More Human Than Human: An Introduction to Cyberpunk

This article was contributed to The Film Magazine by Kieran Judge of and Horror Reviews by the Collective.

The term ‘cyberpunk’ is thrown around a lot these days, and normally by those who don’t have a solid understanding of what it actually is beyond large hologram billboards and a brooding protagonist. In this article I hope to give you a basic understanding of its literary and cinematic progenitors, from the rise of the original pack of cyberpunks through to modern cinema’s fascination with it. I’ll be exploring basic themes and motifs of the sub-genre, and hoping to shed some light on why green dreadlocks trapped in a neon drenched gun fight is only scratching the surface of what cyberpunk actually is.

The History Lesson

The Origins

It is the late 70’s, early 80’s. Star Wars has made science-fiction cool and profitable, and planet-hopping intergalactic epics have taken the world by storm. Dune is being made into a film (by many people before David Lynch) and science-fiction is going big on a scale never seen before.

This really irritated a small group of writers such as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, Pat Cadigan and Greg Egan (to name but a few), who felt that this simply didn’t reflect them and their society at that time. In an age of consumerism (advertisements etc.), and bright lights and technology advancing at a pace never anticipated, they felt that this changing world wasn’t being properly reflected in the genre at the time. It was too escapist, too out-there for it to really mean something. They began to write about what this meant to them in their present via the route of a near-future setting.

They explored what effect technology had on humanity when they were inextricably linked. They explored artificial reality, asked if someone inside another world, in their mind, was really them at all. They wanted to discuss the rise of all-powerful multi-national corporations and the ever-increasing influence of Asian nations on Western society. By putting their protagonists in the grime and dirt of the streets instead of intergalactic star ships and their like, they sought to communicate how the every-man was experiencing their new, dynamic world.

Metropolis 1927

Not that some of these themes and ideas hadn’t already been discussed before. The boundary between human and machine is one as old as Science-Fiction itself, with the question of humanity’s defining characteristics going back to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. One might even make the argument that Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis is an ancestor for cyberpunk – the machine Maria blurs the line between what is human and what is technology by taking the face of a human. This is certainly a prototype for many characters that would come later.

Philip K. Dick was one of the main literary progenitors of cyberpunk, and his influence cannot be understated. Despite coming before the rise of the cyberpunks, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and its silver screen adaptation Blade Runner are still perhaps the turning point, and a milestone which none have matched since. In Ridley Scott’s film, Rachel questioning Deckard, ‘have you ever retired a human by mistake?’ sets up the main thematic question of the film; where is the line between human and machine?

Endless debates about Deckard’s nature have gone on for decades, and some have even questioned whether replicants themselves are machines at all, or just superhuman in their traits.

Added to this is the proliferation of giant advertisements, the neon-drenched landscape, the exploration of the lower classes in the form of Sebastian, and the thriller-esque narrative, and we see that the film laid the groundwork for the book that would open up cyberpunk to the masses.

Cyberpunk’s Sprawl

Though he had written many short stories beforehand and cyberpunk was a burgeoning subgenre by this point in his career, William Gibson would define the sub-genre with his 1984 debut novel “Neuromancer”, the first novel to win the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and Nebula awards.

Ex-Cyberspace hacker and drug addict Case is brought on for a final task against a large artificial intelligence in exchange for a chance to jack into the matrix again. Introducing the world to ‘cyberspace’ (a term first coined by Gibson) and the spider-web technological world of the matrix, Gibson blended the neon-soaked chrome of Blade Runner (which he reportedly thought people would think he copied from the film) and combined it with a unique narrative to build the foundations for what was to come.

In its wake, Bruce Sterling produced “Schismatrix”, Pat Cadigan came out with “Mindplayers”, Rudy Rucker wrote the second part of the “Ware” series (“Wetware”) in 1988, Lewis Shiner combined cyberpunk with space exploration in “Frontera”, and at the end of the initial sprawl, Neal Stephenson would apply the hindi word ‘avatar’ to virtual reality and videogames for the first time in “Snow Crash”. Gibson himself would continue “Neuromancer’s” story with “Count Zero” and “Mona Lisa Overdrive”, and eventually team up with Sterling to define Steampunk with “The Difference Engine”.

Cyberpunk had started to infect science-fiction’s bloodstream, and this wasn’t just limited to the west. In Japan, Akira (based on the manga) set anime ablaze, and after several novels, 1995 would see the release of the original Ghost in the Shell movie. And let’s not forget Tetsuo: The Iron Man, a strange splatter-punk style film that is as unique as it is disturbing and strange, blending horror and cyberpunk together for an unforgettable cinematic experience.

David Cronenberg was also experimenting in these areas to an extent, and if you were to look at Videodrome for example, you may see similarities with cyberpunk narratives, despite that picture being primarily a horror film too.

Memory is examined in Total Recall, the adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember it for you Wholesale”, and the cyborg nature of cyberpunk gets a memorable outing not just in Cyborg, but also in such films as Robocop and its numerous sequels. To an extent, perhaps even The Terminator could be seen to have many similarities with cyberpunk.

And yet the genre was almost single-handedly redefined in 1999 when the Wachowski’s unleash one of the most influential films in sci-fi history, The Matrix.

The Matrix Revolution

The Matrix wasn’t the first to do almost anything in its run-time – it managed to take bits and pieces from almost everywhere and combine them in such a way that cyberpunk scripts were metaphorically rewritten. Mixing the Plato’s cave from “Dark City”, the cyberspace of Gibson’s “Sprawl” Trilogy, the noir elements of Blade Runner, the action sequences of Ghost in the Shell and a script worked on for five solid years, The Matrix took everything it could from its predecessors and meshed it all together seamlessly, and to great success.

The Matrix Movie 1999

After The Matrix, cyberpunk seemed to be taken seriously once again. Its ramifications even echoed to outside science-fiction and its smooth direction was copied infinitely (the first Underworld film is what happens if you take a Matrix-esque style and apply it to Vampires vs. Werewolves). Perhaps Inception might not have garnered as much interest had The Matrix not proved that a multi-layered, cross-cutting science-fiction extravaganza was not only possible but financially plausible if treated correctly. Look at the slow-motion in Dredd, or even the interlocking of reality and The Oasis in Ready Player One. And look at how cyberpunk (though one would argue it never left Japan) came back big-style in anime with ‘Sword Art Online’, ‘AccelWorld’ and ‘Psycho Pass’. Add to this the critical success of Blade Runner 2049 and Roger Deakins finally snagging that Academy Award (after 14 nominations) for cinematography, as well as Netflix’s recent adaptation of ‘Altered Carbon’ making waves, it seems that cyberpunk is more relevant than ever, and here to stay.

The Academia

When people ask what cyberpunk is, the answer they’ll most commonly receive is ‘high tech, low life’. This phrase itself comes from Bruce Sterling’s introduction to William Gibson’s short story collection “Burning Chrome”. This is however too simplified of an explanation. Cyberpunk is more than tropes of down-and-out male protagonists with the hum of technology around them.

I present a different explanation.

There is a common rhetorical question that goes something like this: if you were to replace one plank of a ship, and then another, and then the whole ship piece by piece, at the end of it all would you still have the same ship? My explanation of cyberpunk’s beating metallic core would be a rendition of this: if you replace one part of a human with technology, and then another, and then their reality, and then their brain, and then their mind, and then their emotions, and then their memories, at what point do they stop being human?

If we go right back to Metropolis we see the question of humanity in the twinning of the two Maria’s, one human and one machine. Mechanical Maria brings down Metropolis, upsetting the order; a clear warning of the implications technological advancement could have for social upheaval.

Metropolis is clearly inspired by R.U.R, the play by Karel Čapek that introduced English to the word “robot”, where a new breed of artificially created people create a revolution to overthrow society. Jump forward a few decades and what do we see in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and later Blade Runner, the archetypal cyberpunk texts in both mediums? Someone tasked with stopping androids/replicants from radically altering society with their very existence. Those technologically created humans? We like them when they do what we want, but they aren’t us. They don’t have souls. They weren’t born.

But does their origin make an artificial human different to us? Consider the empathetic learning of Schwarzenegger’s T800 throughout Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The relentless killing machine we know from the first film is transformed into a being of understanding and near-emotion thanks to John Connor’s interaction with him. We have to try to remember that this character is not human but a machine. And yet, if they have all the understanding of a human (the emotions, the memories) and simply have silicon for skin, where does this boundary between human and non-human lie?

This too is Blade Runner’s complexity.

Blade Runner 1982

Does Deckard fall for a replicant or a person? The dove flying from Batty’s hand upon his death is symbolic of his soul. So if a replicant has a soul, are they now a human? Do replicants deserve the same treatment as people of natural birth as opposed to artificial creation?

Think of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Is he wires or flesh? At what point does our amalgamation with technology transcend our definition of humanity? If he becomes fully automated? He started human and was born naturally, but is now entirely functional and “conscious” by artificial means. What do we do in this situation?

Virtual reality plays a similar role, only this time going straight for our brain. When we immerse ourselves in a videogame, such as in Ready Player One, Snow Crash, or (in many ways) The Matrix, which “life” becomes our reality? Remember that Cypher says in The Matrix: ‘I believe the matrix can be more real than the real world’. And, as many theories would state; if we take the possibility that the ‘real world’ in The Matrix is simply another layer – which is an explanation of why Neo can see although blind – then what is our reality? Is the real world actually the truth? What is truth to us?

When we lose ourselves in the pop-culture arcade of The Oasis in Ready Player One, or in Aincrad in ‘Sword Art Online’, does it become our life? Does the artificial reality in fact become our only reality? In Frontera, the main character Kane has a brain implant that alters his whole understanding of what is real and illusion: ‘stimulating that area of the right brain is supposed to cause hallucinations.’

Will this happen to us one day? And if he sees things as a result of technology, without his knowledge, is he really seeing a hallucination at all or simply projections of his own reality no different to our own?

These texts specifically question what happens when we allow technology to radically affect our understanding of the world and, more importantly, ourselves. As Steve Best says in his article on Robocop, ‘A key aspect of this fear concerns the erasure of human identity under advanced technological conditions.’

Tracking every nuance of cyberpunk would take an entire shelf of books, and even then there would be things that were missed. I do, however, hope that this article provided an initial insight into a section of science-fiction which, I have no doubt, will become more and more prevalent as time goes on, and hopefully help to provide an opening into a world that goes beyond the aesthetics and into an examination of ourselves and our technology.

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