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Korea Blog: Could Seoul Be the Next Great Cyberpunk City?

Since the original Blade Runner takes place in an imagined late-2010s Los Angeles, I’d have gotten a kick out of seeing its sequel, which after prolonged speculation finally came out late last year, in the actual late-2010s Los Angeles. But having moved to Korea a few years ago, I settled for a screening here in Seoul. In some ways, this ultimately felt like the more appropriate city in which to see the movie: when Blade Runner 2049‘s first trailer came out, I wrote here about its apparent acknowledgement of the considerable Korean influence felt in Los Angeles since its predecessor’s release. While no small number of Koreans already lived there back in 1982, the makers of Blade Runner — like everyone else at the time — couldn’t see past the economic rise of Japan, whose cash-flooded conglomerates then seemed poised to buy up not just Hollywood’s studios the downtown skyline as well.

When I did make it back to Los Angeles earlier this year, I saw sights that proved more memorable than even the spectacles of Blade Runner 2049. Coming in from the airport, for instance, I looked up to see the Korean Air logo looming 73 stories above downtown at the top of the Wilshire Grand Center, a building still under construction when last I saw it. Then, lowering my sights from that glowing orb so reminiscent of the South Korean flag, I spotted a tent village that had sprouted in the darkness of a freeway underpass. The first Blade Runner envisioned Los Angeles as having plunged into a kind of third-world condition, with its ruling class perched high above (if not on a different planet from) the teeming common element doing business in countless different languages down in the streets. Something tells me that the contrast in the real 2019 might look even starker than that.

But then contrast lies at the heart of the science-fiction tradition of cyberpunk, the most influential examples of which include Blade Runner as well as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, published in 1984 and now considered the archetypical cyberpunk novel. The common description of Gibson’s work of that period, “high tech meets low life,” also broadly characterizes cyberpunk itself, which, unlike so much sci-fi of earlier generations before, understands that technological progress doesn’t come with moral progress. Nor does it come with the kind of widespread social or economic progress upon which many stories of the future once premised themselves. Nor does that high tech penetrate all areas equally: “The future is already here ,” said Gibson in what has turned out to be one his most-quoted lines. “ It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.