Ok, so given I’m gonna be exclusively talking about cyberpunk on the blog during SciFi Month, it’s probably a good idea to talk a bit about what it is. Subgenres are fickle, amorphous things so don’t take this as a comprehensive overview. I’m sure there’ll be many things I leave out and probably some stuff others might disagree with, but this is my take on what cyberpunk is, at it’s core.
Cyberpunk is a genre of science fiction set in an immanently near-future, hyper-computerised and data-governed world, a world of obscene wealth for the minority, of powerful warring corporations juxtaposed with atomised subcultures of freelance hackers, criminals and a dispossessed underclass. It usually centres around a post-industrial culture predicated on the melding of biotechnologically-enhanced human bodies, interactive information technology and rampant corporate power. It’s the gritty, hard-edged science fiction of back alleys and overflowing rubbish dumpsters, littered with discarded computer chips and the detritus of the information society. The smokestacks with the fumes of an earlier era of industrial production have yielded to a world in economic and environmental breakdown, a world with a perpetual haze of smoke and filth where constant rain streaks the neon-lit concrete beneath a landscape of corporate skyscrapers, dilapidated tenement blocks and abandoned industrial factories. A fractured world of late stage monopoly capitalism.
At the core of cyberpunk is a hard-edged dystopian realism, an aesthetic that can be seen in its depiction of the collapse of technological, post-industrial utopias. It was a reaction against the antiseptic, relentlessly sanitised vision of much earlier classical science fiction and presents a postmodern backlash against the utopian SF of previous generations, when authors like Isaac Asimov and Hal Clement wrote stories embedded with the modernist confidence that scientific humanism would exert a degree of moral and ethical control over technology. Cyberpunk’s representation of technology marks a sharp departure from that early science fiction, with a distinct nihilism and diminished sense of optimism in technology.
Many stories are particularly focussed on the breakthrough in biotechnologies and the interfaces of humans and computer technologies through cybernetic limbs, implanted circuitry and genetic alterations. Cyberpunk’s most common emblems are the implants that allow people to directly ‘jack in’ to computer networks, or to plug in modules that give them access to additional memory, skills or even personalities. In stark contrast to earlier science fiction, technology is visceral in the cyberpunk aesthetic; “it’s pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside of us, but next to us. Under our skin, often inside our minds”, according to Bruce Stirling, one of the very earliest trailblazers of the genre. One of the archetypal characters that represent this invasive melding of biotechnology and computer implants with human bodies is Johnny Mnemonic, a freelance ‘data courier’ who undergoes cybernetic surgery to implant a data storage system in his head. The system allows him to store digital data too sensitive to risk transmission on computer networks and Johnny makes a modest living physically transporting sensitive information for corporations, underworld crime rings and wealthy individuals.
The authors of cyberpunk have been fascinated by the image of a decrepit post-industrial world governed by huge multinationals and inhabited by rampant subcultures and its themes of urban disintegration are recognisably and painstakingly drawn from the condition of contemporary society, with the intensely visceral prose of William Gibson and other cyberpunk authors capturing the images of uncontrolled urban sprawl and environmental decay. The classic opening line of Gibson’s novel Neuromancer embodies the cyberpunk aesthetic: “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel” and Gibson’s post-industrial landscapes are permeated by physical refuse and ecological decay. Tokyo Bay is a “black expanse where gulls wheel above drifting shoals of white styrofoam”, urban areas in the United States and Japan coalesce into massive ‘sprawls’, pouring rains and fog-blanketed, trash-strewn alleyways, where punk subcultures and data scavengers roam endlessly amidst the seedy, decaying streets.
Cyberpunk is really the first genre of science fiction to grapple with the emerging capability of technology and computer networks to act both as levers of authoritarian control, but also as vehicles that can open up space for social, political and cultural resistance. That’s the dichotomy at the heart of the cyberpunk genre and also, ya know, just provides a lot of really cool opportunities to tell stories about hackers pulling off major heists against giant multinational corporations and mega-rich tech barons and, at the end of the day, who doesn’t love that?
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