It’s hard to make the cyberpunk genre feel fresh nowadays. Its tried-and-true tenets of a dystopian future overrun by corporations and technology have, after all, been true for a while. Of course, cybernetic implants aren’t de rigeur in the real world so we can’t have secret chainsaws in our hands, but we already have plenty of technology that helps augment human abilities. We can’t stick a wire into our heads to send our consciousness into a computer to hack it, but plenty of people can hack computers from across the globe, no skull input required. When so much of the genre is real, what does cyberpunk have left to offer us?
The answer, of course, is cyber-dolphins.
Ironically, this most unique of cyberpunk concepts is not a cutting-edge idea. It’s fully 40 years old, having first appeared in a short story by Neuromancer author and genre pioneer William Gibson. But the cyber-dolphin truly entered the zeitgeist in 1995 in the story’s film adaptation of the same name: Johnny Mnemonic — which, as it happens, takes place on January 17, 2021. While Keanu Reeves may have starred as the title character, Jones the cyber-dolphin is the film’s most memorable star, as well as its true hero.
Why has a dolphin been cybernetically enhanced? I’m so glad you asked. Jones was forcibly recruited by the U.S. Navy, who enhanced him with tech that allowed the aquatic mammal to remotely hack the data of enemy submarines, using infrasound scans that can piece the submarines’ hulls. Somehow, he ended up with the LoTeks, a group of revolutionaries/TV pirates fighting against the typical dystopian corporations that invariably run the world in cyberpunk stories.
Jones is a hacker and a code breaker linked (perhaps permanently?) to the movie’s wacky interpretation of the internet, which serves the good guys well when Johnny Mnemonic shows up with 320-gig of data locked in his brain’s cybernetic memory drive that needs to be downloaded before it kills him. Here, the movie’s opening crawl explains everything clearly and succinctly!
The data in his head contains the cure for Nerve Attenuation Syndrome, which people contract after spending too much time in the virtual reality of the internet. So it doesn’t go unremarked upon, yes, Johnny Mnemonic is set in a dystopian future, ruled by corporations, where people obsessively spend their time on the internet, facing a global pandemic…in the distant future of 2021. The first two details are gimmes, given that they were cyberpunk tropes long before the Robert Longo-directed movie came out, but the plague is a preternaturally lucky guess. Still, the fact Johnny goddamned Mnemonic is the fiction that most accurately predicted our current reality feels less uncanny to me and more incredibly irritating.
The PharmaKom Corporation — which discovered the cure but has kept it secret to continue profiting from treating the disease — has employed the yakuza to retrieve the data inside Johnny’s head with as much violence as a PG-13 movie allows, which is another reason Johnny needs the dolphin’s help post haste. There’s a lot of strange techno-jargon thrown around, Jones becomes a virtual dolphin for a while, Johnny has to briefly “hack his own brain,” but eventually Jones saves Johnny and broadcasts the cure to every TV (and, presumably, computer) in the world, exposing PharmaKom’s villainy. This is how Jones becomes the mammal that truly saves the day in Johnny Mnemonic, but it’s not what makes him special.
There’s a lot of things that set the cyberpunk genre apart from other science fiction, including its roots in noir and its unidealized protagonists and dystopian settings. Like the detective stories of the ‘30s and ‘40s, there’s a focus on the problems, challenges, and dangers of the real world, although this focus is usually taken to an action-packed, entertaining extreme. Cyberpunk does the same thing, which is why corporatocracy and an unhealthy overabundance of (and over-reliance on) technology are such mainstays in the genre; it’s simply following the trajectory of the last few decades to its extreme, but it’s still often grounded in some portion of present-day reality.
That sense of realism, combined with the imagination of science fiction, is what, to me, makes cyberpunk so vital and compelling. Sci-fi luminary Arthur C. Clarke originated the well-known (among nerd circles) adage, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But before that advanced technology becomes magic, there’s a thin line — where the technology is advanced enough to seem almost magical but doesn’t become a fantasy, in a setting that feels plausible, even if it isn’t particularly probable. But in a world where cyberpunk setting mainstays like virtual reality, the internet, and disturbingly autonomous artificial intelligences are commonplace, what idea does cyberpunk have to offer that’s still compellingly imaginative while feeling like it could theoretically be part of our future?
Cyber-dolphins, of course. Jones the cyber-dolphin is as wild an idea now as he was when Gibson introduced him to the world in 1981. Animals used and trained for military purposes has a long and very real history right to the present day. As Sarah Zhang reported on our sister site Gizmodo a few years ago:
Half a century ago, the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program began training a whole menagerie of dolphins, beluga whales, sea lions, and other sea creatures for underwater tasks — even sharks with military brain implants have been considered, the latter quite recently. Of course, it was the agile and intelligent dolphin that showed some of the most promise. In Vietnam, the Navy had five dolphins that patrolled the waters around ships, alerting sailors to swimming enemies trying to plant a bomb.
Cybernetically modifying dolphins to mentally hack the software inside Russian submarines is a giant step towards the fantastical, something so wild it seems an utter fabrication…except Jones still has one fin solidly planted in reality, just enough to feel possible even if it seems completely improbable. Once you’ve accepted the premise of Jones, it requires no additional suspension of disbelief to accept that the dolphin can plug into the internet to decode data and then email (or whatever Johnny Mnemonic’s dolphin-y equivalent is) to the planet.
In reality, we don’t have USB drives embedded in our brains like Johnny Mnemonic. We don’t have cybernetic augmentation like fingers with laser garrotes inside. And the corporations haven’t hired the mafia to murder threats to its profit margin (as far as we explicitly know). But all of these things feel so close enough to reality, or at least tropes we’ve seen so often that they’ve lost the attempted prescience that makes cyberpunk and much of science fiction in general so compelling.
But for 40 years, the cyber-dolphin has remained the perfect representation of the genre at its apex — plausibly realistic, darkly cynical, and so imaginative a concept he almost seems magical…almost. And if this possibly deranged diatribe hasn’t convinced you, Jones does murder a cybernetically-enhanced assassin-priest (played by Dolph Lungren) without once leaving the dingy, upsettingly small aquarium he hangs in. Let’s see Rick Deckard, Motoko Kusanagi, or Henry Case manage that.