The Rise and Fall of Cyberpunk

How a cutting-edge genre became a mainstream aesthetic appropriated by the corporations against which it once waged war

The Rise and Fall of Cyberpunk
An advertisement for the Cyberpunk 2077 game by CD Projekt Red is seen in Warsaw, Poland on Jan. 5, 2021. (Jaap Arriens / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Twenty minutes into the future, the transformative effects of computers and networks necessitate that misfits, outcasts and dissenters living on the fringes rebel against the abuse of cutting-edge science and tech for pleasure, profit and power.

That may seem extreme, but if “Star Trek” and its ilk were the summations of the optimism of the Atomic Age, this is the logical conclusion to the nihilism of the Information Age — one where technology won’t usher in the world of tomorrow. One where the solutions of yesterday will be our undoing; one where we wish we had dismantled the system we now live in before it was too late.

This vision is not a prediction. It is a prognosis.

It is cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction (SF) set in futuristic tech dystopias that revolve around “lowlife and high-tech.” In other words, drastic societal decay is contrasted against rapid advancements in science and technology. Though “Blade Runner” codified the aesthetics of the cyberpunk future — i.e., endless urban sprawls mired in pollution and overpopulation with neon signs and video billboards everywhere you look — it was William Gibson’s 1984 novel “Neuromancer” that solidified the genre, becoming the prototype for much of what followed. Despite his lack of technical knowledge, Gibson — often referred to as the father of the genre — imbued cyberpunk with his punk and counterculture sensibilities as well as his “aesthetic revulsion” for mainstream SF of the early 20th century, such as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Lensman. On release, “Neuromancer” was not initially greeted with fanfare. But it quickly hit a cultural nerve, becoming an underground sensation through word of mouth.

The word “cyberpunk” itself would be used soon after to refer to the genre whose tropes it solidified. A portmanteau of “cybernetic” — the science of replacing human functions with computerized ones — and “punk” — the sensibilities of the counterculture youth movement of that time — “cyberpunk” was coined by Bruce Bethke in an eponymous story in 1983. But it was Gardner Dozois’ repeated use of it in print (initially in an article in The Washington Post called “Science Fiction in the Eighties”) that allowed it to encapsulate the genre — a genre that would soon explode in popularity, going from a niche subgenre of science fiction to our go-to image of the future.

While firmly rooted in the milieu of the time period in which it was created, the effect of cyberpunk has endured long after its classic phase officially ended. The genre became a staple of the mainstream SF that it was created to critique. Now, what was once a genre at the forefront of anti-capitalist speculative fiction has been reduced to an aesthetic easily appropriated by the corporations against which it once waged war.

By the 1990s, cyberpunk had moved from an underground movement to the mainstream, making it ripe for exploitation and critique. Considering the appeal of the aesthetic, this was inevitable. Yet for a genre as sexually and violently explicit as cyberpunk — in ways that are, at times, unashamedly exploitative — it was arguably shocking that it found its way into children’s entertainment.

When you think about it, however, it should come as no surprise that a genre whose aesthetic was primarily influenced by the youth-oriented punk movement would entice media conglomerates to carelessly slap it onto properties having nothing to do with cyberpunk, like “Batman Beyond” and “Sonic the Hedgehog” (in the Saturday morning cartoon adaptation).

And this started much earlier than you might expect.

In 1986, “Centurions” — a heavily merchandise-driven Saturday morning cartoon show based on an action figure line — aired an episode called “Zone Dancer.” Liberally lifting elements from “Neuromancer” and “Blade Runner,” it reflected the aesthetic of an anti-capitalist genre being appropriated to sell action figures all the way back when the genre was only about two years old.

This trend would soon proliferate in all forms of children’s entertainment, making one thing clear: Cyberpunk had been hacked.

Created by animator Peter Chung, “Æon Flux,” the first adult animated drama ever produced in the U.S., centers on the war between a cyberpunk anarchist, who has been framed as a sociopathic terrorist, and a technocratic dictator, whose fascistic rule over his people is meant to be mitigated by his desire to bring peace and order to his world (albeit with an iron fist). This ludicrous premise was intended as a critique of cyberpunk, dissecting the philosophical and political ideology behind it as well as the character archetypes that its creator found repetitive. Yet in an attempt (in the creator’s words) to critique Hollywood’s “manipulation of the audience’s sympathies,” Chung instead chose subversion over nuance and realism. Neither the protagonist nor the antagonist seem concerned by the collateral damage caused by their war, nor is one meant to be more sympathetic than the other. By refusing to engage with the aims of the movement — instead ignoring them entirely in favor of framing the cyberpunk anarchist as a nihilistic sadist, while simultaneously absolving the capitalist oligarchs by portraying him as no better than those trying to remove him from power — “Æon Flux” only muddies the waters in the minds of those who couldn’t make out what Chung was trying to say.

Whereas the exploitation of cyberpunk led to the appropriation of its aesthetics, its critics, who refused to engage with the ideology, inadvertently made light of the movement’s aims. This laid the foundations of a subgenre that carried on where these critics left off — one that continued this subversion in the name of realism, only to end up as unrealistic as the worst cyberpunk had to offer.

Just as cyberpunk was a response to the utopian science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s, post-cyberpunk reacted against its predecessor. Post-cyberpunk writers believed that cyberpunk futures had gotten so bleak that they were no longer realistic in the same way utopian fiction was. They went about presenting this “tempered” vision by moving away from the staunch anti-corporate and anti-government stances of cyberpunk. Through their willingness to give these actors redeeming features — even when the unintended implications of those features made the work’s ideology untenable — post-cyberpunk writers inadvertently ended up reaffirming the core tenets of the system cyberpunk was trying to critique.

Though both versions are futuristic, dealing with advancements on the bleeding edge, cyberpunk posits a trajectory for the human race where the future we’re headed to will be worse off — a realistic assumption based on where we were and where we’ve now found ourselves socially, politically and economically. On the other hand, post-cyberpunk refuses to imagine a world that is worse off or even better off, maintaining that the world will be more or less the same — notwithstanding better tech and unique problems that accompany it.

Unlike cyberpunk protagonists, the typical post-cyberpunk protagonists are anchored in the society in which they operate, leading lives much like your average everyday citizen.

This is where the characters’ objectives diverge.

Whereas cyberpunk characters aim to topple, exploit or retaliate against corrupt social orders, their post-cyberpunk counterparts have no such intentions, opting to find ways to improve or just survive in the existing social order by working with or alongside the system, not against it. Though these internal or external reformers may go up against the forces of unbridled capitalism and authoritarian governments, these are presented as inevitable obstacles in the face of meaningful change. If the protagonists oppose them through the proper channels — legal or otherwise — that brighter future will materialize. It may not happen at that end of that particular story, but it’s made clear that their work has laid the foundations for that future.

This assumption is the core of post-cyberpunk’s body politic. We are subtly conditioned to believe that the optimal way to fix the world is to fix the system — luring us into a state of realism where we must work with those who rule over us, as opposed to implementing the radical solutions that have in the past led to the kind of change the world is in desperate need of right now.

Even “Robocop,” one of the earliest examples of a cyberpunk film, was remade in 2014 with all the trappings of a post-cyberpunk future. OmniCorp, the primary antagonist, is not above the law even though it’s an image-conscious defense contractor who has a hold on a segment of the media and has managed to subdue entire nations with its droid army. Though this might seem reasonable, this was made after the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and the Supreme Court’s decision on the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, events which demonstrated that these kinds of corporations were, in fact, above the law. The fact that OmniCorp has cyber-armies subduing entire nations who have ceased to resist, not out of conviction but fear of how effective these killing machines are, is particularly egregious, as the setting presented is not supposed to be as bad as the original, or even dystopian. It doesn’t take much to realize that this world is far worse than the one presented in the original film — only not for Americans. The film primarily tackles the ethics of drone warfare, with crime and surveillance brought up but not treated with the gravity and nuance deserved. The fact that Robocop uses the same technologies that have turned Detroit into an ineffectual Orwellian nightmare overwhelmed with crime implies that, if these tools were used by the right people, systemic problems would be solved. But it’s clear that the militarization of the police force has done little except make crime worse.

What’s worse is that post-cyberpunk, too, has made its way into children’s entertainment. Set in a futuristic Detroit (circa 2058), “Transformers: Animated” presents children with a future in which megacorporations with corrupt corporate executives and inept police officers relying on drones are the norm. In spite of this, this backdrop is portrayed with uncanny optimism — the city experiencing a new economic boom, thanks to the rise in manufacturing (robots). Ironically, it was car manufacturing that once transformed Detroit into an urban sprawl that eventually collapsed as a result of these same executives moving the industry out of the city to cut costs after already creating dependence on it. When experts over the years have urged policymakers in Detroit to pivot away from manufacturing and rely on other industries to rehabilitate the city, it’s troubling that a children’s cartoon shows kids that the same industry that destroyed the city will save it — even as the city itself is shown to be as drab and lifeless as it was after the motor industry collapsed.

Exacerbating many of the problems with post-cyberpunk, SF writers have often found themselves in the same chronological time period in which many of the early cyberpunk futures were set. Though cyberpunk settings were unabashedly dystopian, writers assumed that conflicts surrounding race, gender, nationality and sexual orientation would be absent in the future — often swapped out for technophobia, rophobia (bigotry against machines and AI), transhumanism (the movement that seeks to promote human enhancement through robotic means) and AI. With early cyberpunk writers coming from the leftist movement, the rationale was that the last generation that really cared would have almost died out by then. Even Japan — which is infamously racially homogeneous and unreceptive to other cultures — was usually conceived as a melting pot in cyberpunk futures. Yet, when it became clear that identity politics were not only a volatile reality that we have yet to reconcile with — polarizing the masses in a way that few could have predicted — post-cyberpunk, in turn, did away with the futurist themes to focus on existing social issues. To make matters worse, following 9/11, an ideological shift in America witnessed a marked decrease in anti-establishment heroes, which coincided with the growing limits (i.e., the increase of identity profiling, security monitoring, hidden surveillance and current forensics technology) to operating outside or on the fringes of the system — the “punk” aspect of cyberpunk. This led to an inundation of post-cyberpunk works that dealt with modern socio-political concerns through the post-cyberpunk ethos, like the 2013 film “her,” in which silicon valley software teaches the main character how to feel again after their products are shown to be the cause of the alienation that surrounds him. In “Minority Report” (2002), the gross violation of inalienable human rights and surveillance ethics is resolved by the system itself once the truth comes to light.

The latter is particularly egregious, as the film was a response to the so-called “war on terror” following 9/11. Even though this was years before Edward Snowden revealed to the world that the National Security Agency was conducting mass surveillance, the way the film resolves its conflict is ludicrous considering that the “war on terror” was a systemic problem that originated from the political establishment, not a bunch of bad actors gone rogue.

These days, it’s rare for cyberpunk works to crop up, even though it’s uncomfortably common to find works with cyberpunk elements in them. Rarely do they pursue the leftist agenda they once had, making it painfully clear that cyberpunk’s ambitions have been rendered moot. Much like Westerns and samurai films, its tropes have been absorbed into other genres and styles, so much so that most people don’t even seem to realize it.

With the ideological bowels of the genre gutted and the aesthetic skinned off to mask corporate content, the question emerges:

Is there a need for cyberpunk today?

Given what has become of the genre, it seems unlikely, but, as Gibson said, the street finds its own uses for things.

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