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Visitors wait at the Cyberpunk 2077 stand during the video games trade fair Gamescom, in Cologne, Germany, in August, 2019.INA FASSBENDER/AFP/Getty Images

With the third year of the pandemic looming, David Moscrop went searching desperately for a hobby – a search that ended when he started looking at his bookshelves in a new way. In his recurring column, he pulls together reading lists built around specific themes and then drags them into the real world through food, drink, video games and film.

The way things are going, the dystopian fiction of the past sometimes reads as optimistic. Writing reflects the author’s time and environment, and, as an initial product of the late-twentieth century, the cyberpunk subgenre reflected a counterculture processing and pushing back against the “greed is good” mantra of the time, the rise and consolidation of mega-corporations, environmental breakdown and emerging technologies. It also reflected exploitative political, social and economic relationships that remain with us still.

Implicit in so many cyberpunk films, television shows and novels are counterweights to the techno-utopianism and political utopianism that accompanied or emerged after the fall of Soviet Communism. Ditto the idea that capitalism was fundamentally right, just, good and inevitable. William Gibson, a cyberpunk pioneer, recently tweeted that he believed Neuromancer, which played a central role in defining the genre, was “shamelessly optimistic” because the novel assumes the future “had escaped the Cold War’s Mutually Assured Destruction.”

The upshot of reading Neuromancer nearly four decades after its 1984 release is that it holds up well – all too well. The book is at an advantage in that respect insofar as it helped define how we talk about “cyberspace,” and also helped shape internet culture. Gibson wrote that cyberspace is: “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators” and “a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.” It sounds a lot like an account of how many of us spend our days today.

Neuromancer is the first book in Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy and is the story of a down-and-out hacker, Case, pressed into mercenary service in the hopes of being rehabilitated and freed from punishment for past misdeeds. In it, Gibson takes what might have been a mere hard-boiled sci-fi story and creates a world that still resonates. The book is a consideration of mediated reality, consciousness, escape, corporate power and the fundamental human struggle to stay alive. If those questions were on the agenda in the 1980s, they consume the agenda in this decade. That isn’t likely to change any time soon. And while the uncompromising style of worldbuilding is challenging – the book doesn’t hold the reader’s hand – it’s a small price to pay. This is a must-read novel.

The staying power of Neuromancer and other classics of the subgenre, such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, comes in large part from writers who have picked up the themes, questions, tropes and critiques of those books and experimented with, modelled and remodelled, and built them out. In Firebreak (Saga Press, 2021), Nicole Kornher-Stace builds a dystopian world where vital resources, particularly water, are controlled by a handful of megacorporations, which also run their own cities and wage war with one another. The year is 2134. The setting is Liberty City. A massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) serves as a source of distraction and side gig income for the dispossessed and marginalized. A handful of non-player characters (NPCs) – known as SecOps – are heroes in-game and on the real-life battlefield in their physical, proprietary iterations.

The book is heavy-handed and derivative at times, and a bit slow at others, but Korhner-Stace tackles contemporary questions through a dystopian lens. It’s an entertaining way to learn a little bit about who we are and where we might be headed. Firebreak takes on the dangers of surveillance capitalism, corporate oligopoly and proprietary license, the rise of precarious gig work and streaming culture.

Firebreak excels when it assesses and critiques contemporary online culture, and when it offers a reflection on the power of community. For instance, the protagonist and streamer, Mal, says of the viewers who watch her play: “it amuses them to see us fail”; people tune in to catch the wreckage. But at the same time, the same viewers (or those like them) later emerge to protest corporate injustice and to demand better for themselves and their compatriots. Firebreak is ultimately a story of collective action drawing on the cyberpunk tradition of rebellion. It is a reminder that transparency, accountability, democracy and freedom are worth struggling for, and that’s a good reminder to consider right now.

The classic definition, or perhaps summary, of cyberpunk is “high tech, low life” – or some iteration of that. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Stylistically, the genre is also often reminiscent of the noir traditions of the first half of the twentieth century. In Midnight, Water City (Soho Crime, 2021) Chris McKinney contrasts the fabulous wealth of the few with the daily struggles of the many. In the book, a colour blind synesthete detective investigates the murder of Akira Kimura, the saviour of humankind: a scientist who blasted an asteroid headed toward Earth to bits.

Midnight, Water City is more hardboiled than cyberpunk, but it features bioengineering, surveillance technology and dystopian elements – a large part of life is lived underwater due to ecological collapse – which connect the two subgenres. It’s a satisfying hybrid. McKinney writes the story as if it were a Greek tragedy, right down to the family struggles of epic proportions, and it’s a reflection on intergenerational trauma, which will resonate with many readers.

It may be a bit on-the-nose for the novel to name its class factions The Money, who run the show, and The Less Thans, who don’t, but there’s something refreshing about using such plain language to demarcate social politics that we often pretend don’t exist. And McKinney isn’t without a literary phrase of note here and there, including the protagonist detective’s dead working-class father, who’s “bent to the point that he couldn’t be straightened out.”

At turns, Midnight, Water City is a murder mystery that keeps you on the edge of your seat and an exploration of the barriers human societies face in doing what must be done to forestall disasters – and what might be done to overcome them. It is also a critique of power, its inevitable abuse and the costs that follow – which also connects the novel to the cyberpunk tradition. That critique alone makes the book worth reading, including insights that stand up to historical and contemporary scrutiny: “Nothing leads to more mistakes,” writes McKinney, “than trembling empires.” Nothing indeed.


Television

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Boxes with CD Projekt's game Cyberpunk 2077 are displayed in Warsaw, Poland, Dec. 14, 2020.Kacper Pempel/Reuters

The release of Cyberpunk 2077 in 2020 will go down as one of the worst video game launches in history. The developers have struggled to put the much-anticipated game back on track and they’ve done a good job. Netflix’s Cyberpunk: Edgerunners will help. The NSFW anime series is a spinoff of the game and it’s as close to flawless as it gets. Following a street kid who turns mercenary, Edgerunners is pure cyberpunk action, with all the tropes, critiques and tech you’d expect. In short, this is a show to watch.

Video gaming

Believe it or not, Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t the only video game in the eponymous subgenre. In Gamedec, you take on the role of a detective who enters virtual worlds to solve crimes and mysteries. This indie-developer offering is an isometric (side angled, not quite top-down) role playing game where your choices shape outcomes. There is no combat. Gamedec features an interesting story, fairly compelling characters and an excellent soundtrack. It’s available for PC and was recently released for Nintendo Switch, though the Switch version is a bit clunky.

Film

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Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man.

There are many classic, must-see cyberpunk films to watch on a dreary night, maybe with some neon lights lit up around you. The list includes Total Recall, RoboCop, The Matrix, and, of course, Blade Runner. But don’t ignore Demolition Man. The 1993 film features Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes and Sandra Bullock. It received, let’s say, mixed reviews. Nonetheless, a world in which Taco Bell (or Pizza Hut, depending on where the film was released) is the only restaurant left and in which three seashells have replaced toilet paper is a world worth exploring.

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