Cyberpunk as a genre ebbs and flows as reality itself assumes more of the conventions of the genre. It would be simplistic to merely list off the requisite elements: pseudo-noir stories of crime and betrayal set in a world of body augmentation and transhumanism, artificial intelligences, the Internet as its own domain, deterritorialization (especially with the spread of East Asian influences), the fall of state power in favor of powerful zaibatsu corporations, and Landian acceleration of all types. This will let you appreciate the pastiche and mad-lib a credible plot: “genetically augmented Mexican catgirl must steal a rogue AI from ExxonSoft’s orbital lab before it escapes onto the ‘Net”. It even lets you contrive the aesthetic – slap some tasteful Jeri Ryan esque “augmentations” on some anime caricatures and give everyone a bigass gun.
These don’t grab at the heart of cyberpunk, though. Whereas early science fiction had a triumphal note of humans conquering the universe and the dawning of a new heroic age, the cyberpunk of the 70s inverted the relationship, as it became clear these systems were no longer being operated in the service of advancing the human condition. Instead of technology being something humans do to the universe, in cyberpunk, technology is something done to humans.
This is not merely a dystopia – anyone could look outside their window by the mid 70s and see that no one was in charge to be imposing a dystopia – but nonetheless resembled the worst of all possible worlds. In order to participate in a cyberpunk society, one is forced to accept it on the terms offered. If one must slice off little chunks of humanity as table stakes, well, it’s that or the reclamation vats. I need a job – buy the brain augmentation to stay competitive. Take the edge off to stay sane – a vacation in the space of a bathroom break with the right drugs. No time for a girlfriend – VR porn should do the trick. Gotta make the payments – this sketchy fixer says he can pay me handsomely, if I just exfil a little data for him…
This is not just the world that Cyberpunk: Edgerunners explores, but in a neat thematic way, makes into an interpersonal tragedy for the protagonist, David. We’re still an anime here, so we get eased into it with a pretty stock introduction – David finds the Object of Power, the Sandevistan implant (not a MacGuffin, as the story makes full use of its unique properties), as his mother dies and leaves him untethered to his ordinary life. He encounters a crew of freelance hustlers who can make use of his newfound capabilities. Episodic jobs and an overall arc ensue. “That’s it: I’m going to become a cyberpunk edgerunner”, he says. (He does not actually say this.)
Now, in a world where this is a lazy cash grab by CD Projekt Red (the anime is a joint project between a prestigious Japanese studio and a Polish video game developer for an American streaming service, because we must ensure the creation is itself vaguely cyberpunk), we know exactly how this goes. David learns he must control his power. He learns the Power of Friendship. There is an Act II tragedy. There is a Act III Big Job. He must go all out, just this once (forgive him). They pull off the heist, chaste kiss with love interest, queue theme song.
This does not occur, despite on a surface level hitting some of those plot points, because we are in a tragedy, and no one gets to be happy.
David’s tragic flaw on a personal basis mirrors the society in which he finds himself. Humans in general find themselves commoditized and only valued for what they can provide the System, at great personal expense. David lives purely for other people, even physically taking on their attributes, as he works towards their goals rather than anything of his own. His mother, before she dies, works to send him to a fancy private school so he can “make something of himself” – he wears her jacket for the rest of the show, but gives up on that future when she is no longer pushing him towards it. As the gang’s jobs escalate beyond their capabilities, their leader Maine dies, and David inherits his cybernetic arms – too big for his frame. David assumes leadership of the gang and installs even more implants, seeking to provide everyone a payday and bring his love interest, Lucy, to her dream of escaping to a lunar colony.
The hardware he replaces himself with begins to drive David insane – a condition called cyberpsychosis. The Cyberpunk 2077 videogame the show is based on has cyberpsychosis as a plot element, but only for third parties – miniature boss battles with NPCs driven insane by their augmentations, and very dangerous as a result. The protagonist is free to install whatever they want, constrained by the fact that the main storyline needs to happen, and thus permanent consequences must be marginal at best. Edgerunners is a far better exploration of this idea – at what point does one become no longer human, by virtue of replacing oneself with contrivances meant to make oneself useful to others? Human instrumentality, indeed.
The replacement of David’s will with the wishes of others, and the replacement of his physical humanity with cybernetic implants, both come to a head in the final One Big Job. As things go horribly wrong, David is tricked into installing a military grade near-total body replacement in an effort to save his friends. This is the final straw – hallucinations of past and present meld together, his grip on reality is gone, and he dies horribly, along with most of his friends. Only Lucy escapes and fulfills her dream – a purely consumerist satisfaction without David. Rather than being a redemptive sacrifice, his death merely serves to triage the situation into a cold comfort: a partial escape, and a bit of revenge.
The synthesis of these tragedies raises the question – is it possible to escape our cyberpunk present, if we reject one half of the equation? There is no escaping society – we will not Just Stop Oil, the algorithms will ingest more data, there will be another iPhone until they are made out of sticks and bits of Coke bottle. But can we decide on our own terms how to deal with it? The default will always be to make oneself convenient, legible, safe, and useful. As a cautionary tale, Edgerunners suggests we discover ways to use these systems, and not allow ourselves to become purely their servants.