Well, since I was still busy with writing this old collection of cyberpunk stories at the time of writing these articles, I thought that I’d take a very brief look at how the present day can affect any cyberpunk fiction that you might write.
After all, the central attraction of the cyberpunk genre isn’t really as “futuristic” as it used to be in the heyday of the genre. We live in a world where the internet is a mundane thing, where many people carry smartphones, where virtual reality is an actual thing and where, far from being “futuristic rebel anti-heroes”, computer hackers are rightly seen as being just another type of common criminal.
Even some of the other relatively recent parts of the cyberpunk genre, like nefarious government conspiracies, aren’t really as “dystopian” or “futuristic” as they once were. I mean, after Edward Snowden’s revelations, the idea that everyone could be spied on for no justifiable reason has almost become normal. Likewise, the 2016 US election was riddled with fake news articles on social media, alleged interference from Russia etc… and the election result was upheld anyway.
Likewise, the whole “mega corporation” thing that is a huge part of the genre is almost an everyday part of life. A few major tech companies already wield gigantic amounts of influence these days (eg: just look at all of the squabbling about Facebook’s news algorithms over the past few years. If Facebook wasn’t extremely influential, no-one would care about it’s algorithms), so it doesn’t seem quite like the “futuristic” thing that it might have been in the 1980s.
So, what is a modern cyberpunk writer to do?
Simply put, all of the “classic” elements of the genre are just too interesting to get rid of entirely. These things add flavour and drama to the genre, even if they can’t be relied upon entirely these days.
So, in addition to this, you need to look at either current concerns about technology and/or your own concerns about technology. For example, the cyberpunk stories that I posted online last year mostly revolve around almost everyone spending Christmas inside a virtual reality world called “Winter Wonderland”. This allowed me to look at a few current issues.
The first was the proliferation of things like smartphones and other portable technologies. The idea that people can be on the internet literally anywhere is a relatively recent one and you only have to look at things like the “Pokemon Go” craze from last year to see that the idea of people living large parts of their lives in constructed virtual worlds isn’t exactly an impossible thing. It might be a good thing, it might be a bad thing, but it’s a thing nonetheless.
The second issue was, of course, freedom of speech. Although the internet was touted as something that could give a voice to everyone, speech on the internet has become an ever more contentious subject over the past decade.
So, setting a couple of stories in a virtual world run by a large company seemed like an interesting thing to include. Because, on many websites, people only have as many free speech rights as the website decides to give them. As the internet becomes more prominent, so will this kind of thing.
Thirdly, there’s the subject of net neutrality. This is the idea that all websites are equal and that no website should be prioritised over any other. It’s one of the central pillars of what makes the internet what it is. Without net neutrality, ISPs could make certain websites load faster than others. It would effectively put control of the internet firmly in the hands of companies with the money to pay for preferential treatment.
So, naturally, one of the major themes in my short story collection was what a futuristic “cyberpunk” version of the internet would look like without net neutrality (eg: at peak times, a limited number of wealthy sites run quickly, whilst everything else runs at a snail’s pace).
The fourth issue was, of course, the idea of technological exclusion. Thankfully, we haven’t quite reached a point where smartphone ownership is legally mandatory, or where people are issued with a social media profile at birth or anything like that.
But, the world seems to be heading in a direction where you are supposed to have the latest, shiniest technology (even though the older stuff is usually better). This was best summed up by the fact that, last year, Google’s Chrome browser refused to issue updates to anyone who wasn’t running a modern operating system. If it wasn’t for the existence of other, better, browsers then a lot of people would have been left behind. Myself included.
So, by focusing most of my stories on characters who aren’t visiting the virtual reality world that the series revolves around, I was able to look at the other side of the flashy futurism of the cyberpunk genre. Because, as technology becomes more integrated into our lives, people without the latest technology might start becoming obsolete.
So, yes, it’s still possible to write cyberpunk fiction in the modern day – however, you have to find ways to incorporate current concerns about technology and/or your own concerns into your stories.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂