Cyberpunk – Subgenre or Trend?*

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When I started doing research on this subject, cyberpunk meant just a branch of the science fiction cinematography for me, nothing more. Although I was adamant about it being my favourite subgenre, I can't say I knew it in detail; perhaps I did not even possess a superficial knowledge of it. Indeed I had an idea about the topic, and was even fascinated by it, but I was not able to anticipate its magnitude and visionary power, which I discovered only later. Is my being fascinated by mise-en-scène and characters the reason I had never looked at it as a whole? The more I deepened myself into the research, the more attracted to it I was, and at the same time I felt how it incessantly grew and overwhelmed me.

The reason I am saying this is because I became aware it was more of a trend in cinema – at times used involuntarily in some movies – and that many films contained cyberpunk elements, without it being the intention of the production team. So the first logical question would be: to what extent should a film contain cyberpunk elements – even percentage-wise – to be considered part of this subgenre? Then something else crossed my mind: in fact, society has already reached the technological level prophesied by the first cyberpunk authors – who started to disseminate their ideas at the end of the '70s – the only thing missing from the current world system being anarchy. So, could it be that the usage of cyberpunk elements in current films – such as various gadgets or prostheses – had become a normal trend, spread with and due to this technological evolutionary process? Because, if my theory is valid, it would mean that cyberpunk is one of the few postmodern concepts that has become obsolete. Before answering all these questions, we should take a look at the beginnings of cyberpunk, which, as many other movements, has its roots in literature.

First of all, it is a postmodern genre – as I have already mentioned –, that focuses on „high tech and low life"1. Therefore, the movies depict very advanced science on the background of social disorder, and the plot takes place in a future relatively close to the present, on an anarchy-stricken, dirty, squalid and troubled Earth, usually in the hands of a totalitarian leader. The stake is usually centred on a conflict between hackers, artificial intelligence or mega-corporations. In the cinematic works in question, the atmosphere or even the plot frequently contain shades of film noir, because in many cases the story revolves around a character (with adventurous spirit) who is searching for something, making use of various pieces of information, leads etc. The protagonist is usually lonely; he lives on the outskirts of society and is faced with a peculiar situation that he has to solve, as shown in the films discussed here.

These are all general features, applicable to all the fields where the aforementioned current appears. A short, correct and comprehensive definition seems difficult to formulate, nevertheless, I shall try to do so. One can say a film is cyberpunk, when it shows the underground, nihilistic part of an electronised society. The "father" of this genre, William Ford Gibson proclaimed: The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.2 Judging by his anticipative intuition, he is similar to Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, who, in different centuries, had also predicted events that happened/became concrete up to a certain extent. Dani Cavallaro says the following in the foreword of the book he dedicated to Gibson:

In contemporary western and westernized cultures, people are surrounded by an increasingly wide range of tangible products that seem to impart a sense of solidity to their lives. Objects such as mobile phones, computers, portable physiotherapy units, personal stereos, microwave ovens, video recorders and fax machines (to mention but a few examples) are integral components of many people's everyday existence. Often, they are regarded not merely as useful tools for the accomplishment of practical tasks but actually as defining aspect of people's identities, lifestyles and value systems. They thus become comparable to prostheses, the artificial supports used by medical technology to complete otherwise lacking physical organisms.3 Gibson is considered the „noir prophet" of the cyberpunk genre, and boasts a series of accomplishments.

He coined the term cyberspace – used in Neuromancer (1984), the first novel that went "triple" by winning the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award and the Hugo Award. He also foresaw the growing influence of the TV and of the virtual reality, present today in every home. These media become companions for many people who otherwise lead a lonely life, submerging more and more in their own domestic universe. He also devised different terms, now entrenched, such as netsurfing, ICE, jacking in, neural implants, matrix.

Furthermore, several films are based on his writings, amongst which Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Escape from New York. In 2008 when the cyberpunk genre was no longer current, and many of his predictions had become reality, Gibson said this about himself: Visionary writer is OK. Prophet is just not true.4. He was very aware of his limits and understood it was logic rather than his genius that allowed him to make certain predictions. Thirty years before, he started his literary career with a brief but significant short story entitled Fragments of a Hologram Rose (1977). The story, just 4 pages long, was extremely unclear, partly just sketched. I shall continue by giving some examples from this story, in order to highlight the characteristics of the cyberpunk current.

Very abruptly, the story opens with the line: That summer Parker had trouble sleeping. From the very beginning with a minimum of words, the time, the protagonist and the initial incident are established. The framework has not yet been outlined, but it will be in the following paragraphs, together with several avant-garde concepts: Parker, who hadn't been able to sleep without an inducer for two years, wondered if this was possible. The word inducer was still a novelty at the time, and so were ASP casette, Delta, Delta ASP, parch cords, fast-forward.

Gibson continues his depiction with other details, describing the poverty, the misery, the existence led at the brink of society and of law. Making yourself a cup of coffee in the dark, using a flashlight when you pour the boiling water (...) He was in New York with forged papers (...) Now Parker is 30 and writes continuity for broadcast ASP, programming the eye movement of the industry human cameras.

A further detail that would perpetuate in the cyberpunk universe is announced in the following fragments: Parker spent the last night of the revolution in a burned-out Tucson suburb, making love to a thin teenager from N. Jersey (...) Many of the refugees were armed (...) Federal and state troops sent in to sweep the outlaw towns seldom found anything. But after each search, a few men would fail to report back. Some had sold their uniforms, and others had come too close to the contraband they had been sent to find. (...) He never washed the jacket; in its left pocket he found nearly an ounce of cocaine; the right pocket held 15 ampules of Megacillin-D and a ten-inch-handled switchblade.

We are witnesses to a world collapsing due to a recently finished revolution, as a result of which society is led with a strong, totalitarian hand. It is a militarised, technologised, interim regime in which everybody survives making use of petty illegal tricks. The last sentence is as complex and evocative as it can be. Speaking about misery, the word jacket is used, hinting at a particular clothing style – and even if the look inspired by the punk bands is not pinpointed exactly, we know, we feel that this is what he's alluding to –; drugs are also present as a commonplace occurrence. Moreover, the fact that the drugs have been forgotten in the pocket for a very long time only means they are no longer at the top of the list of things prohibited by law. The social woes are much too burdening for a gram of drugs to matter. Survival is of utmost importance and everything revolves around the worry for tomorrow.

Fragments of a Hologram Rose ends very meaningfully, I would even say prophetically, with a quandary that Gibson places both in and outside the story: If the chaos of the nineties reflects a radical shift in the paradigms of visual literacy, the final shift away from Lascaux/Gutenberg tradition of pre-holographic society, what should we expect from this newer technology, with its promise of discrete encoding and subsequent reconstruction of the full range of sensor perception?5

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* Translated into English by Ofelia Man.
1., read on the 21st of January 2014.
2., read on the 21st of January 2014.
3. Dani Cavallaro, „Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson", Athenaeum Press Ltd, Gateshead, 2000, Foreword, pp. IX-X.
4., read on the 21st of January 2014.
5., source for all the paragraphs of Gibson's book.

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