Review of Cyberpunk and Visual Culture

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Cyberpunk and Visual Culture

Kerry Dodd

Graham J. Murphy and Lars Schmeink eds. Cyberpunk and Visual Culture. Routledge, 2018. Paperback. 326 pg. $54.95. ISBN 9781138062917.

Cyberpunk is undeniably part of our cultural fabric and has never been more visually recognizable since the 1980s than it is today. Not just a SF sub-genre craze, Cyberpunk informs contemporary technological development and lies at the heart of many mainstream realist media representations. The troubled launch of Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) catapulted ‘Cyberpunk’ into prime-time news headlines and ironically revitalized cultural awareness of the genre via the very neoliberal crunch culture that it notionally interrogates. Cyberpunk and Visual Culture, edited by Graham J. Murphy and Lars Schmeink, has in many ways only become more critically relevant, then, since its release, particularly given the pandemic’s fast-forwarding of labor and leisure into virtual spheres which have reinforced global concerns towards technological accessibility. Murphy and Schmeink’s edited collection of 15 essays commendably engages with a profusion of media formats to highlight the visual styles iconic to Cyberpunk and argue for the centrality of such aesthetic paradigms within contemporary ‘realistic’ settings. Through this targeted focus the selected chapters exhibit a coherence of thought and criticism that is often lost within other broader collections, marking this title as both an important contribution to critical debate and companion to our current Cyberpunk-inflected times.

Part I begins with the intersection between text and image in the visualization of Cyberpunk futures, extrapolating from Gibson’s iconic description of the sky being ‘the color of television, tuned to a dead channel’ as a refocusing of criticism between graphic and prose mediums. Christian Hviid Mortensen’s opening chapter astutely notes that Gibson’s vision of the future now feels anachronistic to contemporary readers, where the more common blue hue of untuned channels unwittingly inverts the original visual. Focusing on ‘gonzo-journalism’ in the graphic novel Transmetropolitan (1997-2002) Mortensen grapples with the retrofutures left behind by technological change and deploys Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the ‘anti-environment’ to demonstrate how the text’s blending of media-anachronism and media-futurism can create a space that is ‘necessary to effect needed social observation, if not social critique’ (13). Timothy Wilcox’s subsequent chapter continues this exploration through ‘failures of imagination’ via the comic book series The Surrogates (2005-2006) by shifting the focus on the materiality of Cyberpunk futures. Through a discussion of the text’s eponymous surrogate robot bodies Wilcox critically examines the importance of visualizing physical re-embodiment to reveal the everyday manners in which we encounter ourselves and others via posthuman materialities – an important consideration that is often lost within criticism amidst the emphasis on ‘cyber’ futures, but one that should equally consider the non-human and ecological consequences of such speculations. Murphy’s own chapter meanwhile provides a compelling extended study of animal representation and motifs in Boom! Studios’ comic book adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (2009). Opening with an eloquent demarcation of how Do Androids is not necessarily a classic Cyberpunk text but is both influential to and of that milieu, Murphy demonstrates how the original novel and graphic adaptation define empathetic understanding via animal husbandry and cruelty – a refreshing reading of an oft-cited text that emphasizes a consideration of how Cyberpunk’s imagination impacts beyond the human. Stina Attebery and Josh Pearson follow by considering the importance of fashion and style within the table-top role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020 (1998), shifting the discussion of visuality from cyberspaces and cityscapes to the centrality of self-expression and personal image to Cyberpunk through an exploration of precarious social identities within metropolitan spaces. While this chapter illuminates an oft-overlooked aspect of the field, there is only a brief engagement with the text’s concerning conflation of bodily modification with a ‘humanity cost’ (that causes anti-social behavior) which would have benefitted from a more nuanced consideration and additional reflection of the capitalist driven generation of fashion waste. Paweł Frelik concludes the section by examining the interplay between light and Cyberpunk visions of the future. Astutely noting that many SF texts are predicated on a future of energy abundance, Frelik demonstrates how the ‘near-absolute absence’ of any explanation of such plenitude ‘rings loud’ from a contemporary perspective (94). Focusing on a variety of textual media, the chapter emphasizes how light’s integral presence to Cyberpunk aesthetics is not only a retrofuturistic imagination of outdated neon technology but also emblematic of the genre’s complicated relationship to contemporaneous social-political tensions.

Part II explores virtual and visual terrains, tracing developments of both the digital gaze and rendering of cyberspaces. Christopher McGunnigle begins with the cyborg posthuman body in the RoboCop franchise through an examination of the titular character’s digitally overlaid sight as a form of ‘subjective shot’ (107). Moving from a consideration of the ‘male’ to ‘cyborg’ gaze, McGunnigle examines how the series challenges traditional conceptions of hypermasculinity and disembodiment to configure and reclaim human subjectivity in symbiosis with cybernetics. The discussion crucially avoids tackling who programs and controls such a gaze, however, which given historic discriminatory practices around face ID recognition underscores the necessity of understanding the biases that underpin algorithmic sight. Ryan J. Cox’s subsequent chapter meanwhile provides a detailed analysis of Makoto Kusanagi within the Ghost in the Shell film (1995) and Stand Alone Complex anime series (2002-2005). Contrary to early hacker idealism towards cyberspace being free from the trappings of embodied prejudice and persecution, Cox astutely demonstrates how Kusanagi is a far cry from disembodied freedom and is rather subject to and a participant of meat space ideologies. Kusanagi’s own repeated inhabitation of bodies with similar physical characters then is ‘not an attempt to seal the rupture between ghost and shell, it is an act of self definition’ (136) that affirms the centrality of the body to enduring paradigms of self-expression. Mark R. Johnson’s following chapter explores historic visualizations of cyberspace within video games, poignantly noting that such landscapes represent fundamentally digital objects—data comprised of zeros and ones—through human visual paradigms. Focusing on the utilization of space, color and shape within various depictions, Johnson moves from early grid-based systems to more contemporary avatar renderings in a study that highlights a lack of creative re-imagining towards virtual spheres. The discussion itself however is predominantly descriptive and limited in scope, particularly as the chapter could have formed the foundation for a more convincing argument towards the potential of revitalizing how humanity visualizes and encounters cyberspace. Stephen Joyce’s chapter, however, complements the previous discussion by focusing on the potential of video games to replicate Cyberpunk agentic tensions between gameplay freedom and narrative control in the Deus Ex (2000-2016) franchise with a specific focus on Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011). Joyce argues that the players’ navigation of the game as a form of cyberspace encourages their immediate immersion within transhumanist values and demonstrates not only the medium’s reflection of contemporary social-technological debates but also the ‘cost’ of such capitalist driven depictions, where ‘the “free choice” of transhumanism is never as free as it seems’ (167). Cyberpunk video game’s potential for capitalist critique therefore stems from a fault that ‘lies not in the medium but in ourselves’ (171), where nuanced criticism of the processes that have led to deregulated market control are more effective than arguments towards nebulous concepts without any proposed alternative. Jenna Ng and Jamie Macdonald close Part II by focusing on a distinctly recognizable ‘cyber’ future in the video game Watch Dogs (2015) where all electronic devices are connected to the ctOS (Central Operating System) surveillance-state metropolitan network. Shifting from traditional discussions of jacking into cyberspace, the authors demonstrate how contemporary data-driven systems represent an entwinement of virtual and ‘real’ spaces, one that the game’s hacker-protagonist Aiden utilizes to subvert the ctOS system and forge his own sense of urban agency. This discussion however avoids directly challenging the rather simplistic representation at the heart of Watch Dogs hacktivism, where Aiden is seemingly able to control the cityscape and freely access central databases in a manner that is divorced from contemporary practice.

Part III draws the collection to a close by focusing on Cyberpunk as a form of SF realism, where visions of the future reflect more upon the contemporary moment than any distant possibility. Evan Torner shifts the discussion away from American and Japanese stereotypes by introducing two often overlooked examples of German Cyberpunk films – Kamikaze 1989 (1982) and Nuclearvision (1982) – which resonate with the concerns articulated elsewhere in the collection. Torner demonstrates how the deeply pessimistic tone of both films, particularly within their late cold war context, offers a moral and ethical ambiguity that is frequently lacking in Hollywood depictions, where glamourous and gritty portrayals of technological liberation or servitude will often depend upon the audience’s own socio-political views in a manner that fails to query ‘whose interests are supported by which technologies’ (210, original emphasis). The danger therefore lies in systems that are notionally beyond self-reflective critique, causing Torner to ask, in a very meta-cyberpunk manner, ‘what makes the white western male incapable of grappling with these systems of his own creation’ (209). Mark Bould’s following chapter further critiques the anglophonic bias of mainstream Cyberpunk media through both the genre’s blindness and marginalization of African people, Africa and its diaspora. While Bould notes that aspects of his cited examples may ‘look very familiar to western eyes’ (231)—as shown via the work of Nadia El Fani, Sylvestre Amoussou, Jean-Pierre Bekolo and particularly the Holloywood-esque spectacle of Neil Blomkamp’s cinematography—his movement between the molar and molecular scales pinpoints how ‘they use those pieces to play an often different game’ (231). He poignantly concludes that ‘no matter how things fall apart, the center will find ways to hold’ (231), and when we consider that this ‘center’ not only represents colonizing hegemony but equally deracinated global corporations then the impetus of such a critique is not only urgent but globally relevant. Anna McFarlane’s following chapter returns to the blurring between representation and reality through Katherine Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), persuasively arguing that the latter may not appear as a traditional Cyberpunk film but does undeniably return to thematic and cinematographic aspects that are central to the director’s wider work. For McFarlane both films are positioned either side of the epochal millennial shift, where Strange Days sees the future as something potentially horrifying and wonderous while the ‘post’ 9/11 response at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty struggles with the prospect of an optimistic future. The different reflections of virtual reality, surveillance monitoring, remote viewing and the tone central to both films crucially returns to the increasing manners in which the contemporary moment is both visualized and represented via Cyberpunk motifs. Sherryl Vint expands upon this notion in an excellent chapter that explores the fusing, or collapsing, of material and virtual environments in a range of military-sf films that continually align warfare with digital game culture. As Vint notes, the audience’s perceived ability to differentiate what is real from representation lies in our expectation of what cyber-, military and game space should look like, where the inversion of topographical expectations in such films as Ender’s Game (2013) and Source Code (2011) reinforces technological and ethical concerns around being unable to distinguish artifice from authenticity. From this Vint draws connections to contemporary remote warfare in the film Good Kill (2014) by illustrating how drone combat physicalizes such an anxiety in contemporary terms and thus underscores the importance of sf critical studies to a cultural appreciation of a present built upon Cyberpunk visualizations. Schmeink draws the collection to a close with an afterword that appropriately focuses on counter visuality and Cyberpunk’s fundamental relationship of seeing and being seen within cities, cyberspaces and posthumanism.

While some chapters are more persuasive in their cultural and critical argumentation than others, the writing throughout is consistently engaging, making it accessible to Cyberpunk novices or enthusiasts and is a testament to the rigorous work of the editors. Far from treading pre-established ground, Cyberpunk and Visual Culture proves the enduring relevance of Cyberpunk visuality to understanding the ‘reality’ that surrounds us daily. Certainly, it would have been productive to see further discussions of texts more contemporaneous to the book’s release—as only a handful of chapters discuss media released in the early to mid-2010s—but this title is undeniably an excellent guide to our constantly developing cyberpunk present and will surely be a steadfast companion for those who look to take this research further.

Kerry Dodd completed his PhD at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, entitled “The Archaeological Weird: Excavating the Non-human,” examined the intersection between archaeology and Weird fiction. Focusing on the cultural production of the artefact encounter, his thesis explored how archaeological framings can offer a re-conceptualization of object ontology through the Weird. He is currently working on a monograph that explores the representation of materiality and objects in archaeological fiction. Kerry also works more widely in the fields of Science Fiction (particularly Cosmic Horror and Cyberpunk), the Gothic, and glitch aesthetics.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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