When I first started writing my cybernoir detective series I went on a cyberpunk media binge, reading and watching everything I could get my hot little hands on.
When I was making lists of all the must-see, must-play, must-read classics of the genre one came up that I hadn’t heard of.
It doesn’t really sound cyberpunk, does it?
I looked into it. Bounty hunters in space. Okay… maybe? I was really getting more of a Space Western vibe, à la Firefly.
But I love Firefly, so I was willing to give it a try.
I ordered the complete series on Blu-Ray and my husband and I binge watched it in a couple of weeks.
Then I started noticing how often Cowboy Bebop is referenced in cyberpunk forums and fan groups and how contentious this issue is…
Is Cowboy Bebop cyberpunk???
Genre purists like to say that the two key themes of cyberpunk are anti-corporatism and transhumanism, and that Cowboy Bepop doesn’t really address either with any resounding statement.
And sure, these are key themes, and the show doesn’t really make any resounding statements… about anything. Cowboy Bebop is more about questions than answers, it’s more like beat poetry than literary thesis.
That does not, in my opinion, exclude Cowboy Bebop from the cyberpunk canon. It’s simply got a lighter touch than some works, and that’s just fine by me.
Here are my Top 5 reasons why Cowboy Bebop is cyberpunk as fuck.
One: It’s got that high-tech, low-life vibe. Cyberpunk is an extension of classic noir into a high-tech, sci-fi setting.
Noir explored the gritty underbelly of society, the crime and violence and desperation, that most genres didn’t want to acknowledge. It often brought it into direct contrast with wealthy upper-class snobbery, commenting on the the greed, corruption, and hypocrisy that upheld the chasm between the classes. It questioned whether rich people were actually better than poor people or if, in fact, they might actually be worse.
Noir asked uncomfortable moral questions about what it means to be a good person, and whether anyone can truly be good or bad.
Cowboy Bebop explores these themes in nearly every episode. The morally grey protagonists are pitted against other morally grey characters, and we are forced to acknowledge that nearly everyone is just trying to get by the best the can in the world.
There are no good guys or bad guys here. It’s just high-tech, low-life, and jazz.
Two: Wealth and Poverty in a High-Tech World. Another theme prevalent in cyberpunk is the way technology exacerbates and sometimes neutralizes economic disparity.
There is a famous quote oft attributed to William Gibson, “The future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed yet.” And while we may never know if Gibson actually said this, it’s certainly a theme explored in his seminal Sprawl trilogy.
Cutting edge technology is always expensive, and often it is so out of reach of the average person that it seems like magic. But as technology improves, so does the quality of trickle down tech into the lower classes. A cell phone today can do more than the most powerful computers we had back in the 80s, and even those living in poverty can often scrape together enough cash to own one.
As widely available technology becomes more and more powerful, some of the technological advantages that the upper classes have are neutralized. This theme shows up in cyberpunk via hackers that crack into megacorp computers to steal money, wreak havoc, or just to mess with “the man.”
While Cowboy Bebop doesn’t outright say anything about economic disparity, we see it represented repeatedly in the various planets the bounty hunter team visits, and Edward (a savant-like hacker) uses her skills to help Spike and the team tip the odds in their favour.
While the team is perpetually broke, they are often able to use punked tech to level the playing field. That’s pretty cyberpunk if you ask me!
Three: Transhumanism. I think the assumption that transhumanism must be taken to extremes and ask deep philosophical questions about what it means to be human in order to be relevant is a bit off the mark.
Transhumanism, by definition, is the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology. We are already doing this with prosthetic limbs, hearing aids, and neuroplasticity to treat everything from learning disabilities to stroke.
Transhumanism has already begun.
Any work that explores, no matter how lightly, the possibilities of technological enhancements to the human form is exploring transhumanism. Artificial intelligence is the most extreme step in the ultimate goal of transcending humanity into our next form, the singularity in which we are either absorbed or eliminated by our own machines.
But cybernetic limbs, nootropic drugs, and built in communicators are valid steps on the road to evolution.
Again, Cowboy Bepop doesn’t try to tell us how to feel about these advancements. It simply acknowledges the fact that they will exist, and will affect our lives in every way. There is even a suggestions that the ship’s dog, Ein, might have human-level intelligence. Is that transcanine-ism? Who knows.
But, Cyberpunk? Check.
Four: Everybody loves an Underdog. One common theme in cyberpunk fiction, which is another carryover from the noir genre, is that it either follows an underdog or an antihero. Because of the anti-corporate, anti-government lean of the –punk genres, most follow stories of either an underdog fighting back against an oppressive system, or an antihero who represents the evil of the system itself (and who will likely fail at the end of the story). Cyberpunk also loves stories about the struggle of the individual within a system that values conformity and submission to the norm, most often portrayed as mindless consumerism. In Cowboy Bebop, each of the main members struggles against society in one way or another. Spike is trying to reinvent himself after escaping from life with the mob, Jet is an ex-cop putting his skills to work as a bounty hunter, Faye is a hustler with a gambling habit, Ed is a child-prodigy hacker with no family. They are all, with the exception of Ed, fallen heroes, trying to find a way to survive in a corrupt unequal world. They are all willing participants in the system, not because they want to be there, but because it’s the only way to survive. While there is no over-arching “damn the man” government/corporate take-over story line, the teams jobs often put them at odds with groups that are much bigger and more powerful than they are, which is true to the Cyberpunk themes.
Five: The Power of Definitions. Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction in a dystopian futuristic setting that tends to focus on a "combination of lowlife and high tech" featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order. (Source: Wikipedia)
Now, one could get tetchy over the use of wikipedia as a source, but the actual dictionary definitions of the word cyberpunk are even more vague.
Miriam Webster says cyberpunk is “science fiction featuring extensive human interaction with supercomputers and a punk ambiance.”
The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s “a genre of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology.”
So I like the Wikipedia version for our purposes here. It’s covers the basics and has a bit more meat on the bones.
Does Cowboy Bebop have a dystopian futuristic setting? Yes. Does it focus on the high-tech, low-life of this world? Yes. Does it features advanced technological and scientific achievements? Yes. Artificial intelligence and cybernetics? Yes, Edward hacks a sapient computer program in one episode, and Jet (among others) has cybernetic enhancements. Are these juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order? I’m going to say yes, as Spike and his team operate on the fringes of society, neither for or against the law, somewhat like the cowboys of the shows namesake in the lawless wild west.
Does it do all of these things to every cyberpunk fan’s satisfaction? Clearly not, or we wouldn’t still be arguing about it.
But for me, it’s enough. I list Cowboy Bebop as one of my biggest influences as a similarly genre-blending and –bending writer who likes to push back at the canon a bit. I can’t wait to see the Netflix adaptation, either. Fight me.
In the old “Is it Cyberpunk?” argument, I think there’s only one thing we can all agree on…
Hard and fast rules are so not cyberpunk!
S.C. Jensen, author of the cybernoir thriller series, Bubbles in Space.