Warning! Warning! This following discussion contains extensive reference to movies Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Akira along with shows/books such as Cowboy Bebop, Altered Carbon and Neuromancer along with related material and so contains minor spoilers. Read ahead at your own risk…
So this week we are talking Cyberpunk, the great Sci-Fi genre that looks at dystopia in the lens of a technologically advanced society. Defining the genre, however, is particularly hard even with the huge amount of texts using the genre to tell a story such as Blade Runner, Akira or Cowboy Bebop. The best way to describe the cyberpunk genre is usually in its iconography; the seedy city full of crime much like a old timey Noir, the main thing being that it explores a society that is also very technologically advanced. There are many more elements it uses to create a world and distinctly to do that throughout all texts that use this genre in in creating a unique universe, this is what I would like to discuss here today.
The genre all started however, in the 1960s, creating a Crime-Noir set in the future with books such as the New Worlds magazine and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the genre started off small but as a genre combining both crime stories with brutal sci-fi concepts set in the near future it soon became a well known sub-genre. You have that mixture and just a tad of revolution and you have got yourself cyberpunk. With the soon to be released (in the next few years from December 2018) Cyberpunk 2077 it has never been more popular and one of the big things is the aesthetic, and what an aesthetic it is.
A grim future where we are at peak technological advancement both vibrant but dark at the same time. A land of crime caused by an oppressive government or a crippling society under a huge amount of stress may it be due to war or nuclear attack (much like Blade Runner or Akira). On the outside it may look bright but underneath there is a twisted criminal underbelly of disception. The genre has many aspects of film noir but it goes further then that. Where the unique part of the cyberpunk genre comes is how our society is controlled by the technologies around us.
Although most popular in the 1980s with Blade Runner and Neuromancer, it still has a lot of relevance in its themes and hybridity with the film noir genre giving it a gritty edge. This is shown through cyberpunk’s projection of a realistic and possible future that may look high-tech but usually stays in the grounds of what generally could be possible in the next 100 years, a world that has corrupted itself even as we explore the stars and businesses/the elite take the power from the people for their own gain. In many ways, it’s a perfect exploration in the current era of what could come if we aren’t careful.
Upon this it is a mirror of our world if capitalism were to completely to take over our lives, wrapping its way around the world and absorbing it which is why we often see advertising all around these worlds, giving it a cool look but feels oppressing. This having a drastic change in our world which takes control of our lives and even leads it to grow isolated, trying to find a purpose in a world that seems meaningless, without a justification to live except to make money for a pointless goal either just to survive or gain technologies only to distract us. A great example of this is the fantastic Cowboy Bebop.
Whilst not usually having your usual cyberpunk atmosphere, it has many of those tropes acting as both a sci-fi film-noir and space western full of crime and an isolated avoidance of their reality. The characters in the show are struggling in a world full of crime, regretting their past sorrows. Much like other cyberpunk, it’s about outcasts trying to survive in a world or universe that seems desolate. We have explored the universe and try to survive but we still don’t know the answers, only to hypothesise and try to make ourselves whole, (an aspect mirrored in a lot of the films, books and television in this genre). I’ll definitely be talking more on Cowboy Bebop to tie you over for that, here’s a great video on the show:
Cyberpunk is very similar to the usual dystopian sci-fi movies such as Mad Max depicting a run-down world with the main difference being one is set in a desert-like wasteland and the other still very bright and colourful with the desolation of the world on the inside. Both usually have rough protagonists that are damaged but still have a sense of nobility and a goal they try everything to complete. Some of these characters are rebellious, some of them, cops that have a rough edge whilst the world always seems on the brink of destruction. Both of these dystopian genres usually take the story of trying to make a change in the world with a crime-ridden and neon-lit backdrop.
For example, you have films like Blade Runner or it’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Neuromancer which helped bring the genre into the mainstream. They create the world of cyberpunk that we know of today along with themes of humanity versus technology and our morality. Most of the world is gritty and plastered with neon-advertising whilst the homes of the rich are reminiscent of the world before a great war.
Wood is a symbol of the rich along with real animals whilst owning fake pets is for the poor much like Deckard in the book where he is unhappy with his current robotic pet and only kills androids to get the money for one. The world is seen as becoming ugly, it projects our fears of the current day and how we are isolated from our world through our heavy use of technology. It combats our lack of meaning and whether killing beings that we believe aren’t the same as us, questioning whether it is actually moral.
After that Cyberpunk took a dip in popularity, although originally very badly received by critics and audiences due to the heavy cuts made to the original vision of the film, it has since received cult status which left many other writers and creators being entranced by this vision of the future you have the fantastic Neuromancer and then anime such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell which then took the Asian market by storm, even helping to launch Anime in to popularity over in the western side of the world. The genre would go on to create some great stories of crime in a neon lit dystopian world but with a main problem, every thing wants to hit it big and takes too much inspiration from Blade Runner and other classic Cyberpunk.
This is illustrated in the recent Altered Carbon adaption which was released to Netflix earlier this year. It looks beautiful and takes many of those tropes to make a unique story but the series doesn’t do enough to set itself apart from its inspiration. The story is interesting and the sci-fi concept is good but the presentation of its world is more aesthetic to visually please the eye whilst the world seems somewhat hallow, feeling old fashioned in the way it shows a futuristic world even feeling somewhat outdated for even a new sci-fi television show. Whilst creating a world that feels gritty and challenges capitalism such as how they are now immortal and can choose any body they want (literally, once they die, people can put their minds inside of a new body), it somewhat feels hallow in the way it is adapted. The characters are symbolic of film-noir but feel like over exaggerations of those character tropes which is used to fit a more action oriented adaption of the novel, that just sadly makes the form of that world seem stale.
A good example of it done in the modern day, however, can be seen in the show Mr Robot. Whilst not depicting a futurist neon world based on Tokyo, it depicts many of those elements in a more modern environment. The story, if you are not familar, follows a hacker named Elliot who originally works as a cybersecurity engineer only to find out how corrupt the agency he works for really is. The show doesn’t have the usual cyberpunk film noir esc tropes but in essence of story and combating against the reign of technology and corrupt corporations. It doesn’t even have the usual aesthetic but in many ways is a much more bittersweet example of what could be in our near future. A world grim and run by corrupt corporations depicting a future which might have arrived in already.
\In conclusion, the sometimes feeling outdated, sometimes extremely relevant, the cyberpunk genre is a part of sci-fi that has always had both style and substance…atleast most of the time. It creates a world in a desparate need of change, something on its last legs, depicting the life and struggles of the common man and tackling the topic of humanity versus technology. The genre has always gone to depict social issues and project our current worries into a very possible future. It shows us the bad side of the advance in technology and its grasp over us either in how we are controlled by our government or even how our lives are easily hacked by criminals looking to steal our identity or money. The main thing about the genre is making sure to fight back, break our programming and power down our technology.
And with that note, it’s best to leave this post on cyberpunk here. It was great to finally talk about this genre and how it presents a fully fleshed out world in a future where we are controlled by technology. I will definitely be doing a part 2 in the future and bring up more great shows, movies and books that present this genre either well or poorly and even talk about gaming with Cyberpunk Bartender and Cyberpunk 2077 in the near future. Anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic down in the below fellow future thinkers. Is there anything I missed, is there any text you would have wanted me to discuss, any book, series or movie from the genre I should have brought up? Let me know in the comments below…
Sometime next week, let’s go back to the past as we discuss when fantasy meets sci-fi with Star Wars, Samurai Jack, Time Bandits and DC Comics. To tie you over until then, I will be posting a review of the anime cyberpunk film Akira. Stay tuned for that later in the week, fellow future thinkers but until then, may the force be with you…
Michael McGrady, Signing Off.