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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.4 (Fall 2017)



Literacy vs. Post-Modernity


Dark Futures and Cyberpunk: Subgenres of Critique of Current-Day Society
Mark Wegierski

From science-fiction classics of the Fifties to “cyberpunk” games of the present century, the emerging picture in our pop-culture of a dystopic future conceals implies a veiled but deep mistrust of the progressive vision.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Quarterly Review (UK).

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.

Cinema and Television Examples

The proto-dark-future film was, of course, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) (loosely based on Karel Capek’s play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920)), which has wielded enormous influence in many areas of society and culture. (One need only look as far as rock-videos, from Madonna’s Express Yourself to the Spice Girls.) Much of the sense of “dark future” is created through architecture and cityscape. The following quote illustrates certain interesting sociopolitical dimensions: “…immediately after the Russian Revolution, a new artistic and architectural style sprang up [in the Soviet Union], called Chicagizm, based on the notion of a new city in a new world without a past” (from the interesting but quirky book by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism Revisited (Washington, D.C.: Regnery-Gateway, 1990, p. 430)). One can think of the 1920s skylines of New York and Chicago, the former which appears in Metropolis. The rise of modernist architecture and decorative art trends, typically Bauhaus, Art Deco, the International Style, and, finally, postmodernism—played an enormous part in the construction of future visions. Indeed, the dark future cityscape is inconceivable without the skyscraper. As the century progresses, mediascape/soundscape is added to cityscape, and “information overload”/”media barrage syndrome” as well sociopolitical postmodernism emerges. Such things as style, edge, mood, atmosphere, or ambience are an important aspect of this vision. (One thinks of the name of a lesser-known 1980s rock-group, Ambient Noise.) Probably one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made—which interacts with so many of these discourses—is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).

Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange was controversially filmed (extreme violence portrayed in an artistic, semi-celebratory way) by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. Some prominent movies of the 1970s included Soylent Green (1973) (admittedly a travesty of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966), but perhaps its dark twist about cannibalism as the outcome of overpopulation, is well-aimed), Rollerball (1975) (set in a corporate-ruled world, where violent spectator sports are used to channel the population’s discontent and aggression), and Logan’s Run (1976) (clearly derived from a concept similar to that of Brave New World). There was also a weaker television series based on the film.

The movie Silent Running (1971), although set in space, pointed to a dystopian Earth, where “everyone had a job”, but the only wildlife left was in a few large “space domes” in deep space. The seriousness of the conservation theme was undermined somewhat by the unbelievability of the premise (i.e., that the last wildlife on Earth would be moved far off-planet, and then uncomprehendingly ordered destroyed).

Ridley Scott’s original Alien movie (1979) (alien design, H.R. Giger) and Outland (1981) (portraying the brutalized life on a mining colony near Saturn), could be seen as rather akin to Blade Runner. There was a wave of somewhat similar movies (of greatly varying quality) in the 1980s and 1990s, notably, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop; Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic (based on William Gibson’s early short story); Judge Dredd, based on the comic book; Freejack (with Mick Jagger as a bounty hunter); Total Recall (corporate dystopia on Mars); a portrayal of the millennial turn, Strange Days; and Tim Burton’s new Batman epics. Burton’s vision was largely based, of course, on the breakthrough graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller, with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley—widely available in a 1986 DC Comics trade paperback edition (covering the original Books One to Four) — with a pithy introduction by Alan Moore. The 1980s Max Headroom British made-for-television film and American television series, set “twenty minutes from now,” could be seen, like the others, as participating in the so-called “air-conditioned nightmare” of “the near-future.” Ironically, Oliver Stone’s The Wild Palms television mini-series (1993) (derived from the comicseries in DETAILS Magazine), was buried in popular perception by the hockey playoffs! Very few persons bought The Wild Palms Reader (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993). Among the interesting print spinoffs of the Alien/s movies, is Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual, by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood (edited by Dave Hughes) (New York: HarperPrism/HarperPaperbacks, 1996).

The movie Millennium (1989), which involved the always problematic concept of time-travel, nevertheless raised the disturbing prospect that the Earth will become so polluted that it will be virtually unable to sustain human life, even with the most sophisticated technologies.

One can also notice the films Escape from New York (1981), and its 1990s sequel, Escape from L.A. They presented a very authoritarian U.S., where, for example, Manhattan Island is a walled-off penal colony for the country’s violent prison population. The movie Tron (1982), set more or less in the current-day period, was interesting only because it represented one of the first big-screen, big-budget American films exploring the idea of “virtual reality” or “cyberspace”, i.e., what “life” might look like “inside” a computer.

Three 1990s movies exploring virtual reality are The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, and EXistenZ.

The very popular Mad Max film series made speculation about a post-apocalyptic (typically, post-nuclear holocaust) world very widespread (and influenced the décor of many dance clubs). The Tank Girl comic and movie (also set in Australia) is obviously derivative of it. WaterWorld could also be characterized as, essentially, “Mad Max on water.” A fairly campy 1980s treatment of the “post-apocalyptic” theme is Streets of Fire, with its rock-music soundtrack.

The surprisingly well-produced children’s television series, Captain Power, and the Terminator movie series, showed the scenario of evil machines literally taking over the Earth.

Another television series with a cyberpunk feel was The New War of the Worlds.

A clever satire on both utopia and the dark future was the 1990s movie, Demolition Man.

Finally, in the near-future, technothriller genre, there is the 1990s television series La Femme Nikita, based on the French and (the later) American movie.

A somewhat earlier 1990s television series, was TekWars (based on William Shatner’s fiction-writing efforts), which tended to become increasingly light entertainment, despite the cyberpunk premise.

In the U.S. 2000-2001 television season, there premiered two shows with a cyberpunk feel, based on the premise of a take-over of the U.S. by a military government – Dark Angel, and Freedom. Of these, Dark Angel proved quite popular, while the Freedom series was quickly cancelled.

Another variant of the dystopic genre are depictions of near-future (often nuclear) conflicts. Red Dawn (1984), portraying a bunch of American teenagers fighting as guerillas against an invading Soviet army, was a film very much in the spirit of certain sectors of 1980s sensibility. In this same period, there was the highly absurd depiction, in a television mini-series, of a postwar America under Soviet occupation. It was highly characteristic that America was shown in the best possible light (i.e., life in the countryside, in “the Heartland” was portrayed—which appeared far more traditionalist than it does today). The action took place in small towns and with beautiful scenery in the background. The Soviets were curiously mild—which seemed highly unlikely. “Special occupation units” (commanded by a Nordic-looking German), with black uniforms and helmets also made an appearance—so there was once again a return to World War II stereotypes. Persons of Eastern European descent would view the plot with incredulity. How likely would it be, that the Soviets would consent to the elimination of their shock-troops by the American partisans, while the army of the post-American puppet-state would arrange with the partisans the delayed arrival of support to the shock-troops, in order to give the freedom-fighters time to finish them off? It would be safe to assume that the show’s producers had not read, in regard to these sorts of matters, a single serious historical work.

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 freelance journalist who has faithfully contributed to this journal for a decade on subjects as wide-ranging as Polish-Canadian issues and science-fiction literature.  He is based in Toronto.