Cyberpunk and Steampunk:
The story of an indomitable ethos in any age!
By S. A. Kehr
What is Cyberpunk? What makes a Cyberpunk story different from its near future Sci-Fi cousins? We can identify a few aesthetic differences that have come to define the genre for the majority of onlookers. It is at once futuristic and at the same time gritty. It has the ever present and all too sleek look of curves and lines everywhere. It has a color pallet that is dark and decidedly against earth tones and pastels. Neon is king, glass and steel (or their futuristic counterparts) are the materials of choice, there are few if any natural things and those that do exist are handled on a scale from incredibly valuable to divine. High technology is ubiquitous to the extent that it has become banal, social mobility is almost nonexistent. But even a definitive list of Cyberpunk style elements could never capture what lies beneath the veneer of highly stylized techno-fetishism that has come to mean cyberpunk in the pop-culture iconography. Those who have chosen to be more than bystanders know that in Cyberpunk, “cyber” is the style but “punk” is the substance.
So if the essence of Cyberpunk isn’t its cool haircuts and mirror shades what is its character? At its core Cyberpunk is inherently disenfranchised, disaffected, disinterested, and disappointed. It is the dystopia and a realization of our most banal fears made manifest by our own selfishness, sloth, and misanthropy. It scares and titillates us at the same time by appealing to the greedy, lazy, angry, and entitled parts of our ugliest selves and says, “Here is the world you really want”; Everything’s cheap and easy if you just let your humanity dribble out a little each day. Its a world of wonders with all the wonder sucked out. Characters regularly treat scientific miracles, nigh unto magic, like they belong in the dust bin. This is of course nothing new to our modern condition (how often do we find reasons to be dissatisfied with our phone, TV, or computer just to replace it with the newest version of the same). Nevertheless, it bears witness to the detachment between our wonders and the sense of wonder we feel towards them. But a Cyberpunk world is more than merely a peek beyond the grim veil of consequence; its also a world of stories about hope in the darkness, the indomitable human spirit, and the beauty that we can bring back if we are willing to bravely face a world that has given up. It looks forward and sees what we all fear and tells us a story about escaping that fate, the power of an individual, and how our humanity can be our salvation.
So what is Steampunk and how is it different? Steampunk is inherently engaged, interested, bright eyed and bushy tailed. It is a better tomorrow built on more promising yesterdays, its a nostalgic re-imagining of what was with all the dirty, ugly, and distasteful parts left on the cutting room floor. It is a Utopian revisionist history that seizes on the wonder of our world and asks us to recreate the past without the banal misery of what human beings have done. And like Cyberpunk it has an aesthetic all its own. Gears and gadgets are everywhere disregarding the pesky laws of physics, technology is regarded on a spectrum from very rare to divine. Idealized Victorian sensibility permeates every level of society. The people are unabashedly enthusiastic and plucky. Status and standing are the real currency of the times; everyone has the potential to rise above their station. Earth tones and pastels are in, most of the world is crafted in natural materials, firelight is key but the limelight is king. But most importantly everything is fanciful and full of flair. Steampunk worlds are filled with over the top personalities that care less about what happens than how they look when it happens.
But true to form the “steam” in Steampunk is the dressing but the “punk” is still the meat and potatoes. One might reasonably ask what’s so punk about fancy dress and style over substance? Can you be fanciful and frivolous while maintaining your punk cred? The answer is it all depends on where you are going, not where you have been. Steampunk is a story of a past that wasn’t where we aren’t the selfish, slothful, cogs in a machine slowly being worn down. but it’s also frightened, and dangerously close to losing the thread of its own better tomorrow. It is a story of darkness creeping into the dream, the failings of mankind, and the horrors we can cause when we lose our sense of wonder. The punk in Steampunk is a looming threat and an unacknowledged background hum of desperation. The average Steampunk character is most like a Disney park employee; Silently suffering, all the while bottling up their vast sense of unease and frustration with a world going to hell in a handbasket while everyone smiles and says what a lovely day it is. Steampunk plays at being chipper but deep down it’s scared to death we will not make it past Tuesday.
Basically Steampunk and Cyberpunk are two faces of the same coin. one dystopia, one utopia, one looking forward, one looking back, one asks us to see beauty in darkness, one asks us to see darkness in beauty, but ultimately they both tell us a story about the value of awe and wonder at the world we live in. Both dare us to be courageous in facing a world that’s barely keeping it together (either on the edge of losing what it has or on the edge or regaining what was lost). Both ask us to put wonder back into the wonders of a world we see losing its way. We look to what will be with dread and what has been with nostalgia. Both speculate that what can save us from this disaster is our own humanity. Both offer us a way to right the ship and emerge from the darkness we face (whether that darkness is upon us already or looming on the horizon). Each uses technology, albeit very different manifestations of technology, as a backdrop to highlight the role of the individual and their humanity in shaping the world to come. Each, in its own way judges, a world that focuses on external forces and finds it wanting.
What we make of that world is where the story happens. What we do and how we live matters. Will we be the slothful children of a new age of technology or will we embrace the pain and seek greater accomplishments for all mankind? Will our greed and ignorance lead us to exploit our fellows or will we realize the worth we all carry hidden inside us? Will we foster a new age of tyranny or a new age of egalitarianism? If you aren’t sure to which, Cyberpunk or Steampunk, these last few questions refer then I have done my job. What is common to them is the punk ethos, and it is a story about the rise of humanity against the powers that be. It is a story of discontentment with the status quo. It is a story about re-imagining who and what we are. It is a story about the power of individuals to change the course of behemoths. It is a story about what’s beautiful inside us, and it is a story about how truth can set us free. We tell these stories because we need to believe in our ability to overcome the darkness that sleeps inside us all and to fix our mistakes. We imagine grim futures to remind ourselves not to give in and to replace temptation with discipline. We re-imagine our history to forgive ourselves weakness and replace it with strength. We tell stories so the angels of our better nature can beat back the daemons of our weakest moments. A punk story is one in which we are all the leaders of our own personal rebellion, the “great men” of an unwritten history, the saviors of humanity, and the witnesses of our own worst fear.
So it doesn’t really matter whether it is cybernetics and matrix runs or zeppelins and Babbage engines. Either way, it is a ruse to talk about our own humanity and what deep hopes and fears we need projected into an ethos that lets us have control in a world of choices we don’t get to make. Maybe that’s the most profound similarity between these two genres; We didn’t get a choice. We didn’t get to choose the events of history so we revise with what we wish we could have done. We don’t get to choose the future so we speculate on what we fear from it. And in both we tell stories that let us reassert our own value, power and, individuality.