Cyberpunk is very much NOT a broad genre, unlike post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, which we handled last year. Cyberpunk is, in fact, a subgenre of science fiction (sorry buddy you’re subgenre). That’s not to say cyberpunk is in any way lacking in comparison to other science fiction and fantasy genres. In fact, cyberpunk hits at the very foundation of what I think makes science fiction so great: using the “other” to examine social norms.
You could summarise cyberpunk as the authoritative state’s fear of the youth’s (alleged) ethical failings combined with their technological sophistication. A little timely, no? #smashedavocadogate anyone? (more so than this reference, I'll be honest with you.) This conflict of values between the establishment and the next generation is played out in the form of mega-corporations and/or fascist governments (the establishment, duh) hackers or artificial intelligence (the youth).
Protagonists are almost always depicted as being social outcasts or loners. They live on the fringe of a society that has felt the effects of rapid technological change. More often than not this leads to inequality. You would be familiar with these characters if you’ve come across news items about people getting pay pass chips put in their bodies. Perhaps they should be ostracised . . . a discussion for another day!
One of the most iconic examples of cyberpunk is Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was famously adapted into the film Blade Runner, a sequel, Blade Runner 2049, was released last year. It was a critical success but not exactly a commercial smash. I’d argue it's actually superior to the original. We can finally accept that not all sequel/reboots are bad.
What more is there to say that you don’t already know? This book doesn’t just ask but DEMANDS to know what does it mean to be human? It’s beautiful, tragic and terrifying. It’s time for a re-read, or if for some bizarre reason you haven’t read it yet, literally drop everything (except your child, to be human is to be a good parent – did I just spoil the book? You’ll have to read to find out) and pick this book up!
tldr: Harrison Ford > Ryan Gosling
Richard K. Morgan pretty much sums up everything said in the opening paragraphs of this post when discussing the big takeaway from Altered Carbon, Book One in the Takeshi Kovacs series:
“Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a willful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses”
(from a 2002 interview originally published by Slate.co.uk)
I don’t know about you all, but I now love this man. The more science fiction thinks less of humanity the more on board I am!
Altered Carbon is hard-boiled cyberpunk. The protagonist Takeshi Kovacs is a former United Nations envoy. Envoys are an elite unit of soliders tasked with protecting the many worlds settled by the United Nations Protectorate. In this dystopian universe, human personalities and memories can be stored digitally and downloaded into new bodies called sleeves. Catholics have arranged that they will not be resleeved as they believe that the soul goes to Heaven when they die, and so would not pass on to the new sleeve. This makes Catholics targets for murder since killers know their victim will not be resleeved to testify against their murder.
As the novel begins Kovacs is resleeved into the body of a San Francisco police officer. Soon one of his investigations reveals a vast intergalactic conspiracy, one that will expose the horrific consequences of a society that treats life itself as something that can be bought and sold.
There’s a lot at play in these novels. Corruption, greed, and inequality, pretty much everything Morgan said in that quote above. All of these themes are wrapped up in an out-of-this-world, page-turning crime novel. Hence calling it “hardboiled cyberpunk”.
Morgan also wrote a series of Black Widow comics BEFORE The Avengers were cool (no, seriously it was a great time to be an X-Men fan) with illustrations by two of the best artists in the business: Bill Sienkiewicz and Sean Phillips! Both volumes are a terrific read.
tldr: The books are definitely better than the show
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is the 2010 Hugo, Locus, and Nebula award winner, and was named the ninth best work of fiction in 2009 by TIME magazine. Some serious accolades. So what’s it about? Well, it’s pretty much a spot-on look at our sorry-ass future as a species if we continue to ignore the consequences of global warming, over-dependence on carbon fuels, overpopulation and corporate greed.
It’s the 23rd century, water levels have risen, manually wound springs are used as energy storage devices and food production is controlled through genetically modified seeds which are overseen by various mega-corporations. These corporations also go to monstrous lengths to create demand for their products across the world, think private armies and you’re on the right track.
The protagonist, Anderson Lake, is an American working in Thailand on a new type of motor-spring. This is a cover for his true objective: uncovering a secret super-seed bank. See what I mean about rampant corporate greed? Lake is a bitter, broken company man so it comes as a surprise to him, and the reader, when he falls in love with Emiko, the proverbial windup girl. Emiko is a genetically modified geisha meant for Japan but has ended up in a Thai brothel.
This all sounds pretty terrifying and upsetting and it is, for good reason. However, Bacigalupi is able to find a way to interrogate and critique Emiko’s exploitation without it becoming titillating. This is something science fiction and fantasy sometimes fails to do (oh you know what I’m talking about!). What’s even more amazing is the fact that this was Bacigalupi’s debut novel!
tldr: The Windup Girl is everything sci-fi should be: thought-provoking, engaging and most of all entertaining. I defy you not to feel like you’ve been transported to another world!
Brand Manager and Head of the Realm at Hachette Australia Books. Mutant power: Aggressive humour. Lifelong Trekkie (I don’t find that offensive) comic book reader and former proud bookseller. Likes: Literary, contemporary and speculative fiction. Dislikes: Haters. Ideal date: My birthday.