Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Magic, Technology and Cyberpunk

'Any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic' (Arthur C Clarke). 

Discussed in relation to cyberpunk.

Written By Gareth Chappell

The idea of cyberpunk developed as a sub-genre of sci-fi, which emerged in the middle of the nineteen-eighties. A writer named William Gibson wrote a series of novels containing narratives about individuals existing in a new world technology where information becomes the new currency. These narratives are set in the international settings of Japan, Los Angeles, London and Paris all linked together through a hidden network of computers. These ideas along with films such as ‘Tron (Steven Lisberger, US (1982)), ‘Blade Runner’ Ridley Scott UK (1982) and ‘Videodrome’ (1982) contributed to what developed into cyberpunk.

Within the realms of cyberpunk, whether they be in novels or film we are often presented with things that are not commonplace within our own worlds. Sometimes these take the form of advanced mechanical devices, different realms in which to explore and live or even certain members of a community reaching a higher stage of human evolution, and often in doing so developing some new power or skill. It is these aspects of cyberpunk worlds that seem to support Arthur C Clarke’s statement that ‘Any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic’.
As with films which deal in pure fantasy containing characters that may well be able to cast ‘real magic’, or contain mythological creatures of enormous power such as dragons, vampires and demons, cyberpunk films can also be read in terms of Todorov’s idea of the marvellous, uncanny and fantastic. This in itself shows there is a link between the magic of fantasy films and the technology within the cyberpunk realm. For instance, when looking at a flying car in ‘Blade Runner’ (Ridley Scott, UK (1982), we can argue that this creates as much a feeling of the fantastic as a flying carpet would, as because flying cars do not exist in our world we can be said to hesitate in believing what is being presented to us. Further more the flying car can also act to show us the concept of the marvellous as it clearly depicts a world that isn’t our own.
Furthermore, cyberpunk films may well depict mythological creatures within their narratives, however they are normally shown to us in terms of some form of technological monster instead of their magical counterparts found in fantasy films. This can be called, as Todorov puts it, ‘the scientific marvellous’. That being where ‘the supernatural is explained in a rational manner, but according to laws which contemporary science does not acknowledge’ and thus taking us away from the idea apparent in fantasy films, of the marvellous as ‘characterised by the mere presence of supernatural events’.

Looking at the Anime film ‘Cyber City Oedo 808’ (Yoshiaki KawajiI, Jap (English dubbed version) (1994). We see the idea of the scientific marvellous played out. First of all we have the character Sengoku confronted by a zombie creature. Where as in a fantasy film the creature would be re-animated through some magical means such as by invoking a curse for example, here we have the monster brought to life by a computer. So we have technology taking the place of magic in this instance and creating a mythical creature. Later in the film character Ben-Ten finds himself in a battle with what appears to be a vampire. The creature contains all the traits of the classic vampire figure, including the blood sucking fangs, only moving at night, as well as the ability to become invisible replacing the shape shifting ability. Again though, this creature is not created through any form of magic, instead we are told that it is a side effect of a drug that causes immortality, which has been developed through genetic manipulation. A clear example of magic being indistinguishable from advanced technology as here science has created a mythological creature with all its traits and behavioural patterns.

Another trait of the fantasy film which is apparent in a number of cyberpunk texts, both in film and novel is characters who can be seen to cast magic, except these characters rarely (with the exception of the Shadow Run series of novels) conform to the typical sorcerer or wizard character within the fantasy film. However, the notion of spell casting does still exist in a number of cyberpunk films. Looking at the film ‘Akira, Japan (1987)’ the ability to cast magic is presented to us as some form of human evolution that the character Tetsuo undergoes. As the film progresses he develops abilities far above that of the other characters, such as the ability to fly and produce blasts of great force which he directs at people that oppose him, as well as the ability to manipulate objects. If the character were placed within a medieval setting it would be almost impossible to consider him anything but a wizard. However, Tetsuo uses his mind or telekinetic power to produce these magical effects, again showing that the magic can be explained through a more scientific reasoning than that of just something supernatural.

Something else which often appears in bot, the fantasy film and the cyberpunk film is the idea of two different realms or lands to explore. But as where the fantasy film creates a ‘real’ world and a more marvellous world. The cyberpunk alternate reality is set in the realm of some virtual environment or cyberspace. This cyberspace realm has close links to the marvellous world of the fantasy film. For instance in ‘Labyrinth, Jim Henson, UK, (1986)’ the female protagonist Sarah must enter the marvellous world in order to solve a crisis in the real world, that being to rescue her baby brother. 

This idea of righting something in the ‘real’ world by entering another realm is re-iterated in terms of cyberpunk by Andy Butler who states that ‘Often some crisis in the real world can be solved by going into the virtual one’ An example of this can be seen in ‘Strange Days’ (Bigelow, US, (1995)) where the male protagonist Lenny has to ‘jack’ into a virtual world through a head set that sends messages straight to the brain, thus allowing him to see through the eyes of the killer that he is tracing, without entering this world he would never learn the identity of the man he is following. The idea of the virtual world can be again be seen in ‘Tron’ (Steven Lisberger, US (1982)) While the film is not strictly cyberpunk it does clearly demonstrate the idea of a ‘real’ and a virtual world existing simultaneously.

Furthermore the notion of one of the worlds being false, and the characters becoming confused about not only which world they are currently existing in, but also which of the worlds is actually real. For instance in the film ‘Total Recall, (Paul Verhoeven, US (1990)) We have the character of Douglas Quaid fighting with the idea of weather the world he is in, is one that has been created in his own mind, or weather it is actually the real world and his life before was the virtual world. It can be argued that this sense of not knowing which world is real, and which world is fantasy is no different than any number of films of the fantasy genre where the characters are shown waking up from what seems to be nothing more than a dream. The only difference being that one world seems to be magically created, where as in the cyberpunk text the world comes from some form of technological implementation or mind manipulation. In both instances either genre of film serve to make both the audience and often the characters themselves wondering weather anything actually happened, or even if the magical world where the character appears to have been only existed within their own mind. A good example of this occurring is in ‘The Wizard of OZ’ where we see Dorothy awaken surrounded by people she has seen represented in her other world, that being OZ. Often we no distinct answer or explanation is given to clarify which world the character ends up in, at the end of ‘Total Recall’ for example Quaid says the line “but what if this is just a dream?” showing us that he is still not completely convinced that the world he ends up in is his real reality. 
‘Blade Runner’ (Ridley Scott UK (1982)) illustrates to us another point that is often apparent in both the fantasy and cyberpunk text. That being the individuals search for identity. Within the fantasy genre we often see the weak character undertaking a task in order to come of age or prove something to them. And by the end of the film they have found they have grown as a character and found whatever it is that they need in order find out who they really are. For instance ‘Excalibur’ John Boorman, US (1981) shows us a number of examples of this. We have the character of the naive squire Perceval who doesn’t really have any idea what he wants to do, apart from become a knight of the round table. However by the end of the film he has developed into the champion and saviour of the text. And however this only comes about after King Arthur has given him clarity about his purpose. This clarity of purpose also serves to give Perceval clarity of his own identity, and with this resolved he is then free to develop into the hero.

Within the ‘Blade Runner’ (Ridley Scott UK (1982)) world all the characters seem to be on a quest for identity. The film focuses around the idea of memories and what is being seen by people. The character of Deckard seems to doubt what he believes to be his identity more and more as he progresses with his quest to find the replicants. This culminates at the end of the film where while leaving his apartment he finds a small paper unicorn left on the floor. This refers back to a dream of a unicorn that Deckard had experienced earlier in the film. The Unicorn serves to pose the idea to us that Deckard may himself be a replicant. It makes us ask weather the unicorn image had been implanted in Deckards mind, and the unicorn being a fantasy creature. This suggests that Deckards world may be indeed fantasy. The fact the image of the unicorn comes from another of Ridley Scott's films ‘Legend’ also adds weight to this theory. So while in ‘Excalibur’ idea of identity comes from the idea of undergoing a marvellous quest of some sort, in ‘Blade Runner’ (Ridley Scott UK (1982))’ the idea of identity comes from the scientifically marvellous idea of technology such as mind implants and fake memories being used. And then as we see with Deckard, the character gradually beginning to realise perhaps what he is experiencing is not real, so a new identity has to be found. I believe Deckard realises this new identity when he leaves his world and runs away with Rachel, breaking his programme so to speak

To conclude I would say that clear links can be made between the fantasy genre and the sub genre of sci-fi films that is cyber punk. The idea of fantasy worlds, mythological creatures and so-called ‘magic’ are very much apparent in both. The difference being, whereas in the fantasy text. These occurrences appear to us often in the gaze of something that is nothing more than just magic, in the cyberpunk text these often-same magical happenings are then explained in terms of Todorov’s scientific marvellous. Supernatural instances are then explained in terms of some advancement which we are not able to connect with in our own society - due to contemporary science not having developed to what we are presented with on the screen.   


Butler, Andrew M, (2000) Cyberpunk (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials)

Springer, Claudia, (1999) Psycho-Cybernetics in the Films of the 1990’s, Alien Zone II (London and New York: Verso)

Landsberg, Alison, (1995) Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner (Body and Society volume 1)
Todorov, T, (1975) The fantastic: a structural approach to a literary genre

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