Citizen Sleeper Proves Dystopias Can Still Contain Hope

Citizen Sleeper Proves Dystopias Can Still Contain Hope

At first glance, Citizen Sleeper comes across as uncompromisingly bleak. Trapped on a decaying corporate space station in a dying body, your character’s early days on Erlin’s Eye are a desperate struggle for survival. The Eye’s patchwork sprawl stretches into the distance, its battered frame a thin refuge between its inhabitants and the void of space. It is a hard place to live, and it is getting harder still as predatory interstellar corporations look to once again exert their influence over the installation and its people. But when the protagonist becomes marooned here, notions of corporate control are not just a distant concern, but a pressing existential threat.

This is because they are a sleeper, a digital copy of a human mind inserted into an artificial body. Their “original” self struck a bargain with the Essen-Arp corporation, allowing their consciousness to be copied into a mechanical frame and are contractually obliged to work on dangerous deep space labor. They recently escaped but are now being hunted by the company’s bounty hunters as their mechanical body quickly withers away. Unless they can find a steady source of stabilizers — the proprietary medicine that keeps them alive — they will die in a matter of cycles.

While these dismal circumstances mirror the techno nightmares of Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner, and numerous other sci-fi dystopias, there is something fundamentally different about Citizen Sleeper. Underneath the cold metallic exterior of this doomed corporatized future lies something lacking from many cyberpunk stories: moments of warmth shared in defiance of a broken world. Like other works of speculative fiction, technological advancements have only increased the hold that massive conglomerates have on the average person. But despite this, these characters still find ways to carve out lives worth living, finding solidarity in one another as they push back in the little ways they can.

As an offshoot of hardboiled detective and noir fiction, many cyberpunk narratives focus on individualistic anti-heroes who live day to day on the outskirts of society. In jagged neon-lit cities where the shadows of corporate interests loom over every aspect of daily life, these gruff counterculture hackers are generally on the lookout for little besides the next big score. There is a solipsism to these protagonists, and although they thumb their noses at the powerful conglomerates who run the show, their ultimate goal is rarely to “fix” things in any broad sense. They, like everyone else, have already been lost in the shuffle of uncaring urban sprawls, left with only enough energy to care for themselves.

In this sense, there is an odd contradiction in some early cyberpunk works, as their fatalistic noir influences can dampen their authority-challenging punk messaging. As Tom Moylan writes in his book Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives, the characters in William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy “may find refuge […], or they may find new work […]; but they do not negate or transform the social order; rather […], they willfully survive or thrive within that order.”

Although Citizen Sleeper shares a deserved cynicism about how technological proliferation and space travel would likely lead to exploitation on a massive scale, it differs from many works in this genre because the protagonist is not a lone agent out only for themself. Instead, over the course of the game, the Eye can go from a seemingly hostile place full of enemies to something resembling a home.

One of the first indications of this pathos comes with the backstory around the Erlin’s Eye space station. The Eye began as a satellite for the Solheim corporation, a company town where workers lived and died by their employer’s will. However, following economic collapse and rampant worker abuse, a labor leader named Erlin managed to rally the people of the station and oust the malicious company. By the time your character makes their way to the Eye, it is plagued by internal divisions and is competing outside corporate interests, but a successful revolution demonstrates that collective action is still possible in a world dominated by massive spacefaring companies. It is hard to imagine something similar happening in Gibson’s Chiba City or other familiar cyberpunk depictions where people have been so crushed by those with power that they are permanently bent into the shape of inaction.

Years after the initial uprising on the Eye, a spirit of defiance still stands strong. Emphis, who operates a small food stall that serves spiced mushroom dishes, is one character who demonstrates this. After several quiet conversations, he eventually opens up about how he is from a corporate colony where a company-sponsored education led him and everyone he knew into a program to pilot experimental mechs. But things didn’t go as planned, and after a few years, the faulty technology left almost every member of his graduating class grievously injured or dead. Unceremoniously discarded by the company that raised him, Emphis eventually escaped the colony and made his way to the Eye.

His tale is horrific and demonstrates how the economic overhead of space travel has only further shifted control into the hands of those with capital. However, his story isn’t told with fatalistic bitterness. Because despite all of this, he is still here. His arms may be marked with circular scars from where a false mechanical skeleton was grafted to his bones, but he is still here, cooking dishes that are tantalizing enough to break through the sleeper’s artificially dampened taste buds.

The Eye is full of people like Emphis — refugees who escaped nearby collapsing colonies and have built communities together on the station. A sense of kinship can be found in the apartment complexes of Lowend or the literal commune in the botanical gardens to the north. Even criminal organizations on the Eye have ideologues in their ranks, those who prioritize protecting the fellow descendants of refugees. These places stand in stark contrast to typical depictions of futuristic cities, which often come across as a collection of every negative trope of urban areas imaginable, where seediness, excessive crime, and a selfish populous are the norm.

Another example of this sense of community is how the sleeper is treated. Although nearly everyone seems to understand where the protagonist came from, most of the station’s inhabitants are helpful, turning down the opportunity to turn them in to the Essen-Arp corporation for some easy chits. In one case, a character who had previously worked for your former “employer” reveals they are a whistleblower seeking some semblance of redemption and goes out of their way to aid you. Change isn’t just possible for many of the station’s inhabitants; it is something being actively worked towards by curbing corporate exploitation and through assisting their compatriots.

The game’s prose describes these characters with empathy, the harsh realities of this world contrasted against the pathos with which they are portrayed. Instead of detailing misshapen “inhuman” augmentations or scowling spiteful visages, the narration paints a picture of the common humanity shared by these forsaken people living in the hostile expanses of space. It focuses on small moments that unite them, like a shared warm meal or the quiet self-satisfaction of brewing a homemade liquor.

This humanistic approach to its writing extends to the sleeper. Whether or not they are “really human” despite being artificially created is never a focus of the narrative. The only thing that marks them as different from others is that they are not protected by legal systems. Their status is a logical extreme of commodification and corporate control.

You may also like:

All of this isn’t to imply that the world of Citizen Sleeper is utopian or that everyone living on the Eye is a saint. The sleeper encounters self-centered bounty hunters, vengeful murderers, and scheming corporate stooges. The protagonist’s dehumanizing situation is mirrored by countless other sleepers who find themselves in bondage at the fringes of space. All throughout the Eye, the wreckage of failed economic systems is laid bare, and not every character’s journey ends happily.

Despite this, the game makes it clear that even if technological progress makes things worse instead of better, there is still reason to hold out a morsel of hope. And that’s because this story believes in people as much as it distrusts the power structures that dictate their lives. Citizen Sleeper understands that even if those who wield influence are callous and the systems they create are cruel, as long as those who aid one another and strive for change exist, there is a chance at something better even in the bleakest of dystopias.

Author: Deann Hawkins