What is Cyberpunk?
Updated: Apr 29, 2020
I recently announced the upcoming release of my new novel, a cyberpunk detective thriller called London 2039: Auxiliary. I was interested to receive a comment on my Facebook post asking what cyberpunk was, and realised that even though it’s a genre I’ve loved for decades, there are lots of people who have never heard of it… and actually explaining what constitutes this subset of science fiction was harder than I expected!
So, in today’s blog post, I thought I’d try to articulate exactly what cyberpunk is, why it’s flippin’ ace, and showcase some of the genre’s best works - enjoy!
Definition of cyberpunk
A sub-genre of science fiction, cyberpunk is often viewed as having been ‘codified’ by two more or less convergent texts: one is the Ridley Scott movie Blade Runner, released in 1982 and based upon Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, and the other is William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer. Both of these masterpieces have influenced swathes of other books, movies, art, video games and more, and we’ll explore some of the genre’s cornerstones in more detail below.
Here’s an excellent definition of cyberpunk, taken from neondystopia.com:
‘Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future. On one side you have powerful mega-corporations and private security forces, and on the other you have the dark and gritty underworld of illegal trade, gangs, drugs, and vice. In between all of this is politics, corruption, and social upheaval.’
I’ve also seen some sites explicitly stating that to ‘qualify’ as cyberpunk, a story must explicitly contain elements of noir, or even very specifically a detective investigating a crime. Although some of these finer points can be (and have been) debated in excruciating detail, a central tenet that crops up again and again across the internet, and summarises the genre perfectly, is this phrase:
‘High tech, low life.’
For what it’s worth, my own attempt to distil the required components of cyberpunk are:
· Powerful, ruthless mega-corporations and/or governments
· Advanced technology playing an invasive role, usually blurring the boundary between human and machine, and/or between actual and virtual realities
· A gritty urban setting and thriving criminal underworld
· Some sort of mystery or small-scale problem to be solved, which casts (probably neon) light into society’s darkest corners
Why cyberpunk is great
First and foremost, I love cyberpunk because it’s really cool. The mandatory trench coats, the achingly awesome cybernetic implants (ranging from subtle eye enhancements to full-on crab claws), the flickering pink neon signs bearing indecipherable Japanese, the sensory assault of a walk around a dark city at night while flying vehicles speed past overhead and street vendors hawk all manner of dubious fried goods and illegal wetware… the world envisaged by this genre is one that I would absolutely love to visit. And the synth-driven music is phenomenal too… in fact, it could be argued that the eighties was basically a cyberpunk decade!
I also love cyberpunk because it feels like an increasingly plausible vision of our near future. We already live in a world where the internet and mobile phones enable us to be constantly connected to thousands of others around the world, and such digital relationships are rapidly replacing familial or face-to-face ones. Virtual reality environments are more realistic than ever before, and offer more and more compelling alternatives to the real world. Huge corporations battle it out for our money and our attention, using their revolutionary technologies to influence our behaviour, while paranoid governments struggle to keep pace, spending billions to enhance their surveillance activities. The first ‘grinders’ are already making physical modifications to their bodies, and we are seeing the emergence of the first mind-controlled cybernetics (this TED Talk gives an excellent insight into the latest developments). AI and robotics are making huge advances, and we are possibly just years from the first driverless cars being seen on our roads.
It really isn’t much of a stretch to project these trends forward, even by a few decades, into the sort of world that the best cyberpunk books, movies and video games have been depicting since the early eighties.
Finally, although I dislike the nitpicky specificity that sometimes surrounds the genre ('oh no, this-or-that isn’t technically cyberpunk' doesn't seem like a very worthwhile debate), I actually do like its penchant for centring around detective stories. I love crime thrillers and mysteries (that’s why I write ‘em!) and, beneath the hi-tech trappings, the genre’s best works are often classic detective stories at their hearts. The genre has also given us some very memorable protagonists and supporting characters – most of them sporting the afore-mentioned cool coats.
Best cyberpunk novels
Altered Carbon (Richard K Morgan)
If you’ve never read a cyberpunk novel before, this 2002 novel is the perfect place to start. Now adapted into a Netlflix series (decent, but not a patch on the book), I remember when I first read it thinking ‘this is like Jack Reacher in space’ – a hard-boiled, uncompromising lead character who is more than happy to break some bones on his way to solving a crime. The story’s vision of a future where human consciousnesses are easily transferred between bodies (or ‘sleeves’ as they become known) creates some fascinating questions about the nature of identity, as well as a host of troubling moral pitfalls as we come to realise that only those with resources can afford the best ‘meat suits’.
Neuromancer (William Gibson)
Already mentioned as one of the founding texts of the genre, this brilliant 1984 novel was ahead of its time in every way possible. Retractable cyborg claws, an online virtual data space called ‘the matrix’, an evil digital presence that could turn maintenance robots into killers – this book birthed more tropes than any novel has a right to. Gibson gave us what so few writers manage: a unique, original and plausible vision of our near future.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (Philip K Dick)
This was the 1968 novel that Blade Runner was based upon, albeit with a number of significant changes, and is definitely worth a read even if you’re already very familiar with the movie. Key events and characters differ wildly from those depicted so memorably by the likes of Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, and as with any of Dick’s works the book reads like a mind-melting, unsettling and bizarrely moving psychological rollercoaster ride.
Against A Dark Background (Iain M Banks)
Iain Banks is my favourite writer of all time. His books are, without exception, original, shocking, disturbing and ingenious, and this certainly applies to all of the science fiction he wrote under his subtly-tweaked alternative moniker, Iain M Banks. Once again, the minefield of what does or doesn’t constitute cyberpunk awaits us here, and some of Banks' galaxy-spanning Culture novels definitely feel like they belong in a different genre, but he was more than capable of crafting a very effective smaller-scale narrative when the mood took him. This book chronicles the attempts of a hard-as-nails antiquities thief named Sharrow to recover an ancient weapon of mass destruction brilliantly named ‘the Lazy Gun’ in order to stave off an assassination attempt against her – and if that already sounds bonkers, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream (Harlan Ellison)
In a previous post about short stories, I mentioned that this 1967 tale is my favourite of all time. Infamously going on to inspire The Terminator (not that James Cameron necessarily agreed, but Ellison successfully obtained a credit in the movie’s closing credits after a lawsuit), the story details the misadventures of the world’s last five living humans after the rest of humanity is wiped out by a particularly nasty AI named ‘AM’ (the Allied Mastercomputer). The video game features one of the best rants of all time... voiced by Ellison himself!
Best cyberpunk movies
The 1982 classic, of course, gets top billing here. Everything that can be said about this incredible piece of filmmaking has already been said; if you’ve never seen it, you are essentially committing an act of gross self-sabotage! (And if you have seen it, watch it again.)
I was lucky enough to go to the recent Secret Cinema showing where they did a pretty incredible job of recreating the movie’s neon-drenched future Los Angeles, reminding me of just how beautifully, sleazily atmospheric the city is; but it’s the characters, not the setting, that are the stars of this show. In particular, Rutger Hauer’s career-defining performance gave us a villain who is somehow simultaneously heartbreakingly vulnerable and terrifyingly intimidating… as well as the greatest ad-lib of all time.
Blade Runner 2049
After I saw the original trailer for this unexpected sequel, my expectations were virtually non-existent. It looked like one of many shameless cash-ins by a Hollywood seemingly bereft of original ideas, and I still maintain that the editing of said trailer is almost a textbook exercise in how not to entice people to watch a movie (unless they enjoy boring, meaningless action sequences).
Then I saw the film, just in case – and I was blown away. It’s impossible to explain how Denis Villeneuve manages to perfectly recapture the feel of the original while delivering a movie that expands upon its story, themes and universe to create something that, at times, threatens to surpass it. Not since Terminator 2 has a movie sequel done such a great job of elevating an already-celebrated original. If you’re a fan of the first and still sceptical about this, I implore you to give it a chance.
Ghost In The Shell
I’m talking here not about the soulless 2017 live action adaptation, but about the 1995 anime, itself based upon a manga series first published in 1989. The film combines breathtaking visuals, an unsettling soundtrack, memorable voice acting in the dubbed version (especially Richard Epcar’s portrayal of tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold Batou), and a complex and challenging story about a sentient lifeform that has spawned on the ‘net’ and is seeking a physical body. I won’t say too much more about the plot other than that it rewards multiple viewings and a lot of concentration, although the film can be just as well enjoyed as a mind-boggling assault of incredible science-fiction images.
(I also love the 2004 sequel, where I was delighted to find Batou cast as the lead protagonist, and would wholeheartedly recommend checking that out too.)
Once again, the recent remake should be disregarded – I’m talking here about Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic. Not often found on cyberpunk ‘greatest hits’ lists, I’d argue that this movie ticks every box; at its ingenious heart, it’s a story about a detective investigating his own murder. It’s also brutal and uncompromising, and its story cuts through every layer of futuristic Detroit’s rotten society. And, although this is undoubtedly a dark movie, it is proliferated with moments of comedy gold – none more so than the disastrous unveiling of ED-209 at a board meeting (warning: huge amounts of gore await!)
Another anime, and certainly one of the most well-known. For me, the star of this 1988 film (other than the fantastic artwork) is the brilliantly-depicted setting of Neo-Tokyo itself: its streets clogged with outlaw biker gangs and angry protestors, the city seems alive, an ailing and bloated organism that is outgrowing its ability to survive – much like the fate that awaits latent psychic protagonist Tetsuo…
Like Blade Runner, this enormously influential movie is undoubtedly a cultural milestone. As it says on the cover of my double-disc copy: ‘No Akira, no Matrix; it’s that important.’
Best cyberpunk video games
First released in 1992, I played this on the Sega Mega Drive when I was about ten years old. I was initially captivated by the then-revolutionary graphics, but subsequently by its brilliant storyline, encompassing everything from an amnesiac recovering forgotten messages from himself to a Running Man-style deadly gameshow, and culminating in a battle against shape-shifting alien invaders! The game still holds up today, and is much better than its recent remake (I’m beginning to notice a trend here…)
Notable for being one of Rutger Hauer’s final performances before his sad death, this 2017 psychological horror video game casts the gravel-voiced performer as a Polish detective in a post-apocalyptic city where cybernetic enhancement is commonplace. Hauer’s character, Daniel Lazarski, can hack into the brains of the deceased in order to understand their movements and motivations, leading to some incredibly surreal, dreamlike investigation sequences (think David Lynch directing a sort of science fiction Silent Hill).
An example of a game’s modest budget introducing constraints that serve to focus and improve the experience, the game takes place entirely inside a single, locked-down apartment complex, with Lazarski hunting down clues about a murder that may or may not involve his own son… brilliant stuff.
Released in 1994 on the Sega Genesis (I'm using the North American name for the Sega Mega Drive here because the game was not released in Europe), this action RPG casts you as a mercenary for hire, undertaking a series of ‘shadowruns’ on behalf of shady corporate liaisons known as ‘Mr Johnsons’. It was an adaptation of the still-popular cyberpunk tabletop RPG game of the same name; I will confess that I’ve never actually played either, but I'm including it on this list due to the countless recommendations I’ve seen online for both the video game and the board game incarnations. The current quarantine might be the perfect time for me to finally try them out!
Released in 1997, the plot of this point-and-click adventure game ‘sidequel’ intersects with the original movie despite chronicling the exploits of a different protagonist, specifically one Ray McCoy, tasked with hunting down a separate batch of escaped replicants. Considered a forgotten classic, I was pleased to learn that this is in the process of being remastered for the PS4, and is due for release later in 2020.
This is the big one. Already delayed from its original early-2020 release date, this upcoming game from the creators of The Witcher series boasts a galactic budget and stars Keanu Reeves (his appearance at the E3 show in 2019 reinforced his status as the world’s most charming bloke), and anticipation amongst the gaming community is now at fever pitch. If they manage to deliver a compelling, atmospheric open-world cyberpunk experience, and avoid the familiar video game pitfalls of a corny script, one-dimensional characters and dull minute-to-minute gameplay, this could be one of the best video games ever made. And even if it isn’t, I’ll still be buying it… if only to see good old Keanu in action!
Well, that’s probably more than enough cyberpunk for you to be getting on with for now! I hope you’ve found this post interesting, and it’s motivated you to check out some of the fantastic works of fiction detailed above. If you’re interested in checking out my own book, you can find it on Amazon here, currently available for preorder and released on 1st May 2020; you can also click here to watch a short trailer, or here to listen to an audio extract.
Meanwhile, stay safe and look after each other… at the time of writing we’re living in a strange dystopia not that far removed from the bleak urban cityscapes imagined in the stories detailed above, but if we keep doing the right things it will all be over soon!
Until next time,