The upcoming release of the Cyberpunk 2077 video game has made us return to Cyberpunk. What are the main features of this movement, which is one of the most exciting in SF? What are the great works to see and review to understand all of their intricacies? We shall see this in this dossier.
What is cyberpunk?
Cyberpunk, like space opera, steampunk or even hard science, is a subgenre of science fiction. When the term “cyberpunk,” a portmanteau of the terms “cybernetics” and “punk,” first appeared in a 1984 Washington Post article about the work of William Gibson (The Neuromancer), cyberpunk as a genre is older.
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To discover the beginnings of cyberpunk, one has to go back to 1932 and the publication of Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece Brave New World. In this famous anticipation novel, the British writer offered a very negative vision of our future and envisioned a totalitarian and eugenic society. If one can hardly speak of cyberpunk work on Brave New World, the novel is nonetheless a not-so-distant relative.
Because cyberpunk works, like Brave New World, are dystopias; They plunge us into a totalitarian society in which humanity is partially or completely dominated by another group: it can be a different social group like in Cyberpunk 2077 or machines like in the Wachowski Matrix trilogy.
Another common point that Aldous Huxley’s Cyberpunk shares with Brave New World: It’s works that question our relationship with science and technology. These are works that question our own humanity. Another important science fiction work made the birth of this movement possible: the robot cycle by the American writer Isaac Asimov. The robot cycle is not satisfied with evoking the three laws of robotics, but brings transhumanist and posthumanist concerns into literature. Two essential terms for cyberpunk. We strongly encourage you to read our file on these issues: Posthumanism, From the Myth of the Golem to the Western World.
We can therefore see cyberpunk as the bastard son of two great works by SF: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (the dystopia) and the cycle of robots by Isaac Asimov (for the posthuman question). It has to be said that these two works are quite complementary. Dystopias project us into totalitarian societies like George Orwell’s 1984 or Ira Levin’s misfortune, in which part of humanity is enslaved. However, the term “robot”, which is at the center of posthumanist philosophy, comes from the Czech “robota”, which means “slave”. From Fritz Lang’s Metropole (1927), robots are inextricably linked with the labor question, since they are both the slaves of a crazy capitalism. The first Blade Runner replicants were designed for painful and unenviable tasks (exploring dangerous places, prostitution). Westworld robots are at the mercy of the park’s wealthy visitors, who come to calm their impulses, kill and rape them at will …
As we’ve seen, cyberpunk is a deeply engaged movement by its inspirations. His heroes are often victims of a system that excludes them or is in the process of excluding them. The most convincing example seems to be the manga Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro. In this cyberpunk masterpiece, recently adapted for cinema by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) and James Cameron (Terminator), one section of humanity lives in the landfill while the other, privileged, lives in the wonderful floating city of Zalem . This more spatial separation of the various social classes, which couldn’t be more eloquent, is quite representative of the cyberpunk movement. We could also have taken the example of John Anderton, the character played by Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, who the system is chasing after having used him all his life …
The great works of cyberpunk
If we had to keep one writer, an absolute matrix of the cyberpunk movement, it would obviously be Philip K. Dick. The American writer, who specializes in anticipation stories, has delivered several masterpieces that have deeply marked the history of the movement: Do androids dream of electric sheep? (1966), the short stories Minority Report (1956) and Souvenirs à vendre (1966), each of which was adapted into three cinema masterpieces: Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002) and Total Recall ( Paul Verhoeven, 1990). Philip K. Dick has been a gigantic influence on cyberpunk, and all writers relate to him in one way or another. This is especially true for the ex-Monty Python Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 1985) or for David Cronenberg (eXistenZ, 1999).
With the adaptation of Blade Runner, legendary director Ridley Scott (1982) also had a formidable influence on cyberpunk. The British filmmaker from Alien comes from the world of advertising and is a true picture maker. With Blade Runner he succeeded in enforcing the aesthetic codes of cyberpunk: action mostly takes place at night, hazy atmosphere, city with dazzling neon lights, special clothing style. Almost forty years after the film, we continue to compare the works of Cyberpunk to Blade Runner.
Cinema has obviously produced great cyberpunk works: let’s quote the RoboCop by Paul Verhoeven (1987), the fifth element by Luc Besson (1997), the Matrix trilogy by Wachowski (1999-2003), Chappie by Neill Blomkamp (2015) , Blade Runner 2049 (Dennis Villeneuve, 2017). The same applies to the small screen: Person of Interest (CBS), Westworld (HBO), Altered Carbon (Netflix).
Comic book writers are obviously not left out. However, if the incal of Jodorowsky and Moebius is listed among the works of space opera, French-language comics do not forget to add a cyberpunk accent. We can also quote the British comics Judge Dredd (John Wagner) and Transmetropolitan (Warren Ellis) or Tokyo Ghost by the American Sean Murphy.
If we talk a lot about English-speaking cyberpunk, it should also be noted that Japan is a real breeding ground for cyberpunk culture. The famous mangaka Katsuhiro Otomo began writing Akira in 1982, the same year as Blade Runner, and adapted it to cinema in 1988. Akira is a true cyberpunk masterpiece and deals with the main themes of the movement (l increase in people, new urbanism, class struggle) by mixing them with the obsessions of its author (reflection on violence, love of speed). Let’s also mention the manga of Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow, which began in 1989 and was turned into an animated film by Mamoru Oshii (Avalon) in 1995, and Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro, which began in 1990 and which we have already mentioned above. Less known, guilt! by Tsutomu Nihei (1998), like the manga we just mentioned, benefits from a great collector’s edition of the Glénat editions.
After all, cyberpunk has had a huge impact on video games. The Deus Ex and Final Fantasy VII games are big critical hits. And we have no doubt that Cyberpunk 2077 can help build this exciting movement that we so admire.