Where are the Radical Politics of Cyberpunk?

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/ne5jg7/radical-politics-cyberpunk-2077

Wonderful piece I’m gonna make sure my cyberpunk roleplaying group reads before our first session in a couple weeks. Austin’s own Counter//WEIGHT imagines a world where the technology runs so rampant that collateral damage can no longer be avoided and it leaves an opening for the sort of radical change the story is often too small to support. Cyberpunk is largely about survival under oppression, and our world is seeming more connected and more dystopia each week.


Great article! Cyberpunk’s been on my mind a lot as of late and despite that, I find it easy to forgot just how long people have already spent thinking about what defines “good” cyberpunk . I saw Cameron talking about Darko Suvin and Nicola Nixon the other day and their thoughts on the genre really opened my eyes to how the discourse around cyberpunk works today isn’t all that different from back before I was even born. It suggested to me that maybe the right course for finding stuff that tackle my frustrations with cyberpunk isn’t to look within the genre, but to look for fiction that isn’t afraid to imagine worlds that leave those trappings behind.


Here’s a Citizenkaneism for you: Cameron Kunzelman is the Nathan J. Robinson of video games writing.

Back to the topic at hand, this is exactly why I got exhausted by a lot of cyberpunk fiction—its desperate nihilism. I’m much more a fan of post-cyperpunk works that at least imagine a path toward a better future, rather than unrelenting cynicism.


This is a great article. Cameron manages to point out things that have annoyed me within the waypoint-verse in terms of how cyberpunk is approached and talked about. Sometimes the thing we want to take as a guiding light is only a pretty coat of paint on the same old ugly, regressive stories.

I always think of cyberpunk in the terms of a weird as hell Neil Young album from 1982 called “Trans”. It’s a kinda concept album in the vein of Kraftwerk, but about hackers called Computer Cowboys, mail-order sexbots, and corps controlling the flow of air.

This is juxtaposed by Young admitting that there will still be love and happiness found in this cyberpunk hellscape, and that constantly fearing nuclear apocalypse in the cold war is also bad. I put the album up with Neuromancer and Bladerunner in terms of early cyberpunk, but I’m probably the only one.

This is the thing I get hung up on with these cyberpunk critiques. Cyberpunk isn’t supposed to be aspirational anymore than 1984 is supposed to be aspirational. It’s not a roadmap, it’s a warning sign.

Personally, I think if there’s a thing the public consciousness has lost sight of regarding cyberpunk, it’s that. It’s the Hackers of the world that have twisted cyberpunk into this uplifting how-to on bringing down the global corporate nation-states with a couple of timely public disclosures.

At the outset of Neuromancer, Case is trying to restore his ability to work as a corporate-sponsored hacker. But that desire just leads to him becoming more and more under the thumb of organized crime. And by the end, Case has left humanity in a place where it’s clear that our future is no longer in our hands.

I actually think stories like The Three Body Problem are more spiritual successors to Neuromancer than most modern cyberpunk: for the characters in the book, it’s already too late. But we’re not in the book. It’s not too late for us.


Wow, this was a fantastic piece! I’m starting to get an almost Pavlovian response to seeing Cam’s articles in my feed every Friday. This one especially connected with me, after an exhausting few debates of whether stories like Blade Runner 2049 are “true” cyberpunk or not.

As a disabled & chronically ill person, I have a complex relationship with my body, and increasingly have found myself drawn to cyberpunk as a result. But it isn’t the individualism or nihilism that attracts me (and plenty of other people) to the genre, it’s the reflection of a hypercorporate dystopia and an exploration of what our bodies might become. Hopefully, Cyberpunk 2077 has a little bit of the same feelings in it.


I am left wondering what “our” cyberpunk would be like. As Cam says Cyberpunk was popularised and codified in the 80’s at the hight of neoliberalism and everything was big and chunky and equal part yuppy as it was punk. What vision would we have of our near future in our time where the world never got taken over by Japanese zaibatsu and culture. Were we are in the late stage of capitalism, with all the tech advancements we already have, with the rise of fascism again.


Great piece. The typical cyberpunk setting presents itself as past the point of no return, the aftermath of the ultimate victory of capitalism. It seems to me like the main thing that makes these works seem radical is that they even dare to suggest that that’s a bad thing.


Cyberpunk has never been much more than aesthetic for me but looking back I can recognize the nihilism in most of the media pieces I’ve seen that are called “cyberpunk”. I love Witcher 3 so I’m curious as to how CD Projekt Red will frame the player character and what the overall narrative will lead to

This is a very good point. It’s worth going back and reading Gibson’s early short stories as well, especially Burning Chrome. It sets up a lot of the themes and motifs of Neuromancer, but it is even clearer that the hackers and body modifiers are the victims of the dystopia, not the heroes.

Also, while I admit that punk certainly can have a pointed political dimension to it, it’s also a movement of anarchism in response to authority. It’s about raising a middle finger to power, not working towards constructive structural change (at least in some incarnations).


Oh hey look this is a thing.


I think it goes back to how punk got sold out (often by punks themselves, turning to more aspirational views of what punk was and is). The myth of punk as the desirable counter-culture - anti-establishment that became an aesthetic that was extremely marketable inside mainstream culture.

Having to fight skinhead neo-Nazis or uniformed fascists in the streets isn’t about figures to emulate, it’s the position of already being in an extremely bad situation. Yes, it’s somewhat nihilistic to look at what the politics of that mean (survival, small wins, making sure the fascists don’t make progress even if that’s only blocking it locally) but it can also be extremely honest. It’s dirty, it’s scary, it sucks. But the fictionalised version can lionise that and it becomes just something played as cool.

Cyberpunk is extremely cool, and probably always was, and that’s a problem. Even avoiding the trap of playing it as power fantasy of this uplifting variant, it’s still usually going to fit the structure built around a story of achievement. No one wants to read about being beaten and bruised, of not ending up making any difference. Any setbacks are quickly jumped over, used to create further motivation and characterisation rather than being the core of what the story is about. Edit: thinking this last part through, even a story of failure is usually about the glory of martyrdom - even in a story of failure it would almost always be framed as having achieved something. I think our stories are not nihilistic enough (too eager to dream of heroics, not enough of a stark warning).


What will be interesting to see is if the megacorporations in the game participate in any form of recuperation for their brand identities, which would go some way to addressing the points Cameron was writing about, or at least showing how difficult subversion is then. Of course that’s why movements like Occupy arose, as an answer to that recuperation.

Recuperation, in the sociological sense, is the process by which politically radical ideas and images are twisted, co-opted, absorbed, defused, incorporated, annexed and commodified within media culture and bourgeois society, and thus become interpreted through a neutralized, innocuous or more socially conventional perspective.[1][2][3] More broadly, it may refer to the cultural appropriation of any subversive works or ideas by mainstream culture. It is the opposite of détournement, in which images and other cultural artifacts are appropriated from mainstream sources and repurposed with radical intentions. - Wikipedia


I enjoy the article, it is thought-provoking for me.

I wonder, is it possible for something to be usefully cyberpunk and not be a tragedy?

I also feel the need to just state my opinion that naming this blockbuster game series “Cyberpunk” feels so incredibly pretentious to me in a world where so many games heavily borrow from the genre. It feels like they are going to reappropriate the term however they see fit through brute force. Fifteen years from now this game will defacto be the standard for the genre regardless of what it says or how it says it.

I mean its called Cyberpunk because its an adaptation of a Roleplaying game of the exact same name, Cyberpunk 2020. That being said, cyber punk like every genre that has entered the mainstream has been sanded down for a mass market audience

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Just wanted to hop in here and says thanks to everyone for the kind words about the piece.

A lot of my thinking about “punk” in general is informed by Greil Marcus’ LIPSTICK TRACES, especially the direct connection between Malcolm McLaren, the Situationist International, and the kind if stick-up artist monetization policy of the very earliest moments of self-identifying punk. So I start from a very cynical place about a lot of this to begin with.


I know I’m a little late to this thread but this really crystallized for me why my favorite dystopian fiction (whether it’s cyberpunk or otherwise) is utterly hopeless. The naive individualism that a single hero can take down the megacorps is such a jarring disconnect from a setting that should be distinctly materialist. The circumstances are such that the forces of evil (capitalism) have become so powerful that there’s no longer a way for them to be overcome. It’s an upsetting but effective warning to make sure we recognize the signs and stop them before they become real.

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Most of my exposure to cyberpunk beyond just as an aesthetic has been through the Bladerunners. Both had a good bit of punk elements but they had nothing to do with the protagonists. Both protagonists are cops who only seemingly exist as protagonists to give the audience a lens to view the story. Deckard is pretty much straight up a villain and K needed to think he’s a christ figure in order to act. Both of them initial have the force of the government behind them and end up acting as a singular person

Its other replicants who more closely fit with punk. Both in aesthetic, anti-authoritarian goals, and cooperative approach. The entire goal of the replicants is just to live and to do that they’re directly against the society. Unlike the protagonists they aren’t just cynically going through the motions till something happens, they’re trying to take control of their lives together.

While the second movie was definitely a lot more optimistic than the first, it still pushed the “punkness” to a small couple scenes. I’d definitely prefer the focus on the more revolutionary response to the oppression rather than someone who’s largely resigned to living in it and even actively supporting it.
:thinking: someone should make a ■■■■■ Planet video game

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