What Is Cyberpunk?

Posted Wednesday, July 27th, 2011 09:00 pm GMT -4 by

Cyberpunk is a science fiction genre that has primary themes of hyper-corporatism, online intrigue, virtual reality and a black market underground with heroes that are often labeled as criminals by their society. All of these elements do not have to be present to classify a creative work as cyberpunk. Sometimes, it’s more about visuals or a feeling than a strict definition.

Some people differentiate cyberpunk literature by adding the post-cyberpunk label for works that were written much later and in a different style than William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer,’ which is considered as one of the first cyberpunk novels and a prime example of the genre. My view is that the cyberpunk label should be as broad as possible to create a greater sense of community among fans and creators. Therefore, I label post-cyberpunk novels as cyberpunk. Categorizing creative works is more of an art than a science. The following examples are my opinions of what creative works belong in the genre.

Cyberpunk Literature:

Good cyberpunk literature is good literature, period. The stories and characters must not be cookie-cutter science fiction tropes. Cyberpunk readers have been spoiled by some great novels and anthologies.

Books: ‘Neuromancer’ trilogy by William Gibson, ‘Snow Crash’ and ‘The Diamond Age’ by Neal Stephenson, ‘Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology’ edited by Bruce Sterling, ‘Hardwired’ by Walter Jon Williams. ‘Halting State’ by Charles Stross.

Cyberpunk Films:

While the following cyberpunk films have good scripts, the movies also add visuals that define the genre. For example, ‘Blade Runner’ depicts cyberpunk buildings such as huge apartment complexes with hundreds of floors. ‘The Matrix’ highlights cyberpunk fashion such as dark, urban sunglasses and full-length black trenchcoats.

Films: Blade Runner, the Matrix films, Inception, Hackers, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Strange Days, Tron.

Cyberpunk TV:

Cyberpunk has been less well-represented in television than in film, but there are a few worthwhile series. ‘Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd GIG’ are considered as the best cyberpunk TV series by many fans of the genre. Blurring of the line between man and machine is a primary focus of that series.

Television: Ghost in the Shell, Dark Angel, Max Headroom, Harsh Realm.

  • Cyberpunk in TV- You might want to add Dark Angel

  • I think it’s worth highlighting the link with film noir. There seems a quality of bleakness in common: the hero stands up for moral values in a world gone sour, but is a long way short of being an angel.

    We live in a world of technology: frequently dysfunctional, almost always anonymous and sometimes malevolent. I suspect cyberpunk, the culture of technological alienation, has a great future ahead of it.

    • JKE

      Nigel: I agree that there is a strong link with film noir, though that atmosphere isn’t totally necessary. For example, ‘Snow Crash’ adopts more of a satiric tone than a film noir one. While I didn’t mention any proto-cyberpunk works here because they were written well before the genre was even named, that quality of bleakness is prevalent in many of Philip K. Dick’s stories.

      I hope the “cyberpunk” term will refer to many future creative works. I place biopunk under the cyberpunk umbrella. I’m against the current publisher fad of labeling any cyberpunk writing as “dystopian,” which is too broad of a term.

  • JKE

    Ink, all good points. You tweeted something else to me that I want to mention:

    “The similarity I saw was that both genres, noir and CP, seem to have undergone the same critical surgery, where not all elements need to be there for a work to be considered of that genre.”

    It fosters a better sense of community if people view post-cyberpunk as a subgenre of cyberpunk rather than a separate entity. Correspondingly, neo-noir should be a subgenre of noir and not separated. However, film noir is not a futuristic SF genre. Present-day or historical material can be labeled as noir without adding “neo.” That said, there can be noir elements within SF, and adding “neo” for those discussions is even more ridiculous. Major book publishers do not always use “post” and “neo” labels, which is a major reason for the overly broad “dystopian” label that some cyberpunk novels receive.

  • Great overview of the current state of cyberpunk! I’m like you and enjoy the broader definition of cyberpunk. 

    • JKE

      Much of the technology that Gibson imagined for his Sprawl Trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) did not exist in the 80′s, and doesn’t exist today. Examples include virtual reality (and that is at least 20 years away in our world), artificial intelligence (probably 50 years distant) and a city orbiting the earth (likely 100 years in the future). Yet all of these ideas are completely plausible and most scientists say inevitable, though as with futurists like me, we occasionally disagree on the approximate timing of these new discoveries. We make virtual bets with each other and reset the betting when a new scientific discovery changes the game. The game before each reset lives on, in a buffer of our collective unconscious. 

  • Great overview of the current state of cyberpunk! I’m like you and enjoy the broader definition of cyberpunk. 

  • The elements I found so startling about Cyberpunk was the increasing power and range of corporations. Maybe it was already happening but after reading Gibson’s books and all that followed, it seemed like more things that were talked about were actually happening. Yes, it will be awhile before AI’s and neural jacks become common place but artificial limbs and an increasing internet are becoming closer to what we first read about.

    • JKE

      Dave: Increasing hyper-corporatism is probably the scariest change to occur that features so prominently in cyberpunk written during the 80′s and 90′s. The American housing bubble disaster of 2007 was largely caused by unregulated financial systems gone berserk, like a chaotic-evil version of Wintermute.