Fear of a Yellow Planet: Why We Need to Actually Understand Cyberpunk

When you saw one set of footprints in cyberpunk, it was then that Asian culture carried you.

This December, two things are bound to happen. First, CDPR will release Cyberpunk 2077 to its rabid fanbase of gamers amid concerns about labor practices at the notoriously crunchy studio. Second, we’ll see a lot of talk about race in the game, which, by virtue of its name, has become conflated with the cyberpunk genre as a whole.

If you grew up in the 80s with a soft spot for Blade Runner and Neuromancer, you’re not alone. But it’s 2020 now, and cyberpunk has become a sort of catch-all term for a certain look — aesthetic shorthand to describe a gritty near-future dystopia filled with transhumanist tech, corporate overlords, gritty streetside noodle bars, as well as neon Chinese and Japanese signage. It’s easy to see why the latter resonates with a Western audience that still champions a global pissing contest when it comes to technology. But when sinophobia (a racist fear of China that has been around since America built railroads) has re-emerged as a defining feature of the COVID-19 era, this is a problem.

But as cultural conversations evolve to include better understandings of inclusion and diversity, many are disappointed to see the same historical anxieties echoed in Western cyberpunk, or at least what passes for it on a wider scale. Despite how well it mirrors aspects of our current relationship with technology, cyberpunk is first and foremost a historical genre. It simply cannot uncouple from the early paranoia of Western society.

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From Jack London’s 1906 story “The Unparalleled Invasion,” which painted China as a civilizational terror, to the postmodern Orientalist chaos of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, Western cyberpunk is best understood as a symptom of historic attitudes toward a sinister East. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, protagonist Leopold Bloom frets about the modern city as a shadowy, Oriental space while recognizing his own paranoia. Dr. Betsy Huang notes that in 1881, California Senator John Miller “described Chinese as ‘inhabitants of another planet… automatic engines of flesh and blood; they are patient, stolid, unemotional, [and] herd together like beasts.’” After the hard successions of World War II, the economic miracle in Japan, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, Western cyberpunk emerged with a fearful preoccupation with the effects of globalization spreading primarily from Asia.

On the other hand, Japanese cyberpunk mostly concerns the intimate, often brutal dynamics between humans and technology (see: Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo the Iron Man, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, and Sogo Ishii’s proto-cyberpunk film Burst City). As Japan’s postwar economy defined a huge part of 70s and 80s world history, so did its culture. Real consumer tech like the Sony Walkman changed the world. In fiction, the country’s gaze turned inwards, taking a granular look at the dehumanization of flesh and form. Akira has particularly evocative images of bodily cybernetic invasion, while Tetsuo plays with the low-tech metal fetishism that becomes surreal, symbolic body horror.

Cyberpunk is also closely tied to the tradition of Techno-Orientalism: a term coined in 1995 by David Morley and Kevin Robins to describe the effects of  “Japan Panic” in the west.

“In the most common usage, it’s taken up as this very non-historically specific aesthetic of orientalism, but with a hi-tech or science fictiony flavor,” explains Dr. Christopher Fan, a professor at UC Irvine who specializes in Asian/American culture and science fiction. He considers Techno-Orientalism a period aesthetic in the same vein as 1940s film noir or medieval history. Similar to those genres, it’s inseparable from a fixed time and space when Japan seemed like a real threat to America’s future, simply by succeeding under the rules the U.S. itself laid down for the postwar nation.

cyberpunk samurai

“The broader question is,” he says “why revive cyberpunk at this moment? And I think that part of it is the grittiness of the aesthetic. The conventions of the cyberpunk world have to do with inequality, they have to do with global forces of capital that are these shady combinations of states and corporations.”

But while Western cyberpunk is rooted in anxiety about Japan itself, both broad interpretations of the genre share a fundamental DNA. It’s the stuff molded our ideas of mainstream cyberpunk today. Dr. Kumiko Sato writes that Blade Runner and Neuromancer were a “cultural shock” in Japan, and redefined cyberpunk in the Japanese context regarding nihonjinron: a concept centering Japanese “uniqueness” over Western ideals. To Sato, Western cyberpunk helped Japan rediscover its own identity with a new cultural language. William Gibson first traveled to Japan in 1988, where Ishii introduced him to Ryuji Miyamoto’s photographs of the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong — arguably the most famous embodiment of cyberpunk across cultures at the time. Gibson would go on to include a virtual version of the Walled City in his Bridge trilogy of novels (which came after the seminal Neuromancer and its sequels).

It’s hard to imagine the existence of Western cyberpunk without these Eastern roots, and vice versa. “Maybe the more interesting question isn’t the chicken-and-the-egg one…” Dr. Fan posits “but what is it that these artists were/are responding to and why is it that, despite their geographical and cultural difference, they’re equally attracted to the same aesthetic forms and idioms?”

cyberpunk styles

In reinterpreting Mike Pondsmith’s original Cyberpunk system, a defining part of tabletop history from 1988, developer CD Projekt Red seems to take a decidedly uncritical approach; the original tabletop game accommodated a range of ethnicities and cultures (at least cosmetically). Though it notably emphasizes “style over substance.” Now, after CDPR released a look at the Asian “Tyger Claws” gang, many are rightly concerned about the sloppy decision to mash together Chinese and Japanese motifs for a cheap, fast idiom.

At best, the Tyger Claws situation is just one of many lazy visual shortcuts. At worst, it’s the same old schtick from a studio that purports to be inclusive while refusing to make meaningful changes to either its work or workplace. And while anxiety about China has been present in Western cyberpunk literature since the 1990s, we’re only seeing more of it in go-to cyberpunk branding today, which is especially tedious when you consider how many white people still can’t tell the difference between China, Japan, and various other cultures around them.

Maybe the simplest answer is because, as Pondsmith sagely struck upon, cyberpunk stuff looks good.

“The way Asia is portrayed in modern cyberpunk fiction, it’s more like a prop, rather than a proper inseparable element of the storytelling,” says Mark Fillon, the creative director for Chinatown Detective Agency, a cyberpunk-inspired detective game set in my home country, Singapore, where the majority of the population is Chinese. “It’s just there to look cool.”

tyger claws

At least Fillon is trying to include more diverse identities beyond the usual Chinese suspects. “What you’ll see in the game is less technology and robots and AI, and more about the underbelly of a city that for decades, has done such a wonderful job of hiding the humanity of its people and its people’s experiences,” he explains.

The CDA approach is refreshing because it avoids the worst pitfalls of a heavily codified genre.

But nearly everywhere else, Orientalist tropes remain popular precisely because they’re easy. They’re code for a complex history — a fear that has evolved as Chinese culture and Korea’s powerful Hallyu wave dominate global media, even as most Western tech companies rely on cheap Asian labor. Silicon Valley itself is built on the same Orientalist principles that fed into cyberpunk in California. The heavy-handed vertical hierarchy in the Los Angeles of Blade Runner — scrappy Asian street scenes (noodle bars, Chew selecting an eyeball with a pair of chopsticks) juxtaposed with the 700-story Tyrell pyramid — is painfully true today.

And this code is everywhere. The recently released Ghostrunner has you wield our old friend, the Japanese katana, against a backdrop of Chinese signs. There’s an immediate understanding that you’re in a strange land, puzzling out your existence in the face of civilizational conflicts above your pay grade. After several hours in Cloudpunk I have yet to meet one Asian person, a game dominated by Asian signage and familiar vertical architecture that reflects familiar hierarchies. Aside from its bounty of racial caricatures, the 1997 Blade Runner game, now in the midst of a remaster, uses a currency called chinyen to suggest that its future East triumphed in the “economic war.” One of the best cyberpunk games around, Technobabylon, still relies on a chimeric Asian presence through its Chishiki news portal and fictional Greater Han Republic (in one scene, to the developer’s credit, a background sign actually reads “You are a cat” in Chinese). It’s all one big Chinatown, baby.

cyberpunk katana

In VirtuaVerse, Chinese and Japanese signs flood the environment, yet a green tea bottle in a vending machine bears the mouseover text “weird green drink.” Maybe it’s supposed to be funny because green tea is so ubiquitous now? But as a Chinese person playing the game, the label literally says the word “tea.” Finally, Rise of the Dragon (one of the most cartoonishly racist games I’ve ever played) the Chinese characters are impossibly slitty-eyed drug runners (what a surprise) industriously trying to scale up their operation.

Of course it’s all racist, when you get right down to it and look at those early inspirations. It’s just not always the conscious personal failing of any individual developer, especially within the context of the AAA game development system.

“It’s not something that individuals or even groups of people have control over,” explains Dr. Fan. “It’s something that emerges through processes of economic relations, colonialism, the different cultural and aesthetic traditions that are at hand… when historical crises happen, and some sort of figure like ‘The Orient’ needs to be created in order to resolve that crisis.”

“I suppose it’s just that fascination with the exoticness of the other side of the world can often lead to unintentionally racist things,” adds Fillon. “I’m sure the people who write these cyberpunk stories… are simply just fascinated by Asian culture. I suppose they’re just not aware that their portrayal of it is just so recycled, stereotypical, you know, garbage. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

technobabylon cyberpunk

 

Fillon is also Filipino: a far less-represented Asian identity in games. When I mentioned that Cyberpunk 2077 has a Pinoy street food sign (“Kebayan Foods”) in the background, his voice lit up with excitement.

“Just within the context of Asia, there’s a lot of us that aren’t of the Chinese, Korean, Japanese culture and look,” he says. “You’ve got Filipinos and Thais and Indonesians, not to mention our cousins on the other side of Asia, Indians and people from the subcontinent, who are all definitely geographically but also culturally tied in to the Asian identity. And I’d love to see more of that. You letting me know about that Filipino street food outlet in Cyberpunk 2077? That’s a first for me.”

Unfortunately, Cyberpunk 2077 is simply the most visible example of aesthetics-driven branding that dilutes a decent understanding of how cyberpunk, with all its Orientalist issues, came to be. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

“I totally sympathize with folks who were like, ‘Fuck cyberpunk, its politics are terrible,’” Dr. Fan says. “I totally get that, and that might be the case for the video game itself. But I feel like with the cyberpunk aesthetic, the idiom has just been taken up by so many different people and taken in so many different directions.”

Understanding cyberpunk — its roots in xenophobia, postwar anxieties, that sweet window of cultural cross-pollination in the 1980s, and its entry into the mainstream — means recognizing it also has the capacity for range. If you care to put in the work, it’s still an exciting way to tell stories about our world. “I wouldn’t just dismiss cyberpunk out of hand as a necessarily regressive aesthetic,” muses Dr. Fan. “I think maybe in terms of an uncritically revivalist attempt, like this new video game, that seems kind of problematic.”

I asked if he believes that cyberpunk, as a genre, is inherently harmful because it relies on Asian stereotypes.

“I’ll just say yes,” he says. “There’s a big ‘but.’ I think what’s more harmful is the Trump administration’s attempt at fanning the flames of not just a trade war, but a kind of civilizational war with China. That’s the elephant in the room and Cyberpunk 2077 is like the bacteria on the back left hoof of the elephant.”

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