home > this article
Dark futures and cyberpunk (Part Three)
By Mark Wegierski
Two Examples from Gaming
The dark future in today’s often highly popular field of gaming is prominently represented by the Warhammer 40,000 A.D. (or 40K) space fantasy miniatures gaming system by Games Workshop, which also has boardgames, a role-playing game system, and tie-in novels. The dark future Warhammer 40K and the dark fantasy Warhammer system, arose in Great Britain. The Warhammer 40K universe is utterly ferocious. Earth's stellar empire is guarded by ultra-elite, very heavily armored Space Marines, who battle against all manner of hideous foes (Genestealers, Tyrannids, etc.) reminiscent of the Alien/s movie series, as well as the nasty “Orks”, who talk in a combination of African-American and English “yob” slang.
A very prominent role-playing game background is Shadowrun: Where Man Meets Magic and Machine (originally launched in 1989 by FASA Corporation). The main twist of Shadowrun on cyberpunk is the introduction of so-called metahumanity (elves, dwarves, orks, trolls), all manner of other creatures of legend (dragons, etc.), and of the possibility of magical practice for most beings, including normal humans – into a high-tech, gritty cyberpunk world. The premise for this is rather interesting, if improbable: an upsurge of magical and occult energies (which in the original 1989 product was said to occur in 2011, based on the mysterious long cycles of the Mayan calendar).
Some might suggest that our own world today is one “where man meets magic and machine.” There is a burgeoning of the most fantastic occult tendencies today, combined with surreal advances in technology. Such imaginative products like Shadowrun both point to an increasingly dystopic world, as well as possibly assist in negotiating the parameters of such a future, under siege from both the hyper-irrational (the occult, conspiracy-theories, extreme forms of rock music) and the hyper-rational (hypertechnology, socio-technical controls, and bureaucratization).
The Surreal Thriller
Oliver Stone’s The Wild Palms is related to another interesting subgenre in television and film -- the so-called "surreal thriller." The paradigmatic example of this is the superb British series, The Prisoner. The Avengers/The New Avengers are similar in style, albeit more comically oriented. This subgenre has continued in America, with David Lynch's Twin Peaks, and, of course, The X-Files (the jewel in the crown of the Fox network). A rather pale imitation of the latter, Nowhere Man, had also briefly appeared. In the 1996-1997 American television season there were three new imitations -- Dark Skies, Profiler, and Millennium.
A fairly interesting 1970s movie, Welcome to Blood City, begins as an odd-seeming Western, but turns out to be a nasty "virtual reality" experiment designed to produce "superkillers" to serve the government. Somewhat related to this subgenre are the Westworld and Futureworld movies, which portray an elaborate entertainment complex staffed entirely by very human-looking robots, a theme which was also explored in The Stepford Wives. David Cronenberg's Videodrome also has strongly surreal elements, and implicitly expresses some interesting ideas about the effects of media on society. Two very popular old shows containing surreal themes, which were revived at various times, include The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. All these shows have served to keep the pot of speculation about nefarious government misdeeds simmering -- and it is not impossible to imagine they have had some impact on the political thinking of some persons.
Two profound movies mirroring contemporary life in an almost surreal fashion were Paddy Chayefsky's Network, and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.
Do the ideas expressed in most of these subgenres, such as cyberpunk, lead towards a traditionalist critique of current-day society? Many of them would not appear at first glance to be very friendly subgenres to a traditionalist orientation. Nevertheless, certain of their aspects are worthy of attention. What is interesting to note is that, although a subgenre like cyberpunk portrays such a "gritty world", many persons reading this kind of work identify with the independent "cyberjockeys", and experience a kind of exhilaration in this literature. The readers are often relatively intelligent and decent “white geeks” who find themselves marginalized in today’s world, which exalts various minorities and “the supercool”. Many persons having a tedious and uninteresting life are captivated by the sense of adventure in this "world", although it is more often than not a dystopic world. One could advance the hypothesis that the real reason for cyberpunk's attractiveness is not so much the gadgets, but the fact that the reader can identify with a "cyberjockey" living a far more interesting life than his own.
In a way, cyberpunk can suggest ideas which could termed neo-Romantic, a Romanticism based only on one's own humanity, rather than on nature. Nature in fact is virtually non-existent, but the human person must on his own, in this gritty, poisoned world, where there are virtually no other living creatures except cockroaches, somehow find meaning and sense in life.
Extending this idea to contemporary reality, might suggest a kind of solution to the latter-day "crisis of identity". The human person, who no longer has the sense of roots being "imposed on them", and is no longer living in what was once the holistic “bounded horizon of meaning”, in the end makes a free choice to identify with their traditional roots, not excluding at the same time partial identifications with the many other collectivities of late modernity. (It would be extremely difficult to demand today total immersion in tradition.) Insofar as we live today in a society which -- apparently at least -- enormously valorizes free choice -- then a free choice of traditionalism constitutes a strong challenge and not insubstantial problem of ideas for today's system. It is indeed a form of real opposition against the current-day "air-conditioned nightmare."
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.