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Cyberpunk Literature

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English Literature

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when I say 'cyberpunk'? Is it neon lights in busy streets, people milling about, fitted with cybernetic arms or eyes, exchanging conversations about the latest tech in cybernetic augmentations? Cyberpunk literature is all of this and much more. Read on to find out all that cyberpunk literature entails.

Cyberpunk Literature: definition

Cyberpunk literature refers to fictional narratives that focus on street culture in a futuristic, high-tech setting. In cyberpunk fiction, characters are often fitted with cybernetic augmentations and use artificial intelligence to achieve their goals. Cyberpunk, as the title implies, is influenced by the punk subculture and is centred on street life, with characters hailing from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds and rebelling against the established norms of the society in the narrative.

Popular cyberpunk literature includes Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), which also inspired the cyberpunk film by Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (1982).

Cyberpunk Literature: genre

Cyberpunk is a sub-genre that falls under the genre of science fiction. This is because of the futuristic, technology-oriented elements of cyberpunk which are also central to works of science fiction.

Science fiction: a narrative genre in which science or technology features in a prominent way.

H. G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895) is considered a science fiction text because of its protagonist's creation and use of time-travel technology.

While works of science fiction were inclined to certain archetypes (characters that typically feature in particular genres) and tropes (the use of figurative language typical of a particular genre) such as mad scientists, time travel, superpowers, invisibility, or parallel dimensions, cyberpunk particularly caters to the punk subculture and the technology of cybernetic systems.

Cybernetic systems: feedback loops that provide input to create certain conditions or grant certain abilities.

When someone is fitted with a cybernetic arm, they may be able to lift immense weights that are otherwise impossible to lift with human strength. This is possible because the cybernetic arm is an implant sending impulses to the brain and receiving feedback from it to complete the physical task. Similarly, there may be cybernetic eyes or brain implants that grant special abilities to an individual.

The genre of cyberpunk is associated with other visual media, such as comics, manga, anime, films, television, and video games because of its visual appeal.

Works of cyberpunk visual media include the manga series Akira (1982) by Katsuhiro Otomo and the video game Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) by CD Projekt.

Cyberpunk Literature: themes and examples

Some of the dominant themes in cyberpunk literature are the setting of the urban landscape, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and criminal elements.

Urban landscape

The setting of the urban landscape of the lower classes in the big city is prominent in works of cyberpunk literature. One of the reasons for this is the cosmopolitan nature of this setting, which features people from diverse cultural, social, and economic backgrounds. The urban landscape is where the poor might escape poverty, whether it be through hard work or through more dubious means, and it is also the site for conglomerates and multinational corporations to thrive.

The chaotic yet colourful marketplace or the 'street' in the urban landscape is important in works of cyberpunk literature, as this is where the majority of the action takes place. Shady deals are made in these places, as are shoot-outs between rival gangs.

Works of cyberpunk literature featuring the urban landscape include K. W. Jeter's Dr. Adder (1984) and Ian McDonald's River of Gods (2004).

Virtual Reality and artificial intelligence

Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence are common tropes in works of cyberpunk literature. Because of the futuristic setting, technology has greatly progressed in the narrative. In many literary texts, entire societies are set in virtual worlds where people attempt to escape reality by living vicariously and engaging in voyeuristic activities in the virtual world.Artificial intelligence (AI), too, has made many advances. Numerous narratives feature characters that are AI and significantly influence the direction of the story.

Cyberpunk literature centred on virtual reality and artificial intelligence include Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (2011), Melissa Scott's Trouble And Her Friends (1994), and the 1981 novella by Vernor Vinge, True Names.

Criminal elements

Because of the urban setting and the chaos it brings, crime is rife in cyberpunk narratives. Criminal elements are also prominent as cyberpunk texts feature characters from lower economic or social backgrounds who are often forced into committing illegal activities. In fact, some cyberpunk literature is also juxtaposed with crime fiction or detective fiction. Think of it as a mystery or thriller set in a cyberpunk world.

Cyberpunk literature with elements of crime or detective fiction includes Noir (1998) by K. W. Jeter and Pat Cadigan's Tea from an Empty Cup (1998).

Cyberpunk Literature: books

Some popular cyberpunk books are The Sprawl Trilogy (1984–1988) by William Gibson, Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson and Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge (2013).

The Sprawl Trilogy (1984–1988) by William Gibson

The trilogy follows a set of characters in a futuristic setting after World War III. Everyday life in this futuristic society is embedded with technology, controlled by people at the helm of powerful corporations. The novel involves a 'cyberspace' where the mind is linked with technology and AI, and the flow of information in the cyberspace tips the balance of power in favour of some, while exploiting others.

Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson

The novel is widely seen as a retelling of the story of the 'Tower of Babel', a Biblical tale where the whole of humankind can communicate through one common language and gathers to build a tower to heaven. God then scatters the human race and introduces different languages and cultures so that the human race can not understand each other so easily and build a tower to heaven again.

The narrative of Snow Crash features a Goddess as a personified version of a computer language, who is pitted against the personification of a computer virus that has divided humanity.

Bleeding Edge (2013) by Thomas Pynchon

Set in New York City, Bleeding Edge includes elements of detective fiction, with the protagonist Maxine tracing financial discrepancies at a US security firm to conspiracies linked to terrorism and the 9/11 attacks. The novel involves tampering with data security systems and hacking as the key means of driving the action forward.

Cyberpunk Literature today

Cyberpunk literature continues to be widely enjoyed by readers today. In fact, the love for cyberpunk as a genre has proliferated numerous media formats. Cyberpunk can be enjoyed through novels, short stories, anthologies, films, television series, manga, anime, graphic novels, and video and tabletop games.

Cyberpunk - Key takeaways

  • Cyberpunk literature refers to those fictional narratives that focus on street culture in a futuristic, high-tech setting.
  • Cyberpunk literature is seen as a sub-genre of science fiction.
  • Popular tropes in cyberpunk literature include an urban landscape, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and elements of crime.
  • Examples of cyberpunk fiction are The Sprawl Trilogy (1984-1988) by William Gibson, Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson, and Bleeding Edge (2013) by Thomas Pynchon.
  • Cyberpunk as a genre is enjoyed through many media formats including novels, short stories, anthologies, films, television series, manga, anime, graphic novels, and video and tabletop games.

Cyberpunk Literature

Cyberpunk literature can potentially also be hard science fiction in the sense that the author may offer scientific explanations and use scientific jargon to explain the fictional world and its elements. However, not all cyberpunk literature is hard science fiction.

An example of cyberpunk literature is William Gibson's The Sprawl Trilogy (1984-1988).

Cyberpunk literature refers to those fictional narratives that focus on street culture in a futuristic, high-tech setting. In cyberpunk fiction, characters are often fitted with cybernetic augments and engage with artificial intelligence to achieve their goals.

Cyberpunk, as the title implies, is influenced by the punk subculture and is centred on street life, with characters hailing from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds and rebelling against the established norms of the society in the narrative. In cyberpunk fiction, characters are often fitted with cybernetic augments and engage with artificial intelligence to achieve their goals.

Some of the dominant themes in cyberpunk literature are the chaotic urban landscape, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and elements of crime.

Final Cyberpunk Literature Quiz

Question

True or False: All science fiction is cyberpunk literature

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Answer

False

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Question

True or False: Cyberpunk literature is influenced by punk culture

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Answer

True

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Question

Which of the following is a work of cyberpunk literature?

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Answer

Snow Crash

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Question

Cyberpunk literature usually features a _____ setting

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Answer

urban

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Question

Characters in cyberpunk texts typically belong to ________ class

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Answer

lower

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Question

Which of the following is a popular cyberpunk author?

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Answer

Pat Cadigan

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Question

Which of the following is a common trope in cyberpunk literature?

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Answer

Artificial Intelligence

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Question

True or False: Cyberpunk as a genre is delivered through multiple media formats

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Answer

True

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Question

What is the name of the film that is adapted from Philip K. Dick's novel Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Answer

Blade Runner

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Question

Cyberpunk literature often features characters with _________

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Answer

cybernetic augments

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