Cyberpunk was a huge thing in sci-fi in the 1980s. It kind of took that style that was so purely 1980s and added a healthy dose of noir, and threw it in a blender with extremely advanced technology involving a world wide computer network that connected everyone and everything. Of course, William Gibson’s Neuromancer started it all, but in recent years it has become clear that Gibson is some sort of other-worldly prophet, as his vision of the internet is essentially true.
That puts today’s cyberpunk (which we are calling second wave cyberpunk as opposed to postcyberpunk which unfortunately implies that the movement is over) in a weird place, because what would have obviously been part of the genre in the 80s now just seems like real life. In novels like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, the setting is a near-future dystopia where climate change and economic collapse have left poor people with only the internet and an MMORPG called the Oasis as a way of getting away from the harsh realities of existance. In the real world, when you drive down the car, you are bound to see a poorly dressed teenager with a stupid haircut driving a 1992 Ford Tempo with his $600 iPad in his lap. High tech and low life is right. Cyberpunk isn’t really science fiction anymore—it’s just the real world.
That said, fiction writers are still dabbling in it. Aside from Ready Player One, there was also Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW series (the first installment of which was reviewed here last week), which heavily involves the internet in the story of a blind girl gaining sight through an ocular implant that ends up allowing her to actually see the internet. Sure, there are aspects in that story that are slightly beyond our own real technology, but it is not nearly as much of a gap as what was present at the time of Gibson’s original masterpiece.
So what is second wave cyberpunk? It no longer really has the implication of lowlifes whose only assets are their tech—it’s more about the general emphasis of technology with the typical science fiction veneer. If the internet is either the primary setting or actually a character in the story, that’s really what cyberpunk is now. Although all science fiction written in modern times dabbles in the internet, it isn’t always the primary setting (as in Ready Player One), or basically a living thing (as in the WWW series). Purists may criticize the explanation but it is what it is. Kids in mirrorshades and green mohawks was fun for a while, but every genre eventually transitions to a different phase. This is it.