Perhaps the problem is that cyberpunk does not have a simple definition. I can’t quite pin down what it means, but it seems to involve technology so advanced it can interact with or exceed the intelligence of the human brain. Hence, for me, the "cyber" of cyberpunk is the Master Control Program (MCP) which has gotten two thousand four hundred and fifteen times smarter since its programmer wrote its code in the 1982 movie TRON; or Roy Batty, a replicant who is smarter and stronger than the average human in Blade Runner; or the artificially intelligent Agent Smith who can kill you since the body cannot live without the mind in the The Matrix.
According to entries in Wikipedia: 1) Cyber- is a prefix derived from "cybernetic," which comes from the Greek adjective κυβερνητικός meaning skilled in steering or governing (Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon). 2) Cybernetics was defined in the mid 20th century, by Norbert Wiener as "the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine."
Wikipedia goes on to list numerous definitions of cybernetics, but the one that caught my eye is by Taylor Kirkland: “The only branch of science and math concerned with the 'Limitations' of Evolution.” Though I don’t know what any of this actually means, it does suggest that the MCP, Roy Batty, and Agent Smith are “steered” and “governed” by the limits imposed by their own technology. Their evolution is constrained, whereas human evolution is unlimited if it can somehow merge with technology. That’s why TRON’s Kevin Flynn can do the equivalent of rewriting code with his mind when he is digitized and sent into the Game Grid, or how The Matrix’s Neo can be “The One” who can rewrite code as he sees fit. But unlike Kevin and Neo, Blade Runner’s Roy Batty is doomed to die in four years. His cells cannot regenerate, as he’s not human.
So I assume “cyber” is the uber technology, whereas the “punk” is human. Cyberpunk, then, is the coming together of technology with human beings. What I call a “cyberpunker” goes beyond your average nonconformist, loner, or social outcast. He or she is more than a punk who may express independence with piercings, tattoos, or wild hair styles. Cyberpunkers are humans who have technologies that invade and alter their bodies. A cyberpunker is 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic whose cybernetic surgery allows him to have digital storage in his brain; or Sam Flynn’s body digitized by a laser in 2010’s TRON: Legacy; or Molly Millions’ implanted lenses in Gibson’s 1981 short story of Johnny Mnemonic; or Neo’s head plug which allows him to be jacked into the Matrix. Moreover, Johnny Mnemonic, Sam Flynn, Molly Millions, and Neo all play the part of cyberpunkers since they are hackers. Even Rick Deckard from Blade Runner is a bit of an outcast as a bounty hunter. And like the hacker, his detective techniques and attention to detail with the “Voight-Kampff” tests allow him to identify replicants.
But in these stories of a near-future with extraordinary cyber-tech, there is also usually a dystopian setting. Detroit in 1987’s RoboCop is a bankrupt city overridden with crime, the Game Grid system in TRON is corrupted since so many programs are derezzed, floating billboards encourage the denizens of an overpopulated 2019 Los Angeles to go off-world in Blade Runner.
These dystopias are dominated by corporations or artificial intelligences. Thus in RoboCop, the Omni Consumer Products (OCP) contracts with Detroit to take over its police department as part of a master plan to redevelop it into Delta City; ENCOM is the computer behemoth that unleashes the MCP in TRON; the machines control so much of Earth there is only one human city left - Zion - in The Matrix; and, the Tyrell Corporation manufactures the replicants who are banned from the Earth in Blade Runner. A cyberpunker rebels against these hostile corporations and artificial intelligences. RoboCop takes on OCP, Kevin Flynn successfully hacks ENCOM by defeating the MCP, Neo tears Agent Smith into data bits in The Matrix, Rick Deckard retires the replicants in Blade Runner. It is the hacker who is best equipped to break into corporations or take on an artificial intelligence.
There’s even a bit of drug culture in cyberpunk. There’s the virtual narcotic in the Metaverse that can crash a human brain in the 1992 novel Snow Crash; the red pill or the blue pill that serve as a trace program in The Matrix; or, the drug addiction of Dorsett Case in Neuromancer. It seems that those who experiment with altering themselves with technology are also more likely to alter themselves with chemicals.
Yet, despite all the thought I’ve put into the above, my personal definitions are too general to include all the categories of cyberpunk. There is a broader spectrum out there, and to understand them I recommend the 2013 anthology CYBERPUNK: Stories of Hardware, Software, Wetware, Revolution and Evolution, edited by Victoria Blake. It samples short stories across the 80s, 90s, and 00s. I especially like the quote on the cover by William Gibson: “The future is already here - it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Included are stories of hardware that are not as self-evident as one might think. Hardware can be technology(s) that shift the paradigms of entire societies. In the 1989 short story "Wolves of the Plateau," by John Shirley, the “aug” chips are the hardware that interact with the “Plateau,” a system that goes beyond the “Internet,” past the “Deep Internet,” and even “beyond the Grid.” As Shirley explains:
“Illegal augs, the feds thought, were getting out of hand. Black-market chip implants were good for playing havoc with the state database lottery; used by bookies of all kinds; used to keep accounts where the IRS couldn’t find them unless they cornered you physically and broke your code; the aug chips were used to out-think banking computers, and for spiking cash machines; used to milk the body, prod the brain into authorizing the secretion of betaendorphins and ACTH and adrenaline and testosterone and other biochemical toys; used to figure the odds at casinos; used to compute the specs for homemade designer drugs; used by the mob’s street dons to play strategy and tactics; used by the kid gangs for the same reasons; used for illegal congregations on the Plateau.”
I wanted more of the Plateau. What a concept. Reminds me of the empathy box in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep where people around the world can actually connect what they feel. Cool stuff.
Software stories are also not so self-evident due to their advanced applications. The 1982 short story "The Jack Kerouac Disembodied School of Poetics" by Rudy Rucker is a good example. The ghost of Jack Kerouac exists in a tape player: “Jack’s complete software is in here as well as his genetic code.” Rucker, in an indirect way, described the mapping of the entire human genome on tape roughly two decades early. Yet, even now, there is still no way to get our “software” into a machine. Will it ever happen?
Then there’s wetware. I am not sure if Rudy Rucker’s 1988 novel Wetware coined this term, but it seems to be a subset of cyberpunk that is called biopunk. My assumption is that hardware successfully grafted into a human being is then known as wetware. In the 2007 short story "Memories of Moments, Bright As Falling Stars" by Cat Rambo, the protagonist Jonny applies memory to his girlfriend’s back: “I uncoiled a strand of memory and set to work, pressing it on the skin. I could see her shudder as the cold bond with her flesh took place.” With the additional memory, she can store enough information to pass some tests that are the gateway to a job. Even the illegal “augs” in Shirley’s story could be considered wetware since the chips are plugged into the human head. The same is true for the plug in Johnny Mnemonic’s skull.
Revolution stories can be sooooo not what you think. "Mr. Boy" by James Patrick Kelly is about Peter Cage (aka Mr. Boy) who is “stunted” by his mother in order to be an immortal child. He’s a twenty-five year old who has never experienced puberty. His revolution? To grow up and move out of the most bizarre house I’ve ever read about. What Mr. Boy discovers about his home still gives me the shivers: “No one lived here. It had never occurred to me that there was no Mom to touch. She had downloaded, become an electron ghost tripping icy logic gates.”
An electron ghost tripping icy logic gates? Only in cyberpunk.
Evolution stories, from my point of view, seem to cheat nature with an assist from technology. In the 2012 short story "El Pepenador" by Benjamin Parzybok there is cyborg named Lucy who gives a boy a Senti - an electronic centipede-like insect - to seal his wounds. This technology is the key to her longevity. Evolution, then, is her transition from human-being to half-machine. She is kept alive by these Sentis. Lucy tells the boy, “The call of augmentation is strong. Who does not wish for improvement, for immortality?”
In order to have a longer life would you allow electronic centipedes to live in you and on you to kills off viruses and heals wounds? I wonder...
I hope that these basics of Cyber, Punk, Hardware, Software, Wetware, Revolution, and Evolution are enlightening (and accurate since I’ve never had a definitional discussion per se). Now, will someone please humor me and go read Neuromancer?
By Mark Schelske