When authors, filmmakers, artists and activists talk about ‘cyberpunk’, they are usually referring to one of two things.
In its more recognisable format, cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction. Some argue that the origins of cyberpunk can be traced back to Blade Runner (1982) as an example of the first western cyberpunk film, while others argue that cyberpunk was founded out of the works of authors such as William Gibson, most notably Neuromancer. There is also a case to be made for cyberpunk having roots in the rise of Eastern cyberpunk films such as Akira (1988). In any case, cyberpunk novels, films and video games are represented by one or more of the following factors:
- High tech, low life. This phrase is considered by some to be the unofficial ‘slogan’ or ‘motif’ of the cyberpunk genre. A cyberpunk story is almost always set in the near future, where technology has evolved far beyond that of present day, but overcrowding and corporate misconduct continue to reduce standards of living, which are even worse.
- Corporate control. Cyberpunk can be distinguished from dystopian fiction in that the organisation or political force behind the poor standard of living is a corrupt corporate entity, rather than a totalitarian government. In RoboCop (1987), Murphy’s torment is a direct result of the selfish actions of Omni Consumer Products, a wealthy ‘megacorporation’ which instigate almost all of the violence in the film.
- Widespread anarchy. Anarchy may not always manifest itself in Akira-style motorcycle chases. Any sort of public grudge or alienation angled towards the corporations that rule civilian life is sufficient to be considered anarchy, or a more passive form thereof. Public apathy may interfere with anti-corporation violence, or it may be a result of the choke-hold that a particular corporation has placed upon its disgruntled consumers.
Of course, these characteristics frequently overlap with other genres of science fiction, especially with more common dystopian settings like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, the primary interest of cyberpunk (as opposed to similar dystopian and neo-noir genres) is that of corporate control, as opposed to a supreme governmental body being in charge of all inferior bodies. Often, the very government in a cyberpunk story may be subservient to their corporate overlords who effectively police humanity into buying their products.
Here, we can make a leap and establish a more rational form of cyberpunk: one that is rooted more firmly in reality. Political activists and self-proclaimed anarchists, especially those with an interest in anti-corporation economic structures and free market politics, feel an especially strong connection to works of cyberpunk fiction, such that parallels between Blade Runner and real life start to become apparent.
I am not an activist, nor do I necessarily support free market politics. However, I am aware of the effect of real-world corporate entities on their portrayal in cyberpunk stories and, increasingly, vice-versa. (As an example; it is believed that the depiction of Los Angeles in Blade Runner was instrumental in the city’s revival in the late 1980s. Depending on your perspective, certain aspects of our society could well be modeled off of their depiction in cyberpunk and neo-noir media.) We can look to political figures and philosophers alike to consider this realistic understanding of the movement: one considers the morose, anti-corporate musings of one of my personal favourite comedians, George Carlin, as the troubled worldview of a disgruntled consumer, alienated from corporate society and drawn towards the politically-motivated cyberpunk ideology.
Cyberpunk need not always include this weighty political baggage, of course. At the very least, it is a fascinating, neo-noir genre of dystopian storytelling with pertinent overlaps with reality. However, depending on how you look at it, these ideas can be taken much further. Go see the next cyberpunk film that’s released, and when you step out of the cinema, compare what you’ve seen in the film with the city you live in. Maybe cyberpunk isn’t quite as fictional as it seems?