Cages of Light

Cages of Light

~ short essay on Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (2022), an anime by Studio Trigger set in the Cyberpunk role-playing game world.

David and Lucy

I have written about the world of “Cyberpunk” before, having been in the midst of playing CD Projekt Red’s wonky yet compelling Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) around that time. It was a solid game, a game that was supposed to revolutionize gaming and instead just offered a well-written adventure in a cool world.

I’ve just now finished the new anime from Studio Trigger (Kill la Kill, Promare) and wanted to write about it in a short analysis.

While brainstorming this writing, and to more succinctly summarize the Cyberpunk lore’s defining features, I am reminded of something else “cool.”

The “Cool Zone.” A Twitter joke from one of the Chapo guys a couple years ago. The “Cool Zone” was designed to shorthand a feeling all of us paying attention to the world are starting to feel the stirrings of the more we pay attention.

VICE: We’re All Living In The Cool Zone Now

We’re All Living In The Cool Zone Now

As defined by the internet: The “Cool Zone” describes a period in history that is cool to read about but not so cool to actively live through.

How near are we to a “Cool Zone”? Are we in one already? I’d say so, and it will only get cooler from here. Ha-ha. (sigh.)

Cyberpunk, originally an 80s sci-fi world made for tabletop role-playing, is a world that plays within such a zone. Or just beyond one, into a *Coolest* zone that is both cool to read about and cool to live within. (This is what we have to look forward to!) / Cyberpunk maps out a high-tech future where everyone is hustling and suffering, chromed up for “corpo wars” and digital heists, ready to die in cop vs. robber shootouts with lasers and smart bullets. Becomes easy to see why Cyberpunk’s world is run by, and viewed through the eyes of, those on the edge. Of technology and duplicity. The saga’s titular ‘cyberpunks’ are killers beyond the law, that push the edges of reality with cybernetic enhancements. This “chrome” simultaneously enhances and degrades the body and mind into which it is installed.

Hence the name of this latest story within the saga. Cyberpunk: Edgerunners follows David Martinez, a spunky teen who experiences a tragedy and is soon thrown into the underworld out of necessity. / I micro-reviewed the series on Letterboxd; I think its brilliant action and thought-provoking characters warrant immediate viewing. Edgerunners is good, and quite emotionally compelling by the end.

Here, I wanted to write about how this series has convinced me that the core truth of the Cyberpunk mythos is that of insanity.

After watching Maine and David’s stories in Edgerunners, reviewing my own character path in 2077, I’ve come to this conclusion. Cyberpsychosis is not just a plot device, but the world’s core conceit, and perhaps its most poignant social commentary. I argue Cyberpunk is mostly about cyberpsychosis.

Cyberpsychosis” is, in short, when you start to lose your mind because you’ve installed too many apps. On your body and in your brain. Cyberpunks replace body parts with robot arms, and load cells of burning electricity into their spine. Cyberpunk is part-time body horror, and consistently filled with psychological horror, as all this technological “upgrading” of the flesh shortens lifespans and generally turns into pathological ultraviolence from the now-inhumanely superpowered carrier.

Cyberpsychosis creates psychopathic cyborgs, everything human gone from the person that was. Think Anakin Skywalker and the evil persona of Darth Vader, borne of flesh and tech being merged to keep him upright and breathing. Cyberpsychosis is the result from a world where machine and Man are merging in such a way.

“Once you go screaming over the edge, it’s all over.”

What becomes of the human mind and body’s limits in an age of unlimited technology? How might Man’s biological evolution respond to the ability to use metal to not only keep a human being alive, but make him stronger, faster, and able to think in code? What are the costs of trying to create a better self?

These are the fundamental questions of the Cyberpunk world. These questions are also firmly answered. Cyberpunk paints a world quite terrifying! This merger between Man and machine is a mistake. Mankind cannot become a machine, a flesh and blood human being cannot alter his body and mind with metal and not expect to experience inevitable consequences. V and Johnny Silverhand. Maine and David. All the characters in these stories push themselves over the edge in how much they tax their bodies with technology.

Cyberpunk is about the inevitable tragedy of cyberpsychosis. Remember this is a dystopia, a reverse utopia. A fantasy world that is yet trapped inside of violent cycles of oppression. It’s also about your friends dying on you in the heat of a job, and how there’s no way for revolution because most everyone is already bought and paid for, or desperately poor and alone. Creator of the Cyberpunk world, Mike Pondsmith is quoted as saying: Cyberpunk is not about saving the world, it’s about saving yourself.

Yourself and maybe one other person. That’s why I loved the love story between David and Lucy. They are each other’s saviors, each individualized in their journeys and yet willing to sacrifice for the other. A true love. In my view, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners’ core love story is the key to the plot’s success. Because it presents a ray of hope in an otherwise devastating trajectory.

Love may be a way out of this mess.

Cyberpunk is about hope too, and fighting for comrades-in-arms. The body alteration technology does offer Man some freedom and empowerment, if used with limits. I don’t discount the style and expression of the Cyberpunk reality, and the ways where a hi-tech future would be pretty slick.

And yet, Cyberpunk is a warzone. In such an afterscape as it draws up, where anyone can shoot bullets from their fingertips and view information in real-time inside computer eyeballs, it becomes painfully easy to lose yourself, body, mind and spirit.

In Cyberpunk, everyone is going insane trying to survive, not just against technology but against oppressively oligarchical megacorporations. Such institutions grant access to the ruling class. Cyberpunks are the survivors on the streets, doing real jobs and in real danger to earn their living. And these underclass cyberpunks are mostly doing it alone. This is where Cyberpunk’s storytelling can critique a class-based society, one where poverty is systemically created to incentivize the underclass’ self-oppression.

The deep character studies within Cyberpunk’s storytelling explore the humanity remaining in this world. The underworlders that become cyberpunks aren’t just malcontents that seek out violence for its own sick sake. They are people down on their luck. They chrome up and become killers because they have to earn their next meal. We come to understand a class-based domination system is at work immiserating most of the people of society. Wealth accumulation in the hands of a few megacorps and billionaires isolates not only the world’s power but all its people too.

Save for criminal crews of short-lived legend, the people of Night City are all on their fuckin’ own. Everyone knows you can’t trust anyone in Night City. “Punk!” I guess, but also sad.

This is another pillar, or thesis, of Cyberpunk: just how hyper-capitalist its structuring is. There is no way around this reading, and thus seeing an anti-capitalist tint to the mythos’ inner messages. Corporate weapons contractors have all the world’s money, control the governments, and withhold healthcare and housing from the citizens, implicitly beckoning them into shorter, “solo” lives of criminal misadventure. (Cyberpunk is also a story that takes place primarily in America. 🤔)

Despite being bombastic fun to watch, the Cyberpunk world is a hellscape. Endless technology and unfettered capitalism have absorbed Mankind into a loop of exploitation, that is only being accelerated by mass information & automation borne of technological progress.

As Lucy tells David when they leave Night City and can finally see the stars in the deserted outskirts of civilization:

“From here, it looks like a cage of light.”

The only moments of peace inside of David’s dashing descent into cyberpsychosis, the only ones where he’s temporarily freed from the city’s cages of light, are those where he’s with Lucy.

Beautiful.

Now, I understand the Cyberpunk world is less a serious sociopolitical warning and more a well-crafted sandbox of intense and challenging conflict for the sake of the game’s fun factor. Evil empire corps. Magical technology. Arasaka and cybernetic boogeyman Adam Smasher. It’s all big fantasy.

There are nevertheless throughlines in such technologies and ideologies when compared to our own coming future. Cyberpunk, more than any other genre, seems to be foretelling our world’s next stage.

If we continue to build upon a society-wide philosophical foundation of individualistic greed upholding systemic corruption, then I am convinced we’ll end up cyberpsychotic. With flickering eyes burrowed into our skulls and steel skin housing bullets. Keep up our sprint for more technology and more war, and the profit motive remains our guiding light as people and nations — — and ya, we’ll be cyberpunks in no time. ~