Well, I thought that I’d talk briefly about the cyberpunk genre today. Not only is this because I’m reading a cyberpunk/post-cyberpunk novel (“Virtual Light” by William Gibson) but because I also had an experience that reminded me of one of the most important ways to add realism to cyberpunk fiction. I am, of course, talking about imperfect technology.
In my case, this was the vintage mid-2000s computer I was using [Edit: At the time of writing, that is. I ended up getting a more modern one in the months between preparing this article and posting it] doing a scarily realistic impression of a hard drive failure. It fooled me enough to break out a recovery disc and try to reformat the drive in the hope of saving it, only for this to be interrupted halfway through by the same terse DOS-like “Invalid system disk” BIOS error message.
It was only when I was about to disconnect my computer and take it apart that I noticed the USB stick that I’d accidentally left plugged into it. A vague memory stirred. On some computers, if you try to boot with a USB stick in, the BIOS will assume that it’s a smaller hard drive and try to use it as such. After removing the USB stick and restarting the computer, everything seemed to work perfectly… until the interrupted reformatting program appeared on the screen and calmly told me to put the recovery disc back in.
Needless to say, I spent the next few hours reinstalling programs and restoring all of my data from backups. Out of superstition, I changed the desktop background of my computer to a different one to the one I had before the crash. It was the second time I’d had to do this in a year.
Why have I mentioned this? Well, putting it into words sounded more cyberpunk than I expected. After all, the reality of it was several hours of frustration, fear and boredom. Yet, describing it in a slightly fast-paced and jargon-filled way sounds a little bit cyberpunk. But, why?
Well, simply put, the thing that gives cyberpunk fiction it’s unique atmosphere isn’t the dazzlingly futuristic technology, it is the imperfections in said technology. It is the way that futuristic technology collides with mundane everyday life (eg: the classic modern example is people using powerful smartphones to look at cat photos).
It is the quirks in the technology, the fact that it isn’t always 100% reliable, the fact that it follows its own logic, the fact that it can make bizarre mistakes, the fact that it can provoke superstitions in people, the fact that it becomes “obsolete” (usually due to some greedy mega-corporation) etc….
But, more than all of this, imperfect technology is an important part of the cyberpunk genre because of the “punk” elements of the genre. In short, a cyberpunk protagonist will usually use technology in unexpected or unauthorised ways. They’ll make cynical comments about technical glitches or exploit them in clever ways. They’ll either be using “obsolete” technology because they aren’t wealthy enough to afford the very latest thing or they’ll get the very latest thing in a morally-ambiguous way.
In short, a classic cyberpunk protagonist isn’t the kind of cheerful, wealthy person you see in a technology advert who uses the latest thing in a perfect way that improves their lives. They are the opposite of this.
So, yes, as much as cyberpunk fiction is about cool futuristic technology, it is also about the imperfections with this technology. The contrast between reality and advertising.
Sorry for the short article (no prizes for guessing why), but I hope it was useful 🙂