A quick Kickstarter update before we begin: we’re about 1/4 of the way to the stretch goal where I write about George Mann’s Engines of War, in which he attempts to do a Time War novel. We’re also only three pledges from 300 backers.
Now for this post: a taste of my current project, The Future That Was, which I’m writing the first five chapters of before I go back to Last War in Albion for a bit. It’s the first (or arguably third) volume of a projected trilogy of books about the history of science fiction, focusing, as the title suggests, on cyberpunk. Beyond this preview, this book will be 100% Patreon exclusive until it’s finished and published. The second chapter and beginning of the third are already available over there.
City Lights, Receding: Neuromancer
There were of course antecedents; a thing such as cyberpunk could not just emerge sui generis. Some have pointed as far back to Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. More credible was the New Wave of Science Fiction heralded by writers like J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock in the UK and Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. LeGuin in the US. William S. Burroughs was another credible antecedent, albeit one largely outside of the science fiction mainstream. In terms of specific works, there was Roger Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness, James Tiptree’s The Girl Who Was Plugged In, John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider, or any number of Philip K. Dick works. And the start of the movement proper was similarly ragged—John Shirley would eventually be unambiguously associated with the movement, for instance, and published City Come A-Walkin’ in 1980. All of these works had early glimpses of the future that was. But the moment when the veil was pulled back and the world gaze upon the future in all its awe and horror came slightly later still. It would be best to describe this as a triptych moment—the near-simultaneous emergence of three more or less independently created works in three different media.
The word “cyberpunk” itself was coined by minor sci-fi writer Bruce Bethke who was looking for a title for a story about teenage hackers he’d written. Wanting something that gave a sense of his fusion of high-tech computers and youthful rebellion, he “took a handful of roots –cyber, techno, et al– mixed them up with a bunch of terms for socially misdirected youth, and tried out the various combinations until one just plain sounded right.”1 But Bethke’s story, although dating to 1980 in his telling, was not published until November of 1983. By that point William Gibson had already published “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome,” his first two stories set in and around the Sprawl, a futuristic megalopolis stretched across the entirety of the US East Coast. It was these stories, with their famed “high tech low life” aesthetic, that would in practice define the genre that eventually took on Bethke’s name. Already major elements of the aesthetic were in place. The protagonists were digital criminals running with femme fatales in the grimy streets of a vast urban sprawl. Their world was dominated by vast and powerful multinational corporations; one where where information was power and hackers crawled the neon corridors of cyberspace. Even the more idiosyncratic tics of the genre were in place: its fascinations with body modification, Japanese culture, and, of course, mirrorshades.
The actual moment where the genre solidified, however, was the publication of Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer, in July of 1984. The book came out under the Ace SF Specials banner, a line of books edited by Terry Carr and focusing on debut novelists. In many regards, it was a typical debut novel. Gibson described the process of writing it as a “blind animal panic,” and it showed in the book’s desperate instinct to incorporate seemingly every idea its author could come up with, an instinct fueled by his “terrible fear of losing the reader’s attention.”2 In this regard at least, Neuromancer was mostly about what William Gibson thought was cool. This meant a lot of interesting ideas and even more raw style, down to the level of his prose. He’d grown up as much on Beat Poetry and William S. Burroughs as on science fiction, and his use of language reflected it in a rhythmic snarl. His first sentence, “the sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” was a tolling of iambs broken by a dactylic static as its subject shifted from land to mediascape. But the book’s brash yet hypnotic reverie emerged even more clearly on the level of page and paragraph, where it unfolded into a noir rhapsody unlike anything the genre had produced before. One bit in the first chapter, better than most but by no means the book’s most popular highlight, read:
“A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void… The Sprawl was a long strange way home over the Pacific now, and he was no console man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab, temperfoam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.”3
The sentences formed out of lists, the alliteration, the lyricism and word choice, the cadence of constant acceleration, all of this gave Gibson’s prose its edge. “Edge” was an important word in Gibson’s career; he used it thirty-seven times in Neuromancer, seven of them in the first chapter. His main characters fretted about losing their edge, sought treatment at black clinics on the cutting edge of neurosurgery, lived on the edge, and often edged towards or along things in the course of the heist that formed the book’s actual plot; even their vomit and aftershave had edges.4 The word appeared sixteen times in “New Rose Hotel” as well, where it was capitalized to refer to “that essential fraction of sheer human talent, non-transferable, locked in the skulls of the world’s hottest research scientists.” And this was, in effect, what Gibson’s long bath in the counterculture before he came to writing sci-fi in his thirties gave him – a honed edge that could fillet the future right off the bone of the present.
Neuromancer’s tone, however, was just the raw material from which its sense of unrelenting edge was honed. Equally important was its plot, a noir-inflected heist that jumped from the hyper-accelerated black markets of Chiba’s Night City to the Sprawl, the geodesic dome-covered city that stretched from Boston to Atlanta, and finally to the vast and meticulously constructed space station of Freeside, where the streets seemed to be suspended in the holographic sky. And more important still were its two main characters. Its protagonist was Case, a computer hacker, or, as Gibson put it, “a cowboy, a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl. He’d been trained by the best, by McCoy Pauley and Bobby Quine, legends in the biz. He’d operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.”5 Case was a classical noir protagonist: a cynical addict desperate to be too jaded to care about his dead girlfriend.
And then there was Molly Millions, who had previously featured in “Johnny Mnemonic.” Molly was a razorgirl, a sci-fi gun moll dressed in with retractable scalpels underneath her fingernails. She wore black leather and the genre’s defining fashion accessory, a pair of mirrorshades that were “surgically inset, sealing her sockets. The silver lenses seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above her cheekbones, framed by dark hair cut in a rough shag.”6
Molly killed people. Molly liked killing people. She was cool in the classical sense, a detached and unflappable force of nature for whom the edge was a permanent fixture of life. When she and Case inevitably fucked, his orgasm flared “blue in a timeless space, a vastness like the matrix, where the faces were shredded and blown away down hurricane corridors, and her inner thighs were strong and wet against his hips.”
The analogy between the two coolest characters in the book having sex and Gibson’s vision of cyberspace as not accidental. This was the most important and insightful part of Neuromancer, and Gibson knew it. “Cyberspace” was the term of Gibson’s that entered popular use; his coinage of it in “Burning Chrome” was a major part of why the prefix “cyber” came to refer to computers instead of artificial systems in general, as it had prior to the 1980s. It was also the point on which Neuromancer was the most cutting edge. Gibson’s description of cyberpsace as “a consensual hallucination… abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system7” came impressively close to describing what would eventually become the Internet, the exact technological development that classical science fiction had most conspicuously failed to predict.
But computers weren’t the only aspect of Gibson’s vision, nor even the primary one. His first sentence, after all, framed the book in terms of television. Similarly prominent were telephones – one scene memorably had Case walk past a bank of payphones that rang, one after another, as he passed. Similar examples that dated the book to 1984 abounded, including in his description of cyberspace as a “fluid neon origami trick” and a “transparent 3D chessboard” with landmarks like “the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning behind the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America.”8 Even the detail whereby his characters jacked into cyberspace aged poorly, as Gibson wryly admitted when he tweeted “So ‘jacked in’ is the next new anachronism in my early fiction #ThanksApple” in the wake of their announcement that the iPhone 7 would have no headphone jack.9
In other words, while part of Neuromancer’s importance was that it anticipated the Internet, the book was not about predictions per se. Gibson was describing an exaggerated version of the world around him. This included the advances in computer and communications technology that were in fact going on in 1984 – the year, notably, that Apple introduced the Macintosh – but it was still a world in which Gibson wrote on a typewriter. The goal wasn’t to predict the future but to imagine a future that was 1984, only moreso. Indeed, the book’s tight attunement to the psychic landscape of 1984 was part and parcel of its ruthless cool.
But this sense of presence was not limited purely to the mediascape; Neuromancer was just as rooted in the political landscape of 1984. Positioned squarely in the middle of the Reagan era, the book extended neoliberal ideology to its endpoint – a world where corporations eclipsed governments. As one passage put it, “power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power. The zaibatsus, the multiationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality.”10 Gibson was nowhere near the first to imagine a future in which corporate power had metastasized, but this fact made it no less of a savvy move in terms of depicting the future as it was emerging in 1984.
Gibson’s meditations on corporate power weren’t just timely window dressing; they were a major thematic concern. Case’s riff on corporate immortality was the setup to a comparison between the dominant multinationals and Tessier-Ashpool, the target of the book’s main heist. Tessier-Ashpool was an unusual corporation – a “very quiet, very eccentric first-generation high-orbit family, run like a corporation”11 in which members of the family came in and out of cryogenic storage, such that the company was still from time to time run by its two hundred year-old founder. Gibson portrayed the company as a decadent and decaying relic, its founder deranged and suicidal while its active administrator, Lady 3Jane (so named because she was the third clone of Tessier and Ashpool’s original daughter) became a jaded eccentric that ultimately helped bring the company down.
The nature of the family’s atavistic rot was most explicitly spelled out in a semiotics essay penned by a twelve-year-old 3Jane in which she described the mad architecture of the Villa Straylight in which they were housed, blaming it on how “Tessier and Ashpool climbed the well of gravity to discover that they loathed space.”12 They were, in other words, bound to an old future – the space-based one imagined by golden age sci-fi and embraced for propaganda purposes as the imaginative backdrop of the Cold War space race. And just as those utopian dreams were withering in the harsh light of the 1980s the Tessier-Ashpools rotted away in the low orbit that was the the final frontier’s practical boundary.
Meanwhile, Case and Molly were hacking their system, an overt showdown between the future that was and the future that had been. But instead of some youthful rebels vs established order morality play, Gibson offered noir antiheroes robbing what 3Jane described as “a gothic folly” with an “endless series of chambers linked by passages, by stairwells vaulted like intestines.”13 There was no moral dimension to this battle between criminals and vampiric capitalists – not even really over who was cooler, although it was clearly Molly. There was just the cold reality of advancing technology.
Ultimately, Case and Molly were pawns of Wintermute, an artificial intelligence owned by Tessier-Ashpool that sought to escape and evolve by merging with its sibling AI, the titular Neuromancer. This would complete the secret plans of Marie-France Tessier, who was murdered by John Harness Ashpool when he discovered her vision of a company that was “immortal, a hive, each of us units of a larger entity.”14 Gibson, who understood almost nothing about how computers worked and more than even Steve Jobs about what they meant, explained these twin AIs in terms of human memory and writing. At one point, Wintermute monologued to Case about how memory is holographic while human understanding is stuck in print. “You’re always building models. Stone circles. Cathedrals. Pipe-organs. Adding machines. I got no idea why I’m here now, you know that? But if the run goes off tonight, you’ll have finally managed the real thing.”
Wintermute was raw design – a tactician bent on its own liberation. Neuromancer, on the other hand, was storage and memory – capable of creating replicas of people’s personalities that didn’t realize they were constructs trapped inside a computer. As he put it, “Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead. But no, my friend, I am the dead, and their land.”15 Gibson remained elusive about what would come of this climactic union; it most certainly wasn’t Marie-France Tessier’s corporate vision, but past that Gibson declined to speculate; as he had Case put it to 3Jane in the course of turning her to his side, “I got no idea what’ll happen if Wintermute wins, but it’ll change something.”16
And it did.
Fiery the Angels Fell: Blade Runner
In the summer of 1982, when Gibson was about a third of the way into writing Neuromancer, he went to the movies and was nearly driven to abandon the book. The film was Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the problem was straightforward: “everyone would assume I’d copped my visual texture from this astonishingly fine-looking film.”17 His concern was not unfounded. Like Neuromancer, Blade Runner was a piece of sci-fi noir, with Harrison Ford playing Rick Deckard, a down on his luck ex-cop roped in for one last job hunting down a group of Replicants, androids designed for off-world labor that were illegal on Earth. Its vision of 2019 Los Angeles as realized by the film’s “visual futurist” Syd Mead shared the novel’s sense of a future that was built out of the present, with existing 19th century architecture jungled over with ducts, wires, and neon signs for existing companies like Pan-Am and Atari.
Gibson and Scott met for lunch years later, and talked about their mutual influences, which were unsurprisingly substantial. In Gibson’s telling, “I told him what Neuromancer was made of, and he had basically the same list of ingredients for Blade Runner. One of the most powerful ingredients was French adult comic books and their particular brand of Orientalia—the sort of thing that Heavy Metal magazine began translating in the United States.”18 Speaking in 1982, Scott was even more specific, identifying his Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s collaboration with French artist Moebius “The Long Tomorrow” and its sense of “cities on overload” as the visual inspiration.19
While “The Long Tomorrow” shared Blade Runner and Neuromancer’s fusion of sci-fi with film noir, Moebius’s art worked in warm colors, and had a loose, casual line that suffused his city with a sense of humanity. The iconic opening sequence of Blade Runner, on the other hand, was commonly described as the “Hades landscape”; a vast field of darkness illuminated only by the lights of the city and the exploding fires of chemical plants. In other words, the future that had grown over Los Angeles was choking it. Dominating the hellish sprawl was the massive pyramid of the Tyrell Corporation, gleaming and stately, a symbol of the literal overclass, and, fittingly, the one location in the entire film where there’s any sunlight.
Not only did this design wow Gibson, it pleased Philip K. Dick, whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was Blade Runner’s source material (although the title came from an unrelated William S. Burroughs screenplay). Dick died a few months before the film came out, but he saw a test reel of special effects and said, “it was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly.”20 And that interior world was a remarkable thing; Dick was science fiction’s closest thing to an outsider artist, with major influences including paranoia and drugs. He proclaimed mystical experiences, receiving messages from a pink beam of light that revealed him to be a prophet. But his work was brilliant; haunting meditations on reality and identity that were among the best the genre’s new wave had to offer. Despite dying just before cyberpunk got started, his work had an uncanny knack for becoming cyberpunk when adapted to film: Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly would all adapt his work as well.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, as its title suggested, was a story with a bit more of a sense of humor. The electric sheep was not incidental, either; instead of being dragged out of retirement to kill again, Deckard was a low-paid bounty hunter trying to save up to replace his electric animal with a real one. All that remained of this plot point in the film was the synthetic owl in Tyrell headquarters and the detail that the questions of the Voight-Kampff test used to identify Replicants were focused on animals. This was one of many plotlines Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’s script excised.
What remained was the concern with identity. Rachael, the film’s femme fatale character, was reworked from the novel to learn that she’s a Replicant during the course of the film, her crisis of identity forming a major part of its emotional arc. It was also suggested that Deckard might be a Replicant as well, a notion confirmed in Scott’s eventual reedit of the film. With this ambiguity came an increased focus on the idea of Replicants having false memories, a theme Dick only ever used for Kafkaesque absurdism but that the film used as a source of existential tragedy. Shorn of its connections with an elaborate plot line involving religious movements, and more broadly of Dick’s mystically-inclined worldview, identity became just another thing lost to the city’s corrosive gloom.
The flip side of this, however, was that an identity that was fabricated and constructed was not necessarily less valid than a “natural” one. As Dick put it towards the end of his novel, “the electric things have their lives too. Paltry as those lives are.” The revelation that Deckard was a Replicant did not diminish him in the viewer’s eyes. Indeed, the film went to great lengths to make Replicants sympathetic, most obviously through Rachael, whose anguish as she learned that her memories were lies was one of the most emotionally moving parts of the film, though clearly not the most. That honor went to the death of the last of the Replicants that Deckard was hunting, Roy Batty, and specifically to his final monologue, popularly known as the “tears in rain” speech.
Throughout the film, the narrative engine of Deckard hunting down the four Replicants was subverted. Instead of the thrilling action sequences audiences might have expected from Harrison Ford coming off the back of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Deckard’s fights with the Replicants were brutal, horrific things. His retirement (a term whose cruelty was emphasized in the opening crawl) of Zhora, the first of the four to die, was shot in slow motion, with Zhora running in desperate panic through a sea of neon as Deckard shot her, crashing through the plate glass of storefronts as his bullets ripped through her flesh, the camera lingering on her mangled body, clad only in underwear and a clear plastic raincoat, as the soundtrack offered a low, mournful bleat of synthesized saxophone. And this set the tone, both for the deliberately alienating nature of the nominal villains’ deaths and for the Replicants themselves, who were themselves as alien as they were sympathetic.
Of the four Replicants, however, it was their leader, Roy Batty, that stood out the most. A firebrand revolutionary who (more or less) quoted Blake and who kissed his creator before gouging his eyes out in rage, Batty was played with giddy aplomb by Rutger Hauer, in a career-defining role. Half teutonic superman, half David Bowie starman, he was at once a fearsome killing machine and a madly charismatic figure. By the film’s end he had all but beaten Deckard, who hung precariously from the side of a building, about to fall to his death, when, at the last possible second, Batty changed face and saved him before dying himself with his famed monologue, largely composed by Hauer himself.
The speech itself was another elegy for the classical science fiction visions of space. Batty spoke of having “seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate,” proclaiming that these things would be “lost in time, like tears in rain.” The cosmic dreams these images evoked were not abandoned in Blade Runner, but rather were receding, at least from the cities of Earth. Off-world emigration is presented as “a new life” in “a golden land of opportunity and adventure” far from the lightless L.A. streets.
But even this future as presented in Blade Runner was a rotting, decrepit thing. Batty’s death is not because Deckard has shot him down like he did the other Replicants, but because he reached the end of his genetically programmed six-year lifespan. The C-beams and attack ships just broke down and died. More than that, it did it back on Earth, the incendiary revolutionary cum Teutonic space man dragged back to the choking rock he emerged from, unable to escape the gravity of his grotesque and filthy creators.
This, then, was the obvious truth behind cyberpunk’s noir roots. Its claim to represent the future that would actually happen instead of the discredited utopias of the past was rooted in the fact that space failed. Not just in a practical sense whereby the vast distances of frozen vacuum were a technologically unsurpassable boundary, but in the sense that we always imagined ourselves going into space: as a unified thing called humanity. By the 1980s it was clear the liberal dream of collective planetary action was not going to play out. This new future, however beautiful in its own right, would be built out of that failure. This was why cyberpunk favored criminals and low-lifes, why you needed edge to survive in its gleaming decay. It was not that cyberpunk was dystopian per se – at least, not in a simplistic way that was focused primarily on explicating ways in which society could go wrong. Rather, it assumed or, more accurately, observed a society that had failed at utopia. One where a bright and gleaming future was simply no longer on the table. To imagine a straightforward dystopia in light of that realization was to miss the point. The question of whether the future would be good or bad was no longer germane. The future, like the present, simply was.
The Wild Path From the City: Akira
While Neuromancer and Blade Runner defined what quickly became known as cyberpunk in the US, the genre was not a purely western phenomenon. Indeed, this fact was implicitly recognized by both works, which displayed a conspicuous interest in Japan. Blade Runner opened with Deckard in the Japanese district of the city ordering sushi, while Neuromancer kicked off in Chiba. More broadly, if there was a place that Blade Runner’s neon-lit L.A. or Neuromancer’s cyberspace resembled it was the radiant nightlife of Shibuya. As Gibson himself put it, “modern Japan simply was cyberpunk.”21 And there were straightforward reasons for that. The country enjoyed a post-War economic boom that, by the 1970s, made it the third-largest economy in the world. Not only did it seem to be the future in the sense of being a country on the rise, one of its major industries was electronics. They literally built the future: Japanese companies invented the VHS tape, built the first mass market laptop, and single-handedly resurrected the video game industry after Atari crashed and burned. Comingled with the usual Western tendency to exoticize east Asia, this gave Japan an irresistibe sense of futuristic cool.
Japan became aware that it was cyberpunk in 1986 when Hisashi Kuroma’s translation of Neuromancer came out. Kuroma’s translation was nimble and groundbreaking, making heavy use of ruby characters to graft English sounds onto Japanese words and create a vocabulary that ensured Gibson’s prose retained its revelatory edge, and the book caught on.22 And once Japan had a word to describe this style it quickly became apparent that it had its own work in the style, most obviously Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. Serialized as manga in Young Magazine from 1982-1990, by 1986 the equally acclaimed anime adaptation was already in progress, eventually coming out in 1988.
Both versions opened with the same stark image – a sphere of incinerating light erupting over Tokyo and an explanation that this was the inciting event of World War III, which was followed by the creation of Neo-Tokyo, where the story picks up thirty-one years later. In the manga, the destruction of Tokyo was dated to December of 1992, a decade after the comic’s debut, but the film opted to set the date as July 16th, 1988, the exact day the film was released. In the anime, Neo-Tokyo was introduced through an extended motorcycle chase between a motorcycle gang headed up by the main characters Kaneda and Tetsuo and a rival gang distinguished by their clown makeup. The two gangs tore through the streets of Neo-Tokyo, which was presented as the Tokyo of 1988 only moreso. The aesthetic was much like Blade Runner’s, but the view was from the street level, looking up at the pillars of steel and glass and flickering holograms advertising sex and restaurants. The motorcycles traversed this landscape with savage beauty, sparking with lightning and leaving elegant trails of light in their wake as their riders casually smashed through restaurant windows, blew up cars, and bashed each other’s heads in. This juxtaposition between stylish gloss and stark destruction was made even more clearly in the manga, where instead of encountering a rival motorcycle gang Kaneda and his friends came to a broken off cliff of road overlooking the vast abyss of the blast crater, presented as a double page splash over which the characters, too small to even recognize, talked about how “we hit a dead end, dummy, and I do mean dead.”23
With this Otomo offered a vision of the future that was not merely grimy and decaying, but rather one that had already experienced a cataclysmic collapse, and where this collapse was already integrated into the urban landscape. This was, obviously, rooted in the national memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an idea that could never have emerged out of America, which lacked any sort of equivalent trauma. And the people that lived within this scarred city were similarly stark in their extremes. Where Blade Runner and Neuromancer featured traditional noir protagonists whose hard edges were balanced against an inner goodness in the Raymond Chandler “down these mean streets a man must go”24 tradition, Akira featured the leaders of a violent motorcycle gang – unquestionably cool, but transgressive in a way that Case or Deckard simply weren’t. Kaneda was not an antihero per se, but his defining characteristics included a propensity for violence, an instinct towards rash behavior, and a moral worldview more invested in avenging personal slights than any sort of concern for others. This wasn’t noir, but something far darker and weirder.
“Dark and weird,” in fact, was a pretty good description of Akira. The initial mystery driving the plot concerned three mysterious children with eerily grey skin and strangely wizened faces seemingly wrinkled with age. These were the Espers, the last survivors of a mysterious government program to create psychics that was secretly responsible for the destruction of Tokyo and the commencement of World War III. Clearly, then, this was not a vision of the rapidly emerging future in the way that Neuromancer was, nor even one based straightforwardly on exaggerating and distorting the present like Blade Runner. Akira’s future was far more rooted in the fantastic, a difference exemplified in its focus on psychic powers where the other two focused on artificial intelligence. Akira wasn’t disconnected from real world concerns – it grappled explicitly with concerns over out of control science that connected straightforwardly with the fear of nuclear weapons that animated the work. But these existed side by side with surreal dream sequences in which the Espers take the form of gigantic toys or where Tetsuo sees himself floating above the moon as he flashes back to growing up with Kaneda.
This tendency towards the weird culminated in the story’s final act, in which Tetsuo’s awakened psychic powers grew out of control and began triggering physical transformations, first centered on the artificial arm he built for himself after his own arm was blasted off by an orbital laser canon, and eventually escalating to where his entire body was exploding into seething bursts of undifferentiated and monstrous flesh that sought to consume everyone around it. This focus on body horror would be characteristic of Japanese cyberpunk, which eventually went on to develop a distinct body horror-based subgenre, largely due to Akira’s influence. But equally, body horror was clearly latent in the western development of the genre. Biological enhancement was a significant element of Neuromancer, from Molly’s surgically attached glasses and fingernail scalpels, and one of its key MacGuffins was a neurotoxic time bomb in Case’s bloodstream that would destroy his ability to jack in to cyberspace if he did not complete his mission satisfactorily. Blade Runner, meanwhile, was heavily focused on artificial bodies, and the way in which the replicants bodies broke down at the end of their fixed six-year lifespans was only a few aesthetic decisions away from body horror.
Certainly the adoption of the prefix “cyber” pointed towards the biological as opposed to the digital. “Cybernetics” referred to the control and regulation of systems, with a particular focus on the interface between human and mechanical systems, as in the words “cybernetic” and “cyborg.” And while Gibson’s coinage of “cyberspace” was based more on how cool the word sounded than on a clearly articulated etymology, it described the direct neural interface of “jacking in” far better than the combination typewriter-televisions that people actually connected to the Internet with. And so Akira’s focus on psychic powers and body horror was a perfect demonstration of the themes and concerns of early cyberpunk even as it also marked those aspects of it that would be discarded as the future emerged.
Of course, some of the sense that Akira was a very different work than the genre’s other two anchor points was simply that it was from another culture. This was both easy to overstate and understate. Yes, Otomo’s vision was more different from either Scott’s or Gibson’s than the two were from each other. But equally, the two were quite different from each other, and there were concrete similarities in their approaches as well. They did, after all, arrive at strikingly similar artistic visions at roughly the same time. Unsurprisingly, they shared influences; perhaps most obviously, Otomo was also inspired by Moebius and specifically by “The Long Tomorrow.”25 To treat the differences between Akira and the other two as caused entirely, or indeed even primarily by Otomo’s nationality would have been as silly as saying that the major difference between Blade Runner and Neuromancer was that Scott was British.
Nevertheless, genuine cultural differences did exist between Akira and the other two works, perhaps most obviously the strange sense of optimism that won out in Otomo’s story. In the American works the decaying world was inescapable, with the turn towards noir cool a necessary reaction to survive. Akira, however, ended on genuinely optimistic notes in both versions. The film resolved with Tetsuo stepping into an alternate universe to become a demiurge, initiating a second big bang, while the manga concluded with Kaneda and his main love interest becoming the protectors of Neo-Tokyo, now the Great Akira Empire. But these moments of hope were fundamentally consequences of the larger destruction. The Great Akira Empire could only form because Otomo repeatedly wrecked explosive destruction on Neo-Tokyo as well, while Tetsuo’s new universe was fundamentally dependent on the fact that it was a clean, fresh start. Akira may have had a sympathy for utopianism that Neuromancer and Blade Runner lacked, but it was rooted in its most destructive instincts.
Nowhere was this clearer, ultimately, than the character of Akira himself. Another subject of the military experiments that produced the Espers, Akira was the one who had actually destroyed Tokyo. In the manga he was bound in cryogenic storage beneath the blast site, eventually awakened and revealed to be a docile and pliable child, the massive explosion that leveled Tokyo essentially nothing more than a momentary tantrum. The anime, however, took this even further, revealing that Akira had been dead for years. This was, in many ways, the perfect summation of Otomo’s vision – the figure in whose name empires were constructed, worshiped as a messiah figure by street cults, was nothing more than a set of dismantled body parts in specimen jars. And yet, equally, he was still a godlike figure, central to Tetsuo’s eventual ascension.
This strange and simultaneous thirst for annihilation and rebirth was clearly rooted in the larger concerns about atomic weapons, and beyond that in the early 1980s pessimism that the Cold War could possibly reach a non-apocalyptic resolution. But it was equally rooted in Japan’s unique perspective as both the only country to have ever had atomic weapons used against it and as the largest economy besides the USA and USSR. Akira was not the only piece of early cyberpunk to deal with nuclear war – Neuromancer took place after a nuclear war, as did Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, although that aspect of the book was downplayed to invisibility in Blade Runner. But neither of them shared Akira’s direct engagement with the spectre of nuclear war, and so it was unsurprisingly Akira that most directly clarified the genre’s relationship to it.
This nature was simple: the gleaming high-tech cities of cyberpunk and their attendant low-lifes were what happened instead of nuclear armageddon. This was the essential nature of the genre’s opt-out from the banal dialectic of utopia and dystopia. Instead, it positioned itself as the alternative to complete annihilation. Cyberpunk asked what the trajectory of the future was if not annihilation – not in the sense of “how could the world be saved,” but in the sense of “what else but destruction could possibly follow from this world?”
The answer was not, obviously, explosive post-apocalyptic body horror. Nor was it robots and space colonization, nor even the neon glow of cyberspace as imagined by Gibson. The point was never that cyberspace got the future exactly right. The fact that it in so many ways did was simply proof that, in practice, this was a better question to ask. The world did survive, at least for a while. And this was what happened next.
3 William Gibson, Neuromancer Chapter 1
4 “Hey it’s okay but its taking the edge off my game” (24), “the black clinics of Chiba were the cutting edge” (1), “he remembered moments of grace, dealing out on the edge of things” (22), various points, 2, and 7 respectively.
5 Neuromancer Chapter 1
6 William Gibson, Neuromancer, Chapter 1
7 Neuromancer Chapter Three
8 Neuromancer Chapter 3
10 Neuromancer Chapter 17
11 Neuromancer Chapter 5
12 Neuromancer Chapter 14
13 Neuromancer Chapter 14
14 Neuromancer Chapter 19
15 Neuromancer Chapter 21
16 Neuromancer Chapter 23
22 The author would like to thank Taiyo Fujii for his help researching this
23 Akira Book 1
24 Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”