Ever since a certain video game was announced in 2012 and the eventual cluster of a release last year, the word cyberpunk has been on a lot of people’s lips and sparking a lot of questions (and Twitter debates with fanboys). What is cyberpunk and where did it come from? What makes something fit into the cyberpunk genre? And does something that ends in -punk become inherently political in nature, or have to be political to begin with? If you’ve ever wondered anything about cyberpunk or its origins, or how it exists now, this is the article for you.
Cyberpunk has its roots in the science fiction genre, though sometimes it does foray into the fantasy genre. The very first time the term was ever used was as a title of a short story by Bruce Bethke, written in 1980. Bethke had created the term by creating lists of words for both technology and troublemakers and started combining words together to try and create something that conveyed high tech and punk attitudes. The next “motorcycle punks.” He says the main idea behind it all was:
The kids who trashed my computer; their kids were going to be Holy Terrors, combining the ethical vacuity of teenagers with a technical fluency we adults could only guess at. Further, the parents and other adult authority figures of the early 21st Century were going to be terribly ill-equipped to deal with the first generation of teenagers who grew up truly “speaking computer”.
Wheeler, Isaac L. 2016. “The Early Life of the Word ‘Cyberpunk.’” Neon Dystopia. November 13.
Bethke wasn’t far off with that, actually.
“Cyberpunk” as a term didn’t gain traction as a recognized genre, or even a literary movement, until the release of Neuromancer in 1984, when people started to sit up and pay attention. From there, people began to look backward at past published works and movies, and included them in this new category. Philip K. Dick, despite having died not long after the term was coined, is considered to be foundational figure in the movement, especially with his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, later made into the iconic cult classic movie Blade Runner. Isaac Asimov, loathe though I am to include him in anything, has been included in this genre as well. Bruce Sterling is probably one of the most recognizable names in the genre however, with books like The Difference Engine (cowritten with William Gibson, of Neuromancer fame, and also treads the line between cyberpunk and steampunk), Islands in the Net, and Schismatrix.
Cyberpunk didn’t just stay with western books, though. Like mentioned above, the movie Blade Runner was based on a cyberpunk book. The Matrix trilogy also fits into this genre, as does Robocop, 12 Monkeys, and even the recent TV series Altered Carbon, which was based on Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 book. Cyberpunk themes even started popping up in Japanese media as well, most notably in 1982 with Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, and the works that came later like Ghost in the Shell, Battle Angel Alita, and Cowboy Bebop. Cyberpunk in western culture and Cyberpunk in Japanese culture happened convergently, however.
Western cyberpunk stemmed from New Wave science fiction, whereas Japanese cyberpunk came from the underground music scene happening in Japan at the time, especially the punk subculture in the 1970s. That doesn’t mean the two branches of cyberpunk haven’t crossed paths, though: both Akira and Ghost in the Shell have been cited by the Wachowski sisters as part of the inspiration for The Matrix.
The genre hasn’t stuck with books and movies, either — there’s even games. There are video games based on genre movies, like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, but Final Fantasy VII fits into this genre, as do Metal Gear and Syndicate. There are even tabletop roleplaying games that fit the cyberpunk framework, the most well known being Shadowrun (Goblinization Day came and went not long ago) and obviously GURPS Cyberpunk. In fact, in an event that has to be real because it is too on the nose otherwise, the United States Secret Service actually raided the headquarters of the creators of GURPS Cyberpunk, supposedly for the sourcebook. The Secret Service was sued over this. I’m not joking.
“Great,” you think, “that’s the origins of the genre and very brief cultural significance of works. What makes something cyberpunk, though?”
For something to be considered cyberpunk it must be set in some futuristic setting, have advanced tech (like cybernetics) juxtaposed with a social order that’s either in the process of breaking down or has already done so. Corporate overlords have gotten too powerful, monitoring multiple facets of your life if not outright controlling them, and it’s up to the little guys to fight back. Countries and governments have broken down and supersized company towns have taken their place. Orwell, but make it neon with social commentary on capitalism and human rights. The villains are the corporations, not the government, which is usually under the corporations’ thumb.
A major part of what makes cyberpunk cyberpunk, though, is transhumanism. The question of when we stop being human. When you can cybernetically augment your body however you want, where is the line between human and machine? Recent iterations of the philosophy tend to lean more towards the line of thought of “augmenting yourself in any way diminishes your humanity! Prosthetics ruin your soul!” I’m not gonna touch the very obvious ableism that oozes from that line of thought. And I can tell you right now, as an anthropologist, very little separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom to begin with, the main difference being the fact that we cook our food. That’s it.
But it didn’t start out that way. Initially, the argument within transhumanism was that augmentation diminished your humanity not because it removed part of your soul but because now the Big Bad Corporation now owns part of your body and has easy access to it. Like those Neurolink chips that Musk has been claiming he’s working on. Putting a chip in my brain that regulates my neurotransmitters and potentially can also let me see ultraviolet lights? Sign me up. Giving Elon Musk constant access to my brain? Nightmare scenario. Keep it at least 20 feet away from me at all times, please.
If you go and ask people if they would be willing to augment their body to better match the idea of themselves in their head, while also potentially getting cool stuff like horns or goat eyes? Some of them would be lining up to sign their name on the waiting list. Until you say that it’s being given out by Amazon and by signing your name on the dotted line you are essentially selling your soul and body to the corporation to use how it wishes.
It’s not the augmentation itself, or the robots, but the ethics behind how it’s used. The ethics of how anything is used under capitalism.
Because here’s the thing. The current line of thought behind transhumanism, the inherently ableist and in some cases transphobic one, comes from trying to remove cyberpunk and other similar genres from the politics that spawned them. Because cyberpunk is inherently political. Anything with “punk” in the name is political, because punk is political. Anything else is just posers trying to be edgy without committing to the ideas. All the aesthetics with none of the depth.
It’s not just fans that say this either, but the creators who helped shape what the genre is. Mike Pondsmith, who created the initial Cyberpunk TTRPG, had this to say about the recent debates over whether or not cyberpunk had to be political:
It’s not politics in terms of right or left, or even conservative versus liberal…everything is political. Human beings are political. First we got food, then we got prostitution, then we got politics. And we might have gotten politics before prostitution, but I’m not sure. Basically, it’s all political but a big part of what Cyberpunk talks about is the disparities of power and how technology readdresses that. […] How are we going to make the world work? How are we going to make sure that the right people use that technology responsibly? Do we really want corporations structuring how our lives work? Right now we have corporations that follow us everywhere. It’s important for us to think where we’re going with this capability.
Robinson, Andy. “Creator Explains Why Cyberpunk Is ‘Inherently Political’.” VGC, 1 July 2019.
So where does this leave us? So many pieces of media look cyberpunk on the surface but hold none of the substance and in fact tend to uphold some of the already harmful status quo, not questioning any societal norms that are already in place, which defeats the entire purpose of the genre, with one of the main themes being the small guy fighting against a big corporation. I don’t know. Cyberpunk was already headed in this style-no-substance trend within the first few years of becoming popular, not unlike a lot of other popular genres (looking at you, YA dystopia genre).
It got so bad that by the end of the ’80s, writers were already satirizing what the genre had turned into, including Bethke himself, publishing Headcrash in 1995. He satirizes what cyberpunk has turned into in the same way he managed to hit the nail on the head about teenagers growing up speaking a computer language their parents don’t understand:
[F]ull of young guys with no social lives, no sex lives and no hope of ever moving out of their mothers’ basements […] They’re total wankers and 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 dialing up the scatophilia forum and downloading a few disgusting pictures. You know, cyberpunks.“Bethke crashes the cyberpunk system – October 8, 1997”. wc.arizona.edu. Archived from the original on November 14, 2015.
Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that the names I’ve been mentioning sound a little male and, with the exception of Andy Robinson, are fairly white. You would not be wrong. Cyberpunk came about during a time when male authors, especially male sci-fi authors, received more attention than any of their counterparts. But that doesn’t mean cyberpunk books written by women and people of color don’t exist.
For early cyberpunk books written by women, I can recommend Synners by Pat Cadigan, Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott, and Slow River by Nicola Griffith. For newer, post-’90s books, you should pick up Moxyland by Lauren Beukes, vN by Madeline Ashby, Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. For Africanfuturism and Afrofuturism there is, of course, any book written by Nnedi Okorafor (Binti) or N.K Jemisin (The Broken Earth trilogy), plus The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden.
So with all that in mind, we can look at a certain video game, with its issues with exploitative labor, transphobia, racial stereotypes, intentional epilepsy triggers, plus some out and out denial to be political, and answer the question of “is this cyberpunk?” easily. But I’ll let y’all come to your own answers on that one.
With all that said and done, and I managed to spark your interest in reading some cyberpunk, I recommend checking out our list here for a beginner’s guide to reading the genre. I recommend ignoring the sinking feeling you’ll get when you start to realize that this stuff is a bit too close to the world we’re living in now.