Common Themes

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Throughout the cyberpunk readings that have been discussed in and out of class, we have been able to notice many common themes. The following discussions examine these themes.


The Anti-Hero

An anti-hero is a protagonist that is lacking considerably in the characteristics of the archetypal noble hero. In fact, they are sometimes the very opposite. The anti-hero is no knight in shining armor or white-hatted cowboy; instead, they are flawed human beings just like us. Anti-heroes are plagued with human weaknesses and have given way to the gritty truth of life. Characters who exhibit anti-hero characteristics are often loners or "guns-for-hire," much like Case in Neuromancer. Another type is the Byronic Hero.

Common examples of this theme are pulp fiction/noir detectives, and the gruff 'lone-gun' style cowboy. Examples from our literature include Case from Neuromancer and Lindsay from Schismatrix, both discussed more in depth on the pages for the respective novels.

Technology's Morality

In many instances in our readings in class, the morality of technology comes into question. In Neuromancer, Case seeks to live in the grid so he does not have to live in his human body. A human seeking to live outside his body poses serious moral questions, because humans were given a body to live in, and striving to escape it becomes questionable. Steven Levy argues for morality in his work Hackers, where he debates the idea of "freedom of information."


Freedom is an idea that the characters in our readings have gravitated toward: both the idea of freedom and the pursuit of freedom. The pursuit of freedom is a human notion that is reflected in science fiction, commonly to give the character a drive or a purpose.

Charles de Gaulle is attributed with the following quote: "History does not teach fatalism. There are moments when the will of a handful of free men breaks through determinism and opens up new roads." This passage symbolizes the purpose of freedom in science fiction. It shows that freedom is attained through the will to escape a confined lifestyle.

 In He, She, and It, Yod's humanity can be seen through his desire for freedom.  This aspect of his intelligence is what differentiates him from other machines seen in the novel: he wants independence.  As the novel progresses, Yod wants to pull away from Avram, live on his own, love humans, and have emotional responses. 


Steven Levy conveyed the hacker ideology of freedom of information. It is an important hacker thought that information be free, as this allows hackers to learn more about different devices and machines.


Case was motivated by the pursuit of freedom. For him, freedom was in the grid, where he was not restricted by his human body and he could do anything he desired. Case was willing to do anything in order to feel this freedom again, after being unable to do so. This pursuit of freedom drives the story.

Winter Market

At the end of the story, Lise was set free from her crippled human body , and completely "living" in technology and no longer inhibited by her human body. Lise was held back by her her human body and society and eventually she was finally set free at the end.

He, She and It

The pursuit of freedom is possibly one of the greatest themes in He, She and It. Shira and Malkah are constantly trying to win Yod his freedom from Avram. Gadi also facilitates this arguement when he mentions that Yod is not paid for his work. In the end of the story, Yod earns his freedom and the freedom of other cyborgs by destroying Avram's lab so that no more can be created.  In He, She, and It, Yod's humanity can be seen through his desire for freedom.  This aspect of his intelligence is what differentiates him from other machines seen in the novel: he wants independence.  As the novel progresses, Yod wants to pull away from Avram, live on his own, love humans, and have emotional responses. 

Freedom is not only important to the evolution of characters and the story, but it is crucial. Without freedom in these stories, there would be no will for the character to leave their current circumstance, and therefore no plot to the stories. Freedom and the pursuit of freedom are two ideas strongly reflected in the science fiction we have read.

Freedom is one of the recurring themes in all of our works; while each work seems, on the surface to be superficially different from the others, they are in many ways very similar. In a perfect world, everyone is free to make their own choice. In a way, though, each of the characters in these various stories are bound in some way, generally by society, occasionally by their past, to act in some particular way. This leads to situations in which these binds allow people to act in new or unique ways.


Humanity, Transcending It's Limits, and Dependence on Technology

There is in depth discussion of this theme on both the Schismatrix and Human Consciousness pages. It will be integrated here as soon as its complete.

These archaeological finds also have discussion pertaining to this theme: Proposed Trope: Human Enough and Proposed Trope: Growing Human Dependence on Technology.

Real vs Copy

The Winter Market

In The Winter Market Casey is conflicted about whether Lise is "real" after her transformation or transferring into a computer program. Although she is physically dead, Casey debating if Lise's humanity has been preserved in her software or if the program is simply a copy of her personality. If the software is really Lise, then her artistic and creative abilities should be preserved, but can a computer really create art? Ultimately, we do not know if the virtual Lise is real or just a copy.


Flesh Made Word

Carol is a creation of Russ, and he always seems to question whether if she is real or fake. In the beginning of the story he tells her that she is just a simulation, but as the story progresses he seems to move away from this idea. Later in the story, he starts interacting less with Lynne, while spending more time with his simulations. Lynne then makes herself into another simulation, and the reader can really see that Russ is confused, thinking that the simulation of Lynne is real. For example, he was worried about commenting about her ear rings.
"Flesh Made Word" inspires an interesting facet of the real vs. copy debate. A major component of Russ's desires is to understand the true meaning behind the adjective "human." His knowledge of the animal body and its mechanisms leads him to try to find the difference between a machine and the human body. He delves deep into the mind of the animal to determine what keeps it ticking. He designs programs to emulate a human mind, and though they are not perfect, they are disturbingly accurate. The deaths of his friends and his animal test subjects coupled with his "mind emulators" lead him to the conclusion that there is nothing special about the human mind that sets it apart from the mind of a cat, or even a computer program. Clearly, animals run on a sort of code, much like a computer program. The mind is set to follow certain patterns, behave in certain ways in response to stimulus, and desperately stay alive. Even deep, philosophical thought is nothing more than chemical reactions and electrical impulses. Russ finds that reality, even in something amazing as the human mind, could potentially be replicated perfectly.


Quite possibly the most obvious "real vs. copy" example. There are characters such as the Dixie Flatline who, though being near-perfect, is still simply a computer AI program. The Flatline mimics Dixie's mannerisms and has access to all his memories, but he is not a real person. The two "large scale" rogue AI's can also be considered in this. Throughout the novel , and until the end you never know whether Neuromancer or his "sister program" are in control of the worlds that Case is thrown into. Case is sometimes thrown into a world he believes is real, only to find out that Wintermute has created it. What these elements seek to do is imbalance the reader, and the characters in particular, and force them to question what is real, and what is not real.
The real vs. copy idea also forms itself in the idea of Armitage. The fact that he was thought to be a human until he was discovered to be an AI program demonstrates a scary thought for people; "The copy" would become virtually indistinguishable from "the real".
This theme is illustrated again in the beach world where Case meets Linda and Neuromancer. Case is convinced at first that neither the world nor Linda are real, yet before he leaves, he gives Linda his coat so that she won't be cold.

He, She, and It

One of the main questions at hand in this novel is whether or not Shira's relationship with Yod is healthy. Yod is essentially an emulation of humanity. He is a copy of humanity, and seems to do a great job of performing a human role. To answer whether or not Shira's relationship is healthy, the theme of real versus copy must be applied. This theme boils down to another - what characterizes human consciousness?  Another question raised in this novel pertaining to class themes is that of ownership.  Who owns technology or does technology own us?  In this novel the reader sees that ownership transcends what is typically viewed as normal ownership.  Y-S owns Shira just as Avram owns Yod: Are these similar forms of ownership?  Can a culture own a person in the same sense that a person can own a piece of technology?

Off Topic Source

From the tv series Star Trek, Data the android installs an emotion chip in himself to allow him to experience feelings. This is a Real vs. Copy example as the emotions are provided through technology therefore not of genuine feelings a human would feel but a copy.

Sentient AI

In several of the class readings, the sentient AI play important roles in the story. The protangonist frequently tied in some relationship with the sentient AI, both in willing and forced circumstances. In both cases, the AI takes on humans qualities, such as emotions and goals, and the protagonist is forced into a situation where he/she is forced to trust the AI.

One of the most prevalent sentient AI in the class reading appears in Neuromancer. Wintermute has an important role in the story and in a way is leading the events of the story the whole time.

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