Cyberpunk: High tech, low life | Sunday Observer

Cyberpunk: High tech, low life

14 November, 2021

The originator of all punk subgenres of speculative fiction, Cyberpunk is a movement of science fiction, a genre and culture that imagines a futuristic dystopia that centers around the transformative effects of science and technology and the breakdown of social order. In contrast with the hopeful and idealistic speculative fiction that came before it, Cyberpunk stories depict a cynical and darker version of what society might look like in a world dominated by technological advancement. Unlike the subgenres that spawn from it, Cyberpunk serves as both a critique and warning against the threat of powerful conglomerates and authority.

As can be expected from a movement depicting the darker side of technology, Cyberpunk is relatively new to the world of fiction. Starting in the 60s and 70s, the genre was born from the New Wave science fiction movement at the time in the US. New Wave American authors reflected the world at the time in their stories, depicting worlds in which society dealt with the dramatic transformations that come with technological and scientific advancements, usually with dystopian results.

The first instance of the term Cyberpunk came about on the title of Bruce Bethke’s 1983 short story and was defined by writer Bruce Sterling as “a combination of low-life and high tech”. But the defining work of the genre wouldn’t come about until a year later in 1984 with William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer.

The stories based in a Cyberpunk setting generally follow rebellious antiheroes fighting back against the status quo enforced by mega conglomerates that have replaced governments through capitalistic control. Cyberpunk stories are political by nature and contain deep commentary on topics like Artificial Intelligence and Transhumanism.

Though the settings in Cyberpunk are largely fantastical, the stories they tell are relatable to people at any point in time, as feelings of having your freedom and individualism threatened and controlled by a higher authority are pretty universal. The technologies presented in Cyberpunk fiction is also representative of the technology of the time, which, while helps ground these fantasy stories more in reality, have the downside of dating them quite concretely. As was the case with works like Neuromancer, which praised technologies like 3MB or RAM as being highly futuristic, which was the case back in the 80s but is laughable at best today.

Unfortunately, the criticisms of Cyberpunk are from being that surface level. Due to the reactionary nature of the origins of cyberpunk to the social, technological and political climate of the 60s to 80s America, many inherent aspects of Cyberpunk reflect the outdated values and opinions of the time.

Such as the common demonization of Japan arising from their technological and economic domination of America in the 80s. Another point of criticism is that while the essence of Cyberpunk is the plight of marginalised people under authority, real life minorities are rarely represented, if at all. While these criticisms might seem normal for stories originating from late 20th century America, modern Cyberpunk stories’ insistence on seeking inspiration from iconic works of the time such as Neuromance and Blade Runner has taken those exact same issues with them as well.

As was the case with its many sub genres, Cyberpunk, while it never truly died off in popularity, significantly lost steam once the world reached the 21st century. As most of the horrors written in those stories have become reality, people have come to understand that the future is not that scary. And since most Cyberpunk stories are recycling the same stories and settings since the 80s, people have gotten used to the message and have already moved on.

Fighting against the machine has become less important to most as they are too busy working with the machine to survive. A new movement arose that struck a balance between the idealism of pre Cyberpunk speculative fiction and the gritty edginess of Cyberpunk.

Post-Cyberpunk stories, like Deus Ex and Inception, depict a more realistic relationship between technology and people, being generally a lot like modern society but just a bit more advanced. However, with certain relics of Cyberpunk being revitalised like Cyberpunk 2077 and Blade Runner 2049, Cyberpunk as a genre seems to be making a comeback.