I’ve been getting a lot of review requests this year and since I do not always have time, I sometimes offer for the author to write a guest post for the blog. This way there is still attention for them and their book. Through this way I got into contact with Jon Richter.
One topic that Jon suggested sparked my attention and that was cyberpunk. As you know I have been giving some attention to lesser known subgenres or subgenres that others are unsure of the definition. Some day I want to do a big guide for it all. When I have time. So when he wanted to write about this topic I jumped on that right away.
It is quite a read but I appreciate that most of all because a lot of thought has clearly gone into it. So grab a snack and get comfortable for some Cyberpunk.
What is cyberpunk?
Earlier this year I released my first cyberpunk novel, Auxiliary: London 2039. As you might expect, I began the process of shamelessly touting it around friends and social media contacts, and was interested to receive a few responses asking ‘what is cyberpunk?’ As a massive nerd I wrongly assumed the genre was totally mainstream thanks to the most famous works in its (laser) canon – Blade Runner, Altered Carbon, Neuromancer – but in reality this sub-genre of science fiction is still pretty niche. So I thought I’d try to shed some hellish, neon light on what cyberpunk is all about!
Definition of cyberpunk
Cyberpunk is often viewed as having been ‘codified’ by two more or less convergent texts: one is the Ridley Scott movie Blade Runner, released in 1982 (based on Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?), and the other is William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer. Both of these masterpieces have influenced swathes of other books, movies, art, video games and more, and we’ll explore some of the genre’s cornerstones in more detail below.
Here’s an excellent definition of cyberpunk, taken from neondystopia.com:
‘Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future. On one side you have powerful mega-corporations and private security forces, and on the other you have the dark and gritty underworld of illegal trade, gangs, drugs, and vice. In between all of this is politics, corruption, and social upheaval.’
I’ve also seen some sites explicitly stating that to ‘qualify’ as cyberpunk, a story must explicitly contain elements of noir, or even very specifically a detective investigating a crime. Although some of these finer points can be (and have been) debated in excruciating detail, a central tenet that crops up again and again across the internet, and I feel summarises the genre perfectly, is this phrase:
‘High tech, low life.’
For what it’s worth, my own attempt to distil the required components of cyberpunk are:
- Powerful, ruthless mega-corporations and/or governments
- Advanced technology playing an invasive role, usually blurring the boundary between human and machine, and/or between actual and virtual realities
- A gritty urban setting and thriving criminal underworld
- Some sort of mystery or small-scale problem to be solved, which casts light into society’s darkest corners
- Cool jackets with massive collars
Why cyberpunk is great
First and foremost, I love cyberpunk because it’s cool. The mandatory trench coats, the achingly awesome cybernetic augmentations ranging from subtle eye enhancements to full-on crab claws, the flickering pink neon signs bearing indecipherable Japanese, the sensory assault of a walk around a dark city at night while flying vehicles speed past overhead and street vendors hawk all manner of dubious fried goods and illegal wetware implants… the world envisaged by this genre is one that I would absolutely love to visit. The synth-driven music is phenomenal too; it could be argued that the eighties was basically the cyberpunk decade.
I also love cyberpunk because it feels like an increasingly plausible vision of our near future. We already live in a world where the internet and mobile phones enable us to be constantly connected to thousands of others around the world, and such digital relationships are rapidly replacing familial or face-to-face ones. Virtual reality environments are more realistic than ever before, and offer more and more compelling alternatives to the real world. Huge corporations battle it out for our money and our attention, using their revolutionary technologies to influence our behaviour, while paranoid governments struggle to keep pace, spending billions to enhance their surveillance activities. The first ‘grinders’ are already making physical modifications to their bodies, and we’re seeing the emergence of the first mind-controlled cybernetics. AI and robotics are making huge advances, and we’re possibly just a handful of years from the first driverless cars being seen on our roads.
It really isn’t much of a stretch to project these trends forward, even by a few decades, into the sort of world that the best cyberpunk books, movies and video games have been imagining since the early eighties.
Finally, although I dislike the nitpicky specificity that sometimes surrounds the genre (‘oh no, I think you’ll find Robocop isn’t cyberpunk’), I actually do like its penchant for centring around detective stories. I love crime thrillers and mysteries (that’s why I write ‘em!) and, beneath the hi-tech trappings, the genre’s best works are often classic detective stories at their (cybernetically-modified) hearts. The genre has also given us some very memorable protagonists and supporting characters – most of them featuring the afore-mentioned cool jackets.
Best cyberpunk novels
Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan
If you’ve never read a cyberpunk novel before and are looking for a great place to start, this 2002 novel comes highly recommended. Now adapted into a Netlflix series (decent, but not a patch on the book), I remember when I first read it thinking ‘this is like Jack Reacher in space’: a hard-boiled, uncompromising lead character who is more than happy to break some bones on his way to solving a crime. The story’s vision of a future where human consciousnesses are easily transferred between bodies (or ‘sleeves’ as they have become known) creates some fascinating questions about the nature of identity, as well as a host of troubling moral pitfalls as we come to realise that only those with resources can afford the best ‘meat suits’.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Already mentioned as one of the founders of the genre, this brilliant 1984 novel was ahead of its time in every way possible. Retractable cyborg claws, an online virtual data space called ‘the matrix’, an evil digital presence that can turn maintenance robots into killers – this book birthed more tropes than any novel has a right to. Gibson gave us what so few writers manage: a unique, original and plausible vision of our near future.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick
This was the 1968 novel that Blade Runner was based upon, albeit with a number of significant changes, and it’s definitely worth a read even if you’re a big fan of the movie. Key events and characters differ wildly from those depicted so memorably by the likes of Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, and as with any of Dick’s works the book reads like a mind-melting, unsettling and bizarrely poignant psychological rollercoaster ride.
Against A Dark Background by Iain M Banks
Iain Banks is my favourite writer of all time. His books are, without exception, original, shocking, disturbing and ingenious, and this certainly applies to all of the science fiction he wrote under his subtly-tweaked alternative moniker, Iain M Banks. Once again, the pitfalls of debating what does or doesn’t constitute cyberpunk await us here, and some of his galaxy-spanning Culture novels definitely feel like they occupy a different genre, but he was more than capable of crafting a very effective smaller-scale narrative when the mood took him. This book chronicles the attempts of a hard-as-nails antiquities thief named Sharrow to recover an ancient weapon of mass destruction brilliantly named ‘the Lazy Gun’ in order to stave off an assassination attempt against her – and if that already sounds bonkers, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison
This 1967 tale is my favourite short story of all time. Infamously going on to inspire The Terminator (not that James Cameron necessarily admitted this, but Ellison obtained a credit in the movie’s closing credits after a successful lawsuit), the story details the misadventures of the world’s last five living humans after the rest of humanity is wiped out by a particularly nasty AI named ‘AM’ (the Allied Mastercomputer). The video game adaptation features one of the greatest rants of all time, voiced by Ellison himself! (Google ‘AM’s hate speech’ if you want to spend thirty-five seconds being abused by a really, really angry computer.)
Best cyberpunk movies
The 1982 classic, of course, gets top billing here. Everything that can be said about this incredible piece of filmmaking has already been said; if you’ve never seen it, you are essentially committing an act of gross self-sabotage. If you have seen it, watch it again. I was lucky enough to go to the recent ‘Secret Cinema’ showing where they did a pretty incredible job of recreating the movie’s neon-drenched future Los Angeles, reminding me of just how beautifully, sleazily atmospheric the city is; but it’s the characters, not the setting, that are the stars of this show. In particular, Rutger Hauer’s career-defining performance gave us a villain who is somehow simultaneously heartbreakingly vulnerable and terrifyingly intimidating… as well as the greatest ad-lib of all time.
Blade Runner 2049
After I saw the original trailer for this unexpected sequel, my expectations were virtually non-existent. It looked like another shameless cash-in by a Hollywood seemingly bereft of original ideas, and I still maintain that the editing of said trailer is almost a textbook exercise in how not to entice people to watch a movie (unless they enjoy boring, meaningless action sequences…)
Then I saw the film, just in case – and I was blown away!! It’s impossible to explain how Denis Villeneuve manages to perfectly recapture the feel of the original while delivering a movie that expands upon its story, themes and universe to create something that, at times, threatens to surpass it. Not since Terminator 2 has a movie sequel done such a great job of elevating an already-celebrated original. If you’re a fan of the first but still sceptical about this, I implore you to give it a chance.
Ghost In The Shell
I’m talking here not about the soulless 2017 live action adaptation, but about the 1995 anime, itself based upon a manga series first published in 1989. The film combines breath-taking visuals, an unsettling soundtrack, memorable voice acting in the dubbed version (especially Richard Epcar’s portrayal of tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold Batou), and a complex and challenging story about a sentient lifeform that is spawned on the ‘net’. I won’t say too much more about the plot other than that it rewards multiple viewings and a lot of concentration, but the film can be just as well enjoyed as a mind-boggling assault of incredible science-fiction images.
(I also love the 2004 sequel, where I was delighted to find Batou cast as the lead protagonist, and would wholeheartedly recommend checking that out too.)
Once again, the recent remake should be disregarded – I’m talking about Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic. Not often found on cyberpunk ‘greatest hits’ lists, I’d argue that this movie ticks every box; at its ingenious heart, it’s a story about a detective investigating his own murder. It’s brutal, it’s uncompromising, and its story cuts through every layer of futuristic Detroit’s rotten society. Although this is undoubtedly a dark movie, it is proliferated with moments of comedy gold – none more so than the disastrous unveiling of ED-209 at an unsuspecting board meeting. This film comes as close as you can get to being perfect.
Another anime, and probably the most famous one of all time. For me, the star of this 1988 film (other than the fantastic artwork) is the brilliantly-depicted setting of Neo-Tokyo itself: its streets clogged with outlaw biker gangs and angry protestors, the city seems alive, an ailing and bloated organism that is outgrowing its ability to survive – much like the fate that awaits latent psychic protagonist Tetsuo…
Like Blade Runner, this enormously influential movie is undoubtedly a cultural milestone. As it says on the cover of my double-disc copy: ‘No Akira, no Matrix, it’s that important.’
Best cyberpunk video games
First released in 1992, I played this on the Sega Mega Drive when I was about ten years old. I was initially captivated by the then-revolutionary graphics, then by its brilliant storyline, encompassing everything from an amnesiac recovering forgotten messages from himself to a Running Man-style deadly gameshow, and culminating in a battle against shape-shifting alien invaders! The game still holds up today, and is much better than its recent remake (I’m beginning to notice a trend here…)
Notable for being one of Rutger Hauer’s final performances before his sad death, this 2017 psychological horror video game casts the gravel-voiced performer as a Polish detective in a post-apocalyptic city where cybernetic enhancement is commonplace. Hauer’s character, Daniel Lazarski, can hack into the brains of the deceased in order to understand their movements and motivations, leading to some incredibly surreal, dreamlike investigation sequences – think David Lynch directing a sort of science-fiction Silent Hill. An example of a game’s modest budget introducing constraints that serve to focus and improve the experience, the game takes place entirely inside a single, locked-down apartment complex, with Lazarski hunting down clues about a murder that may or may not involve his own son… brilliant stuff.
Released in 1994 on the Sega Genesis (the North American name for the Sega Mega Drive – I’m using it here because the game was not released in Europe), this RPG casts you as a mercenary for hire, undertaking a series of ‘shadowruns’ on behalf of shady corporate liaisons known as ‘Mr Johnsons’. It was an adaptation of the still-popular cyberpunk table-top RPG game of the same name; I will confess that I’ve never actually played either, but am including on this list due to the countless times I’ve seen both the video game and board game incarnations recommended by people online – definitely on my list to check out!
Released in 1997, the plot of this ‘sidequel’ intersects with the original movie despite chronicling the exploits of a different protagonist, specifically one Ray McCoy, tasked with hunting down a separate batch of escaped replicants. Considered a forgotten classic, I was pleased to learn that this is in the process of being remastered for the PS4, and due for release later in 2020.
This is the big one. Already delayed from its originally-proposed 2020 release, this upcoming game from the creators of The Witcher series boasts a galactic budget and stars Keanu Reeves (his appearance at the E3 show in 2019 reinforced his status as the world’s most charming bloke), and anticipation amongst the gaming community is now at fever pitch. If they manage to deliver a compelling, atmospheric, open-world cyberpunk experience, and avoid the familiar video game pitfalls of a corny script, one-dimensional characters and dull minute-to-minute gameplay, this could be one of the best games ever made. And, even if it isn’t, I’ll still be buying it… if only to see good old Keanu in action!
Well, that’s probably more than enough cyberpunk for you to be getting on with for now! I hope you’ve found this post interesting, and it’s motivated you to check out some of the fantastic works of fiction detailed above. If you’re interested in checking out my own book, you can find it on Amazon at https://geni.us/auxiliarym, or you can visit my website at www.jon-richter.com where you’ll find a trailer, an audio extract, and links to my other dark fiction projects.
Meanwhile, stay safe and look after each other… at the time of writing we’re living in a strange dystopia not that far removed from the bleak urban cityscapes imagined in the stories detailed above, but if we keep doing the right things it will all be over soon!
Jon Richter lives in London, where he spends some of his sun-cycles trapped in the body of an accountant called Dave. When he isn’t forced to count beans, he writes dark fiction about robots, artificial intelligence, human augmentation, and all the other developing technologies that will soon make our world a brilliant and/or terrifying place to live and die. Chat with him about cyborgs and other things with wires for veins @RichterWrites.