NOTE: Not to be confused with Cyberpunk 2077 which is a video game.
What is Cyberpunk?
To start off with, let me clarify that trying to define Cyberpunk is a difficult task. In short, however, Cyberpunk refers to both a culture and a genre.
Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future. On one side you have powerful megacorporations and private security forces, and on the other you have the dark and gritty underworld of illegal trade, gangs, drugs, and vice. In between all of this is politics, corruption, and social upheaval.
Cyberpunk is also a culture with attitude and a distinct style. Anti-authoritarian, brandaverse, tech-literate; these are just some of the qualities you may find in a cyberpunk.
Cyberpunk began as a literary movement but has become a subcultural organism. “What is Cyberpunk?” is a complex and multi-layered question, whose answer is ever-changing as the subculture and our perception of the future changes. The tendrils, that began in the written word, have infiltrated beyond movies to all forms of art, fashion and philosophy generating an all-encompassing and evergrowing subculture.
There are number of ways to examine the origins of the cyberpunk movement. The term “cyberpunk” itself can be traced to the short story Cyberpunk by Bruce Bethke. Then of course, there are the core cyberpunk authors that are generally accepted to have laid the ground work of the cyberpunk movement William Gibson (Gibson is considered the founder of Cyberpunk), Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley and Lewis Shiner. There are also a number of precursor novels that had strong themes and imagery that would be later associated with the cyberpunk genre such as The Demolished Man (1953) and The Stars My Destination (1956) by Alfred Bester, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Phillip K. Dick, Dr. Adder (Written in 1972, but not published until 1984) by K.W. Jeter, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) by Thomas Pynchon, The Shockwave Rider (1975) by John Brunner, and True Names (1981) by Vernor Vinge. More recently Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash (1992), is largely credited with bringing cyberpunk into the post-cyberpunk era.
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.
Finding a Definition
We can break down a basic definition of cyberpunk by dissecting the word itself. Cyber refers to technology, and is most often associated with cyberspace (this word was originally coined by William Gibson himself), and cybernetic enhancements to the body. But this can also refer to other technologies such as biotechnology and nanotechnology for instance.
Punk, on the other hand, refers to the people and the attitude that cyberpunk has. Protagonists in cyberpunk tend to be outsiders, anti-heros, outcasts, criminals, visionaries, dissenters, and misfits. The underlying aspect that applies to all of these groups is their subversive nature. To subvert is to overthrow or undermine something. The cyberpunk genre itself subverted science fiction, and we never looked back. To be punk is to question authority, and to actively subvert any of that authority you don’t agree with. Different people do this in different ways, just as our cyberpunk protagonists do. An example is Motoko Kusanagi from the Ghost in the Shell franchise. On the surface she seems to be a tool and agent for the Japanese government. This is true, but this is not what defines her, nor how she defines herself. Throughout the series she is not afraid to go rogue and take things into her own hands if it will get her closer to what she thinks is right – fuck the politicians. She is a subversive element within the government.
The Essence of Cyberpunk
There are a number of quotes that help to illustrate the essence of cyberpunk:
“The future is already here — its just not very evenly distributed.” – William Gibson
This quote puts the cyber/punk and the “High Tech, Low Life,” dichotomy into context. There exists today high technology, but this technology has failed to erode away social divisions leaving a disparity between the classes which leads to social strife. In addition, although this technology exists the low class does not have the means by which to benefit from it, thus widening the divide as the rich elite get richer and thus have more access to technology.
“Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being.” – Bruce Sterling
This is an important concept. We do terrible things to rats in the pursuit of progress, and we are not impervious to any of them. Many cyberpunk plots resolve around some sort of drug effect or brain tampering that we have, in reality, already done to rats. It’s just a matter of time before we start tampering with ourselves in the same ways. Rats are just the preview.
“The street finds it’s own use for things.” – William Gibson
This gets down to the punk/low life aspect of cyberpunk and puts it into the context of the open source, maker, and DIY movements. The rate of technological development is so fast that we generate a lot of stuff that is just there, and obsolete. These things lose their perceived value and are discarded, but then this refuse can be repurposed and used in ways that the original creators never would have imagined. Like using a DVD player to test for HIV.
Biopunk is a subgenre of cyberpunk, that focuses more on the biological technologies such as genetic manipulation. Often cited examples are Gattaca, and Dark Angel.
These can be considered cyberpunk because although Biopunk tends to lack the cyberspace and cybernetic aspects that cyberpunk sports, it is faithful to the “High Tech, Low Life,” aspects. It is a different visualization of the same ideas.
Post-Cyberpunk is a modern reaction to the now antiquated visual qualities of ’80s inspired cyberpunk. PostCyberpunk tends to have a greater focus on Transhumanism, space travel, and emerging technologies that weren’t imagined at the time of the ’80s.
A cyberpunk has attitude. This attitude is culturally and socially aware, just like the fiction from which they take their name. They question everything and anyone and decide for themselves what they believe is true. This path to understanding yields different world views and opinions, but diversity is key to a successful population. A cyberpunk knows that the system isn’t in your favor, and the deck is stacked against you. A cyberpunk knows how to hack the system so that doesn’t matter. Don’t fuck with a cyberpunk.
A cyberpunk has style. This style can be different for each person. It can be practical (Mil-Tec) or flashy (Cybergoth). The style often mirrors the cyberpunk personal philosophy and thus can vary drastically. There are recurring themes such as traditional punk, Blade Runnerinspired, Matrix-inspired, CPUs, Mil-Tec, and Cybergoth.
When is Cyberpunk?
Cyberpunk is now. Many of the things that were predicted in cyberpunk are coming to pass today. Improvements in prosthetics and brain computer interface have resulted in brain controlled prosthetics, a mainstay of cyberpunk. Corporations increasing dominate global politics, and influence culture creating a situation ripe for subversion. The poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer, creating a larger and larger divide.
The cyberworld is ever merging with the real world through things such as the Internet of Things, social media, mobile technology, virtual reality, and augmented reality. Hackers have brought gangs, corporations, governments, and individuals to their knees. We have entered the cyberpunk age…welcome.
Cyberpunk has spread to all forms of media, creating a subculture rather a simple genre. There are cyberpunk movies, television, comics, music, and art everywhere. All you have to do is look. Cyberpunk has influenced fashion, architecture, and philosophy. Cyberpunk has become much more than what it was when it began. And it will continue to evolve and become more relevant as we move further from the Cyberpunk Now into the Cyberpunk Future. Keep watching…