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The importance of postmodern Schizo Tech to Cyberpunk

When did bionic limbs become cyberpunk? When the mismatch between flesh and machine became a statement of social alienation!

Cyborgs can be potent symbols of dehumanization.  A half-man, half-machine is a man who has been crippled, dehumanized, and co-opted by unfeeling technology. Cyberpunk is a hardboiled fiction style that celebrates the cyborg as a postmodern high-tech low-life.  Just as postmodernist fiction mixes clashing styles, the cyborg’s body mixes chromium-steel and microchips with human skin and muscle.

Sci-fi theorists can endlessly dispute when cyborgs became a standard sci-fi fixture.  Some will cite obscure Victorian “scientific romances,” others will cite the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.  Many fictional low-life thugs (such as those in Burgess’ 1962 book A Clockwork Orange) used high-tech before cyberpunk, but they lacked the postmodern mis-match of flesh and machine that is sometimes categorized as “Schizo Tech.”

One non-schizo-tech point of reference is the United States government-funded cyborg, Steve Austin, commonly called “The Six Million Dollar Man” – which works out to $33,026,555.02 in 2012 dollars.

So Steve Austin had super-vision, super-strength, and super-speed.

But when push came to shove and he couldn’t super-jump over walls, he had to pick up rocks and convenient pipes to beat up robots.

However, Steve Austin was a squeaky-clean government agent, even when he grew a well-trimmed mustache.  He wasn’t half-man, half-machine so much as he was half-boy scout, half-Elliot Ness.  Whenever his mismatched cybernetic limbs got damaged, the USA was more than happy to repair him.

The Six Million Dollar Man started airing in 1974.  Just one year later in 1975, Deathrace 2000 presented Frankenstein, a cyborg with plans to become a suicide bomber in order to assassinate the leader of the “United Provinces.”  Steve Austin had been strong, enduring, perceptive, and generally exerted violence against non-human targets such as robots and Bigfoot.   Frankenstein was just another disposable assassin, designed to use the “Frankenstein” brand to conceal his plans for a lethal attack.  Frankenstein prevailed by use of over-the-top lethal violence.

1977 saw Damnation Alley released to theaters.  This postapocalyptic dystopia was not cyberpunk, but it had a major impact on later cyberpunk works.  Damnation Alley depicted multiple police states in the territory of the former USA.  Instead of the United States of America, the surviving communities were divided and un-free; this inspired many cyberpunk settings where exploitation in the name of “free markets” had divided societies into small, oligarchic territories.  Schizo Tech presents a single tool with mismatched parts, such as a modern laser sight on a primitive longbow; divided dystopias present a single region with mismatched forms of government, such as a single city divided between multiple warring factions.

1979 saw further stylistic shift when Ridley Scott’s Alien suggested that the future would look grimy and rusted-out.  The single android was purely synthetic, not a half-man.

1981 saw a little bit more grime enter the sci-fi milieu. Escape From New York had no cyborgs, but it had plenty of dystopian urban atmosphere. Dystopian New York was purely decadent; it existed by salvaging remnants of old technology. Mad Max 2 showed a postapocalyptic future with mismatched parts; there were no cyborgs, but there were certainly thuggish half-men who were trying to descend into bestial instinct – but they were low-tech low-lifes.

1982 saw Blade Runner, which captured an ambiance of corrupt urban dystopia bedecked with neon signs spelled in Asian characters. Blade Runner presented a world in which corporate-managed, profit-centered technology was making advances.  (Ridley Scott tried to depict the city as “Hong Kong on a very bad day.”) William Gibson saw the movie and despaired, because it had captured many of the ideas he had hoped to put into words. Gibson later said: “About ten minutes into Blade Runner, I reeled out of the theater in complete despair over its visual brilliance and its similarity to the “look” of Neuromancer, my [then] largely unwritten first novel. Not only had I been beaten to the semiotic punch, but this damned movie looked better than the images in my head!” 1982’s Tron also influenced the visual evolution of the cyberpunk esthetic.  In Japan, 1982 marked the start of the manga version of the story Akira.

1984 saw the official birth of cyberpunk hype with William Gibson’s Neuromancer.  Gibson had been inspired in part by Escape From New York, but Gibson’s vision finally popularized the notion of cyborg as punk.  The mismatched machine parts were like punk piercings and tattoos, in that they symbolized rejection of middle-class respectability. 1984 also saw James Cameron’s The Terminator, in which a killer robot from a dystopian future concealed itself in human flesh – not exactly a cyborg.  A cyborg is generally a man who supplements himself with machine parts – the Terminator was a machine that supplemented itself with human parts.

In 1985, the under-appreciated Max Headroom highlighted television as the source of dystopian alienation, but suggested that radical muck-raking journalism was all that was needed to save the world.  The visual style combined ostentatiously retro elements, such as cars and typewriter keyboards from the 1950s, with cutting-edge technology – another typical cyberpunk display of mismatched parts, interfaced together.

In 1987, Verhoeven’s Robocop was released to wide acclaim.  The film had most of the elements of cyberpunk, but the anti-authoritarian hero was a maverick cop rather than a street thug.  As with many 1980s USA movies, illegal drugs were a key evil to be vanquished.  This contrasted with the original print stories of cyberpunk, which had glorified drug use as individualistic rebellion.  In Japan, the first episodes of Bubblegum Crisis were released directly to video in 1987.

In 1988, the manga Akira was animated.  Whereas cyberpunk had previously been made by Caucasians inspired by Asia, the Asians themselves began to grab the Western market.  Gibson groupies promptly began saying that since the Japanese writers had entered the market, cyberpunk was no longer cool.

In 1992, the Extropy Institute began popularizing transhumanist rhetoric that had been circulating since 1980, and the hype about Drexler’s 1986 book on nanotech was beginning to reach the print sci-fi market.  Surprisingly, nanotech hype did not immediately take over the cyberpunk genre.  Extropianism was and is a tremendously optimistic outlook, and it tends to cancel out the “crapsack world” scowling of cyberpunk.

By 1993, the Syndicate series of PC games had begun to codify cyberpunk as a “triple A” gaming esthetic.

In 1995, the first Ghost in the Shell movie revitalized cyberpunk for western audiences.  Also in 1995, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age made a conscious attempt to deride cyberpunk as obsolete and to hype nanotech as a fictional device.  The ensuing 17 years have had few remarkable moments of popular enthusiasm for real nanotech advances, and while nanotech is used in real-world products, nothing as revolutionary as Drexler’s proposed nanoassembler has been demonstrated in real life.

By the time that Deus Ex was released in 2000, cyberpunk was a thoroughly established genre in all sci-fi media.  Deus Ex was one of the first popular computer games to capture the popular imagination with the possibilities of nanotech.

After 12 years of failed nanotech hype, Grendel has released a video dominated by computer-generated images.  Note that one of the actresses is wearing Darryl Hannah’s makeup from Blade Runner.  The images combine illegal drugs (including cocaine, LSD, and intravenous drugs) with the 1s and 0s of digital information.  The Internet is (for many people) more addictive and more accessible than illegal drugs.  Further, the main character begins as an apparently normal human, then at the end of the video, exposes a Schizo Tech heart and eyes.

One response to “The importance of postmodern Schizo Tech to Cyberpunk

  1. eric May 28, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    Akira was interesting to me because it was one of the few works that actually thought of including psychic ability in it. There is a sort of hilarious gap in modern science fiction there. The gurus of the cults seem to think the mind magically stops affecting things when you transition into electro-magnetism, even the old school guys who were doing experiments with phones could figure out there was a connection.

    I’ve always wondered if the genes selecting for it might be widely dispersed like the ones for intelligence, so you have lots of small ones adding up to create the totality of it. One way or the other we’re going to catch on to it, particularly with people starting to move out into space, they’ll notice the sidereal time differences.

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