In this article, we’ll be looking at the most important works and authors in the field of Western cyberpunk. Japanese cyberpunk will be covered in the next article.
William Gibson – Not Only Neuromancer
The seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, mentioned in our previous articles, was published in 1984 and belongs to the Sprawl trilogy, along with Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988).
Neuromancer was the first novel to receive all three “grand” SF/fantasy literary awards – the Hugo, the Nebula, and the P.K. Dick Award. The story describes a cyber-cowboy (hacker), Case, who gets involved in a series of events related to alienated artificial intelligences, illegal technologies, corporations, and grand conspiracies. The world of Sprawl is also described in other Gibson works such as Burning Chrome (1982) and Johnny Mnemonic (1981).
Another important Gibson work is the Bridge Trilogy, made up of the novels Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). The story takes place in a futuristic Tokyo and San Francisco Bay, which has been turned into a slum after a great earthquake. The story deals with hackers, nanotechnology, and corporations. From a technological point of view, the Bridge Trilogy is closer to today’s world than Sprawl – critics have called it a “bridge” between the modern world and the mega-technical future of Sprawl.
Bruce Sterling – Schismatrix and Mirrorshades
Bruce Sterling contributed to the cyberpunk field with his project Schismatrix (1985), which contains several short stories and a novel of the same name. The plot is sci-fi, however, many of its themes and topics, such as body modifications and social struggles, are typical cyberpunk motifs.
Sterling also edited a collection of cyberpunk short stories called Mirrorshades (1986), which contains contributions from pivotal cyberpunk authors of the 1980s: William Gibson, John Shirley, Rudy Rucker, Tom Maddox and others.
Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash
An important and somewhat revolutionary book of the ‘90s was Snow Crash (1992). Snow Crash describes a USA divided into city-states and ruled by competing corporations. A group of protagonists uncovers the truth behind an enigmatic virtual drug, the roots of which reach back to the ancient civilization of Sumer. Stephenson was the first author to use some now-common terms, such as a virtual “avatar.”
P.K. Dick and Ridley Scott: Blade Runner – Original and Adaptation
Cyberpunk in cinema was popularized by the movie Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott. The movie is an adaptation of P. K. Dick’s novel Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). It introduces a retired policeman who works as a hunter of replicants (carbon-based, human-looking androids).
Although P.K. Dick’s novel is not considered cyberpunk, its film adaption is usually viewed as one of the first cyberpunk movies, owing to its emphasis on powerful corporations and its treatment of replicants.
Visuals from Blade Runner became an archetype for later cyberpunk art thanks to the introduction of film-noir principles in a futuristic setting, creating the visual style known as tech-noir.
Tron was released the same year as Blade Runner (1982). It was one of the first feature movies to use computer animation extensively. It is also one of the first cinematic takes on virtual reality and videogames, introducing a self-ambitious AI and the anthropomorphization of computer programs. As with Blade Runner, Tron became one of the icons of cyberpunk due to its original and revolutionary visual style.
British director Terry Gilliam contributed to the field of cyberpunk with his dystopian satire, Brazil (1985). The world of Brazil has an absurdly extreme form of bureaucratic government.l The film features a retro-futuristic environment, which parodies and suggests possible negative outcomes of modern technologies. Brazil’s ending was controversial for its time and considered unsuitable for audiences by the distributor, which requested Gilliam change it. Gilliam instead made several private screenings and once the L.A. Film Critics Association had lauded the movie, the distributor consented to the official release with the original ending.
The popularity of cyberspace as a concept spread like wildfire after the release of the action blockbuster The Matrix (1999) from Andy and Laurence Wachowski (today they are known as Lana and Lilly). It depicts a future Earth ruled by artificial intelligence in which most of humankind lives in a virtual simulation of 20th century, while in reality serving as biological fuel-cells for robots.
Matrix was a huge commercial success and received two sequels. Melding computer animation with live action, it popularized the use of certain special effects and set the visual standard for sci-fi and action movies for years to come. Though quite popular, The Matrix is considered a cult movie. For an action film it contains an unprecedented depth of storytelling.