goodbye to your stale old futures.
Here is an entirely realized new world,
intense as an electric shock.
FUTURE SHOCK: NIGHT CITY 2020
cybernetics n. sing. the comparative study of control
and communication mechanisms in machines and living things.
n. (a follower of) a youth movement of the late 1970s and
1980s, characterized by a violent rejection of established
Cyberpunk... It has a certain ring, hasn't it? Well, it better. It's
a fancy label which has been exploited and abused, but the fact
remains: cyberpunk is one of the most explosive manifestations of futuristic
fiction ever. It is basically a reinvention of
science fiction in general, and dystopian fiction in particular.
It is often said that cyberpunk is
dead, but that is far from true. It has just mutated: today, science
fiction equals cyberpunk! Common science fiction themes like
corporate dominion, monstrous urbanisation, terminal decay and environmental collapse,
and likewise common concepts like cybernetics,
cyberspace, mega-cities and mega-corporations —
they are basically cyberpunk inventions. The impact of this obscure movement — given that it
really is a movement — on science fiction can't be
overestimated. Although the label might be obsolete today, the
cyberpunk tradition continues to influence science fiction.
It all started as a small literary
movement, based on a radical approach to science fiction. The origins of
cyberpunk can actually be traced all the way back to the 60s
and 70s when sci-fi became more brutal, bizarre, socially aware
and high-tech oriented. This evolution was accelerated in the late 70s
and early 80s, when the personal computer was launched
on the market and the birth of punk changed the look of pop
culture forever. But it was in the mid-80s it all began.
publication of William Gibson's Neuromancer in 1984
became the very landmark of cyberpunk. Gibson, Rudy
Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley and Bruce
Sterling formed a group of science fiction writers inspired by
authors like J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss and probably
not unaffected by movies like Alien and Blade Runner.
They were given labels like Radical Hard SF, the Outlaw
Technologists, the Eighties Wave, the Neuromantics, the
Mirrorshades Group... Only one label stuck, though,
originally the title of a Bruce Bethke short story: Cyberpunk.
was a revolution as it didn't predict change, but escalation. The
typical cyberpunk society is basically a dramatically exaggerated
version of our own: inhumane
technology, environmental collapse, omnipotent mega-corporations,
ruthless commercialism, overcrowded mega-cities, vicious
criminality, terminal decay, neon and chrome, violence and death.
Cyberpunk is socially aware fiction, but in a brutal,
of cyberpunk literature has always been the potential of future
science, especially information technology. In the cyberpunk
vision, it will change our lives dramatically. The very symbol of
this new world that will come, is the invention cyberspace —
the global computer network, the digital landscape, the
cybernetic matrix, the ultimate neurological illusion. It's a
gigant jungle of information, commerce, amusement, pleasure —
fiction doesn't only focus on the potential benefits of scientific
progress, though, but also the potential hazards. Cyberpunk
writers have an almost morbid fascination for ethically
controversial and possibly dangerous scientific fields as genetic
engineering, robotics, neurological interfaces, bio-mechanics, body
implants, cosmetic surgery, bionics, cloning, designer drugs,
cryogenics, artificial intelligence, nuclear, biological and
chemical weapons, and so on and so forth. In a
typical cyberpunk society, there are plenty of scientific wonders and
cyberpunk writers are obsessed with technology, it's the
combination "cyber" + "punk" that makes the
genre truly genuine: the merge of complex technology and street
culture. Cyberpunk is undoubtedly the most streetwise of the
different science fiction genres; the
remorseless attitude, harsh dialogue and dry sense of humor
resemble the hard-boiled film noir
Cyberpunk writers have always been very sensitive to
literature is quite well charted and more or less easy to
distinguish from other science fiction. Bruce Sterling, a
prominent cyberpunk author, has constructed a cyberpunk canon, an
"idea of what every well-appointed Cyberpunk SF library
collection should possess" with comments, sampled from The
Cyberpunk Information Database:
William Gibson. "Gibson's short stories."
Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive - William
Gibson. "The 'Cyberspace Triology'."
Cyberpunk Anthology - Bruce
Sterling ed. "Useful pointer to actual no-kidding
Note: Mirrorshades is often called "The Cyberpunk Bible"
and is a versatile introduction to the literature.
Cadigan. "Her best novel. An absolute must-have."
Shirley. "Shirley's short-stories. His most significant
and influential work. More-or-less official lit-crit organ of
cyberpunk SF and assorted fellow-travellers. Very sporadic."
out of modesty, Bruce Sterling has excluded a true cyberpunk icon:
Islands in the Net by himself. Another classic is Hardwired
by Jon Williams. Cyberpunk
descendants worthy of mentioning are Snow Crash and Diamond
Age by Neal Stephenson, and arguably also Noir
by K.W. Jeter.
the godfather of
trends, especially the trends of pop culture: the subcultures, the aesthetics,
the fashion, the music, the jargon. An essential concept is EDGE,
with capitals: everything which is extreme, fast, smooth, clever,
bizarre, decadent, sexy. Cyberpunk writers are always eager to
provoke, but it should be stressed that the provocation usually is
a means, not a goal in itself.
Cyberpunk is mainly
a literary label today, but it influenced science fiction cinema
heavily for many years, and still does in many respects. Sometimes
it's difficult to decide whether the literature influenced the cinema
or vice versa; sometimes it's examples of synchronism or even synergy.
fields where the cyberpunk tradition still is very much alive are
comics and computer games, typical pop culture expressions. The label cyberpunk is seldom used
nowadays, though. The public introduction of internet and
virtual reality is to blame. When these technical phenomena became red hot property,
mass media and computer companies shamelessly exploited the
expressions "cyberpunk" and "cyberspace"; finally
they basically became embarassing. Today, cyberpunk is usually dismissed as a fanciful phenomenon of the 80s.
As an interesting
sidenote, the cyberpunk genre has generated an obscure subculture, an
aesthetic and artistic movement without leaders or decrees. It's
still more or less active on
internet and has several communities and zines, not seldom of an
The cyberpunk subculture attracts hackers, crackers
and other computer wizards, artists, writers, musicians and designers,
as well as political radicals, philosophers, mysticians, techno-fetishists and drug
romantics. The most obscure expression of the cyberpunk subculture are
probably the so-called trans-humans, individuals who wish to become post-humans
through artificial enhancements of body and mind. There is also a
music style which is explicitly called cyberpunk; basically, it is
only a vague, collective label for electronic music like industrial,
ebm and cross-over, trance techno and ambient
If you wish to
approach the cyberpunk movement on internet, be aware that it's an
elusive and esoteric subculture in many respects. If you make a blunt
approach, you will probably be shot down. It seems that life sometimes
tends to imitate art within the cyberpunk movement.
are obviously very potent. Authors like J.G.
Ballard, Brian Aldiss and Philip K. Dick, and
movies like Alien, Blade Runner and Tron may have been
the pioneers, but the movement stands on its own feet. Although
usually of an implicit and abstract nature —
at least compared to more traditional
dystopias often have strong political qualities. Cyberpunk
is dystopian techno-horror at its
very best: radical, imaginative, horrifying, innovative and
central theme in the typical cyberpunk dystopia, is the slow, but
certain break-down of Western society. It is a case of
implosion: it bursts inwards. The essential, societal framework has
been dismantled gradually, in a complex process of commercialisation,
technologisation and globalisation. The engine in this doomsday machinery is the crass
materialism and superficial narcissism of the Western man. It is
basically a society on the verge of anarchy; a gloomy, harrowing
version of the fall of the Roman Empire. In the cyberpunk
have already entered the downward spiral today.
societies are basically capitalist dystopias. The mega-corporation
becomes the very symbol of the uninhibited greed, power hunger and
merciless exploitation in the unrestrained, capitalistic society. The
corporation has ceased to be exclusively an economical entity: it has
transformed into a miniature state with own government, constitution,
code of laws, police, army etc. The power of the national governments
has been fatally weakened; perhaps by themselves even. The only
governmental authority which has managed to preserve its power is the
military; possibly also the police.
like today, the corporations are neither driven by democratic nor
humane values. The corporation actually resembles a totalitarian
society in miniature: the corporate elite is engaged in never-ending
power struggles and take it for granted that the
employees will devote their entire lives to the corporation. The
individual is insignificant next to the corporation, and can be abused
or even sacrificed.
In the corporate world, nature is a
asset and ethics is a marketing tool. Commerce is the universal motto;
the common man has been diminished to a mindless consumer.
This relentless philosophy leavens all through society.
centres of commerce and consumption are of course the cities. The
continuation of the heavy urbanisation in the late 20th century has
resulted in immeasurable mega-cities; in their borderlands,
they merge into new cities, so-called sprawls. The cities have
grown too fast and too much, far beyond their means of organisation
and maintenance. The result is severe degeneration and segregation. While the
corporate skyscrapers are veritabel palaces of safety and luxury,
the suburbs are doomed to decay in every respect. Ironically, the
fall of civilisation begins in its traditional centre: the city. The
countryside is not an option, though: isolation, anarchy, raiders,
and possibly anthrax and radiation.
level is often a game of life and death. Street crime has become more
vicious than ever and taken monstrous proportions. Especially
dangerous city sectors have officially been declared battle zones and become kingdoms of
street gangs and crimelords. Classic criminal organisations like the mafia
and the yakuza have basically become ruthless
pseudo-corporations, competing with mega-corporations and national
governments. Furthermore, a multitude of new political and religious extremist movements have
is a bit of a jungle, but the following movies tend to appear on
traditional movie lists:
A Clockwork Orange, THX-1138
Blade Runner, Alien (+sequels), Terminator
(+sequels), Robocop (+sequels), Total Recall,
Mad Max (+sequels), Akira (anime)
Lawnmover Man (+sequel), Johnny Mnemonic,
Videodrome, Naked Lunch
i.e. Japanese animated movies, are almost always labeled
cyberpunk. Several movies which have been released in recent years
most probably qualify for the cyberpunk movie lists, e.g. Gattaca,
Minority Report, Impostor and Equilibrium.
It should be
noted that cyberpunk cinema often is difficult to distinguish from
other science fiction. Post-apocalyptic horrors like Road
Warrior and alien horror stories like Alien
are always listed as cyberpunk movies, which might be questionable. Sometimes,
even space opera like The Empire Strikes Back is labeled
cyberpunk; a high-tech approach and a dark tone are evidently sufficient for qualification.
arisen, eager to exploit the chaotic situation. Needless to say, the
police is unable to carry out its duties satisfyingly, and has to
yield to brutal and corrupt methods of law enforcement.
It's indeed a dangerous time to live. Thus,
key word of cyberpunk is egoism. It's simply a matter
of survival of the fittest, but in such a complex world, it's
uncertain who really is the fittest. Paranoia is instrumental, deception
an essential strategy.
The protagonists of
cyberpunk fiction are almost invariably street punks, cyberspace
hackers, black market techies, mercenaries and their likes. They
perform their dubious skills in the greyzones of this new world, this
witch-broth of commercialisation,
technologisation and globalisation gone wretched.
In a sense, they are the only remaining rebels. They are rebels without a cause, though, driven by the same
greed and egoism as the corporate leaders. There are no real heroes in the
typical cyberpunk dystopia.
Even if there were
heroes, rebellion would be hopeless. How to combat a faceless evil?
The corporations are basically collective entities —
almost comparable to Ingsoc in Nineteen Eighty-four!
— and the system has arisen spontaneously,
probably welcomed and embraced by the uneducated masses. It is a
self-feeding machinery, a pianola which plays the same soulless tune
forever and ever. Pierre Bourdieu's theories about "fields" come to mind.
inhumane society would be impossible without an inhumane mankind. Although
the attitude towards technology is more or less objective and
non-sentimental, cyberpunk fiction illustrates the possibly
dehumanising effects of future technology.
Technology leaven all through the cyberpunk
society in conceivable ways: smooth indeed, but not necessarily
humane. No technology is considered unethiqal any longer, be it bionics,
genetic engineering or cloning. The line between man and machine has been blurred
or even erased by phenomena like cyborgs, hologram
constructs and artificial intelligences. Man is not only
surrounded by technology, but basically integrated in the technology.
Society has evolved into a gigantic, bio-mechanic machinery: a
synergism between man and machine. As man ceases to be human, human
values lose their meanings.
the cyberpunk dystopia, we are not only watching the break-down of
Western society and the dehumanisation of mankind, but even the
destruction of our world. Under poisonous skies "the color of
television tuned to a dead channel", the world is dying; slowly, but
steadily. The smoke stacks and waste pipes are spewing out heavy
metals and chemicals day and night. The atomic bomb taboo has been
broken long since: limited nuclear wars have turned African and Asian
countries into radioactive craters, and the mega-corporations do not
hesitate to use tactical nuclear weapons against each other. It's not
possible to escape the dying Earth, though. The space colonisation
programme is limited to the construction of orbital cities, were the
rich and powerful wallow in extravagant luxuries and decadent
pleasures. Will these bizarre space cities become the last legacy of
cyberpunk dystopias offer us horrifying pictures of a dark future —
a future which still is possible to fight, though! The cyberpunk genre has
much to say about our own time, but unfortunately, it has stagnated. The plot is almost invariably the
same: a hacker stumbles over a dark secret in cyberspace and is hunted
by evil organisations, either corporate, governmental or criminal. Nevertheless,
the genre still has an almost indefinite potential. Hopefully, it's
only a question of time before innovative writers and directors will find new
ways to explore the most thorny offshoot on the science fiction
If our future will
resemble the cyberpunk vision, is decided today. We have already
entered the downward spiral. Our
world is going through a crucial transformation, even though the
changes may appear to be small and trivial. The signs of the cyberpunk
nightmare coming true can be seen in the Western world in general, and
USA in particular.
Western world has already been technologised. Technology which was
exclusive or even fictious in the 70s and 80s, we use in everyday
life: mobile phones, computers, internet, microwave owens, GPS, DVD,
and so on and so forth. In fact, we depend
completely on technology: at a guess, a dozen powerful EMP charges
detonated in carefully calculated places in the atmosphere would bring
the Western world back to the Middle Ages. Furthermore, we have
already blurred the line between man and
machine; within the field of prosthetics even literally. Our bodies have become bio-mechanic systems which can be
modified: to alter one's
appearance artificially with cosmetic surgery is quite common, and to
go through an organ transplantation in order to live is taken for
granted; there is even a black market for organs. Our minds have become computers which can be re-programmed:
thoughts are electric impulses which can be measured, depression and
existential confusion are treated with chemicals and
conditioning. Mankind is slowly becoming post-human; William Gibson
claims it has happened already.
there are no scientific taboos anymore. We have already been eating
genetically engineered food for years, scientists are researching stem
cell applications at this very moment, the first human clone will
be given birth within years, and so on and so forth.
It will probably take 2-3 generations before the final consequences of
these tamperings with nature can be seen. Today, it's not only
difficult to monitor the scientific progress: it's even diffult to
comprehend it. The gap between general education and advanced science
is slowly becoming insurmountable. Soon, science will reach a point
where there are no checks and balances anymore.
Western world has already been globalised as well; ironically and
paradoxically, this doesn't apply to the whole world. For instance,
information, goods and money may travel freely, but not people. A Third
World man can easily export goods to or invest money in a Western
country, but not work or live there. The expression "free
trade" is merely rhetorical: one doesn't have to study global
economics very thoroughly to see how the Third World suffers from the
current world order. It's a depressing fact: 20 % of the world
population uses 80 % of the world's resources.
even applies to information. The
amount of internet users is roughly the same in Sweden and India.
However, Sweden's population is 9 million, India's over 1 billion;
ratio of 1:100. It should be stressed that Sweden has most internet connections
per capita in the world, but never-
Information Database is
finally back on-line after a long abscence. This is an impressive
database, covering every thinkable and unthinkable aspect of
cyberpunk! The design of this page is, by the way, a humble
tribute to CID. Note: Thanks to Michael, Syber, Liza and
Stormbringer for the link.
Official Cyberpunk Home Page
Authors Comprehensive and
detailed listing. Pure facts, no reviews or essays.
versatile site, covering books, movies, games, zines etc.
the recent (?)
is available in HTML on this very site:
|theless it's an illustrative example.
Furthermore, it's symptomatic how the globalisation process has been
exploited and abused: the open borders have resulted in an increased
traffic of prostitutes, slave labour, firearms and narcotics; basically,
only producers and distributors of pornography profit from the global
computer network, and criminals, pedophiles, political extremists and
religious fanatics use it as an effective means of communication. From
a cultural point of view, the globalisation has resulted in
fragmentation so far, not diversity.
predicted in most science fiction depictions, urbanisation
has reached new levels never before seen in the history of mankind. Tokyo,
Hong Kong, New York, Los Angeles, London, Mexico
City, Rio de Janeiro — they are all good
examples of mega-cities in our own time. Where Tokyo and Hong Kong are
futuristic, neon-glowing dreams, and Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro
are over-crowded, worn-down nightmares, New York and Los Angeles are
perfect cyberpunk hybrids. In the American mega-cities, the
degeneration and segregation surpass the most bizarre cyberpunk
visions: the rich and wealthy basically neighbour the poor and
desperate; shacks and skid rows basically lay next to skyscrapers and
financial centres. It's probably only a question of time before
especially dangerous city areas will be officially labeled battle
zones. Throughout history, almost every kind of criminality have
prospered by urbanisation. Almost invariably, increased criminality results
in increased segregation.
A common scenario in all
cyberpunk fiction is that a few mega-corporations will dominate the
world in the future. The depressive truth is that this scenario is
slowly becoming a reality as we speak. The UN organ Unctad's World
Investment Report 1997, Transnational Corporations, Market Structure and
Competition Policy, shows that 350 mega-corporations
stands for 40 % of all trade with manufactured goods in the world.
According to Unctad's calculations, one third of all trade in the world —
i.e. both goods and services — is
transfer within mega-corporations, and another third of the trade is
indirectly controlled by mega-corporations. These numbers are growing as
The global networks are in
fact large pyramids. As an example, Nike had only 9,000
employees in 1994, but controlled another 75,000 employees
through subcontractors. Needless to say, a majority of Nike's 9,000
employees work in the Western world, whereas a majority of the 75,000
subcontractor employees work in Asia and South America. The current
world order is designed so that 20 % of the world population can exploit the remaining 80 %; the infamous 20/80
ratio. Of the 100 largest, transnational corporations, 87
have their headquarters in USA, Europe and Japan.
The obvious consequence is transnational
monopolies and oligopolies: a subtle, grand-scale Soviet system. Consumer power through
product choises becomes a hoax. The only remaining option for resistance
against mega-corporations will be non-materialism, the choise to not
consume. Another, more abstract result of the corporate dominion is
existential confusion. Everything can be commercialised, even
anti-commercialisation; the real McCoy is dead. Just like during the
autumn of the Roman Empire, essential concepts are rapidly
becoming hollow and empty: politics, culture, art, religion etc. The
psychological consequences of this social transformation are impossible to forsee.
The obvious result of heavy
urbanisation and corporate dominion is environmental problems, although
an environmental collapse doesn't
seem to be imminent today. There are disturbing signs, though. We know
less about mankind's effect on the environment than we would like to
think. The alarming rarefaction of the ozon layer was basically
discovered by coincidence; the measures which were taken can almost be
panic actions. Nevertheless, many countries — and,
of course, most corporations — have shown that they are prepared to
gamble with the environment. In this respect, USA surpass the most
bizarre cyberpunk fiction. Not only does the American government
ignore international treaties: it even counteracts them. Not only is
USA the largest consumer of oil and one of the worst polluters: it's
also remarkably retarded when it comes to environment-friendly
research and environmental education of the people.
approaching threat against the environment is the economic growth in
the Third World, most notably Asia. Understandably, the rest of the
world is striving to aquire living standards comparable to those in
the Western world; the Western man can't live in luxury and preach
moderation. It's an impossible equation, though: if the whole world
live by the same standards as the population in the Western world, it
would actually require 10 times our available resources on Earth;
these resources are almost exhausted already today. The
consequence of the improvement of the living standards in the Third World might
become severe. An illustrative example is China: if the Chinese
buy and use cars to the same extent as the population in the Western World, the
global warming would be fatally accelerated; an environmental collapse
would probably be imminent.
other threats against our environment as well. In cyberpunk
fiction, the world often suffers from the lingering effects of wars.
Unfortunately, devastating wars still constitute a real threat. On one hand,
global or semi-global conflicts like World War I and II are unlikely
to be repeated in the forseeable future. On the other hand, the
evolution of mass destruction weapons has accelerated dramatically
since the World Wars, be it nuclear, chemical or biological
weapons. Even a so-called limited war may lead to severe
bomb taboo will most probably be broken within a couple of decades;
within a few years in
the worst case scenario. When this is written, eight countries already
possess nuclear weapons; some of these countries will most probably not hesitate to use them
under pressure. The world's largest nuclear power, USA, has
declared quite frankly that it's prepared to deploy nuclear weapons in
conflicts, even against nations without nuclear weapons. Besides these
aggressive nations, there are other possible threats: political
extremists, religious fanatics; different kinds of terrorists. Nuclear
charges can hypothetically be briefcase devices today.
One can only
speculate which countries possess chemical and biologichal weapons in
their arsenals; the only countries we know for sure is USA and
Russia. British experiments have shown that biological weapons
potentially can make vaste areas of land uninhabitable. It's
questionable if terrorists can perform large-scale attacks with such
weapons, but they can potentially produce them. CIA experiments, basically in
conflict with international treaties, have shown that it only takes 1 million USD and off-the-shelf products
to create a laboraty which can produce biological weapons.
believe we have come to an important turning point in history. Perhaps it's
inevitable that the cyberpunk nightmare will come true in USA, but
perhaps the process can be reversed in the rest of the Western world.
The future will tell.
Finally, you may wonder:
the cool street dwellers and the cool subcultures in cyberpunk movies? Well, maybe you should
take a trip to Tokyo...
Picture: Japanese girls
in individual streetware, "Harajuku" style. Cyberpunk fashion?