Cyberpunk is Not Retrofuturism

Cyberpunk 2020 Cover Image

Cyberpunk is not and never has been a retrofuturistic genre. Cyberpunk has always been about our future, not a future once imagined. Retrofuturism is defined as “a trend in the creative arts showing the influence of depictions of the future produced in an earlier era.” This definition is easily applied to other “punk” genres such as Steampunk, Atompunk, or Deiselpunk because they are set in alternate histories where futuristic technologies were developed, often as they were imagined at the time the stories are set. Jules Verne, although often referenced as such, is not “steampunk”, although it might be a precursor that inspired the genre. Verne was writing about the future, not someone else’s imagined future. And neither were the original cyberpunks.


Why is Cyberpunk confused with Retrofuturism?

There are some reasons that cyberpunk is often confused with retrofuturism. First, cyberpunk began as a recognized genre in the 1980s, as a reaction to overly optimistic science fiction that had preceded it. It took humanity as it is, rather than how we would like them to be and extrapolated into the future from that perspective. Humans aren’t great, and neither will the future be. Then nearly 40 years passed, and here we exist very much in this predicted world. People who grew up reading cyberpunk were now writing science fiction, but they weren’t writing 1980s cyberpunk, they were writing 90s, 2000s, or 2010s cyberpunk. They were still writing about the future from their point forward, not something set in the 80s, or specifically about the future as it was imagined in the 80s. For instance, computers turned out quite a bit different than they were imagined in a lot of ways, and so the computers changed to reflect this.


There is a lot of nostalgia for the cyberpunk of the 80s. The books were excellent. The movies were excellent. And nobody had seen anything quite like it before, although there were certain threads in other fiction – the proto-cyberpunk if you will. Most movies made in the cyberpunk style today are still extrapolating the future from when they were written and not from an imagined 1980s. There are movies that emulate the style of the 1980s, but they are still about the future beyond us, and they tend to be informed by modern sensibilities.

vhsglitchetNostalgia has also led to a rise in the musical genres of retro-wave, synth-wave, and vapor-wave which all take heavy cues from 1980s cyberpunk movies. Some of the narratives tucked away in these albums have a retro-futuristic tang to them, like Irving Force setting the EP, The Violence Suppressor, in the “distant future of 2015,” with a pointed cyberpunk feel to it. Another example is VHS Glitch’s narrative being set in 1980. This music is all excellent and brings my mind back into the 1980s aesthetic and is as close as we get to seeing people create truly retrofuturistic cyberpunk tales.


Of course, it doesn’t help that the cyberpunk movement inspired the steampunk movement and its followers. In fact, K. W. Jeter (who wrote Morlock Night and Infernal Devices – steampunk classics), who coined the term steampunk, wrote one of the earliest books to be considered cyberpunk, Dr. Adder. Although it was written in 1974, it wasn’t published until 1984 when it finally fit into a genre that could accept its weirdness. Then, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling wrote The Difference Engine which is solidly steampunk. So it isn’t surprising to me that people might make this mistake, because many of the important figures in the steampunk movement, were also involved in the cyberpunk movement, and steampunk IS a retrofuturistic genre.

difference engineCyberpunk is still being written today. It is still about our dark future. The technology has changed, the authors may have even changed, although many of the original cyberpunks are still writing it, take Bruce Sterling for example. Sterling constantly churns out short stories and novels that still fit the genre. Cyberpunk is everywhere because it changed the way that we look at science fiction. Most modern science fiction has at least a kernel of cyberpunk in it. No wonder it so hard to nail down a genre definition. The important elements are that it is “High Tech, Low Life,” and there is tons of science fiction being written today that fits into this simple definition AND it is still about the future, not a future once imagined.

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Veritas is a cyberpunk and writer who enjoys all aspects of the cyberpunk genre and subculture. He also journeys deeply into the recesses of the dissonance exploring his nihilistic existence. If you'd like to contact Isaac L. Wheeler (Veritas), the founder and editor-in-chief of Neon Dystopia, you can do so here:
  1. The answer is yes and no. Because cyberpunk is more than one thing. What I call “neonpunk”, which is the classic 80s neon style that infuses synthwave and other retro 80s work is definitely retrofuturistic. However, despite that classic cyberpunk is so heavily associated with it cyberpunk is not that style and that style alone. Cyberpunk themes and stories can be told in a completely different style, for example the Matrix is as cyberpunk as it gets and its aesthetic was a black and green and monochrome aesthetic very much derived from the 90s Techno-Industrial movement. It’s still fucking cyberpunk. You could make a cyberpunk work based on today’s “Apple store” technological aesthetic with lots of glass and ultra minimalist clean lines and –oh, wait, someone already did and called it TRON: Legacy. The technology and themes are still fucking cyberpunk. You could make an “inner city urban” cyberpunk story that takes “Boyz in tha Hood” type gang culture with rap and hip hop and a muti-ethnic cast and updates it with future tech and makes the central plot maguffin some kind of illegal tech and bam, it’s cyberpunk. I’d probably fucking hate it, but it would be cyberpunk. The retrofuture 80s neonpunk / retrowave style and aesthetic is not indivisible from cyberpunk as a genre or a set of storytelling tools.

    Moreover, there’s another form of cyberpunk that isn’t fictional but instead a cultural movement. The same way punk was a music genre and also a lifestyle, cyberpunk is a science fiction movement and also an identity. If you’re a hacker, cracker, techno-anarchist, etc then you’re a real life cyberpunk. If you open up your gadgets and rebuild them in ways that were never meant to be used that way and probably break a few stupid laws along with any EULAs, then you’re a real life cyberpunk. If you live on the edge, you’re a CYBERPUNK.

    • That is a very insightful response. If Neonpunk, as you call it, was written today, then it would certainly be retrofuturistic. Fiction isn’t retrofuturistic just because it has aged or we have caught with its predictions, however. It is retrofuturistic because of looking back and writing something that might have been written in the 80s, or even simply set in the 80s, for example.

  2. Really interesting piece.

    I’m with Darth Meow – Cyberpunk definitely can be retrofuturistic.

    It’s interesting that the top image, from Cyberpunk 2020, is about as retro as it can get – full-on 80s fashions!

    One of the dangers of cyberpunk is that the classics, the most hallowed, all speak of the 80s, and whilst we now live in a world that is arguably cyberpunk, it’s not *quite* the one predicted by Gibson/Sterling/Shirling/Williams, and I think some people miss that – or they think that it’s a shame that we don’t, maybe.

    A lot of the fashions and music that are deemed “proper” cyberpunk are retrofuturistic at best (and just damned awful at worst!), and a lot of the tropes that were in 80s cybperpunk are passe now , and you sometimes see art/books/games derided for not having that “proper cyberpunk atmosphere” of neon/pollution/”asian” lettering that characterised the early books and media.

  3. Cyberpunk is not retrofuturism, it is also not breakfast, it is also not a tennis ball, or a post card. It is pretty easy to say what it is NOT, it is also easy to confuse a Dickensian sort of character-randomness with cyberpunk, or Noir film qualities which are so prominent when cyberpunk makes its way to the silver screen. If we consider Stephenson, Gibson, Sterling and Shirley to be the primary its pretty obvious that cyberpunk is that hard tug on reality that both moves the story forward and fuses the different character arcs into one. The matrix acts as the catalyst in the sprawl setting, time itself in Necronomicon, even Inception has a heavy cyberpunk influence that takes the form of dream space. While this sortof fast fusion isn’t necessarily required for cyberpunk to be so classified, no doubt the genre would not exist without it. In addition, cyberpunk can and often IS retrofuturism, simultaneously, but that is rather beside the point. Also Synthwave is certainly not Cyberpunk, although it is easy to market it as such since the two are so complimentary.

  4. I can see your perspective. Much of cyberpunk, certainly the cyberpunk of the 80s, is now “retro,”but that is not the same as retrofuturism. Something becomes retro, retrofuturism is an attempt to create something that fits into the future as it was predicting or in the timeframe in which the work is referencing. This is why Steampunk, for example, is almost fantasy. It is postulating the development of technologies in a period that wouldn’t have developed those technologies (in most cases). For instance, we would never see steam powered human augmentation. So, retro and retrofuturism are not the same thing.

  5. Agree entirely.

    The more I think this through, the more interesting I’m finding it; Cyberpunk 2020 was my introduction to Cyberpunk, in the early 90s, although I’d seen Blade Runner/Robocop/Mad Max and a lot of the other sources prior to that, of course. I then read my way through Gibson, Sterling, Williams, Shirley etc, so my primary vision is an 80s/90s version of it, and that’s the one that I fell in love with. Mainly because it was fresh, new and relevant. But trying to recapture that by recycling the tropes and themes feels futile, since we don’t live in the 90s anymore. We also don’t live in the 90s version of the future, either.

    If I see someone dressed like something out of The Matrix, I think retro. If I see a piece of “cyberpunk” art that references The Matrix, I think retrofuturistic, since it’s referencing the future from the point of view of the 90s.

    I think part of the problem is that it won’t necessarily be deliberate in the mind of the artist, it’s just that the most famous touchstones are now a bit passe. If I see green text on a black background now, it’s not cyberpunk any more (or was it retro at the time? I can’t quite remember. Maybe a little). Same with long leather coats and mirrored shades.

    Obviously I’m struggling somewhat to articulate myself properly, but I think it would be really interesting to see some truly modern, up-to-date cyberpunk, and see what the differences are (thematically as well as the more superficial stuff)

  6. I enjoyed it!

    It’s not the most literary book, and isn’t likely to change anyone’s world, but it’s enjoyable enough.

  7. I agree. It’s better to have more specific terms for what I’m looking for, otherwise this cyberpunk and synthwave shit clogs up my searches. I want bright, happy, almost miami-esque aesthetics. Pastels, greens and pinks, softer edges.

    I do like retrofuturism, but in the way that we thought that cities in the future would always be night, and we’d have neon lights in the buildings 24/7. like that level Neon Night Riders in Ninja Turtles. it was a city from 2020 imagined in 1989 or whatever, that’s cool.

  8. Cyberpunk was a genre of the 1980s, reflecting the very specific political concerns of its authors, who tended to be British or Canadian and politically in the fringe far-left. It was–and I consciously use the past tense here–a particularly didactic and humorless genre, one that wallowed in its own grimdarkness almost to the point of self-parody. Some of the original short stories by Gibson and Sterling were beautifully written and have considerable literary merit, but have not aged well.

    Oh. And, speaking as someone old enough to have read science fiction in dead-tree format prior to the advent of cyberpunk, I don’t know what anyone is talking about when they speak of a genre that was excessively optimistic in tone.

    Go read “Dangerous Visions.” Go read “The Forever War” or “Through a Scanner Darkly” or, hell, anything whatsoever Ursula leGuin or John Varley or John Brunner or Harlan Ellison wrote between 1970 and 1980. Or Strugatsky or Lem, or George Alec Effinger. I don’t recall much that was especially upbeat in tone coming from Larry Niven, and less from Jerry Pournelle during that decade. Or Poul Andersen. Or Norman Spinrad. Spider Robinson wrote vaguely skiffy-flavored shaggy-dog stories about mythical creatures and time travelers and friendly aliens visiting a bar in Brooklyn, I guess, with horrid Feghoot-level puns scattered throughout, but one man hardly makes a trend, and even his stories contained a lot of sad depictions of a society in steep decline.

    Go find a stack of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazines or Analog, or Galaxy, or If, from the 1970s. You will notice immediately that about three quarters of the stories in any given issue of them were about nuclear war, or pollution, or overpopulation, or the Energy Crisis bringing about economic and societal collapse, or about a fascistic US government/transparent and obvious allegorical stand-in assassinating dissidents. It was a decade of despair porn, and a little bit of that goes a long way.

    I have to conclude someone was reading other books and other authors than I was, or maybe just had very different tastes, if they felt the tone wasn’t sufficiently hopeless and nihilistic. The material from that era and prior that gets periodically reprinted by Baen tends not to be representative, what with Baen’s editors and their great love for Thrilling Adventure Stories of Sexy Misfit Libertarians with Big Guns IN SPAAAAAACE. And even some of the material they’re reprinting–like Poul Andersen’s “Ensign Flandry” stories–is very grim Cold War allegory in which our protagonist may win small temporary victories, but doom cannot be averted, just postponed.

    Anyway. No, cyberpunk isn’t retrofuturism–but it is a tiny genre created by a handful of authors in a very particular time and place. Anyone trying to write “cyberpunk” since around 1990 is either caught up in the black-leather-and-mirrorshades-and-car-chases trappings of the original, or harping on political and cultural questions that stopped being relevant when the Berlin Wall came down, writing fanfiction of the Mad Max Headroom alternate future that never was and never will be. And it doesn’t get any more “retro” than that.

  9. Oh wow, that Violence Suppressor video is so 80s distilled. I get that it was created as a lark.
    But the tropes actually remind me of this conversation Patton Oswalt of all people, had with Chapo Trap House about gun violence, or at least old conservatives mentality.
    As in they are still stuck in that 70s hysteria of “lawless hippies are going to drown our country in chaos! Crime is rampant! We need Dirty Harry and Death Wish Bronson roaming the streets Judge Dredd style executing everybody!”
    When in truth. Crime has cratered. And the cause of violence are Reagan policy inequality and right wing white nut jobs. The very types “real” America praises.

  10. I’m gonna play devils advocate. Retrofuturism in the simplest terms is defined as the future as envisioned by the past. & if that’s the case wouldn’t Cyberpunk in fact be Retrofuturism since the game was first created by someone in the 80’s based on their vision of the future.


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