What is Cyberpunk?

I thought I’d kick off this blog by going after the big prize first: I’ll try to define cyberpunk.

As with most things, definitions can rarely be pinned down exactly. We might all use a term, but do we all really mean the same thing? So, let me try to define the topic of this blog, the reason why we’re here.

Cyberpunk is History

Cyberpunk began in the early 1980s with short stories and novels. The iconic example being William Gibson’s Neuromancer, part of his Sprawl Trilogy. The story captured a lot of the feeling of the times perfectly: the coming of computer technology and how it had the possibility to change the world so radically, the shifting economic power represented by the rise of the multinational corporation, and the upset in world politics of Asia (specifically Japan) taking a role as an economic superpower in control of the computer technology that would radically change our lives.

When Neuromancer talked about how computer would be a pathway into another reality where powerful computer programmers would be able to strike out against oppressors, computer geeks took notice. The geeky types tended to be interested in collecting bits of information, so a lot of what Gibson wrote about made sense to them. (Of course, when the books veered off into discussions of the dreams of aliens at Alpha Centauri…. let’s just focus on the positive, okay?) Even the neon colors and chrome features of these stories sound like an explosion of 80s fashion.

Cyberpunk is Dead

A funny thing happened while we were reading Cyberpunk — the future happened. The online world that Gibson (and others) had written about became a reality: the internet became visually represented through the World Wide Web. The web became mainstream and wildly popular. Cybercrime is no longer science fiction, it’s something that people are paid to worry about; although we don’t have cool personality matrixes with dead programmers to help us out.

In world politics, Russia did indeed lose a lot of its world power. But, Japan hit decade-long recession and didn’t take over the world’s economy as expected. On the other hand, multinational corporations did indeed take a major role in how the future has evolved. The stories about the great gulf oil spill and the reports about what issues the BP oil company may have ignored that lead up to the massive ecological disaster demonstrate that corporations do hold a lot of power over the world.

So, while cyberpunk had a lot of interesting themes, as far as informative science fiction goes, reading a cyberpunk story from the 80s is about as informative about the future as reading old Flash Gordon comic strips.

Cyberpunk is Evolving

While the old cyberpunk of the 80s is carted off to the old themes home, a new breed of cyberpunk arrives on the scene carrying on the themes of advanced technology redefining what it means to be human, of the world becoming a strange or even hostile place, of people trying to oppress others often with this advanced technology. One difference is that a lot of it came from a more visual medium instead of from literature.

From Japan came Ghost in the Shell, a series about terrorism, counter-terrorism, and existential issues like what happens if your “mind” (or “ghost” in the series) can be transferred from one machine body to another instead of being tied to a piece of meat. It started as a manga, but spun off into two movies and TV series plus some games, becoming a truly multimedia sensation.

In the U.S., we saw a grim future in The Matrix, a movie that was influenced by Ghost in the Shell. Here we saw a story about our own creations turning against us, and humanity’s struggle to remain free despite the odds. Of course, some cyberpunk stories, it happily stomps into the realm of the metaphysical and spiritual with mixed results. But, the Matrix re-defined “high technology, low life” for a new generation.

Cyberpunk has a Future

The amazing thing is that cyberpunk keeps going. There’s something appealing about the core that lets the genre redefine itself for different times and different audiences. It may not seem like Shockwave Runner and Dollhouse are closely related, but at the core there are some very similar ideas.

In the near future I hope to see AfroCyberPunk by Jonathan Dotse bring Cyberpunk themes to modern Africa. As Jonathan says in his first post on his blog, Africa is cyberpunk.

The future is the thing I’m most excited about, of course. Taking the core themes of cyberpunk and how they apply to our world, perhaps in the form of a game, is exciting to me.

The Essence of Cyberpunk

So, what is cyberpunk? To me, it encompasses four major themes.

Disruptive Computer Technologies – Computer technology is what gives cyberpunk the “cyber” prefix. But, it’s not just technology, but technologies that threaten to change the world radically. Networked computers absolutely did change the world in astounding ways, as stories like Neuromancer predicted. But, looking at Gibson’s work we see a whole lot of other technologies that would change the way we live.

Dystopia – The world isn’t the happy place it was in the past (if it ever was). Dystopia might come from dominating corporations that turn populations into wage slaves. Or it might be from robots that see humans as power supplies instead of individuals. Perhaps the disruptive technologies in the setting have negative aspects as well if abused.

Savvy Protagonists – There are people who aren’t content to keep their heads down and survive; this is the “punk” aspect of cyberpunk. These people use technology to carve out their own place in the system. These are usually people that are a bit smarter, cleverer, or more determined than your average person in the setting. These heroes, or sometimes anti-heroes, can flare brightly in a blaze of glory, but they refuse to go quietly.

Motivational – Cyberpunk stories aren’t just mindless entertainment: they often intend to inform and motivate people. The troubles that cyberpunk predicts don’t have to come to pass: instead of being dehumanizing, we could have the technology help bring people closer. Cyberpunk often serves as a warning that dystopia is around the corner, but it doesn’t have to happen if we change the way we behave now.

Let’s see where these themes take us in the future, shall we?