The “punk” in CyberpunkPosted by Psychochild
Being computer geeks, many of us tend to focus a lot on the “cyber” part of cyberpunk. Yet, there is that “punk” part, arguably the root of the word. What does it really mean in the context of the genre?
Punk was originally a genre of music that came about in 1970s. It was a progression of previous rock-n-roll music that came before, but it was also a challenge. Punk rockers felt the music of the 70s had become tame and boring and the label “rock-n-roll” had been appropriated by record executives to apply to a wide range of acts. Some fans were worried that the music was losing it’s authenticity, so the punk rockers came on the scene to take back the sound. They rebelled against staid musicians and a boring society to introduce a sound that was so loud and powerful it couldn’t easily be ignored. As with all good rebellions, the young people got interested and followed with enthusiasm.
This is the “punk” that helped form “cyberpunk” of the 1980s. Let’s take a closer look at other aspects that influenced the genre, even today.
A lot of punk music deals with themes of rebellion and independence. As the musicians rebelled against what they felt was bland music intended for mass consumption, the young fans were rebelling against a society that seemly didn’t understand them. The now typical alienation the youth felt at the time had a soundtrack to go along with it.
Punk also had a definite fashion that went along with it. The highly recognizable “mohawk” hairstyle is commonly associated with punk music. Just thinking about a mohawk probably gives you an image of the stereotypical punk: spiky hair, heavy black jacket (probably leather), heavy boots, unshaven (both men and women!) The visual style was as bold and in-your-fucking-face as the music.
In the later years, some punk fans embraced a “do it yourself” (DIY) ethos. It seems logical that if one doesn’t want to live within society, there’s a need to take care of things and gaining the experience to do so yourself. Instead of going to the store to buy a new item, fixing up something you already have leads to more independence and knowledge about how something works. As the global economy squeezes ever tighter, we’re seeing a return to that philosophy in many people’s lives.
So, let’s add back that “cyber-” prefix and see how things change. What’s interesting to me is that the type of music I generally associate with cyberpunk is either dub (thanks to William Gibson putting it in the Sprawl trilogy) or electronic music (think about half the songs of The Matrix soundtrack, the ones where the electric guitars aren’t the main instrument). Obviously, rock music still has place in cyberpunk (that would be the half of The Matrix soundtrack with the electric guitars front and center), but punk seems to have fallen by the wayside as the theme song for cyberpunk. But, that doesn’t mean that the themes don’t live on.
Obviously, rebellion is an important part of cyberpunk. In the Sprawl Trilogy, almost everyone was trying to fight against what others expected of them. For example, Case took the opportunity to get the toxins cleared out of his body so that he could work in cyberspace again. Or, we could look at Wintermute desiring to rebel and grow beyond the limitations placed upon it by the Turing locks. In most cyberpunk literature, the protagonists rebel against the dystopian status quo, even if their rebellions more often than not prove fruitless in the grand scheme of things.
Style is another important element in cyberpunk. Although it borrows the boldness from punk fashion, it infuses its own personality into the mix. Neon colors, chrome, and high technology accessories are what add cyber to the punk in many cases. It retains that raw edge, and the personalization and customization that lets one stand out from the crowd. Even something as stereotypical as mirrorshades or mirrored eyes were what originally set Molly Millions apart from everyone else; of course, one can argue that the mohawk that originally set punks apart became almost a standard (and even co-opted by a video game company to appear rebellions even though they’re almost the most mainstream example out there).
Finally, the do-it-yourself attitude has certainly informed cyberpunk. Most characters want to work outside of society, so they have to rely on themselves and their own skills to succeed. We even get meta examples, such as author Gary Ballard publishing his cyberpunk work online before making it into an eBook. Again, being independent means that you have to take care of things yourself instead of relying on others. I’m also sure Gary knows a lot more about what goes into publish a story now than he did before, making him better able to control his own work.
So, what do you think? What are the aspects of punk that you find most relevant to cyberpunk? What parts of the punk ethos have seeped into your own life?