What Is Cyberpunk?

Guest post by Alex Adsett

Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science and is generally a style of writing and way of telling a story that is heavily influenced by the noir detective fiction of the forties. More than this, it takes the ‘punk’ from its common theme of disenfranchised loner fighting the establishment for personal freedom or just to get by.  It is particularly identified by using punchy language to throw the reader headfirst into the story and expects you to work out what is going on in your own time.

Original cyberpunk was concerned with futuristic worlds altered by cyber or nano technology. Unlike the original science fiction concerned with spaceships and aliens, cypberpunk told stories set in barely recognisable futures and felt no need to explain the technology or give the reader any training wheels into the world they were entering. Although there were some earlier influences, the breakthrough cyberpunk book was Neuromancer by William Gibson. First published in 1984, it was set in a virtual matrix long before the idea of the internet entered popular culture.

Arguably the biggest cyberpunk writer is Neal Stephenson, his seminal works Snowcrash and Diamond Age are more than two decades old now, and still amazingly prescient about the world we find ourselves living. With smartpaper and tablets, the educational possibilities of technology and monopolistic controls, Stephenson took the ideas of what was possible and imagined worlds in which they were real.  Like the stories of Jules Verne a century beforehand, it is staggering to watch the stories told by the cyberpunk writers coming true.

As the genre grew and more writers turned their hand to it, sub-subgenres began to appear: Post-cyberpunk (using the same punchy style, but moving away from the technology-rich future landscapes) is where William Gibson is now writing; Cybernoir (using the writing style and technology to move the genre back to detective and crime stories) has been brilliantly explored in the Pashazade trilogy by John Courtney Grimwood; and Organic cyberpunk (Moving the technology from ‘cyber’ to ‘biological’, playing with genes and chemicals) is the realm of Jeff Noon, particularly his early work Vurt.

Unlike the more recent steampunk genre, which concerns itself more with the aesthetic trappings of the 19th Century, Cyberpunk and its permutations is a style and way of writing.  Despite the chaos and disorientation of starting each book­ – which is part of the fun – as you absorb the technology and language while trying to decipher the story, a richly layered world emerges that is completely foreign, yet familiar.  Cyberpunk harks back to the pulp fictions of decades past and uses them to tell stories of the future we’re racing towards.


Alex Adsett is a Brisbane-based publishing consultant. She is also on the management committee of the Queensland Writers’ Centre and the Copyright Expert Reference Group of the Australian Publishers’ Association. For more about Alex, visit her website alexadsett.com.au.


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1 Response to What Is Cyberpunk?

  1. Neuromancer is one of those novels that I wish I had never read, simply so I could have the pleasure of reading it again for the first time. I know its exact location on my bookshelf, because it is reread every few years. While it is definitely one of those works people like to call seminal and groundbreaking as it was at the forefront of the Cyberpunk era, Neuromancer stands on its own because it is a great story that is very well written. Its first line is also one that I have never forgotten and ranks, in my opinion with Call me Ishmael, It was the best of times, It was the worst of times, and Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith, as seminal or groundbreaking opening lines:

    The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

    I have never read Neal Stephenson, but I will check him out. For anybody looking for something completely diffrent, there was also a very visceral little movement in the horror genre during the eighties called Splatterpunk, led by John Skipp and Craig Spector, David Schow and a a few others that had the mainstream Lovecraftian horror types ready to start the Spanish Inquisition. Check out The Light At The End, probably the best vampire novel ever written by Skipp and Spector, or The Kill Riff by Schow for some light, end of summer reading.

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