What is Cyberpunk?
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Cyberpunk (a portmanteau of cybernetics and punk) is a sub-genre
of science fiction and dystopian fiction, focusing on advanced technology
such as computers or information technology coupled with some degree
of breakdown in the social order. The plot of cyberpunk writing
often centres on a conflict among hackers, artificial intelligences,
and mega corporations, tending to be set within a near-future Earth,
rather than the "outer space" locales prevalent in science
fiction at the time of cyberpunk's inception. The cities of this
future typically have dystopian characteristics, but are also marked
by extraordinary energy and diversity. Much of the genre's "atmosphere"
echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques
from detective fiction.
While this gritty, hard-hitting style was hailed as revolutionary
during cyberpunk's early days, some later observers concluded that
in terms of literature, most cyberpunk narrative techniques were
less innovative than those of the New Wave, twenty years earlier.
Primary exponents of the cyberpunk field include William Gibson,
Rudy Rucker, John Shirley and Bruce Sterling. The term became widespread
in the 1980s and remains current today.
During the early and mid-1980s, cyberpunk became a fashionable
topic in academic circles, where it began to be the subject of postmodernist
investigation. In the same period, the genre penetrated Hollywood
and became one of cinema's staple science-fiction styles. Many popular,
high-grossing films such as Blade Runner and the Matrix trilogy
can be seen as prominent developments of the genre's visual styles
and themes. Computer games, board games and role playing games often
feature storylines that are heavily influenced by cyberpunk writing
and movies. Beginning in the early 1990s, trends in fashion and
music were labeled as cyberpunk.
Style and ethos
Cyberpunk writers tend to use elements from the hard-boiled detective
novel, film noir, and postmodernist prose to describe the often
nihilistic underground side of an electronic society. The genre's
vision of a troubled future is often called the antithesis of the
generally utopian visions of the future popular in the 1940s and
1950s. (Gibson defined cyberpunk's antipathy towards utopian SF
in his 1981 short story "The Gernsback Continuum", which
pokes fun of and, to a certain extent, condemns utopian SF.)
Cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling summarized the cyberpunk ethos
in Cyberpunk in the Nineties as follows:
Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being.
And we can do most anything to rats. This is a hard thing to think
about, but it's the truth. It won't go away because we cover our
That is cyberpunk.
In cyberpunk writing, much of the action takes place online, in
cyberspace, blurring any border between the actual and the virtual
reality. A typical feature of this writing is a direct connection
between the human brain and computer systems through advanced technology.
Cyberpunk's world is a sinister, dark place with networked computers
that dominate every aspect of life. Giant multinational corporations
have for the most part replaced governments as centers of political,
economic and even military power. The alienated outsider's battle
against a totalitarian system is a common theme in science fiction
and cyberpunk in particular, though in conventional science fiction
the totalitarian systems tend to be sterile, ordered, and state
Protagonists in cyberpunk writing usually include computer hackers,
who are often patterned on the idea of the lone hero fighting injustice:
Western gunslingers, samurai (or ronin), ninja, etc. They are often
disenfranchised people placed in extraordinary situations, rather
than brilliant scientists or starship captains intentionally seeking
advance or adventure, and are not always true "heroes";
an apt comparison might be to the moral ambiguity of Clint Eastwood's
character in the Man with No Name trilogy. One of the cyberpunk
genre's prototype characters is Case, from Gibson's Neuromancer.
Case is a "console cowboy", a brilliant hacker, who betrays
his organized criminal partners. Robbed of his talent through a
crippling injury inflicted by the vengeful partners, Case unexpectedly
receives a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be healed by expert
medical care, but only if he participates in another criminal enterprise
with a new crew. Like Case, many cyberpunk protagonists are thus
manipulated, placed in situations where they have little or no choice,
and although they might see things through, they do not necessarily
come out any further ahead than they previously were. These anti-heroes
— "criminals, outcasts, visionaries, dissenters and misfits"—
do not experience a Campbellian "hero's journey", like
a protagonist of a Homeric epic or an Alexandre Dumas novel. Instead,
they call to mind the private eye of detective novels, who might
solve the trickiest cases but never receive a just reward. This
emphasis on the misfits and the malcontents — what Thomas
Pynchon called the "preterite" and Frank Zappa the "left
behinds of the Great Society" — is the "punk"
component of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk literature is often used as a
metaphor for the present day-worries about the failings of corporations,
corruption in governments, alienation and surveillance technology.
Cyberpunk may be intended to disquiet readers and call them to action.
It often expresses a sense of rebellion, suggesting that one could
describe it as a type of countercultural science fiction. In the
words of author and critic David Brin,
a closer look at [cyberpunk authors] reveals that they nearly
always portray future societies in which governments have become
wimpy and pathetic ... Popular science fiction tales by Gibson,
Williams, Cadigan and others do depict Orwellian accumulations of
power in the next century, but nearly always clutched in the secretive
hands of a wealthy or corporate elite. (The Transparent Society,
Basic Books 1998)
Sometimes cyberpunk stories have been seen as fictional forecasts
of the evolution of the Internet. The virtual world of the Internet
often appears under various names, including "cyberspace",
the Wired, the Metaverse and the Matrix. In this context it is important
to note that the earliest descriptions of a global communications
network came long before the World Wide Web entered popular awareness,
though not before traditional science fiction writers such as Arthur
C. Clarke and some social commentators such as James Burke began
predicting that such networks would eventually form.
The science fiction editor Gardner Dozois is generally acknowledged
as the person who popularized the use of the term "cyberpunk"
as a kind of literature. Minnesota writer Bruce Bethke coined the
term in 1980 for his short story "Cyberpunk", although
the story was not actually published until November 1983, in Amazing
Science Fiction Stories, Volume 57, Number 4. The term was quickly
appropriated as a label to be applied to the works of Bruce Sterling,
John Shirley, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Michael Swanwick, Pat
Cadigan, Lewis Shiner, Richard Kadrey and others. Of these, Sterling
became the movement's chief ideologue, thanks to his fanzine Cheap
Truth. (See also John Shirley's articles on Sterling and Rucker.)
While not usually considered to be a cyberpunk writer, Julian May,
author of the four Pliocene Exile novels and the Galactic Mileu
Trilogy, was inspired to write these seven novels by the same socio-literary
forces which inspired cyberpunk, and she wrote them at the same
time as the critical first cyberpunk stories were written - the
early 1980s. Her writing shares the hard sci-fi focus on technology
and science as many cyberpunk stories do - indeed, the nine novels
which form the Saga of Pliocene Exile and Galactic Mileu series
could not take place were it not for some very "nuts and bolts"
techno-scientific conepts. At one step of remove, she must be considered
a fellow traveler of "the Movement", if not an actual
William Gibson with his novel Neuromancer (1984) is likely the
most famous writer connected with the term cyberpunk. He emphasized
style, character development, and atmosphere over traditional science-fiction
tropes, and Neuromancer was awarded the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip
K. Dick Awards. According to the Jargon File, "Gibson's near-total
ignorance of computers and the present-day hacker culture enabled
him to speculate about the role of computers and hackers in the
future in ways hackers have since found both irritatingly naïve
and tremendously stimulating."
Early on, cyberpunk was hailed as a radical departure from science-fiction
standards and a new manifestation of vitality.
Shortly thereafter, however, many critics arose to challenge its
status as a revolutionary movement. These critics
said that the SF "New Wave" of the 1960s was much more
innovative as far as narrative techniques and styles were concerned.
Further, while Neuromancer's narrator may have had an unusual "voice"
for science fiction, much older examples can be found: Gibson's
narrative voice, for example, resembles that of an updated Raymond
Chandler, as in his novel The Big Sleep (1939).
Others noted that almost all traits claimed to be uniquely cyberpunk
could in fact be found in older writers' works — often citing
J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Samuel R. Delany
and even William S. Burroughs. For example, Philip
K. Dick's works contain recurring themes of social decay, artificial
intelligence, paranoia, and blurred lines between reality and some
kind of virtual reality. Humans linked to machines are found in
Pohl and Kornbluth's Wolfbane (1959) and Roger Zelazny's Creatures
of Light and Darkness (1968).
In 1994, scholar Brian Stonehill suggested that Thomas Pynchon's
1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow "not only curses but precurses
what we now glibly dub cyberspace". Other important predecessors
include Alfred Bester's two most celebrated novels, The Demolished
Man and The Stars My Destination, as well as Vernor Vinge's novella
Science-fiction writer David Brin describes cyberpunk as "...the
finest free promotion campaign ever waged on behalf of science fiction."
It may not have attracted the "real punks", but it did
ensnare many new readers, and it provided the sort of movement which
postmodern literary critics found alluring. (One illustration of
this is Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto", an attempt
to build a "political myth" using cyborgs as metaphors
for contemporary "social reality".) Cyberpunk made science
fiction more attractive to academics, argues Brin; in addition,
it made science fiction more profitable to Hollywood and to the
visual arts generally. Although the "self-important rhetoric
and whines of persecution" on the part of cyberpunk fans were
irritating at worst and humorous at best, Brin declares that the
"rebels did shake things up. We owe them a debt. [...] But,"
he asks, "were they original?"
As new writers and artists began to experiment with cyberpunk ideas,
new varieties of fiction emerged, sometimes addressing the criticisms
leveled at the original cyberpunk stories. Lawrence Person writes,
in an essay he posted to the Internet forum Slashdot,
Many writers who grew up reading in the 1980s are just now starting
to have their stories and novels published. To them cyberpunk was
not a revolution or alien philosophy invading SF, but rather just
another flavor of SF. Like the writers of the 1970s and 80s who
assimilated the New Wave's classics and stylistic techniques without
necessarily knowing or even caring about the manifestos and ideologies
that birthed them, today's new writers might very well have read
Neuromancer back to back with Asimov's Foundation, John Brunner's
Stand on Zanzibar, and Larry Niven's Ringworld and seen not discontinuities
but a continuum.
Person's essay advocates using the term "postcyberpunk"
to label the new works such writers produce. In this view, typical
postcyberpunk stories continue the preoccupation with the effects
of computers, but without the assumption of dystopia or the emphasis
on cybernetic implants. Good examples might be Neal Stephenson's
Snow Crash or Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's Transmetropolitan.
After Person posted his observations on Slashdot, his readers observed
that the term was possibly superfluous—one more piece of jargon
invented to shore up false distinctions. Like practically all categories
discerned within science fiction, the boundaries of postcyberpunk
are likely to be fluid or ill defined. To complicate matters, there
is a continuing market for "pure" cyberpunk novels strongly
influenced by Gibson's early work.
Among the subgenres of cyberpunk is steampunk, which is set in
an anachronistic Victorian environment, but with cyberpunk's bleak
film noir world view. The term was originally coined around 1987
as a joke to describe some of the novels of Tim Powers, James P.
Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter, but by the time Gibson and Sterling entered
the subgenre with their collaborative novel The Difference Engine
the term was being used earnestly as well. The early 1990s saw the
emergence of biopunk, a derivative style building not on informational
technology but on biology. In these stories, people are changed
in some way not by mechanical means, but by genetic manipulation
of their very chromosomes. Paul Di Filippo is seen as the most prominent
biopunk writer, although Bruce Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist cycle
is also a major influence.
Cyberprep is a term that reflects the flip side of cyberpunk. A
cyberprep world assumes that all the technological advancements
of cyberpunk speculation have taken place, but that life is happy
rather than gritty and dangerous. Since society is leisure driven,
uploading is more of an art form or a medium of entertainment while
advanced body modifications are used for sports and pleasure.
Film and television
The film Blade Runner (1982), adapted from Philip K. Dick's Do
Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is set in a dystopian future
in which manufactured beings called replicants are slaves used on
space colonies and are legal prey on Earth to various bounty hunters
who "retire" (kill) them. Although Blade Runner was not
extravagantly successful in its first theatrical release, it found
a wide viewership in the home video market. Since the movie omits
the religious and mythical elements of Dick's original novel (e.g.,
empathy boxes and Wilbur Mercer), it falls more strictly within
the cyberpunk genre than the novel does. William Gibson would later
reveal that upon first viewing the film, he felt disconcerted at
how the look of this film matched his vision when he was working
As mentioned above, the short-lived television series Max Headroom
also spread cyberpunk tropes, perhaps with more popular success
than the genre's first written works.
The number of films in the genre or at least using a few genre
elements has grown steadily since Blade Runner. Several of Philip
K. Dick's works have been adapted to the silver screen, with cyberpunk
elements typically becoming dominant; examples include Minority
Report (2002) and Paycheck (2003). William Gibson has also been
adapted, although not as successfully. While Gibson's short story
is critically acclaimed, and even introduced Molly, one of his major
recurring characters, Johnny Mnemonic (1995) was a flop, both commercially
and critically, and Gibson fans derided the screenplay as deviating
substantially from his work.
Director Darren Aronofsky set his debut feature p (1998) in a present-day
New York City, but built its script with influences from cyberpunk
aesthetic. According to the DVD commentary, he and his production
team deliberately used antiquated machines (like 5-1/4 inch floppy
disks) to echo the technological style of Brazil (1985) and create
a cyberpunk "feel". Aronofsky describes Chinatown, where
the film is set, as "New York's last cyberpunk neighborhood".
The RoboCop series has a more near-futuristic setting where at
least one corporation, Omni Consumer Products, is an all-powerful
presence in the city of Detroit. Until the End of the World (1991)
shows another example where cyberpunk provides an assumed background,
and a plot device, to an otherwise mood and character-driven story.
Gattaca (1997) directed by Andrew Niccol is a futuristic film noir
whose mood-drenched dystopia provides a good example of biopunk.
Anime has contained cyborgs and other plausibly "cyberpunk"
elements since the early 1960s. Witness the series 8 Man (1963),
about a human-turned-cyborg who fights an endless struggle against
his lawless world. This series arose two decades before Gibson propelled
the genre to celebrity, though as with many such questions in science
fiction, the actual extent to which these early works influenced
later ones is open to debate. The anime series Bubblegum Crisis
(1985) was also an early animated form of cyberpunk, and in a more
explicit manner: both the 2032 and the newer 2040 series serve as
extended homages to Blade Runner. The anime movie Ghost in the Shell
(1995), based on a 1991 manga and often hailed as a cyberpunk classic,
explores the boundaries between man and machine in a futuristic
Japan. The television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
carries over the movie's characters to explore the movie's world
in more sociological depth. Indeed, this focus upon the social impact
of network technology has led some commentators to feel that the
television series leans more toward being a product of the postcyberpunk
The Matrix series, which began with 1999's The Matrix (and now
also contains The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and The
Animatrix) uses a wide variety of cyberpunk elements. The series'
basic premise revolves around a virtual reality so realistic as
to be indistinguishable from the real world; human brains are directly
connected to this computer system. The Wachowski brothers, writers
and directors of the series, drew many of its elements from Japanese
anime, and The Animatrix carried the idea exchange in the reverse
Anime has also provided examples of the steampunk sub-genre, such
as Last Exile (2003), directed by Kouichi Chigira, which features
a curious blend of Victorian society and futuristic battles between
ships of the sky. Also of note is 2004's Steamboy directed by Katsuhiro
Otomo and more recently Ergo Proxy from Manglobe.
Music and fashion
The term "cyberpunk music" can refer to two rather overlapping
categories. First, it may denote the varied range of musical works
which cyberpunk films use as soundtrack material. These works occur
in genres from classical music and jazz—used, in Blade Runner
and elsewhere, to evoke a film noir ambiance—to "noize"
and electronica. Typically, films draw upon electronica, electronic
body music, industrial, noise, futurepop, alternative rock, goth
rock, and intelligent dance music to create the proper "feel".
The same principles apply to computer and video games; see the discussion
of Rez below. Of course, while written works may not come with associated
soundtracks as frequently as movies do, allusions to musical works
are used for the same effect. For example, the graphic novel Kling
Klang Klatch (1992), a dark fantasy about a world of living toys,
features a hard-bitten teddy bear detective with a sugar habit and
a predilection for jazz.
"Cyberpunk music" also describes the works associated
with the fashion trend which emerged from the SF developments. The
Detroit techno group Cybotron, which arose in the early 1980s, drew
influences both from European synthesizer pioneers Kraftwerk and
from Toffler's Future Shock, producing songs which evoke a distinctly
dystopian mood. In the same era, Styx released the concept album
Kilroy Was Here (1983), the story of a rock star living in a dark
future where music has been outlawed. Kilroy and in particular its
hit single "Mr. Roboto" may easily be "appropriated"
into the cyberpunk genre, whether or not the term was applied at
the time. However, starting around the year 1990, popular culture
began to include a movement in both music and fashion which called
itself "cyberpunk", and which became particularly associated
with the rave and techno subcultures. The hacker subculture, documented
in places like the Jargon File, regards this movement with mixed
feelings, since self-proclaimed cyberpunks are often "trendoids"
with an affection for black leather and chrome who speak enthusiastically
about technology instead of learning about it or becoming involved
with it. ("Attitude is no substitute for competence,"
quips the File.) However, these self-proclaimed cyberpunks are at
least "excited about the right things" and typically respect
the people who actually work with it—those with "the
Certain music genres like drum'n'bass were directly influenced
by cyberpunk, even generating a whole subgenre called neurofunk,
where the bass lines, synths and beats try to give the listener
the sensation of being inside a sprawl or crawling through cyberspace.
Neurofunk was pioneered by artists like Ed Rush, Trace and Optical.
In the words of the journalist Simon Reynolds:
Jungle's sound-world constitutes a sort of abstract social realism;
when I listen to techstep, the beats sound like collapsing buildings
and the bass feels like the social fabric shredding [...] The post-techstep
style I call "neurofunk" (clinical and obsessively nuanced
production, foreboding ambient drones, blips 'n blurts of electronic
noise, and chugging, curiously inhibited two-step beats). Neurofunk
is the fun-free culmination of jungle's strategy of "cultural
resistance": the eroticization of anxiety. Immerse yourself
in the phobic, and you make dread your element.
Computer games have frequently used cyberpunk as a source of inspiration.
Some of them, like Blade Runner and the Matrix games, are based
upon genre movies, while many others like Deus Ex and System Shock
are original works. Hideo Kojima's work includes notable examples,
particularly his adventure game Snatcher and the first two Metal
Gear Solid games. These are densely populated with spies who communicate
via nanotechnology; computer hackers who design viruses to destroy
malevolent programs; and omniscient, omnipotent secret societies
aiming to control information flow and manipulate human minds. Rez,
formerly known as K-Project, received considerable critical acclaim
but was not commercially successful in the United States, partly
thanks to its esoteric game play. A rail shooter, Rez takes the
player along a predetermined path through a sequence of levels,
each of which represents a zone of a cyberspatial computer network.
The game's advertising focused upon its synesthetic aspects; all
onscreen actions synchronize with the trance techno soundtrack.
Several role-playing games (RPGs) called Cyberpunk exist: Cyberpunk
(aka Cyberpunk 2013), Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk v3 (aka Cyberpunk
203X), by R. Talsorian Games, and GURPS Cyberpunk, published by
Steve Jackson Games as a module of the GURPS family of RPGs. Cyberpunk
2020 was designed with the settings of William Gibson's writings
in mind, and to some extent with his approval, unlike the (perhaps
more creative) approach taken by FASA in producing the Shadowrun
game (see below). Both games are set in the near future, in a world
where cybernetics are prominent. Netrunner is a collectible card
game introduced in 1996, based on the Cyberpunk 2020 role-playing
game; it launched with a popular online alternate reality game called
Webrunner, which let players hack into an evil futuristic corporation's
mainframe. In addition, Iron Crown Enterprises released an RPG named
Cyberspace, now out of print.
In 1990, in an odd reconvergence of cyberpunk art and reality,
the U.S. Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games's headquarters
and confiscated all their computers under Operation Sundevil, which
was a massive crackdown on computer hackers and crackers. This was—allegedly—because
the GURPS Cyberpunk sourcebook could be used to perpetrate computer
crime. That was, in fact, not the main reason for the raid, but
after the event it was too late to correct the public's impression.
Steve Jackson Games later won a lawsuit against the Secret Service,
aided by the freshly minted Electronic Frontier Foundation. This
event has achieved a sort of notoriety and given some to the book
itself, as well. The tagline "The only RPG manual ever confiscated
by the FBI!" has been used online as a sort of anti-endorsement.
(See the GURPS Cyberpunk page.)
2004 brought the publication of a number of new cyberpunk RPGs,
chief among which was Ex Machina, a more cinematic game including
four complete settings and a focus on updating the gaming side of
the genre to current themes among cyberpunk fiction. These tropes
include a stronger political angle, conveying the alienation of
the genre and even incorporating some transhuman themes. 2006 saw
the long-awaited publication of R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk v3, the
followup to Cyberpunk 2020, although many see the new edition as
more Transhumanist or Postcyberpunk than truly Cyberpunk.
Role-playing games have also produced one of the more unique takes
on the genre in the form of the 1989 game series Shadowrun. Here,
the setting is still that of the dystopian near future; however,
it also incorporates heavy elements of fantasy literature and games,
such as magic, spirits, elves, and dragons. Shadowrun's cyberpunk
facets were modeled in large part on William Gibson's writings,
and the game's original publishers, FASA, have been accused by some
as having directly ripped off Gibson's work without even a statement
of influence. Gibson, meanwhile, has stated his dislike of the inclusion
of elements of high fantasy within setting elements that he helped
pioneer. Nevertheless, Shadowrun has introduced many to the genre,
and still remains popular among gamers.
The trans-genre RPG Torg (published by West End Games) also included
a variant cyberpunk setting (or "cosm") called the Cyberpapacy.
This setting was originally a medieval religious dystopia which
underwent a sudden Tech Surge. Instead of corporations or corrupt
governments, the Cyberpapacy was dominated by the "False Papacy
of Avignon". Instead of an Internet, hackers roamed the "GodNet",
a computer network rife with overtly religious symbology, home to
angels, demons, and other biblical figures.
Cyberpunk has also been used in computer adventure games, most
notably the now freeware Beneath a Steel Sky (published by Revolution
Software) and Neuromancer (published by Interplay).