Elements of the dystopian sci-fi subgenre have bled into pop culture throughout the last decade, but the return of mainstream cyberpunk is now beyond a doubt. Question is, do they get it right?
Yes, that’s right, cyberpunk.
Canadian sci-fi/fantasy author Crawford Kilian described cyberpunk as a subgenre about a future in which capitalism is “triumphant but not necessarily benevolent.” Typically, the cyberpunk setting often involves towering super-cities, morally grey characters and anti-heroes, and sometimes no discernible morality at all. Mega-corporations may function as authoritarian governments, serving as a background Aesop regarding modern consumerism. And of course, it wouldn’t be cyberpunk without humans implanting or plugging electronic things into their bodies, or at its most innocuous, street urchins capable of effortlessly hacking together machines that present-day engineers can only dream of (although that is less the case now than it was during the genre’s genesis in the 1980s). Hey, sounds quite a bit like our own foreseeable future, doesn’t it? Almost like the genre is meant to serve as a warning for where we might be headed or something.
I wrote about cyberpunk years ago (link here if you’re interested), when it seemed to be popping in and out of conventional sci-fi works at the time. I described it as a dying genre: we had gone from triumphs like The Matrix and Cowboy Bebop, to eyebrow-raisers like Gamer and the Total Recall remake. The people making those works didn’t seem to “get” it. Since that time, what started as a trickle has become a deluge – we’ve gone from Tron: Legacy, which simply borrowed the cyberpunk aesthetic, to full-blown dystopian sci-fi features like Black Mirror, Altered Carbon, and more. Last year, we also got the return of Blade Runner, truly a giant in this subgenre.
So here’s the question: if cyberpunk is well and truly back in the mainstream again, do the creators of these works “get” it finally? Can these new shows, movies, games, and other media be considered legitimate successors to the cyberpunk gems of the ’80s and ’90s? Starting with Netflix’s recently released Altered Carbon, I intend to find out.
Altered Carbon is the latest original series to be spun up on Netflix. Humanity has unlocked the secret to immortality by uploading people’s consciousness to disks called “stacks,” and implanting them in human bodies which are referred to as “sleeves.” Destroying the stack is the only way to truly die. Enter Takeshi Kovacs, a hardened criminal whose mind has been locked up in a maximum security prison and then unceremoniously reborn because he has been leased (this is not my choice of words, that’s actually how it’s described in the show) by a centuries-old plutocrat named Laurens Bancroft.
Bancroft, whose last body was murdered, had his memory of the incident wiped and the police ruled it a suicide. Now he has an offer for Kovacs: solve the murder, and earn your freedom, for good. When Kovacs accepts the offer, it’s all guns, sentient AIs, and neon lights from there on out . . . and unexpectedly for a cyberpunk show, a healthy dose of humor too. Yes, grimdark anti-hero Kovacs has his moments and he’s surprisingly likable.
Altered Carbon is very strong in the neo-noir department, which is one of the primary elements of a successful cyberpunk thriller. The genre’s origins are in potboiler detective thrillers and the pulp noir of the 1950s, so that makes sense. Lots of red light district scenes that take place at night or in the rain, plenty of seedy individuals populating those environments like brothel owners and pushers, and you have your usual femme fatale, narration by the “detective,” and all that other jazz. Yep, it’s through-and-through noir.
In my older blog post, I noted that the problem with recent cyberpunk works like the Total Recall remake and Tron: Legacy, was they all seemed to go something like this: “In a world taken over by corporations, one man forms a band of brave rebels and takes down the system!” That’s great! Except cyberpunk doesn’t really work like that. Cyber “punks” don’t necessarily have to stand apart from the law, what with the Blade Runner films being essentially about law enforcement. Also, having “good guys” fight and defeat the Man was never really a requisite of the genre, and it messes with the grey morality that’s often a key component of cyberpunk works. In a way, that set-up is almost too idealistic for the genre.
But Altered Carbon is different, and this is something the show really gets right about cyberpunk. Kovacs was a freedom fighter, and is now the only survivor. The rebels lost, resulting in the cyberpunk society he gets resleeved into. There’s one particularly effective scene in the second episode of the series, in which Kovacs visits a museum exhibit retelling the story of a great battle between his band of rebels and the powers that be, and how the murderous and bloodthirsty Envoys were handily defeated by the brave Protectorate soldiers. History is written by the victors, and nowhere is that more true than in dystopian works like cyberpunk.
It’s more action-oriented like The Matrix and other typical big-budget sci-fi fare, so you might say it’s not “true” cyberpunk like A Scanner Darkly or Blade Runner where they’ll have you questioning your reality. But the “virtual” scenes are plenty psychedelic, looking like what I imagine William Gibson’s pseudo-Internet “matrix” in the Sprawl trilogy would be like.
The other thing that’s fascinating about Altered Carbon? It’s cyberpunk, but the people living in this setting feel really medieval. Almost like life a few centuries from now will resemble a new Middle Ages. There’s too much to unpack there for now though, so I might return to that in a future post. Let’s just say GameSpot’s characterization of the show is right, but for different reasons than they think. For now, let’s move on.
Electric Dreams is episodic and mainly revolves around science fiction situations that the protagonist’s perception of reality. For example, in the first episode I watched (they are all self-contained, so you can watch them in any order you please), Anna Paquin stars as a badass cop living in a futuristic city. She has recently been traumatized by a violent massacre of her fellow officers, so her wife offers a new product from her company to provide a “vacation” from her life. Upon activating the device, Paquin’s character is thrust into the life of an electronics developer from centuries earlier enduring eerily similar trials and tribulations. Over time, it becomes unclear whether his life is a simulation at all, and s/he wonders if her own life as a cop from the future is the one s/he dreamed up as a 21st century man.
Some of these episodes are frankly terrifying. Not in a “jump-scares and murderers” kind of way, but like another British sci-fi series, Black Mirror, due to the implications of the concepts explored. I would like to get one thing out of the way: Electric Dreams is not going to be remembered as an excellent work of television, even as low-budget sci-fi shows go, but the show is doing what all science fiction should do, which is fully unraveling science fiction concepts to their logical – even extreme – conclusion. However true the show might be to science fiction though, the question remains: is it cyberpunk?
Yes, this one has all the Philip K. Dick packaging and all the bells and whistles you inevitably come to expect from a cyberpunk work, in the sense that most if not all of the settings could be considered dystopian, not to mention all that bending and altering of minds that comes with the cyber half of cyberpunk (you know the kind, you’ve seen it in ExistenZ, The Matrix, Inception, and a slew of others). However, Philip K. Dick was never a cyberpunk author; the genre simply didn’t exist when he was writing. Even Blade Runner, based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was actually originally a post-apocalyptic novel with some elements of what would eventually be associated with cyberpunk.
As for Electric Dreams itself, only some of the settings bear the classic characteristics of cyberpunk: neon lights in dark cityscapes, mega-corporations and mass surveillance, and human augmentation and implantation. There are a couple of nods to cyberpunk’s anti-consumerist themes, but these are few and far in between. The only truly cyberpunk element that is consistent across all the episodes is the general mind-bending nature of the science fiction, and that’s not an element that is unique to cyberpunk; even The Twilight Zone had that. If anything, Electric Dreams is more like straightforward science fiction, given both the inconsistent appearance of the superficial aesthetics of cyberpunk, and the relative lack of grey morality and noir elements that could be considered the “soul” of the genre.
Unfortunately, I have to cut this short and limit it to just these two recent releases, even though I also wanted to discuss Black Mirror, Blade Runner 2049, and Westworld (yes, I think it counts).
Anyway, how have they done? Is cyberpunk “back,” whatever that means? Well, maybe. Altered Carbon has all the trappings of a classic cyberpunk setting, including most of the key thematic elements. Although the focus on action detracts from one of the goals of cyberpunk – to inquire deeply into certain aspects of our frightening future – they certainly got the noir-inspired atmosphere right. Electric Dreams has the opposite situation: it’s pure sci-fi with some futuristic settings, but it’s more generally dystopian than specifically cyberpunk.
Ultimately, however, I think this is the closest we’ve gotten to the triumphant return of cyberpunk to pop culture in a while. Whatever you think of the recent Ghost in the Shell movie or Blade Runner 2049, mega-corporations and human augmentation have returned to the forefront of our collective consciousness. Whether this has to do with anxiety about our real lives, as cyberpunk was in the ’80s and ’90s, I leave that up to you. But Altered Carbon certainly does a much better job of painting a convincing picture of our potential future, based on what is going on in the real world today, than Gamer did back in 2009. There’s also the possibility that Mute, coming to Netflix next week, will either continue the trend or prove me totally wrong. If nothing else, you can always go play the latest Deus Ex game.
Thanks for reading, everyone. See you next week!
Do you think new science fiction TV shows and movies “get” what cyberpunk is all about? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comment section!