When Bruce Bethke wrote his short story Cyberpunk in 1980, he had no idea that he would be coining the term for one of the most revolutionary movements in science fiction. At the time, he and other science fiction writers felt boxed in—science fiction had become stagnant. They found their influence in the New Wave science fiction movement of the ‘60s. New Wave sci-fi encouraged authors to be more experimental not only in their writing style or content, but within their actual stories as well. It came as a response to postmodernism, and grew itself into a crock of diversity. Cyberpunk pulled from influential resources like film noir and gumshoe stories, taking the tropes that made those genres their own, and combined them, in the words of William Gibson, into a “sophisticated blend of science, history, pop culture, hip lingoes, and dark humour.”
Utilizing a plunderphonic approach, vaporwave attempts the same. Both utilize pastiche—a form of art that touts itself as imitation, the sincerest form of flattery. To describe pastiche, postmodernist Frederic Jameson once remarked that the style “randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the […] styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles.”
Veronica Hollinger, editor of Science Fiction Studies, once remarked that “cyberpunk—like the punk ethic with which it was identified—was a response to post modern reality that could go only so far before self-destructing under the weight of its own deconstructive activities.” We see a similar catastrophic identity in vaporwave, to the point that “vaporwave is dead” has become one of the most identifiable memes of the community.
With the publication of New Worlds magazine, this new, postmodern science fiction had a platform to deliver itself, much like a virus corrupting your system. When Michael Moorcock took on the role of lead editor in 1964, he set out to “define a new avant-garde role” (Stableford, 1996) for the genre. Using New Worlds, he challenged writers to submit something new, something different, and in issuing this challenge not only did he cultivate diversity within the science fiction genre, he also helped to bolster its success. The term cyberpunk, however, would not catch on until the ‘80s when Gardner Dozois, the editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, would begin to popularize the term.
Writers like Philip K. Dick began to think about what the future would be like, and focused on ideas that dealt with the ethicality and morality of people in dystopian situations, where society had been broken down. They explored apocalyptic futures laden with lives ruined by artificial intelligence and the oversaturation of technology. Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard and many others would begin to focus on the impact of drug culture, technology and sexual revolution to avoid other tropes that science fiction had come to rely upon. It was a genre that began to “[reflect] on the ‘rapid proliferation’ of technologically mass-produced ‘products’ that are essentially abstractions—images, advertising, information, memories, styles, simulated experiences, and copies of original experiences.” (McCaffery 1991, p. 4 New Spaces for Old Motifs? The Virtual Worlds of Japanese Cyberpunk) When our attention turns to what vaporwave has become as a subculture, we see that this is one of the cardinal features, and with the accessibility we have to endless forms of media, as well as the tools with which to sculpt it, vaporwave shows its punkier nature.
Their playgrounds were societies usurped by multinational corporations—things that started out as everyday, household names that cancerously grew, quietly placating the masses while they took over the government and military and all else until they were an invasive, ever constant reminder in the lives of the people who struggled to survive in their stories. The societies were dingy and disheveled, kept in order by AI that in some instances would favor humans, choosing the haves from the have nots, and in others, simply obliterating them. These grimdark envisionings of a technology-dependent society quietly began to coalesce and solidify themselves as a concrete genre, and as more writers threw their takes in on this commentary of modern living, a movement was born. Cyberpunk would go on to explore the inequality of capitalism and how the abuse of capitalism would change and comment upon human relationships with technology. That same drive to explore the relationship of media to consumerism and capitalism is reflected as another cornerstone of the vaporwave hivemind.
Influential stories like Neuromancer, by William Gibson, helped to solidify cyberpunk into its own genre; the novel itself drew upon early hacker culture and the punk subculture. In her article Vaporwave, or Music Optimised for Abandoned Malls, Laura Glitsos commented of vaporwave that “the listener draws upon their own repository of past experience but only in order to ‘plug into’ the complex and collective (re)production of memory as a form of play.” Vaporwave is a hivemind of nostalgia accessed by connecting to this massive memory circuit—and with modern technology, this collective memory is available to all who have the capabilities of accessing it. Neuromancer practically predicted what would come to be wireless Internet, its characters experiencing their lives by plugging into a giant, shared network. To do their best, the hackers outside of the network were doing their best to break in and liberate humanity to a world where access to information would be truly democratic. In Glitsos’ article, it seems that she tries to tackle vaporwave from the standpoint that now, we are the next generation of hackers who are hopelessly sending messages out of the networks and overly saturated technological playgrounds we exist in today.
Gibson also drew heavy influences from Japan, stating that “modern Japan simply was cyberpunk.” Cyberpunk and vaporwave have another commonality in their draw towards a consumer heavy, technologically forward-thinking Japan. Dennis Taillandier mentions in his article New Spaces for Old Motifs: The Virtual Worlds of Japanese Cyberpunk that authors had “extensively used high-tech, hyper-consumerist Japan as a motif or a setting for their works, so that Japan became in the mid 1980s the very exemplification of the future.” Modern Japan became the benchmark for what was not only capitalistic, but futuristic. Theorist Toshiya Uneno dubbed this now cultural trope as techno-Orientalism, which sparked discussion as to whether or not aspects of American cyberpunk were culturally appropriating. American cyberpunk about Japan, in the eyes of Taillandier, combined lots of high tech imagery with stereotypical aspects and ideas of traditional Japan—things like martial arts, geishas and the Yakuza. Vaporwave, for the most part, is made by English speakers, who often not only musically, but visually draw from not only Japanese, but other Asian cultures, sharing this aspect with cyberpunk.
Meanwhile, the island that had inspired so many ideas for the genre began to contribute to it, as well. In 1982, the serialization of the manga Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo) would help to bring forth the first wave of Japanese cyberpunk. Set in a post-nuclear Tokyo, nihilistic protagonists must come to terms with societal pressures and the machination of the government, as well as coping with being unimpressed by the compromises they’ve had to make as a collective society in order to continue to survive. When we assess vaporwave under a similar lens, we find it as the western equivalent response to a global financial crisis. Vaporwave reflects the post apocalyptic sounds of a financial collapse and the voice of a generation coming to terms with the fact that they must live with the consequences of a consumer-driven world. And they are resigned and indignant about it.
Akira would go on to influence other manga-ka and animators to envision a dying, futuristic Japan, and it would manifest itself in such series as Patlabor, Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop. Its influence still extends into more modern creations such as Serial Experiments Lain and Ergo Proxy, touching on a heavy dependence on machines, the Internet, and the access to knowledge.
The cyberpunk hero need not have the most benevolent of morals—that’s not to say that there aren’t protagonists that aren’t all good, but for the most part, the lead in a cyberpunk story is often a social outcast, a misfit who may not have a problem with hurting someone to ensure they are able to survive another day. They face the brutal realities of their situations, and are often begrudgingly made to carry out a task that, in the long run, leaves them no better off than where they were to begin with.
The idea of this reluctant protagonist was explored in the 1981 publication of Johnny Mnemonic (William Gibson). Johnny is a mnemonic courier—a person who has sacrificed memories of his own to have implants put into his brain. The implants allow him to store encrypted data and then transfer it to other people who pay highly for it. The risk is that if these couriers are asked to carry data that exceeds their capacity and choose to do so, they have a limited amount of time to deliver the data, lest they suffer crippling, even life-ending side effects. Exploring the unwilling hero idea even farther, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner began to do the same.
Deckard, too, is a begrudging player in his story—forced to reassume his role as a bounty hunter. The replicants are synthetic humans, bio-engineered to work in colonies off-world. Deckard’s world is dingy and hopeless, and as he undertakes the task of hunting a group of escaped replicants who have taken refuge on a dystopian earth, he comes to question not only his humanity, but that of the replicants he is hunting. Like Akira, the influence of this work spans far, influencing video games, anime, other science fiction films and even television series. Eccojams, Floral Shoppe, and Birth of A New Day all also share something in this—among their genres, they are behemoths who cast long shadows of influence over all who would hear them.
All things that experience a bubble growth come to a critical point where they pop, and as cyberpunk began to approach a more mainstream market, it too would experience this. When Johnny Mnemonic was made into a film in 1995, it showed how a society concerned with marketing and return on investment would come to subvert the very thing that tried to subvert it. The film Johnny Mnemonic was a critical flop. The film took its own liberties with the story in effort to make it more appealing to a casual audience, resulting in a story heavy on cyber, and light on punk. As vaporwave grew from a tiny movement in the back alleys of the internet to a means of delivering messages from several like-minded individuals, it too would endure generalization.
An example of this would be リサフランク420 _ 現代のコンピュー (Lisa Frank 420_Modern Computing). Often thought of as the benchmark of the audio vaporwave experience, it has been described by some as “just a slowed down version of Diana Ross’ It’s Your Move.” People who weren’t necessarily immersed in the genre would come to think of vaporwave as “just slowed down” samples of ‘80s classics, much like cyberpunk would come to be generalized as “high-tech, low life sci-fi,” rather than movements that, like dada, expressed the creators’ frustrations with the idea of consumerism and how it controlled their lives.
Though the Macintosh Plus classic does not represent the sheer diversity of what vaporwave was, or has become, like Bethke it pushed boundaries into an unexplored yet necessary world. The next time you skip your stop to push deeper into the city, or stare into the black portal of your phone, digging for samples, remember this: cyberpunk foretold that this future would happen. Vaporwave reminds us that it’s already here.
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Iglesia, Martin De La. “Has Akira Always Been a Cyberpunk Comic?” MDPI. August 01, 2018. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0752/7/3/32/htm.
Murphy, Graham J., and Sherryl Vint. Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Stableford, Brian M. Heterocosms: Science Fiction in Context and Practice. San Bernardino, Ca.: Borgo Press, 2007.
Taillandier, Denis. “New Spaces for Old Motifs? The Virtual Worlds of Japanese Cyberpunk.” MDPI. October 05, 2018. Accessed November 05, 2018. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0752/7/4/60/htm.
“What Is Cyberpunk?” Neon Dystopia. Accessed November 10, 2018. https://www.neondystopia.com/what-is-cyberpunk/.