The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture (2019) is an expensive must have

I got my copy of this mighty tome back in July 2020, and that it’s taken me this long to feel I can finally give a solid review of its 430 pages, is testimony to how detailed and in-depth it is. Within the 50 information-rich articles is not so much an introduction to Cyberpunk, but more a state-of-the-art snapshot of some of the finest Cyberpunk Studies writing going around. Whilst the writing is not aggressively academic, the concepts and ideas discussed are given a weight and a reverence of serious critical analysis. The articles also demonstrate the most valuable facets of true fans of any genre: the joy of taking apart a favourite topic and evaluating it from every angle and in every light possible. Faults are on display as much as perfections, because it’s a part of the thing being loved, so needs to be part of a whole conversation.

The articles, all from different writers, are split into three broad topics: Cultural Texts, Cultural Theory, and Cultural Locales. Cultural Texts is the largest of the three, topping out at 30 articles. The usual introductory “what is cyberpunk?” discussions are undertaken, along with some attention given to its offshoots of BioPunk and Steampunk, and a number of classical texts from film, literature, and games are run through the analytics mill. Whilst the topics are fairly standard, the quality of discourse is well above average and the number of approaches makes for unexpectedly riveting reads on topics I’ve seen a hundred times before. There are also a number of “deep-geek” sections covering the path less trodden, with my personal favourites being those on the American Flagg! comic series (Corey K. Creekur) Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer “emotion picture” audio/visual work (Christine Capetola) and the oft-ignored post-cyberpunk film Strange Days (Anna McFarlane). Anime, TV, roleplay games, and almost every expression of the genre gets looked at, giving a well-rounded overview on its output.

Cultural Theory has 14 articles, stepping into the world of the ideas both behind the texts of the first section, and then forward into the new concepts raised by them. As more oblique and tangential themes are discussed, the language takes a step into the more theoretical and detailed. However, things are still clear for people (like myself) who are not steeped in the buzzword & lexicon-heavy academic world of cultural theories and culture studies. This is all about big ideas, deeply explained, with clear and accessible language.

The three articles that really stuck with me were Cyborg Feminism (Patricia Melzer), Critical Race Theory (Isiah Lavender III), and Afrofuturism (Isiah Lavender III and Graham J. Murphy). The first two, because it gives concise coverage of two key elements that the genre has to get to grips with as it evolves (very broadly; it’s apparent dependence on being a white boy’s club). The third is because the boundaries between the venerable literary tradition of Afrofuturism and black written cyberpunk are getting closer, so a look at their differences and similarities is very timely. Also, on a personal-bugbear note, it promotes the idea and identifier of “Afrocyberpunk” as a literary term from its progenitors, rather than the misappropriation of the musical term “AfroPunk” by people whose first introduction to black/African themed sci-fi was Black Panther.

The themes of different geographical takes on the genre are further explored in the six articles of the Cultural Locales section. Different countries and regions have got their own ideas of cyberpunk, tied in with their own histories and cultural conditions. It is great to see them looked into as the valid and exciting sets of ideas and stories that they are. India (Suparno Banerjee) and Cuba’s Cyberpunk Histories (Juan C. Toledano Redondo) were the two most eye-opening parts for me, and I’m grateful that they both expanded my worldview and added new texts to my reading list. On that note, it’s worth pointing out that the bibliographies of all the articles are a veritable goldmine of further reading. Whether your interest is in deeper academic texts or the excitement of discovering stories you never heard of before, you may well end up reading this with an eBay or bookstore tab open and your credit card looking at you disapprovingly.

Talking of money; when first reviewed, the one downside to the companion was that it was £35 for the ebook and £190 for the hardcover, as “this much work from this many people is not cheap”. There is now a softcover available for around £40, so you can now pick this up on the relative fly! This is a serious book for people seriously into the topic, so you now have no excuse not to have a physical copy on your bookshelf!

Honesty also dictates that I admit I didn’t agree with every conclusion of every article found within and that it’s a fair assumption that other readers will also have issues with some of the points raised as well. But when you have that many people contributing, that is an inevitability and a strength. It’s also a demonstration of the quality of writing and of the presentation of a multitude of ideas and viewpoints. No article upset or angered me, they challenged preconceived notions and ran ideas that didn’t hit home. Different opinions were given, causing the reader to think about their own, and the disagreements would make for the most epic of polite, friendfully heated, and informative conversations at a convention bar. For anyone who is interested in the genre, both during its classical origination period and as an ongoing force, I can only encourage you to get a copy and put some time into it.

The Raggedyman

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