Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction in a futuristic setting that tends to focus on a "combination of lowlife and high tech" featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.
Much of cyberpunk is rooted in the New Wave science fiction movement of the 1960s and 70s, when writers like Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard, Philip Jose Farmer, and Harlan Ellison examined the impact of drug culture, technology, and the sexual revolution while avoiding the utopian tendencies of earlier science fiction. Released in 1984, William Gibson’s influential debut novel Neuromancer would help solidify cyberpunk as a genre, drawing influence from punk subculture and early hacker culture. Other influential cyberpunk writers included Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker.
Early films in the genre include Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, one of several of Philip K. Dick's works that have been adapted into films. The films Johnny Mnemonic and New Rose Hotel, both based upon short stories by William Gibson, flopped commercially and critically. More recent additions to this genre of filmmaking include the 2013 film Snowpiercer, the 2017 release of Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the original 1982 film, and the 2018 Netflix TV series Altered Carbon.
Lawrence Person has attempted to define the content and ethos of the cyberpunk literary movement stating:
Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.
Cyberpunk plots often center on conflict among artificial intelligences, hackers, and megacorporations, and tend to be set in a near-future Earth, rather than in the far-future settings or galactic vistas found in novels such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation or Frank Herbert's Dune. The settings are usually post-industrial dystopias but tend to feature extraordinary cultural ferment and the use of technology in ways never anticipated by its original inventors ("the street finds its own uses for things"). Much of the genre's atmosphere echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques from detective fiction.
The origins of cyberpunk are rooted in the New Wave science fiction movement of the 1960s and 70s, where New Worlds, under the editorship of Michael Moorcock, began inviting and encouraging stories that examined new writing styles, techniques, and archetypes. Replacing the celebration of conformity to norms intrinsic in conventional storytelling, New Wave authors attempted to present a world where society coped with a constant upheaval of new technology and culture, generally with dystopian outcomes. Writers like Roger Zelazny, J.G. Ballard, Philip Jose Farmer, and Harlan Ellison often examined the impact of drug culture, technology, and sexual revolution with an avant-garde style influenced by the Beat Generation (especially William S. Burroughs' own SF), dadaism, and their own rhetorical ideas. Ballard attacked the idea that stories should follow the "archetypes" popular since the time of Ancient Greece, that these would somehow be the same ones that would call to modern readers, as Joseph Campbell argued in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Instead, Ballard wanted to write a new myth for the modern reader, a style with "more psycho-literary ideas, more meta-biological and meta-chemical concepts, private time systems, synthetic psychologies and space-times, more of the sombre half-worlds one glimpses in the paintings of schizophrenics."
This had a profound influence on a new generation of writers, some of whom would come to call themselves "Cyberpunk". One, Bruce Sterling, later said:
|“||In the circle of American science fiction writers of my generation — cyberpunks and humanists and so forth — [Ballard] was a towering figure. We used to have bitter struggles over who was more Ballardian than whom. We knew we were not fit to polish the man’s boots, and we were scarcely able to understand how we could get to a position to do work which he might respect or stand, but at least we were able to see the peak of achievement that he had reached.||”|
Ballard, Zelazny, and the rest of New Wave was seen by the subsequent generation as delivering more "realism" to science fiction, and they attempted to build on this.
Similarly influential, and generally cited as proto-cyberpunk, is the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, first published in 1968. Presenting precisely the general feeling of dystopian post-economic-apocalyptic future as Gibson and Sterling later deliver, it examines ethical and moral problems with cybernetic, artificial intelligence in a way more "realist" than the Isaac Asimov Robot series that laid its philosophical foundation. This novel was made into the seminal movie Blade Runner, released in 1982, one year after another story, "Johnny Mnemonic" helped move proto-cyberpunk concepts into the mainstream. This story, which also became a film years later, involves another dystopian future, where human couriers deliver computer data, stored cybernetically in their own minds.
In 1983 a short story written by Bruce Bethke, called Cyberpunk, was published in Amazing Stories. The term was picked up by Gardner Dozois, editor of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and popularized in his editorials. Bethke says he was made two lists of words, one for technology, one for troublemakers, and experimented with combining them variously into compound words, consciously attempting to coin a term that encompassed both punk attitudes and high technology.
He described the idea thus:
|“||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.”||”|
Afterward, Dozois began using this term in his own writing, most notably in a Washington Post article where he said "About the closest thing here to a self-willed esthetic “school” would be the purveyors of bizarre hard-edged, high-tech stuff, who have on occasion been referred to as “cyberpunks” — Sterling, Gibson, Shiner, Cadigan, Bear."
About that time, William Gibson's novel Neuromancer was published, delivering the glimpse of a future encompassed by what became an archetype of cyberpunk "virtual reality", with the human mind being fed light-based worldscapes through a computer interface. Some, perhaps ironically including Bethke himself, argued at the time that the writers whose style Gibson's books epitomized should be called "Neuromantics", a pun on the name of the novel plus "New Romantics", a term used for a New Wave pop music movement that had just occurred in Britain, but this term did not catch on. Bethke later paraphrased Michael Swanwick's argument for the term: "the movement writers should properly be termed neuromantics, since so much of what they were doing was clearly Imitation Neuromancer".
Sterling was another writer who played a central role, often consciously, in the cyberpunk genre, variously seen as keeping it on track, or distorting its natural path into a stagnant formula. In 1986 he edited a volume of cyberpunk stories called Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, an attempt to establish what cyberpunk was, from Sterling's perspective.
In the subsequent decade, the archetypes so perfectly framed in Gibson's Neuromancer became increasingly used as tropes in the genre, climaxing in the satirical extremes of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash in 1992.
Bookending the Cyberpunk era, Bethke himself published a novel in 1995 called Headcrash: like Snow Crash a satirical attack on the genre's excesses. It won the key cyberpunk honor named after its spiritual founder, the Philip K. Dick Award.
It satirized the genre in this way:
|“||...full 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."||”|
The impact of cyberpunk, though, has been long-lasting. Elements of both the setting and storytelling have become normal in science fiction in general, and a slew of sub-genres now have -punk tacked onto their names, most obviously Steampunk, but also a host of other Cyberpunk derivatives.
Primary exponents of the cyberpunk field include William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Bruce Bethke, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley and Philip K. Dick (author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, from which the film Blade Runner was adapted).
Blade Runner can be seen as a quintessential example of the cyberpunk style and theme. Video games, board games, and tabletop role-playing games, such as Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun, often feature storylines that are heavily influenced by cyberpunk writing and movies. Beginning in the early 1990s, some trends in fashion and music were also labeled as cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is also featured prominently in anime and manga: Akira, Gunnm, Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop, Serial Experiments Lain, Dennou Coil, Ergo Proxy and Psycho Pass being among the most notable.
Cyberpunk writers tend to use elements from hardboiled detective fiction, film noir, and postmodernist prose to describe an often nihilistic underground side of an electronic society. The genre's vision of a troubled future is often called the antithesis of the generally utopian visions of the future popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Gibson defined cyberpunk's antipathy towards utopian SF in his 1981 short story "The Gernsback Continuum," which pokes fun at and, to a certain extent, condemns utopian science fiction.
In some cyberpunk writing, much of the action takes place online, in cyberspace, blurring the line between actual and virtual reality. A typical trope in such work is a direct connection between the human brain and computer systems. Cyberpunk settings are dystopias with corruption, computers and internet connectivity. Giant, multinational corporations have for the most part replaced governments as centers of political, economic, and even military power.
The economic and technological state of Japan is a regular theme in the Cyberpunk literature of the '80s. Of Japan's influence on the genre, William Gibson said, "Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk." Cyberpunk is often set in urbanized, artificial landscapes, and "city lights, receding" was used by Gibson as one of the genre's first metaphors for cyberspace and virtual reality. The cityscapes of Hong Kong and Shanghai have had major influences in the urban backgrounds, ambiance and settings in many cyberpunk works such as Blade Runner and Shadowrun. Ridley Scott envisioned the landscape of cyberpunk Los Angeles in Blade Runner to be "Hong Kong on a very bad day". The streetscapes of Ghost in the Shell were based on Hong Kong. Its director Mamoru Oshii felt that Hong Kong's strange and chaotic streets where "old and new exist in confusing relationships", fit the theme of the film well. Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City is particularly notable for its disorganized hyper-urbanization and breakdown in traditional urban planning to be an inspiration to cyberpunk landscapes.
One of the cyberpunk genre's prototype characters is Case, from Gibson's Neuromancer. Case is a "console cowboy," a brilliant hacker who has betrayed his organized criminal partners. Robbed of his talent through a crippling injury inflicted by the vengeful partners, Case unexpectedly receives a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be healed by expert medical care but only if he participates in another criminal enterprise with a new crew.
Like Case, 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 anti-heroes—"criminals, outcasts, visionaries, dissenters and misfits"—call to mind the private eye of detective fiction. This emphasis on the misfits and the malcontents is the "punk" component of cyberpunk.
Cyberpunk can be intended to disquiet readers and call them to action. It often expresses a sense of rebellion, suggesting that one could describe it as a type of culture revolution in science fiction. In the words of author and critic David Brin:
...a closer look [at cyberpunk authors] reveals that they nearly always portray future societies in which governments have become wimpy and pathetic ...Popular science fiction tales by Gibson, Williams, Cadigan and others do depict Orwellian accumulations of power in the next century, but nearly always clutched in the secretive hands of a wealthy or corporate elite.
Cyberpunk stories have also been seen as fictional forecasts of the evolution of the Internet. The earliest descriptions of a global communications network came long before the World Wide Web entered popular awareness, though not before traditional science-fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke and some social commentators such as James Burke began predicting that such networks would eventually form.
Minnesota writer Bruce Bethke coined the term in 1980 for his short story "Cyberpunk," which was published in the November 1983 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories. The term was quickly appropriated as a label to be applied to the works of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan and others. Of these, Sterling became the movement's chief ideologue, thanks to his fanzine Cheap Truth. John Shirley wrote articles on Sterling and Rucker's significance. John Brunner's 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider is considered by many to be the first cyberpunk novel with many of the tropes commonly associated with the genre, some five years before the term was popularized by Dozois.
William Gibson with his novel Neuromancer (1984) is arguably the most famous writer connected with the term cyberpunk. He emphasized style, a fascination with surfaces, and atmosphere over traditional science-fiction tropes. Regarded as ground-breaking and sometimes as "the archetypal cyberpunk work," Neuromancer was awarded the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards. Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) followed after Gibson's popular debut novel. According to the Jargon File, "Gibson's near-total ignorance of computers and the present-day hacker culture enabled him to speculate about the role of computers and hackers in the future in ways hackers have since found both irritatingly naïve and tremendously stimulating."
Early on, cyberpunk was hailed as a radical departure from science-fiction standards and a new manifestation of vitality. Shortly thereafter, however, some critics arose to challenge its status as a revolutionary movement. These critics said that the SF New Wave of the 1960s was much more innovative as far as narrative techniques and styles were concerned. Furthermore, while Neuromancer's narrator may have had an unusual "voice" for science fiction, much older examples can be found: Gibson's narrative voice, for example, resembles that of an updated Raymond Chandler, as in his novel The Big Sleep (1939). Others noted that almost all traits claimed to be uniquely cyberpunk could in fact be found in older writers' works—often citing J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Stanisław Lem, Samuel R. Delany, and even William S. Burroughs. For example, Philip K. Dick's works contain recurring themes of social decay, artificial intelligence, paranoia, and blurred lines between objective and subjective realities. The influential cyberpunk movie Blade Runner (1982) is based on his book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Humans linked to machines are found in Pohl and Kornbluth's Wolfbane (1959) and Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness (1968).
In 1994, scholar Brian Stonehill suggested that Thomas Pynchon's 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow "not only curses but precurses what we now glibly dub cyberspace." Other important predecessors include Alfred Bester's two most celebrated novels, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, as well as Vernor Vinge's novella True Names.
Science-fiction writer David Brin describes cyberpunk as "the finest free promotion campaign ever waged on behalf of science fiction." It may not have attracted the "real punks," but it did ensnare many new readers, and it provided the sort of movement that postmodern literary critics found alluring. Cyberpunk made science fiction more attractive to academics, argues Brin; in addition, it made science fiction more profitable to Hollywood and to the visual arts generally. Although the "self-important rhetoric and whines of persecution" on the part of cyberpunk fans were irritating at worst and humorous at best, Brin declares that the "rebels did shake things up. We owe them a debt."
Cyberpunk further inspired many professional writers who were not among the "original" cyberpunks to incorporate cyberpunk ideas into their own works, such as George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails. Wired magazine, created by Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, mixes new technology, art, literature, and current topics in order to interest today's cyberpunk fans, which Paula Yoo claims "proves that hardcore hackers, multimedia junkies, cyberpunks and cellular freaks are poised to take over the world."
The film Blade Runner (1982)—adapted from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—is set in 2019 in a dystopian future in which manufactured beings called replicants are slaves used on space colonies and are legal prey on Earth to various bounty hunters who "retire" (kill) them. Although Blade Runner was largely unsuccessful in its first theatrical release, it found a viewership in the home video market and became a cult film. Since the movie omits the religious and mythical elements of Dick's original novel (e.g. empathy boxes and Wilbur Mercer), it falls more strictly within the cyberpunk genre than the novel does. William Gibson would later reveal that upon first viewing the film, he was surprised at how the look of this film matched his vision when he was working on Neuromancer. The film's tone has since been the staple of many cyberpunk movies, such as The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003), which uses a wide variety of cyberpunk elements.
The number of films in the genre or at least using a few genre elements has grown steadily since Blade Runner. Several of Philip K. Dick's works have been adapted to the silver screen. The films Johnny Mnemonic and New Rose Hotel, both based upon short stories by William Gibson, flopped commercially and critically. These box offices misses significantly slowed the development of cyberpunk as a literary or cultural form although a sequel to the 1982 film Blade Runner was released in October 2017 with Harrison Ford reprising his role from the original film.
In addition, "tech-noir" film as a hybrid genre, means a work of combining neo-noir and science fiction or cyberpunk. It includes many cyberpunk films such as Blade Runner, Burst City, Robocop, 12 Monkeys, The Lawnmower Man, Hackers, Hardware, and Strange Days.
Cyberpunk themes are widely visible in anime and manga. In Japan, where cosplay is popular and not only teenagers display such fashion styles, cyberpunk has been accepted and its influence is widespread. William Gibson's Neuromancer, whose influence dominated the early cyberpunk movement, was also set in Chiba, one of Japan's largest industrial areas, although at the time of writing the novel Gibson did not know the location of Chiba and had no idea how perfectly it fit his vision in some ways. The exposure to cyberpunk ideas and fiction in the mid 1980s has allowed it to seep into the Japanese culture.
Cyberpunk anime and manga draw upon a futuristic vision which has elements in common with western science fiction and therefore have received wide international acceptance outside Japan. "The conceptualization involved in cyberpunk is more of forging ahead, looking at the new global culture. It is a culture that does not exist right now, so the Japanese concept of a cyberpunk future, seems just as valid as a Western one, especially as Western cyberpunk often incorporates many Japanese elements." William Gibson is now a frequent visitor to Japan, and he came to see that many of his visions of Japan have become a reality:
Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk. The Japanese themselves knew it and delighted in it. I remember my first glimpse of Shibuya, when one of the young Tokyo journalists who had taken me there, his face drenched with the light of a thousand media-suns—all that towering, animated crawl of commercial information—said, "You see? You see? It is Blade Runner town." And it was. It so evidently was.
Cyberpunk has influenced many anime and manga including the ground-breaking Akira, Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell, Ergo Proxy, Battle Angel Alita, Megazone 23, Neo Tokyo, Goku Midnight Eye, Cyber City Oedo 808, Bubblegum Crisis, A.D. Police: Dead End City, Angel Cop, Extra, Blame!, Armitage III, Texhnolyze, Serial Experiments Lain, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Psycho-Pass.
There are many cyberpunk video games. Popular series include the Megami Tensei series, Deus Ex series, Syndicate series, and System Shock and its sequel. Other games, like Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and the Matrix series, are based upon genre movies, or role-playing games (for instance the various Shadowrun games). CD Projekt Red is currently developing a cyberpunk game called "Cyberpunk 2077".
Several RPGs called Cyberpunk exist: Cyberpunk, Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk v3, by R. Talsorian Games, and GURPS Cyberpunk, published by Steve Jackson Games as a module of the GURPS family of RPGs. Cyberpunk 2020 was designed with the settings of William Gibson's writings in mind, and to some extent with his approval, unlike the approach taken by FASA in producing the transgenre Shadowrun game. Both are set in the near future, in a world where cybernetics are prominent. In addition, Iron Crown Enterprises released an RPG named Cyberspace, which was out of print for several years until recently being re-released in online PDF form.
In 1990, in a convergence of cyberpunk art and reality, the United States Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games's headquarters and confiscated all their computers. Officials denied that the target had been the GURPS Cyberpunk sourcebook, but Jackson would later write that he and his colleagues "were never able to secure the return of the complete manuscript; [...] The Secret Service at first flatly refused to return anything – then agreed to let us copy files, but when we got to their office, restricted us to one set of out-of-date files – then agreed to make copies for us, but said "tomorrow" every day from March 4 to March 26. On March 26 we received a set of disks which purported to be our files, but the material was late, incomplete and well-nigh useless." Steve Jackson Games won a lawsuit against the Secret Service, aided by the new Electronic Frontier Foundation. This event has achieved a sort of notoriety, which has extended to the book itself as well. All published editions of GURPS Cyberpunk have a tagline on the front cover, which reads "The book that was seized by the U.S. Secret Service!" Inside, the book provides a summary of the raid and its aftermath.
Cyberpunk has also inspired several tabletop, miniature and board games such as Necromunda by Games Workshop. Netrunner is a collectible card game introduced in 1996, based on the Cyberpunk 2020 role-playing game. Tokyo NOVA, debuting in 1993, is a cyberpunk role-playing game that uses playing cards instead of dice.
Some musicians and acts have been classified as cyberpunk due to their aesthetic style and musical content. Often dealing with dystopian visions of the future or biomechanical themes, some fit more squarely in the category than others. Bands whose music has been classified as cyberpunk include Psydoll, Front Line Assembly, Clock DVA and Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Some musicians not normally associated with cyberpunk have at times been inspired to create concept albums exploring such themes. Albums such as Gary Numan's Replicas, The Pleasure Principle and Telekon were heavily inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick. Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine and Computer World albums both explored the theme of humanity becoming dependent on technology. Nine Inch Nails' concept album Year Zero also fits into this category. Fear Factory concept albums are heavily based upon future dystopia, cybernetics, clash between man and machines, virtual worlds. Billy Idol's Cyberpunk drew heavily from cyberpunk literature and the cyberdelic counter culture in its creation. 1. Outside, a cyberpunk narrative fueled concept album by David Bowie, was warmly met by critics upon its release in 1995. Many musicians have also taken inspiration from specific cyberpunk works or authors, including Sonic Youth, whose albums Sister and Daydream Nation take influence from the works of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson respectively.
Vaporwave and Synthwave are also influenced by cyberpunk. The former has been interpreted as a dystopian critique of capitalism in the vein of cyberpunk and the latter as a nostalgic retrofuturistic revival of aspects of cyberpunk's origins.
Several subcultures have been inspired by cyberpunk fiction. These include the cyberdelic counter culture of the late 1980s and early 90s. Cyberdelic, whose adherents referred to themselves as "cyberpunks", attempted to blend the psychedelic art and drug movement with the technology of cyberculture. Early adherents included Timothy Leary, Mark Frauenfelder and R. U. Sirius. The movement largely faded following the dot-com bubble implosion of 2000.
Cybergoth is a fashion and dance subculture which draws its inspiration from cyberpunk fiction, as well as rave and Gothic subcultures. In addition, a distinct cyberpunk fashion of its own has emerged in recent years which rejects the raver and goth influences of cybergoth, and draws inspiration from urban street fashion, "post apocalypse", functional clothing, high tech sports wear, tactical uniform and multifunction. This fashion goes by names like "tech wear", "goth ninja" or "tech ninja". Important designers in this type of fashion are ACRONYM, Demobaza, Boris Bidjan Saberi, Rick Owens and Alexander Wang.
The Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong (demolished in 1994) is often referenced as the model cyberpunk/dystopian slum as, given its poor living conditions at the time coupled by the city's political, physical, and economic isolation has caused many in academia to be fascinated by the ingenuity of its spawning.
As a wider variety of writers began to work with cyberpunk concepts, new subgenres of science fiction emerged, some of which could be considered as playing off the cyberpunk label, others which could be considered as legitimate explorations into newer territory. These focused on technology and its social effects in different ways. One prominent subgenre is "steampunk," which is set in an alternate history Victorian era that combines anachronistic technology with cyberpunk's bleak film noir world view. The term was originally coined around 1987 as a joke to describe some of the novels of Tim Powers, James P. Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter, but by the time Gibson and Sterling entered the subgenre with their collaborative novel The Difference Engine the term was being used earnestly as well.
Another subgenre is "biopunk" (cyberpunk themes dominated by biotechnology) from the early 1990s, a derivative style building on biotechnology rather than informational technology. In these stories, people are changed in some way not by mechanical means, but by genetic manipulation. Paul Di Filippo is seen as the most prominent biopunk writer, including his half-serious ribofunk. Bruce Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist cycle is also seen as a major influence. In addition, some people consider works such as Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age to be postcyberpunk.
Role playing game publisher R. Talsorian Games, owner of the Cyberpunk 2020 franchise, trademarked the word "Cyberpunk" in the United States in 2012. Video game developer CD Projekt, which is developing Cyberpunk 2077, bought the U.S. trademark from R. Talsorian Games, and has filed a trademark in the European Union.