Cyberpunk is a science fiction genre noted for its focus on "high tech and low life." The name is derived from cybernetics and punk and was originally coined by Bruce Bethke as the title of his short story "Cyberpunk," published in 1983, although the style was popularized well before its publication by editor Gardner Dozois. It features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.
Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.
Cyberpunk plots often center on a conflict among hackers, artificial intelligences, and megacorporations. They tend to be set in a near-future Earth, rather than the far-future settings or galactic vistas found in novels such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation or Frank Herbert's Dune. The settings are usually post-industrial dystopias but tend to be marked by extraordinary cultural ferment and the use of technology in ways never anticipated by its creators ("the street finds its own uses for things"). Much of the genre's atmosphere echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques from detective fiction.
Postmodernist investigation of cyberpunk became a fashionable topic in academic circles, and the genre reached Hollywood to become one of cinema's staple science-fiction styles. Many influential films, such as Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, the Matrix trilogy, and the more recent adaptation of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, can be seen as prominent examples of the cyberpunk style and theme. Computer games, board games, and role-playing games (such as Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020) often feature storylines that are heavily influenced by cyberpunk writing and movies. Beginning in the early 1990s, some trends in fashion and music were also labeled as cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is also featured prominently in anime, Akira and Ghost in the Shell being the most notable.
As a wider variety of writers began to work with cyberpunk concepts, new subgenres of science fiction emerged, playing off the cyberpunk label and focusing on technology and its social effects in different ways. Examples include steampunk (cyberpunk themes in the early industrial age), pioneered by Tim Powers, K. W. Jeter, and James Blaylock, and biopunk (cyberpunk themes dominated by biotechnology, including Paul Di Filippo’s half-serious ribofunk). In addition, some people consider works such as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age to be postcyberpunk.
In some cyberpunk writing, much of the action takes place online, in cyberspace, blurring the border between actual and virtual reality. A typical trope in such work is a direct connection between the human brain and computer systems. Cyberpunk depicts the world as a dark, sinister place with networked computers dominating 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 or quasi-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.
Cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling summarized the cyberpunk ethos in Cyberpunk in the Nineties as follows:
Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats. This is a hard thing to think about, but it's the truth. It won't go away because we cover our eyes. This is cyberpunk.
Like Case, many cyberpunk protagonists are 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 the protagonist of a Homeric epic or an Alexandre Dumas, père novel. Instead, they call to mind the private eye of detective novels, who might solve the trickiest cases but never receives a just reward. This emphasis on the misfits and the malcontents (what Thomas Pynchon called the "preterite") is the "punk" component of cyberpunk.
…a closer look at [cyberpunk authors] reveals that they nearly always portray future societies in which governments have become wimpy and pathetic …Popular science fiction tales by Gibson, Williams, Cadigan and others do depict Orwellian accumulations of power in the next century, but nearly always clutched in the secretive hands of a wealthy or corporate elite.
Cyberpunk stories have also been seen as fictional forecasts of the evolution of the Internet. The virtual world of what is now known as 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 traditional science-fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke and some social commentators such as James Burke began predicting that such networks would eventually form.
Interesting questions about possible A.I. rights have been introduced using cyberpunk stories as a springboard. Uploads of human minds, such as the Dixie Flatline (Neuromancer) and the Franklin Collective (Accelerando), as well as pure A.I.s such as "Wintermute" (Neuromancer) or those depicted in A.I., consider themselves to have intelligence and self-awareness. This raises the question as to whether intelligence comparable to humans should give them comparable legal and moral standing.
William Gibson with his novel Neuromancer (1984) is likely the most famous writer connected with the term cyberpunk. He emphasized style, a fascination with surfaces, the "look and feel" of the future, and atmosphere over traditional science-fiction tropes. Regarded as ground breaking and sometimes as "the archetypal cyberpunk work," Neuromancer was awarded the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards. After Gibson's popular debut novel, Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) followed. 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. Furthermore, 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, Stanislaw Lem, Samuel R. Delany, and even William S. Burroughs. 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, and the influential cyberpunk movie Blade Runner is based on one of his books. Humans linked to machines are found in Pohl and Kornbluth's Wolfbane (1959) and Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness (1968).
In 1994, scholar Brian Stonehill suggested that Thomas Pynchon's 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow "not only curses but precurses what we now glibly dub cyberspace. Other important predecessors include Alfred Bester's two most celebrated novels, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, as well as Vernor Vinge's novella True Names.
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 that 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.
Cyberpunk further inspired many professional writers who were not among the "original" cyberpunks to incorporate cyberpunk ideas into their own works, such as Walter Jon Williams' Hardwired and Voice of the Whirlwind, and George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails. These types of writings do not only form into the work of a book, but cyberpunk knowledge is also leaking into the pages of magazines. Wired magazine, created by Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, mixes new technology, art, literature, and today’s important topics. It is meant to strike the interest of today’s cyberpunks and has been flying off the newsstands, "Which proves that hardcore hackers, multimedia junkies, cyberpunks and cellular freaks are poised to take over the world.
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 wrote 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 focus on a ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information and cybernetic augmentation of the human body, but without the assumption of dystopia. Good examples are Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age and Charles Stross's Accelerando. Like all categories discerned within science fiction, the boundaries of postcyberpunk are likely to be fluid or ill defined. To complicate matters, there is a continuing market for "pure" cyberpunk novels strongly influenced by Gibson's early work, such as Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon.
Another subgenre is biopunk (cyberpunk themes dominated by biotechnology) from the early 1990s, a derivative style building on biotechnology rather than informational technology. In these stories, people are changed in some way not by mechanical means, but by genetic manipulation. Paul Di Filippo is seen as the most prominent biopunk writer, including his half-serious ribofunk. Bruce Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist cycle is also seen as a major influence. In addition, some people consider works such as Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age to be postcyberpunk.
The film Blade Runner (1982), adapted from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is set in 2019 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 largely unsuccessful in its first theatrical release, it found a viewership in the home video market and became a cult film. 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. William Gibson would later reveal that upon first viewing the film, he was surprised at how the look of this film matched his vision when he was working on Neuromancer. The film's tone has since been the staple of many cyberpunk movies, such as The Matrix.
The short-lived television series Max Headroom also spread cyberpunk tropes, perhaps with more popular success than the genre's first written works.
During the 1989/1990 television season, the setting of the science-fiction show War of the Worlds was retooled into a post-apocalyptic, dystopian, cyberpunk setting. It is believed this change was made in order to accurately depict the aftermath of the 1953 invasion of Earth.
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 Screamers (1996), Minority Report (2002), Paycheck (2003), and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Unfortunately for cyberpunk's arguable originator, the films Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and New Rose Hotel (1998) were both flops, commercially and critically.
Director Darren Aronofsky set his debut feature π (1998) in present-day New York City, but built its script with influences from cyberpunk aesthetic. According to the DVD commentary, he and his production team deliberately used antiquated machines (like 5-1/4 inch floppy disks), echoing the technological style of Brazil (1985), to 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. Until the End of the World (1991) shows another example where cyberpunk provides an assumed background, and a plot device, to an otherwise mood and character-driven story. Gattaca, (1997) directed by Andrew Niccol, is a futuristic film noir whose mood-drenched dystopia provides a good example of biopunk.
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. 1999 also saw the release of "The 13th Floor" and Chris Carter's short lived series "Harsh Realm"—both of which utilized the notion of cyber-realities.
1995's Strange Days, set on New Year's Eve 1999, features many key elements of the cyberpunk genre, both technological and social.
Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk. The Japanese themselves knew it and delighted in it. I remember my first glimpse of Shibuya, when one of the young Tokyo journalists who had taken me there, his face drenched with the light of a thousand media-suns — all that towering, animated crawl of commercial information — said, "You see? You see? It is Blade Runner town." And it was. It so evidently was.
One of the earliest Cyberpunk anime was Megazone 23 (1985), which is set in a post-apocalyptic future, where Tokyo only exists as a simulated reality controlled by a supercomputer, and the story follows the protagonist Shogo Yahagi, a delinquent motorcyclist whose possession of a government prototype bike leads him to discover the truth about the city. Megazone 23 laid the groundwork for later cyberpunk fiction dealing with simulated realities, including Robotech: The Movie (1986) and The Matrix (1999). Another early cyberpunk anime was Bubblegum Crisis (1987), with its rock-filled soundtrack, character names cheerfully swiped from Blade Runner (though completely new personalities) and plot line involving high-tech mercenaries squaring off with a giant corporation that all but dominates the world economy, which is creating rogue military robots.
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) is an excellent example of cyberpunk anime (which was, in turn, based on Masamune Shirow's 1989 manga), as is Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira (1988), based on his 1982 manga, and are both the sources of the ideas for The Matrix series by the Wachowski brothers, particularly Ghost in the Shell, but an Akira influence can also definitely be seen in the Matrix films. The story takes place in a future in which humans are entirely dependent on cyborgs and “illustrates the fluid nature of crime, espionage and geopolitical skullduggery in a world where human personality, vast data networks, and cybernetic technology have essentially fused into a single social matrix.” Ghost in the Shell asks the question whether or not a trace of humanity can remain in a cyborg and the vast span of the Net.
Another anime of note is Texhnolyze. Texhnolyze takes place in an underground city called Lux, which is aggressively controlled by three rival gangs, all who are "texhnolyzed" (a scientific procedure in which a person's limbs are replaced with artificial limbs). Although this series may not be as cyberpunk as Ghost in the Shell, it does have most of the hallmarks of a cyberpunk work: a hard-boiled dystopia and human evolution through science and its consequences and ruminations on humanity's will to survive.
The creators had previously made another notable cyberpunk series, Serial Experiments Lain, which focused on one girl's exploration of "The Wired". However, while Serial Experiments Lain is more critically acclaimed, Texhnolyse is thought of as a better-realized example of the cyberpunk genre.
Cyberpunk has influenced many anime and manga including Appleseed, where the focus is on the urban cyberpunk conflict in a post-World War III environment. Akira would be a representation of Armageddon. In director Rintaro's movie Metropolis, which was rewritten by anime legend Katsuhiro Otomo from the original comic by Osamu Tezuka, the main plot concentrates on a “Puppet Master” for the cyborgs, just like the hunt for one in Ghost in the Shell.
Anime has also provided examples of the "steampunk" subgenre, particularly in much of the work of Hayao Miyazaki, but also notably in Last Exile (2003), created by studio GONZO and director Koichi Chigira, which features a curious blend of Victorian society and futuristic battles between ships of the sky. Also of note is 2004's Steamboy, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. Here, Otomo focuses on an alternate, industrialised Victorian society and a blooming arms race, resulting from the discovery of a new form of steam powered technology. Sakura Taisen, originally a video game released in 1996 by SEGA, features mecha and turn-of-the-century technology literally powered by steam and is set in an alternate reality 1920s Japan. Another series with both steampunk and biopunk elements in its script is Ergo Proxy, released in 2006 by Manglobe. Similarly Cowboy Bebop, which is perhaps better described as a Space Western, or better still as Tech-noir, nonetheless satisfies many of the genre expectations of cyberpunk.
Arriving toward the tail end of both the initial cyberpunk boom and his own career, pop singer Billy Idol released the album Cyberpunk, which included the song "Neuromancer." The album contained a floppy disc which “compactly combines full lyrics, a biography, wild graphics, snippets of sound from the CD and a bibliography for compuphiles to learn more about computer subculture.” The album was neither a critical nor commercial success.
More commercially oriented, British band Sigue Sigue Sputnik appeared on the scene in 1985, sporting popular dystopian and post-apocalyptic Cyberpunk themes and motifs both in their visual appearance as well as their style of distinctly electronic music, courtesy of their producer, Synth legend Giorgio Moroder. The sleeve artwork to their debut album, Flaunt it, further references Cyberpunk culture. After switching to producers Stock Aitken Waterman for the following album, however, their popularity and commercial success began to wane.
A current band that claims to “emit the kind of sound William Gibson must have heard in his head in the 1980s when he invented the cyberpunk novel,” is Aerodrone, a dancepunk band from Eugene, Oregon. The band’s use of synths, heavy beats, guitar riffs could all “fit right in with the pre-Windows world of hard-core hacking in "Neuromancer.
In 1990, in an odd convergence of cyberpunk art and reality, the U.S. Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games's headquarters 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, which has extended to the book itself as well. All published editions of GURPS Cyberpunk have a tagline on the front cover, which reads "The book that was seized by the U.S. Secret Service!" Inside, the book provides a summary of the raid and its aftermath.
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. Another game of note is OGL Cybernet, published under the Open Gaming License for the D20 system.
2006 saw the long-awaited publication of R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk v3, the followup to Cyberpunk 2020, although many see the new edition as more Transhumanist or Postcyberpunk than truly Cyberpunk. 2006 also saw James Norbury's Corporation published, taking an unusual viewpoint in that rather than having players take on the traditional cyberpunk role of the lone anarchist fighting an oppressive social order they instead take the role of agents for one of the five great megacorporations of the world. Taking inspiration from videogames such as Syndicate and Deus Ex, Corporation includes themes of transhumanism, particularly cybernetic and biopunk elements - agents are universally exceptional individuals whose capabilities are pushed far beyond the human by cybernetic and genetic enhancements.
Role-playing has also produced one of the more original takes on the genre in the form of the 1989 game Shadowrun. Here, the setting is still that of the dystopian near future; however, it also incorporates heavy elements of fantasy, such as magic, spirits, elves, and dragons. The cyberpunk aspects of Shadowrun were modeled in large part on William Gibson's writings, and the game's original publishers, FASA, have been accused of plagiarizing Gibson's work without even a statement of his influence, while Gibson has stated his dislike of the inclusion of fantasy elements. 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 symbolism, home to angels, demons, and other biblical figures. Another "cosm" setting that was part of the Torg gameworld was Nippon Tech, which incorporated other aspects of cyberpunk, such as dominant corporations with professional assassins. It did not, however, deal with computer networks as a major part of the setting.
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 like Deus Ex, Iconoclast, System Shock, Fear Effect, Syndicate, Snatcher, and Policenauts are original works.
Cyberpunk has also been used in computer adventure games, most notably the now freeware Beneath a Steel Sky (published by Revolution Software), Neuromancer (published by Interplay in 1988), Rise of the Dragon (published by Dynamix now Vivendi Universal in 1992), the Tex Murphy games published by Access Software, The Longest Journey (one half was the cyberpunk Stark, while the other one was the magical-styled Arcadia), Uplink (published by Introversion), Bloodnet (published by Microprose 1993), Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller (Gametek 1994) and Tokyo War (published by Weapon Studios in 2002). The popular Half-Life 2 modification Dystopia exclusively relies on cyber punk themes. The action adventure game Neuromancer is based directly on the novel's main theme including Chiba City, some of the characters, hacking of databases and cyberspace decks. Flashback: The Quest for Identity and Team17's Nightlong: Union City Conspiracy are also cyberpunk games. The city-builder game SimCity Societies offers also the possibility to create cyberpunk cities.
Netrunner is a collectible card game introduced in 1996, based on the Cyberpunk 2020 role-playing game; it launched with a popular online alternate reality game called Webrunner, which let players hack into an evil futuristic corporation's mainframe.
Iconoclast is a Pen and Paper RPG based on a MUD of the same name. The MUD though still active, only has a few players.