“The future has arrived; it’s just not evenly distributed”. (Gibson)
Everyone, it seems, have their own definition of cyberpunk. It is hard to pinpoint and define, and that’s a good thing. The concept carries a subversive openness. “In some cases, it becomes a virus, introduced into the heart of the message – in a sense it becomes a trojan horse, ready to spring out when least expected to carry an altogether different message.” (SFAM) When talking about cyberpunk it is usually more adequate to talk about themes (and perhaps even style, mode and tone) then rigid definitions. With some minor modifications I agree with SFAM’s list of central themes, but I think we can narrow it down to two main themes: control and mutation.
They way I see it control captures the essentials and dangers with contemporary use of technology better then the rejection of technology in toto sometimes present among cyberpunks. Also, this theme connects cyberpunk to our contemporary condition as societies of control. It would be wrong to say that technology has a negative impact on society when it in reality is the specific use of certain technology (for the purpose of control) that is negative. The protagonists in cyberpunk almost always themselves use technology to fight control. Appropriating, tweaking. “The street finds its own use for things” (Gibson). Cyberpunk is not solely negative towards technology, but control.
Besides control and the struggle against it, mutation and posthuman bodies is a always present theme in cyberpunk. Cyborgs, replicants and other artificially (re)constructed bodies. Mutation occurs both involuntary and as a means to avoid control. This theme gives cyberpunk a visionary character that, in combination with the control theme, makes cyberpunk so interesting.
We certainly do need to change our bodies and ourselves, and in perhaps a much more radical way than the cyberpunk authors imagine. In our contemporary world, the now common aesthetic mutations of the body, such as piercings and tattoos, punk fashion and its various imitations, are all initial indications of this corporeal transformation, but in the end they do not hold a candle to the kind of radical mutation needed here. (Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri in Empire, 216)
With the construction of non-biological bodies a breakdown of the distinction between mind and body usually follows. Illusive mind argues, rightly IMHO, that “cyberpunk is all about the postmodern condition”. This aspect is often depicted in almost horrific ways, “the hyper-real, simulations and simulacra, emptiness of inherent meanings, fragmentation of the self” etc., but we can also see a emacipatory and spiritual aspect of it. The very best cyberpunk confronts this problema not by retreating to lost identities, but by pushing through into an unknown beyond. “Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. We can do just about anything you can imagine to rats. And closing your eyes and refusing to think about this won’t make it go away. That is cyberpunk.” (Bruce Sterling) Cyberpunk deliver non-nostalgic perspectives on a posthuman condition rare elsewhere.
No wonder why religion makes a comeback in cyberpunk, after traditional science fiction’s rational and scientific outlook. We are so sick and tired of progress. In cyberpunk there is a return of myth.
It is this combination – control-mutation – that makes cyberpunk the perhaps most interesting cultural movement today.