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Dark futures and cyberpunk (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted October 2, 2017

The term “dark future” is similar to “dystopia”, for which it is often a synonym. This refers to any work where the hypothesized future of mankind is in some sense “dark” – rather than bright, cheery, or optimistic. Typical “dark futures” are those shown in the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a highly ironic twist on the bright, cheery and optimistic future, so while it can be called a dystopia, it is not really a “dark future”. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is obviously both a dystopia and a dark future (although its focus purely on political ideology as the instrumentality of evil is somewhat eclectic, relative to current-day writing). Other terms for dark future could be “gritty future” (as opposed to the gleaming, antiseptic, super-scientific utopia) or “air-conditioned nightmare”.

Cyberpunk is a science fiction subgenre which arose in the early 1980s. Its paradigmatic work is William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) in film. The main ideas of cyberpunk are a rather dystopian future of urban decay focussing on: a polluted, highly technological planet, mostly ruled by megacorporations; the extensive presence of all manner of computers as well as the “cyberspace” or “Net” – one of the main realms of economic/political/social interaction, where so-called “cyberjockeys”, who electroneurologically “plug themselves into the Net”, make illegal transfers and seizures of data; as well as various interpenetrations of electronic, chemical and electromechanical technology and human bodies, e.g., computer-based virtual reality, genetically engineered androids or clones, micromachines carrying out various life-enhancing functions in human bodies (nanotech), extensive casual use of mind-altering drugs, superpowerful artificial arms grafted onto living humans, electronically enhanced vision, and so forth. The sensibility of cyberpunk is somewhat similar to that of the film noir or the darker detective story, where the protagonist is caught up in the intrigues of very powerful forces (such as shadowy Artificial Intelligences that exist in the Net), and tries with difficulty to maintain some core of authenticity and decency in the face of ever more vicious schemes and plots by the powerful.

Literary Examples

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) was a rather antiseptic and "well-managed" world -- in contradistinction to the later "gritty futures" -- which was nevertheless a profound dystopia because of the resultant killing of the human spirit. Huxley's vision could be seen as a possible endpoint of the unrelenting advance of current-day corporate and social liberalism, i.e., of the so-called managerial-therapeutic regime. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) appears as a possible endpoint of what might have happened if Soviet totalitarianism had triumphed worldwide, and may also be read as a meditation on ideology and ideological control of enduring significance. (A rather sad commentary on American culture is the lurid, B-movie cover illustration for the book’s first American printing.)

A rather overlooked classic from the 1950s is the highly satirical The Space Merchants (sometimes titled Gravy Planet) by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, a critique of 1950s-style capitalism. It presents a polluted planet of florid consumptionist capitalism where, for example, oak wood is worth more than gold, as there are very few living trees left. An interesting aspect of this work is that the forces opposing this "world" exist in an underground organization called the World Conservationist Union. They are derided as "Consies" -- a word which might equally suggest "Commies" or "conservatives". In fact, the tendency existing in opposition to this "world" can easily be characterized as embracing both socio-cultural and pro-ecological conservatism, although the authors might not have explicitly intended this as the message of the book.

Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (1962) pointed to the dehumanized environment of a slightly later capitalism. John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968), focussing on an overcrowded, polluted world, may well be termed proto-cyberpunk. Also by Brunner is The Sheep Look Up (1972), a critique of extreme pollution problems and public apathy in regard to these. He weighed in again with The Shockwave Rider (1974) -- dangers of a computerized world. William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) is the definitive cyberpunk work, despite later challenges, e.g., from Jeff Noon's Vurt (1993). The very popular sequels to Neuromancer were Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). Three newer, very prominent works of William Gibson are Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). French author Jean Raspail's bitter allegorical novel, The Camp of the Saints (1973) predicts the destruction of the West under the impact of Third World immigration. David Wingrove's mammoth Chung-kuo series (which, from its beginning in 1990, has now reached at least eight thick volumes), portrays a rather dystopic future of a Chinese-dominated Earth.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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