It’s more than clear that technology tends to borrow from science fiction — and, of course, the other way around. The first cell phones were designed to resemble Star Trek tricorders, and the online banking system that Randy Waterhouse and Avi Halaby risk their lives to develop in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon was solved much more neatly in real life, first with the development of PayPal and later, perhaps closer to Avi’s vision, with Bitcoin.
The real question is where science fiction is going to go next. Interestingly, it seems to have split into two directions: first, into the dystopian future, not a particularly untrod territory for sci-fi writers but now influenced by the economic collapse of the past decade; and second, into the steampunk universe, a world that hinges largely on the “endless possibility” once presented by the Industrial Revolution.
Cyberpunk, on the other hand, seems to be taking a vacation. Now that even mainstream superheroes like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne can pull up holographic computer screens, wave their arms around, and make things happen, the concept of the single unknown hero (or antihero) changing the game with computers seems a bit… obsolete. Laurence Person claimed that cyberpunk was dead in 1999, and the archetype of Person’s “marginalized, alienated loner[s] who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change” lives on, but not in cyberpunk stories — instead you get the magical steampunk hero Harry Dresden, or the Hollywood-slick Katniss Everdeen.
Now that “hacking” is a thing they teach kids at Nerd Summer Camp, now that hackspaces and maker spaces proliferate the unused storefronts and basements of every major city, now that we actually do have 3D printers and the world turned out less like Cory Doctorow’s Makers than it did like our own — does cyberpunk have a future as a genre?
The truth is that there are more avenues for sophisticated black-hat hackers and for people looking to manipulate information than ever before — every year, people need more sophisticated antivirus software to handle the various threats, and the trio of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning have shown us that even our most secure systems aren’t actually safe.
However, that doesn’t make The Fifth Estate a cyberpunk story and may in fact have helped put the final nails in the genre’s coffin. Randy Waterhouse, Hiro Protagonist, and Henry Case are heroes, while their real-life analogues are much more complicated. (It’s worth noting that this year, hacking conference DEF CON asked that no members of the federal government attend, reportedly “due to tension in the hacker community over recent revelations of the U.S. government’s electronic surveillance efforts.”)
It is unlikely that sci-fi writers will stop writing about the relationship between computers and humans, and how different people manage access to large networks of data. However, at least at the present moment, the cyberpunk genre doesn’t seem like the right way to tell these stories.
Technology has borrowed from science fiction and revealed exactly what does happen when hackers infiltrate corporate networks, when lone wolves publicly release secret data, when wearable tech becomes both mainstream and mandatory, when computers displace jobs, when computers beat humans at chess and Go and, sooner or later, Jeopardy. It turns out the end of the world is a lot more progressive than we imagined.
There’s not a lot of room for speculative cyberpunk in this world. There is, however, room for what comes next.