What Makes A Story Cyberpunk? – A Ramble

2017-artwork-what-is-cyberpunk

Well, continuing my series of articles about writing cyberpunk fiction (which were originally written when I was writing these stories), I thought that I’d look at what makes a story cyberpunk.

Like all genres, “cyberpunk” has a few common traits but no real fixed boundaries. For every rule someone can come up with about the cyberpunk genre, there will be an exception.

For example, if you think that things in the cyberpunk genre should revolve around computers or the internet, then what about “Blade Runner” ? It’s the film that pretty much defined the look of the entire cyberpunk genre, but you’d be hard-pressed to find more than the most basic computers in it. The internet isn’t even mentioned once.

Jeff Noon’s “Vurt” is a strange and surreal novel about people who use hallucinogenic feathers in order to explore alien dream-worlds. It sounds more like some kind of hippie fantasy novel from the 1960s, but it actually comes from the early-mid 1990s and the writing style, the characters and the premise of the story are about as cyberpunk as you can get! Seriously, if you aren’t easily shocked, just take a look at this partial webcomic adaptation [NSFW] of it by Lee O’Connor if you don’t believe me.

On the other hand, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” ticks all of the boxes for a cyberpunk story. Rebellious protagonist? Check. Dystopian future? Check. Omnipresent technology? Check. But, that novel was published in 1949, long before personal computers were even a thing and at least a decade or two before the earliest beginnings of the internet began to form. It is not generally considered to be a cyberpunk novel, despite having a lot in common with cyberpunk fiction.

But, then there are Eric Brown’s excellent “Bengal Station” novels. These are novels that are set on a giant space station, and they follow a hardboiled detective who sometimes uses cybernetic implants to read minds. It sounds very cyberpunk, but the actual stories are more like classic sci-fi and/or ordinary harboiled detective fiction. They’re more like something you’d expect to see in a Hollywood movie than in anything in the cyberpunk genre.

So, there are no fixed rules or boundaries. But, you can still often tell whether or not something is cyberpunk. But, why?

Well, it has to do with the attitudes, inspirations and/or style of a creative work. The first clue is in the name, cyberpunk. Things in the cyberpunk genre often have a very distinctive rebellious attitude. Whether it’s done in a fairly subtle way (eg: through moral ambiguity) or whether it’s exaggerated for comedy value (like in the old “Judge Dredd” comics), it’s usually there. Cyberpunk stories often either tend to have a playful sense of cynicism, or they express outright nihilism.

The main characters are usually “outsiders” of one kind or another. Often, they’re morally-ambiguous magician-like computer hackers, bounty hunters, assassins, private investigators etc…. But, then you have a TV series like “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex” where the main characters are official government agents who are very clearly “the good guys”. Yet, this show is also pretty much the textbook definition of “cyberpunk”.

I suppose you could say that, if something is inspired by a lot of other cyberpunk things, then there’s a good chance that it’s probably going to be cyberpunk too. Then again, the cyberpunk genre was in it’s infancy when many of it’s defining works (eg: “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, “Blade Runner” etc..) were released. They couldn’t have been inspired by too many, if any, other cyberpunk things.

So, that just leaves style. There’s a very “traditional” cyberpunk writing style, invented by William Gibson in the 1980s, that moves along at a mile a minute – dazzling the reader with vivid descriptions and futuristic jargon. It’s like hardboiled pulp fiction turned up to eleven and pumped full of amphetamines. It is sublime.

But, people were writing cyberpunk fiction before Gibson was and they used slightly different narrative styles, like in this earlier short story by Bruce Bethke. So, “does it sound like William Gibson did in the 80s?” is hardly a way to judge whether a narrative is cyberpunk or not.

So, I guess that if you’re writing a vaguely cynical sci-fi story which includes some kind of focus on technology, then it’s possibly cyberpunk. If you’re writing a slightly gothic sci-fi story with “outsider” main characters, it’s possibly cyberpunk. If the humour in your story is of the cynical dystopian variety, it might be cyberpunk. But, like the shifting ever-changing mass of the internet, nothing is ever fixed in the cyberpunk genre.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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