Cyberpunk and the Aesthetic Expendable

My favorite emotional and sensory experience is absorbing a story or poem’s aesthetic core like a sessile sponge.

While aesthetics naturally set the tonal mood, I love how they also create the foundation of a story’s immersive, emotional experience and help us make sense of central themes that emphasize what a world is lacking–or is trying to emphasize at all.

At the tender age of 14, I fell in love with the cyberpunk aesthetic. Neon metropolitan cities with blinding hologram advertisements, citizens wearing PVC coats with popped collars, and buildings bathed in underworld shadows? Let’s just say my neurons never stopped firing into the sun, since. But beyond these iconic elements and impeccable visuals of cyberpunk, there was always something else that moved me I couldn’t explain.

Fast forward more than a decade later to college, after taking more literature classes and majoring in creative writing, I began to understand and was able to articulate why the cyberpunk aesthetic affected me so deeply: I’ve always gravitated towards morally grey characters, darker aesthetics, and human experiences driven by self-guided principles rather than the confines of the law; it’s these complex nuances that fascinate me the most today because they compel me to make sense of my own life–even though my favorite antiheroines and antiheroes are worlds apart from mine, in more ways than one. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate cyberpunk as a teenager. It’s that I learned how to comprehend its core aesthetic and how it translates into emotional impact, through a lens of writing craft and intention, besides spontaneous enjoyment.

Earlier this year, I read SQUID’S GRIEF by DK Mok. To give a quick summary, it’s about a car thief named Squid who discovers an amnesiac in the car’s trunk she meant to steal. No spoilers ahead, but I can tell you we go on a cyberpunk adventure in an adrenaline-inducing, ever-developing city, but we feel small and almost insignificant in it alongside Squid.

Past all the cheap and accessible luxuries or pleasures of a cyberpunk world, those elements emphasize how lonely one can be in their own society despite all the opportunities for advancement and innovation. What’s ironic in cyberpunk is that communication is easier than ever with technology and instant gratification being created at an accelerated pace–but human connection feels like the most distant or least important intangible, or at least that’s the impression I get.

Reading SQUID’S GRIEF naturally elicited a sensory experience whenever I went deeper into its worldbuilding, but it was one of the first cyberpunk books I read that didn’t focus on the darkness and cynicism associated with the genre. Rather, it used the aesthetics of cyberpunk to emphasize how more susceptible the world is to apathy as opposed to empathy, especially when life has a tendency to deal more unfortunate rather than good hands to you–or your position is so privileged that nothing phases you in pursuing fulfillment, in whatever end goal that means to you.

To Squid, the goal is to survive another day and find some scraps of happiness or peace in a society that perceives her as expendable and insignificant in comparison to the technology and economy built around her, and the traumas that aren’t her fault.

At the end of the day, what gets me the most about cyberpunk is the conviction some characters have despite the odds or circumstances stacked against them. Although their worth seems dictated by higher powers, they exercise the agency to still make a life for themselves. Cyberpunk isn’t just about the high-tech, low-life aesthetic of neon, smoke, and shadows–it’s about how these aesthetics drive home how we can always have hope and tenacity in the darkest places. If anything, why not be relentless?