For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.

~ Extract from “Neuromancer” by William Gibson.

Walls, be they physical or metaphorical, are common in all walks of fiction. They enclose whole worlds, trapping hero and villain alike so that they must escape, or else breed conflict. It’s common for a hero to break through these walls and achieve a ‘happy ending’, freeing society and themselves in the process – but not often in cyberpunk. I can’t help but notice some of these boundaries as I take in cyberpunk old and new, and wonder as to their role in the ‘real world’ too.

A Combine tripod strides behind a blockade in "Half-Life 2"'s City 17.

"Move along."

Firewalls are, of course, a staple of the cyberpunk genre. Hackers are forever breaking through these and other programs in order to accomplish goals grand and small, but these are virtual walls – the hero emerges only to remain trapped within reality’s dystopic walls. Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell have particularly fascinated me because while their heroes realise a great and hidden truth in each story, nothing about their accomplishment seems to impact upon the wider world. Though they have pulled off amazing feats with ICE and ghost hacks, the result may be as subtle as the release of a file or the death of a single agent.

It’s not that cyberpunk stories necessarily breed secrecy; I feel it’s more a symptom of the cyberpunk world, that a depression persists inside which even the birth of new, artificial life might go unnoticed. The world does not gape in wonder as a new being strides across humanity’s digital network – instead it carries on as it always has, either unaware or, more likely, ignorant of whatever has transpired.

A trio of Tachikoma dive into the Net with Section 9 in "GitS: Solid State Society"

Cyberpunk of this type does not have a Hollywood ending. The Matrix trilogy, though criticised for a number of other reasons, managed to baffle those viewers who might have expected an end to all things machine-dominated. The idea that its trio of ‘blockbuster heroes’ would not, in fact, destroy the machines and remove their hold upon humanity, is not part of the mainstream movie formula. It seems quite typical of cyberpunk, though.

There are some cyberpunk-themed works which do allow for happy endings: Johnny Mnemonic‘s big-screen adaptation does at least manage to free the world from a crippling disease, while Aeon Flux sees a massive truth realised in the destruction of a city wall. We generally do not expect to see such a finale, though – so what is it that you enjoy about the formula? Is the very fact that society does not get turned on its head actually one of cyberpunk’s best features?