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When everything collapses, what is left? How do you survive? What kind of person do you become?
These fundamental questions are at the heart of every apocalyptic and dystopian fictional setting. Philosophers have pondered these questions endlessly over the centuries. Most people, I think, would agree that humanity in general is pretty bad at working together when the chips are down. Games like R. Talsorian Games’ Cyberpunk series take it a step further and proclaim that while there are no true good guys and plenty of bad guys, there’s a lot of ground in between those two extremes where people actually live.
This is the second part of my essay series on the dark, dystopian future created for the Cyberpunk games. The first essay can be found here.
At the end of the last essay, I stopped with discussing the Crash of ’94, otherwise known in-universe as the Collapse. Take the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, then amplify that with martial law, roving gangs of displaced individuals that have formed Nomad packs and families, and add in a heap of technological advancement that starts making cybernetics far more viable. This would be the place you’d find yourself at the turn of the millennium in the Cyberpunk universe.
One major event to occur from The Collapse is the rise of the Free States. The first of the states to break away from the Union is California, using their own National Guard to keep the federal troops at bay. Picture this for a moment: California in the real-world is the 5th largest economy in the world (and the largest in the United States). If California were to break away from the United States now, the economy of the entire country would tank relatively soon after. Now imagine in a situation where the economy is already in the toilet and a sizable portion of the population of the country breaks away. The rise of the Free States is a death knell for the American Dream in the Cyberpunk universe but the American Nightmare was just around the corner.
The Second South American War was started by the Gang of Four (the directors of the CIA, NSA, FBI, and DEA that had created a shadow cabal to run the government). With increased technology (such as Aerodyne Vehicles that could fly or hover over the ground) as well as advances in cybernetics (which could replace limbs lost in combat), the Gang of Four was able to field an army that for a time conquered a great deal of territory. The point of the war was to obtain materials lost when the Free States abandoned the Union. But eventually, the conflict became another version of Vietnam, with U.S. troops fighting on foreign soil against enemies that were more than capable of fighting a war of attrition. When the full story of the First Central American Conflict hit the airwaves, the gig was up for the Gang of Four. A combined force of U.S. troops and corporate mercenaries descended on the Capitol and drove the shadow cabal to ground, ending their lives in a suitably violent fashion. Those troops that were still fighting in South America now had no army to call their own, no country to call their own, and they were thousands of miles away from safety. Like the Greek legend of Xenophon, they would have to fight and claw to reach safety and many of them didn’t make it.
One individual who did manage to make it out of that hellish landscape would later take the name Johnny Silverhand. But I’ll talk about him more in a future essay.
Governmental coups and overthrows are something we normally think of as happening in other countries, not here in the U.S.A. But if you give the proper spark to a bunch of kindling, you’ll have a raging bonfire in no time flat. The Collapse in the Cyberpunk universe showed the rot that had infested the American landscape, much as we’re seeing similar exposures in the real world today. The lesson dystopian fiction like Cyberpunk warns us about is to be ever mindful of the story-behind-the-story, the real reasons governments set policy and make decisions, and the willingness to hold them accountable when they screw up. While the idea of a shadow cabal taking complete control is mainly a fictional device (so far as we can see in the real world), the idea that government would put their own interests above the general populace is definitely within the realm of reality.
Something to keep in mind as we move forward into our own dark future.
In the next essay, I’ll be covering the rise of the Megacorporations and the Corporate Wars.