In 1995, cyberpunk as a cinematic genre was attempted, desiccated, mutilated, and forever laid to rest. There are many potential culprits behind its demise, but really: who is to blame?
“1995: The Year That Killed Cyberpunk”
December 15, 2014
I am a longtime fan of Cyberpunk, the subgenre of science fiction that deals with a near-future dystopia suffused with technology, virtual worlds, massive global corporations, and the desperados living in the seams where these forces intersect. In 1989, after years away from any kind of fiction, I read stories by the likes of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in my tiny room above a godown in Taiwan, and in so doing reinvigorated my interest in the novel and short stories.
The stories had great power and more relevance than almost any other sort of science fiction. Almost a rejection of the majesty and melodrama of space operas like Star Wars, the Cold War allegories of Star Trek, or even the deep space horrors of Aliens, cyberpunk was happening in a future no more than a decade or two away. It felt real, immediate, and urgent, and it told us (long before cyberwar and the rise of corporate oligarchies were real things) that the Cold War was not the end of history: it was the beginning of the real nasty shit.
The Hollywood Whodunit
And yet today, three decades after cyberpunk’s birth, Clayton Purdom has scribed an interesting whodunit in Paste in which he laments the demise of cyberpunk as a subgenre of science fiction.
Our literary coroner determines the time of death to be sometime in 1995, where the Summer of Cyberpunk offered up, in succession, Robert Longo’s soul-crushing take on William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic; Danny Cannon’s misbegotten Judge Dredd; Irwin Winkler’s The Net*, which Purdom acknowledges is probably the best of the bunch; and Brett Leonard’s gawd-offal** Virtuosity.
When I read the article through the first time, I shrugged, discarding it as an interesting idea. And then I stopped myself, and realized that the reason that I was discarding it was that the idea was probably so much nonsense.
Now, it is a treasured meme among literary circles that good writers, good writing, and good stories go to Hollywood to die. Purdom probably buys into that meme, and I am loathe to discredit it. But in the case of cyberpunk, Purdom stretches the point.
Movies Don’t Kill Genres
After all, film has screwed up speculative fiction in the past without destroying it. Every adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit prior to the advent of Peter Jackson were mediocre at best. Yet people never stopped reading either fantasy or Tolkien despite an entire decade of bad big-budget fantasy films like Excalibur, Krull, the Conan series, and Willow. Likewise with hard science fiction: Frank Herbert is selling books three decades after his death despite two attempts to bring Dune to the screen, and Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov titles remain backlist performers after predictably bad adaptations of their own stories.
No, Hollywood did not kill Cyberpunk: the genre died of maladies baked into its very code.
First, Cyberpunk makes for bad cinema. Like bad acid trips, cyberpunk narratives are really hard to film well because so much of the action takes place inside the heads and computers of the characters, making it almost impossible to convey the plot and drama with any kind of accuracy. It’s all contrived video effects, and since nobody actually knows what it feels like to wire yourself into a deck and go totally VR in a world that looks nothing like our own, those effects quickly devolve into a lot of context-free eye candy. Alternately, you wind up with scenes like Hugh Jackman’s laughable under-the-gun 60-second DoD hack in Swordfish: a lot 0f spasmodic twitch-finger keyboarding accompanied by unsynchronized high-speed playback graphics on a computer screen. The real drama is contrived and too often forced to rely on awkward narration. No fun. Bad movies.
Perhaps more important for film, cyberpunk defied happy endings. Both dystopian and noir, the genre was populated by anti-heroes or protagonists just trying to save their own skins, all in a world that was doomed and getting worse. It was as if the most depressing parts of film noir and post-apocalyptic fiction were combined. There were only so many ways to tell that kind of story, and by the time Hollywood even read Johnny Mnemonic, the proverbial shark had been jumped.
Death by Abandonment
Filmability aside, the more likely killer was, to steal a phrase from Blade Runner, accelerated decrepitude. The more avid readers of the works in question will acknowledge that cyberpunk as a subgenre had run its course long before the summer of 1995, hitting its apogee with Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in 1992 before evaporating. Indeed, it was almost like there had been a secret meeting of cyberpunk authors in some little Idaho hotel where everyone quietly conferred, agreeing that it was time to move on.
By the 1993 premieres of Lawnmower Man and Freejack, the early and lousy cyberpunk movies that screened and disappeared long before Purdom’s Summer of Denouement, Stephenson, along with pioneers Gibson, Sterling, and most of their contemporaries, had left Cyberpunk to sow more fertile fields. Sterling went first: his excellent 1988 collection Islands in the Net was his last major work in the genre. After Snow Crash, Stephenson moved beyond cyberspace and into nanotech and cryptology. Gibson, perhaps most reluctant to leave behind a genre he all but created in 1981, took a half-step away from cyberpunk with his media-obsessed Virtual Light in 1993, and then never looked back.
So cyberpunk may not have been dead by 1993, but it was sufficiently close to deaths door that even its creator had moved on. In truth, Hollywood didn’t kill cyberpunk: if anything, the studios engaged in an ill-timed effort to revive the subgenre long enough to suck a buck out of it. The attempt was every bit as bad as Purdom relates, and it failed.
Life in the Old Girl Yet
Yet if cyberpunk died of its inherent cinematic and dramatic limitations, there are occasional works that suggest a revival might be possible. Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One returns to the formula that made cyberpunk so powerful and appealing, yet substitutes a true hero for the noir antiheroes favored by Gibson et. al. Sadly, Cline does not appear inclined or able to carry the cyberpunk banner much further.
Nonetheless, the success of Ready Player One makes an important point. There remains a latent audience for speculative fiction wherein a hero triumphs in a dystopian near-future facing down massive networks of data and artificial intelligence. (Think The Matrix, but without the over-choreographed fight chases substituting for plot and the heavy-handed messianic archetype.†) And little wonder: thirty-five years after “Burning Chrome,” we are all still trying to figure out the relationship between the individual, humanity, and the machines we are creating to think for us. The network is the ultimate villain, and neither Hollywood nor the authors who outed the nemesis have destroyed it or the latent fear it inspires.
Cyberpunk will return, and when it does it will be far more relevant and terrifying than it was two decades ago.
* Full disclosure – I worked on The Net as an uncredited member of the crew, and I owe Irwin and Sandy and playback supervisor Todd Marks a debt of gratitude for supplying the paychecks that got me through a very rough patch in my life, so I will cop to the potential for some implicit bias.
**I know, it’s supposed to be “G-d awful,” but my spelling is no less appropriate.
† No joke: I remember walking out of the theater after seeing Matrix Revolutions feeling like the Wachowski siblings had just spent the last 25 minutes beating me over the head with a copy of the New Testament. There’s nothing wrong with the messianic archetype, but like all literary devices and most condiments, a lot of a good thing isn’t always better than a little.