Cyberpunk

Cyberpunkn,  1.a. [cybernetics + punk] subgenre of science fiction that focuses on the effects on society and individuals of advanced computer technology, artificial intelligence, and bionic implants in an increasingly global culture, especially as seen in the struggles of streetwise, disaffected characters

— Jeff Prucher, Brave New Words (2007)

Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction which emerged in literature and film in the 1980’s and which has gone on to influence the genre as a whole.

Originally associated with writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling cyberpunk presents a dystopian view of a near future dominated by multinational corporations which have largely replaced national governments. The protagonists are largely tech-savvy low-lifes such as hackers, prompting some critics to characterise cyberpunk as ‘high tech, low life’.

The term was first coined by Bruce Bethke in the title of his short story “Cyberpunk” Amazing Stories (Nov 1983) but sf editor Gardner Dozois is generally considered the first to apply it to the subgenre as a whole.

Key works include Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), as well as his short stories “Johnny Mnemonic“, “New Rose Hotel” and “Burning Chrome” (reprinted in the collection Burning Chrome, 1986) which are set in the same fictional universe.

NeuromancerCount Zero

Mona Lisa OverdriveBurning Chrome

Jack Womack‘s  ”Dryco” series “Dryco” consisting of Ambient (1987), Terraplane (1988), Heathern (1990), the Philip K. Dick Award winning Elvissey (1993), Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1995) and Going, Going, Gone (2000).

Origins

Literary anticedents of cyberpunk include Alfred Bester‘s The Demolished Man (1953) and The Stars My Destination (a.k.a. Tiger Tiger!, 1956), the work of Philip K. Dick, and the New Wave sf of Samuel R Delany, especially Nova (1968).

DemolishedManTiger Tiger

The near-future dystopias of John BrunnerStand on Zanzibar (1969), The Sheep Look Up (1972) and (particularly) the Alvin Toffler-inspired The Shockwave Rider (1975).

Other influences include J. G. Ballard, particularly the ‘auto-erotic’ Crash (1973) where the collision between flesh and metal is explored in explicitly sexual terms. Ballard himself was influenced by another ancestor of cyberpunk, Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo, one of the first Western novels to explore cybernetics in any depth.

William S. Burroughs.

Another precursor of cyberpunk was Dr. Adder by K. W. Jeter, which was written in 1972 but not published until 1984, allegedly due to it’s violent sexual content; Jeter would become more famous as a pioneer of Steampunk.

Cyberpunk film

The aesthetic of cyberpunk was established in the public mind by Ridley Scott‘s film Blade Runner (1982) and James Cameron‘s low-budget tech noir action movie The Terminator (1984).

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The TerminatorTerminator 2

Equally important were the films of David Cronenberg, particularly Videodrome (1983); the director has continued to explore cyberpunk themes of the interface between flesh and machine with Crash (1996), an adaptation of J. G. Ballard‘s novel (1973) cited above, and the lighter eXistenZ (1999).

Luc Besson‘s Cinéma du look thriller Subway (1985), while not strictly science fiction, has a cyberpunk sensibility and aesthetic, as do Nikita (1990) and Léon (aka Léon: The Professional (1994). All three movies centre on outsiders as protagonists who have, in one way or another, been dehumanised.

SubwayLa Femme Nikita

Kathryn Bigelow‘s Strange Days (1995) is a near future thriller about the illicit trade in memories. It was written by James Cameron.

RoboCop posterAkira

The Matrix

The MatrixCyberpunk was fused with Kung Fu in Andy and Lana Wachowski‘s  The Matrix (1999).

The Matrix was followed by two film sequels, The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and by The Matrix Revolutions (2003).

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Matrix ReloadedMatrix Revolutions

Michel Gondry‘s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) was written by Charlie Kaufman

The action of Christopher Nolan‘s Inception (2010) takes place within a series of virtual realities.

Katsuhiro Otomo‘s Akira (1988) and Shinya Tsukamoto‘s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989).

Cyberpunk subculture

Cyberpunk, like its retro-styled derivative Steampunk, has also produced a notable sub- or counterculture with its own fashion and music.

Read more:
  • Ballard,  J. G., Crash (1973)
  • Bester, Alfred, The Demolished Man (1953)
    • The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!, 1956)
  • Brunner, John, Stand on Zanzibar (1969)
    • The Sheep Look Up (1972)
    • The Shockwave Rider (1975)
  • Delany, Samuel R., Nova (1968)
  • Felluga, Dino, “Lesson Plans for Postmodernism: The Matrix and Neuromancer” (2011) at Introductory Guide to Critical Theory
  • Gibson, William, Neuromancer (1984)
    • Count Zero (1986)
    • Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)
  • Jeter, K. W., Dr. Adder (1984)
  • Toffler, Alvin, Future Shock (1970)
  • Womack, Jack, Ambient (1987) 
    • Terraplane (1988)
    • Heathern (1990) 
    • Elvissey (1993) 
    • Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1995)
    • Going, Going, Gone (2000) 
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Filmography:
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