We usually don’t discuss a singular sci fi short story on Signals from the Edge just because they’re short, and we like to have a lot to talk about.
But that changes today, with a discussion of the cyberpunk short story “The Life Cycle of a Cyber-Bar” by Arthur Liu, published in Issue 12 of Future Science Fiction Digest. From the first few sentences, this story really caught my attention, not just as a quirky, fun story, but as an example of the evolution of cyberpunk as a genre.
Is Cyberpunk Dead?
In the past few weeks, there have been a lot of articles published online about the cyberpunk genre as a whole. Everyone from WIRED to Tor.com has written some kind of piece with their own take, and they pretty much all come to the same conclusion: the traditional cyberpunk genre is either dead or dying, and what’s coming out of the ashes is the new era of cyberpunk.
And for the most part, they’re right. The cyberpunk of forty years ago embodies a time of massive technological growth and rampant capitalistic greed. Computer tech was improving with every passing day, and wealth was amassed by a few as the rest struggled to keep up.
Those things made their way into cyberpunk literature, and paired with a keen sense of existential dread, the genre pinpointed the problems—and future problems—our society was faced with.
To a certain point, those principles still apply today. William Gibson’s warnings about artificial intelligence in Neuromancer are seen coming to fruition with the likes of GPT-3, and tech moguls are using Neal Stephenson’s metaverse ideas as a guidebook to create their own virtual reality societies.
But it begs the question: Where do we go from here? While our modern tech hasn’t quite caught up with that of traditional cyberpunk, we’re seeing more and more aspects of cyberpunk culture in our everyday lives. Fashion, video games, music, and most importantly, ideologies.
The cyberpunk of the 1980s is still relevant, but it’s nearing the end of the line. Soon, our tech will catch up, and we’ll have lived out the predictions of Gibson, Stephenson, and Sterling, and what comes after?
That’s where modern cyberpunk comes in. Enter stage right: “The Life Cycle of a Cyber-Bar”.
Don’t Drink the Tequila
In Arthur Liu’s cyberpunk short story, we see a sentient cyber-bar work toward it’s three great feats. Primary among these feats is to reproduce, which seems weird coming from a seedy bar, but bear with me.
Essentially, everything within the cyber-bar is part of a larger organism. The cups, the tequila, the ice, the floorboards—all of it is connected to the cyber-bar, either as “fluid discharged from the excretory system,” or a “hyperplastic growth”.
By the end of the story, we see the bar reach its goal, manipulating itself into flames where the smoke carries its spores deep into space, where it will travel on spaceships or asteroids to populate a new planet.
How is this cyberpunk? It seems like one of those weird sci fi short stories online that doesn’t fit into a sci fi subgenre.
There you’d be wrong.
The story gradually expands in scope. In the beginning, we see the customary cyberpunk characters enter the bar, the guys “all cast from the same mold: flattop haircut, tough, silent, smelling of cigarettes, with suspicious eyes and heads full of obsolete microchips.” This is an homage to traditional cyberpunk, the likes of Case and Hiro Protagonist.
But then we see the same situation plaid out in the eyes of the bartender, who knows the nature of the cyber-bar. She endures constant nights of bar fights and blood, her body shattered by bullet holes only to be repaired by the nanocells the cyber-bar gifted her. She notes to us readers that she plans on spending her whole life at the bar.
That’s the ideology. The notion that a company or entity will garner your loyalty by providing more than just a paycheck, like a body modification or a cure to an ailment.
And as the story continues, we see the deviation from the traditional cyberpunk themes.
Instead of focusing on hard-pressed, edgy characters with dark pasts and flawed morals, we see a whole new side of the genre: the structures. The cyber-bar is a big part of the genre, whether it’s a popular hang out for the tech-gangsters, or where the protagonist goes to drown their sorrows.
What Makes the Cyber-Bar Special?
Aside from the sentient nature of Liu’s cyber-bar, there’s something underneath all the biological process talk that speaks to the genre as a whole.
The idea that the cyber-bar is a growing, thinking, planning, and evolving creature might be seen as a metaphor for the cyberpunk genre.
We start off with a single cyber-bar, which to an untrained eye resembles any other bar. But, when the bar turns into a candy house and mutates those who consume it, we get a second cyber-bar, directly across the street from the original.
It’s noted that the secondary cyber-bar is a facsimile of the original, which is a commentary on the state of cyberpunk. The themes of the genre are so potent and cliché at this point, that generally, any two works in the cyberpunk genre, when broken down, are the same.
Two bars equate then to two cyberpunk novels (or any medium, really, video games, films, etc.), the same in every way.
And when the cyber-bar finally reaches space, it has ascended (literally). It represents the rebirth of the genre. We move from the dirty streets flooded with neon lights to a new frontier, where sentient cyber-bars are the norm.
Liu’s poignant take on cyberpunk gives me hope for the future of the genre. He’s right that a lot of the current cyberpunk short stories, novels, movies, and games are deep down copies of traditional cyberpunk from years past.
But this new cyberpunk doesn’t do away with the economic struggles and “high-tech, low-life” mantra, instead it shifts the focus from the replayed characters and conflicts, showing us aspects of the world we have yet to explore.
Where 2021 was full of great sci fi short stories, “The Life Cycle of a Cyber-Bar” stands out as a cry for support, a new cyberpunk manifesto.
What do you think? Is cyberpunk bound for extinction, or are we witnessing the revival of the genre? Let us know in the comments below!
If you’re looking for more great sci fi short stories, consider subscribing to Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, where we publish work from new and experienced authors alike, six times a year.