Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Cyberpunk (a portmanteau of cybernetics and punk) is a sub-genre of science fiction which focuses on computers or information technology, usually coupled with some degree of breakdown in social order. The plot of cyberpunk literature often revolves around the conflict between hackers, artificial intelligences, and megacorps, tending to be set within a near-future dystopian Earth, rather than the 'outer space' locales prevalent at the time of cyberpunk's inception. It is the result of a self-correction in the science fiction genre, which classically had ignored the importance of information technology.
Cyberpunk writers tend to use elements from the hard-boiled detective novel, film noir, Japanese anime, and post-modernist prose to describe the nihilistic, underground side of the digital society which started to evolve in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Cyberpunk's dystopian world has been called the antithesis of much of the mid-twentieth century's generally utopian visions of the future.
Bruce Sterling summarized the cyberpunk ethos in the following way:
- Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. We can do just about anything you can imagine to rats. And closing your eyes and refusing to think about this won't make it go away.
- That is cyberpunk.
In cyberpunk literature, much of the action takes place online, in cyberspace—the clear borderline between the real and the virtual becomes blurred. A typical (though not universal) feature of the genre is a direct connection between the human brain and computer systems.
Cyberpunk's world is a sinister, dark place with networked computers that dominate every aspect of life. Giant multinational corporations have replaced governments as centres of power. The alienated outsider's battle against a totalitarian system is a common theme in science fiction; however, in conventional science fiction those systems tended to be sterile, ordered, and state-controlled. In sharp contrast, cyberpunk shows the seamy underbelly of corporatocracy, and the Sisyphean battle against their power by disillusioned renegades.
Protagonists in cyberpunk literature usually include computer hackers, who are often patterned on the idea of the lone hero fighting injustice: Western gunslingers, samurai (especially ronin), ninja, etc. Protagonists are distinguished from others by their foul language, appreciation of art, and roguish charm—knaves, not nobles. The protagonists are usually ordinary, often disenfranchised people in extraordinary situations as opposed to the usual brilliant scientist or eager adventurer who is confident and ready to confront the situations that they face. Cyberpunk characters typically represent the underdog. Because they are nobody special, they are not typically smarter, braver, or more charismatic than the next person. They are often manipulated as opposed to calling the shots and although they might see things through, they don't necessarily come out any further ahead than they previously were. This is in direct contrast to the archetypal Campbellian Hero Quest popularized with Star Wars.
Cyberpunk literature tends to be strongly dystopian and pessimistic. It is often a metaphor for the present day, reflecting worries about large corporations, corruption in governments, and alienation. Some cyberpunk authors also intend their works to act as warnings of possible futures that may follow from current trends. As such, cyberpunk is often written with the intention of disquieting the reader and calling him to action.
- For all its stylish allusions to popular culture—to punk rock, to designer drugs, to cult cinema, to street slang and computer-hacker (counter?) culture—cyberpunk fiction is, in the end, not radical at all. Its slickness and apparent subversiveness conceal a complicity with ’80s conservatism which is perhaps confirmed by the astonishing acceptance of the genre by such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and by the ease with which it can be accommodated and applauded in the glossy pages of such American mainstream (boys') magazines as Omni. Sterling argues in Mirrorshades that the cyberpunk movement "is not an invasion but a modern reform" (xv). "Reforming" what, we might well ask? Certainly not SF's gender politics. 
Some social theorists see cyberpunk stories as fictional forecasts of the evolution of the Internet. The virtual world of the Internet often appears in cyberpunk under various names, including "cyberspace", the "Metaverse" (as seen in Snow Crash), and the "Matrix" (originally from Doctor Who and later on in Neuromancer, but further popularized by the role playing game Shadowrun and later by the movie The Matrix).
List of elements common in cyberpunk
- Virtual reality
- Artificial intelligence
- Cybernetics and cyborgs
- Urban sprawls and slums
- Crime syndicates (e.g., Yakuza)
- Cowboy-like anti-heroes
- Mega corporations
- Genetic engineering
- Drugs and biochemistry
- Terrorism (esp. cyber-terrorism)
- References to punk, goth and industrial rock
- References to Japanese culture and pop culture
- References to martial arts (as popularized in Hong Kong action movies)
- References to shamanism and cult religions (e.g., Voodoo)
The science fiction editor Gardner Dozois is generally acknowledged as being the person who popularized the term "cyberpunk" as a genre of literature. Minnesota writer Bruce Bethke claims to have coined the term originally in 1980 for his short story "Cyberpunk", although the story was not actually published until November 1983, in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, Volume 57, Number 4. The term was quickly appropriated as a label to be applied to the works of Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Michael Swanwick, Pat Cadigan, Richard Kadrey and others. John Shirley's articles on Sterling and Rucker can be read here.
Early observers hailed cyberpunk as a radical departure from SF standards and a new manifestation of vitality. Shortly thereafter, however, as Paul Brians of Washington State University notes,
- cyberpunk's status as the revolutionary vanguard was almost immediately challenged. Its narrative techniques, many critics pointed out, were positively reactionary compared to the experimentalism of mid-60s "new wave" SF. One of the main sources of its vision was William S. Burroughs' quasi-SF novels like Nova Express (1964), and the voice of Gibson's narrator sounded oddly like a slightly updated version of old Raymond Chandler novels like The Big Sleep (1939). Others pointed out that almost all of cyberpunk's characteristics could be found in the works of older writers such as J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, or Samuel R. Delany. Most damning of all, it didn't seem to have been claimed by the generation it claimed to represent. Real punks did little reading, and the vast majority of young SF readers preferred to stick with traditional storytellers such as Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey and even Robert Heinlein. Gibson's prose was too dense and tangled for casual readers, so it is not surprising that he gained more of a following among academics than among the sort of people it depicted. Heavy Metal comics and Max Headroom brought more of the cyberpunk vision to a young audience than did the fiction. 
As new writers and artists began to experiment with cyberpunk ideas, new varieties of fiction emerged, sometimes addressing the criticisms leveled at the original cyberpunk canon. Lawrence Person argues,
- Many writers who grew up reading in the 1980s are just now starting to have their stories and novels published. To them cyberpunk was not a revolution or alien philosophy invading SF, but rather just another flavor of SF. Like the writers of the 1970s and 80s who assimilated the New Wave's classics and stylistic techniques without necessarily knowing or even caring about the manifestos and ideologies that birthed them, today's new writers might very well have read Neuromancer back to back with Asimov's Foundation, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, and Larry Niven's Ringworld and seen not discontinuities but a continuum. 
In the essay quoted here, Person advocates the term "postcyberpunk" to label the new works produced by such writers. In this view, typical postcyberpunk stories continue the preoccupation with the effects of computers, but without the assumption of dystopia or the emphasis on cybernetic implants. Shortly after Person posted this essay to Slashdot, readers observed that the term was possibly superfluous—one more piece of jargon invented to shore up false distinctions. Like practically all categories discerned within science fiction, the boundaries of postcyberpunk are likely to be fluid or ill-defined.
An unusual sub-sub-genre of cyberpunk is steampunk, which is set in an anachronistic Victorian environment, but with cyberpunk's bleak, film noir worldview. The Difference Engine was probably the novel that helped bring this genre to the forefront.
Cyberprep is a term that reflects the flip side of cyberpunk. A cyberprep world assumes that all the technological advancements of cyberpunk speculation have taken place, but that life is happy rather than gritty and dangerous. Since society is leisure-driven, uploading is more of an art form or a medium of entertainment while advanced body modifications are used for sports and pleasure.
The early nineties saw the emergence of biopunk, a derivative sub-genre building not on informational technology but on biology, the other dominating scientific field of the end of the twentieth century. Individuals are enhanced not by mechanical means, but by genetic manipulation of their very chromosomes. Paul Di Filippo is seen as the most prominent biopunk writer.
- See also the list of notable precursors.
Cyberpunk writers and works
William Gibson with his novel Neuromancer (1984) is likely the most famous writer connected with the term cyberpunk. He emphasized style, character development and atmosphere over traditional science-fictional tropes, and Neuromancer was awarded the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards. 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 na´ve and tremendously stimulating.
Raymond Chandler with his bleak, cynical worldview and staccato prose strongly influenced the creators of the genre. The world of cyberpunk is the dystopian, hopeless world of film noir, but pushed just a little bit into the future. Philip K. Dick also had a strong influence on the genre; his works contain recurring themes of social decay, artificial intelligence, paranoia, and blurred lines between reality and some kind of virtual reality. Dick's characters are also marginalized more often than not.
- See also the list of print media.
The film Blade Runner (1982) based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in a dystopian future in which synthetic life forms have substandard rights. The Robocop series has a more near-futuristic setting where at least one corporation, Omni Consumer Products, is an all-powerful presence in the city of Detroit.
The short-lived television series Max Headroom also introduced many viewers to the genre.
The Japanese manga-ka Masamune Shirow often writes in the cyberpunk style. His most notable stories within the genre include Appleseed, Black Magic M-66 , and especially Ghost in the Shell, which has been adapted into a critically acclaimed anime that questions, on several levels, the delineation between life and simulation. Ghost in the Shell has also been further adapted as a related television anime series called Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
The most recent follow-up from Ghost in the Shell is the 2004 anime film from Mamoru Oshii called Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. Beyond his obvious reference to Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence achieves a unique spatial atmosphere and is one of the most philosophical tales related to artificial life. The story, replete with historical and literacy references, "does not hold the view that the world revolves around the human race. Instead it concludes that all forms of life—humans, animals and robots—are equal" (Mamoru Oshii).
Another manga-ka, Yukito Kishiro, has written cyberpunk-style stories. His most recent manga is , which is a direct sequel to , known in North America as Battle Angel Alita. Alita is a story about a dystopian cyberpunk universe set, somewhat unusually, in a far-future Earth.
It is truly difficult to pinpoint what music embodies the cyberpunk genre due to the widespread styles and flavors used in the realm of the cyberpunk genre. Songs in genres ranging from classical music all the way to noize may fit environments created in cyberpunk fiction. Typically electronica, electronic body music, industrial, noise, futurepop, alternative rock, goth rock, and intelligent dance music are used in cyberpunk films and identify a cyberpunk sound.
The Jargon File observes that
- Since 1990 or so, popular culture has included a movement or fashion trend that calls itself Ĺcyberpunk', associated especially with the rave/techno subculture. Hackers have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, self-described cyberpunks too often seem to be shallow trendoids in black leather who have substituted enthusiastic blathering about technology for actually learning and doing it. Attitude is no substitute for competence. On the other hand, at least cyberpunks are excited about the right things and properly respectful of hacking talent in those who have it. The general consensus is to tolerate them politely in hopes that they'll attract people who grow into being true hackers. 
- UV : Plays new-styled EBM music with songs discussing technology. They were featured in the DVD box set of The Matrix.
- KMFDM: Plays guitar industrial and were featured on the soundtrack to Johnny Mnemonic.
- Velvet Acid Christ: Plays in the style of aggro-industrial.
- Gridlock: Plays "noize" music.
- VNV Nation: Plays futurepop.
- Future Sound of London: Produced and created albums ISDN and Dead Cities, both composed with varying degrees of cyberpunk themes and influences.
- Vennaskond : Estonian cyberpunk, particularly their albums Warszawianka and V§luri Tagasitulek .
Computer games have frequently used cyberpunk as sources of inspiration. The most prevalent of these are the System Shock series, the Deus Ex series, Shadowrun and the Blade Runner video games. A recent notable cyberpunk computer game is Uplink, created by Introversion Software in 2002, in which the player works as a freelance hacker in 2010.
At least two role-playing games called Cyberpunk exist: Cyberpunk 2020, by R. Talsorian Games, and GURPS Cyberpunk, published by Steve Jackson Games as a module of the GURPS family of role-playing games. Cyberpunk 2020 was designed with the settings of William Gibson's writings in mind, and to some extent with his approval, unlike the perhaps more creative approach taken by FASA in producing the Shadowrun game (see below). Both games are set in the near future, in a world where cybernetics and computers are even more present than today. Netrunner is a collectible card game introduced in 1996, based on the Cyberpunk 2020 role-playing game.
2004 brought the publication of a number of new cyberpunk role-playing games, chief among which was Ex Machina, a more cinematic game including four complete settings and a focus on updating the gaming side of the genre to current themes among cyberpunk fiction. These tropes include a stronger political angle, conveying the alienation of the genre, and even incorporating some transhuman themes.
In 1990, in an odd re-convergence of cyberpunk art and reality, the U.S. Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games's headquarters during Operation Sundevil and confiscated all their computers. This was—allegedly—because the GURPS Cyberpunk sourcebook could be used to perpetrate computer crime. That was, in fact, not the main reason for the raid, but after the event it was too late to correct the public's impression. Steve Jackson Games later won a lawsuit against the Secret Service, aided by the freshly minted Electronic Frontier Foundation. (See the GURPS Cyberpunk page.)
Role-playing games have also produced one of the more unique takes on the genre in the form of the 1989 game series Shadowrun. Here, the setting is still that of the dystopic near future; however, it also incorporates heavy elements of fantasy literature and games, such as magic, spirits, elves, and dragons. Shadowrun's cyberpunk facets were modeled in large part on William Gibson's writings, and the game's original publishers, FASA, have been accused by some as having directly ripped off Gibson's work without even a statement of influence. Gibson, meanwhile, has stated his dislike of the inclusion of elements of high fantasy within setting elements that he helped pioneer. Nevertheless, Shadowrun has introduced many to the genre, and still remains popular among gamers.
The trans-genre RPG Torg (published by West End Games) also included a variant cyberpunk setting (or "cosm") called the Cyberpapacy. This setting was originally a medieval religious dystopia which underwent a sudden Tech Surge. Instead of corporations or corrupt governments, the Cyberpapacy was dominated by the "False Papacy of Avignon ". Instead of an Internet, hackers roamed the "GodNet ", a computer network rife with overtly religious symbology, home to angels, demons, and other biblical figures.
- For more examples, see the list of computer and video games.
- Cyberpunk fashion
- Cyberpunk music
- List of -punk genres
- alt.cyberpunk usenet group FAQ file
- The Cyberpunk Reading List that emerged from the usenet group
- Cyberpunk - The original Bruce Bethke story
- Cyberpunk R.I.P. - By Paul Saffo, Wired Magazine
- English 309K - Cyberpunk Fiction
- GURPS Cyberpunk website
- R. Talsorian series on cyberpunk film
- A Matrix and Ghost in the Shell comparison
- Neometropolis Magazine
- Nicola Nixon, "Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?", Science Fiction Studies vol. 19, part 2 (July 1992)
- Ex Machina website
- West End Games official website
- Introversion Software official website
- Salroth - online cyberpunk game site
- UV official site
- KMFDM official site
- Velvet Acid Christ official site
- Gridlock official site
- VNV Nation official site
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