In these series of posts I'm calling cyberpunk 101, I'll be exploring cyberpunk as a sub-genre. From the first wave to post-cyberpunk, to the facets within the sub-genre itself, such as biopunk. I am going to attempt to articulate the things I find interesting here about the academic pieces I'm reading and want to internalize. In this way, I hope to solidify my own thoughts on the subject matter.
"As a label, "cyberpunk" is perfection. it suggests the apotheosis of postmodernism. On the one hand, pure negation: of manners, history, philosophy, politics, body, will, affect, anything mediated by cultural memory; on the other, pure attitude: all is power, and "subculture," and the grace of Hip negotiating the splatter of consciousness as it slams against the hard-tech future, the techno-future of artificial immanence, where all that was once nature is simulated and elaborated by technical means, a future world-construct that is as remote from the "lessons of history" as the present mix-up is from the pitiful science fiction fantasies of the past that tried to imagine us. The oxymoronic conceit in "cyberpunk" is so slick and global it fuses the high and the low, the complex and the simple, the governor and the savage, the techno-sublime and rock and roll slime. The only thing left out is a place to stand. So one must move, always move."
The opening paragraph and subsequent quotes come from a piece of non-fiction in Storming the Reality Studio titled "Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism" by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. Cyberpunk fiction, at the time of this publication in 1991, already had people looking at the horizon and seeing the looming death of the sub-genre there, vaguely coalescing 3 years after Mirrorshades was disseminated to the masses.
"Cybernetics provides the pretext for the mechanized control of social life, of the body itself, and all of it through the delicate nets of nanomachine-derived mathematical formulae. Cybernetics represent the hardening and exteriorization of certain vital forms of knowledge, the crystallization of the Cartesian spirit into material objects as commodities. Cybernetics is already a paradox: simultaneously a sublime vision of human power over chance and a dreary augmentation of multinational capitalism's mechanical process of expansion--so far characterized by almost uninterrupted positive feedback. Cybernetics is, thus, part natural philosophy, part necromancy, part ideology."
At its heart, cyber (and cybernetics) is most often used as a physical representation of identifying ownership and power in the setting. It is the high-tech cornerstone of cyberpunk fiction and rooted in the larger picture of the parent genre, science fiction, exploring humanity's relationship to technology. How it will change our lives; how it is doing so already, whether we realize it or not. It depicts a moving target of larger societal thinking and specific technologies are showcased to communicate this exploration in cyberpunk fiction. This is also a vector for much of the exploration of the human condition found in the sub-genre.
In the 80's and 90's, for instance, technology is generally seen as a bad thing, technophobia was fairly pervasive. Cyberpunk will often borrow from horror to characterize technology as invasive; removing freedom and autonomy. It is also the means for the person to push back against oppression in the setting, turning the products initially created by "the system" in order to make a profit and extend their influence, into the agency of the marginalized.
"The punk is a sarcastic mirror-reflection of the social engineers' dream. The punk pretends to be a soft machine, but the machine is savage and intractable."
The fiction is rooted in some of the values of the punk movement. Anti-establishment, anti-authority, and DIY attitude is most predominate in this kind of fiction. This is the "low-life" counter stone (ha) to the cyber "high-tech" one. This is seen most often in the resistance taking place by marginalized individuals of some kind. How the fiction most often communicates this is through the stratification of class, which has been exacerbated. This, combined with an examination and/or critique of capitalism or capitalistic systems, such as the extrapolated society commodifying things that contribute to counterculture (like art); lead to marginalized identities resisting a system which is omnipresent, putting to use the aforementioned punk values in order to survive, or else to strike a blow against said system.
The aesthetic of the punk movement is also borrowed, as fashion generally plays a large part in determining the roles of characters and is the primary means of expression. The high-tech co-opted by the punk aspects in order to be useful and not just another vector of control, serving societies' interests and not the cyberpunk. In this way, the punk aspects are almost always used in such a way as to project autonomy and agency of a character while the cyber is used to explore the removal or invasion of it.
"cyber" and "punk" have also evolved as our views of technology have changed. As we as a society come to understand it better and it becomes more ubiquitous and entrenched in our daily lives, authors of cyberpunk fiction have used the themes of resistance synonymous with the punk movement and extrapolated our high-tech tomorrow to craft stories that diverge from this particular, broad template.
These two cornerstones that define the genre are still useful when navigating through science fiction and classifying the works as cyberpunk despite these societal changes because modern day cyberpunk still roots itself in these cornerstones that have merely adapted and evolved over time from the initial inception of the sub-genre.
"Cyber/punk"--the ideal post-modern couple: a machine philosophy that can create the world in its own image and a self-mutilating freedom, that is the image snarling back."