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Traditionalist and libertarian themes in science fiction and fantasy: Part Seven – Cyberpunk

By Mark Wegierski
web posted October 5, 2009

"Cyberpunk" is a science fiction subgenre (paradigmatic example, William Gibson's Neuromancer, 1984) which depicts a vision of technological dystopia or semi-dystopia. In the cyberpunk "world", the planet is dominated by huge transnational corporations; so-called virtual reality or "cyberspace", which is conceived of as an autonomous electronic "realm", with which specially equipped "cyberjockeys" can interact, is a central element of life and power-struggles; and there exist multifarious interpenetrations of humankind, the electronic realm, electronics, machinery, and genetic manipulation.

Blade RunnerA vision close to that of the "gritty future" of cyberpunk (which is in marked contrast to the antiseptic futures like that of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World) can be seen, for example, in John Brunner's pioneering work, Stand on Zanzibar (1968); in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (film by Stanley Kubrick); in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) (loosely based on Philip K. Dick's, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) -- probably one of the greatest science-fiction movies ever made; in Verhoeven's RoboCop, and in many other similar types of works. There are also, for example, the films Total Recall (corporate dystopia on Mars), Strange Days (an early 1990s portrait of the millennial turn), and Judge Dredd (based on the popular, "dark-future" comic-book series); as well as Johnny Mnemonic (based on the short story by cyberpunk guru William Gibson). Other examples are Freejack (with Mick Jagger playing the role of a bounty-hunter), and Gattaca (which portrays the tyranny of a genetically engineered future).

There are the Terminator, Mad Max, and Aliens film series; and the British made-for-television movie and American television series Max Headroom -- which takes place "twenty minutes from now".

One can also notice the films Escape from New York, and its late-1990s sequel, Escape from Los Angeles.

The movie Tron, set more or less in its contemporaneous, 1980s period, was interesting only because it represented one of the first big-screen, big-budget American films exploring the idea of "virtual reality" or "cyberspace", i.e., what "life" might look like "inside" a computer.

Two fairly campy treatments of the "post-apocalyptic" theme are Streets of Fire, and Tank Girl (based on the comic-book series).

Three 1990s movies exploring virtual reality were The Matrix (which became part of a movie trilogy), EXistenZ, and The Thirteenth Floor. In the U.S. 2000-2001 television season, at least two series with a cyberpunk feel were launched – Dark Angel, and Freedom, both of which portrayed the future U.S. under a military regime.

From a somewhat earlier period of film, one can think of Outland, with Sean Connery, representing the brutalized life on a mining colony near Saturn. Two other earlier dystopian movies with a cyberpunk feel were Soylent Green (admittedly a travesty of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, but its dark twist of cannibalism secretly administered by the state, as the outcome of human overpopulation, is perhaps well-aimed), and Rollerball (which portrayed a corporate-run world that uses very violent spectator sports as an outlet for people’s aggression). Also interesting was the film Logan's Run, representing a sensual "utopia" of the "Brave New World" type -- a "utopia" with one little problem -- you are scheduled for termination at the age of thirty. There was also a weaker television series based on the film.       

The movie Silent Running, although set in space, pointed to a dystopian Earth, where "everyone had a job", but the only wildlife left was in a few large "space domes" in deep space. The seriousness of the conservation theme was undermined somewhat by the unbelievability of the premise (i.e., that the last wildlife on Earth would be moved far off-planet, and then uncomprehendingly ordered destroyed).

Other examples of the utopia/dystopia genre can be found in the very interesting movie of Terry Gilliam, Brazil; and in the rather crude satire of "political correctness" and utopian desires, Demolition Man. Two profound movies mirroring contemporary life in an almost surreal fashion were Paddy Chayefsky's Network, and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

The movie Millennium, which involved the always problematic concept of time-travel, nevertheless raised the disturbing prospect that the Earth will become so polluted that it will be virtually unable to sustain human life, even with the most sophisticated technologies.

To be continued.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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