Our Cyberpunk Year | Tor.com
It’s 2021. And as of this writing, 4,000 people have married their virtual assistants, luxury fashion brands are auctioning millions of virtual clothes, and Harvard psychiatrists have appealed for advertisers so that they please refrain from hacking people’s dreams.
We live in a cyberpunk world.
The fact that reality is more and more shamelessly cyberpunk is one of the two dominant narratives around this weird and provocative genre. The second is, of course, that ‘cyberpunk is dead‘. It erupted in the 1980s and faded away in the 1990s. A genre that supposedly started and ended with Lampshade.
These two stories—life is cyberpunk and cyberpunk is dead– are not inherently contradictory. The challenge of any form of science fiction is to overcome the growing strangeness of the world around us. Relevance today is tomorrow’s obsolescence, and cyberpunk, with its orientation anchored in the near future, is particularly sensitive to the latter. Cyberpunk fiction is dead because reality has overtaken it.
Or they would like you to believe.
What this orderly conclusion ignores is the practical fact that cyberpunk is, was, and has always been prosperous. In 2021, we saw a particularly impressive resurgence of cyberpunk-themed media, with the biggest game of the year headlining (Cyberpunk 2077) and potentially his greatest film (Matrix resurrections). We’ve also seen major TV shows like William Gibson’s. The ringroad and a new series of Westworld and Black mirror; Cowboy Bebop and Outside the wire. A foxy Swedish tabletop RPG has been backed with 4000% funding on Kickstarter. We can drink cyberpunk themed energy drinks, in our cyberpunk chairs, while playing cyberpunk games on our cyberpunk phones. By being dressed like that.
By the way, there’s even a strong cyberpunk influence on the MCU properties of 2021: the bio-enhanced anti-globalization rebels of Falcon and Winter Soldier, the neon ninjas of Shang-Chi, or the lucid cultural piracy of WandaVision. You’re not getting more mainstream than Marvel.
And that’s without counting the plethora of other comics, artists, games, tarot decks (!) Or cyberpunk fashion brands. Cyberpunk isn’t just a label to describe the most disturbing aspects of reality. As an aesthetic, theme, and escape fashion, the genre continues to thrive in all forms of creative media.
All (other) forms, ie. But in 2021, we saw the publishing world catch up, with several impressive, openly cyberpunk, outings.
Cyberpunk stories, for example, have proliferated in short fiction films. “Clap Back” by Nalo Hopkinson (Amazon originals) is a short independent play on cultural appropriation, racism and rebellion; he straddles the line between hilarious and tragic – an easy-to-clap heroine, in an uncomfortably familiar world. “The life cycle of a cyberbar” by Arthur Liu (Science fiction of the future) is classic with a twist, bringing the evocative (and oddly poignant) atmosphere of the titular frame to life. Kenji McGrath’s “Hunting Warbirds” (DashPunk) is a more familiar fare – an action-packed heist in an unmistakable cyberpunk setting. “Feral Arcade Children of the American Northeast” by Sam J. Miller (Southwest Review) arms nostalgia, bringing to life the evil-begotten dark side of a “more innocent time.” Although ultimately empowering, it pierces our myths of a childhood in the 1980s, much more Lost boys than Loan Player One. “The soothsayer” by VH Ncube (Omenana) also uses technology as a means to explore our self-created mythologies. The titular machine connects its users to their ancestral pasts: a way of learning, perhaps, but also much more. What if it doesn’t really work? Is it important?
Cyberpunk hasn’t been a literary wilderness since the 1980s, thanks in large part to the efforts of writers such as Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and Pat Cadigan. They have been and continue to be mainstays of the genre, and all of them have had new releases in 2021. Sterling’s Robot artists and black swans, his new collection, shows that while he’s shed the ‘cyberpunk’ label, he maintains a firm grip on what makes for incredible storytelling, full of grandiose and relevant ideas. at Rudy Rucker Juicy ghosts is a reaction to the chaos of the US election. It’s an absolute game – combining Rucker’s patented ability to inject conceptual science into high-level action – and builds, at a brisk pace, toward hugely satisfying (and perhaps cathartic) payoff. Pat cadigan Alien 3 — The Unproduced Scenario is exactly the kind of gonzo-spanning media collaboration that has always underpinned the cyberpunk movement, with Cadigan fictionalizing William Gibson’s (infamously unused) screenplay for Alien 3. The existence of this book is, in itself, a lot of fun, the content is even more so. Although i stay Alien 3predominant advocate (and only remaining?), even I can appreciate how good this book was, and longingly dream of alternate cinematic realities.
Fabio Fernandes To like. Archeology is perhaps the most “classic” cyberpunk of all the 2021 releases. It is a collection of brilliant experimental writings that play with both literature and science, and flow smoothly through dreamlike landscapes dystopian to savvy techno thrillers to a fun cultural pastiche. that of John Shirley Land of storms extends cyberpunk to the contemporary preoccupation of the “cli-fi” thriller. Land of storms is a politically charged crime thriller set against a backdrop of catastrophic climate change.
On the anthology side, Cyberfunk! and Bright Neon Futures both showed how the field has grown and grown since its origins in the mid-1980s. Cyberfunk! is an Afrofuturist perspective on the genre, with contributions ranging from classic heists to scathing satire. Bright Neon Futures also advances the genre by adopting the same aesthetic and technological assumptions, but with a more optimistic view of human nature. To cope, the latest in MIT Press’s annual anthology series, continues to explore the near future, this time with a focus on change. Results is a digital-only anthology, examining science fiction as it is inspired by financial concepts. Economic science fiction doesn’t sound too sexy, but it’s provocative stories from world-class writers looking at the near future from a different perspective.
Cyberpunk has always been about experimenting with form and content – it’s a genre that flourished as much in post-modernism as it did in techno-fantasy. Vauhini Vara’s “Ghosts” (Believer) is, in many ways, the perfect cyberpunk story. Vara uses technology to deal with her own loss; a powerful storytelling experience that is inherently science fiction yet grounded in humanity. Despite its use of AI, it’s never about “” technology: it’s about mourning. Likewise, qntm’s (self-published) ‘Lena’ was published as a free digital-only piece of fiction, taking the form of an entry on Wikipedia. While more directly “about” AI, “Lena,” like “Ghosts,” is ultimately about humanity – in this case, the Gothic tragedy of the first downloaded brain. Despite the deliberately dry Wikipedian language, it’s heartbreaking, right down to the “See Also” links at the end.
Perhaps my favorite cyberpunk release of the year: Erica Satifka’s first collection, How to get to the apocalypse and other disasters. Although presented apocalyptically, the stories are less “a volcanic explosion” and more “an introspective examination of how we inexorably slip down the wrong path.” (Well, except for the one on the Sensitive Bomb.)
These are the apocalypses of automation and redundancy; social stratification and malignant ignorance. Satifka has an incredible, if not unmatched, ability to wrap every story filled with technological concepts and imaginative vanities. It’s a great construction of the world, with every element weird and wonderful, but all perfectly plausible and naturally woven. It’s a wave of new ideas, but one that never feels like an assault, as the stories themselves are character driven; about deeply empathetic people in these recognizable, yet unsettling worlds. These are stories that are not only immediately relevant, but will stand the test of time. Science fiction, even cyberpunk, at its best.
2021 takes us further into our present cyberpunk. We live in a world of mega-corporations, conspiracy theories and underground movements. Billionaires soar into space as terrestrials battle a global pandemic. We have immersive virtual worlds, combat sports, and AI-powered celebrities. But cyberpunk was never an end of the game – it was always about the next step. Readers, gamers, and moviegoers remain insatiably curious about what happens next; what’s around the next corner. Cyberpunk allows us to satisfy this curiosity in the relative safety of our own imaginations. That is, until it comes true.
Jared Shurin is the editor of The Djinn falls in love, The outcast hours, the The best of British fantasiesy, and many other published and / or forthcoming works. He writes spotty on raptorvelocity.com and continuously on @straycarnivore.