When you think of the word “cyberpunk,” what do you picture? Maybe flying cars, digital implants glowing in the dark, and holograms? Or maybe you have no idea what the word means and you picture nothing at all. Even if you aren’t deep into the sub-genre, you’ve probably brushed against it through TV shows, movies, or books. The look and general feel of cyberpunk has become increasingly popular over the years. What’s the history of cyberpunk?
The beginning of cyberpunk
Like all genres, a firm definition is vague, but generally, “cyberpunk” refers to a depressing, dystopic future where technology is doing things we never thought possible, and maybe some things we wish it wouldn’t. People get implants under their skin and cybernetic augmentations like robot arms and legs. Meanwhile, the natural environment crumbles around them. Corporations are powerful, and class wars are brutal. Cyberpunk first started getting recognition in the 1980’s. Now, it’s in the title of a much-anticipated video game (“Cyberpunk 2077”) featuring Keanu Reeves. Other big examples of the genre include:
- “Blade Runner” (both films)
- “Total Recall” (both the original and remake)
- “Ghost in the Shell” (comic book and film)
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
The history of cyberpunk up in steam
One of the big offshoots of cyberpunk, steampunk begins a bit later around 1987, at least the term did. Instead of reflecting on a gritty vision of our current future, steampunk wonders what the future might look like if we never moved past steam technology. While we figure out how to create robots and even computers, everything is powered by steam. Fashion-wise, society still looks a lot like the Victorian era. Though steampunk didn’t “officially” begin until the 1980’s and ‘90’s, it has a lot of similarities to the works of Jules Verne. He described technologies that weren’t around yet, like Captain Nemo’s submarine, which is powered by seawater-extracted sodium and mercury batteries.
In 1990, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling published The Difference Engine, an alternate history book about the events following the successful creation of a mechanical computer. The British Empire becomes the most powerful nation in the world because of its new technology, while the US is divided into areas like The Republic of Texas and a Communist Manhatten Island. The Difference Engine ignited many tropes now common to the steampunk genre.
There are other offshoots of cyberpunk. The term “dieselpunk” emerged around 2001, when a game designer came up with the term to describe his RPG. It’s very similar to steampunk – just replace “steam” with “diesel.” It ditches the more Victorian era-style for the 1950’s, with different technologies and fashions. The Bioshock game series has both steampunk and dieselpunk vibes, while films “Sucker Punch” and “Mad Max” share a lot of dieselpunky elements.
“Biopunk” is also a term you might hear thrown around now, especially as our real-life technology embraces more genetic engineering. Very similar to traditional cyberpunk in that it explores the future, “biopunk” focuses more on how human bodies will change and the horrific consequences too much tampering might cause. For example, a scientist plays God and ends up creating a virus, or someone messing with biological implants turns himself into a monster. We actually have real biopunks today. They inject themselves with DNA, put implants under their skin, and more. This sort of real-life activity makes biopunk more interesting than other subgenres, and the history of cyberpunk as we know it could change directions.
Interested in learning more about the people living cyberpunk by messing with their own DNA? Click here to read about “grinders.”