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Cyberpunk: A Primer

Dystopia sold separately

I know what you're thinking, another post about Cyberpunk 2077? Well not exactly. This post is about Cyberpunk the genre, not the game with the same name (although that will show up here). There's been a bit of a resurgence of Cyberpunk media in the last couple of years, and I think it's about to come back in a big way. A large part of that is the way society is speeding towards the future in terms of technology, combined with the various political situations that have currently arisen. Now I've tried to keep this blog explicitly apolitical, and I'd like to keep it that way. However, the nature of cyberpunk as a genre is inherently political, often tackling issues such as income inequality, corporatism, late hyper-capitalism, anarcho-capitalism, transhumanism and a whole host of other issues. Because of that, this post will feature political topics. I know some people will argue that "all art is political," which is not a view that I subscribe to, but for cyberpunk it's simply unavoidable. That said, I want to make it clear that I am not writing this piece with any political agenda, and I'm not trying to tell anyone your views are wrong or convert you to my way of thinking. I simply here to talk about one of my favorite subgenres of Science Fiction.

First off, we need to define Cyberpunk, though I can almost guarantee you probably know most of the trappings already. Overall, Cyberpunk is populated with mega-corporations that run everything, cyborgs, prosthetic body parts, artificial intelligence, computer hacking, leather jackets, cool shades, ultra-violence and a whole lot of sex. Add to that advanced technology combined with a re-arranged social-political order and you've got yourself a Cyberpunk setting. For example, many of the current world powers (often the U.S. or Russia) either no longer exist or have become balkanized into several smaller countries. Most of the power belongs to Mega-Corporations or the State, although the Mega-Corps theme is more common. The middle class has largely disappeared, leaving only the uber-rich CEOs who run the corporations, and everyone else trying to eke out a living. Mercenaries, Street Thugs, Punks, Assassins, Hackers and Street Samurai tend to be the main characters. Furthermore, the genre as a whole tends to have a rebellious "fuck you" attitude towards any type of authority or power structure. Which is probably why it appealed so much to punks and metalheads when it first appeared in the 1980s. I think Mike Pondsmith, the creator of the Cyberpunk Role Playing Game, said it best. "Cyberpunk is high tech meets low life." Obviously, not every single work has to follow that formula, but at least a few of these trappings will be there. Consider The Matrix film trilogy. It has no corporations or any commentary on capitalism. Instead its heroes are a group of hackers fighting back against the robots that have enslaved humanity. But even then, you have people jacking into computers, and everyone wears leather jackets and cool shades. One final note here. There exists something of a "split off" from Cyberpunk called Post-Cyberpunk, they contain most of the same trappings, and where one ends and the other begins is kind of blurry. So, except when otherwise noted, I'm just going to use the term Cyberpunk for simplicity's sake.

So, with the preceding as background, here is a very condensed history of Cyberpunk. It first appears in the 80s, thought the exact point is up for debate. In 1981, Vernor Vinge wrote True Names, a novella about hackers in virtual reality that's essentially a proto-internet. What's interesting about this is that Vernor Vinge was a computer scientist, so he understood what computers could actually do. In 1982, we have one of the most important events in the history of Cyberpunk. Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick, is released. Initially the film received little fanfare, in fact it was actually considered a flop. (My dad is one of the few people I know who actually saw it in the theater.) But eventually it became a cult hit, and now is considered one of the best science fiction films ever made, and its influence can't be understated. Blade Runner essentially visually established "the look," of Cyberpunk. Set in the far future of 2019 (yeah, I know. LOL) it depicts a bleak Los Angeles featuring: mega-corporations, giant holographic billboards with actual advertisements (Atari and Coca-Cola both appear in the film, a loner outsider hero who wears a jacket, constant rain, the sky is almost always dark, cheap sex, the age-old question what it means to be human, etc. When people think Cyberpunk, a world like that of Blade Runner is usually what comes to mind. In fact, William Gibson walked out of Blade Runner after 20 minutes. In his own words "I figured my unfinished first novel was sunk, done for. Everyone would assume I'd copied my visual texture from this astonishing fine-looking film." However, that didn't happen, but it does bring us to the next point.

In 1984, William Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, is released. This might be THE single most important moment for Cyberpunk. The main protagonist is a hacker who gets hired for a dangerous job. He's paired with Razor Girl Molly Millions, hijinks ensue. Console cowboys, razor girls, street samurai, cyberspace, Neuromancer has it all, and was the first one to do it. It won Gibson the Hugo, the Nebula and the Philip K. Dick Award. This brings Cyberpunk into the mainstream consciousness, or at least it does among nerds. Other books soon follow, and we get several classics, which I will go over later. In 1988, the seminal anime film Akira is released. It becomes a culture impact in its own right, kicking in the door for Japanese culture and anime in particular, to start gaining popularity in the United States. This is important for many different reasons, but largely because the anti-Japanese sentiment that had existed in the U.S. since the end of WWII was finally starting to turn around in the 80s and Akira's popularity gave a significant boost to that. However, that would be its own article (or 3), so I won't cover that here.

In the 1990s the popularity of Cyberpunk starts to wind down a bit, while still seeing the release of some cult classics. Some will inevitably blame this on Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, widely considered the first "post-cyberpunk" novel. Snow Crash has all the trappings of cyberpunk but turns the entire thing on its head to an absurd degree. The main character is named Hiro Protagonist, and instead of a bleak late-capitalist future, Neal Stephenson gives us an anarcho-capitalist future, and it's presented as awesome. The other two major events in the 90s is the release of two films, both of which are still influencing pop culture. In 1995 the anime film Ghost in the Shell is released. Like Akira, it received critical acclaim and boosted anime's popularity in the U.S. even more. Ghost in the Shell ends up becoming a major influence on a pair of filmmakers, the Wachowskis. The Wachowskis go on to direct a film starring Keanu Reeves that gets released in 1999: The Matrix. This film ends up changing how films get made when it popularized "bullet time." The technique of slowing down the action of characters who are moving extremely fast. While this has been used in anime for a long time, The Matrix was the first live-action film to make extensive use of it. Now it's pretty much standard for any type of action movie.

Quick side note. Here's where the influence of Cyberpunk on other works gets really crazy. The Matrix is inspired by

Ghost in the Shell, which is based on the manga (Japanese comic) of the same name, which was inspired by

Blade Runner, which is based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. And the circle is complete.

Entering the New Millennium we get a handful of works that go on to join the Cyberpunk pantheon: The Deus Ex video game series, Ghost in the Shell - Stand Alone Complex (a tv series reimagining of the film), Altered Carbon, and a score of indie video games, but nothing that has really shaken up pop culture the way works from the 80s and 90s have. Although Altered Carbon does have the honor of being the most expensive show Netflix has ever produced. That said, I think Cyberpunk 2077 just might be the thing to do it. And with the way technology is developing, and all the anxiety everyone is currently feeling about the current state of the world, I think Cyberpunk is about to come back in a big way. I'm even working on my own Cyberpunk setting that I hope to write future stories in. Unfortunately, it's on the back-burner right now as my novel still takes priority. I hope I've at least piqued your interest in this genre. Next week I'll have a list of some of the best Cyberpunk works across a variety of mediums. See you then folks.

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