Cyberpunk (a portmanteau of cybernetics and punk) is a genre of science fiction that focuses on computers or information technology, usually coupled with some degree of breakdown in social order. The plot of cyberpunk writing often centers on a conflict among hackers, artificial intelligences, and mega corporations, tending to be set within a near-future dystopian Earth, rather than the "outer space" locales prevalent at the time of cyberpunk's inception. Much of the genre's "atmosphere" echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques from detective fiction.
While this gritty, hard-hitting style was hailed as revolutionary during cyberpunk's early days, later observers concluded that in terms of literature, most cyberpunk narrative techniques were less innovative than those of the New Wave, twenty years earlier. Primary exponents of the cyberpunk field include William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley and Rudy Rucker. The term became widespread in the 1980s and remains current today.
During the early- and mid-1980s, cyberpunk became a fashionable topic in academic circles, where it began to be the subject of postmodernist investigation. During the same period, the genre penetrated Hollywood and helped propel cyberpunk as one of staples of science fiction. Many popular, high-grossing films such as Blade Runner and the Matrix trilogy can be seen as prominent developments of the genre's visual styles and themes. Computer games, board games and role playing games often feature storylines that are heavily influenced by cyberpunk writing and movies. Beginning in the early 1990s, trends in fashion and music were labeled as cyberpunk.
As a wider variety of writers began to work with cyberpunk concepts, new sub-genres emerged, such as steampunk, biopunk and cyberprep, each of which focuses on technology and its societal effects in a different way. In addition, some people say that works such as Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash define a postcyberpunk category, though whether this category is distinct may be only a matter of definition.
Cyberpunk writers tend to use elements from the hard-boiled detective novel, film noir, and postmodernist prose to describe the often nihilistic underground side of the electronic society that surged in the 1980s and 1990s. Cyberpunk's dystopian world has been called the antithesis of much of generally utopian visions of the future popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling summarized the cyberpunk ethos as follows:
- Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. We can do just about anything you can imagine to rats. And closing your eyes and refusing to think about this won't make it go away.
- That is cyberpunk.
In cyberpunk writing, much of the action takes place online, in cyberspace, blurring any border between the actual and the virtual reality. A typical feature of this writing is a direct connection between the human brain and computer systems through advanced technology. Cyberpunk's world is a sinister, dark place with networked computers that dominate every aspect of life. Giant multinational corporations have for the most part replaced governments as centers of political, economic and even military power. The alienated outsider's battle against a totalitarian system is a common theme in science fiction and cyberpunk in particular, though in conventional science fiction the totalitarian systems tend to be sterile, ordered, and state controlled.
Protagonists in cyberpunk writing usually include computer hackers, who are often patterned on the idea of the lone hero fighting injustice: Western gunslingers, samurai (or ronin), ninja, etc. They are often disenfranchised people placed in extraordinary situations, rather than brilliant scientists or starship captains intentionally seeking advance or adventure, and are not always true "heroes"; an apt comparison might be to the moral ambiguity of Clint Eastwood's character in the Man With No Name trilogy. One of the cyberpunk genre's prototype characters is Case, from Gibson's Neuromancer. Case is a "console cowboy", a brilliant hacker, who betrays his organized criminal partners. Robbed of his talent through a crippling injury inflicted by the vengeful partners, Case unexpectedly receives a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be healed by expert medical care, but only if he participates in another criminal enterprise with a new crew. Like Case, many cyberpunk protagonists are the manipulated, placed in situations where they have little or no choice, and although they might see things through, they do not necessarily come out any further ahead than they previously were. These anti-heroes — "criminals, outcasts, visionaries, dissenters and misfits"  — do not experience a Campbellian "hero's journey", like a protagonist of a Homeric epic or an Alexandre Dumas novel. Instead, they call to mind the private eye of detective novels, who might solve the trickiest cases but never receive a just reward. This emphasis on the misfits and the malcontents — what Thomas Pynchon called the "preterite" and Frank Zappa the "left behinds of the Great Society" — is the "punk" component of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk literature is often used as a metaphor for the present day-worries about the failings of corporations, corruption in governments, alienation and surveillance technology. As such, cyberpunk is often written with the intention of disquieting readers and calling them to action.
A variety of commentators have taken the "canonical" cyberpunk works to task, pointing out dubious aspects of the genre. For example, many of the genre's heroines take after Neuromancer's Molly, becoming "razorgirls" who may have sex appeal for male science fiction readership but are hardly liberated or even well-developed characters. Feminist critics have found this tendency disturbing, particularly when compared to female protagonists in other dystopian science fiction (e.g., Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale). What's more, some of these critics have claimed that cyberpunk's heroes often establish their masculinity by dominating a technology described with female metaphors — in essence, through metaphorical rape. These same heroes are often Americanized rogues, "cowboys" poised against the collectivist world of Japanese corporations or against European financial dynasties. Some writers have said that this repeated use of the cowboy theme meshes well with the images associated with Ronald Reagan, which is odd for a genre so strongly filled with punk rock and drug allusions. Nicola Nixon, assistant editor of the journal Postcolonial Studies, suggests this "complicity with '80s conservatism" in both economic and social respects implies "cyberpunk fiction is, in the end, not radical at all". 
Sometimes cyberpunk stories have been seen as fictional forecasts of the evolution of the Internet. The virtual world of the Internet often appears under various names, including "cyberspace", the Wired, the Metaverse and the Matrix. In this context it is important to note that the earliest descriptions of a global communications network came long before the World Wide Web entered popular awareness, though not before social commentators like James Burke began predicting that such networks would eventually form.
The science fiction editor Gardner Dozois is generally acknowledged as the person who popularized the use of the term "cyberpunk" as a kind of literature. Minnesota writer Bruce Bethke coined the term in 1980 for his short story "Cyberpunk", although the story was not actually published until November 1983, in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, Volume 57, Number 4 . The term was quickly appropriated as a label to be applied to the works of Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Michael Swanwick, Pat Cadigan, Lewis Shiner, Richard Kadrey, and others. Of these, Sterling became the movement's chief ideologue, thanks to his fanzine Cheap Truth. (See also John Shirley's articles on Sterling and Rucker .)
William Gibson with his novel Neuromancer (1984) is likely the most famous writer connected with the term cyberpunk. He emphasized style, character development, and atmosphere over traditional science-fictional tropes, and Neuromancer was awarded the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards. According to the Jargon File, "Gibson's near-total ignorance of computers and the present-day hacker culture enabled him to speculate about the role of computers and hackers in the future in ways hackers have since found both irritatingly naïve and tremendously stimulating." 
Early on, cyberpunk was hailed as a radical departure from science-fiction standards and a new manifestation of vitality. Shortly thereafter, however, many critics arose to challenge its status as a revolutionary movement. These critics said that the SF "New Wave" of the 1960s was much more innovative as far as narrative techniques and styles were concerned. Further, while Neuromancer's narrator may have had an unusual "voice" for science fiction, much older examples can be found: Gibson's narrative voice, for example, resembles that of an updated Raymond Chandler, as in his novel The Big Sleep (1939). Others noted that almost all traits claimed to be uniquely cyberpunk could in fact be found in older writers' works — often citing J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison and Samuel R. Delany. For example, Philip K. Dick's works contain recurring themes of social decay, artificial intelligence, paranoia, and blurred lines between reality and some kind of virtual reality.
Arguably, the generation that cyberpunk claimed to represent did not step forward to embrace it: the real punks of the 1980s apparently read little, and most young science-fiction readers of that era stayed with traditional storytellers like Larry Niven and Anne McCaffrey, not to mention the "Big Three" Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. Television via Max Headroom and magazines like Heavy Metal did more to popularize the "cyberpunk vision" than did the original fiction. However, William Gibson's prose, too dense for novice or casual readers, did appeal to academics. 
Science-fiction writer David Brin describes cyberpunk as "...the finest free promotion campaign ever waged on behalf of science fiction." It may not have attracted the "real punks", but it did ensnare many new readers, and it provided the sort of movement which postmodern literary critics found alluring. (One illustration of this is Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto", an attempt to build a "political myth" using cyborgs as metaphors for contemporary "social reality". ) Cyberpunk made science fiction more attractive to academics, argues Brin; in addition, it made science fiction more profitable to Hollywood and to the visual arts generally. Although the "self-important rhetoric and whines of persecution" on the part of cyberpunk fans were irritating at worst and humorous at best, Brin declares that the "rebels did shake things up. We owe them a debt. [...] But," he asks, "were they original?" 
As new writers and artists began to experiment with cyberpunk ideas, new varieties of fiction emerged, sometimes addressing the criticisms leveled at the original cyberpunk stories. Lawrence Person writes, in an essay he posted to the Internet forum Slashdot,
- Many writers who grew up reading in the 1980s are just now starting to have their stories and novels published. To them cyberpunk was not a revolution or alien philosophy invading SF, but rather just another flavor of SF. Like the writers of the 1970s and 80s who assimilated the New Wave's classics and stylistic techniques without necessarily knowing or even caring about the manifestos and ideologies that birthed them, today's new writers might very well have read Neuromancer back to back with Asimov's Foundation, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, and Larry Niven's Ringworld and seen not discontinuities but a continuum. 
Person's essay advocates using the term "postcyberpunk" to label the new works such writers produce. In this view, typical postcyberpunk stories continue the preoccupation with the effects of computers, but without the assumption of dystopia or the emphasis on cybernetic implants. After Person posted his observations on Slashdot, his readers observed that the term was possibly superfluous — one more piece of jargon invented to shore up false distinctions. Like practically all categories discerned within science fiction, the boundaries of postcyberpunk are likely to be fluid or ill defined.
Among the subgenres of cyberpunk is steampunk, which is set in an anachronistic Victorian environment, but with cyberpunk's bleak film noir world view. The Difference Engine was probably the novel that helped bring this style of writing to the fore. The early 1990s saw the emergence of biopunk, a derivative style building not on informational technology but on biology, the other dominant scientific field of the end of that era. In these stories, people are changed in some way not by mechanical means, but by genetic manipulation of their very chromosomes. Paul Di Filippo is seen as the most prominent biopunk writer, although Bruce Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist cycle is also a major influence.
Cyberprep is a term that reflects the flip side of cyberpunk. A cyberprep world assumes that all the technological advancements of cyberpunk speculation have taken place, but that life is happy rather than gritty and dangerous. Since society is leisure driven, uploading is more of an art form or a medium of entertainment while advanced body modifications are used for sports and pleasure.
Film and television
The film Blade Runner (1982), adapted from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is set in a dystopian future in which manufactured beings called replicants are slaves used on space colonies and are legal prey on Earth to various bounty hunters who "retire" (kill) them. Although Blade Runner was not extravagantly successful in its first theatrical release, it found a wide viewership in the home video market. Since the movie omits the religious and mythical elements of Dick's original novel (e.g., empathy boxes and Wilbur Mercer), it falls more strictly within the cyberpunk genre than the novel does, and it can be credited with introducing many viewers to the genre's themes.
As mentioned above, the short-lived television series Max Headroom also spread cyberpunk tropes, probably with more success than the genre's first written works.
The number of films in the genre or at least using a few genre elements has grown steadily since Blade Runner. Several of Philip K. Dick's works have been adapted to the silver screen, with cyberpunk elements typically becoming dominant; examples include Minority Report (2002) and Paycheck (2003). William Gibson has also been adapted: Johnny Mnemonic (1995) was not successful, but detailed Gibson's world rather faithfully.
Director Darren Aronofsky set his debut feature π (1998) in a present-day New York City, but one built with a cyberpunk aesthetic. According to the DVD commentary, he and his production team deliberately used antiquated machines (like 5-1/4 inch floppy disks) to echo Brazil (1985)'s technological style and create a cyberpunk "feel". Aronofsky describes Chinatown, where the film is set, as "New York's last cyberpunk neighborhood".
The RoboCop series has a more near-futuristic setting where at least one corporation, Omni Consumer Products, is an all-powerful presence in the city of Detroit. Gattaca (1997) directed by Andrew Niccol, is a futuristic film noir whose mood-drenched dystopia provides a good example of biopunk.
Anime has contained cyborgs and other plausibly "cyberpunk" elements since the early 1960s. Witness the series 8 Man (1963), about a human-turned-cyborg who fights an endless struggle against his lawless world. This series arose two decades before Gibson propelled the genre to celebrity, though as with many such questions in science fiction, the actual extent to which these early works influenced later ones is open to debate. The anime series Bubblegum Crisis (1985) was also an early animated form of cyberpunk, and in a more explicit manner: both the 2032 and the newer 2040 series serve as extended homages to Blade Runner. The anime movie Ghost in the Shell (1995), based on a 1991 manga and often hailed as a cyberpunk classic, explores the boundaries between man and machine in a futuristic Japan. The television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex carries over the movie's characters to explore the movie's world in more sociological depth. Indeed, this focus upon the social impact of network technology has led some commentators to feel that the television series leans more toward being a product of the postcyberpunk period. 
The Matrix series, which began with 1999's The Matrix (and now also contains The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and The Animatrix) uses a wide variety of cyberpunk elements. The series's basic premise revolves around a virtual reality so realistic as to be indistinguishable from the real world; human brains are directly connected to this computer system. The Wachowski brothers, writers and directors behind the series, drew many of its elements from Japanese anime, and The Animatrix carried the idea exchange in the reverse direction. While the first movie was extremely successful, earning $456 million worldwide and beating Star Wars: The Phantom Menace for special-effects Oscars, viewers continue to debate the quality of the sequels. Some fans believe the sequels exceed the quality and conceptual heights of the first film, while a considerable number of viewers believe the latter films to be disappointing. Charges include the assertion that Reloaded was "hyped beyond the point where it can possibly deliver" . After Reloaded's underwhelming critical reception and box-office performance, many hoped that the third installment would "redeem" the series; however, Revolutions turned out to be, in one reviewer's words, "a whimper in bang's clothing" . Despite these tribulations, the franchise has also spawned three video games and a number of comic books.
Music and fashion
The term "cyberpunk music" can refer to two rather overlapping categories. First, it may denote the varied range of musical works which cyberpunk films use as soundtrack material. These works occur in genres from classical music and jazz—used, in Blade Runner and elsewhere, to evoke a film noir ambiance—to "noize" and electronica. Typically, films draw upon electronica, electronic body music, industrial, noise, futurepop, alternative rock, goth rock, and intelligent dance music to create the proper "feel". The same principles apply to computer and video games; see the discussion of Rez below. Of course, while written works may not come with associated soundtracks as frequently as movies do, allusions to musical works are used for the same effect. For example, the graphic novel Kling Klang Klatch (1992), a dark fantasy about a world of living toys, features a hard-bitten teddy bear detective with a sugar habit and a predilection for jazz.
"Cyberpunk music" also describes the works associated with the fashion trend which emerged from the SF developments. Starting around the year 1990, popular culture began to include a movement in both music and fashion which called itself "cyberpunk", and which became particularly associated with the rave and techno subcultures. The hacker subculture, documented in places like the Jargon File, regards this movement with mixed feelings, since self-proclaimed cyberpunks are often "trendoids" with an affection for black leather and chrome who speak enthusiastically about technology instead of learning about it or becoming involved with it. ("Attitude is no substitute for competence," quips the File.) However, these self-proclaimed cyberpunks are at least "excited about the right things" and typically respect the people who actually work with it — those with "the hacker nature".
Certain music genres like drum'n'bass were directly influenced by cyberpunk, even generating a whole subgenre called neurofunk, where the bass lines, synths and beats try to give the listener the sensation of being inside a sprawl or crawling through cyberspace. Neurofunk was pioneered by artists like Ed Rush, Trace and Optical. In the words of the journalist Simon Reynolds:
- Jungle's sound-world constitutes a sort of abstract social realism; when I listen to techstep, the beats sound like collapsing buildings and the bass feels like the social fabric shredding [...] The post-techstep style I call "neurofunk" (clinical and obsessively nuanced production, foreboding ambient drones, blips 'n blurts of electronic noise, and chugging, curiously inhibited two-step beats). Neurofunk is the fun-free culmination of jungle's strategy of "cultural resistance": the eroticization of anxiety. Immerse yourself in the phobic, and you make dread your element. 
See also the list of cyberpunk bands.
Computer games have frequently used cyberpunk as a source of inspiration. Some of them, like Blade Runner and the Matrix games, are based upon genre movies, while many others are original works. IONstorms acclaimed computer game Deus Ex also has a cyberpunk theme. Hideo Kojima's work includes notable examples, particularly his adventure game Snatcher and the first two Metal Gear Solid games. These are densely populated with spies who communicate via nanotechnology; computer hackers who design viruses to destroy malevolent programs; and omniscient, omnipotent secret societies aiming to control information flow and manipulate human minds. Rez, formerly known as K-Project, received considerable critical acclaim but was not commercially successful in the United States, partly thanks to its esoteric gameplay. A rail shooter, Rez takes the player along a predetermined path through a sequence of levels, each of which represents a zone of a cyberspatial computer network. The game's advertising focused upon its synesthetic aspects; all onscreen actions synchronize with the trance techno soundtrack.
In 1990, in an odd reconvergence of cyberpunk art and reality, the U.S. Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games's headquarters during Operation Sundevil and confiscated all their computers. This was—allegedly—because the GURPS Cyberpunk sourcebook could be used to perpetrate computer crime. That was, in fact, not the main reason for the raid, but after the event it was too late to correct the public's impression. Steve Jackson Games later won a lawsuit against the Secret Service, aided by the freshly minted Electronic Frontier Foundation. This event has achieved a sort of notoriety and given some to the book itself, as well. The tagline "The only RPG manual ever confiscated by the FBI!" has been used online as a sort of anti-endorsement. (See the GURPS Cyberpunk page.)
At least two role-playing games (RPG's) called Cyberpunk exist: Cyberpunk 2020, by R. Talsorian Games, and GURPS Cyberpunk, published by Steve Jackson Games as a module of the GURPS family of RPGs. Cyberpunk 2020 was designed with the settings of William Gibson's writings in mind, and to some extent with his approval, unlike the (perhaps more creative) approach taken by FASA in producing the Shadowrun game (see below). Both games are set in the near future, in a world where cybernetics are prominent. Netrunner is a collectible card game introduced in 1996, based on the Cyberpunk 2020 role-playing game. In addition, Iron Crown Enterprises released an RPG named Cyberspace, now out of print.
2004 brought the publication of a number of new cyberpunk RPGs, chief among which was Ex Machina, a more cinematic game including four complete settings and a focus on updating the gaming side of the genre to current themes among cyberpunk fiction. These tropes include a stronger political angle, conveying the alienation of the genre and even incorporating some transhuman themes.
Role-playing games have also produced one of the more unique takes on the genre in the form of the 1989 game series Shadowrun. Here, the setting is still that of the dystopian near future; however, it also incorporates heavy elements of fantasy literature and games, such as magic, spirits, elves, and dragons. Shadowrun's cyberpunk facets were modeled in large part on William Gibson's writings, and the game's original publishers, FASA, have been accused by some as having directly ripped off Gibson's work without even a statement of influence. Gibson, meanwhile, has stated his dislike of the inclusion of elements of high fantasy within setting elements that he helped pioneer. Nevertheless, Shadowrun has introduced many to the genre, and still remains popular among gamers.
The trans-genre RPG Torg (published by West End Games) also included a variant cyberpunk setting (or "cosm") called the Cyberpapacy. This setting was originally a medieval religious dystopia which underwent a sudden Tech Surge. Instead of corporations or corrupt governments, the Cyberpapacy was dominated by the "False Papacy of Avignon". Instead of an Internet, hackers roamed the "GodNet", a computer network rife with overtly religious symbology, home to angels, demons, and other biblical figures.
- For more examples, see the list of computer and video games.
References and notes
- ^ alt.cyberpunk Usenet group FAQ file.
- ^ Nicola Nixon, "Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?", Science Fiction Studies vol. 19, part 2 (July 1992). See also the collection Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture (MIT Press: 2002), M. Flanagan and A. Booth eds., ISBN 0-262-56150-6.
- ^ Bruce Bethke, "Cyberpunk", first published in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, Vol. 57, No. 4 (November 1983].
- ^ John Shirley, "Two Cyberpunks: Sterling and Rucker".
- ^ Jargon File definition; see also "Cyberpunk" at the Jargon Wiki.
- ^ Paul Brians, Lecture notes for a Washington State University SF class.
- ^ Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century", in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (Routledge, 1991), pp. 149-181. ISBN 0-415-90386-6.
- ^ David Brin, Review of The Matrix.
- ^ Lawrence Person, "Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto", first published in Nova Express issue 16 (1998), later posted to Slashdot.
- ^ Earl S. Wynn, "Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex" (review).
- ^ Kate Jones, "The Matrix... reloaded or overloaded?" Socialism Today, July–August 2003.
- ^ Keith Phipps, review of The Matrix Revolutions, The Onion A.V. Club 10 November 2003.
- ^ Simon Reynolds. Energy Flash: Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (Picador, 1998). ISBN 0-330-35056-0.
- ^ Jackson, Steve April 19 1990 SJ Games Raided SJ Games website.
- ^ The Cyberpunk Reading List that emerged from the usenet group
- ^ Cyberpunk R.I.P. - By Paul Saffo, Wired Magazine
- ^ Norman Spinrad, "On Books: Movements", Asimov's Science Fiction October/November 2002.
- ^ GURPS Cyberpunk website
- ^ R. Talsorian series on cyberpunk film
- ^ Neometropolis Magazine
- ^ The Cyberpunk Project
- ^ Duke of Hell's Cyberpunk - Listing of cyberpunk-related media
- ^ Fuchsia Shockz - Cyberpunk culture and related cyberpunk articles
- ^ Innervation - Resource site and forum for designers interested in technology