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What's Cyberpunk?

What is Cyberpunk?

Most of the following content has been mirrored from the free Wikipedia encyclopedia on Cyberpunk and can also be found there.

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 eyes.
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 controlled.

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 member.

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.[citation needed] Shortly thereafter, however, many critics arose to challenge its status as a revolutionary movement.[citation needed] 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).[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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 True Names.

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 on Neuromancer.

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 period.

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 direction.

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 hacker nature".

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).