The Aesthetics of Cyberpunk and Retrofuturism

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, that unlike the sterile sets of Science Fiction, it 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 the neon 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 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 through away items 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.