Despite being a popular genre across different types of media, the definition of "cyberpunk" can be a bit nebulous and tough to pin down, especially given its constantly evolving nature. But the world of cyberpunk is a great place to hang out, especially if you know what you're getting yourself into. Here's a crash course in cyberpunk to help you jump right in....
A Gritty Future
As a sub-genre of science fiction, cyberpunk focuses on a high-tech future full of androids, trans-humanist body modification, virtual reality, and ubiquitous Internet connection. The line between cyberspace and "real" space is often blurred, with many people spending a large portion of their lives in virtual spaces, further blending the electronic and the physical.
This might sound to some like a technological utopia, but cyberpunk works spend much of their time exploring the darker, grittier side of high-tech society. Governments have fallen out of power, or have been disbanded altogether, replaced by mega-corporations that rule in the name of greed and profit, giving little thought to morality, public safety, or the average person in society.
Capitalism, corruption, and conspiracies are dominant themes surrounding these shadowy megacorporations; they're run by the elite and the hyper-wealthy, corporocrats hellbent on gaining more power and money. They have carved up most of the world into business-owned territories, and enforce their will with private military organizations.
The establishment of this corporatocracy has made political borders meaningless, and the inhabitants of the planet, in many cases, no longer recognize racial or geographical differences. In reflecting on John Shirley's Freezone, Henry Jenkins describes the cyberpunk world as one full of "warring corporations, of multi-cultural chaos and constant advertising messages," a description that sums up the economically driven, borderless, technologically saturated world of so many cyberpunk works.
The backdrop for the corruption and manipulation of these organizations is usually the megacity, an often-crumbling urban environment jam-packed full of people, neon lights, advertisements, and slums. The division between the upper and lower classes is many times represented in a strikingly literal way, with elites inhabiting the upper reaches of massive towers, far above the down-trodden masses, who are confined to the smog-ridden dark alleyways of the lower city. These are the places that the characters of cyberpunk call home.
The protagonists of cyberpunk works are often described as "high-tech low-lifes." Put simply, cyberpunk lets us see into the lives of the people living on the outside edges of the high-tech society that has been established.
Who are these people? Hackers, drug dealers, rebels, ravers, trans-humanists, and other outsiders are common, and often share space with various types of miscreants who have either chosen or been forced to live on the edges of respectable society. Sometimes they're dedicated to helping take down the system that keeps them on the outside, sometimes they have been pushed into the role, and sometimes they're just apathetic.
No matter how they feel about the system that has turned them into outcasts, these characters are very often pitted against the interests of the mega-corporations. Whether they discover evidence of a conspiracy or another chink in the armor of these organizations, find that the mega-corps stand between them and what they want, or are wrongly accused of misdeeds, protagonists almost always end up facing off against the world's elite.
Interestingly, it's not uncommon to see a kind of begrudging cooperation between the two spheres of society. Even though the mega-corporations seek to shut down rebels and cultural insurgents, they're also aware that these people are necessary to keep cash flowing, solve problems, and gain insight into the lower classes. It all makes for an interesting tension.
The greedy mega-corporations, gritty mega-cities, rebellious hackers, and futuristic technological advancements all come together to make cyberpunk a fascinating and disturbingly prescient genre, one that's able to extend current unease around data collection, corporate power, the DIY trans-human ethic, and existential questioning into something darker and more worrisome.
One of the most interesting things about the cyberpunk genre is that it has changed dramatically since its inception to take on new technological issues that have come up as our society has embraced newer technologies.
Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, for example, saw characters spending time in the Metaverse, a virtual reality environment that spanned an entire virtual planet, where they could meet, talk, race motorcycles, exchange information, and do just about anything else you can do in real life. Snow Crash was released in 1992, long before Second Life, other virtual worlds, and the popularization of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, all of which echo the fictional Metaverse.
A Media-Spanning Genre
Certain works always spring to mind when discussing cyberpunk: Blade Runner, Neuromancer, The Matrix, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Deus Ex, and Watch Dogs span quite a range of dates and media, but they only begin to show the breadth of cyberpunk expression.
The birth of cyberpunk is difficult to pin down, though William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) is often cited as, if not the first cyberpunk novel, one that was very close to the beginning and seminal in its importance. Akira, a popular cyberpunk graphic novel, was first published in Japan in 1982, followed shortly after by Ghost in the Shell in 1989.
The fantastic visual imagery of cyberpunk also translates well to movies, with classics like Blade Runner, RoboCop, Total Recall, and Demolition Man drawing strongly on the tropes set out in their precursing novels. Animated films, including adaptations of Akira and Ghost in the Shell, are also important pillars of cyberpunk.
And video games, of course, are important as well. Metal Gear (especially from Metal Gear Solid onwards), Shadowrun, and Deus Ex all have recognizable cyberpunk themes. Although cyberpunk video games have been around for a long time, it seems like they're picking up momentum, and will continue to become more popular in the near future as the issues they address become more deeply ingrained in the public consciousness.
But cyberpunk doesn't stop there. There's cyberpunk-influenced music, from Psydoll's pounding Japanese electronica to Nine Inch Nails' dystopian rock in Year Zero. My personal favorite cyberpunk album is Deltron 3030, an eponymous release from Del the Funky Homosapien's futuristic alter-ego (though Fear Factory's Digimortal is tough to beat).
A Lesson, and a Warning
The progression of cyberpunk since the 1980s shows us an interesting trend: that yesterday's science fiction is today's technological reality. From William Gibson's Matrix virtual reality system to the androids of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, speculations on the technology of the distant future come to be proven true far faster than we expect.
But this lesson also comes with a warning: cyberpunk encourages us to look at what we're doing today and consider how it may have dire consequences for humanity tomorrow. The tech that we use today to communicate, store data, and do research could be co-opted into something far more sinister tomorrow, and we need to be on the watch for these things happening during our own lifetimes so we can stop them.