What is Cyberpunk?
By Steampunk Origins | Updated Oct 09, 2019
What is Cyberpunk? Synonymous with counter-culture, Virtual Reality, and the significance of the self. It’s the answer to New Wave’s fury.
Science Fiction in the fifties began to turn its attention towards societies, losing its traditional technological or “Hard” Sci-Fi (source) root with stories such as: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451(source); Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (source); and Robert Neville’s I Am Legend (source). Suddenly technology wasn’t seen as the salvation it was set out to be and the genre was starting to address the implications to a society that could very easily forgo responsibility in favour of nuclear war, a new age of slavery using robots and the suppression of thought, and the ability to leave all the mess and go off in search of warmer climes.
It would be through this new tool that we would begin to develop the personal side of the genre, known commonly as “Soft Science Fiction” (source) in the sixties and seventies, which would in their turn nurture a certain aggressive resentment of the individual towards the corrupt elements of the system which would become known as Cyberpunk.
Utopia's Broken Windows
The fifties were an exciting time for technology, with the possibility of lunar travel on the horizon it seemed like a perfect time for Utopian stories of new life far away from our current problems, but with the threat of the Cold War (source) and the propagandistic tactics on both sides seemed to echo into the works of Science Fiction’s most prolific writers.
Ray Bradbury's 1950 Debut Novel the Martian Chronicles
(source) echoed the hopes of escape from the threat of nuclear war with the hopes of starting again on Mars. Bradbury took this quick fix scheme and attempted to treat the subject with the honesty it deserved. Over the course of the book we witness humanity’s drive to improve things, first by getting rid of all the Martian’s, and then by creating a new frontier in the Martian wastes. The novel focuses on the repetition of unaddressed behaviour and the need to develop a more responsible social structure.
Robert Sheckley's Short Story Watchbird
(source) focused on the detrimental issues of introducing what is basically sentient drones to control crime, which grinds society to halt very quickly. The story is at its heart an ecological piece about how, despite us thinking otherwise, we are animals and are subjected to the implication of introducing a new animal into our ecosystem. His novel Immortality, Inc (source) focussed on humanity’s ability to cheat, and in doing so creating all manner of new problems in the process.
New Wave Science Fiction, and the Rise of the Soft Science
With the fifties focusing on asking questions it was the role of the sixties (source) and seventies to try and answer them. Known as the cultural decade, the sixties were a time of expression and rebellion. The birth control pill (source) had become available, and women were able to decide on their terms what role they should have in the World.
Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange
(source) took George Orwell’s 1984 and dragged it into the swinging sixties. The novel follows the psychotic protagonist Alex as he takes you on a trip through his thought processes as he acts upon the shaken World in an ultra-violent manner. The novel’s themes of responsibility, the rise of behavioural psychology, and teenage angst paint a picture in crimson of the power of the individual and the threat to the system at all levels should it be left alone for too long.
Frank Herbert's Dune
If A Clockwork Orange mirrored the sixties youth, then Frank Herbert’s Dune opened the doors to its elite (source) .A future of feudal squabbles between elite’s intent on dominating the ability for space travel, taking the fear of technology making things more complex and adding the restrictions of class. The series deals with the evils of those above society and paints an ideal of communion of the developed self with savage nature, a theme that would become predominant in Soft Science Fiction.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
Harlan Ellison’s, I have No Mouth, And I Must Scream deals with an artificial intelligence (AM) who proceed to kill most of the World’s population but decides to spare a few out of fear of boredom (source). The short story is a window into AI at its worst, a despotic psychopath that has all the abilities wanted in a Utopia but uses them for wrong. The story is a mixture of the fifties reminder that technology will not solve our problems and adds such a unique and grotesque personal touch that resonates with our current fears of technology. It is a heavily spiced taste of things to come.
Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
It’s hard to talk about Cyberpunk without mentioning Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (source), the novelisation of the 1982 film Bladerunner (source), which would not only give the culture a backdrop, but lead the way to a clear definition. Dick’s insight into consciousness draws from Asimov’s Robot series and adds a little introspection, elite corruption all wrapped up in a hardboiled detective story which would become synonymous with Cyberpunk.
The Search for Answers
The Sixties was a fight for change and the Seventies saw it happen (source). The end of the Vietnam War. The resignation of Richard Nixon (source) and the exposure of political corruption due to the Watergate Scandal. The reduction in threat of Cold War annihilation meant that the public could turn their attention towards domestic issues, largely the corruption in the elite. The death of Mao Zedong (source) and his dictatorship and the establishment of cognitive science balanced a mixture of old dictatorships and the rise of what would be the study of AI (source).
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K Le Guin
(source) follows on from the work of Herbert’s Dune, providing the narrative basis for the film Avatar (source), and echoes the anger towards the Vietnam War. The story is both anti-militaristic and anti-colonial, pointing the finger at the military industrial complex and the horrors of war in the name of greed. It may not carry the weight of the rising counter culture that would be present in later Cyberpunk, but it pointed at an enemy they could all stand up to.
It’s hard to put a single Roger Zelazny story in the context of Cyberpunk history. A literary force known for his postmodern interpretations of old myths and fairytales, Zelazny dealt primarily with the human spirit and its ability to thrive in the harshest of conditions. Giving gods the bodies, and minds of flawed humans he was able to introduce a new generation to rich and illustrious stories, while using them to provide a buffer to express his own thoughts on the breakdown of the family unit. Roger Zelazny gave the tools to show that nothing was irreverent, nothing was off the table (source).
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick
A Scanner Darkly (source) by Philip K Dick fits that Venn-diagram between hardboiled, technology, and counter culture. It follows a detective trying to find the source of a drug known as Substance D, using cloaking technology to ensure that no-one in the agency can give his identity away in case of criminal collusion. The detective hides the fact that he’s addicted to the substance and finds himself alienated from both his colleagues and the criminals he’s living with. It’s a story that focuses on the principle that the ends justify the means, something which is expressed both in the main character’s narrative arc and the systems which allow him to do so in the name of finding the suppliers behind it all.
The Rise of Cyberpunk, and the Pointing of Fingers
With the rise of Margret Thatcher (source) and the divide between the English classes, England gave birth to the loud and spitting baby known as Punk (source). It was the anti-authoritarian response to a rise in capitalism and by the eighties the rise in New Wave meant that you could rebel in very elaborate ways (source).
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Neuromancer (source) by William Gibson is considered the line in the sand of Cyberpunk with its clear dimensions of Virtual Reality, Counter Culture, Hardboiled, and sinister overtones. Gibson sighted Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as the influence for finishing his novel, finding the streets of Neo Hong Kong a perfect balance of new and traditional for his own work. Gibson’s naivety regarding computer software allowed him to think outside of the box and intrigue modern hackers. Gibson coined the term “Cyberspace”.
Cyberpunk became the literary representation of rebellion, with the undervalued burn outs of the World taking a stand against great injustices. The sub-genre became archetypical with Gibson’s novel, providing a new battle ground between capital industry and the rise of the Virtual World.
The Fall of Cyberpunk
In writing the Neuromancer, Gibson inadvertently reset the New Wave’s mission to pull away from archetypical stories. Writers had the ability to wage a war on whatever topic they liked, using the newly emerged Cyberpunk genre as a new look for traditional themes of Good vs. Evil (source). In defining the genre, it had become formulaic, and found itself having to deal with ridicule, which isn’t ideal for a genre synonymous with cool counter culture.
Bruce Bethke created the term “Neuromantics” a portmanteau of Gibson’s Neuromancer, that in itself a portmanteau of Neurons and romantic/necromancer, and the new Wave music scene commonly referred to as “New Romantic” (source) (source) (source). This was a light-hearted jab at the influx of Gibson inspired Science Fiction, and the laziness of the genre as a whole.
By the nineties the Cyberpunk’s formulaic style had become something of spoof and lampoon with works such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash; and Bethke’s Headcrash, who likened the cyber punk to what is the modern internet troll.
“…losers who indulge in Messianic fantasies about someday getting even with the world through almost-magical computer skills, but whose actual use of the Net amounts to dialling up the scatophilia forum and downloading a few disgusting pictures…”- David Brin (source).
A mixture of the lack of further exploration in the genre, and the rise in spoof had damaged the credibility of a sub-genre which had arisen from the need to be aware and ask questions. Unfortunately, like any popular artform, Cyberpunk’s popularity had increased its demand and lowered the overall quality as writers attempted to cash in on something they didn’t understand.
The Rise of Innovation
Like any genre Cyberpunk isn’t impervious to the pitfalls of popularity, and with the decline in interest in bringing down big business and the decline in wanting to create viruses (likely a reaction to the rise in demand for computers) the focus shifted towards engineering, ecology, and eccentric intellect (source) (source).
Steampunk has been around in one form or another, playing vital roles in the works of HG Wells, Mary Shelly, and Jules Verne. Where Cyberpunk focused on the societal pressures of now, Steampunk looked towards the individual, alternate histories, and strict societies.
Steampunk may have been the answer to social media’s direct influence on the rise of the information age. Rights have never been more accessible, the access to art and music instantly, and the erosion of barriers. We’re only coming to grips with the significance of the Internet, and it seems that Steampunk’s interest in an industrial revolution and etiquette could reflect our previous advancement and our desire to take responsibility and act sensible.
Cyberpunk is dead, long live Steampunk, but is it? With stories such as James Patrick Kelly’s nineties: Mr. Boy (source) returning to the fears of alternate realities, epigenetic modification, Freud, and the downsides to not growing up. Far from the messianic overtones of a society in need of salvation, Mr. Boy slides back into the individual’s hang-ups and flaws, something which the genre in its self-indulgence has neglected to realise: a society is comprised of many individuals.
Now, William Gibson’s predictions in the genre defining Neuromancer weren’t exactly true. We can’t download ourselves into the internet and wage interdimensional battles with our Jungian shadows, but what we are doing is taking part in a war to censor and streamline information and putting into the hands of a handful of companies.
If there was ever a time to see Cyberpunk rise then it would be now, in an age where most people don’t know what’s going on, with a view on the internet like early tribe systems, unaware and unwilling to see what’s beyond our boundaries. Perhaps they were wrong to think that the Cyberpunk was there to save society, maybe it’s job is to expose the lies of elites who think they’re safe, so society at least has a chance to understand what’s really going on (source) (source).