There’s a wider cyberpunk theme resonating through the first of this month’s posts, triggered predominantly by one of the sub-genre’s originators, Bruce Sterling. Presenting yet another provocative keynote speech at this year’s SXSW festival, his focus – among myriad topics – was on the social exclusions a post-work society would produce. Putting forward a world in which robotic labour makes humans redundant, he then went on to consider the rise of a patriarchal, techno aristocracy and the resentment that such a ruling class would generate among a breadth of minorities. He also argued that we should forego our egotistic narratives about being dominated by machines, get to grips with global warming and take charge of the legacy we’re leaving to our children – all great topics to dig into another day. For now, though, this notion of exclusion within the realms of modern cyberpunk is already generating traction.
Originally the core novels that presented the internet as a virtual space that could be experienced were replete with marginalised voices. Assassins disguised as Japanese tourists, Rastafarians commandeering space habitats, female protagonists with eye glasses continually connected to the web, an indigenous Alaskan islander on a revenge mission against America because his father had survived being nuked by the USA not once, but twice…
Japan, although approaching this burgeoning digital world from a very different set of cultural sensibilities, still led the way for female protagonists during the 1990s. Chief among these was Mamoru Oshii’s Anime Ghost in the Shell (1995). Jump forward 27 years and we encounter a round of controversy centering on the Hollywood re-imaging of this iconic film, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi. Some native Asian fans have put time and effort into complaining about this cultural “white-washing”, news channels within fandom have investigated rumours of post-effects ethnicity, while the original studio thinks that the lead actress is “well cast”. There’s also an argument that this will bring Masamune Shirow’s original Manga to a wider audience, plus it’s another Hollywood film with a woman – albeit a sexualised cybernetic woman – at the centre of the action. However, the need to erode narratives that perpetuate an inaccurate view of our current society remains – especially within the non-conformist genre of Sci-Fi.
Look briefly to games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016) and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 and we still find sexualised women and white male protagonists sustaining Hollywood stereotypes. Return to film, and we have the imminent Ready Player One and Blade Runner 2049. Both fall under the umbrella of cyberpunk, and both feature white male leads. It’s a far cry from the diversity that Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and their compatriots originally imagined. At least Bruce has promised that his next project will be a book based upon his adopted homeland of Italy. Let’s hope he continues his good work pushing boundaries, and those trying to sanitize the sub-genre take note.