Three Tips For Writing 1990s-Style Cyberpunk Fiction

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about 1990s-style cyberpunk science fiction. This is mostly because I’m reading a cyberpunk (or, technically, post-cyberpunk) novel from 1995 called “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson at the time of writing.

This novel is surprisingly different from traditional 1980s-style cyberpunk (Neuromancer“, “Blade Runner” etc..) and it also reminded me a bit of other 1990s cyberpunk works like Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics and the original 1995 “Ghost In The Shell” anime film.

So, since 1990s cyberpunk is kind of it’s own distinctive “thing”, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about writing this style of cyberpunk.

1) The technology isn’t everything: If 1980s cyberpunk focused on amazing the audience with what the internet, virtual reality etc… could be like in the future, 1990s cyberpunk takes a step back from this. Although futuristic technology is obviously still a major part of 1990s cyberpunk, it’s a little bit more of a background element. In short, there’s more of a focus on “functional” everyday technology than on things like virtual reality etc…

In 1990s-style cyberpunk, the technology tends to be a lot more subtle and insidious. For example, nanotechnology features heavily in “The Diamond Age” and “Transmetropolitan” – where it is used for purposes like surveillance, weather control, weapons, motion tracking, compact computing etc.. But, in both stories, it is just shown to be an “ordinary” thing to the characters.

Likewise, whilst 1995’s “Ghost In The Shell” focuses on robotics and cybernetics (like 1982’s “Blade Runner”), these mostly aren’t presented with quite the same level of emphasis and fascination as they are in “Blade Runner”. They’re just an ordinary, mundane part of everyday life. The main character has a cybernetic body, ordinary people sometimes have them and sometimes the antagonists do too. They’re just ordinary. However, this is a lot more obvious in the spin-off “Stand Alone Complex” TV series made during the 2000s.

In other words, in 1990s cyberpunk, the futuristic technology usually isn’t everything. It’s an important part of the story, but it’s also – realistically – just a mundane background element, rather than the central focus of the story.

2) Protagonists: There’s a brilliant scene in the earlier parts of Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” (spoilers ahoy!) which shows the difference between 1980s and 1990s-style cyberpunk protagonists absolutely perfectly.

Basically, the story starts with a typical 1980s-style cyberpunk character called Bud, who is getting a powerful weapons system implanted in his skull. He wears very cyberpunk-like leather clothes and he’s a freelance street criminal too. These scenes are also narrated in a typical 1980s cyberpunk style too. Initially, Bud seems like he’s going to be the main character.

But, he is then shown to be more of an unsympathetic character (eg: he’s shown to hold racist attitudes, he shoots defenceless people etc..). Almost as if he’s a…scary violent criminal (who would have thought it?). Then, before we even reach page fifty, he has been arrested and sentenced to death. This is both a perfect parody of 1980s cyberpunk and a great example of how 1990s cyberpunk differs from 1980s cyberpunk.

By contrast, the rest of “The Diamond Age” focuses on ordinary people within the story’s futuristic world. The main characters include people like a judge, an actress, two impoverished children and a prestigious engineer. In short, not the typical “anti-hero” characters of the 1980s. In fact, one of the story’s philosophical discussions briefly features a character mentioning how computer hackers were used as “trickster” archetypes in late 20th century stories.

You can see the same things in other 1990s cyberpunk works too. In Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan”, the main character is a drug-addled journalist (inspired by the one and only Hunter S. Thompson). In “Ghost In The Shell”, the main character is a member of a military police unit (who are shown to be the good guys, rather than the dystopian villains they would be if it was 1980s cyberpunk).

In other words, 1990s-style cyberpunk is more about ordinary people living in futuristic cyberpunk worlds than about “cool” anti-hero computer hackers or anything like that.

3) Narration and tone: Simply put, 1990s-style cyberpunk fiction will often ditch the traditional “Neuromancer”-like narration and do something a bit different.

For example, although the scenes involving Bud in “The Diamond Age” do use 1980s-style cyberpunk narration, this quickly gives way to a highly-descriptive and slightly formal narrative style that is more like something from a 19th century novel (Dickens, Conan Doyle etc..) than a 1980s cyberpunk novel.

Likewise, the general tone of the stories tends to be a lot more varied too. For example, whilst “Transmetropolitan”, “Ghost In The Shell” and “The Diamond Age” might have a few scenes set at night in the dystopian, rainy, neon-lit streets of a mega-city, they also feature much brighter scenes set during the day too. Kind of like pretty much every other story, comic or film would probably do.

In short, like with the other examples, 1990s cyberpunk (or “post-cyberpunk”) focuses more on what ordinary life in a futuristic cyberpunk world would be like. It focuses less on dazzling the audience with a unique version of the future, but uses it as a backdrop for a much wider variety of drama, science fiction etc… instead.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

What Makes A Story Cyberpunk? – A Ramble

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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 🙂

Do You Need To Be Tech-Savvy To Write Cyberpunk Fiction?

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As regular readers of this site probably know, these recent articles about writing cyberpunk fiction were originally written when I was busy writing a series of cyberpunk stories that I posted online last year. So, for today, I thought that I’d look briefly at one of the main questions about writing cyberpunk fiction.

Do you have to be tech-savvy in order to write cyberpunk fiction?

The answer, simply put, is “not as much as you might think”. Whilst having some experience with using computers, using the internet and/or playing computer games will help you write cyberpunk fiction, you don’t exactly need to be the kind of person who actually knows how to use a programming language or anything like that. In other words, knowing a few things about computers is recommended, but being a literal expert isn’t necessary.

I mean, I’m the kind of person who feels like some kind of elite super-geek when I do something as basic as replacing a DVD drive or burning and running a Linux Live DVD. But, if you were to ask me to write a computer program that contained much more than “ 10 PRINT “Hello World”/ 20 GOTO 10“, I wouldn’t have a clue about it (however, I was able to use one of the few other things I know about programming languages in the formatting for this story). So, a bit of knowledge can be useful, but you don’t have to be an expert.

Think about it this way – the first major cyberpunk novel (but not the first piece of cyberpunk fiction) was William Gibson’s “Neuromancer“, which was published in 1984. It’s a massively influential novel, but it was written at a time when computers and the internet were considerably more primitive than they are today. The bulk of “Neuromancer” is just pure imagination – very well thought out and very well-written imagination, but imagination nonetheless.

Yes, it helps to know or have met a few people who are more tech-savvy than you, since you can pick up a lot of interesting ideas and terms that you can add to your cyberpunk stories but, you don’t have to be ultra tech-savvy yourself.

Likewise, if you don’t know anyone who is an expert with computers, then even a bit of basic research will give you the grounding you need to write cyberpunk fiction. So, look at the “tech” pages of reputable news sites. Watch technology-based TV shows like the BBC’s “Click” program (which is broadcast both within the UK and internationally). Likewise, be sure to watch Youtube videos about computer game design etc…. too.

But, more importantly than researching basic technology, research the cyberpunk genre itself. Knowing how to tell stories that make technology seem like magic is something you mostly learn from reading, watching or playing things that tell those kinds of stories. In other words, you can tell a convincingly good cyberpunk story if you get the “storytelling” parts right and just make up all of the technology.

Yes, knowing a bit about technolgy will help you to give your cyberpunk fiction a slightly more “realistic” flavour. It might even help you to come up with story ideas or story concepts, but it matters less than being a fan of the genre and/or studying the storytelling techniques used in cyberpunk novels/games/comics/films etc…

In other words, being savvy about storytelling matters more than being tech-savvy.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Three Basic Tips For Coming Up With Cyberpunk Stories

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Well, since I was busy with last year’s cyberpunk short stories at the time of writing (I finished this one just before writing this article), I thought that I’d talk some more about writing cyberpunk fiction.

In particular, I thought that I’d look at some of the techniques that you can use to come up with interesting cyberpunk storylines. This article will be about writing shorter stories, but you can probably use these techniques for longer stories too.

1) The unseen: One of the best ways to come up with an interesting cyberpunk storyline is to look at the types of locations that often go unseen in the cyberpunk genre. In other words, it can be interesting to set some or all of your story somewhere like outside of cyberspace (like in “Blade Runner), or possibly even in a rural area (like in “eXistenZ“). The only limit is your imagination.

Of course, when you’ve found your rarely-used setting, then you’ve got to work out how to use it in a story. Generally speaking, one easy way to get a short story out of an unusual location is to use it as a backdrop for part of a larger story (which is only hinted at during your story).

For example, the short story I linked to earlier takes place in an abandoned shopping centre. Whilst this location is an important part of the story, a few descriptions imply that the story is merely a few moments from a larger story (eg: the story mentions why the characters are in the shopping centre, and it’s hinted that they are trying to find somewhere better to stay).

2) Research: One of the best ways to learn how to tell cyberpunk stories is to read, watch and/or play as many of them as you can. Seeing all of the different types of stories that people can tell within the cyberpunk genre will open your mind to the possibilites that the genre has to offer. For example, not every cyberpunk storyline has to be about computer hackers or even about cyberspace. There’s more to the cyberpunk genre than just three novels by William Gibson.

For example, the films “Blade Runner” and “Ghost In The Shell (1995)” are about robotics, and about what makes us human. Computer games like “Deus Ex” and “Technobablyon” look at subjects such as political conspiracies and the role technology has in politics. Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics look at the role of the press in society (and what a Hunter S. Thompson -style journalist would be like if he lived in the future).

A film like Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” adds dream-like surrealism to the cyberpunk genre (and is worth watching for the opening credits montage alone). The anime series “Cowboy Bebop” focuses on a group of space-travelling bounty hunters living in a cyberpunk future. The classic computer game “System Shock” takes place entirely on an abandoned space station that has been taken over by an evil Artificial Intelligence.

Computer games like “The Longest Journey”, “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey” and “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” blend elements of the fantasy genre with the cyberpunk genre. A short computer game like “The Last Night” or a webcomic like Winston Rowntree’s “Captain Estar Goes To Heaven” follow the grim lives of hired assassins in lawless cyberpunk-style futures.

So, do some research, and it’ll show you that the cyberpunk genre is about more than just nihilistic computer hackers talking in technobabble (although this is fun to write though).

3) Technology effects: This is one of the classic pieces of advice for writing science fiction, and it’s just as relavent to the cyberpunk genre as anything else. In order to come up with an interesting story, just look at a “futuristic” piece of developing technology and ask what effect it would have on the world if it’s use was more widespread.

In fact, the entire cyberpunk genre itself was invented because the idea of the internet took hold of people’s imaginations. The very first cyberpunk story (“Cyberpunk” by Bruce Bethke) was written in the very early 1980s, when the internet was known about – but nowhere near as widespread or popular as it was today.

So, one way to come up with interesting cyberpunk storylines is to look at pieces of technology that are being developed today (eg: 3D printing, drone technology, AI-driven cars, Virtual Reality, augmented reality, wearable tech etc….) and to ask yourself how it might affect everyday life in the future. Let your imagination go wild.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Ways To Find Your Own “Version” Of The Cyberpunk Genre

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If you’ve been reading this site recently, you can probably guess that I’m in something of a cyberpunk mood at the moment. The interesting thing about the cyberpunk genre is that, despite the fact that it’s only been around for 32-37 years, there are numerous “versions” of it.

From the rainy, neon-lit streets of “Blade Runner” to the gothic green-tinted world of “The Matrix” to the bright bleached cityscapes in some footage I’ve seen of a cyberpunk-influenced modern dystopian sci-fi game called “Mirror’s Edge“, no two things in the cyberpunk genre look exactly alike.

One small silver lining of the miserable fact that virtually nothing from the genre is in the public domain (in a way that many cyberpunk “classics” would if copyright laws were more rational) is the fact that everyone making something in the cyberpunk genre has to come up with their own very slightly unique interpretation of it.

Yes, it might be heavily influenced by the cyberpunk “canon” but, it will be at least subtly different from these things. But, this isn’t an article about copyright, it’s an article about how you can find your own version of the cyberpunk genre. So, how do you do this?

1) Have other influences!: Whenever it comes to anything creative or even anything to do with humanity, variety usually equals strength and/or quality. Democracies can last for centuries or more because they allow a wide variety of political opinions to exist. The food in the UK is significantly better than it apparently was 60-70 years ago, due to a wider variety of influences from around the world. Even genetics itself obviously relies on variety too. I could go on for a while, but I should probably get back to the cyberpunk genre.

What I’m trying to say here is that you aren’t going to find your own “version” of the cyberpunk genre if you aren’t willing to look outside of the cyberpunk genre for inspiration.

But, given how obscure this genre is these days – it’s pretty much impossible for you not to also have favourite novels, films, games etc.. from outside the genre too. So, let these influence your cyberpunk art, fiction, comics etc.. too.

Always be on the lookout for cool things, regardless of whether they’re cyberpunk or not, which instantly make you think “I want to learn how to make something like that”. Once you’ve worked out what generic features (eg: lighting, composition types, colour schemes, general types of locations, pacing, narrative style, themes etc..) make these things so interesting, then apply that knowledge to the cyberpunk things that you make.

To give you a recent example, here’s a reduced-size preview of a digitally-edited cyberpunk painting that will appear here in July:

The full-size painting will appear here on the 13th July.

The full-size painting will appear here on the 13th July.

Whilst the three “traditional” cyberpunk inspirations for this painting are “Blade Runner“, “Ghost In The Shell[NSFW] (I watched the “2.0” director’s cut shortly before making most of this painting) and Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics, you’ll probably notice that it looks a bit more colourful than any of these things. This element of the painting was inspired by the use of multiple complementary colour palettes in a set of “Doom II” levels called “Ancient Aliens“.

Likewise, the setting of the painting was also inspired by photos of New York and Tokyo that I’d seen online a couple of days earlier. Several clothing designs in the painting were inspired by 1980s fashion rather than by traditional “noir” cyberpunk. I could go on for a while…

The fact is that many of the “classics” of the cyberpunk genre have become unique classics for the simple reason that they looked for influences outside of the cyberpunk genre. For example, “The Matrix” owes as much to 1980s/90s goth culture as it does to prior cyberpunk films like “Blade Runner”, “Akira”, “Ghost In The Shell” etc..

2) Ask a simple question: One way to come up with your own “version” of the cyberpunk genre is just to ask yourself “what makes something cyberpunk?“. Go on, do it now.

Once you’ve written down or memorised your list of answers, then see if you can find a way to create something that fits into this definition. Whilst this might not sound like a way to come up with your own “unique” version of the genre, it will do exactly that! But, why?

Simply put, everyone is different. The things that really appeal to you about the cyberpunk genre will be at least slightly different from the things that appeal to everyone else about it. Whether you’re thinking about the visual elements of the genre or the thematic elements, you’ll probably have a slightly different idea of what makes something cyberpunk to everyone else.

For example, as an artist, the things that really appeal to me about the cyberpunk genre are the high-contrast lighting (eg: neon signs at night, CRT monitors in the dark etc..), the dense, angular cityscapes, the idea of an “old future”, flying cars, “film noir” rain, the idea of sensory overload etc…

But, other artists may be more fascinated by things like cyborgs, cyberspace, lines of programming code superimposed onto the real world, dystopian politics, environmental issues etc…

Everyone sees something slightly different when they look at the cyberpunk genre, so ask yourself what you see.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂