The future is already here – it's just not very evenly distributed
William Gibson's groundbreaking debut novel Neuromancer, published in 1984, was the first novel to win a clean sweep of the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick science-fiction awards. It heralded a new genre in sci-fi – cyberpunk – repainting the computer nerd as a hard-boiled anti-hero.
Set in the near future, cyberpunk describes an information-age dystopia where organized crime, drug addiction and corruption are rife. Mega-corporations have replaced governments as centres of political, economic and military power. Technology is ubiquitous and body modification is the norm. The prototype character is a lone hacker, permanently jacked into an artificially intelligent computer network – cyberspace.
In Neuromancer, the narrator explains, ‘The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games … Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions … a graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system.’ Overtly inspired by Jean Baudrillard's concept of Simulacra and Simulations, cyberpunk is a critique of postmodern culture. It suggests that we live in a simulated world, where images and signs have replaced reality, producing a hyper-reality. This illusion turns us into docile consumers, distracted from the ills of society. Cyberpunk writers like Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson forcibly wake us from our daydream and encourage us to question the status quo.
With its embittered heroes and deadly femmes fatales, cyberpunk is a clear descendant of noir, but it also owes a debt to the beatniks. Just as Kerouac's On the Road was inspired by the Interstate Highway, Gibson's Neuromancer was inspired by the information superhighway. As the beatniks anticipated the hippie movement, cyberpunk anticipated digital counterculture.
Computer networks, the Web, augmented reality and artificial intelligence are all cyberpunk staples – the genre gives us a language to explore and extend these phenomena as they emerge. Without Cyberpunk we would not have cyberspace, avatars, megastructures, nanotech, wetware or Whuffie. As William Gibson says, ‘The future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed.’■
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