Cyberpunk Sci-fi

“High tech. Low life.”

Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that focuses on the relationship between humanity and technology within a dystopian future. It is a complex and ever changing genre as our expectations and perceptions of the future progress with time.

'Cyber' refers to technology, and is most often associated with cyberspace (this word was originally coined by William Gibson), and cybernetic enhancements to the body. But this can can also refer to other technologies such as biotechnology and nanotechnology. 'Punk', on the other hand, refers to the people and the attitude that cyberpunk has.

Although Cyberpunk has been blended into numerous sci-fi hybrids, its original themes or conventions are:

  • that they are typically set on an Earth that is immersed in a cyber world
  • is set in a futuristic world that is incredibly high-tech, but also a dark and bleak world
  • it features advanced technology, especially technology that processes information coupled with some degree of breakdown in social order
  • the exploring of the relationship between humans and computers is at the core of the genre
  • invasive modifications of the human body are a common factor
  • classic cyberpunk characters are alienated loners. Protagonists tend to be outsiders, anti-heros, outcasts, criminals, visionaries, dissenters, and misfits. The underlying aspect that applies to all of these groups is their subversive nature.
Cyberpunk Timeline

1928- The word "punk" is commonly used to describe a criminal.

1960- The word "cyborg" is coined by Manfred Clynes (who introduced the word in an article called ‘Cyborgs and Space’, where he discussed the ‘emerging hybrid of man’s machine’s and man himself’).

1968- ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ by Philip K. Dick (which is set in the bleak, radioactive dust- covered landscape of San Francisco in 2021, due to the world being altered by ‘World War Terminus’ and nuclear destruction).

1972- ‘Dr. Adder’ is completed by K.W. Jeter, but is not published until 1984. (In this futuristic setting the US is broken down into reluctantly cooperating enclaves run by warlords, with the government being largely interested in controlling technology and where perverse modifications to the human body are common).

1973- ‘Gravity's Rainbow’ by Thomas Pynchon (This is a complex novel set in Europe at the end of World War II and focuses on the dispatching of German V-2 rockets, in particular the mysterious device called ‘Schwarzgerät’, which is the centre of interest for numerous characters. The novel is said to transgress the ‘boundaries between high and low culture… between science and speculative metaphysics’).

1975- ‘Shockwave Rider’ by John Brunner (This novel is considered to be ‘an early ancestor of the cyberpunk genre’ and displays a dystopian 21st century America that is dominated by computer networks with a protagonist who excels in using computer hacking to escape pursuit).

1981- ‘True Names’ by Vernor Vinge (The plot follows the progress of a group of computer hackers - known as ‘warlocks’- who penetrate computers world-wide for profit or out of curiosity through a ‘new full-immersion virtual reality technology’ called the ‘Other Plane’. They must keep their true identities - their ‘True Names’- secret from the ‘Great Adversary’, the US government).

1982- ‘Blade Runner’ is released.

1983- The short story ‘Cyberpunk' by Bruce Bethke is published in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, which is allegedly the first use of the term ‘cyberpunk’.

1984- ‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace".

1992- ‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson, who is largely credited with bringing cyberpunk into the post-cyberpunk era. (The plot revolves around the protagonist obtaining a datafile called ‘Snow Crash’ -originally believed to be a narcotic- within the ‘Metaverse’, but when his fellow hacker Da5id views a bitmap image within the file, his computer crashes and he suffers brain damage in the real world).

Cyberpunk Novels
William Gibson's ‘Neuromancer’

Henry Dorsett Case is an ex-console cowboy (a computer hacker) after having his central nervous system surgically damaged as a result of being caught syphoning money from his employers. No longer able to connect to the virtual reality database known as the ‘matrix’, he becomes unemployable, suicidal, and wanted dead by a drug lord. So when an ex-military officer offers to cure him in return for his services as a hacker, Case dives headfirst into a virtual and twisted world of lies and technology.

Bruce Bethke's short story, ‘Cyberpunk'.

Initially written as a series of short stories in 1980, but the culminated novel was purchased by a publisher via an exclusive contract which forbade Bethke to sell the novel to any other publisher, which caused a legal battle that lasted years. The protagonist is a ‘good kid who’s fallen in with a bad crowd’ of teenagers that joy-ride through ‘the Net’ on their ‘hopped-up portable computers’. His parents attempt to forbid him from socialising with his friends, so he rebels by using his technological skills and becoming a ‘cyberpunk’.

Ridley Scott's ‘Blade Runner’

The film is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ and depicts a dystopian Los Angeles where genetically engineered ‘replicants’ are banned from Earth but if discovered, are hunted down and ‘retired’ by special police operatives known as ‘Blade Runners’. It displays distinct film noir conventions, featuring the femme fatale, protagonist-narration (varies between versions), dark and shadowy cinematography, and the questionable moral outlook of the hero.

Side Note: Post-Cyberpunk

Post-Cyberpunk is a narrow and indistinct sub-genre that reflects Cyberpunk but with a more positive outlook and abandons the trope of 'cynical young hackers in garish nightclubs'.


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