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The Cyberpunk Soundtrack

And he woke again, thinking he dreamed, to a wide white smile framed with old incisors, Aerol strapping him into a g-web in Babylon Rocker.
And then the long pulse of Zion dub.

~ Neuromancer by William Gibson

What does cyberpunk sound like?

We’ve discussed what it feels like, and what it may look like at times, but the cyberpunk soundscape is transient and varied.

Dub reggae plays a big part in Gibson’s Neuromancer. Music speaks for the book’s Zionite characters, forming the soundtrack of their orbital colonies and even providing Case with audio cues to wake him from brain-death. Music is also acknowledged in the Lo/Rez rock group of Idoru (Gibson) and voice of the refugees, cyber-brain rapper Densetsu (Ghost in the Shell: SAC 2nd GIG), to name but two.

"Densetsu", a cyber-brain rapper and target of the Individual Eleven assassins.

Cyberpunk is usually associated with techno, but this is often down to the influence of cybergoth culture. While there are electronic artists making cyber-friendly tracks like Return of the Machines (Oforia), Red Shift (Ayria) and Elektrobank (Chemical Brothers), do they represent the sum total of a cyberpunk soundtrack?

I wonder if, for example, you associate certain rock tunes with cyberpunk. Reggae seems at first glance to be quite an organic genre, but its echo-effect dub remixes speak to a certain sub-culture in Case’s world, of people who pursue Zionite ideals in face of a depressed Babylon. That in itself suggests the cyberpunk condition; a willingness to escape the ‘meat’ reality and embrace something other. Perhaps you eschew electronic music for jazz when contemplating the ordered chaos of our own ‘matrix’? It may be that there are lyrics which speak to you of a cyberpunk reality, or that techno beats really do transport you to the neon, computerised matrix.


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."

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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?

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Users the world over engage in a virtual, multi-user environment in which they, playing the protagonist, must work their way up an increasingly violent learning curve. They share their experiences, of the struggle and of the enemies which seek to destroy them. It is a finite experience, and their journey does have an end; once this endgame arrives, they will start the process afresh.

If you’ll forgive my cheesy comparison, this is not merely a summary of the World of Warcraft-style MMO grind; it is Mercerism, the semi-religious practise carried out in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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The Cyberpunk Medium

Whilst nobody would have cause (or would wish to) write cyberpunk’s obituary just yet, it’s clear that the theme has diversified, and its ideals have been adopted by many more media, since the 1980s. Lawrence Person wrote to Slashdot about the modern-day iteration of this theme, labelling them ‘post-cyberpunk’. Our own Psychochild has speculated upon the post-cyberpunk future too.

Cyberpunk works have taken a different tone, partly because writers today grew up with this science fiction sub-genre. The content has arguably changed because its once-radical themes have become passé, just as space travel once held a much larger sway in science-fiction. We see cyberpunk everywhere from games to comics and blockbuster films, and not just in our cult bookshelves. Does this dampen the message, or does it actually lend it strength? Are we losing sight of the way cyberpunk is delivered?

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Man’s Best Friends

While Innocence deals us a ‘man-machine’ conundrum by comparing humans with dolls, its prequel, Masaki Yamada’s After the Long Goodbye, looks instead to dogs. Animals are often overlooked in the cyberpunk dystopia, but some stories have dealt with them in a metaphor, either as a link back to nature or a reminder of how artificial the world has become. Pets in particular offer a wealthy topic for discussion, as their bonds to mankind lend us further thought on reality and the notion of souls.

By the time a technological dystopia has arrived, it seems common for cyberpunk animals to have been cloned or remade with robotics. Man makes animal, man makes robot; they’re both examples of our creation, and yet animals are not bound by manufacture in man’s own image. Does this make them less of a threat? More of an asset? How does this affect a cyberpunk character’s relationship with artificial life?

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Fighting Back

Time and again we’re led to believe that corporations rule cyberspace and people, and that their downfall is the only thing which could bring about a new, enlightened age – with technology its medium. A recent discussion on British national radio has offered a new take on this idea though, as the likes of Dick, Gibson and Stephenson apparently missed a trick.

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Innocence is Mamoru Oshii’s Golden Palm-nominated entry in the Ghost in the Shell series, which built upon Masamune Shirow’s original manga and Oshii’s classic film. Released to Western audiences as Ghost in the Shell 2, the film follows cyborg cop Batou soon after the disappearance of his former partner, Motoko Kusanagi. When she vanished into the Net, “the Major” left a void in Public Security Section 9 and in Batou’s life.

Innocence is possibly my favourite film of all time, and it just happens to be a cyberpunk opus. It covers so many themes relating to identity and the perils of a digital universe; it questions the ownership of human souls and untangles some deep-rooted issues in its characters. There’s a strong ‘neo-Asian’ aesthetic throughout, with forays into clockwork doll houses and Blade Runner-esque street scenes as well. Its plot, soundtrack and visuals all melt into an escapist’s paradise – an hour and a half of thought-provoking and immersive beauty.

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The News: 20 Years Hence

Imagine: gone are the days of Letters to the Editor. When political commentary is shared exclusively on the web, history records: ink-stained fingers clutching styrofoam cups; trains echoing the rustle of off-white paper; and recycling bins stacked high with fashion tips and football results.

The newspaper is dead, and the humble newsagent has fled our streets to be replaced with off-license shops and billboards. Commuters flock to the cities clutching portable computers and tablet screens; news flicks past them with the wave of a hand. The rustling we hear is of pages in a novel turning, as a lone traditionalist sits surrounded by eReaders and headphone sets.

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Questioning Reality

Tron © Disney/Buena Vista

Cyberspace is surely a virtual world by today’s standards. It may be more chaotic than the likes of Second Life, and its interface alien to we of the Apple/Microsoft generation, but nevertheless it is an envisioned, digital space into which cyberpunk heroes immerse.

The trouble is that for many in these cyberpunk worlds, cyberspace confuses or replaces their reality. There are digital junkies, sentient AIs and reality simulations abound. Identities are fluid and volatile, implants project data directly onto the world around us and our very sense of self can be challenged by the use of a cyberbrain. In cyberspace, how do you know you’re not a dog?

Many cyberpunk works have dealt with reality in some way; Gibson, Dick, Shirow et al caught on that the concept of reality takes on new meaning if communication, perception and our identities all turn digital. How do we distinguish man from machine? Can we verify that what we’re seeing is, in fact, real? What is ‘real’ anyway?

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