Can post-cyberpunk fiction be superversive?

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“The important part in Cyberpunk is just that: it’s not the technology, it’s the feel. It’s getting that dark, gritty, rain-wet street feeling but at the same time getting that rock and roll, lost and desperate and dangerous quality. Cyberpunk is about that interface between people and technology, but not in that transhumanist way where it’s all about the technology changing or improving them. It’s about how people use things… Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity. It’s about saving yourself.”
Mike Pondsmith

Cyberpunk is the literature of subversion. There are no clean, shiny and prosperous utopian futures promised in old-school science fiction; here you find the dirty streets of dystopias born from the unholy union of untrammeled megacorporations and state power. Technology doesn’t elevate people; it twists them into man-machine hybrids, exposes their secrets for all to see, and creates fresh prisons for the mind and body. Heroes are dead and forgotten; in their places are marginalised, alienated loners at civilisation motivated only by self-preservation. Where the best of science fiction tries to take humanity to the stars, cyberpunk drags humanity into the gritty, nihilistic underbelly of the world.

By contrast, superversive fiction is fiction for a more civilised age. Where subversive fiction undermines, superversive fiction builds back up. The best superversive fiction is a celebration of the values and ideas that underpin civilisation: family, law and order, morality, religion, tradition. To quote from Russell Newquist, superversive fiction is marked by at least some of the following:

Heroes who are actually heroic. They don’t have to be heroic all of the time, or even most of the time. But when the time comes, they must actually be heroic.

People are basically good. Not all the time, not in every case – and certainly not every person. But basically.

Good Wins. Not every time – a good story always has setbacks in it. But evil winning is most definitely not superversive.

True love is real. Again, maybe not for everybody. But it’s real.

Beauty is real. It’s ok to show the warts. But show the beauty, too.

The transcendent is awesome. There’s no obligation to show any particular religion, or even really religion at all. But superversive literature should show the glory and splendor of the wider universe around us, and it should leave us in awe of it.

Family is good and important. Not every family, sure. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Civilization is better than barbarism. This doesn’t mean barbarians are evil, or that they aren’t fun. But in the end, they’re… well, barbaric.

Strength, courage, honor, beauty, truth, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility are virtues. This can be demonstrated by showing people breaking the virtues. But they must be recognized as virtues.

There is hope. Superversive stories should never leave the reader feeling despair.

Cyberpunk is opposed to superversive fiction at every level. There are no heroes, only blackhearted characters either performing fell deeds or manipulating people into performing them. Love and beauty are either alien or transient, and functional families are unheard of. There is no hope of transcendence, except maybe as a ghost in a machine. The primary characters reject civilisation and its virtues, instead living by their own codes at the edge of society. Cyberpunk fiction rarely has happy endings, and those that do tend to be bittersweet or temporary.

Blend everything together and you have a recipe for darkness-induced audience apathy.

Meaningful conflict is the heart of drama. Readers need to empathise with characters. Actions should not entirely be in vain. Evil is punished, good prevails, civilisation endures or evolves. Without these elements, it becomes exceedingly hard for a reader to care. Why should a reader care about a self-destructive misanthropic loner who remains a self-destructive misanthropic loner? Why should a reader be concerned about the fate of an oppressive dystopia? Why should a reader cheer on a traitor, a liar or a murderer with no redeeming traits? With such societies and characters, it takes great skill to hook a reader and keep him invested in the story — a skill few cyberpunk writers, if any, have. Indeed, it is telling that the authors once associated with cyberpunk no longer write cyberpunk.

Is there room for superversive cyberpunk?

Probably not, but that’s what post-cyberpunk is for.

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Epitomised by works like Ghost in the Shell, post-cyberpunk draws upon the cyberpunk ethos and places its own spin on things. Shaped by the technological development and societal attitudes of the 21st century, post-cyberpunk represents an evolution of cyberpunk without necessarily retaining its nihilistic post-modern attitudes.

As Mike Pondsmith says, cyberpunk isn’t about the technology, but the feel. It’s the contrast of high tech and low life, of desperate struggles in the dark, of how people use and abuse technology. Even with this aesthetic there is room for superversion.

Ghost in the Shell (the anime and manga, NOT the live-action movie) features a secret police officer who protects a future Japan against terrorists and corrupt bureaucrats while exploring heavy philosophical themes. Psycho-Pass stars an idealistic police officer who struggles to retain her humanity as she defends a dystopian police state. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its sequel Mankind Divided features Adam Jensen, a former police officer and later counterterror agent who uncovers a conspiracy to rule the world. Watch_Dogs features hackers fighting a powerful megacorp and the omnipresent surveillance system it has created.

These stories are all called cyberpunk in the popular press. They certainly share the same ethos as older cyberpunk works. But instead of descending into the depths of nihilism, at the end of these stories their worlds are just a little better and brighter, and the characters emerge with their spirits tested but unbowed. Victories may be small, but they are meaningful to the characters and the story world.

Post-cyberpunk fiction can be bent to the ends of superversion without sacrificing the core aesthetic that defines it. In a dark, oppressive world, kindness and virtue shine brilliantly. Tsunemori Akane’s humanity and idealism stands in stark contrast to the inhumanity and utilitarianism of the Sibyl System. Adam Jensen can choose to spare every enemy he meets. By creating sharp contrasts of virtue and vice, humanity and alienation, idealism and cynicism, post-cyberpunk is able to unmask the heart of darkness while still making a stand for truth and beauty and justice.

Like cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk is still dark and gritty and dystopic. There is still plenty of chrome and tech, and there are no end of villains scheming in the night. But here, there is also room for hope. Ruthless megacorporations, politicians and criminals are held to account or punished for their misdeeds. Civilisation chugs along, and ordinary people are better able to live in peace. The Leviathan may not be slain, but you still retain your soul, and even an all-powerful state can be convinced to reform itself for the better. You may not be able to save humanity, but you can still save yourself and everyone else around you, and lay the foundations for a better tomorrow.

Post-cyberpunk may be as black as pitch, but the darkness accentuates the brilliance of a candle.

And the flame can be passed from candle to candle, fiction to consumer, heart to heart.


First image: Cyberpunk 2077 trailer
Second image: Psycho-pass anime poster

Retrospective: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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When I first watched Ghost in the Shell, I was impressed by the fluid animations, the detailed visuals, the melancholic atmosphere and the slick action scenes. A dozen years later, after watching it again, I picked up the finer points my teenage self didn’t: the post-cyberpunk ethos, the characterisation, the tight storytelling, and most of all, the reversal of emphasis on philosophy and action.

When put together, Ghost in the Shell is a philosophy film disguised as a sci fi thriller.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Post-Cyberpunk, NOT Cyberpunk

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It has often been claimed that Ghost in the Shell is a cyberpunk franchise. It’s more accurately described as post-cyberpunk. Major Kusanagi Motoko and her colleagues at Section 9 are members of a secret police agency. Their job is to uphold the current order. They may face corrupt government officials, terrorists and cybercriminals, but they act under the colour of the law — even if the government cannot officially sanction their deeds.

Cyberpunk stories depict amoral, nihilistic underworlds populated by unscrupulous hackers, slick corporate representatives, hardboiled cops, well-heeled businessmen. Cyberpunk media such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash or the Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop role-playing games, emphasise the punk of cyberpunk. They focus on high tech and low life, powerful megacorporations and corrupt governments, and the people caught in the games of power and wealth. Cyberpunk is about how money and politics and technology conspire to degrade the human soul — and how people scrape out a living at the ragged edge of an increasingly dystopian society while trying to retain their sense of self.

Ghost in the Shell sets itself apart by making its protagonists members of a secret police organisation. This allows the protagonists to come into contact with the coterie of cybercrime archetypes, but it also charges the protagonists with upholding civilisation instead of eroding it. By being government agents, they will naturally have access to state-of-the-art tech and training, letting them plausibly have an edge over their adversaries, while giving them multiple opportunities to encounter black market tech. They see at first hand how predators use technology to hollow out the human spirit — but instead of dirtying their hands, they take a stand against it.

Post-cyberpunk contrasts those who use technology to uphold civilisation against those who abuse it for their own ends. The characters of Ghost in the Shell inhabit a world filled with corruption and dirty politics, but Section 9 still tries to serve and protect the people. Unlike traditional cyberpunk works that shows how technology dehumanises people, Ghost in the Shell aims to examine whether technology can elevate humanity, and the cost of doing so.

Merging Character and Plot

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In the original manga, Kusanagi was a vivacious woman who enjoyed practical jokes, had a casual approach to romance and violence, and had a wide range of emotional affect. Batou was a support character who played the role of comic relief, but otherwise sank into the background until the focus was no longer on Kusanagi.

The anime radically changed the characters. Kusanagi was now serious and focused. She rarely shows emotions, but when she does it emphasises the gravity of a scene. Instead of sticking her tongue at people behind their backs, she is more likely to exchange philosophical argument. Batou, in turn, was promoted to the role of her unofficial second-in-command, assisting her during key scenes and also voicing deep thoughts of his own. Now he is both a shooter and a thinker, able to match Kusanagi and drive both the action and the dialogue.

This character shift elevates the anime above the manga. Manga Section 9 comes off as a unit of cowboys just a few steps away from being loose cannons, who have no qualms turning their skills on their allies and superiors on a whim, and only slightly more skilled than the criminals they face. Anime Section 9 is an elite group of operators who take the time to ponder their humanity.

The anime characters created a somber, introspective atmosphere lacking in the manga, conforming with the anime’s philosophical core. With Anime Kusanagi and Anime Batou portrayed as intellectual cyborg shooters, it now makes sense for them to contemplate their navels when they’re not chasing bad guys. This, in turn, makes the ending believable.

In the manga, the Puppet Master abruptly launches into a pages-long exposition on life and transmission of information. It is a jarring departure from a manga otherwise filled with gunfire and cyberwarfare but little explicit discussion of higher concepts. In the anime, the exposition is reduced to a minimum — and since the characters are already established as deep thinkers who also act decisively, the concluding scene fits with the overall tone and direction of the anime.

The manga characters were action-oriented; the reader either had to tease out philosophy from the plot, or the mangaka had to break up the action to make the themes and philosophy explicit. The anime characters give voice to the philosophy explored in the franchise, showcasing their characters and explicitly drawing out the ideas the filmmaker is exploring. The latter approach makes the philosophy more accessible and digestible to the audience — and in doing so, raised Ghost in the Shell above other sci fi stories that merely used cybertech as stage dressing.

Lean Storytelling

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Ghost in the Shell does more in 82 minutes than what other films try to accomplish in over 2 hours. The anime achieves this through a minimalist cast and efficient storytelling.

The only extraneous scene takes place in the middle of the film, showcasing daily life in 2029 Tokyo. Otherwise, every sequence is tightly plotted, with ramifications down the line. Of great importance is the use of technology: every key bit of technology is used at least twice, first to introduce the audience to the tech, and then to facilitate the plot.

The opening scene has Kusanagi using thermoptic camouflage to assassinate a bad guy. It’s an iconic moment that defines the franchise, introducing the tech and the murky politics of the world. Later, while preparing for a mission, Kusanagi tells Togusa that she brought him aboard Section 9 because he has the least amount of cybernetic enhancements and Kusanagi values his different perspective. During that mission, their target uses thermoptic camouflage to evade pursuit, suggesting that the antagonists also have access to such tech, and showing that such camouflage can defeat Section 9’s sensors. When the Puppet Master appears, thermoptic camouflage plays a critical role in aiding the antagonists’ plans, and this allows Togusa to demonstrate his out-of-the-box thinking to detect the invisible intruders, enabling the final showdown later on.

In the movie, technology drives the plot and characterisation. We see this again in the use of high velocity rounds. During the chase scene, the target loads his submachine gun with high velocity rounds to disable Section 9’s truck. Batou later comments on how the ammunition damaged the weapon’s internals. Later, Kusanagi employs HV ammo against a spider tank, but takes the trouble to swap out the barrel of her rifle — and even so, the HV rounds don’t do squat.

The chase scene sets up the existence of HV ammunition and its limitations. This prepares the viewer for Kusanagi using them later and sets up the expectation that the HV rounds would tear the tank apart. Her taking the time to swap out her weapon parts solidifies her characterisation as an operator. When the HV bullets bounce off the tank, it undermines the viewers’ expectations and justifies the following scene which has her try to hack the tank’s cyberbrain, in the process ripping off most of her limbs. This in turn makes the climax possible, showing why she can’t simply evade the snipers targeting her, and ratchets up the tension further.

By compressing technology, characterisation and plot into as few scenes as possible, the director made the philosophy scenes work. When discussing the philosophy and implications of technology in the work, the characters don’t stand around and exchange lines in a context-free vacuum. They always talk philosophy in transitional scenes.

In these scenes, the characters are either on the way to somewhere or waiting for something to happen. One exchange takes place while Kusanagi and Togusa are on the road, preparing for a mission; another takes place on a boat when Kusanagi and Batou are off-duty and awaiting orders; a third is inside an elevator as Section 9 prepares to head out.

In other movies, these scenes would be short takes, empty of beats. Here, the director used the opportunity to fill the gap by delving into matters related to prior scenes, making the philosophy feel organic instead of being forced on the audience. It also eliminates the need to have separate talky scenes dedicated solely to philosophy.

Ghost in the Shell is an exemplar of lean storytelling and a masterclass in the craft of maximising the efficiency of every scene.

Reversing Action and Philosophy

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In most movies, action scenes are the highlight of the film. Scenes in between the action are crafted to lead up to the combat.

Ghost in the Shell reverses this logic: the action scenes lead to the philosophy.

Conventional films feature lengthy action sequences featuring kinetic gun battles, furious hand-to-hand combat and waves of mooks, creating spectacles that hook the audience and keep them watching. The payoff of the film is watching the protagonist overcome the antagonist through wit or violence (or both), saving the day and winning the girl. Any deep thought is incidental.

Ghost in the Shell, by contrast, treats action scenes differently, with long periods of building-up and short bursts of overwhelming violence. The action scenes are much shorter and feature a far lower body count than conventional action films, because they do not exist to create spectacle, but to set up the scenes where characters ponder their humanity and their place in the world. The assassination in the beginning reveal the political system of future Japan and sets the stage for the rest of the plot; the chase scene later on reveals the possibility of false memories, in turn leading to Batou and Kusanagi musing on what makes them human; the final showdown creates the setting for the actual denouement.

Unlike traditional movie logic, the true antagonists of Ghost in the Shell aren’t directly dealt with. Indeed, at the end Batou describes the resolution as a ‘stalemate’. This wouldn’t work in a film that places spectacle first: audiences would expect nothing less than total victory after experiencing one action extravaganza after another that consistently raises the emotional tenor and stakes of the story. However, in a story that places philosophy first, underscored by an introspective atmosphere, it is appropriate: the true resolution lies with the merging of the Puppet Master and Kusanagi to create a higher life form. It is the ultimate payoff for an audience already primed for a movie that promises to explore transcendental matters in the guise of sci-fi action. The stalemate is an afterthought, but it fits into the overall cyberpunk culture, in which there are no major lasting victories, just personal successes at the individual level.

Philosophy with a Dash of Action

 

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In an industry defined by visuals and spectacle, Ghost in the Shell dares to do something different. While it employs a high standard of visual quality, instead of relying on the Hollywood standbys of intense action scenes, Ghost in the Shell delivered philosophy with a dash of action. It made full use of its sci fi mileu, setting up scenarios that organically explore the implications of these technologies and characters who combine combat skills with intellect.

Lesser filmmakers would have stumbled, either by making the philosophy ultra-abstract and the action scenes boring, or by concentrating on action and neglecting deep thought. Ghost in the Shell finds the perfect balance between the two, cementing its position as a masterpiece.

All images from Ghost in the Shell (1996) and publicity materials.

Japanese Ghost, Western Shell

Ghost in the Shell was among the first animes I have ever watched, and among the first sci fi manga I have ever read. Even today, its themes, aesthetics, technology and design language influence my writing and worldbuilding. When I learned of Scarlett Johansson being cast as Major Kusanagi Motoko for the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, the only thing I could do was sigh.

I prefer adaptations to be as true to established canon as possible. Everything from themes to technologies, settings to characters, including their mannerisms, personalities and, yes, appearance. Part of this comes from distaste of executive meddling, of Hollywood inserting ideas that are not the original creator’s, or deleting ideas the creator wished to explore. While adaptations and edits are necessary to translate a given work from one medium to another, I prefer that these edits enhance the experience and stay true to the author’s vision instead of detracting from it.

Case in point, let’s look at the upcoming movie adaptation of The Dark Tower. The series protagonist, Roland Deschain, will be played by Idris Elba. However, in canon, Roland is a white man. And his ethnicity plays a major role in the story.

(Spoilers ahead!)

In the second Dark Tower book, The Drawing of the Three, Roland draws three characters from different worlds and times into his. One of them is Eddie Dean from 1987 New York — a white man. Another is Odetta Susannah Holmes from New York — a black woman from 1964. Holmes also suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and has a secondary persona, Detta Susannah Walker. Who also happens to be murderously psychotic.

Much of the drama in The Drawing of the Three lies in Detta’s antagonism towards the men. Detta hates all white men, calling them ‘honkey mahfas’, and speaks with a stereotypical black accent. Her racism boils off the page, culminating in attempted murder.

If Roland were a black man, and if the movie version of The Dark Tower extends to The Drawing of the Three, the presence of a black gunslinger would rob the drama of at least half its power. Barring clever editing and rewriting — which Hollywood adaptations are not known to enjoy — the experience will be cheapened. Or even eliminated altogether. And if such a pivotal experience, one that gives rise to Holmes/Walker’s third personality of Susannah Dean, is weakened or eliminated — what else will be given up? What else will be eroded?

What else will be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness?

(End spoilers)

When I think of Major Kusanagi Motoko, I think of a Japanese secret policewoman who fights cyberterrorism and corruption in a post-cyberpunk Japan using fair means and foul while grappling with what it means to be human. She lives in a time and place where anybody can afford a customised cybernetic body, a ‘shell’, which throws into question the nature of the soul, or ‘ghost’.

It is true that the setting allows Kusanagi to choose whatever body she wants, including, presumably, that of a Westerner. It is also equally true that in the canon she chose to present as a Japanese woman. To present her as a Westerner barring specific circumstances feels like disrespect towards Kusanagi, her choices and her motivations. Further, the entire franchise is set mainly in Japan. If Kusanagi presents as a Westerner in Japan, one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, she will stand out — not a good trait for a secret policewoman who operates outside the law and fights terrorists and corrupt government officials.

And what if the story is not set in Japan? Then the next question must be: Why even call it Ghost in the Shell? While the core theme of the franchise is an exploration of what it means to be human, the cornerstones of the story universe are based on Japanese concerns. Ghost in the Shell, it must be remembered, was originally a manga published in 1989. The manga dealt with powerful Japanese corporations, superior Japanese technology,  growing Japanese soft and hard power, unelected Japanese bureaucrats and officials consolidating and abusing their power, and Real Robots — itself a spinoff from the pioneering mecha genre, a Japanese innovation.The manga reflected a dark vision of a future Japan, seen from 1989. The anime adaptations stayed true to this vision. If the live adaptation isn’t set in Japan, and doesn’t have a Japanese lead, then it won’t reflect the Japanese underpinnings of the story. In which case, why even call it Ghost in the Shell? It might as well be a whole new post-cyberpunk movie.

Otaku are not a forgiving breed. When they encounter questions like this, they default to the worst case scenario: Hollywood cast Scarlet Johansen in an attempt to appeal to a Western audience, and they don’t care if it ruins the creative vision of the franchise. If an American film company will cast an American to play the role of a Japanese, then will the Americans respect the Japanese ideas underpinning the story, including a cynical view of American imperialism and interference in Japanese affairs? If the film concept is about a Westerner doing things set in a cyberpunk West, with little or no reference to Japan, then is it simply leeching off the fame of the franchise like the all-female Ghostbusters remake and Mad Max: Fury Road?

In other words, what other aspects of Ghost in the Shell will be sacrificed on the altar of commercialism?

There may be good reasons for casting Johanssen as a Japanese woman. Hollywood may even take the safe way out and eventually brand it as a Western adaptation of Ghost in the Shell under a different title, the same way Edge of Tomorrow was a Western adaptation of All You Need is Kill. I’m hoping that the film makers will take this path, as it respects the executives’ desire to appeal to a Western audience and the otaku’s desire for integrity of the franchise’s creative vision — and also because Ghost in the Shell as a title isn’t particularly evocative to Western ears. The director may even surprise everyone and cast a second, Japanese, woman to play the role of Kusanagi Motoko, perhaps as Kusanagi’s shell when she wants to appear Japanese, reinforcing the franchise’s theme.

But until more is known about the movie, the otaku of the world are simply going to assume that Johanssen’s casting is symptomatic about a much deeper problem — one Hollywood is infamous for. And Hollywood isn’t doing anything to assuage their fears.