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Fusing Low Life With High Tech Within Your Cyberpunk Story


The word cyberpunk is literally a fusion of "cyber" meaning the technologies of computer networks and communication, and the low agency, anti-establishment "punk" movement. A competent author writing in the cyberpunk subgenre weaves these two concepts together into a story ranging from resistive to revolutionary, often characterized by a low-agency protagonist who refuses to conform set in conflict against an advanced hierarchical society wielding the power of technology on behalf of the wealthy elite. Cyberpunk is defined by the protagonist's attempts to survive an unequal society – the source of that inequality is the technology of computer systems, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality.


From every punk movement has emerged an aesthetic – a style or fashion. The early punk-rockers of the 1970s practiced bricolage fashion where the elements of their everyday were incorporated into their appearance. For the punk-rock movement this meant T-shirts and motorcycle jackets became a kind of uniform, and the styles of cultural leaders (singers and band members) were adopted by those who participated in the culture: mohawk hairstyles, piercings, chains, and sewn patches on clothing. Ironically, the countercultural clothing of the punk rock movement has been almost entirely co-opted by mainstream fashion, meaning that being "punk rock" is now simply a different type of conformity.

Cyberpunk Aesthetic
The cyberpunk aesthetic includes tech wear, neon colors, urban dystopias, and flying cars.

Cyberpunk evolved in a similar manner, and now has an aesthetic all its own. Artists have taken what began as a textual medium, and have translated textual descriptions of an imagined counterculture into visual mediums, creating art that is distinctly evocative of counterculture, which is colorful, and which incorporates vehicles and body prostheses. For better or worse, when writing in the cyberpunk subgenre, readers are likely to visualize characters according to these depictions. In the same way you might imagine Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn when you read The Lord of the Rings, or Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister when you read R.R. Martin's novels, a writer in the cyberpunk subgenre must now contend with visual depictions of what was once only textual. There are two ways to navigate these images which will be tethered to your work: lean into the visual culture or subvert it.

Knowing what a reader tends to imagine is an excellent resource when shaping how your world is visualized. If you know your reader is likely to be imagining your cyberpunk world in terms of a vivid color palette, you can adjust your writing to suit those expectations. If the reader is expecting bright neon, and you give them dimly lit streets, your reader will start to ask questions. So long as those questions have satisfying answers, you'll win over that reader. Perhaps this portion of the city is without power due to the antagonist's machinations, or perhaps certain fashions have been banned by the aristocracy of the setting. When these elements associated with cyberpunk are restricted, the reader will notice more keenly when they are reintroduced. This applies to any genre: the magic in A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance, is more impactful because R.R. Martin uses it sparingly.

Contrarily, you can lean into reader assumptions. If your reader is expecting a sprawling landscape of fast cars, vivid colors, and repurposed materials; and if that fits with the world you are trying to build, then don't hesitate to simply give them what they want.


There are two types of punk movements: real and literary. Cyberpunk is the latter, while "punk rock" and "grunge punk" are the former. Because cyberpunk didn't really happen, but is an imagined movement which takes inspiration from those real movements, the terminology and slang used in cyberpunk literature is primarily self-referential or intertextual. For instance, Altered Carbon introduced the concept of a "cortical stack," but that technology and terminology has been translated into other mediums, appearing as a prominent element in the Eclipse Phase tabletop roleplaying game. This jargon is an expected element of cyberpunk literature and authors are constantly borrowing terminology from one another and developing their own terminology for elements of their fiction. The importance of these terms relates to the two elements of cyberpunk.

Terminology is "punk" because slang terms are anti-establishment. When a character speaks in a dialect or jargon which is not understood by the higher classes, this is necessarily resistive. It is "punk" – that is counterculture, or resistive – to have a lexicon which does not emulate the primary culture. As a writer this is useful because it allows you to differentiate class and social hierarchy in your work by showing, rather than telling. If a character speaks in a manner that is low class, your reader will understand their position within the social hierarchy without that position being explained in a boring or rote manner.

Terminology is "cyber" because jargon refers to the technology or primary environments of the fiction. It is a literary tradition within the cyberpunk subgenre to create terms which describe technologies and occurrences present in the fiction, which do not exist in reality. Like the cortical stack of Altered Carbon, cyberpunk settings like Eclipse Phase use terminology such as "farcaster" to describe elements of the fiction which are central to the narrative, but which are not a familiar device in reality. The best advice here is: don't overdo it. Jargon can make a text more interesting, but it can also trip up readers. Develop a few terms – two or three – which are important to the story you want to tell, and be sure to define those terms the first time they are encountered.


Many of the literary "punk" subgenres are tied to a particular technology, but I would argue this technology is simply a stand-in for the method by which lower classes are oppressed within the narrative. If you consider "steampunk," "solarpunk," and "dieselpunk" it may seem as though technology is primary within these subgenres. In these cases, the prefix identifies the primary technology used in the fiction: steam, solar power, or diesel engines. However, many punk subgenres are less directly related to technology.

"Frostpunk," for instance, refers to settings like that of Snowpiercer where the primary environment is dictated by lack of heat. In this case it becomes more obvious that the prefix "frost" – or in our case "cyber" – simply indicates the circumstances which will produce the oppression which the protagonist – our "punk" – resists.

In a cyberpunk narrative, access to "cyber" technologies creates a social hierarchy, and the protagonist is near the bottom. The primary conflict in the narrative will be caused via the punk's resistance to hierarchy, and their agency within the text will be tied to their use of "cyber" technologies. William Gibson's protagonist Case is an excellent example of this: his agency in the novel Neuromancer is dependent on his skill as a hacker, and thus his ability to utilize the cyber-technologies of the setting.

Common themes and tropes

Cyberpunk naturally lends itself to certain themes. Through the twin lenses of "punk" resistance and "cyber" technological advances, writers can construct a number of useful conversations. The Frankensteinian "Man vs. Machine" or "Man vs. God" conflicts are easily incorporated and can often be explored in greater detail, or from more unique perspectives, than in other subgenres. For this reason, cyberpunk tends to explore some of the themes listed below:

  • Consideration of Humanity: In cyberpunk narratives, humanity is being changed by new and emerging technologies. The ability to back up a human mind, advanced AI, and in some narratives – Altered Carbon, for instance – immortality, leads the narrative naturally to question what it means to be human. Do robots have souls? Are sufficiently modified or advanced humans still essentially human, or are they something more?
  • Treatment of the Inhuman: Alongside consideration of where humanity starts and ends, comes questions of who gets a seat at the table. Bigotry against the inhuman is a recurring element in cyberpunk narratives: consider how androids are treated in the Blade Runner films. This fictional prejudice is helpful in exploring real-world and present-day prejudices. Exploring how androids are treated in a world that views them as expendable labor can act as a rich metaphor to explore class, race, physical ability, gender, or sexuality without inflaming the inherent prejudices of the reader. All of these can be further complicated by the science fictional elements of the narrative: AI who want bodies but cannot have them, or androids who don't identify as the gender their body depicts or don't identify with gender at all are promising premises for characters.
  • Transhumanism: Cyberpunk offers an excellent space to explore what comes after human, and depict humanity during times of progress. Should humanity be left behind, or must it be conserved? If everything is changing – life spans, technology, society – what is being lost, and what is being gained? Is it better to be progressivist, and embrace change; or is there merit in resisting that change? Usually, a protagonist embodies one of these mentalities – they are conservative or progressivist, rarely in between. The reason is that characters who have an opinion on the changes taking place in the setting tend to be more compelling.
  • Authoritarianism and Hedonism: A major theme of science fiction in general has been codified in the opposing examples of Brave New World and 1984. While not cyberpunk, these works best illustrate the two ways by which society is controlled: bread and circuses, or an iron fist. When creating a cyberpunk narrative, consider which is more relevant in your world: is everyone lost in their own hedonism, or crushed into submission; or is it a combination of the two? Where does one end and the other begin?
  • Surrendering Agency: At the end of the day, one of the most important elements of any narrative is the protagonist's agency: what are they trying to do? How do they try to do it? Do they succeed wholly, in part, or not at all? This is crucial in cyberpunk narratives. Usually the hero doesn't succeed – usually their actions are meaningless on the grand scale of societal change and world events, but impactful and compelling on the personal scale of their relationships and lives. This boils down to one concern: how resistive is the protagonist, and what is the result of that resistance? Does the protagonist learn to pick their battles? Is the protagonist defeated tragically, unable to continue resisting the societal pressure of the setting? Or does the protagonist rage until the end, retaining their integrity? When does the character resist, and when does the character accept authority? These should be primary concerns of a cyberpunk writer.

Resistance and revolution

The defining feature of "punk" subgenres is their depiction of resistance, and sometimes revolution. When constructing a cyberpunk narrative, consider how the protagonist will be linked to cyber-technologies – what technologies can they access, and what are they unable to access?

Ask yourself who has control over your protagonist, and why? Usually, a cyberpunk protagonist will be motivated by one of three factors:

  1. They need to do the thing to survive;
  2. They are trying to "stick it to the man;"
  3. "The man" has leverage against them and is making them do something contrary to their nature as a punk – they are being forced to compromise their integrity.

Remember that punk protagonists tend to be low agency, and that growing in agency necessarily makes them less "punk." If you write a cyberpunk narrative where the protagonist ultimately comes to control a vast megacorporation, it is likely that your reader will consider this a tragedy, despite the positive outcome for your protagonist. Why? Because the protagonist has lost their status as a "punk."

When the protagonist's countercultural ambitions become mainstream, the punk becomes a reiteration of the cultural ambitions which they sought to fight against. In short, one of the defining problems which a punk protagonist faces is the temptation to "go mainstream" or "sell out." Punk protagonists are often asked to compromise their ideals – ideals which resist and conflict with the social hierarchy established in the setting – in exchange for personal profit.

When writing a cyberpunk narrative then, center the conflict around the protagonist's status as a "punk" and around the dual reality of "cyber" technology as a tool to oppress the punk, and cyber technology as a tool for liberation or empowerment.

Finally, consider the scope of your narrative. In many cyberpunk narratives, resistance to the hierarchy of the setting is futile. Though the punk "rages against the machine," they are ultimately able to win only under limited circumstances, or their success in resisting authority only has temporary effect. In other cyberpunk narratives the actions of the punk help to collapse the ruling authority, and the punk wins their fight against oppression, liberating the lower classes and creating equality. For obvious reasons, the former is more believable than the latter, and cyberpunk is almost always better when concerned with why and how we rage against authority, than with actually achieving change via that rage.

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