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.