WTF Is Cyberpunk: Here's Why It's Back
Grimes, the high priestess of Internet aesthetics, popped up all over our newsfeeds yesterday with a new music video for her single “Kill V. Maim,” off of last year’s excellent album Art Angels. While there’s a plethora of things going on in the video—not limited to subway station dance parties, Kill Bill-style street fighting, and showers of blood—every single writeup of the video described it in one, singular term: cyberpunk. While the concept is certainly familiar, it got us thinking: how exactly does one define “cyberpunk?” When and how did cyberpunk come to be? And finally, is it an insult that we can use to describe an online predator? Without further ado, Milk investigates.
Urban Dictionary defines cyberpunk first and foremost as “a literary genre that has nothing to do with The Matrix, being cool, or anime.” As our further research will show, that definition alone is not entirely fair or accurate. While Urban Dictionary may not be the most gospel of literary sources, it does go on to describe it as “a sub-genre of sci-fi in which there is a strong sense of helplessness, misery, dystopic ideals, and loss of morality and/or humanity.” Considering this sounds like every sci-fi movie made in the past three decades (with the exception of WALL-E), there must be some other ways to describe cyberpunk aside for “angsty.”
The first time that the word “cyberpunk” appeared in print was in a 1983 short story for the magazine Amazing Science Fiction Stories. The story is titled—surprise—”Cyberpunk,” and was written by an American author named Bruce Bethke. It concerns the exploits of some teenage hackers, with names like Rayno, who spew out a bunch of techno-jargon like “Zeilemann Nova 300” and “hi-baud, rammed, rommed, ported, with wafer display folds” while they steal stuff from techno companies. It’s kind of like A Clockwork Orange, except instead of brutal violence and thrills, there’s data storage and hard drives. It’s frankly a dry read, but if you’re curious and brave you can read the entire thing right here.
While not distinctly bleak in its vision of humanity’s future, “Cyberpunk” the story did introduce a key component that would come to characterize the genre: technology. But not just any technology, but rather technology that lies in the realm of human possibility. With this in mind, Star Wars or Dune—sci-fi epics in their own right—could never be considered cyberpunk. Grand epics of cosmic heroes and villains fighting with laser swords are entirely fantasy.
“Cyberpunk has become so closely aligned with all contemporary visions of sci-fi that it’s hard to find an alternative aesthetic at all.”
This now brings us to the question of aesthetics. If we know feasible technology is a cornerstone of cyberpunk, how do we know what this looks like? The earliest, and most frequently cited, comes in the form of the classic film Blade Runner. Keeping in line with the definition of something dark, depressing, and bleak in human empathy, Blade Runner concerns the ambiguous circumstances surrounding humanoid robots called “replicants” and the assassins hired to destroy them once they’ve proved too dangerous. It’s a sleek, highly stylized tour through some of humanity’s darkest depths, and it presents several facets of what we now know cyberpunk to be.
The first is the cityscape. Blade Runner was the first film to show the future as a disgusting, polluted, acid rain filled nightmare. Previous views of Earth’s future were shiny chrome or gleaming white, laden with optimism for humanity’s boundless achievements. Here, we see that humans aren’t going to do so well over time. The nebulous urban wasteland has become a key indicator of what we know as cyberpunk. The second, and arguably more important, is the combination of the humanoid and the robotic. Thanks to its literary counterpart, we know that cyberpunk hinges on realistic technology, but Blade Runner explained that this technology will become embedded, perhaps literally, into the daily lives of humans.
The latter factor gave way to the other great influence of cyberpunk: Japanese anime of the mid to late ‘80s. Contrary to what Urban Dictionary may think, cyberpunk owes a great debt to the manga that began hitting shelves during the peak of ’80s consumerism. Two in particular, Akira and Ghost in the Shell, expand upon the urban hellscape of Blade Runner and take it even further. The societies depicted here are more frayed than ever imagined before, taking place in a post-nuclear world riddled with government surveillance, terrorism, and gang violence in the midst of a heightened technological era.
Japan proved to be an essential influence as, at the time, it seemed the best indicator of what our future would look like. Blade Runner already played with the idea of heightened Asian influence in Western culture, but what made series like Akira and Ghost in the Shell so relatable were their abilities to translate the realities of mid ’80s Japan into an entirely believable future. It was more highly industrialized, urbanized, and media saturated than anywhere else in the world, proving that the vision of cyberpunk was already being sown in certain corners of the world.
And so we can begin to safely define cyberpunk as the combination of a negative outlook, humanity’s entwinement with technology, and Asian futurism. While seemingly unrelated, these three components added together produce the likes of nearly every sci-fi opus made in our lifetime. From films like The Matrix, The Fifth Element, and TRON, to shows like Person of Interest and Mr. Robot, and music videos like Kanye West’s “Stronger,” Björk’s “All Is Full of Love,” and yes, even Grimes’ “Kill V. Maim,” it has become so closely aligned with all contemporary visions of sci-fi that it’s hard to find an alternative aesthetic at all. Well, at least there’s always WALL-E.
Stay tuned to Mik for more Blade Runner-esque content. We love Blade Runner.