To define cyberpunk is to literally take up the foundations of science fiction and say, “this is it, and there are no other options.” Anyone who attempts a definitive definition to science fiction will know how ridiculous this is to accomplish, particularly because no two individuals will agree. Cyberpunk is to punk what science fiction is to itself. Any attempt to define cyberpunk will be either heavily contested, patently wrong, or shortsighted. I expect here, in this brief forum, that I will have approached some semblance of all three categories.
Cyberpunk began, at least in its most recognizable form, with Bruce Bethke, a fellow most of you have never heard of precisely because another fellow by the name of William Gibson stormed onto the scene and stole the limelight from our little Bethke. You see, Bethke was a visionary who unfortunately was rather shortsighted in his presentation of what we now know to be “hacker culture.” His story, aptly named “Cyberpunk,” was quite literally the embodiment of punk in the narrowed vision of the future, a molding, literally, even, of cyber (to mean future technology) and punk (to mean what I attempted to utter here). Fitting how the term came together, don’t you think?
Then there was Gibson, and Bruce Sterling, and Pat Cadigan, and even a few friends from the past who, for better or worse, were adopted into the fray by enthusiasts of the genre, even though they were not, by any stretch of the imagination, attempting to toss their names into the cyberpunk hat (how could they when they had no idea that cyberpunk would exist in another decade or two, the Philip K. Dicks and Stanislaw Lems, with all their proto-cyberpunk tales that were either ignored or acknowledged as wonderfully complicated).
And what were they writing? Future punk, to be rather brutally simplistic about it. They were extrapolating upon the present by imagining a future that punk had yet to conceive: one in which globalization had been taken to the extreme, so much so that corporations took that final step to being more than just entities with a voice, but true powers, global entities with desires, wills, and superiority over the then-present (future-present) society. Here is when punk met cyber, because as society in the 1980s was gearing up for the incredible shift in economic priorities, cyberpunk writers, whether announced or silent, were imagining the decay of cities and neobarbarism (an examination of extremist urbanity), and envisioning the future of post-industrialization. Super economies were becoming service economies (Fordism vs. Toyotaism) and the entire structure of society, as envisioned by the league of cyberpunks themselves, was shifting from that in which the individual fit into one of two categories: 1) the hapless victim of social and economic change, unwilling or unskilled to mount any sort of resistance, except to adopt the new cultural paradigm and become “citizens” of the post-industrial, corporation-as-self structure; and 2) the “punk” as embodied in he/she who resists, who mounts some form of opposition and bleeds into the structure of society as one who is not supportive in action (though in mind they were not necessarily aware of said resistance) of the dominant social structures.
And so, cyberpunk became a way of envisioning the future as always already screwed up, as filled with all that was wrong with the present amplified, but all that was right with the future. There was the net, a force of both social cohesion and discord, and even such wonders as quasi-noir imagery (a la old detective novels), cybernetics, bionics, excessive reference to new or improved drugs, and hacking. Much of cyberpunk, thus, saw the net as coming alive, becoming, as it were, a being-to-itself, with artificial intelligence and pre-visualized navigation structures that allowed it to be more than just a place of numbers and code. Here you should think about the nature of video games and how the Internet has change how we play them; cyberpunk saw that coming from a mile away, but yet was so clearly wrong in some respects, because we have yet to devise a game world that is a world experienced as such.
This post, unfortunately, has grown too long, and must be split. Here I have conceptualized a relationship to punk itself and given a brief idea of what cyberpunk is, though rather haphazardly. There is more to say, but for now we have the above. There are movements to be discussed, within cyberpunk, and other elements that have largely been forgotten, including the interesting nature of merger and collaboration amongst the various other genres, and even the supposed death of cyberpunk. Those are forthcoming.
But, for now, if you have thoughts, disagreements, or downright hatreds for what I have uttered here, please use the comments below to relay them in the manner you deem appropriate. And that concludes my rather formal, somewhat critical language. Have at it!