Cyborgs and Cyberpunk Dystopian Fiction

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Through Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

The cyberpunk dystopia is inspired by the conventions of cyberpunk and young adult literature. In these novels, we see the mixed spaces of the cyber and physical worlds and the potential of punk to change the world for the better. But the concept of cyborgs, in one form or another, is very present in cyberpunk.

There is a utopian impulse associated with the cyborg and the cyberpunk genre. (Image: LightField Studios / Shutterstock)

Define a cyborg

“I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” It is the last line of the famous 1984 essay by literary critic Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto”. What does she mean exactly by that? Well, first we have to think of a cyborg.

There are many different definitions of a cyborg, but generally speaking we generally think of a cyborg as a hybrid, a combination of organic and mechanical matter. Our imaginations could immediately jump to science fiction, to the Cybermen of Doctor Who, the replicants of Bladerunner, or the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica– beings neither human nor machines, beings who certainly do not exist in our world today.

Are cyborgs everywhere?

But the term is also used for much less science fiction technologies, including medical devices. A person with a pacemaker or an artificial hip could be considered a cyborg since their organic matter is associated with a mechanism that ensures their survival and well-being.

By this definition, cyborgs are actually quite common in our world today. Some people even go so far as to claim that a human being with a cell phone that is central to their well-being and identity can be considered a cyborg. Because in reality this cell phone, although not literally implanted in the person’s forearm, is so present in the hand or pocket that the person can be considered to have a cyborg presence in the person’s forearm. the world.

This is a transcript of the video series Great utopian and dystopian literary works. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Overcome the gender difference

Donna Haraway would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. Why? A goddess is the most powerful female presence in a universe, right? And yet, the goddess is still defined by a masculine term, the god. One of the big questions for feminist utopians of the 1970s is: What would a world be like without gender binaries?

The concept of the cyborg, for Haraway and others, could be a way to actually get there, to get to a utopian place where gender differences neither divide nor are laden with power imbalances. It’s not that a cyborg is stronger than a human or a machine. Instead, it allows us to think beyond our binaries. Think beyond the human and the machine as opposites, beyond the male and female as opposites.

Learn more about utopian hybridity.

Utopia and Cyborg

The image shows a smart city and a communication network.
Cyberpunk novels often feature advanced information technology that allows much of the action to take place in cyberspace. (Image: metamorworks / Shutterstock)

This is why there is a utopian impulse associated with the cyborg and the cyberpunk genre that developed in the 1980s with novels as fundamental as that of William Gibson. Neuromancer, a sci-fi adventure novel that takes cyberspace as its major setting and hackers as its central characters. Cyberpunk novels often feature advanced information technology that allows much of the action to take place in cyberspace rather than physical space, with an emphasis on the dangers and pleasures of spaces between. the cyber and physical worlds.

This means that the characters who navigate cyberspace, whether or not they have implanted devices or not, are often punks, executing identities – often subversive identities – that are not dependent on their physical bodies.

Powerful identity

How does a person realize an identity? Well, at a basic level, a 14 year old girl can have an avatar that looks like her. Or, she could have an avatar who is a thirty-year-old security specialist with an alpha male body and personality, and she is treated as such in cyberspace.

In all three cases – her physical self or her cyber self – a combination of her appearance and behavior affects how she is treated by other people in this world. This is what we mean by achieving an identity, and we all do it, all the time, even when we are not aware of it. Partly because of the power of any user to adopt a new and different identity, cyberpunk is a perfect genre for reflecting on the conflict between the individual and the society, a conflict we see at the center of much utopian literature.

Learn more about apocalyptic fiction.

Punk as a foreigner

You could first think of a punk as an unwanted person, maybe a thug, in the vein of A clockwork orangeit’s Alex DeLarge. But if you have a totalitarian society, a pure dystopia, as Anthony Burgess and others have shown, a punk can be a hero, someone who overthrows the structures of power.

Cyberpunk favors the underdog, or sometimes the group of underdogs, who are usually incredibly talented young hackers, who mount a seemingly impossible attack on mega-corporations trying to take full control of cyberspace, which is impossible when punks like our heroes are there to preserve the freedoms of the individual, often by totally illegal means.

As we see repeatedly, where there is utopian potential, there is also dystopian potential. So whether you’re an adult reading YA cyberpunk and wondering where the world is at or you’re a teenager whose own generation is under scrutiny in these books, you come to the same thing. point.

Anxiety about society

Through satire or seriousness – what Tom Moylan would call critical utopia and classic utopia – we get the same anxieties about contemporary American society. The internet has incredible potential to create a better and more equal world, but we can go wrong by allowing totalitarian governments or companies to control it, which can lead us to create not only a more oppressive world, but a new generation. of young people who rely on technology without really understanding it.

To imagine a utopian future in the 21st century is to commit to understanding technology, not only as a user but as a creator. And whether you are mocking or admiring, you can see that the cyborg is not just a representation of a possible dream of a future that transcends hierarchies and binaries. For better or for worse, the cyborg is here.

Common questions about cyborgs and cyberpunk dystopian fiction

Q: What is a cyborg?

We usually think of a cyborg as a hybrid, a combination of organic and mechanical matter. But the term is also used for much less science fiction technologies, including medical devices. A person with a pacemaker or an artificial hip can be considered a cyborg.

Q: How does the idea of ​​a cyborg help overcome the difference between the sexes?

The notion of cyborg could be a way to get to a utopian place where gender differences are neither divisive nor loaded with power imbalances. A cyborg allows us to think beyond binaries. Think beyond the human and the machine as opposites, beyond the male and female as opposites.

Q: Who are the protagonists of cyberpunk fiction?

Cyberpunk favors outsiders, who are usually incredibly talented young hackers, who mount a seemingly impossible attack on mega-corporations trying to fully control cyberspace.

Keep reading
Literature for young adults and dystopia
“Les Chrysalides”: dystopian society from a child’s point of view
Free Will and Crime in Dystopian Literature


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