What is Cyberpunk? What is Steampunk? Genres of Sci-Fi, Fantasy

Steampunk vs Cyberpunk  e

As first popularized by the technocentric science fiction novel, Neuromancer, cyberpunk emerged as a subgenre of the science fiction canon in the mid to late 1980s – a predominantly darker, grittier, noir inflexion of typical pulp sci-fi. William Gibson, the novelist responsible for penning the work, opened his work quite theatrically with the words: the sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

What is Cyberpunk? What Novels, Games, and Other Intellectual Properties Can be Considered Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk is typically distinguished from standard science fiction by the inclusion of several prominent tropes, including but not limited to:

  • the existence and proliferation of cybernetic enhancements or replacements – in other words, cyborgs.
  • the existence of synthetic or non-organic life forms, of various degrees of sentience (androids, replicants)
  • a future society governed under a corporatist or oligarchic dictatorship
  • prominent asiatic or oriental influences in subsequent cultural advertising and common language
  • graphic violence, sexuality, drug use, and other anti-moralist narratives and archetypes (a natural consequence of the focus on hard-boiled noir characters)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K. Dick). Image by fado.vn

Cyberpunk is essentially the result of the juxtaposition of traditional film noir and postmodern science fiction – that is, science fiction that is primarily seen from the streets rather than from the seats of power (Asimov’s iconic Foundation Trilogy springing immediately to mind as an example of the latter.)

Popular examples of the cyberpunk genre in film and literature include: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K. Dick) and the film adaptation, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic (the film also being an adaptation of a short story by William Gibson), Terminator, and anime Ghost in the Shell.Other popular instances include the Shadowrun role-playing game setting, the RIFTS role-playing game setting, and Vampire: The Masquerade in a myriad of iterations.

What is Steampunk? Did Steampunk Evolve from Cyberpunk?

Where cyberpunk is a grafting of film-noir atop somewhat nihilistic postmodern roots, steampunk is a more straightforward blend of fantasy fiction and the scientific adventure genre popularized by writers such as H.G. Wells (The Time Machine) and Jules Verne (Journey to the Center of the Earth).

H.G. Wells (The Time Machine). Image by amazon.com

Steampunk is typically characterized by the implementation of several common elements:

  • a reliance on steam-era technology that, with the aid of magic or some other deus ex machina, is able to rival or surpass the contemporary technology of the author.
  • a romantic theme likely indicative of the fantasy parentage of the genre – where cyberpunk does not require a romantic interest, steampunk nearly always incorporates a romantic plot or subplot.
  • alternative histories, similarly to the popular fiction of author Harry Turtledove. Historical events of magnitude (the American Civil War, the Third Reich and World War II, the assassination of JFK) are normally altered to provide an alternate universe where history has played out differently.

Where cyberpunk tends towards dark atmospheres and defeated, flawed characters – steampunk normally follows more traditional fantasy and classic science fiction narratives. A love interest, an overarching and sweeping plot involving the fate of the world are common factors found in steampunk works.

It is a common misconception that steampunk is an off-shoot from the cyberpunk movement – though originally coined by author K.W. Jeter, the genre was popularized by William Gibson and Bruce Stirling with their novel, The Difference Engine.


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