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The Aesthetics of Cyberpunk and Retrofuturism

Updated: Dec 24, 2022

Greetings, fellow travelers, As promised, we'll be discussing Cyberpunk. No, not the game. But the genre and the associated aesthetics.

This blog has been inspired by Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, which I reviewed some weeks ago. More on that in future videos.

Today, I want to discuss the aesthetic of Cyberpunk and how it developed.

Aesthetically, Cyberpunk was a major thing in the '90s, becoming a very prevalent aesthetic in music videos and small scale productions that, unlike the sterile sets of typical Science Fiction, was a DIY-like aesthetic that could be made on the cheap. It was used in game shows, MTV, and television shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Max Headroom. There were also some very influential games and movies in the genre, like System Shock, Bladerunner, Freejack, Ghost in the Shell, and Akira. But what is Cyberpunk?

A steampunk character's studio, littered with televsions, radios and artefacts
Art by Lee Smart

For those who don't know, Cyberpunk is a subgenre of Science fiction. But rather than humans exploring the stars, the stories speculate about society in the near future with a rather dystopian edge. Humans would discover all kinds of technological innovations, but instead of using this to improve the human condition, it made it worse. Why would you write something like that?

For starters, Cyberpunk was born in the '80s. A decade of notorious commercialism and the final years of the cold war. The fallout of the Vietnam war, government overreach, and corporate interest inspired a very sour outlook on the future. In particular, one that would get started with the press of a button.

This inspired Punk. A musical genre that drew its inspiration from various sources such as Rock and Roll, metal but also Ska, and Blues. What made Punk that controversial was the tendency of the Musicians to shout profanities, sing scandalous lyrics, and literally piss on the audience. Something the prevalent middle-class morality did not approve of.

But what does that have to do with Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk is a subgenre of Scifiction that take the reader five minutes into the future. William Gibson is often considered to be the one who laid the foundation for this genre with his book Neuromancer. But in my opinion, Philip K Dick is the real powerhouse behind Cyberpunk. Especially his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, inspired Bladerunner a decade before the highly overrated Neuromancer was even conceived.

What I want to focus on today, however, is the aesthetic that goes with it. But first, what is Cyberpunk about?

In many of these speculative settings of Cyberpunk, individualism is taken to an extreme where heavy body modification is sold as self-expression and one of life's many necessities. Society isn't a community but a ladder for the ambitious to climb.

To elaborate, Dystopian fiction has been around since the 1900s. But what made Cyberpunk different in its aesthetics was that it's very 80s.

From n eon lighting down to the mohawks and aggressive advertising encouraging the masses to consume. Meanwhile, the government has simply given up regulating the mega corporations if they are not outright working for them. Or, as Carl from Clausewitz had said, War is nothing but business with a mixture of other means.

Another thing, in particular, our younger viewers need to understand is that in the 90s, hacking and computer technology was a magical thing that few people understood. Wireless computer technology was purely conceptual, and don't get me started on modems, VGA monitors, and floppy disks. Standardization was almost nonexistent, making computing a hard hobby to get into.

Early electric computers looked like jury-rigged monstrosities that required massive attachments just to give your rig that few more kilobytes of memory.

And that was what computers in Cyberpunk looked like. Machines the size of service elevators whose cables were cluttering rooms that were dimly lit by the light of monitor screens. Bladerunner finalized this aesthetic by making city streets look like abandoned basements, littered with all manner of items people have just forgotten about. Even buildings would be shaped by abandoned hoitems like a sink and the front of the Millennium Falcon.

Over the decades, Scifi shows updated their visuals to the expectations of modern innovations. The massive machines in Star Trek didn't make much sense by the time the '90s came around, so this got updated in The Next Generation. Overall, the bulky designs of the 50s got replaced with streamlined and purely functional designs. Television screens became paper-thin displays or holographic. Typewriters became touchscreens, and so on.

But now, look at the latest biggest addition to the Cyberpunk genre. Cyberpunk 2077 by CD Project Red. It all looks so mundane. Yeah, it looks a bit dystopian... If not, like the West will be ten years from now, with sleek screens, holograms, and miniaturized technology. It all looks so mundane and indistinguishable from other scifi.

Not all Cyberpunk games or like this. Many indy developers have embraced the 8-bit and Neon-Noir aesthetic. And then, of course, there is Cyberpunk: Edgerunners

As stated before, the Cyberpunk genre was a product of its time. Violent riots in the street. Corporate greed is running amock. Unbridled Globalism and conflicts in Africa and South America, intensified by the Cold War, gave rise to a new form of nihilism; That nothing mattered, and there was no heaven to look forward to. It was a new world in which only material needs mattered, and religion was replaced by a blind belief in progress. It didn't matter what kind of progress. As long as things were changing, be it technological or otherwise.

That nihalism inspired Cyberpunk. Technology flourished while the state of humanity stagnated. A future determined by corporate interest and the consuming public desires. People started investing in body modification, not because it made them happier but in order to consume what is what was on offer. It's the logical outcome of unbridled consumerism: The human body was just another dispensable commodity that required upgrades to keep up with the trends in innovation and fashion, enflamed by the need to compete, especially by the states themselves, who need to field the most advanced cyborgs to remain relevant on the global stage. This is especially visible in animes like Ghost in the Shell and Psychopass.

These worlds are changing that fast, today's hot new thing is tomorrow's garbage left on the sidewalk to be forgotten about. And don't think anyone comes by to collect. The streets are literal basements filled with obsolete technology. And so are its people. Veterans walking around with malfunctioning prosthetics. People whose bodies rejected their implants, and of course, those who could never afford the most basic of augments to begin with, disqualifying them from public life. And with no gods to believe in, what do you do? What is helping you get up in the morning? Drugs and escapism are in high demand, and corporations and criminals are eager suppliers. And each experience needs to be different and more extreme than the last.

The purveyors of such technology are, of course, the corporate salarymen and government clerks who have the expendable income to afford all this nonsense. And like everyone else, they need to upgrade their hardware, be these computer rigs or implants to keep consuming the newest and hottest types of entertainment. That is how these salarymen and their employers keep this system going by producing and consuming.

The people at the bottom, however, can barely participate in this technology. They need to do more with less. Instead, they use pirated software, knock-off products, and hand-me-down technology to build their machines and prosthesis, leading to a DIY punk aesthetic Cyberpunk is known for today.

Now, there are exceptions at the bottom. Those who are willing to do the odd and clandestine jobs the higher-ups need doing. Gangs are useful mercenaries because they will do anything for money, and more importantly, they always seek an edge over their rivals by acquiring better weapons, implants, drugs, or particular favors. But we'll save that topic for our next Cyberpunk videos.

I'll say this. Like the street gangs of today, these gangs all have their own aesthetics, like tattoos, hairstyles, clothing, and body modification. These gangs, with their spiked jackets and mohawks for the longest time, dominated the Cyberpunk landscape. Because that is what the anarchists in the 1980s looked like. Punk in Germany is still a dirty word because of the violence that was associated with both the music and domestic terrorists like the Red Army Faction and far-right elements. Or, so I am told.

And that is how I prefer my Cyberpunk. The mohawks and spiked jackets. The wires and tube televisions. The trippy visuals and outdated perceptions of the future. Cyberpunk is kinda like Steampunk in a way. The aesthetic is based on obsolete visions of the future, just like 19th-century science fiction. Cyberpunk has become retrofuturistic... Or it could have been.

Looking at Bladerunner 2021 or Cyberpunk 2077, that aesthetic is disappearing. It has been updated according to contemporary expectations of the future, which is sleek, streamlined, and Brutalist.

This aesthetics is not alien to Cyberpunk. Ghost in the Shell looked very contemporary back in the day. But even there, characters get hooked up with cables and the like when interacting with the technology around them.

Most dystopian Cyberpunk these days have been updated to fit the general trends in Scifi. Hell, The Expanse and Firefly look more like cyberpunk than most contemporary cyberpunk. And that's a shame. One reason for this, I think, is that... Well, my age is getting up there, and it recently dawned on me that this is a post-9-11 world. Many of the viewers were even born when Desert Storm happened. For those born after those events... Trust me, little ones, the moment that plane hit the World Trade Centre, the West had changed forever. But I digress.

The point is, the 20-somethings today do not recall the wild west the computer industry used to be like. Or how gaming culture was changed by the advent of multiplayer games on the internet. Introvert boys became friends because they would visit each other's houses to play on their video game systems - and meet each other parents - because that was the only way to play together. Imagine that. Let's not get started on social media.

And it's a shame. Because the grimy DIY look at the time was everywhere. Mad Max MTV. Max Headroom. Mystery Science Theater 3000, and much of the 90's budget scifi, had this dirty hot-glued aesthetic that is unthinkable now. When people attempt to recreate the magic of that age, they do some without knowing why, as I explained in previous blogs when I discussed Bladerunner or the Prisoner.

Will we ever see a return to the early days of Cyberpunk?

Also, our long-awaited coloring book is now live, and I recently finished the third draft of Bound for the Styx. More is in the works.

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