Cyberpunk and Deus Ex: Human Revolution
I apologize for how spotty my posting has been the last few months. This semester is absolutely brutal for me, with thesis work, courses and TA-ing. As such, my time to post is limited and spread thin. One of my classes in particular, though incredibly helpful, eats time as if time were krill to this class`s whale-maw.
However, I just had a reading week to catch up and I’ve found myself with a spot of time to post something short, sweet and topical: a discussion of the genre cyberpunk as it relates to postmodernism. The desire to do this post comes out of three things: I’ve been playing a lot of Android: Netrunner, have been slowly playing through Deus Ex: Human Revolution and have recently finished reading a book on postmodernism. So this is very much just a slapped-together thought pile. Feed on my thought pile.
As some of you may be aware, I have very little patience for postmodernist academic writings: I find the writing style obfuscating and bloated, and prone to burying the meat of the article beneath a dense foliage of natter. Nonetheless, I think it’s fun to look at what Cyberpunk says as a genre.
First, a quick definition. Cyberpunk is a speculative fiction genre that combines two particular thematic concerns: cyber and punk. Specifically, it’s near-future science fiction that examines how technology (the cyber half of the name) influences the lives of the lower class and destitute (the punk half), while the upper class reaps the rewards. Most of the common cyberpunk tropes are quickly identifiable: the “punks” need to be hackers to survive in this capitalist wasteland, addicted to drugs (electronic or occasionally new) and trapped in a decaying urban landscape, while megacorporations (which now rule the world as governments once did) sit atop ivory towers. Cyberpunk hackers nearly always have to deal with artificial intelligences (often secret from the population at large). The city is often shown as a post-industrial dystopia, and the style verges on film noir. Some people mark Neuromancer by Gibson as the genre`s start, although I think Blade Runner is pretty obviously cyberpunk and predates it.
Postmodernism is marked by skepticism above all else: without getting into the malaise that underpins postmodernist thought, the core of postmodernism is the belief that all language is underpinned by presuppositions, ideological underpinnings, hierarchical values, and frames of reference. In this way, Cyberpunk can be seen as a quasi-postmodern genre: thematically, it investigates the dissonance between an object`s intended use (what the AI was invented for, for example) and the transformations the A.I. undergoes in the name of ideology, hierarchies etc. Transhumanist themes, also common in Cyberpunk, further this dialogue. In essence, cyberpunk is skeptical about the limits of human ability to control their own tools: the same skepticism that fuels the Derrida I can`t handle reading.
With that in mind, let’s look how Deus Ex: Human Revolution, 2 years old but new to me, handles the cyberpunk concerns. At first, the game (well the series) takes a bit of a sharp turn from the classic cyberpunk formula: the titular character is not a punk in this world, but rather begins on the side of a megacorporation. In the first two Deus Ex games, it’s a governmental one: in HR, it’s a posthumanist corporation that aims to bring augments to the human body. Of course, these augments go wrong in the way you`d expect them to, and our hero Adam Jensen has to face the plight of the lower class in the face of A.I.s and megacorporate greed. Nonetheless, it’s unusually to start a cyberpunk tale atop the very towers at which the very genre was built to fling detritus. It’s as if the game is seeking to be the modern capitalist negotiation of traditional cyberpunk concerns: while Gibson was happy to paint the entire corporation as a faceless evil entity profiting off of the systematic destruction of what it means to be human (much as the corporations in Netrunner), Human Revolution takes care to show you that most of the power structure are people too: the employees, even your boss, are people trying to get by and do some right. However, a force above the corporation secretly pulls the strings, and it is this force that Adam Jensen becomes the punk to: the Illuminati, which is essentially a megamegacorporation by the look of things.
In doing this, HR side-steps some of cyberpunks evident naivety: the genre usually relies on the same reductionist claims that occasionally gets postmodernist thinkers into trouble – namely, by focusing on the (very real) limits of language, and the (very real) hierarchical patterns that control these tools, postmodernists have a habit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Cyberpunk similarly tends to paint all corporate work with the same tarry brush. HR tries to give a more balanced cyberpunk account by placing the player character in the middle, instead of at the bottom.
Where HR begins to falter, however, is its inability to explain the motivations of anyone involved. While the game sets up the situation for a more nuanced cyberpunk world, it fails to give the characters relatable or recognizable psychologies. With a very “real, believable” structure grinding against a very difficult to accept set of characters, the experience falls apart at the seems and becomes silly quickly. It takes post-modernist themes, frames them in a more modernist dramatic structure, but then offers no evidence of its claims.
I’m always torn on the “punk” sub-genres of speculative fiction, and I think HR is a great example of where my issues lie. I like the post-modernist desire to unhinge some assumptions underpinning the science fiction of Asimov and Heinlein: the assumption that technology will universally help people, the assumption that it will expand our horizons, the assumption that the threat will come from without. But at the same time, in focusing on the failures of these assumptions, cyberpunk has a habit of ignoring the value of the central urge that created the technology. In most cyberpunk worlds, at the bottom, someone trying to benefit mankind likely built these technologies for mankind’s benefit. And their heart, their desire to make the world better, shouldn’t be tossed aside as it often does. Human Revolution tries to remedy just this: it looks at the issues of cyberpunk more evenly, showing that the central assumptions of both traditional science fiction (technology is good and the product of good men) and the central assumption of cyberpunk (technology is flawed and the product of evil men) are unnecessarily polarizing. It then, however, fails to balance either side of this scale well: on the “good men” side, the characters lack the convincing psychology for their goals and hopes to be believable; on the “evil men” side, you have the faceless and silly-evil Illuminati, who are hard to take seriously by their very cliched presence.