Trying to answer the question What is Cyberpunk? is no easy task. While a short immediate answer might be a subgenre of science fiction, or High-tech, Low-life, the answer is invariably more complex. It’s more than just a genre–it’s a culture, an aesthetic, and a warning all in one.
What is The Cyberpunk Genre?
Cyberpunk’s High Tech will usually involve “futuristic” technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, that are juxtaposed with some sort of societal dystopia, in particular with disparate social classes and great income inequalities. These societal dystopias invariably give rise to Low-Lifes, often in a punk style.
The Street Finds its Own Use for Things–William Gibson
What are the Origins of Cyberpunk?
Cyberpunk found its roots in the 1960s and 1970s during the new-wave science fiction movement with novels like Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Cyberpunk was truly born, however, from two different seminal works: The first being Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner (loosely based on Philip K Dick’s novel mentioned above), starring Harrison Ford.
The second being William Gibson’s first novel in his Sprawl Trilogy, Neuromancer.
“Blade Runner and Neuromancer were a convergence event that created the filmological and literary birth of a movement. Blade Runner influenced, and still does, all cyberpunk that would come after it visually, the same way that Neuromancer influenced, and still does, all cyberpunk literature. Cyberpunk never was just a literary genre.”–Neon Dystopia, on defining Cyberpunk
Where did the term “Cyberpunk” come from?
The term “Cyberpunk” didn’t exist at the time that Philip K Dick wrote the book. The term was actually created when writer Bruce Bethke wrote a story with that title in 1980, when he combined cybernetics (the science of replacing human parts with computerized or mechanized ones) with punk (the aggressive, counterculture, anti-establishment movement and music of the late 1970s).
Mirrorshades: The First Cyberpunk Anthology
The Cyberpunk genre was then solidified with the first Cyberpunk anthology of short stories, published as Mirrorshades in 1986. This was the result of Bruce Sterling trying to establish what Cyberpunk was from his perspective, and featured many of the original writers that helped the original literary Cyberpunk movement grow: authors such as Greg Bear, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, and Lewis Shiner.
Interesting to note is that Mirrorshades predated the Matrix by 13 years, which shows that The Matrix was not the first to popularize the mirrorshades style.
What are some examples of Cyberpunk?
Some of the first clear examples of Cyberpunk media after the pre-Cyberpunk era of the 1960s and 70s include the American comic Judge Dredd (first published in 1977) and the Japanese manga Akira (first published in 1982, with a later anime film adaptation in 1988). The Judge Dredd comics painted a clear image of a dystopian future and collapse of society, with megacorporations, megastructures, and Dredd’s ominous title as “Judge, Jury, and Executioner” in a world where due process became a thing of the past. Akira, meanwhile, was what would begin the Japanese sub-genre of Cyberpunk, with its punk attitude and neon stylistic art. Akira also can be classified as another subgenre, biopunk, with biomodification being a major part of its plot.
Later noteworthy Cyberpunk media includes the 1992 novel Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson, Ghost in the Shell (the anime and films), and the seminal Matrix trilogy by the Wachowskis. Snowcrash was actually part-serious, part parody of the Cyberpunk genre itself, with its main character being called Hiro Protagonist.
The Cyberpunk Literature
In terms of literature, the biggest influence on the genre would be Philip K Dick, whom some consider its spiritual founder (there’s even an award for science fiction literature, the Philip K Dick award, that is awarded yearly to noteworthy new novels). Not only did he write Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, his works also inspired many other movie adaptations, including Total Recall and Minority Report.
William Gibson, in addition to Neuromancer, also wrote other books that were again adapted into movies and fit the genre. These include the short story Johnny Mnemonic, which was made into a movie featuring Keanu Reeves.
A Cyberpunk Revival
Recently, we have seen a resurgence of interest in the genre of Cyberpunk. This started with the publication of Richard K Morgan’s Altered Carbon (book one of the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy) which was then adapted to a two-season series on Netflix.
Recent Cyberpunk media includes the novel Ready Player One (including its sequel and live-action adaptation by Steven Spielberg), the live action sequel Blade Runner 2049, the live action Ghost in the Shell, Battle Angel: Alita, and finally, the titular Cyberpunk video game, Cyberpunk 2077, and the sequel to the Matrix trilogy: the Matrix Resurrections.
What is Cyberpunk Culture?
Cyberpunk culture is Anti-authoritarian, brand-averse, and tech-literate. It’s a culture of subversive low-lifes who use technology to hack the system that was corrupt and unjust to begin with.
A Challenging Categorization
It can be somewhat tricky to categorize cyberpunk, as many forms of media might take some elements but not all of them. While others may debate this issue, I find that the piece of media has to have high-tech elements, while also must have some sort of problem with the world or dystopia in some way (often resulting in low-life elements). In this way, a movie that is time-traveling but has little to no emphasis on technology other than the time-traveling technology I would not consider cyberpunk. Nor would a dystopian society without any focus on technology be normally considered cyberpunk either. A movie that has high-tech but is within a utopia, or perhaps focuses more on alien technology as a form of high-tech, would also not normally be considered cyberpunk.
What is the Cyberpunk Aesthetic?
The Cyberpunk aesthetic is really neon-soaked streets late at night in the rain. It often features endless advertisements in the form of holograms, flying cars, plastic transparent umbrellas, and giant megastructures with millions of people living crammed in tiny little rooms all together. It features punk clothing and cybernetics galore.
What is the Cyberpunk warning?
The original Cyberpunk movement was born out of a response to the previous utopian depiction of the future in science fiction. Cyberpunk wants to consider rampant high tech developments when they are released without social or moral considerations. The ever-important warning of Cyberpunk is saying, yea high tech is cool, but look at all the ways it could be misused. These are the warning signs, that if we don’t heed, will lead to a dystopian society of people trapped under the heel of totalitarian governments or ruthless mega-corporations, devoid of freedom and constantly under surveillance.
When is Cyberpunk?
Many consider Cyberpunk to be now. Cyberpunk is now, or is in the very near future–no longer is it some long-term consideration out into the distance. We need Cyberpunk now more than ever to start having these moral and social conversations, to allow the public to understand the ramifications of the new technology that’s developing at record speed and help society put up the right systems of checks and balances to ensure society doesn’t devolve into the dystopia that it could.
If this genre interests you as much as it does me, I invite you to linger for a while on these pages. They are born out of a love for the genre, and hopefully will add to your interest and fascination as well. So for now, feel free to see just how far the rabbit-hole goes.
–Alex V. Woods, writer and founder of Cyberpunk Matrix