What Makes Something Cyberpunk?

With the delayed release of Cyberpunk 2077, perhaps one of the most awaited games of 2020 up until to the date of this writing is published, I have immersed myself in a question that perhaps strays a bit from what would be commonly asked from CD Projekt Red’s new piece. “What makes something cyberpunk?”

Genuinely, I was hoping I’d be able to end this writing by a simple Wikipedia definition in its’ second paragraph, by saying that “cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction in a dystopian futuristic setting that tends to focus on a “combination of low-life and high tech” featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.”

However, as much as I wished this revolutionizing subgenre were this simple, the Wikipedia definition made me asked more questions than I was given an answer to my initial question. This definition given by the Wikipedia’s article on cyberpunk gave me a very vague image of what cyberpunk is, aside from the fact that cyberpunk relies on the idea that it has to be futuristic, or more accurately, “Cyber”.

If you are a follower of science fiction, you would quickly notice a trend: people, by default, associate science fiction with aesthetic and/or visual qualities. You see a spaceship or a robot and people would quickly associate it with Sci-Fi. In a lot of ways, this is how fantasy with spaceships comes to be placed within the genre, even when it lacks all the formal qualities to be a Sci-Fi. If anything, cyberpunk suffers this fate more so than other subgenres.

For example, this simplification exists from two episodes (episode 1 and episode 2) of Writing Excuse (with Brandon Sanderson, Dan Well, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Taylor) discussing what cyberpunk is. The first episode is filled with the hosts spending a lot of time in their podcast applying aesthetic and visual objects to the genre and dumbed down the heavy political momentum that made cyberpunk possible. While cyberpunk is a very visual medium, cyberpunk by itself is not an aesthetic/visual genre. It’s not the surface of the subgenre that matters, it’s what lies beneath it. Any fiction can contain cyber elements, hackers, and evil corporations, but just having a spaceship in fiction doesn’t constitute it as sci-fi. So much so like what cyberpunk is, just because the fiction involves advanced technological achievements and cybernetics doesn’t mean that it, by definition, is a cyberpunk.

The genre was formed as a response to a world where corporate power was proliferating and expanding across the globe, inequality was growing, and AI, computers, and other new forms of technology offered both the promise of liberation and the potential for new and dangerous forms of domination. In this regard, I still could not agree entirely on the definition that cyberpunk is “breakdown or a radical change in the social order.”

By this measure, sci-fi (Cyberpunk, even more so) is often described as extrapolative. Sci-fi writers take a trend or a phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for the sake of drama and extend it to the future, “if this goes on, this is what will happen.” A hypothesis is made. Method and results resemble scientists feeding purified food additive to mice in doses to predict what would happen if humans were to eat it in small doses in constant. The result will always end up with cancer. Sci-fi writers come up with the same result in this regard, perhaps not literally, but similar to the extent that they arrive in the conclusion between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.

But what makes cyberpunk such a valid form of literature: we live in a cyberpunk world. Cyberpunk is based itself from realism, but it is not in any way grounded to realism. To this extent, we would be able to say that Africa is cyberpunk with its manipulations of technology, its relationship to global capitalism, and its complex and troubled social conditions (and the interactions between all these elements). Many parts of the western world are cyberpunk too. All you have to do is look around you to see cyberpunk in action.
Cyberpunk critics the concept of “The World of Tomorrow” utopia brings, perhaps jabbing on the idea that too much of what tomorrow is will lead to more “high tech” and more “low-life”. This is especially apparent in what 2020 has been offering to us, with a lot of the recent political movements basing itself on human rights and decency.

But is cyberpunk always a dystopia? Perhaps its’ popular literary pieces in Bladerunner and Necromancer area dystopia, but cyberpunk itself doesn’t always have to be a dystopia by any rights. Nerdwriter1’s video essay on Ghost in the Shell emasculates this perfectly. Ghost in the Shell (the animation, not the live-action), my entry to cyberpunk, would be better defined as a heteropia than a dystopia. Heteropia can exist in cyberpunk. Because cyberpunk (in this case, Ghost in the Shell) isn’t always about how it oppresses the inhabitant as opposed to having a world that is nuanced in how it questions the morality of progress. A world that begs the question of what living in it would feel like.


In conclusion, as a critic to the definition of what cyberpunk is according to what would be most available to the masses in an era where technology is easily accessible, cyberpunk isn’t so much so Cyber as it is Punk. If you were to be served with a cyber-based fiction, it is not so much so that it is cyberpunk if the punk doesn’t exist. A fiction with just high tech doesn’t constitute a cyberpunk if there’s no element of rebellion in the status quo, and vice versa. If it’s just punk without cyber, it’d be hard to call it “cyber”punk. However, one and the other must co-exist to be considered as a cyberpunk as a whole.


Feat Image via: Cyberpunk.net

Wibi Irbawanto

Wibi Irbawanto

A lot of my shower thoughts becomes articles I write. I dabble in International Relations, Law, Politics, Games, and Literature. 23 y.o., Bachelor of Law

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