How many ways can the future go wrong? What will technology look like next decade or next century? Cyberpunk is a popular subgenre of science fiction which tries to answer these questions.

Pictured: your typical Cyberpunk city with unusually nice weather.
Pictured: your typical Cyberpunk city with unusually nice weather.
Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

What is Cyberpunk?

You might recognize the word cyberpunk as a cousin of steampunk, or as a roleplaying game named after this year which somehow failed to predict anything. Or maybe you’re just thinking of a pitch-black city full of neon signs that reflect against rainy asphalt.

The cyberpunk genre is a lot of things, to be honest. It’s an update of the film noir genre, combining the latter’s cynicism, darkness and urban settings with futuristic aesthetics and technology. It’s the birthplace of some of the best fiction the science fiction and dystopian genres have to offer, including stories like Logan’s Run and Neuromancer and films like Robocop and Minority Report.

More than anything, though, Cyberpunk is very much a “punk” subgenre of science fiction. The genre focuses on abuses of power and the loss of freedom, and especially how new technology can contribute to authoritarianism. It’s also an exploration of how people can fight back.

The Origins of the Cyberpunk Genre

The term cyberpunk was coined by Bruce Bethke in 1982. Bethke invented the term to use as a title for his short story, which featured a teenage hacker and his friends in a high-tech, futuristic world.

However, most writers agree that the first real Cyberpunk story was Neuromancer by William Gibson, which came out – rather appropriately – in 1984. Neuromancer featured an unemployed hacker with a host of exotic addictions, his samurai cyborg girlfriend, and a “vat-grown” ninja butler, among other things.

The novel defined several tropes that would become hallmarks of the cyberpunk genre: a lawless or authoritarian world full of corrupt corporations; futuristic settings; technology which was used for evil or at least selfish reasons; and tech-savvy outlaws for heroes.

Neuromancer and similar works had a massive impact on the science fiction genre throughout the 1980s. Movies like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell depicted settings caught between two possible worlds. Everything was automated and made convenient, but people still suffered. The technology was futuristic, but society was stuck in the past, still relying on slavery, authoritarianism and prejudice.

This disparity between sophisticated tech and savage humanity was at the heart of the cyberpunk genre. Cyberpunk isn’t against technology, but it’s acutely aware of the ways in which technology can be abused and used to hurt others. The real problem isn’t that AIs or clones can exist, but that human beings are designing them, making them, and using them.

Cyberpunk 2020

Like any science fiction subgenre, cyberpunk has changed as technology changed. While you might still see hacker-heroes and ubiquitous neon, a lot of the technological advances you see in early cyberpunk works are either considered blatantly impossible today or available on Amazon right now.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the genre is dead. If anything, the world of the neon city noir is more relevant than ever. If you look up “cyberpunk” on Google, you’ll probably find more than one snarky think piece about how we’re pretty much living in a Black Mirror episode.

Unfortunately, most of these think piece writers seem to be on to something. A lot has changed since Bruce Bethke wrote about teenage hackers in 1982. It’s becoming harder and harder to escape technology – whether it’s through social media addiction or the facial recognition software in your office’s surveillance system.

The world of a cyberpunk dystopia seems to be getting closer every day, and it often seems like there’s nothing we can do about it. As always, dystopia provides both catharsis and a way to protest.

If you’re into science fiction stories or dystopias, you might want to try looking at some older cyberpunk works or writing a cyberpunk story. Fortunately or unfortunately, the best place to start looking for information may be the news.