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Cyberpunk is a science fiction genre noted for its focus on "high tech and low life." It is also a subgenre of industrial rock music. The name is derived from cybernetics and punk and was originally coined by Bruce Bethke as the title of his short story "Cyberpunk," published in 1983, although the style was popularized well before its publication by editor Gardner Dozois. It features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.



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 a conflict among hackers, artificial intelligences, and megacorporations. They tend to be set in a near-future Earth, rather than 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 be marked by extraordinary cultural ferment and the use of technology in ways never anticipated by its creators ("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.

Primary exponents of the cyberpunk field include William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, and John Shirley.

Postmodernist investigation of cyberpunk became a fashionable topic in academic circles, and the genre reached Hollywood to become one of cinema's staple science-fiction styles. Many influential films, such as Blade Runner, Hackers, the Matrix trilogy, and the more recent adaptation of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, can be seen as prominent examples of the cyberpunk style and theme. Computer games, board games, and role-playing games (such as Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020) 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, Akira and Ghost in the Shell being the most notable.

As a wider variety of writers began to work with cyberpunk concepts, new subgenres of science fiction emerged, playing off the cyberpunk label and focusing on technology and its social effects in different ways. Examples include steampunk (cyberpunk themes in the early industrial age), pioneered by Tim Powers, K. W. Jeter, and James Blaylock, and biopunk (cyberpunk themes dominated by biotechnology, including Paul Di Filippo’s half-serious ribofunk). In addition, some people consider works such as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age to be postcyberpunk.


Style and ethos

The hacker as hero: Lain from the cyberpunk anime series "Serial Experiments Lain".



Cyberpunk writers tend to use elements from the hard-boiled detective novel, film noir, and postmodernist prose to describe the 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 SF.)

In some cyberpunk writing, much of the action takes place online, in cyberspace, blurring the border between the actual and the virtual reality. A typical trope in such work is a direct connection between the human brain and computer systems. Cyberpunk depicts the world as a dark, sinister place with networked computers dominating every aspect of life. Giant, multinational corporations have for the most part replaced governments as centers of political, economic, and even military power. The alienated outsider's battle against a totalitarian or quasi-totalitarian system is a common theme in science fiction (cf. Nineteen Eighty-Four) and cyberpunk in particular, though in conventional science fiction the totalitarian systems tend to be sterile, ordered, and state controlled.

Cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling summarized the cyberpunk ethos in Cyberpunk in the Nineties as follows:

Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats. This is a hard thing to think about, but it's the truth. It won't go away because we cover our eyes. This is cyberpunk.



Protagonists in cyberpunk writing usually include computer hackers, who are often patterned on the idea of the lone hero fighting injustice: Robin Hood, Zorro, etc. They are often disenfranchised people placed in extraordinary situations, rather than brilliant scientists or starship captains intentionally seeking advance or adventure, and are not always true "heroes"; an apt comparison might be to the moral ambiguity of Clint Eastwood's character in the Man with No Name trilogy. One of the cyberpunk genre's prototype characters is Case, from Gibson's Neuromancer. Case is a "console cowboy," a brilliant hacker, who betrays 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" do not experience a Campbellian "hero's journey," like the protagonist of a Homeric epic or an Alexandre Dumas, père novel. Instead, they call to mind the private eye of detective novels, who might solve the trickiest cases but never receives a just reward. This emphasis on the misfits and the malcontents (what Thomas Pynchon called the "preterite") is the "punk" component of cyberpunk.


Society and Government

Cyberpunk literature is often used as a metaphor for the present-day worries about the failings of corporations, corruption in governments, alienation, and surveillance technology. 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 virtual world of what is now known as the Internet often appears under various names, including "cyberspace," "the Wired," "the Metaverse," and "the Matrix." In this context it is important to note that 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.

Interesting questions about possible A.I. rights have been introduced using cyberpunk stories as a springboard. Uploads of human minds, such as the Dixie Flatline (Neuromancer) and the Franklin Collective (Accelerando), as well as pure A.I.s such as 'Wintermute' (Neuromancer) or those depicted in A.I., consider themselves to have intelligence and self-awareness. This raises the question as to whether intelligence comparable to humans should give them comparable legal and moral standing.

Photo: Berlin's Sony Center displays a cyberpunk aesthetic. Cyberpunk is often set in urbanized, artificial landscapes, and "city lights at night" was one of the genre's first metaphors for cyberspace (Neuromancer).


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