"What is new in cyberpunk is, first of all, the conspicuousness of certain motifs in the same texts, the solidarity among these motifs, the way they mutually corroborate and reinforce each other to create a motif complex which is distinctive of the cyberpunk wave of SF, even if every one of the individual items making up the complex can be traced back to earlier SF phases." – Brian McHale
A critique leveled at cyberpunk is that there is no real novelty within the sub-genre. While marketed as being new and subversive, from a literary perspective critics have traced the major tropes and devices in cyberpunk back to earlier science fiction, or else other genres entirely. Cyberpunk in some eyes is merely an arrangement of these things to be provocative and play into a self-ascribed label, to be punk and contrary within the science fiction literary genre itself at the time and nothing more.
"cyberpunk tends to "literalize" or "actualize" what in the postmodernist fiction occurs as metaphor" – Brian McHale
However, in Towards the Poetics of Cyberpunk, which I will be quoting extensively in this piece, Brian McHale argues that cyberpunk has added to science fiction and been novel in so doing.
Motifs like outer-space fiction as building-blocks, as seen on shows like Star Trek, for example, were adapted to show stratification of class. Rather than the clean, sterile environments prevalent in science fiction at the time, "cyberpunk substitutes off-world havens of privilege, orbiting penthouses to which the wealthy and powerful withdraw to escape the poverty and danger of the planet surface…". Thus the sterile, clean realms so prevalent were defined for only the upper class and few who benefited from the marginalized; incidentally leaving behind a wake of their own refuse for those same people.
Additionally, this variant to microworlds depicting class by way of attainable knowledge also did so by way of literal geography within the fiction. Protected areas in cyberpunk often gate more than the privileged individuals; literal islands within the fiction that curtail the ability of peoples to obtain something coveted and protected: data. This can be more than just geographical in normal physical space negotiated traditionally by protagonists as well, porting this motif to different realities (microworlds), and reinforcing the motif. Conversely, these same or similar islands may hold marginalized people in physical space; radical "renegades" that guard their own autonomy fiercely and resist integration into society proper.
Digitally their ability to move up in class may be "close by" via navigating cyberspace; physically they have no means to actually go to the "fortress", so to speak. In cyberspace VIP access, private spaces for which there is some code, procedure, or structure that is an island onto itself when compared to other parts of the free-roaming space reassert the trope further. In some instances you can be so "good" in cyberspace that you can move through seemingly impenetrable places, leaving your body behind. In this way there are many islands, in every space, including cyberspace; and they are used to explore many different ideas of selfhood.
This juxtaposition can be traced back to medieval romance roots (and later, westerns), in so far as the protagonists having a journey. The Knight's Errant Itinerary navigating from microworld to microworld. Instead of venturing into a mythic microworld used as a metaphor, the protagonist is navigating microworlds that are literalized or actualized. Often this notion will have visual likeness or outright uncanny resemblence to actual mythology to make this distinction even more clear to the reader.
"While Joyce's Leopold Bloom "is" Odysseus only figuratively, in a kind of extended metaphor, Shiner's Kane really is the Hero with a Thousand Faces on a different but parallel plane of reality…The paraspace motif, including cyberspace and its functional equivalent, the myth-world…makes possible, in other words, metafictional reflection by the text on its own ontological procedures." – Brian McHale
In postmodern texts there are usually only metaphors for one of the primary ideas cyberpunk fiction wishes to explore: selfhood. Androids, Artificial Intelligence, cybernetics, autonomy, a simulacrum. These are all, again, actualized and literalized in the sub-genre.
Traditional cyberpunk made use of the traditional robot motif in order to ask the same questions about human identity but twisted it, no longer the automaton used so often. Androids invoked the uncanny in their resemblance to humanity, asking the reader ‘at what point is a machine a human?' The automata and A.I are in the exploration of selfhood but are a distinct ingrained, reoccuring motif in cyberpunk.
In biopunk, clones are grown and imprinted with someone else's identity, "pluralizing the self." The use of body horror elements and invasion of agency is invoked... but in a distinctive, cyberpunk way. The actualization of the lack of human agency is to have your mind consumed by a technological network or embedded into another body, grown under the control of someone with more power than you; ultimately using that power to manipulate you to their own ends. Designer drugs and physical chips created by an omnipresence here to curate your destiny. A new kind of Zombie.
"The theme of the centrifugal self, and the representational motifs throughout which it is manifested in cyberpunk SF are essentially incompatible with the perspectivist narrative strategies of modern fiction." – Brian McHale
Simulated spaces in cyberpunk also bring with them more information than normal. You don't merely "see" data in cyberspace, you interpret something physical in a digital space that informs you what it is when you're "jacked" into the virtually constructed space. Beyond this, cyberpunk fiction lets the user customize their identity when hooked up as well. This itself sometimes allows for subversion while also solving a literary problem, in which the fiction is centralized to a specific perspective.
"implicitly undermining the model of the centered, centripetal self upon which modernist perspectivism rests. For with the flip of a switch, Case is able to experience another's body…another's physical pain". – Brian McHale
When Case does this in Neuromancer, it also allows for the radical ability to embody a different gender identity than his own. "the characteristic cyberpunk motif of simstim (simulated stimulation) gives fresh, concrete, and radical meaning to Dick Higgins's question, "Which of my selves is to do it?"
Another motif changed by cyberpunk is the one of nuclear war. By creating microworlds anew, cyberpunk fiction shifts the idea of a collective disaster to personal extinction. Death is everywhere, including cyberspace. This extinction extends to the notion of selfhood, in which the self-extinction would eradicate our mind and sense of being. Perhaps not even realizing it either, occupying a different microworld when this devastation comes.
The sub-genre also features liminal stages of death. In some fiction, like Pat Cadigan's Synners, Visual Mark can view his meat body even as it's dead and dying, thinking faster than the death that is coming for him. A microworld, an island, working to transfer consciousness and interrogate the state of being between life and death. Sometimes being able to be revived, other times used as a device to make a statement about embodiment.
Ghosts in the machines, ghosts from the machine in the case of Gibson's Ghosts in Mona Lisa Overdrive. Either way, our spiritual selves and the exploration of death is pervasive in cyberpunk—and it took a new form from the old in doing so.
These motifs are invariably found in most all cyberpunk fiction, certainly all first wave. Because they structurally support the same fundamental concepts, overlapping and reinforcing, and do so in a novel way at the onset of cyberpunk fiction, the sub-genre has invariably contributed to science fiction.
This is part of a series of blog posts called cyberpunk 101, starting with my first piece Defining Cyberpunk, in which I attempt to communicate an internalize my thoughts on cyberpunk with the help of academic literature on the subject I'm consuming.
You can find the original piece that goes into more detail than this one contained in Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives.