Perhaps it’s because I’m quite young, but I’ve just now come to realize that I’ve long been in denial in my relationship to the state of the cyberpunk genre. For so many years I’ve kept the hope that some game or movie will capture that deep fascination I had when I first was made aware of it, and that they would reinvigorate the genre for me or some shit like that.
In more recent years, I’ve watched movies/shows like Blade Runner 2049 and Altered Carbon, and I’ve played games like Deus Ex (the newer ones), Observer and then this 2077 thing. They all have lacked something for me, and I think it’s because they are all an example of similar types of trends. Cyberpunk, like many other sci-fi genres, look backwards, not forwards when depicting our futures.
An essential component here seems to be the element of nostalgia. They ask “what is cyberpunk?” and they give us recognizable elements of it (catering mostly to the demands of the audience). Sometimes it’s something as banal as an actor (Keanu in 2077, Ford in 2049, Rutger Hauer in Observer), but it is always that very recognizable 80s aesthetic and samey philosophical and political themes.
It’s tempting to engage with the (dead) genre of vaporwave here, with its satirical take on nostalgia, consumer capitalism and pop culture. Vaporwave distorts pop culture of the past which gives us that surreal and uncanny feeling of nostalgia of which it is known for. The basis of its existence is its awareness of its relation to the past (as something of the present) and its engagement with it.
These cyberpunk tribute products seem like they are only trying to recreate or recapture the future as imagined in the past, aka they are engaging with the future as if they are of the past, which they are not. They turn into something uncanny, distorted, but not intentionally as with vaporwave.
Cyberpunk in its original form existed without a relation to a past self, something that obviously cannot be said of contemporary cyberpunk. This has turned them into parodic non-parodies. You cannot recreate the past. Everything exists in a context. It’s unfortunate and ironic that contemporary cyberpunk, which carries so many anti-capitalist themes, exists almost entirely in a capitalist context now. Nostalgia really sells like hot shit.
The only media I’ve ever seen actually dealing with this in an interesting way is the third season of Twin Peaks, which returned in 2017 after a 26 year hiatus, and it dealt with the whole idea of expectations, nostalgia and how things cannot be what they were; Time changes things. It should be obvious that being aware of what context you find yourself in is essential if you wanna say anything about the present (or future). Cyberpunk is unarguably of the past, and whatever it is now, it needs to acknowledge this relationship to its past self.
What do you guys think? Is there any hope left for cyberpunk, or have we caught up with its predicted futures? Should I just move on to something else? What comes next?
And do you know of any media that deals with nostalgia in interesting ways?
Disclaimer: I wrote this at 5am after having played 2077 all day with few breaks, and English in not my native language, so excuse me if it comes off as a rambling incoherent mess.
Also, I’m not that up to date on the current discourse of cyberpunk, so I apologize if I am beating a dead horse here.
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