What is cyberpunk?
Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction literature, particularly
prevalent from the 1980's. It referred to a particular writing style
(characterized by a "high-tech meets low-life" theme)
and to a particular group of writers, which included William Gibson,
John Shirley, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan (the "Queen of Cyberpunk"),
Walter Jon Williams, and others.
Gardner Dozois, an editor of "Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction
Magazine" during the early '80s, is generally acknowledged
as the first person to popularize the term "cyberpunk"
describing a body of literature. Dozois doesn't claim to have coined
the term; he says he picked it up "on the street somewhere".
The term itself was actually coined by writer Bruce Bethke; it was
the title of a short story he wrote in 1980, about a group of skilled
teenage hackers/crackers. See Bruce's description of the invention
of the word and read the short story here.
Although the term only started being used in the 1980's, there
are many stories from earlier decades that fall into the sub-genre.
However, it was primarily the book "Neuromancer" by William
Gibson, and perhaps the Blade Runner film that were the catalyst
for this becoming widely recognised as a sub-genre of Science Fiction.
For more information about cyberpunk, the alt.cyberpunk FAQ can
be downloaded from the following site: ftp://rtfm.mit.edu/pub/usenet/news.answers/cyberpunk-faq
Is, or can BR be considered "cyberpunk"?
To be sure if Blade Runner can be considered cyberpunk, it might
be useful to get a clear definition of what cyberpunk is. This is
not as simple as it sounds. If you ask a hundred (knowledgeable)
people to give a definition of cyberpunk, you'll likely get a hundred
Even so, while formulating any precise definition may be hard,
there are some typical aspects that seem inherent to cyberpunk stories:
- The individual vs. the system: the individuals are "high
tech low-lifes", outlaws who are either actively or passively
fighting "the system" - the system being either government,
or big multinational corporations, or both - fighting them with
computers, high tech gadgetry, etc.;
- Often, some kind of "cyberspace" is involved;
- Stories are situated in a near future, and usually in or near
- Dystopia: the future is not a pretty place to be, and the stories
- The "hardboiled", rough-edged nature of the cyberpunk
stories is said to owe much to the work of people like Dashiell
Hammett and Raymond Chandler, with their gritty detective novels.
So, is Blade Runner a cyberpunk movie? Let's compare some aspects
of BR with the above points:
- The individual vs. the system: Rick Deckard starts out as an
individual; he was once part of the system (in this case, the LAPD),
but apparently he quit his job. However, he is coerced by the system
(personified by Captain Bryant and Gaff) to get back to his old
job. In the end, even though he is again part of the system, he
is still very much on his own. Not exactly your basic "outlaw"
(although by the end of the movie his position may be very "unclear"
- The outlawed replicants themselves are clearly individuals outside
the system who must be dealt with.
- Corporate power is clearly represented by the Tyrell Corporation.
- BR is situated in the city of Los Angeles (big city) in the year
2019 (near future).
- LA 2019 looks like a nice place to visit, but not to live in
(i.e. a Dystopia).
- High technology is everywhere in BR - the replicants themselves
are in fact state of the art technology, in a way. On the other
hand, while computers can be seen in the movie, they're more part
of the "background"; there is no mention of any "cyberspace"-like
computer network (although the Esper machine that Deckard at one
point uses to examine one of Leon's photos was supposed to actually
be a terminal which was linked to the LA police mainframe) and there
are no "high tech rebels", hackers or whatever featured
in the story. Of course the fact that cyberspace and hackers are
not features of the story does not mean they don't exist in this
- BR seems very much inspired by the old hardboiled detective movies
like "The Maltese Falcon" (starring Humphrey Bogart);
Deckard is a detective, ex-cop, dressed in the typical classic detective
outfit (the trenchcoat). His old police "buddies" get
back in touch with him, meaning trouble for Deckard. There's the
resident "femme fatale" Rachael (Sean Young), who essentially
gets Deckard in more trouble. (By getting involved with her, he
loses everything. He may have hated his job, but at least he had
this great apartment :-) ) [See also the Trivia section]
In the end, it is this author's opinion that Blade Runner contains
enough elements to allow it to be labelled "cyberpunk".
One might actually wonder if it is not a question of the chicken
and the egg: Blade Runner's influence on SF in general has been
substantial, and may have influenced the writings of many, if not
all of the "cyberpunk" writers at some point (after 1982,
at least) and in some way.
It might be interesting to note that the alt.cyberpunk FAQ contains
a section which is dedicated to BR; the FAQ's author(s) regard(s)
the movie as "proto-cyberpunk", even calling it "the
quintessential cyberpunk movie".
[See also p. 325 of Future Noir]