What Is Cyberpunk?

  • by Timothy Pita

cyberpunk artwork 

What is cyberpunk? The genre can best be simply described as “high tech, low life”. Derived from the terms “cybernetics” and “punk”, this juxtaposition of a punk, rebellious attitude and high technology present a common ground for what the genre stands for. Originating from the New Wave science-fiction literary movement, the initial subgenre primarily featured advanced science such as artificial intelligence, information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or a radical change in the social order. 
The term “Cyberpunk” was originally coined by Bruce Bethke in his 1980s novel about a group of upstart teenage hackers. However, William Gibson is primarily recognised as the father of the genre. The inception of cyberpunk fiction began with his 1984 novel Neuromancer, which birthed his vision of the future and the cyberpunk world.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” - William Gibson, Neuromancer.

While Gibson was busy writing Neuromancer, Ridley Scott’s iconic Blade Runner was released to the world. While initially not critically well received, it has now become a cult classic. To quote Gibson himself about his initial thoughts on the film: “About ten minutes into Blade Runner, I reeled out of the theatre in complete despair over its visual brilliance and its similarity to the “look” of Neuromancer…this damned movie looked better than the images in my head!”. And thus, the cyberpunk movement was born. Our thoughts and perceptions of the genre are primarily influenced by both these two works.

The Setting

Cyberpunk plots often center on a conflict among hackers, artificial intelligences, and mega corporations. 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. Much of the genre's atmosphere echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques from detective fiction.

“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. That is cyberpunk.“ – Bruce Sterling, author

The Protagonist

The cyberpunk protagonist is commonly portrayed as a disenfranchised lone anti-hero. Living in a dark, sinister world where computers dominate every aspect of life and corporations have often replaced governments as centres of political, economic and military power, the alienated outsider’s battle against a totalitarian regime is a common theme in cyberpunk.

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 are anti-heroes —criminals, outcasts, visionaries, dissenters and misfits.

Cyberpunk Films and Media

Blade Runner

Ridley Scott’s cult classic ‘Blade Runner’ defined the cyberpunk genre within the visual medium. The atmosphere echoes film noir, within a futuristic world. Featuring a stoic detective - Rick Decard, the characters arc within the film makes him question the nature of this own existence and mortality. What it means to be human and the search for the extension of life and escape from death are key themes within the film. “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?” - this ending quote echoes as Deckard comes to terms with the nature of his existence - or lack thereof.

Ghost in the Shell

A cyberpunk classic originating from Japan, the genre has its roots entrenched within this anime. Spanning multiple works from the original manga, the Ghost in the Shell film series, and the Stand Alone Complex anime, the series is set in a futuristic world where the lines are blurred, often indistinguishable between man and machine, physically and cybernetically, the anime explores themes of immortality, identity and consciousness, and the search for universal truth.


Another defining anime film, the 1988 post-apocalyptic cyberpunk film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, presents a dystopian view on the destruction of civilised society, presenting key themes of transhumanism and government control. Set in a dystopian futuristic Neo-Tokyo, the anime explores low-life renegade and disenfranchised youth and places them in the centre of a story about a collapsing society and top-secret government experimental program. This key influential work has helped usher manga and anime into the western world.

Deus Ex

Originally launching in 2000, this first-person roleplaying game was ahead of its time - with its cyberpunk world containing complex characters, and a plot of dark conspiracies. It has gone on to spawn multiple sequels, including Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. Key themes in the series include the control and autonomy of corporations, control and manipulation by secret societies, and the effects of transhumanism in a society where the relationship between humanity and tech is symbiotic. The series has had a major influence on the games released today, and has been a big inspiration for the design of the CD Projekt Reds Cyberpunk 2077.


Our Cyberpunk World Today

The re-emergence of the cyberpunk genre is more than just the aesthetic “neon cyberpunk vibe” - part of the reason why the genre is so prominent today is because elements of cyberpunk are reflected in the world we currently live in. The increase in influence of large corporations, and the political instability of governments are all factors which mirror cyberpunk. The rise of facial recognition softwares presents ethical issues in relation to human rights - once any tech is created that can be used to track people, those with access will use it for their own means. 
Our lives are increasingly dominated by tech, and dictate our reality. The lines are often blurred between the virtual and the physical - social media, video games, virtual reality and online interaction have all become an integral part of our everyday activities. While not the grim future that cyberpunk presents, our world is closely but surely leaning towards it.

“The future is already here - It’s just not evenly distributed” - William Gibson. 


Tagged with: cyberpunk cyberpunk2077


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