificial intelligence that seems just as self-aware as the one that comes into being at Neuromancer’s climax. However, these technologies are cyphers that allow us to see that the most important thing in our future is the change to the planet’s ecosystem and how we, as a species, choose to respond to that crisis. I’ve argued elsewhere that the attention paid to the climate in these novels does away with some of the punk individuality we find in Gibson’s earlier work, but it means that cyberpunk and its evolutions remain an urgent and relevant way of approaching the most important contemporary issues we face today. Neuromancer will always be fundamental to the cyberpunk project, but I hope that for many of us it acts as a gateway drug to discovering the contemporary vistas that more recent cyberpunk reveals.  

From DEUS EX HUB:

"This year has proven to be a very special year, not just for Mankind, but also for the Deus Ex franchise, 2020 marked the 20th anniversary of Deus Ex, and its legacy and influence, not just on gaming but also on the cyberpunk medium as a whole. While the series itself may currently not have future plans, there is no doubt its emphasis on nonlinearity and player choice while taking place in a conspiracy world inspired many titles, including the highly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077. The Deus Ex series is very good at capturing the zeitgeist and the vibe of the dystopian cyberpunk world, with locations varying from Hong Kong, Prague, Cairo, Detroit, and much more. It’s a pioneer in the immersive sim genre and has an unmatched philosophy.

For this year’s cyberpunkday, we at the Deus Ex Hub wanted to offer a little something to contribute to the original Deus Ex’s 20th birthday, hopefully by now, someone is re-installing it by the way ;). The game may have a different tone this year, especially with the pandemic outbreak, but nonetheless, its presentation quality has withstood the test of time, the exquisite feeling of its punchy cog protagonist traveling around the world, hacking emails and ATMs, reading newspapers, that are all scattered throughout your journey, in order to uncover a worldwide conspiracy. Don’t worry, I won’t delve into spoilers territory here, you have to check out the masterpiece of a game yourself. Here, you realize Deus Ex’s most powerful advantage, which is, in my opinion, Exploration. Exploring the world leads to dramatically different outcomes.

 

While Deus Ex may not be known for its vast, lush open-worlds, it’s safe to say Deus Ex games quite rather focus on small, deep rich worlds with interesting characters. As it was previously stated by the franchise’s creator, Warren Spector, “I’d rather do something that’s an inch wide and a mile deep than something that’s a mile wide and an inch deep. I want to create worlds, but by “worlds” I mean someplace where every object is interactable”. That quote pretty much explains the structure of the Deus Ex worlds, over the past 20 years the worlds of Deus Ex have followed that brilliant structure, but of course with a fresh paint and a few tweaks to keep up with changes in the gaming industry. And as technology kept moving forward, obstacles such as loading times have been minimized, and will probably keep going down that road until they are completely eliminated, all in order to create the ultimate immersive experience that no previous Deus Ex game has ever witnessed. Happy Cyberpunkday to all of you, and hopefully we will see the return of Deus Ex sooner than later. The Cyberpunk genre is currently going through a rise, especially that highly anticipated titles such as The Matrix 4 and Cyberpunk 2077 are sending ripples in the entertainment medium, the hype IS real and we at DX Hub are onboard with it. Deus Ex fans hope that this creates a market opportunity so that the Deus Ex saga and legacy can continue to live on, the last game in the series ended with so many plot threads and questions unanswered, and the community is in a state of trepidation, not knowing what the future holds for the next Deus Ex game.

 

The Deus Ex IP has a tremendous value, and a great potential to create something creative, ambitious and new, if the vision is fully realized, then Deus Ex can be a really unique experience, something that gamers will talk about how good it is for years to come (again)."

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Top 5 Reasons Cowboy Bebop is Cyberpunk AF

When I first started writing my cybernoir detective series I went on a cyberpunk media binge, reading and watching everything I could get my hot little hands on.

When I was making lists of all the must-see, must-play, must-read classics of the genre one came up that I hadn’t heard of.

Cowboy Bebop.

It doesn’t really sound cyberpunk, does it?

I looked into it. Bounty hunters in space. Okay… maybe? I was really getting more of a Space Western vibe, à la Firefly.

But I love Firefly, so I was willing to give it a try.

I ordered the complete series on Blu-Ray and my husband and I binge watched it in a couple of weeks.

Then I started noticing how often Cowboy Bebop is referenced in cyberpunk forums and fan groups and how contentious this issue is…

Is Cowboy Bebop cyberpunk???

Genre purists like to say that the two key themes of cyberpunk are anti-corporatism and transhumanism, and that Cowboy Bepop doesn’t really address either with any resounding statement.

And sure, these are key themes, and the show doesn’t really make any resounding statements… about anything. Cowboy Bebop is more about questions than answers, it’s more like beat poetry than literary thesis.

That does not, in my opinion, exclude Cowboy Bebop from the cyberpunk canon. It’s simply got a lighter touch than some works, and that’s just fine by me.

Here are my Top 5 reasons why Cowboy Bebop is cyberpunk as fuck.

One: It’s got that high-tech, low-life vibe. Cyberpunk is an extension of classic noir into a high-tech, sci-fi setting.

Noir explored the gritty underbelly of society, the crime and violence and desperation, that most genres didn’t want to acknowledge. It often brought it into direct contrast with wealthy upper-class snobbery, commenting on the the greed, corruption, and hypocrisy that upheld the chasm between the classes. It questioned whether rich people were actually better than poor people or if, in fact, they might actually be worse.

Noir asked uncomfortable moral questions about what it means to be a good person, and whether anyone can truly be good or bad.

Cowboy Bebop explores these themes in nearly every episode. The morally grey protagonists are pitted against other morally grey characters, and we are forced to acknowledge that nearly everyone is just trying to get by the best the can in the world.

There are no good guys or bad guys here. It’s just high-tech, low-life, and jazz.

 

Two: Wealth and Poverty in a High-Tech World. Another theme prevalent in cyberpunk is the way technology exacerbates and sometimes neutralizes economic disparity.

There is a famous quote oft attributed to William Gibson, “The future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed yet.” And while we may never know if Gibson actually said this, it’s certainly a theme explored in his seminal Sprawl trilogy.

Cutting edge technology is always expensive, and often it is so out of reach of the average person that it seems like magic. But as technology improves, so does the quality of trickle down tech into the lower classes. A cell phone today can do more than the most powerful computers we had back in the 80s, and even those living in poverty can often scrape together enough cash to own one.

As widely available technology becomes more and more powerful, some of the technological advantages that the upper classes have are neutralized. This theme shows up in cyberpunk via hackers that crack into megacorp computers to steal money, wreak havoc, or just to mess with “the man.”

While Cowboy Bebop doesn’t outright say anything about economic disparity, we see it represented repeatedly in the various planets the bounty hunter team visits, and Edward (a savant-like hacker) uses her skills to help Spike and the team tip the odds in their favour.

While the team is perpetually broke, they are often able to use punked tech to level the playing field. That’s pretty cyberpunk if you ask me!

Three: Transhumanism. I think the assumption that transhumanism must be taken to extremes and ask deep philosophical questions about what it means to be human in order to be relevant is a bit off the mark.

Transhumanism, by definition, is the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology. We are already doing this with prosthetic limbs, hearing aids, and neuroplasticity to treat everything from learning disabilities to stroke.

Transhumanism has already begun.

Any work that explores, no matter how lightly, the possibilities of technological enhancements to the human form is exploring transhumanism. Artificial intelligence is the most extreme step in the ultimate goal of transcending humanity into our next form, the singularity in which we are either absorbed or eliminated by our own machines.

But cybernetic limbs, nootropic drugs, and built in communicators are valid steps on the road to evolution.

Again, Cowboy Bepop doesn’t try to tell us how to feel about these advancements. It simply acknowledges the fact that they will exist, and will affect our lives in every way. There is even a suggestions that the ship’s dog, Ein, might have human-level intelligence. Is that transcanine-ism? Who knows.

But, Cyberpunk? Check.

Four: Everybody loves an Underdog. One common theme in cyberpunk fiction, which is another carryover from the noir genre, is that it either follows an underdog or an antihero. Because of the anti-corporate, anti-government lean of the –punk genres, most follow stories of either an underdog fighting back against an oppressive system, or an antihero who represents the evil of the system itself (and who will likely fail at the end of the story). Cyberpunk also loves stories about the struggle of the individual within a system that values conformity and submission to the norm, most often portrayed as mindless consumerism. In Cowboy Bebop, each of the main members struggles against society in one way or another. Spike is trying to reinvent himself after escaping from life with the mob, Jet is an ex-cop putting his skills to work as a bounty hunter, Faye is a hustler with a gambling habit, Ed is a child-prodigy hacker with no family. They are all, with the exception of Ed, fallen heroes, trying to find a way to survive in a corrupt unequal world. They are all willing participants in the system, not because they want to be there, but because it’s the only way to survive. While there is no over-arching “damn the man” government/corporate take-over story line, the teams jobs often put them at odds with groups that are much bigger and more powerful than they are, which is true to the Cyberpunk themes.

Five: The Power of Definitions. Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction in a dystopian futuristic setting that tends to focus on a "combination of lowlife and high tech" featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order. (Source: Wikipedia)

Now, one could get tetchy over the use of wikipedia as a source, but the actual dictionary definitions of the word cyberpunk are even more vague.

Miriam Webster says cyberpunk is “science fiction featuring extensive human interaction with supercomputers and a punk ambiance.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s “a genre of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology.”

So I like the Wikipedia version for our purposes here. It’s covers the basics and has a bit more meat on the bones.

Does Cowboy Bebop have a dystopian futuristic setting? Yes. Does it focus on the high-tech, low-life of this world? Yes. Does it features advanced technological and scientific achievements? Yes. Artificial intelligence and cybernetics? Yes, Edward hacks a sapient computer program in one episode, and Jet (among others) has cybernetic enhancements. Are these juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order? I’m going to say yes, as Spike and his team operate on the fringes of society, neither for or against the law, somewhat like the cowboys of the shows namesake in the lawless wild west.

Does it do all of these things to every cyberpunk fan’s satisfaction? Clearly not, or we wouldn’t still be arguing about it.

But for me, it’s enough. I list Cowboy Bebop as one of my biggest influences as a similarly genre-blending and –bending writer who likes to push back at the canon a bit. I can’t wait to see the Netflix adaptation, either. Fight me.

In the old “Is it Cyberpunk?” argument, I think there’s only one thing we can all agree on…

Hard and fast rules are so not cyberpunk!

S.C. Jensen, author of the cybernoir thriller series, Bubbles in Space.

why you should watch alita now

Ray Duell (Author of Alita: Fallen Angel, a fan novelization of the greatly desired sequel)

Alita: Battle Angel, directed by Robert Rodriquez, is a post-apocalyptic, dark cyberpunk action thrillride starring Rosa Salazar as Alita. The movie opens in the year 2563, 200 years after a great war between Earth and the Mars colony called ‘The Fall.’ Dr Dyson Ido (the amazing Christoph Waltz) is spare parts hunting in the scrapyard, an area of junk dropped from the floating City of Zalem above, which those on the surface use as materials for their lives in Iron City below, and to make new products, the best of which go back to Zalem through transport tubes. While ‘trash picking’ as it is called, Ido discoveres the deactivated core (head and upper torso) of a female, total replacement (TR) cyborg. Discovering that she is still alive (her human brain is in status within the core) he rushes her back to his clinic and revives her, attaching her to a superbly crafted cybernetic body he had in storage. When she awakens, Ido and his Nurse, Gerhad (Idara Victor), discover that this cyborg can’t remember her past, or her name. Ido gives her the name Alita, which she very gladly accepts, and then takes her around to teach her about the world in which she finds herself. This is the start of Alita’s journey of discovery: of who she is, who she was (through flashbacks in times of crisis) and how she will fit in the often harsh life of Iron City.

 

Although Alita starts out naive to the harsh realities of Iron City, she’s soon introduced to them, and so discovers the true potential of her absent memories. As she gains glimpses into her past, Alita gains confidence, and the will to take the darkness of Iron City head on. By her side is a young man she meets on her first outing, Hugo (Keean Johnson), who takes it upon himself to ‘show her the ropes,’ his core reasoning being that he believes she fell from Zalem, the one place in all the world he longs to reach. During the movie, he becomes torn between his growing feelings for the titular Alita, and his lifelong desire. 

 

There are also excellent performances by the antagonists of this story, such as Jennifer Connelly as Ido’s estranged wife, Chiren, Ed Skrein as the amoral bounty hunter, Zapan, Jackie Earl Haley as the massive and bloodthirsty TR cyborg, Grewishka, and the critically acclaimed Mahershala Ali (who will be talking over playing the daywalking vampire Blade in an upcoming movie) as the Factory Boss Vector. The performances all feel well-suited to their characters, with possibly the weakest being that of Hugo, however that could be due to Hugo’s treatment in the script, more than what Johnson put into his portrayal.

 

The worldbuilding is excellent and expansive, for a 2 hour long movie. It has a definite Latino flair, thanks to the story location being Central America, and the leanings of the Director, Robert Rodriguez. The source material for the movie is a Japanese manga (adult comic) that began publication 30 years ago and is still being written today, and the movie feels very respectful to the source. As manga to movie adaptations go, this one is at the top of the list.

 

This movie is also on the top of several other lists. In the VFX department, it literally shines. The main character, Alita, is fully CGI, as is her mentor, Gelda, in several flashbacks during the narrative. New performance capture rigs were used to gather Rosa Salazar’s stellar performance as Alita, and the the CGI wizards at WETA Digital brought Alita to life, seamlessly melding Rosa’s performance to Alita in 161 scenes. This is the first time a fully CGI main character has been flawlessly integrated into a live action setting. Other cyborg characters were given similar treatment, and significant effort was put into the high quality effects. You can see WETAs own exposé on how the movie was made reality here (link), but only watch it after the movie, as it will spoil somewhat.

 

The script is also highly refined, with many subtle tells, foreshadowing, and memorable moments. And it would want to be, as the adaptation was begun in the year 2000, and revisited and tweaked over and over until the filming in 2016. The cinematography has both elements of James Cameron’s work, as well as Robert Rodriguez’s exciting action shots, and for a cyberpunk sci-fi action, it really pays off. The score is also a standout, composed by Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL), it makes every scene ‘feel’ that much more intense. This movie was a labor of love, and it shows. It is beautifully realised all the way to the bone.

 

However, no movie is perfect. More backstory on the antagonists and Hugo’s need to reach Zalem would have rounded out the story more, and time showing Alita training for the part NASCAR, part deathmatch sport of Motorball would have helped show her skill development. I expect these scenes were cut from the script to get it down from 2.5 hrs to 2 hrs, as budgeting required. Despite this marginal overtriming of the script, Alita: Battle Angel really does have something for everyone. From 9 to 99 years old, the deeply human struggles portrayed in this movie touch everyone who relates to the human condition.

 

At her core, the character of Alita is an exemplar of someone living their true life. That is, giving unconditionally, fighting all-out for what they believe in, and making mistakes to learn and grow, and owning those mistakes. Alita is a pure force, one untroubled by guilt, doubt, indecision or unjust strictures the society of her time would force upon her. Her ingrained combat senses, her position as an outsider, and her blank slate, are enviable qualities for us everyday people who have so much emotional baggage to carry. If you want a thrill ride with a mature script, great acting, fantastic visuals, and a great score, one that keeps on giving the more times you watch it, I can heartily recommend Alita: Battle Angel as an excellent way to get lost in a dystopian future for a few hours.