“You have money?” – “A credit chip,” Rydell said.
“Any contagious diseases?” – “No.”
“Are you a drug abuser?” – “No,” Rydell said.
“A drug dealer?” – “No.”
“Smoke anything? Cigarettes, a pipe?” – “No.”
“Are you a violent person?” Rydell hesitated. “No.”
- W. Gibson, All Tomorrow‘s Parties (1999)
Cyberpunk worlds are often controlled by large international corporations or similar systems, such as totalitarian governments, etc. Ordinary people typically lead their lives as slaves to corporations, which dictate the social norms and the ways people live and think.
“From the day he’s born (probably in a corporate-owned hospital) until the day he dies (buried in a corp-made casket), the average 2070s citizen is surrounded by evidence of megacorporation’s influence on nearly everything in the society. They – or their countless shadowy subsidiaries and smaller competitors – provide nearly everything he wants or needs, directly or indirectly: his employment, his home, his entertainment, his food and drink, his clothes, and, if he works for one of them, most likely his ideas and his outlook on life. Their power rivals that of governments, and they’re accountable to no one save their shareholders and the Corporate Court.”
– Shadowrun 20th Anniversary Edition (2009)
A term introduced by William Gibson. In short, cyberspace can be defined as the worldwide information and communication network. However, it has other significant overtones. William Gibson described cyberspace in Neuromancer this way:
“A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.“
– W. Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
In cyberpunk worlds, characters routinely enter cyberspace. Via a machine or implant, they log into virtual reality, where they can search for information, communicate with other users, create new programs or viruses, etc. Gibson’s literary fantasies in many ways presaged today’s internet and its vast array of possibilities.
“It’s in our Nature to want to rise above our limits. Think about it. We were cold, so we harnessed fire. We were weak, so we invented tools. Every time we met an obstacle, we used creativity and ingenuity to overcome it. The cycle is inevitable… but will the outcome always be good?“ – Adam Jensen, Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The striving to surpass our limitations is part of human nature. In cyberpunk, this often leads to the enhancement of human bodies with mechanical parts. The most frequent examples are brain implants, prosthetic limbs, and even the radical transformation of human beings into mechanical creatures. But where does humanity itself end? That is the common question.
Major Motoko Kusanagi: That robot. Did we seem similar to you?
Batou: Of course not.
Major Motoko Kusanagi: No, I don’t mean physically.
Batou: Just what, then?
Major Motoko Kusanagi: Well, I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid about our origins. Sometimes I suspect I am not who I think I am, like maybe I died a long time ago and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there never was a real me in the first place, and I’m completely synthetic like that thing.
Batou: You’ve got human brain cells in that titanium shell of yours. You’re treated like other humans, so stop with the angst.
Major Motoko Kusanagi: But that’s just it, that’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated. I mean, who knows what’s inside our heads? Have you ever seen your own brain?
Batou: It sounds to me like you’re doubting your own ghost.
Major Motoko Kusanagi: What if a cyber brain could possibly generate its own ghost, create a soul all by itself? And if it did, just what would be the importance of being human then?”
- Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Drugs and Underground
“This Snow Crash thing–is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?”
Juanita shrugs. “What’s the difference?”
– Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash“ (1992)
Cyberpunk works often refer to stimulants and psychoactive substances. Sometimes drugs are integral to the story, other times they add to the overall atmosphere of street life. The prevalence of drugs in this culture is probably due to cyberpunk’s emergence from the hippie and beatnik cultures and other underground movements in the West after WWII.
Combine drugs with street life, prostitution, and pharmaceutical megacorps pushing various chemicals on the mainstream market, meld it with hacking, advanced technology, and philosophical motives and metaphors, and the result is an absorbing contrast – stark, harsh and captivating.
The typical protagonists of cyberpunk works are people living on the edge of society: solitary hackers, criminals, dissidents, visionaries. Typically they are backed into a corner by the system and have no choice but to confront it. They don’t ask to be heroes, nor do they seek fame and glory; they simply try to deal with the circumstances in their own way. The protagonist’s success or failure rarely has an impact on the total system – rather it is his or her personal victory; the world as a whole remains the same. This is one of the significant differences between cyberpunk and classical heroic stories and triumphant fantasy and science fiction movies.
There are exceptions to this rule. In Japanese cyberpunk, we can meet heroes from the other side of the fence – that is, those fighting for, not against, the system. For example, major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell is a member of a special counter-terrorist group fighting cyber-criminals.