As far as cyberpunk culture goes, I’m a relative newcomer. I was unaware of the consolidation of futuristic, dark neo-noirs and conspiracy thrillers with urban environments as their backdrops as an entire genre until the summer of 2014, when I first watched the anime series Psycho-Pass. Three and a half years later and it seems like this is the only thing I think about anymore. Of course, I’d say most people who know movies, video games, tabletop games, or sci-fi novels know what cyberpunk is, even if they’ve never heard of the term; with media like Blade Runner, Neuromancer, Cyberpunk 2020, The Matrix, Deus Ex, Akira, and so much more permeating the cultural zeitgeist, cyberpunk has had an irreparable influence in shaping the modern face of science fiction–hell, modern media at large. That said, my perception of what cyberpunk actually is continues to change on a daily basis as I try to get my head around 35+ years of authors trying to predict just how terrifying the future is going to be.
When I first left my own Platonic Cave, after watching shows like Ghost in the Shell: Arise, seeing movies like Tron: Legacy, and playing games like Mirror’s Edge, I was under the impression that the future these stories foretold was going to be unbelievably clean and sleek. To me, cyberpunk had only begun in 2014. The disorienting, industrial nightmares fueling the material of The Matrix, Alien, and Dex seemed like one-offs, particularly pessimistic visions of the future that didn’t fit with the modern perception of the culture. I saw cyberpunk as a subgenre of science fiction about trying to retain individuality in an increasingly normalized, restricted society. And in a way, that’s true. Despite the gorgeous, clean lighting and slick, shiny visuals, contemporary cyberpunk like the aforementioned Psycho-Pass and Mirror’s Edge, as well as 2013’s Remember Me all feature characters who are trying to hold onto their identities in the shadows of the systems governing their lives. These systems aren’t necessarily malignant, like a less-nuanced dystopia you might see in, say, V for Vendetta, but are so rife with crushing complacency and apathy that the effect is essentially the same. And for some time, I thought this was a trend that was taking hold in modern cyberpunk.
But last year, something changed. In 2017, we got five fairly major cyberpunk releases that seem to be a return to the ugly, expressionist cyberpunk of yesteryear without a sense of irony. The live-action Ghost in the Shell, Blame!, Observer, Ruiner, and, of course, the impeccable Blade Runner 2049, while not all received particularly well, seem dedicated to reviving what I am, for the purposes of this article and future references, referring to as first wave cyberpunk.
My first instinct at a point like this is to break things down. And before I go any further, I should state that, since my knowledge of the genre is only about three years in the making, the following is only the opinion of a 20-something layman who thinks absolutely too much about a category of sci-fi that is still relatively unknown by the masses.
First Wave Cyberpunk
Initially formulated in the early 1980s by media like Blade Runner and Neuromancer, first wave cyberpunk is characterized by incredibly dark and mechanical versions of humanity’s future. While cyberpunk across the board seems to have come to the consensus that everything looks cooler at night, the first wave draws upon heavy shadows to present to its audience a future that is cloaked in uncertainty. This is a holdover from the expressionist movement, a visual style that holds its worldview as a waking nightmare and is most notably seen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a film that, despite being the better part of a century in age, contains science fiction elements that endure to this day–such as simulacra, imposing corporate towers, and rampant industrialization.[…]