Monday 15 April 2013

On the New Cyberpunk

So, apparently there's a new Cyberpunk movie coming out, by the director of District 9 called Elysium:

The trailer reminds me a bit of the setting in Battle Angel with the Elite City in the sky, hovering above the slums.

With the release of Dredd in September, that's two Cyberpunk-themed Hollywood Blockbusters released in the past year.

In addition, there's the Cyberpunk 2077 and Watch Dogs computer games announced for later in the year.

Anyway, it looks to me like Cyberpunk might be making a bit of a comeback in the popular culture.  But is today's Cyberpunk the same as that of the 1980's?

Classic Cyberpunk Influences

The Cyberpunk of the 80's was born out of the well-known scepticism of Gen X.  William Gibson describes his disillusionment with popular Science Fiction tropes as being predictive of the future:
"after the Cuban missile crisis" he began to doubt both the "radioactive wasteland" and the Technological Utopias of H. G. Wells.
Gibson's Cyberpunk is definitely dystopian, but not in the way of classic post-apocalyptic fiction.  The protagonists generally lose, but they lose to corporations or general societal dysfunction, not due to their homeland being nuked.

Today's Cyberpunk Influences

Today's Cyberpunk comeback, and it's anti-corporate message, is largely influenced by the 2007 Financial Crisis and the huge amounts of taxpayer-funded bailouts given to floundering corporations(or at least the ones with the good lobbyists).  The popular feeling that Corporations have way too much influence on Government, ultimately resulted in the Tea Party and Occupy movements of recent years.

This distrust of Government and it's Corporate Sponsors has always been a major theme of Cyberpunk, as David Brin observes in The Transparent Society:

...a closer look [at cyberpunk authors] reveals that they nearly always portray future societies in which governments have become wimpy and pathetic ...Popular science fiction tales by Gibson, Williams, Cadigan and others do depict Orwellian accumulations of power in the next century, but nearly always clutched in the secretive hands of a wealthy or corporate elite.

Cyberpunk Heros

The most striking difference between the Cyberpunk of the 80's and that of today is the Heros.  While Gibson's heros generally meet an unpleasant end, the heros in the 4 titles above learn to thrive in their environments.  The reason for this difference is a result of the influences mentioned above.  Gibson's fiction was a warning of what was to come, based on a healthy level of scepticism.  The audience of today, on the other hand, feels that what was warned of has to a large degree come to pass--the Cyberpunk future is now and we must learn to deal with it.


  1. I like the look of Elysium - both in terms of the aesthetic and my gut feeling tells me it'll be entertaining. I hadn't quite thought of it as a descendant of Cyberpunk, but totally see it now. Dystopia seems to have become so much more prevalent that it swamps out the other genres...

    1. Hmm, you raise a good question: what makes something Cyberpunk as opposed to science fiction.

      I'm not going to try and give a general answer. For me, Elysium presses a lot of my "Cyberpunk" buttons: the Cybernetic Body Mods, the Urban Slums, hi-tech criminals, a big rail gun, hi-tech swords, and the have/have-nots theme. Not to mention the similarity to the classic Cyberpunk Anime "Battle Angel".

      On the other hand, there are some cyberpunk elements missing(at least from the trailer): like hackers/the net, the USSR, etc. but some of that is just a result of the fact that we're 20-30 years later.

      Ultimately it feels mostly like cyberpunk to me, and this post was an attempt to explain the primary thematic difference from classic cyberpunk, as I see it.

    2. Yeah, I agree: re-read my first comment and realised it might have come off as disagreeing with the thesis of your post, when that was far from my mind.

  2. Very awesome article! I love cyberpunk.

    The other thing I'd say is that the new cyberpunk also tends to deal a bit more with transhumanism and the "ghost in the machine" as it were.

    The new Total Recall movie definitely had many cyberpunk tropes, but also geared a little towards that trans movement.

    The 4e of Shadowrun is more transhumanism than cyberpunk (IMO).