We Deserve Better Dystopias

Cyberpunk’s bleak vision is aesthetically stylish but its diagnoses are shallow and unsatisfying.

If you’re interested in video games, you’ve likely heard about Cyberpunk 2077, one of the most highly anticipated games of the decade, and also one of the most controversial. The game’s bugs and many disappointments, along with its poor labor practices amid the “crunch” to release, have by now been thoroughly addressed by other outlets. Many reviews also took issue with the game’s content, particularly its “punk” aka countercultural qualities (see headlines like “Cyberpunk 2077 – where did all the punk go?”). But having played the game I was left wondering: is it actually true that Cyberpunk 2077’s embrace of capitalist realism and violence represents a betrayal of cyberpunk ideals? Has capitalism indeed once again obliterated all criticism of itself as it repackages art into products it can sell us? Is the problem less the game itself and more the game’s method of production, an enormous corporate undertaking that promised to avoid typical industry standards of overwork but nevertheless resorted to mandated 6-day workweeks in order to get the game out “on time” (after three delays), rejects the cyberpunk tradition? Or, is it possible that “the cyberpunk tradition” is itself the issue, and many critics are wrong about what the genre’s so-called ideals actually are?

Personally, while the philosophical questions asked by many works of cyberpunk can be worthwhile and entertaining to contemplate, I’ve found even the most notable entries in the genre to be ultimately shallow and unsatisfying. In these books, movies, and games, the aesthetic has a tendency to become king. And despite its supposed counterculture aspirations, cyberpunk clocks a lot more hours as a power fantasy than as an insightful commentary on society, technology, consciousness, and authority. It’s not just any power fantasy either: it’s specifically about and for Cool Guys, set against a lurid background of working-class and feminine suffering.

It’s not always easy to pinpoint what cyberpunk actually is. Most critics agree that the genre originates from the novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, but definitions can range widely. In the broadest sense, cyberpunk is a sci-fi literary tradition, in which inequality, corruption, or outright corporate hegemony figures prominently in the worldbuilding, if not always in the immediate plot. You can often recognize a cyberpunk story by its rainy neon cityscape aesthetic, its frequent use of cybernetic body modifications and/ or the virtual rendering of cyberspace.

The rainy neon cityscape originates from the 1982 film Blade Runner, itself based on the 1968 proto-cyberpunk novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. The book invented the concept of androids, both book and movie ask what it means to be human, using the trappings of film noir and imagined future technologies to create the fertile ground in which the anti-heroes and gritty “dystopias” of cyberpunk would grow, in a stark departure from the generally more optimistic of the sci-fi of the 1960s and 1970s. Through Neuromancer (1984) to Altered Carbon (2002) to Cyberpunk 2077 (2020), much of this established blueprint remains the same.

Much of this blueprint can be summed up by the slogan “low-life high tech.” Low-life means the denizens of the shadows cast by looming city towers. Low-life means street food, crime, police, ads, ads, ads, and sex work. Low-life means drugs and prostitutes in virtual snuff films. Low-life means you have been everywhere and seen it all. Low-life means you win with violence.

High tech means entering cyberspace virtually, cybernetic implants, unlimited new bodies for your hard-drive brain to live on. It means immortality and mega corporations ruled like dictatorships. It means haves. And where there are haves, of course there are the have-nots, the low-lives.

Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer, and Takeshi Kovacs of Altered Carbon (the popular novel by Richard K. Morgan and now a Netflix series) are two excellent examples of cyberpunk’s classic Cool Guy anti-hero who comes from the slums but still navigates the high-tech world of the haves. These guys aren’t just cool, they’re so cool they are sociopathically detached from the suffering around them, they can fight or cyberhack their way out of almost every problem. And they merely have to look at a woman before she’s desperate to fuck them.

Altered Carbon is particularly interested in its protagonist’s sexual prowess, and in the body parts of all the women that surround him. Richard K. Morgan writes women in a way that suggests he may never have met one in real life:

“Exuberant breasts strained the fabric of the leotard…I became abruptly aware that I was swinging a hard-on like a firehose…Mrs. Bancroft’s breasts jiggled with her steps under the thin material of the leotard…pneumatic teenagers…the head of my penis swelled abruptly with blood.”

The prose isn’t the only thing that mistreats women. Join me on a whirlwind chronological tour of the ways that Altered Carbon obsessively dramatizes the sexualization and victimization of women and girls!

  1. Girlfriend Sarah sprayed with bullets, dead, page 6.
  2. Kovacs investigates Leila Begin, a prostitute who was severely beaten by Mrs. Bancroft, the wife of the client who hired him (the beating caused a miscarriage), page 96.
  3. Investigates death of Elizabeth Elliott, prostitute, page 103.
  4. Kovacs sleeps with Mrs. Bancroft, page 139. (The sex itself is weird: Mrs. Bancroft exudes an empathy drug from her pores when aroused which lets them experience a kind of double sex, but the whole vibe is ruined by a complete lack of chemistry and the repeated use of the word “cunt” which, given the generalized misogyny of the book, reads more like a tired insult than anything that might be construed as hot.)
  5. Catholic prostitute Louise is tortured and killed for her part in aiding Kovacs’ investigation, page 157. (In Altered Carbon, a human consciousness can be “re-sleeved” in a new body, but Catholics are opposed to this form of immortality on religious grounds, meaning that Louise experiences a genuinely real form of death.)
  6. Kovacs is captured and virtually forced into a female “sleeve” (yes, all symbolism applies), page 164. (Upon becoming a woman, Kovacs’  literal first words are about his breasts and how he’s about to start his period. Oh, and then the bad guys torture him by ramming a hot poker up the vagina—page 169—in a virtual setting which is meant to evoke the Middle East and Muslim culture for no clear reason.)
  7. Goes on murder rampage to avenge his and Louise’s torture and her Real Death, page 185.
  8. Kovacs learns his rich immortal employer has a Madonna/Whore complex so he has to abuse prostitutes about it, page 213.
  9. Girlfriend Sarah (she died on page 6 but it’s cyberpunk so her consciousness is still alive) is threatened with eternal virtual torture to force Kovacs to comply with the evil villain’s plan, page 323.
  10. Kovacs sleeps with Kristin Ortega, more or less the only woman in the story he hadn’t slept with yet, page 348.
  11. Kovacs gets Irene Elliott, mother of dead prostitute Elizabeth and cybercrime doer, out of virtual torture prison, page 360.
  12. Something about justice for Hinchley (yet another murdered prostitute), page 382.
  13. Ortega is kidnapped, page 413.
  14. He rescues Ortega, page 418.
  15. He clones himself so one of him can take Mrs. Bancroft up to her sex island to distract her, page 443.
  16. A. Dog. Is. Brutalized, page 477. (Unclear if sexually or otherwise, it occurs offscreen and you only see the aftermath but I will burn the entire fucking planet down.)
  17. Honestly I stopped keeping track for a while…
  18. Before Kovacs goes back to his homeworld, he gives Irene Elliott money to get daughter Elizabeth Elliott out of virtual prison and re-sleeved, after Elizabeth was viciously murdered because prostitute (see #3), page 516.

Kovacs is actually a big damn hero in the book, of a sort. He faces both politically and physically powerful foes; he is usually trying to rescue and get justice for victimized people. He has brooding thoughts on the military (“Military training takes the natural order and fucks with it. It breaks down any resistance to psychopathic behavior at the same time as it builds fanatical loyalties to the group”), power (“like all men of power, when he talked of prices worth paying, you could be sure of one thing. Someone else was paying”), war (“…the reflex of long-held hierarchy is usually enough to overcome fear of a combat death. That’s how you fight wars, after all—with soldiers who are more afraid of stepping out of line than they are of dying on the battlefield”), and what happens when you digitize the consciousness (“What we thought of as personality was no more than the passing shape of one of the waves in front of me.”) The book certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, but the women are at times interesting, clever, strong, formidable. When I label the book misogynist, I am not implying that the female characters are necessarily poorly written, or that Kovacs himself is a misogynist (although…). The problem is the narrative itself, which consistently places female characters in harm’s way, does violence to them, invents situations where they must be rescued or avenged, objectifies them, and insists that they are helplessly drawn to Kovacs—all to fulfill a camouflaged power fantasy for the male reader. This is not punk, or countercultural in any way: it’s just plain old reactionary misogyny.

Illustrations by Matt Lubchansky

The fact that Kovacs is trying to catch a misogynist killer, rather than personally murdering the sex workers himself, doesn’t make the story somehow feminist. No matter how heroically a white knight rides to the rescue, or how loudly a narrative declares that violence against women is wrong, only VILLAINS torture women, the audience still takes away the framing, the background assumptions of the narrative. In a novel, the events that are depicted and the language that gets used about them is not accidental. We subconsciously absorb these elements as we’re ripping through a plot, too often accepting them as reality rather than questioning them as authorial choices. Of course you, dear reader, would never dream of mutilating a whore and tossing her body out of an airship, or impaling a virtual woman with a hot poker in her vagina, or hoping for your lover to be kidnapped so you can heroically rescue her.  If you read this book, there’s a good chance you only absorbed without noticing the psycho-horny descriptions of women, and didn’t really think about how many times Richard K. Morgan decided to make women’s suffering the device which propels Takeshi Kovacs into heroic acts. (I read enough sff dude’s blogs to assure you that at least a handful of people took absolutely no notice whatsoever.) Morgan, by the way, claims he doesn’t understand accusations that the hot-poker-in-vagina-torture scene is sexist. He’s insisted in an interview that violence against women makes him really mad, actually. He, like many of his readers, simply accepts that violence against women must happen, and then heroic men must murder people about it.

What we choose to assume and accept tells us a lot about the culture we live in and our own individual psychologies. If I had read Altered Carbon five years ago when I was less attentive to underlying narrative assumptions, I probably would have liked it. I expect I would have been alarmed at the violence but treated it as a requirement of dystopian literature. I would have proclaimed that the ghastly prostitute murders were clearly derided as bad by the narrative, and excused it as the driver of the plot. But did you know there are entire books out there that do not murder whores even one single time? Did you know that there is a way to launch a plot without a long-legged dame being in trouble? 

Consider the incredible novel The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, where a physicist from a utopian-ish anarchist society on the moon visits a capitalist planet. Among the capitalist “propertarians,” the physicist Shevek is told the following about women: “Can’t do the math; no head for abstract thought; don’t belong. You know how it is, what women call thinking is done with the uterus! Of course, there’s always a few exceptions, God-awful brainy women with vaginal atrophy.” Another person tells him, “‘A beautiful, virtuous woman…is an inspiration to us—the most precious thing on earth.’”

Shevek is baffled by this. In his anarchist utopia, women are not only scientists, they can do any job they like! Gender and sexual identity have not been completely abolished on the moon, but the equality and autonomy of its inhabitants is beautifully portrayed by Shevek’s blunt confusion over the sexism he encounters. When a doctor says men are physically stronger than women, Shevek replies, “Yes, often, and larger, but what does that matter when we have machines? And even when we don’t have machines, when we must dig with the shovel or carry on the back, the men maybe work faster—but the women work longer. Often I have wished I was as tough as a woman.” Upending misogyny in this form—and indeed, showing that an alternative to capitalist society is possible—is far more radical than just about anything offered up by cyberpunk.

Misogyny isn’t just a fault of Altered Carbon specifically: it’s a regular theme of the low-life cyberpunk narrative. The main story of Cyberpunk 2077 involves a kidnapped girlfriend, plus a sex worker who is sold to a “ripperdoc” for parts and then sold to virtual porn producers to film a snuff film that users can experience firsthand. The big boss battle is against a cyborg named Adam Smasher who calls a woman a “fuckable cut of meat” in an early cutscene. (You see, violence against women is bad, because the evil cyborg said so. Now watch this immersive virtual snuff film.) Seedy, exploitative sex work is featured everywhere in Cyberpunk 2077, just as it is in Altered Carbon. The critically acclaimed Blade Runner too has its share of misogyny: Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckard is a predator who aggressively and forcibly does not take no for an answer (this is known as sexual assault, but the scene is framed by director Ridley Scott as seduction). Total Recall (1990), an arguably cyberpunk adaptation of another Philip K. Dick story, is famed for its sexualized scenes with Sharon Stone (who is murdered), a prostitute girlfriend on Mars, and an iconic three-breasted prostitute (who is murdered). HBO’s Westworld also—sigh, you guessed it—features murdered android prostitutes. Eventually, you have to wonder whether some people just want to write stories about murdering women they pay for sex. 

But while other cyberpunk films like The Ghost in the Shell (1995), Akira (1988), Alita: Battle Angel (2019), The Matrix (1999), and RoboCop (1987) may not be quite as guilty of employing these sexist tropes, each is a power fantasy in its own right. The Matrix is an easy one to peg. It doesn’t share the neon Hong Kong aesthetic of many other visual cyberpunk media, but the outsider misfit hero gains godlike powers which enable him to bend the virtual false reality to his will. Again, the “punk” qualities seem to be lacking—beyond aesthetics, and the Matrix’s arguable interpretation as an allegory for being transgender—what exactly is counterculture or radical about this storyline?

It’s not possible in cyberpunk to really look beyond aesthetics, because the aesthetic is cyberpunk; cyberpunk is an aesthetic. Style is so pivotal to the genre that the character creation rulebook for the Cyberpunk role-playing game specifically advises “style over substance.” The low-life setting doesn’t by any means need to enable sexist writing and worldbuilding—the prostitutes themselves could easily be the unmurdered heroes—but the depiction of some people as helpless victims and some as powerful villains is mostly accepted as a fact of life. This accepted fact creates the main tension in the majority of cyberpunk stories: the endless, unresolvable struggle between the haves and the have-nots. 

The financial and physical inequality in these worlds ranges from slightly-more-awful-than-most-capitalist-countries to unequivocally dystopian levels of fucked up. Corporations war against each other in the background of many cyberpunk narratives, a thematic warning that leaving too much power and technology to mega-corporations will inevitably end in the common man being treated as an expendable resource, dying young while the rich fight each other and live forever.

As the villain of Altered Carbon says, “Human life has no value…[people] are abundant, Takeshi…Real human flesh is cheaper than a machine.” Now, as a leftist, I absolutely gobble up criticism of capitalism. I will eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I paused and screamed over the Family Heart Center ad in the opening of RoboCop: “[a new mechanical heart] qualifies for the Health Tax Credit.” But pointing out the problems of capitalism is easy—even the New York Times manages to do it on occasion. What next, though?

Cyberpunk 2077 wasn’t all delays, disaster, and misogyny: its strength is in its story, particularly the inclusion of the anti-capitalist character Johnny Silverhand. Voiced by and modeled after Matrix alum Keanu Reeves, Silverhand is a deserter “Rockerboy” who was killed while nuking the evil Arasaka corporation’s headquarters, and whose personality now lives inside your protagonist’s head thanks to a mission gone wrong. Now here is a punk character in every respect! We learn that Silverhand deserted the military along with many others when they discovered how the government had manipulated them into the Central American Conflict. Seeing that the corrupt mega-corporations profited from the war by selling arms to both sides, Silverhand started a rock band to expose corruption. Actual literal punk rock. Oh, and as I mentioned, he did a terrorism in an attempt to end the corporate wars.

But at the end of the day, how often in cyberpunk do the have-nots, the low-lives, triumph over the haves? Johnny Silverhand is punk personified, but does he succeed in overthrowing the corporations? No. In fact, there is no ending of the game in which your character, V, can live, or for that matter one in which the evil Arasaka corporation is toppled. You can only make choices which result in V dying immediately or in 6 months’ time; you can assault Arasaka but all characters are grim-faced about how pointless these actions will be in the face of the mega-corporation’s enormous resources. Silverhand actually seems more interested in being correct about corporate corruption, and getting revenge for his own death, rather than in trying to improve the lives of everyday people. This, too, might be punk, but it’s precisely the kind of cool that subsumes anything productive.

In Altered Carbon, Kovacs’ actions result in the passage of important legislation to prevent the most egregious of crimes that take place in the novel, but Morgan’s carefully built, deeply unjust society is left completely unharmed. Kovacs heroically helps many of the characters he encounters throughout the book, but what of the other thousands and millions who suffer the same oppression, whom he couldn’t save? In Neuromancer…fuck, I have no clue, I could not understand that book at all, but it did not appear to involve anything like a Maoist uprising. Johnny Mnemonic may be the best cyberpunk offering in this regard: the movie, written by William Gibson, ends with Keanu Reeves (with the help of a military dolphin, I shit you not) exposing the big bad corporation Pharmakom for withholding the cure to a terrible disease, and broadcasts the cure to the whole world. It’s a simple ending to a silly film, but at least the resolution materially helps all the oppressed people of Earth, not just the protagonists. The movie’s final image is the Pharmakom headquarters being set aflame by the public. Good for them.

Could it be that I just hate dystopias? Are these even dystopias? Or are they merely more of the grimdark worlds that increasingly populate our HBO lineups and Young Adult book fairs? In a 1992 essay “The ‘New’ Romancers” literary scholar Carol McGuirk argued that cyberpunk literature like Neuromancer is “SF noir,” not dystopian. Dystopian literature does not mean endless misery, or an evil civilization that can’t be overcome. McGuirk explains:

A test to determine whether a gloomy work of soft science fiction is dystopian or SF noir is to look at the uses of a catastrophic setting. The humanist author furnishes some account of the issues that led to holocaust, the currents in human civilization threatened by social collapse, and the struggles of the hero to survive in and perhaps even transcend an arena of drastically reduced possibility…By contrast…SF noir…stylizes and elides such factors; readers are presented instead with random episodes of violence, perpetrated by turns against or by the protagonists.

In SF noir, humanism’s focus on heroic capacity is replaced by a central focus on psychic mutilation, used to set a stylized atmosphere.

SF noir, as McGuirk defines it, presents problems and no solutions. These stories raise philosophical questions about power and class and identity they often do not develop, or resolve. There is a question of preference here—whether you like to consume SF noir or dystopian literature (or utopian or high fantasy or romance or memoir), you can and should read and watch anything you like! But it was with a sigh of relief that I read McGuirk’s words and could see the rationale behind my own preferences crystallize. I do not want to read about the mutilation of women in hopeless, hyper-capitalist futures. I would prefer to read stories like Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, where the problems of our own society are unflinchingly displayed in a manner that creates not just psychic pain, but also new thought and new hope for what human beings are capable of, and for what society can look like. The limits of imagination extend so far; why accept fictions that merely negotiate with their grim and unchangeable settings rather than imagine new explanations, new solutions, new kinds of characters and modes of life, even in dark situations? McGuirk points to style itself as the culprit:

Stylized noir protagonists experience their sorrows as extrinsically caused and largely irreversible, so they can achieve neither the bitter enlightenment of the tragic hero nor the final triumph of the epic hero…In SF noir the final destination of narrative is not satire, tragedy, epic, or humanistic utopia/dystopia…In many of these texts the only hero is style.

That is to say, the purpose of cyberpunk isn’t to examine capitalism or the boundaries of life versus death amid the rain and neon: the purpose is the rain and the neon itself, the stylized presentation of the psychic pain of a broody protagonist. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying this aesthetic: if cyberpunk is your style, please feel free to enjoy it responsibly! I personally love the cyberpunk anime film The Ghost in the Shell (1995), which is hauntingly beautiful and manages to explore the sorts of questions about human consciousness and the nature of artificial intelligence that cyberpunk is supposed to be famous for, and it does so in such a personal and powerful way that it feels as though it belongs in a category of its own. 

The Ghost in the Shell was remade in 2017, in a live-action flop by DreamWorks and several other mega-studios. Any genre can have its popular narratives and aesthetic trappings co-opted, diluted for the masses by corporations looking to cash in on the hottest trend. But a genre whose only hero is style is especially vulnerable to such commodification. And far too much of cyberpunk has been bent on making low life (and the violence against women and hopeless struggle against capitalism inherent in it) look as cool as possible. Corporations will sell cool without looking twice at the side effects. Le Guin said it best in the foreword to her 2001 Tales from Earthsea:

“So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities. And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.

Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.

What the commodifiers of fantasy count on and exploit is the insuperable imagination of the reader, child or adult, which gives even these dead things life—of a sort, for a while.”

Has Cyberpunk 2077 really betrayed a literary tradition that “once stood out as a vital genre of anti-capitalist fiction,” as Ryan Zickgraf said in Jacobin? Or is it merely the interactive logical conclusion of a genre that has always put the neon silhouette of a very cool dude holding a gun before any meaningful dialogue about society? There’s a scene in The Ghost in the Shell—a beautiful, eerie, and isolating moment—where the protagonist, a cyborg with a heavy metal body, goes diving in the sea. Afterward, she explains to her partner why she takes the risks that she does—she is searching to understand who she is when she is a mix of memories, information, cybernetic implants belonging to the government. Who would she be if she quit her secretive government job, returning the implants they installed throughout her entire body and mind? Who would she be if her consciousness expanded into the vast network of information she can access and process at superhuman speed? The interrogation of the unanswerable questions of what it means to be human, and not human, is perhaps the best cyberpunk has to offer. It’s Blade Runner’s famous “tears in rain” scene, where a hunted android replicant appears all too human as he faces his planned expiration—aka, his death. These are the kinds of stories worth telling, where humanity, identity, authority, capitalism, and revolution become questions to explore, not certainties to accept. This is where real counter-cultural fiction can be found.

Now try building your own cyberpunk novel! Illustration by Aidan Y-M

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