There is much that students and practitioners of global politics can learn from cyberpunk. As a genre cyberpunk has been described by Bruce Sterling as a “combination of lowlife and high tech“. But from the perspective of international politics, we might think of much of cyberpunk as a kind of techno-medievalism—a lumpy landscape of technology, tribalism, overlapping authority and sovereignty, and migratory identities.
Some of the classics of cyberpunk include the writing of Philip K. Dick, especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its film equivalent Blade Runner, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and Japanese manga such as Akira, which also became a major anime film.
Cyberpunk has successfully predicted many of the current dynamics of international politics: abundant and anarchical information environments, layered realities, the rise of media personalities as international players, the rise of tribal politics, and negotiable identities. Hopefully, scarier things found in cyberpunk will not come to pass—hyperinflation even in supposedly stable currencies, the breakdown of nation-states at an alarming rate, and the creation of walled and tribal city-states.
A classic cyberpunk, Neal Stephenson’s 1993 classic Snow Crash, can teach us much about our evolving future. In the book, the United States has been carved up into separate territories by gangs, churches, the mafia, and corporations. Each of these actors competes against (and sometimes cooperates with) one another to control territory, create spheres of influence, and to protect themselves from emerging dangers. The federal government claims sovereignty over all of its former territory, but in reality, it is only one actor in a landscape of sub-state entities and can only hold a small physical footprint. But physical territory is not the only entity these actors concern themselves with. Many people spend much of their time in a place called the metaverse, where they interact through avatars. This was years before the internet or social media became staples of our daily life. Perhaps one of the most relevant themes of Snow Crash has to do with identity. Identity is depicted as precarious, fragmented, and negotiable. In a world with weak, non-existent, or failing nation-states, it can also be highly tribal.
How should we judge fiction vis-à-vis international political theory? First, like theory, we should judge it by its internal consistency. How much does the fiction obey the rules it creates for itself? And second, we should judge it by its relevance to the current world we live in. In other words, how much does the fictional world actually reflect and illuminate dynamics in the real world? Third, we should also ask in what ways the fiction surpasses theory (what I call explicitly stated theory, as opposed to the implicitly depicted theory of fiction).
Is the fictional world of Snow Crash internally consistent? In the novel, the United States is an anarchical territory mostly dominated by “burbclaves” (relatively well-to-do suburban enclaves) “franchulates” (franchises that control and compete for territories), narcotribes, city-states, and the rump federal government (that articulates the practices of a government without actually governing very much).
Does the fictional world obey the rules it creates for itself? For the most part, yes. There is certainly a tonal consistency that carries the book. However, one does have to wonder how vital infrastructures are maintained. It seems as if principles of greed, honor, and cooperation within anarchy keep the territory known as America together. But this reality seems tenuous at best sometimes. The absurdity of this future is often its draw and its plausibility comes from the rich details the author endows the book with. The world-building is so complete that mid-way through the book, the reader can start to anticipate how things will happen. But there are still lingering questions. Without a strong central government, how do airports continue to function? How do nuclear arsenals remain secure (enough)? And why is the United States, with only a rump federal government, still considered the “First World” by the characters in the book?
Second, is the novel relevant to the current world? Written in 1993, but forecasting many of the trends we see today—information overload and anarchy, tribalized worldviews, alternative currencies, and a new digital world—I would say the novel is extremely relevant. As is the entire genre of cyberpunk. However, since the novel is fiction and not theory or policy writing, the question could be asked: What wisdom, if any, can be pulled from this fictional world? To answer this question, we would need to go beyond the novel itself and ask another important question. How does the world become the world predicted in the novel? One key answer is the breakdown and hollowing out of public institutions. In the novel, the CIA eventually becomes the CIC (the Central Intelligence Corporation) and the federal government becomes a shadow of its former self. The irrelevance of these organizations opens up opportunities for the Mafia, narcotribes, franchulates, and Asian city-states like Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong (and its alternative currency Kongbucks). So, one possible answer to the question of what wisdom can be drawn from the fictional world is simple: restore trust in and renew public institutions.
And finally, does the novel surpass explicitly stated theory? My answer to this question will seem wishy-washy. I have always considered fiction as a superior form of writing because it can deal freely with the often blurred, curved, layered, and otherwise absurd aspects of reality. Fiction never has to smooth out the rough edges of the world. The very thing that makes it superior to explicitly written policy writing or international political theory, however, also leaves it lacking. An analytical interpretation of the novel—rendering it theory—kills much of what is unique and valuable in the world it has created, but at the same time makes it accessible to audiences with specific intellectual needs.
In short, you give up the rich fictional world to gain the theoretical one.
Which is more valuable? Well, like the hero of Stephenson’s novel, Hiro Protagonist (yes, that really is his name), who travels between the metaverse and the real world to accomplish his objectives, I suggest that you become a frequent traveler between worlds to live the richest possible theoretical life (rich in Kongbucks, of course).
About the author: Daniel Clausen is a graduate of Florida International University’s PhD program in International Relations and an instructor at Nagasaki International University. His research has been published in Asian Politics and Policy, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, and Culture and Conflict Review, among other publications.