Not everyone concurs. In the face of a burning planet, the idea of using technology to achieve immortality seems naive at best. Young people in China are “lying flat” instead of working, and refugee children in Sweden have “resignation syndrome”; in a world where despair is a #mood, the desire to extend life indefinitely is a little vampiric, if not simply gauche. “Cyberpunk was relevant and important to boomers obsessed with questions of law and order, and who were determined to avoid the realities of human aging and embodiment. In 2021, we have new and different mass obsessions, making cyberpunk seem quaint,” says Hugo nominee and Nebula Award winner Kelly Robson. “In conclusion, fuck cyberpunk.”
Considering the world has caught up with, if not surpassed, the genre’s imagination, its place in fiction might be limited, or limiting, in the way that rehashing Tolkien might be limiting for a fantasy writer. This is one of the challenges of telling a future-set story: Eventually time catches up, like a rubber band snapping back into shape. And sometimes it stings. Readers often assume that authors are happy when they “predict” future events “correctly,” but rarely are we asked about the queasy feeling of watching one’s worst vision come to pass. Describing his debut novel for CrimeReads, Lincoln Michel says, “The Body Scout is an attempt to replace the ‘cyber’ in cyberpunk with flesh and look at what happens when the human body becomes the major realm of technological innovation and corporate control … These days, the greatest dystopian novel might be the evening news.”
Just because cyberpunk’s history looks like the present doesn’t mean it can’t point toward the future. Ten years after Bruce Bethke published his 1983 short story “Cyberpunk,” Octavia E. Butler released what is arguably one of the most influential novels in science fiction, Parable of the Sower. It tells the story of a young Black woman named Lauren Olamina living outside Los Angeles in 2024, watching as an authoritarian president is elected, human rights eviscerated, company towns built, and old neighborhoods destroyed. Lauren does what heroes do: She prepares. She gathers her wits and her seeds and leads her community toward freedom and, ultimately in the book’s sequel, the stars. Like most of Butler’s novels, it shifted the narrative focus from individual rebellion and success to communal liberation and legacy. If cyberpunk warned about capitalism’s cancerous late stages, Parable asked, “So what are you doing about it?” And while cyberpunk as a genre took on metaphors for slavery and autonomy, Butler’s books examined the actual transatlantic slave trade.
Butler’s fiction focused on, among other things, genetic engineering, the embodied experience of aliens and posthumans, what an individual owes to her family and community, power and its uses, terrible sacrifices in the name of survival. Recalling a dinner with her in Essence, author and scholar Tananarive Due says Butler expressed the central question of her work as “How can we make ourselves a more survivable species?” Although she is considered the mother of Afrofuturism, her narrative patterns also repeat across all of cyberpunk’s genre successors: hopepunk, biopunk, solapunk, and more. She echoes in Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, Premee Mohamed’s The Annual Migration of Clouds, Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, L. X. Beckett’s Gamechanger, and more. In Toronto, Black Lives Matter activists just purchased a 10,000-square-foot community hub for Black artists and activists and named it the Wildseed Centre after one of Butler’s books. Whether or not any of this qualifies as cyberpunk activity, it’s still exemplary of what the movement could look like.
In her notes, Butler said: “The struggle is to hold it together, keep it alive, and teach it to be and do its very best.” She was summarizing Mother Olamina’s ongoing mission, but she was also describing the 21st century in searing detail. This is the work of forward-looking science fiction. For better or worse, so much of cyberpunk’s android dreams have come true. Now we have to imagine how to build ourselves anew.
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