With the hype (and fallout) of CD Projekt Red‘s Cyberpunk 2077, the cyberpunk genre has once more become a focus of attention. While popular during the end of the 20th century, it appears new, younger audiences are finally discovering (or exploring) the topics and aesthetics.
Unfortunately, after reading numerous critiques and editorials, I’ve begun to question if those commenting on cyberpunk know anything about the genre.
One article questions whether cyberpunk reflects the racial and economic realities of the “modern-day.” Another touts a discontinued card game as proof that the genre could be inclusive (as if it already isn’t.)
The summary in many of these critiques is the same: “Cyberpunk is an outdated sub-genre created by white men with heteronormative, cis-gender white stories and no relevance to women, BIPoC, LGBTQ+, etc.”
I’m here to say that cyberpunk has been an inclusive, diverse genre for decades, and these critics are wrong.
The main issue is that the cyberpunk critiques focus on two things: the beginning and the most recent.
Critics point to original authors of the genre, like Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling, as proof cyberpunk was made by (and about) white cisgender men. They’re not wrong that most of the originators fall into that category, just as that demographic was (and still is) the dominant group in most aspects of society, regardless of genre.
Afterward, there’s a brief mention of cyberpunk films with white directors and lead actors, from Blade Runner to Robocop to Johnny Mnemonic. Again, no arguments here, as Hollywood has long had a diversity issue in front of and behind the camera.
These same bloggers and op-ed writers finish by discussing troublesome aspects of Cyberpunk 2077, from racial stereotypes to its treatment of the transgender community. While some of these are up for debate, others are blatant, and the critics aren’t wrong for questioning a game made by a company from a homogeneous culture.
All of those critiques are valid, but the problem is they don’t begin to span the entirety of the genre. They ignore nearly 40 years of cyberpunk history between the early ’80s and today, during which the genre showed how diverse and relevant it is.
While people focus on the white male authors at the start of the genre, they ignore the women and BIPoC also involved.
Ursula K. Le Guin was a peer of Philip K. Dick and Octavia E. Butler is from the same generation as William Gibson. Both were pioneers of representation and diversity, from Le Guin’s The Eye of the Heron to Butler’s more post-apocalyptic Parable series.
Later authors would continue this trend, as cyberpunk reflected the disenfranchised’s experiences in the ’80s and ’90s.
Pat Cadigan is known as the “Queen of Cyberpunk,” with authors like Lisa Mason and Madeline Ashby following in her footsteps. Melissa Scott is an award-winning cyberpunk author known for her LGBTQ+ representation, while Nalo Hopkinson presents worlds of Afro-Caribbean futurism.
While we talk about literature, let’s not forget one of the most influential figures in the genre: Mike Pondsmith.
Creator of the Cyberpunk tabletop role-playing game, originally published in 1988, Pondsmith brought the genre to a broader audience. His RPG also helped create a codified concept of ‘cyberpunk’ that many works drew from, including later games like Shadowrun, Eclipse Phase, and Technoir.
Ironically, the same video game used as an example of cyberpunk’s white dominance came from an RPG written by a Black man (and based on his life experiences). While Cyberpunk 2077 is flawed, Pondsmith still had input into the game, and many of its social aspects (particularly on race and ethnicity) come from his original material.
As Pondsmith is quoted as saying to critics, “Who the (bleep) do YOU think you are to tell ME whether or not MY creation was done right or not?”
What about movies?
Japan was putting out cyberpunk films in the ’80s and ’90s simultaneously with Hollywood, beginning with Gakuryū Ishii’s Burst City and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo series. Throughout manga and (later) anime, the genre was also found from Akira to Ghost in the Shell to Cowboy Bebop.
Let’s also not forget that the Wachowskis, transgender women, created the biggest cyberpunk trilogy in cinema history. The Matrix explored humanity, machines, and reality, while also setting the bar on special effects for the 21st century.
Like literature, cyberpunk in cinema has been voiced by women, BIPoC, and LGBTQ+ for nearly four decades.
This article’s point is not to say that cyberpunk is a perfect genre or that we don’t have a broad problem with the dominance of cisgender white maleness in fiction and entertainment. But these critiques that cyberpunk is “not diverse,” or “holds no relevance” to the disenfranchised experience, are fallacy (at best).
From its early beginnings, feminist and LGBTQ+ messages were included in explorations of dystopian futures and transhumanism. Black, Asian, and Latinx voices have been an essential part of the genre for nearly 40 years.
And the same game that came out in 2020, which brought cyberpunk to new audiences’ attention, was based on a Black man’s creation.
To those just now discovering the genre, I’m glad you’re exploring the underlying messages and themes. However, I implore you to stop analyzing things from the perspective of a few old books and a recent video game.
There are decades of cyberpunk material you are glossing over or ignoring. That includes the very voices of people of color and the disenfranchised you claim to champion.
Cyberpunk has been, and always will be, a diverse and relevant genre.