Did Hollywood Kill Cyberpunk?

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”
C
layton Purdom

Paste Magazine
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.

 

Notes

* 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.  

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Does It Matter if Playwrights Can’t Make a Living?

In his 2009 study Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, Todd London, artistic director of the playwrights’ advocacy organization New Dramatists, reaches a bleak conclusion: “Financially speaking, there is no way to view playwriting as anything other than a profession without an economic base.”

Alena Smith
“You Can’t Make A Living: Digital Media, the End of TV’s Golden Age, and the Death Scene of the American Playwright”
Los Angeles Review of Books
December 8, 2014

Here’s the unspoken part of that last sentence: it was not always that way. Ask Neil Simon.

The elephant in the room is that the economic base for screenwriters is being eroded by the combined onslaught of digital video and unscripted television. Late at night when we’re all lying in bed and our deepest fears come out of our subconscious to play, this is the cloud that hovers over the wordsmiths of the Golden State.

I don’t buy the “Doomsday is Nigh” for writers nonsense. The media for storytelling have changed regularly since Neanderthals began drawing on cave walls. The opportunity for great storytelling will always be there. All that will change are the tools we will use for doing it.

Ebooks have opened the door to books between 20,000 and 50,000 words, sending some of us back to look up “novella,” “pamphlet,” “chapbook,” and “monograph” in search of a term to fit our new formats. YouTube is becoming a repository for a growing library of scripted content. And as video game storylines become more flexible and complex, a screenwriter’s art is more essential than ever.

Is it going to be difficult to figure out how to make a living at this? Naturally. And a lot of us won’t: most of us who write will find that it becomes either an avocation or a means to a living rather than a living itself. But with apologies to the Bard of Avon, the play is the thing: man will ever need storytellers, and we need good ones now more than ever.

Ziggy Socky, Baby

Bill “The Fox” Foster is long gone but still mourned. Those of you who made the trek to his smoky little pub at Wilshire on the Santa Monica city line will remember his weekly performances as a distinctly American version of Octoberfest: beer, raunchy songs, and unrestrained testosterone.

If Fox were working today, he would probably be the subject of an angry documentary made by some earnest UCLA Sociology grad students incensed by his apparent advocacy of alcoholism and misogyny. Fortunately, Fox was spared by fate from such ignominy, yet many of us who remember him (and his wife, who ran the joint with an iron hand) yearn for a place where, for a couple of hours a week, it is okay just to be a guy with other guys.

My fellow flack Sid Robinson has a superb post on his site, a personal eulogy of sorts both to The Fox and his eponymous SaMo landmark, The Fox Inn. Read it and remember.

Let Not Art Be Irrelevant

And the American public—left with an impressionistic vision in which urine, bullwhips, and a naked but chocolate-streaked Karen Finley figured largely—drew the fatal conclusion that contemporary art had nothing to offer them. Fatal, because the moment the public disengages itself collectively from art, even to refrain from criticizing it, art becomes irrelevant.

via Article How Art Became Irrelevant.

Fascinating point. I would fight to the death for an artist’s right to express himself or herself. But when we reach the point where self-expression compels the audience to give up on art, what is achieved? At what point does art stop being art, and devolve into puerile outbursts of gratuitous provocation?

What separates art from mere aesthetic self-expression is that art communicates, it speaks to others, it makes a transcendental connection with the audience. When you lose that connection, whose fault is it, the audience, trying in good faith to reach for the connection? Or the artist?

And at what point do a myriad of failures to connect add up to a society that discards art, undermining our ability to sustain non-commercial expressive creativity?

Give me art, but first give me art that moves a multitude. For that is the art that forms the exoskeleton of a society that treasures all of its artists.

Bill Graham and the History of Rock and Roll

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution | Skirball Cultural Center

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution | Skirball Cultural Center.

In case you missed it, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles (the one on Sepulveda at Mulholland) is hosting, through October 8th, a comprehensive retrospective about Bill Graham, one of the most influential rock impresarios in history.

We tend to see music as guided by the hand of the composer and the talent of the performer, and while that it true, we have been remiss in our study of music history in consigning promotors, publishers, recording executives, and marketers into a giant dustbin marked “suits.”

What we miss in limiting our study to artists and composers is the elephant in the room: being good, being talented, is just not enough anymore, and it probably never was. The road that music has carved through our civilization is lined with the carcasses of talented people who never reached their potential, never made it at all, or who lived and died unappreciated. The difference between success and failure was, all too often, a suit: a patron, a promoter, a third-party capable of recognizing, curating, and cultivating talent.

If that is insufficient evidence for the importance of people like Bill Graham, simply consider the legion of talent-challenged stars you have encountered in your life, the ones that made you wonder how the Hell they made it onto a stage at all. Thank a promoter.

Graham’s personal legacy in the music world is not as easy to assess as someone like Ahmet Ertegün, David Geffen, or Jerry Moss, which is why this exhibition at the Skirball is so important: it is an opportunity for us to better understand, through Graham, whether a great impresario can make a real difference, or whether (as LiveNation might want us to believe) a promoter is just an interchangeable cog in the corporate music machine.

When You Thirst for New Art: ArtQuench

Editor and Photographer Stacia Gates, born and raised in Los Angeles, has created an art magazine for the 21st Century in ArtQuench (AQM).

What makes AQM different is that this is not a magazine compiled by critics to dictate their own version of aesthetics, but to serve as a forum to expose new and overlooked artists to a broad base of art-lovers who might not otherwise get to see their work.

As befits her background as a photographer, Stacia works from a broad definition of art, so be prepared for an eclectic selection in each issue that will at turns intrigue, challenge, or otherwise move you, but do not expect to be bored. The featured artist is Issue One, for example, was Nicola White, a woman who creates works out of the flotsam and jetsam that pile up along beaches.

Check AQM out at http://artquenchmagazine.com/