spaceflight, technology, anime, politics, and whatever else I feel like writing about


The cyberpunk genre has traditionally been rooted in the rainy cities of the Pacific Rim, whether due to 1980s fears of Japan taking over the world as rendered in Neuromancer and Blade Runner, or as just blind mimicry of those two seminal works. This, however, doesn't make a lot of geopolitical sense. At time of writing in 2023, the idea of Japan OR China taking over the world is starting to look as quaint and silly as an early 20th century work claiming France or Argentina would do so. As the world outside North America crashes and burns economically, militarily, and demographically, the cities at the center of the mid-21st century will be those at the center of the Golden Continent. Toronto is out because Canada is a mess, and most of the American cities in the region were deliberately turned into Africa thanks to post-Reconstruction migrations and 1960s federal policies. The only city between Texas and Appalachia in any kind of reasonable state to serve as a cyberpunk megalopolis is Chicago.

I write this from a cramped hotel room on the north side of the Windy City, and will be uploading it to a server on the south side. Yes, I own my own colocated metal, I'm terribly old fashioned like that. People don't notice the cyberpunk future because they typically only live in one place and don't notice changes accumulating over time until they are in their 50s or 60s, and then look around and wonder where their childhood homes went. I am something of a wanderer, having lived in a dozen states and four time zones thus far, and so when I return to a place I haven't been in several years, the accumulated changes hit me all at once. Chicago is one such place for me, where I started my career but have not lived since the Obama years. My mental model of Chicago leaped forward seven years in the blink of an eye. New buildings are everywhere, including a different skyline. Buildings old and new are that much more bedecked in neon and backlit displays, including high-resolution LCD or LED ad boards. Some beloved businesses survived the pandemic years, some did not. The south side descends ever further into a living hell, but the rest of the city is gentrifying, including some neighborhoods where I once hung my hat between shifts (I can't really say "at night" since I started work at 10pm back then). Chicago was only partially in the broadband era back then, now ads in bars and public transit flog 5G millimeter wave and 10Gbps fiber. Fashions contrasting eye-searing brightness with black leather that would have seemed gauche and trying too hard to be futuristic then now blend in to the sea of LEDs and neon of the city at night, like brightly colored fish in a coral reef. The corporate class looks like they're trying too hard, like living parodies of menswear ads, although this may be part of Chicago's nature as the nexus of casually upscale northeastern urbanity and the more relaxed people from points westward.

The nature of cyberpunk is intersection and contrast: high tech meets low life, rich meets poor, future meets present, man meets machine. Chicago is a natural place to set such stories, as from its founding in a swamp full of stinky onions ("Shikaawa" in the local native tongue) it has always been a portage, a crossroads, a railyard, and then a fiber junction. As the port cities of the Pacific Rim dominate stories of a globalized world, so too must Chicago dominate stories of a purely American future. Several common cyberpunk tropes already existed in larval form here even before Gibson wrote the first page of Neuromancer: the Sears Tower (now Willis), John Hancock center, and Merchandise Mart all represent miniature cities contained within a single building, arcologies. The city is physically layered, with many streets having both an upper and a lower deck, which was used to great cinematic effect to portray an "overworld" and "underworld" in Batman: The Dark Knight. There is also a literal underground city, a series of "pedway" passages connecting various buildings and train stations below the surface, which serves the very practical purpose of allowing Chicagoans to escape the sometimes brutal winters. On years with a strong polar vortex, Chicago can get colder on a given day than Antarctica, Russia, or most of the planet Mars. Of course it would also not be cyberpunk without cartoonishly corrupt city government in thrall to its donors and major corporations, which in Chicago is almost as old a tradition as the city government itself.

Chicago is not entirely unaware of this path its future may take. There is currently an art exhibition called "Warring States Cyberpunk" on display on the north side. The exhibit itself isn't much to write home about, a garish mashup of ancient Chinese history and tacky old fashioned scifi visuals asking questions about machine and man that were considered trite and boring by millennium's turn in American science fiction. I'm sure to the people of Hong Kong it must seem like groundbreaking culture, since the lead artist of the exhibit admitted himself China lacked the animated visual arts tradition of Japanese anime or American cartoons, but it comes off as childish pastiche to someone familiar with the great American works of the cyberpunk genre. The "punk" element is as vestigial as you might expect of the artistic output of a Communist dicatorship, the "cyber" element is technology indistinguishable from a drug induced fever dream like you'd expect from a stereotypical artist with no head for science or engineering, and so instead of the vital conflict at the heart of true cyberpunk you get something a retarded stoner might have written in 1985: "Bro, what if, like, ancient Chinese robots, and their souls were on audio tape? *smokes blunt*" I am reminded yet again that northeast Asian verbal IQ lags well behind our own, and that behind the pretty visuals, most of their stories are trash.

On a metaphysical level, the contrast provided by this cheap Chinese copy of American (and Japanese) art was perfect given where the art gallery is. The gallery is housed within a beautiful old brick building that was once a wealthy family's home. Climbing up through the exhibit, the viewer ends his journey at a glassed in balcony, looking out over the city on two sides. From there on a day like today you can see the red sun sinking west through the haze and clouds, imposing old fashioned brick construction from after the Chicago Fire, and the broad dome of a stone Catholic church not far from being called a cathedral. To the south, the antennae and spires of some of Chicago's most famous buildings: Sears, Trump, Hancock. It's a view that captures the past, present, and future of the city, and the old 1980s fear of an Asian takeover isn't anywhere in there.