The cyberpunk genre is definitely not as huge as it was in the late Twentieth Century, but it’s still a genre that a lot of people love and think is mindblowing. But as I said in my first impressions of the manga, No Guns Life, I find the genre to be not-so-mindblowing. In fact, it’s second only to romance (ROMANCE!) as my least favorite genre of all time. This rant details why, based on my admittedly small experience with the genre.
The Human Condition, Turns Out, is Pretty Conditional
To begin this passage, I’ll tell you about a memoir I came across, once for no particular reason (as in there’s no particular reason why I came across it, not why I’m telling you about it). I forgot its title, but it was published in the early 2000s, and it was about a deaf person who willingly signed up to have a computer installed that would essentially replace their dysfunctional human ears. According to the book’s description, the person had an existential crisis and began to question whether or not they were human, simply because they were hearing a “digital interpretation of a real sound instead of the real sound” or something. Although I never read it, coming across this book is one thing that made me question the popularity of cyberpunk.
Why would you have an existential crisis over one part of your body being a machine? I’ve seen this trope before. The main character sometimes has a robot arm or something, making them a cyborg, and then they’re all like “I’m not so human anymore.” My grandfather, who I love dearly, got an intramuscular pacemaker implanted in his heart, and it’s been proving to be one of the best health decisions he’s ever made. But by cyberpunk logic, he would no longer be considered my grandfather, let alone a human being, because the organ that gives him life is not entirely “organic”.
Beyond the scope of cybernetic augments, the trope makes cyberpunk extremely pretentious because it’s all under the notion that humans are special. Sure, we’ve evolved abnormally fast and done some crazy things, but that doesn’t make us special. There’s this one episode of the Neil DeGrasse Tyson reboot of Cosmos where he goes down a list of different animals who display traits that are conventionally thought of as distinctively human. It shows that we aren’t that much different from other species. Because of this, the big “What makes us human?” question that often frames the cyberpunk genre seems pretentious to me. And for the record, that’s why I hate the word “human” as an adjective for a well-written character arc.
I’ve seen enough cyberpunk to differentiate between cyborgs and androids. While the previous passage mainly focused on cyborgs, this one will focus on androids, and A.I.’s in general. Androids are 100% machines, built from scratch, with the intention to be sentient. Out of all the cyberpunk tropes, these guys can at least be done in an interesting way, if done well. But of course, I find them to almost never be done well.
Part of it is because it feels like nobody has bothered trying anything new with them in the past forever. While not technically cyberpunk, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot did something important with the android trope in the Three Laws of Robotics. To sum them up in one sentence, the Three Laws of Robotics are a set of codes that make it so androids cannot harm humans, and also have to protect humans over themselves. The fact that this essentially robs what are technically living, sentient beings of their rights as people does raise some legitimate questions. But sadly, it feels like writers just repeatedly ask this same question over and over again in cyberpunk.
The whole “humans are special” stigma also applies to androids at times. If there’s one that isn’t evil, it usually hates its own existence. They observe humans and are all like “Wow, emotions are beautiful. Why don’t I have those?” They would give anything to be human, but the fact that they even want something means that they kind of already have what they wanted in the first place. The problem is that I’ve never seen any progress with the trope after the character arc of Data from Star Trek: Next Generation.
Like I said before, androids are the smallest problem I have with cyberpunk. But A.I. are worse. Technically, androids are A.I., but I’m kind of referring to sentient computer programs as opposed to humanoid machines. I’ve never seen this character type done in a way that’s interesting. They’re either some Mr. or Ms. Existential Crisis that—like Data—wants to be human, or something that wants to take over the world “for the good of the human race.”
A recent example of me having been disappointed by an A.I. is a visual novel that I watched YouTuber NintendoCaprisun play a while back: Eliza. Again, I don’t know if it counts as cyberpunk, but I wanna talk about it anyway. Eliza is about the titular A.I. program, programmed to serve as a therapist. This could’ve been interesting, but nope, they cop out big time. Eliza feeds prompts to a human proxy to read aloud to the client as a form of A.I. therapy. I had hope with Eliza in that first client, when it was able to essentially pretend that the human proxy itself was speaking to the client, when they were actually still reading the prompts. But from there, it goes south. All Eliza can do is provide a preconceived response to every patient, which doesn’t help them, and it concludes by making them load up on prescription drugs. And when you’re able to deviate from the A.I.’s responses at the end of the game—Whaddya ya know?—it low-key instantly helps everyone. Instead of making us consider the possibility that A.I. could be used as a psychiatrist, they do the “normal” thing and make it bad. I want to say that the message of the game is that A.I. technology is at such an infant stage that no one really knows what the future holds. But with the way the game presents itself, and the fact that its main antagonist wants to use Eliza to steal people’s information for his company’s gain—a typical conspiracy theory trope—I’m led to believe that they didn’t have the guts to challenge conventional thinking. The game slanders conspiracy theories left and right in its dialogue, but sadly, doesn’t practice what it preaches.
Don’t Believe Everything You Hear On the Internet
The Eliza part of the rant feeds into this passage. Cyberpunk first came around during a genuinely scary time in U.S. history, and it kind of warranted the social commentaries. But these days, it feels like the basis for cyberpunk is in the toxicity of social media.
You see, the media thrives on attention. And to generate attention, they have to present the news in a way to make people buy it. Sadly, because of how the human mind works, people are more interested in something negative than positive. As a result, the media will present certain bits of information and withhold other bits in such a way to make it seem that the world is ending. Many people know this and try to shrug it off, but there’s a very vocal, vulnerable part of society who will take it to heart, and if you have a social media account, you will be bombarded with this constant cynicism.
Some of these cyberpunk worlds, and dystopian worlds in general, are ruled by censorship and facist governments, and they’re supposed to be an allegory to our own society. And just… no. Ever since the U.S. federal government formed, people seem to live under the impression that the president can—at any time—just do whatever he wants, without checks and balances. The U.S. Constitution was made specifically so that it doesn’t happen, even if George Washington and Alexander Hamilton both knew that the country’s political climate would go to hell. If I can’t take our actual society seriously, I can’t take a fictitious world based off of it seriously.
Am I wrong about this? I admit that I’m pretty out of the loop with society, and it often feels like I live in a different world. Everyone else seems to legitimately believe that George Orwell’s 1984 is happening right now, even though the book was an allegory to Communism. Also, they act like censorship is a current, prevailing issue in this century that’s rapidly worsening, as if the government can just disappear anyone at anytime, like in that “F.B.I. open up!” meme. I have no idea where people get this impression, and maybe that’s because I’m falling for that very censorship. How about I move on before I continue to counter-argue with my own post?
Oh No, My American Values!
I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a bad person, but I feel like a lot of writers are not willing to explore the less comfortable themes of cyberpunk. It’s not really anyone’s fault; people are raised on whatever cultural values of, well, whatever place they grow up. Cyberpunk is supposed to explore some darker areas, but in my experience, they take anything that an average person would fear, and don’t bother turning that fear into interest.
My biggest example is Arc of a Scythe (assuming it’s a cyberpunk). I covered it in detail once before, but basically, it’s set in a world where immortality is achieved, and specific humans are hired to govern all death in the human population. If it sounds scary to you, then you’re probably an average person. The author does the basic, obvious thing and makes the idea objectively terrible. A system like this could work, given an insane number of background checks, but in the context of the story, it’s the typical “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. No room for interpretation. And why? Because the idea is too uncomfortable.
This also gets hammy when it comes to messing with individuality, something I’ve learned is highly prioritized, in the U.S. in particular. You know, the opposite of Spock’s famous “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” line. I most often see this tackled with the issue of altering people’s memories. First off, while the idea is scary, how the crap are we supposed to have that technology? The only way we can give someone false memories is to meet an amnesiac and tell them incorrect information about their identity. I sincerely doubt it’s possible to use technology to inject someone’s brain with an entire prefabricated lifetime. The other application is making an A.I. and giving it a real human’s memories. While that is also scary, my argument is: what’s the practicality of doing that?! That’s just a critical system error waiting to happen, and with how expensive they are, you don’t want to do that. Regardless of how this trope is handled, individuality is pushed to the Nth degree. It’s annoying, especially given COVID, where that individuality made people not willing to follow protocols for the sake of national health.
A great example of this tired trope being subverted is Ghost in the Shell, which I can at least admit is one of the better cyberpunks out there. SPOILERS for the ending: Kusanagi willingly fuses with another cyborg, and it’s painted as a good thing. What an outlandish turn of events, and all it took was coming from a country that’s not as uppity about the self as the U.S. of A!
One final thing I need to mention, which happens to be short enough to not get its own section, is that I have autism. As a result of living in society as someone with autism, I’ve had to study my own mind in order to combat my many anxieties; something I’m still doing to this day. So when the blurb says “This made me really look at the world and myself differently”, they probably mean that, since it actually WOULD be their introduction to such deep thoughts. My lack of interest in cyberpunk themes can easily be chalked up to the fact that I’ve already done the deep thinking that the genre is supposed to make you do for the first time.
A Silver Lining
Not to toot my own horn, but I’m nowhere near as conditional as a lot of other people on the Internet. I’ve seen so many comments from people who act like it’s written in stone that “generic protagonists” or “simplistic narratives” are objectively bad. Despite how much I rag on romance and slice-of-life, I enjoy some very specific ones. And I think the same for cyberpunk as well. The aforementioned Ghost in the Shell is one example. Furthermore, despite everything I’ve said, they still have some good entertainment value from their visually appealing settings (almost all of which look vaguely like Tokyo, which is a bonus for me), sexy sci-fi outfits, high-octane action, electronic soundtracks that pack ambience as well as adrenaline.
I might have ended up ranting about science fiction as a whole and not just cyberpunk (which is ironic because I had a separate rant about that). In any case, cyberpunk really isn’t as stale as I claimed in the post title. Like every other genre, 90% of it is crap. While it still bothers me that people actually think that this media rooted in archaic Red Scare thinking has any kind of accurate representation of our future, the genre is at least more respectable than romance.
Look, full transparency here. This whole post was me trying to make a Hail Mary pass at disputing the common consensus that stuff like 1984 are accurate to our current society. Honestly, given my anxieties, I am actually all too willing to take cyberpunk worlds as accurate portrayals of our future. I mean, how many U.S. election results have been falsified? That, in addition to COVID data, including the stats on the CDC’s own website? I’ve also seen, in limited capacity, the notion that hackers are developing A.I. to pose as world leaders. Also, I don’t think I’m alone when it comes to feeling that crushing pressure to consume the same predetermined set of media, lest I be cast off from the human race.
But at the same time, what if it’s not society at all, and cyberpunk is just as BS as I made it out to be. Recently, I’ve had to dive into my own mind, and learn how human insecurities work. Our anxieties are not directly caused by society, but by how we respond, emotionally, to the stimulus from society. Basically, what if—in the same way that the media uses topics like illegal immigrants and minorities (which have real issues) as scapegoats for America’s problems—we use allegedly corrupt governments and censorship as scapegoats for our own individual problems? In that case, cyberpunk is just a shallow method to reaffirm those beliefs.
Look, I know America is not perfect; it never was. But at the same time, the Founding Fathers were idiots for making the American Dream something as impossible as a perfect nation. Sorry for rambling… Basically, cyberpunk can be a great subgenre, I just try to take it with a grain of salt.