There are times when it feels as if William Gibson — who turns 68 this Thursday — might regret his life’s work. Not the books and various other things that he’s written himself, of course; books like Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive and Virtual Light remain classics decades after their publication, and more modern works like Pattern Recognition and The Peripheral shows that, while his focus might have shifted towards worlds closer to our own, he still has an eye (and a voice) unlike anyone else.
No, the problem for Gibson is that he’s the so-called “Noir Prophet” of cyberpunk, a genre that — like all things with the “-punk” affix — has grown almost unfathomably wide in its usage. What makes a story “cyberpunk”? Well, it depends on who you ask, but some combination of societal decay, human/machine interaction and subcultures operating on fringes of the mainstream in spaces created by new technology would seem to fit the bill.
With that in mind, enjoy this playlist of ten cyberpunk-adjacent projects that Gibson might not recognize as being inside the scope of a world he created. Look upon these works, ye Mighty, and despair.
Obviously, Metropolis can’t be cyberpunk, as it predates Burning Chrome — Gibson’s short story credited with launching the genre — by 55 years. And yet… oppressed workers revolting against an unfair system while one of their number is replaced by a robot double? That certainly sounds like something Gibson would approve of…
A quasi-adaptation of a short story from British sci-fi comic 2000AD, Hardware features self-aware robots that end up killing people, paranoid former soldiers and a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s a movie that’s so very much of its time that of course cyberpunk is shot through its DNA.
Like the fever dream of some B-movie junkie, Nirvana has it all in complete schlocky glory: Christopher Lambert is a game designer whose main character in a VR game has become self-aware due to a computer virus, and now wants Lambert’s character to delete the game to save him from further suffering. It’s as good as that description makes it sound.
David Cronenberg’s late ‘90s evocation of that generation’s New Flesh was, of course, all about jacking in to a VR game that contains biotechnology, blurring the lines between man and machine even as reality itself starts getting blurry thanks to a potentially corrupted version of the game brought about by people with their own nefarious intentions. It’s Gibson by way of Videodrome, which of course makes it wonderful.
Ah, the early 2000s, when Hugh Jackman could get away with playing a hacker who gets brought into bank robbery scheme with John Travolta and Halle Berry, because that’s just the way things worked back then. Filled with over-the-top moments and double-crosses, this plays like the work of someone who read Gibson and then thought, “But I can make this more Hollywood.”
THE AVENGING FIST (2001)
This amazingly ridiculous movie genuinely feels like something Gibson would approve of, with the son of a dead cop going up against a former secret agent for the fate of the world, with both of them using technology called “the Power Glove,” which amps up the abilities of the human brain to the point of super powers. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want your own Power Glove.
Who are we? What if we weren’t who we thought we were, but had far more exciting lives with hot girlfriends that we’d forgotten for mysterious reasons, but had downloadable personalities and a life as a spy that we didn’t remember, except when we did? Taking paranoia (and, to be blunt, fantasy lives) to a whole new level, Cypher feels very much like a next-generation Swordfish in the best way possible.
THE ANIMATRIX (2003)
The Matrix movies, of course, had Gibson’s work tattooed on its cinematic body almost as much as it did Grant Morrison’s Invisibles. Nowhere was that more visible than this animated anthology spin-off that, let’s be real, has held up far better to the ravages of time than the core live-action trilogy. When is someone going to reboot this franchise?
ÆON FLUX (2005)
Even before Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron was ready to kick your ass in high concept sci-fi movies, as this adaptation of the animated classic ably demonstrates. It’s not quite as outré as the original, but with Theron’s warrior leading a revolution against the sterile overlords will have you wondering what the hell is going on so much that you won’t even notice.
There’s no denying that Dollhouse didn’t really fulfill its creepy “what if you could hire people out and make them into whoever you wanted” potential during its two season run, but there are many fine idea to be explored nonetheless. Just pretend that there was a show about the two Dolls that aren’t Eliza Dushku and wish that you lived in that world.