What is Cyberpunk?


We recently ran an article on the Sci-fi sub genre of Steampunk. But perhaps better known is that of Cyberpunk. Except… again, what exactly is it?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Cyberpunk as “a genre of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology”. Resonant with dark overtones, Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that rings thick with intrigue, virtual reality, gritty crime, drugs, vice, and underground heroes. These heroes are usually viewed as felons by the authorities, who rule over the world which they inhabit; a world dominated by powerful corporations and private security forces. Cyberpunk stories, whether they are told in books or film, detail dark political corruption and social upheaval. Unlike Steampunk, which is more easily classified as a sub-genre of science-fiction based in a steam technology driven world of pseudo-Victoriana, Cyberpunk is hard to categorise. Consequently, there is some debate over what can and can’t be included in this subsection of literature and film. However, perhaps looking at the words ‘cyber’ and ‘punk’ in isolation can help.

Cyber is a reference to technology. We are familiar with the Cybermen in Doctor Who, for example, with their cybernetic enhancements to the body; and of course, cyberspace. The phrase cyberspace was first used by the writer William Gibson, popularly known as the father of cyberpunk literature. The term cyberpunk itself, however, can be traced to the short story Cyberpunk by Bruce Bethke, published in 1983. Punk, however, is a cultural and attitudinal reference to people who are frequently antiheroes, outcasts, criminals, visionaries, dissenters, and misfits. This makes them the perfect protagonists for cyberpunk, who tend to be similarly subversive in nature. Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), part of his Sprawl Trilogy, is considered one of the first cyberpunk novels and a prime example of the genre, yet there is work like Bethke’s that came before him. And its back catalogue has continued to grow ever since, with such titles as The Diamond Age (1995)by Neal Stephenson and Halting State (2007) by Charles Stross.

Apart from Gibson, the author best associated with Cyberpunk culture is Philip K. Dick. He wrote 44 novels and over 140 short stories, including The Man in the High Castle, Minority Report, and The Little Black Box. However, it has been argued that his work translated as cyberpunk via the medium of film far more convincingly than it did as literature. Perhaps most famous example associated with him, and with Cyberpunk culture as a whole, is Blade Runner. This 1982 film was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Harrison Ford. Although the film was written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, it was an adaptation of his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

In Blade Runner’s footsteps came The Matrix trilogy, Tron, Inception and more, including William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic. These films, which helped move cyberpunk culture into the mainstream (the latter aside), involved dystopian futures, particularly where humans could store cybernetic information in their own minds.

Cyberpunk can mean different things to different people. Sometimes it is dark and brooding with advanced technology, sometimes it’s political and full of antiheroes fighting a political system with the aid of, or against, enhanced technological beings and advancements. However you see cyberpunk, as genre site Neon Dystopia (https://www.neondystopia.com/what-is-cyberpunk/)  says, “There are cyberpunk movies, television programmes, comics, music, and art everywhere. All you have to do is look. Cyberpunk has influenced fashion, architecture, and philosophy. Cyberpunk has become much more than what it was when it began. And it will continue to evolve and become more relevant as we move further from the Cyberpunk Now into the Cyberpunk Future.”

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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