Cyberpunk: Dystopia or Rejected Utopia?

I saw an interesting take on cyberpunk over on Mastodon and it got my thinker a-thinkin’, and I’m interested to hear what all y’all 'punks out there think as well. The premise of the statement was that cyberpunk is not actually a dystopia at all, but rather someone’s idea of a realized utopia that is actively being fought against by the main characters in whatever cyberpunk stories.

The idea is that what we would call a “dystopia” is, in fact, a utopian society - from a capitalist perspective. From that perspective, the “successful capitalists” have all that they’ve ever wanted - hyper wealth, access to all the latest and greatest cyberware to prolong their lives, access to space travel and extra-terra environments as tourist attractions, and more power than most governments. They’ve “worked hard”, climbed the ladder, and all their technological dreams are within reach. So, from a certain point of view, the world of cyberpunk can be seen as a technological utopia rather than a dystopia.

The Lucys, Vs, David Martinezes, Cases, and Mollies of the world are actually resistance fighters to that utopia because the utopia isn’t an equal-opportunity utopia; not everyone gets to participate. The supposition is that they’re actually trying to destroy the utopia that exists because of that inequality. The stories focus on these small pockets of this resistance to the utopia that exists, hence the feeling of “dystopia” from the point of the stories/games.

So what do you think? Is the cyberpunk genre really a dystopian genre or is it more anti-utopia or anti-capitalism genre?

1 Like

Here’s the original toot that I saw which prompted this post:

Seems like I may have missed some important context in my expansion of the idea here regarding white supremacist fantasy. Reading that, does it change your perception of the question at all?

I never thought that ‘dystopia’ has to mean that absolutely everyone is miserable. I think the inequality is quite an important part of dystopia. I can’t think of a single instance where something would be described as dystopian, where there isn’t also some well off elite.

If everyone is doing badly, then I would say that the setting is more apocalyptic, than dystopian.

I personally haven’t much experience with utopian fiction. One factor in that is, that a story needs some kind of conflict to be interesting, which utopias lack of course. I remember that arguments were made, that truly utopian fiction was especially rare, because most pieces would feature some kind of conflict, which then shattered the utopia. Of course, there are still pieces of fiction that are fit that genre.

So what do we make of that? Is any story that features an utopia, utopian? And vice versa?

I would go for the warm take and say that the terms ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’ are just relative.

Even the term apocalytic fits in that spectrum. If we veer a bit from the cyberpunk genre and imagine a scenario where aliens imposed slavery and genocide on humanity as a whole, that would be pretty apocalyptic. But since there are the aliens benefitting from it, there is a case to be made that it is dystopian.

Now imagine us all burning up because the sun got too big. That’s decisively apocalytic. Unless there we’re also some kind of sun people mentioned in the last sentence of the novel.

That’s what I mean by everything being relative. To that I’ll add, what matters is not only the point of view of the protagonist or main characters, but also the focus of the story, which, unless you’re really good at analysing and arguing stuff, is most likely going to depend simply, on the vibes.


Ok, that was the calm, rational part, now comes the part where I get to talk about my pet peeve.

I hate the way some people use genres.

Sure, you can call Neuromancer utopian, because the setting is utopian for someone. But that’s not helpful to anyone, is it?!?

When I think of utopian fiction, I simply do not think of something like Neuromancer.

And genres are there to help audiences find what they are looking for. So when you start to assign them on some technicality, rather then the overall meaning or vibes, no one can find what they are looking for, making genres useless.


I think that these is a good analysis of the question, and I’m thinking that I tend to agree with you. Just like “utopia” can be over-generalized and lose meaning, so can “dystopia” for the same reasons. I guess that the more I think about it, it seems like these stories are more survival stories than anything else; the main characters are just trying to find a niche for themselves in a world gone topsy-turvy from their perspective, and where technology has simultaneously fulfilled and broken the hyperbolic sci-fi promises of the past.

I like the perspective on vibe here. That seems to be a good way to capture it, and the “high tech, low life” slogan that is the hallmark of the cyberpunk genre captures this elegantly in 4 words. Like you said, one man’s dystopia is probably another man’s utopia, and that’s really not a great way to differentiate things at a macro level. Would you say that the vibe of a story is subjective per reader, as with a painting, or do you think that the vibe is objectively specific and, for lack of a better term, immutable? That isn’t to say that a story cannot have multiple vibes, but would you say that those vibes are specific or endemic to the cyberpunk genre?

I feel like this was a good call-out in this discussion. Thank you for your perspective!

Is the vibe of a story something that can be objectively quantified or is it entirely subjective?

I think the answer is somewhere in between.

Something like vibes is a very subjective thing, but in the arts, I feel like the lines between objective and subjective get blurred. You can have your own interpretation of something, but once you express it, you should have something to back it up.