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Definition: Cyberpunk

Introduction

During the research for my reviews of Deus Ex and the Takeshi Kovacs series, I realized that I would have to write a comprehensive definition for the cyberpunk SciFi subgenre. Although I’ve been familiar with different SciFi topics for decades, I’ve never been in the situation to have to find an in-depth answer to the question “What is cyberpunk?” for other people who want to explore this topic seriously. It seemed like an easy question at first.

“Come on it’s a subgenre of SciFi, besides that just define the common topics, settings and themes of it, add a list of the common works and be done with it” came to my mind. Oh, how wrong I was… To find even an approximate answer that comes a bit closer to the scope of the topic, I realized that it deserves a complex, multi-layered approach.

An answer could change almost every time you take a more detailed look on everything attributed with “Cyberpunk”. The fact that this subgenre of SciFi has spawned not only several hundreds of different literary interpretations, but also adaptations in movies, (video) games and all sorts of cultural media in general is one thing.

The other thing is that since its birth in the early 1980s, Cyberpunk has influenced many parts of society and even whole lifestyles. Cyberpunk has been growing bigger than just being a subgenre of SciFi. It formed a whole subculture of people and media.

Scopes and volume of cyberpunk related content and its influences are changing constantly (as our perceptions of the future tend to do in general). This article tries to give you an overview over this phenomenon and its various offshoots in general.

Together we will take a closer look on the etymological origins, check out the first literary appearances and their transitions to other cultural media. We will move on to see alternative contemporary lifestyles and (sub-)cultures that got inspired by all of the aforementioned aspects. So you better tighten your seatbelts, have fun!

Definition: Cyberpunk - Intro

Etymological Origins of Cyberpunk

To get to the core of any term / mental unit, it is always a good idea to look deeper and straight on the etymological roots and their historical development. So let us have a quick look on how the two parts of the term “Cyberpunk”“cyber” and “punk”, have emerged and developed through time.

“Cyber”

“Cyber” appeared first back in the 1940s in the emerging field of cybernetics, which was concerned with the study of communication and control systems in biological systems and in engineering.1 In the following years, the growing fields of computer science, biology and engineering provided the term “cybernetic” with a futuristic glaze. These positive connotations lead to various attachments to other words during the 1950s and 1960s, usually associated with the mix of biological and synthetic elements.2

However, the most lasting and still known version of these early 1960s combinations is certainly “cyborg”, a combination of the “cyb-“ of cyber with the “org-“ of organism. It is referring to a hybrid being, a “man-machine”, with the enhanced capabilities of self-adaptation to new environments.3

Another still well known term is “cyberspace” coined by William Gibson (an author that I will cover later in this article) in his SciFi anthology “Burning Chrome” from 1982. The term is meant as a description of the space of virtual reality and the notional yet real environment, in which communication over computer networks is occurring.

Today, “cyber” is not being used for cybernetic enhancements to the body or the vast spaces of the internet exclusively. It can also refer to other emerging and diversified technological fields such as e.g. advanced biotechnology, nanotechnology and/or network-enhanced robotics.

In case you are interested in additional information about the historical development of the term “cyber”: Back in 2015, Taylor Coe from the Oxford Dictionaries published a great blogpost, specifically analyzing the origins of “cyber” and its constantly changing connotations in cultural media and science through the last decades.

“Punk”

The word “punk”, entered common usage in the 1970s, due to the punk rock music scene of that era and was first used in this context by music critics to describe garage bands and their followers. However, the term itself had already had a quite long and varied history:

First found in the 16th century, designating a prostitute and implying various different sexual connotations afterwards. In the following centuries it was more or less used to designate all kinds of outcasts and outsiders, various forms of criminals, visionaries as well as dissenters and social misfits in general, before it was reclaimed by 1970s music fans.4

The glorification of the subversive nature of aforementioned shunned groups is an underlying aspect that impressed a lot of fans and those who adopted to the associated lifestyles. “Punk”, in this context and analogue to subversion, means the questioning and undermining of existing power structures as well as of authority in general.

“Cyber” + “Punk” = “Cyberpunk”

The fusion of both terms to “Cyberpunk” was originally coined by the American author Bruce Bethke in his eponymous short story written in 1980. Intended as a label for a new generation of tech-affine teenagers, inspired by the perceptions inherent to the incoming age of information and digitalization, the combination of both words as an independent term originated right there.

The word “Cyber”, which refers to the rapidly evolving modern high technologies, such as advanced biotechnology and nanotechnology and “Punk” as an indication of subversion and rebellious behavior against authoritarian systems: The stage is set for the thematic worlds of “Cyberpunk”.

Definition: Cyberpunk - RL Cyberpunk

Common Themes in Cyberpunk

The most accessible aspect of cyberpunk is the literary subgenre of SciFi that features the use of advanced technologies in a dark and gritty urban dystopian environment in the future. Cyberpunk essentially takes contemporary social as well as technological trends and pushes them to their logical limits and sometimes even further.

Multinational mega-corporations dominate as the primary influence of society, which brings about a high aggregation of wealth, acceleration of environmental and urban decay. The expansion of popular culture from Asia and the dissolution of former demarcated cultural identities deepen.

The often violently accelerating urbanization continues to sprawl as people flock to the cities in hope for a chance to have a better future. Drugs and crime offer the best hope of pursuing and achieving happiness for a lot of people. Furthermore, the line between man and machine begins to fade. Due to the heavy use of emerging biotechnologies and nanotechnologies as well as the spread of networked digitization, the edges of biology and synthetics are blurring. All this culminates in the “neon city lights at night” aesthetic which is present in most of cyberpunk art and style.

To summarize the common themes of cyberpunk content in short and simple terms:

High Tech, Low Life.

Definition: Cyberpunk - RL Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk in Cultural Media

Throughout the years Cyberpunk has spread to all kinds of cultural media, creating a subculture rather than just a simple subgenre of SciFi. There are various cyberpunk-themed novels, movies, (video) games of all kind and the use in cultural arts is numerous in general.

The works mentioned here are nowhere near being everything that is out there. This is not an exhaustive list of cyberpunk media works as there is just so much to discover. You can consider it as a useful starting point with exemplary works of the subgenre though. A nice-to-have, if you want to gather some inspiration for your next binge reading/watching/playing.

Literature

If you want to pinpoint the beginning of the genre and subculture of Cyberpunk to a single person and his creative work, it leads you straight to William Gibson. His novel “Neuromancer” from 1984 can be considered to be the archetype of Cyberpunk. It set the standard for all media that followed its wake.

Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy”, consisting of “Virtual Light” (1993), “Idoru” (1996) and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (1999) can also be considered classic cyberpunk. Others titles by  William Gibson are e.g. “Count Zero” (1986), “Mona Lisa” (1988) and “Pattern Recognition” (2003). His “Burning Chrome” anthology from 1982 can also be considered to be a pioneering work, pre-dating “Neuromancer” by 2 years and preparing the ground for the rise of cyberpunk as a genre. It also included the short story “Johnny Mnemonic” that got a hollywood adaptation in 1995 with Keanu Reeves in the main role.

Beginning in the same era as Gibson, the author Bruce Sterling is also a well-known name. His “Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology” (1986) features short stories by himself as well as several other authors that focus on the dystopian topics of cyberpunk. Other notable works of him that relate to the topic are “Islands in the Net” (1988), “Holy Fire” (1996) and “Zeitgeist” (2000).

Bruce Bethke, as father of the term “cyberpunk”, is also important for the subgenre and the directions it took as a subculture. Besides his eponymous short story that I already mentioned in the etymological section, he also wrote e.g. “Headcrash” (1995) and “Rebel Moon” (1996).

The author Rudy Rucker wrote a notable four part cyberpunk series, consisting of “Software” (1982), “Wetware” (1988), “Freeware” (1997) and “Realware” (2000). The series got also republished as a single paperback named “The Ware Tetralogy” (2010).

Another notable writer of early cyberpunk is Pat Cadigan, known for her novels “Mindplayers” (1987) and “Synners” (1991), “Fools” (1992) and “Tea From an Empty Cup” (1998). Richard Kadrey’s “Metrophage” (1988) and Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” (1992) are also relevant.

Always worth a deeper look is Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs series, consisting of “Altered Carbon” (2002), “Broken Angels” (2003) and “Woken Furies” (2005). If you are interested in an overview of this trilogy, check out my review article. He has also written the notable “Market Forces” (2004) which has a strong cyberpunk vibe and shows – as an interesting novelty for the genre – the plot from the perspective of a corporate character.

Cory Doctorow wrote the short story collection “A Place So Foreign and Eight More” (2003), “Little Brother” (2008) and also authored “The Rapture of the Nerds” (2012) – a piece covering Singularity topics, created in collaboration with Charles Stross (who is also known for “Halting State” from 2007).

Another more contemporary work is “Moxyland” (2008) by Lauren Beukes, featuring a unique perspective due to being set in a futuristic version of Cape Town, South Africa.

Movies

In regards of cinematic adaptations of Cyberpunk, there is no way around the first “Blade Runner” movie from 1982, made by Ridley Scott and featuring Harrison Ford. Set in a dark and gritty future with overpopulated, decaying urban centers, it is considered to be the archetype for all similar media works that followed. Its setting, style and tone has since been the staple of many cyberpunk movies. The number of films in the genre that make use of its elements or that use at least some of the genre elements has grown steadily ever since.

At Blade Runner’s 30th Anniversary in 2012, a newly composed trailer for the final cut of the movie (one of a great number of versions, but that is a story for a different time/article) got released:

A second Blade Runner movie got released recently, “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Ryan Gosling and a re-appearing Harrison Ford. You can see the latest trailer here:

However, in addition to the ubiquitous and omnipresent Blade Runner series, there are many other films that can be considered cyberpunk through their respective narrative or the thematic context presented.

To name a few of the more exemplary and notable ones in alphabetical order: “A Scanner Darkly” (2006), “Ghost in the Shell” (2017), “Johnny Mnemonic” (1995), “Stranger Days” (1995), “The Fifth Element” (1997), “The Matrix Trilogy” (1999 & 2003).

There are many more, especially if you include works that just borrow a few cyberpunk-elements too. As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, I take no responsibility for the completeness of this media list. I would like to add that, similar to the literary media, the boundaries between the genre of SciFi and the various subgenres such as Cyberpunk are quite fluid and one can also argue endlessly with other fans about the categorization of various media works.

Games

Popular game series from the west featuring Cyberpunk include the “Deus Ex” titles (2000-present), the “Syndicate” games (1993, 1996 & 2012) as well as the “System Shock” series (1994 & 1995). From the asian side came the “Metal Gear” and the “Megami Tensei” series (both 1987-present), as well as the “Snatcher” games (1988–1996) and its offshoot “Policenauts” (1994), among many others. Some may also consider a lot of elements of “Final Fantasy VII” (1997) cyberpunk-esque.

The dystopian adventure game “Kowloon’s Gate” (1997) also features a Cyberpunk-inspired visual style. The main feature of the storyline highlights this: The gritty street canyons of the demolished Kowloon Walled City suddenly appear in modern Hong Kong and the meaning of this mysterious event needs to be unraveled.

Titles like “Blade Runner” (1997), “Ghost in the Shell” (1997), and the various games of “The Matrix” series (2003-onwards), are based upon their respective genre movies, novels and franchises in general – featuring gritty futuristic sceneries of urban decay.

Tabletop RPGs got also transferred into video games, with the “Shadowrun” (1993-present) series as a good example, comprising a rich dystopian ingame universe that is based on multiple tabletop RPG editions and numerous novels.

CD Projekt RED, a well-known gaming company and famous for their fantasy RPG titles of “The Witcher” series, are currently developing a cyberpunk game called “Cyberpunk 2077“, estimated to get released in 2019. The first teaser trailer already looks quite promising:

Subgenres & Offshoots of Cyberpunk

Nowadays, after several decades of contributing authors and several hundreds of published works, cyberpunk is well-situated within postmodern literature. Due to the contemporary nature of constant technological progress and the implied consequences, the popularity of cyberpunk as a subgenre has always been preserved.

New subgenres emerged due to a large variety of authors widening the scope of the related contents. Some of these offshoots may be just considered as copycats or parasites, as they merely imitate cyberpunk themes, expressions and visual styles. Others, however, may be considered legitimate explorations of new narrative domains.

They all have in common that they relate to a variety of newly developed or emerging technologies, as well as the inherent social impact on individuals and groups.

Definition: Cyberpunk - Futuristic

 

Futuristic Offshoots

“Post-Cyberpunk” is often intended as a modern reaction to the visual aspects of 1980s inspired cyberpunk. It tends to have a greater focus on various emerging technologies and their philosophical concepts like transhumanism. This offshoot is intended to present a bit less pessimistic vision of the future. While cyberpunk’s anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist elements still emerge in these works, Post-Cyberpunk is ready to also attribute positive qualities to governments and large corporations of the future as well. Based on this more balanced approach, post-cyberpunk tends to be neither dystopian nor utopian.

Another futuristic subgenre that emerged during the mid to late 1990s is “Biopunk”. While being faithful to the “High Tech, Low Life.” premises of cyberpunk, it focuses on biotechnologies in general. Technologies such as genetic engineering, biorobotics, synthetic biology and nanotech are relevant. Especially the possible consequences of the biotech revolution, following the discovery of recombinant DNA like the CRISPR-method are important cornerstones for biopunk plots, themes and settings. The misuse of technologies like these by governments and corporations for social control or simply for profiteering and greed. Besides that, Biopunk tends to lack the cyberspace and cybernetic aspects that play an important role in cyberpunk-themes.

Similar to Biopunk, “Nanopunk” is another genre offshoot. It describes a world in which the use of biotechnology is limited or even forbidden and only nanites or nanotechnologies are widespread. This leads to a great deal of differences in possible plots and themes, as both bio- and nanotechnologies often co-exist in Biopunk.

Definition: Cyberpunk - Steampunk Example

Retro-futuristic Offshoots

One of the most well-known subgenres is “Steampunk” which is a genre set in an alternate-history Victorian era that combines anachronistic technology with cyberpunk’s (neo-)noir settings and world views. Steampunk is therefore also characterized by completely different visual styles.

Another genre and art style based on the popular aesthetics of the era between the two world wars of the 20th century, is the so-called “Dieselpunk”. A combination of the artistic influences of the aforementioned period (which includes film noir, art deco style and even pin-up girls during the war) and the heavy use of retro-futuristic technologies, are giving Dieselpunk its own character.

An even smaller cyberpunk offshoot, called “Atompunk”, relates to the pre-digital 20th century, specifically the period of 1945–1965. It includes themes attributed to mid-century modernism and the atomic age in general. The technological advances in aerospace such as jet planes and the space race between Americans and Soviets are getting covered and blended with espionage intrigues of the Cold War era.

Definition: Cyberpunk - Lifestyles

Lifestyles & (Sub-)Cultures based on Cyberpunk

Since its beginnings in the early 1980s, Cyberpunk has not only influenced the aforementioned media, but also the minds of countless people who have come into direct or indirect contact with these issues. Being a “Cyberpunk” can mean a lot of different things to different people. Accelerated cultural, economic and social changes do their own, to make a clear distinction between these lifestyles and worldviews quite difficult. However, there are some links and similarities between these lifestyles and subcultures.

The Attitude

There seems to be a general attitude of mind – some even go so far as to call it philosophy – among those who are attracted to cyberpunk. They feel involved in a fight between themselves and the system. For some, this manifests itself in an interest or even obsession over privacy and security issues, both online and offline.

A cyberpunk notices that the world and human society is heading in wrong directions as the aggregation of wealth is becoming stronger, while the poor are becoming more helpless to global changes each day, just working more and earning less. As these social and economic disparities grow wider, the applied tactics of survival become increasingly desperate: Using the tools of the system against the system itself.

When pushed to the limit, they feel free to use anything and everything at their disposal, be it online or offline. Cyberpunks know that the system is not in their favor and that the deck is stacked against them. They know how to tackle this issue though, by being tech-literate and by using deception and intrusion into (analog as well as digital) social and economic systems.

The Awareness

Faced with a world of ever lasting faster change, the cyberpunk wants to look things openly in the face. Attempting to maintain a clear view of existential issues is important to a cyberpunk. Especially when they escape the collective consciousness of the masses. New technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, Transhumanism and a more or less creeping technological singularity, fascinate and scare the cyberpunk alike. The latter, his fear, is caused by the perceived ignorance of the masses against disruptive changes, brought about by these technologies and developments.

From the viewpoint of the cyberpunk most people seem to be apathetic and passive towards the practical and philosophical implications of the often weird technologies of the near future. For a cyberpunk, this is incomprehensible because advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics and information technology have already radically changed almost everyone’s lives and are likely to be more compelling and invasive in the future.

When a Cyberpunk looks on things like the emergence of cybernetic organisms or advances in neuroscience that could lead to brain-computer interfaces, the cyberpunk sees virtually unlimited potential for disruptive change at all levels of human society. While these technologies are not inherently malicious, a cyberpunk would rather not see what happens when these tools are in the exclusive hands of a corporate elite.

The Lifestyle(s)

Perhaps the most clandestine and veiled aspects of Cyberpunk are the sophisticated contemporary subcultures of hackers, netrunners, phreaks as well as cybergoths, Mil-Tec and self proclaimed tech ninjas. Some chose to adhere to their lifestyle niches mainly via individual arts, tech modificated and customized fashion and other forms of self-expression. Others want to perceive themselves as entities that have slipped through the cracks of societal norms and systems. They try to wander between the analog and digital worlds, avoiding both the attention as well as the oppression of the system(s) they perceive as inhumane.

However, the growing popularity of these subcultures came at a price: with the advent of the ubiquitous Internet and the emergence of a truly interconnected global economy, cyberculture has begun to manifest itself in broad popular culture of modern society and has been commercialized by the corporate entities. For every type of internet culture, there is a Spreadshirt shop, ad-filled social media and YouTube channels, as well as marketed Facebook groups – this also applies to Cyberpunk.

In the meantime, parts of cyberpunk subcultures that wish to remain true to their roots are trying to stay partially underground, although it is often difficult to identify where the hidden subcultures end and the over-commercialized pop cultures begin.

Definition: Cyberpunk - Conclusion

Outlook & Opinion

Cyberpunk has influenced all areas of human life. From cultural media, via self expression in form of fashion to philosophy and the mindsets of whole subcultures. Many of the things that were predicted in cyberpunk are coming to pass today:

Global corporations dominate politics and policies on a multinational level with their private security companies and political pawns, whose primary interests lie in the protection of corporate interests. The emergence of the influence culture of the Internet creates a situation that allows the use of subversion in all forms. Steadily increasing differences within social structures, the constant aggregation and accumulation of economic goods in the hands of few and the progressing urbanization are growing inexorably and will not slow down in the foreseeable future.

Discoveries and improvements in the field of neuroscience and regarding brain-computer interfaces have led to brain-guided prostheses – one of the main thematic pillars of cyberpunk. Meanwhile, the cyberspace in the form of the Internet and the real world are blurring through new, emerging technologies such as the “Internet of Things” (“IoT”), as well as the proliferation of social media and advanced mobile technologies.

With smartphones, each of us has a computer in our pocket whose capabilities surpass those of supercomputers a few decades ago. Always connected and always online, always thirsty for data of any kind and trackable, including built-in GPS, microphone and cameras – absolute basic features.

The endless pleasures of virtual reality are already reality, you just have to look at Steam, Origin, GOG, Uplay, PSN and consorts. In the case of augmented reality, ground-breaking developments are already lurking on the near horizon (see, for example, Apple’s ARKit).

Hackers of various purposes have already brought companies, criminal organizations, governments and individuals to their knees. Not a week goes by without privacy breaches and data leaks in tech companies, governments or individual IT systems. Let’s face it: we are already living in the age of cyberpunk.

Don’t get me wrong here, though, I’m not as pessimistic as it may sound and as the classic cyberpunk media that I love so much would suggest. With all these contemporary and future technological developments, we have a lot of chances to find solutions to a lot of local as well as global problems. The world is not in the hands of sociopathic power players alone – I partially agree with this assumption and the somewhat balanced post-cyberpunk approach.

The next few years are critical for our future development, though, not only in regards to our society but also regarding the future of our species. Lets try to make the best of it.

JHS

 

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  1. Oxford Dictionaries: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/cybernetics
  2. Cf. Edward A. Shanken: Cybernetics and Art –
    Cultural Convergence in the 1960s, In: Bruce Clarke and Linda Dalrymple Henderson, Eds. From Energy to Information, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 174-176
  3. Cf. Manfred E. Clynes & Nathan S. Kline: Cyborgs and space, In: Astronautics Magazine, New York, September 1960, p. 27
  4. Oxford Dictionaries: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/punk

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