Cyberpunk Evolution: How Sci-Fi's Hottest Subgenre Is Progressing

A police officer from the highly anticipated video game Cyberpunk 2077.

Cyberpunk 2077's Twitter account tweets the word "beep" after years of silence and breaks the internet. Blade Runner 2049, despite its mediocre box office performance, is praised by critics and movie-goers alike, and is arguably the best film of 2017. Netflix's new cyberpunk series Altered Carbon is already making waves ahead of its February 2nd release date. And Amazon's Philip K. Dick based Electric Dreams series is getting positive reactions from viewers, while simultaneously being compared to the hit sci-fi series Black Mirror.

The lesson here? Cyberpunk is hot! What started a few decades ago as a niche science fiction subgenre, has become a cornerstone of speculative fiction in multiple entertainment mediums.

(As you may have already noticed, for a self-proclaimed cyberpunk junkie like me, these are very exciting times...)

The cyberpunk genre has come a long way since its inception, and its impact on popular culture is greater than ever. While most of this subgenre's foundational characteristics still ring true, other elements may or may not be as set in stone.

In this post, we'll debate what truly makes a sci-fi story cyberpunk. Which elements are tried and true necessities, and which elements may be a bit more pliable.

Cyberpunk's wikipedia page defines cyberpunk as being "a subgenre of science fiction in a 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 social order."

A few other elements typically found in cyberpunk are a near-future timeline, as well as Earth as a setting. More specifically, technologically advanced urban environments. Once you start to incorporate far-future aspects or space travel into the mix, the subgenre starts to gravitate toward something else like hard sci-fi or space opera.

One of the most important elements of cyberpunk is plausibility. You'll sometimes catch me on social media talking about "plausible science fiction", and cyberpunk definitely fits that mold.

Don't get me wrong, I love allowing my imagination to venture out into far away worlds filled with mystical creatures and alien landscapes, but one of the most appealing things about the cyberpunk genre is how grounded it is in our reality. Of course, it's sprinkled with plenty of fiction, but the foundation for that fiction is rooted in our existing science and technology. Even more so than with other subgenres of sci-fi.

The one part of that cyberpunk definition that's been irking me for years is the line of text that says, "...juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in social order." That degree tends to be pretty extreme and cookie-cutter in most mainstream cyberpunk fiction.

Far more specifically, the trope that states steam must be rising from the sewers, the walls and people must be torn, raggedy, and filthy, and everybody has to be depressed all the time.

Darkness, rain, neon lights, holograms towering over high rise buildings. Apartments so cluttered they look like they belong to technologically-advanced hoarders. Clunky gadgets. Sheer and utter dystopia. All accessories to, but not requirements of good cyberpunk fiction.

A flying car hovers over a futuristic cityscape.

Image: Warner Bros.

The subgenre was popularized in the '80s, which is why it contains so many elements from the '80s, such as neon lights, for example. The time has come for cyberpunk to evolve. To push passed its boundaries—the very same boundaries that made it famous, and enter the next chapter of its sci-fi evolution.

Cyberpunk can still exist without these specificities which are commonly seen in some genre-defining films such as the cult-classic hit Blade Runner or the recent film adaption of the Japanese manga Ghost In The Shell.

On the other end of a spectrum, I don't believe these components need to be utopian by any means. I do however believe that a story can be undeniably cyberpunk at its core, and at the same time be a story entailing sunlight, a certain degree of cleanliness, and a society that isn't shrouded in misery.

What's interesting about all of this as far as my own writing is concerned, is that my debut science fiction novel, Dawn of Legaia, falls into this non-dystopian atmosphere that I'm describing, where as my current literary project, a political cyberpunk thriller set in 2113, actually aligns more so with the darkness and dystopia I seem to be arguing against. The short answer to the question that I'm raising here is that a story can still be cyberpunk without being uber-dystopian, which is what I believe to be the case with Dawn of Legaia. Of course, a lot of what determines how a genre is defined, is by what fans like to consume, as well as the degree of success a particular sci-fi project achieves.

"History is written by the victors" as the old saying goes, so if a particular movie, or book, or video game, or graphic novel, or anything else, achieves mainstream success while breaking the mold a bit, guess what? That's the new mold!

"Trope" is one hot-button vocab term you'll often times hear get thrown around in entertainment industries like film and literature. Another such term is "formulaic". I like to think that my favorite subgenre of science fiction can still be a part of its family, without necessarily having to act, speak, and dress as its siblings do.

Ghost In The Shell's villain Hideo Kuze surrounded by cybernetic cables.

Image: Paramount Pictures


Cyberpunk is experiencing its greatest resurgence since its golden days, which were pioneered by literary cyber-architects like Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. Science fiction and its various subgenres are constantly evolving. What defines a particular subgenre of sci-fi is subject to change. And both artists and consumers influence the direction in which entertainment genres gravitate during their evolution.

If you're interested in diving deeper into the circuitboard-based world of cyberpunk books, check out io9's Essential Cyberpunk Reading List.

Personally, cyberpunk is without a doubt my favorite subgenre of science fiction, as well as a major cornerstone in the temple that is sci-fi fandom.

What the landscape of this subgenre will look like in the decades to come is yet to be forged. Part of that artistic evolution depends on how our real-world technology matures, since the foundation for these stories is based on our own technological realities.

Ultimately, only one thing is certain—It's A Great Time To Be A Cyberpunk Fan!


Feature Image: CD Projekt S.A.

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