Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Spanner: When Cyberpunk Is Not Science Fiction

Remember steampunk? You've probably heard of it by now, since it's been getting trendy lately. It started out as a retro application of cyberpunk, but it has long since outgrown science fiction and now seems to be spanning the gap between SF and fantasy. Today, steampunk is no longer necessarily science fiction anymore.

The same goes for cyberpunk itself. It used to be the exclusive preserve of science fiction writers who applied the new-wave SF approach pioneered by the likes of Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison the '60s and '70s to the hard-boiled crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson — or the other way around, depending. When the first-generation cyberpunks didn't write about hacker antiheroes (William Gibson's Case, Neal Stephenson's Hiro Protagonist), they focused on cyborg assassins and the like.

Today, we're actually living in cyberpunk SF's time frame. The cyberpunk writers, including the first generation, know it. Gibson's recent "Blue Ant" trilogy and Stephenson's Cryptonomicon are set in the present day. To me, it's become clear that, like steampunk, cyberpunk is no longer merely a subgenre of science fiction. Like steampunk, it's outgrown the genre that spawned it. It's an approach that lends itself well to a certain subset of thriller subgenres, including the technothriller and the political thriller. Popular movies such as The Matrix and Minority Report prove that you can build action adventures on the cyberpunk template.

In 1992, the year Snow Crash came out, when I came up with the initial idea for the proposed manga I would later call Chaos Angel Spanner, I set it in 2014 because I intended it to be clearly cyberpunk, and cyberpunk in those distant days before the Web and social media was clearly science fiction. Now it's 2010. Much of what the futurists and SF writers predicted last century has already come to pass, or will in the next few years. 2014 is barely "twenty minutes into the future" these days. Spanner is a contemporary action thriller now. But it remains every bit as cyberpunk as when I came up with the original idea almost two decades ago.

Sure, most of what we call cyberpunk today is still science fiction. But now it's possible to write something that's cyberpunk through and through and yet doesn't belong to the science fiction genre. Something like Gibson's Pattern Recognition. Or Spanner. Since we live in the cyberpunk universe today, it's increasingly absurd to classify cyberpunk as merely a SF subgenre. Today, genre and style no longer coincide. Instead, they overlap. Just like steampunk.

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