“Pornography says: there must be good sex somewhere, for I am its caricature.”
—Seduction, by Jean Baudrillard
When William Gibson’s Neuromancer begins, hacker Case can only dream of cyberspace. He stole from his bosses; in return he is stripped of purpose and barred from accessing the narcotic bliss of the virtual reality-esque matrix—the “consensual hallucination”—his nervous system burned out by a “wartime Russian mycotoxin.” When new client Armitage blackmails him with a cure, it comes with a failsafe: the same toxin is now dissolving slowly in his arteries, giving him just enough time to complete the job.
Gibson’s language throughout the book stresses this collision of metal and flesh—wetware, meatspace, console cowboy—in ways that were built on by the bioorganic extremity of Japanese cyberpunk like Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo trilogy and Shozin Fukui’s 964 Pinocchio and Rubber’s Lover rather than codified into gospel, as in the neon nonsense of Altered Carbon, Snow Crash, and the like.
In this late '80s/early '90s Japanese cyberpunk, cyborgization causes flesh to run mercury-like from bone and squeezes vomit, pus, and excrement from every orifice. The body’s abjection cannot be escaped in cyberspace or through interface with technology—it only intensifies. These films find release in that intensification; the ecstasy of sexual and bodily transformation.
In Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless, the pirate Thivai, like Case, is living in Chiba and, like Case, is impaired by disease—in Thivai’s case it is gonorrhea. Acker explicitly remixes Neuromancer in the “Nightmare City” section of the book (after Gibson’s Night City, of course), where Thivai is offered a job and a cure from a man who asks his total obedience in return. Acker, as was her wont, lifts from Gibson whole-cloth: Gibson’s description of a “pulsing red and black cursor cre[eping] through the outline of the doorway” recurs verbatim in Tivai’s dissociative, stream-of-consciousness narration.+ “Wintermute” becomes “WINTER;” the “Panther Moderns” become “Moderns.”
This is only one aspect of Senseless’s avant-garde collage of references; it is Acker’s move from “Russian mycotoxin” to gonorrhea, sexual dysfunction, and AIDS-era terror++ that interests me, as it foregrounds the venereal component of cyberpunk.
V, the protagonist of Cyberpunk 2077, is similarly debilitated; not by a toxin or an STD, but by a biochip containing the volatile consciousness of rock star and terrorist Johnny Silverhand. The how and why are of little concern—least of all to the game itself, which is a barren Grand Theft Auto clone so evidently hamstrung by the brutal circumstances of its development that it feels dreadful, like morally too tragic to actually play.+++
2077 takes place in Night City—one of many delicate nods to Gibson—a near-future city-state on the Californian coast run by the Arasaka Corporation. In Cyberpunk lore Night City is referred to, presumably with some stiff competition, as “the worst place to live in America:” every aspect of life there is tunneled through by surveillance technology and pummelled by brutal policing. It’s reality with more neon.
The body is the breeding ground of capital in Night City: the array of cybernetic implants that augment the average citizen’s senses and physicality are corpo-watermarked and of course profusely hackable, but more interesting is the game’s voyeuristic fixation on sex. Infinite streams of holographic billboards scream sex into the smog-choked sky; dildoes proliferate like rats; and “dolls” are exactly what they sound like—sex workers who exist as physical shells to interface with the client’s subconscious and parrot their own psyche back at them.
The game’s inclusion of transness in its hypernormative dystopia, both in the infamous Chromanticore ad that launched a thousand strenuous thinkpieces and as a potential outcome of the character creator++++, is curious but underthought—the intrepid player will have to lug its meaning to the finish line herself. All the combinations you can come up with are shunted into a character treated by the game as “male” or “female” on the basis of their voice, which is in effect a gender toggle. It’s so halfhearted that it’s impossible to discern the reasons for its inclusion in the first place, and yet the forthright manner in which you can, indeed, make a V with a trans body is naggingly interesting.
There are ads all over Night City for a lurid TV show called Watson Whore that feature an androgynous figure (referred to as “he” in a TV ad) leaning over a toilet and vomiting. He wears thigh-high stiletto boots and a bulge presses proudly from his leather panties. One of the game’s many text logs is a diary written by the show’s star which reads plausibly close to Kathy Acker homage:
“He took my [sic] back to his place, chained me to his king bed and fucked me raw till I snapped each n every bedpost. he showered me in eddies and already got plans to see him same time next.”
Compare to the cadence of this passage from Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School:
“[...] I roll my hands in his fat and bite it and rub my dying-to-come hips against the bones sticking out of his thighs so maybe maybe I’ll come that way his cock, if I could just touch his cock just for a second, I don’t want to touch it more than that, a quick kiss, wet and slimy, don’t take me away from it, don’t take me away from it you creep meanie: this is my home.”
2077 is not about the Watson whore, or any sex worker. Of course it’s not! It’s absurd that I’d even raise that as a possibility. The diary is a watery send-up of empty-headed celebrity that plays at lurid—but the sex itself is done away with in a few words, where Acker wallows in the mire of desire and disgust. The Watson whore is rote shorthand for the fallen society, in a prudishly Victorian-era prostitutes-as-plague sense. A triple-A videogame wouldn’t feature a sex worker as a protagonist, and this is the triple-A project, the event horizon of big-budget development, a startling catastrophe.
This is all to say 2077 is nothing more or less than the modern videogame with the veil torn away. It is the surfaced bile, everything that is rotten and moldering, and in this light it makes perfect sense that the one aspect of life it is not childishly lurid about is sex. If Japanese cyberpunk locates transcendence in the runny excrea of the (industrialized) flesh, 2077 is repulsed by the abject: its mirror image.
So 2077 flees from one of cyberpunk’s most fertile fixations into the arms of empty stereotype: a Polish developer making a game about a fake Californian city full of ethnic cartoons and no recognizable sense of place. Who knows whether this is through fealty to a source text that dates back to 1988 or sheer creative inertia. All the game’s adolescent prurience, leering at sex workers and girldick and bloody-nosed women with relish, is impressively regressive even within a generic context that all but stands for regression. The Western cyberpunk clichés—and I stress Western because Western cyberpunk is the closed ecosystem everyone talks about when they #thread about cyberpunk—are, to repurpose a line from Neuromancer, little more than a “knowing posture that implie[s] connection.”
Cyberpunk 2077 is a posture, a fanclub, a tower of bullshit containing no beauty or truth or horror.
It is the consensual hallucination.
+Acker also revises Gibson’s famous opening line—“ The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”—to “The sky faded to blood, to the colour of blood,” which sums up her firmly corporeal concerns.
++Gibson’s subsequent cyberpunk novels, especially the San Francisco-set Bridge trilogy, get further into this, but even in Neuromancer the milieu is “hustlers and whores”—queers and sex workers.
+++Without being glib, the game itself is a further iteration of the brainwormed cyberpunk protagonist—the warping and ruthless conditions of capital scrambling the very code it demands written. For a Polish cyberpunk game that does more or less this exact thing intentionally see 2017’s Observer.
++++If you follow her street-racing questline, Afterlife bartender Claire reveals to V that she’s trans while talking about her husband; this information is quarantined to a single line referencing her “gender transition” and a trans flag (unfortunately no one has improved on that by the year 2077) on the back of her truck. Also you can’t romance her. A big win for representation!
Astrid Anne Rose is a horror writer living in Chicago.