Cyberpunk is a curious beast – it feels just as virtual as cyberspace itself, and yet it’s based in shocking reality. There’s an art to it all; with all the dingy alleyways, cyborg fashions and towering industrial complexes we see in comics, films and games, cyberpunk feels more fantastical than it wants us to believe. Of course, it is a theme within science fiction – just like space opera, steampunk and raygun gothic adventures – but it’s always felt so much more real, and dare I say, achievable than the others.

I’m not really qualified to talk about how cyberpunk works through exposing realistic human conditions, and I would be stating the obvious when citing its ‘near future’ setting, rather than the distance of a re-imagined past or alien world. That’s all a given. Instead I wonder, how is it that cyberpunk manages to look and feel like it’s only one turn away down a street corner?

Observe: AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Blade Runner (1982), portraying street scenes which we perceive as being cyberpunk, given their context. They look mundane enough: Deckard is surrounded by what I think are Chinese signs – a tad unusual for an American city – but he’s sat reading a newspaper in front of a shop selling PC hardware. Nothing unusual there. Nor is there much of unusual note in AI, as Jude Law’s character strides through a dingy part of town to a hotel rendezvous.

I mentioned “one turn at a street corner”, though:

All is not as mundane as it seems: Joe is soon revealed to a be an android, capable of changing his appearance and playing music from a hidden loudspeaker. Deckard’s world is not so mundane either as citizens stroll by in futuristic eyewear, brandishing umbrellas fitted with glowing tubes. We’re also told that he is a bounty hunter; a specialist in illegal replicants.

The point I hope to illustrate here is that cyberpunk is, in fact, gothic. Its impact is subtle, though fantastical. Our day-to-day life is no more filled with gynoids than it is vampires, but the stories of each are told in the same manner. By “gothic” I mean the modern sense, of works which unsettle their viewer by presenting normality and then weaving fantasy in it, like so:

  • A solicitor travels to Transylvania to meet with a lone, hard-edged aristocrat. His business there is simple if strange, but what he soon discovers unimaginable horrors behind Count Dracula’s act.
  • A simple waste collector is flagged up on a routine screening test for illegal replicants. He’s revealed to be an android, and a killer at that.

Cyberpunk works by exposing a world beneath our understanding of reality. It sometimes does this literally: Narnia or the Matrix, it doesn’t really matter, as both stories compare our world to one which lays underneath. Even in placing an android upon our streets, cyberpunk is straddling that fine line between ‘mundane’ and ‘fantastical’ and observing the cultural clash which ensues. That‘s why I believe cyberpunk has us at such a tipping point. It keeps ahead of contemporariness with one technological leap, and grounds that fantasy in just enough reality to scare us.

As for actual ’cybergoth‘.. that’s a whole other article entirely!