Cyberpunk, as a genre, reflects the worst fears of 1980's Leftwing politics, essentially their reaction to the "Greed of Reagan-era America".AmesJainchill said:Having never played anything outside of D&D [yet!], my impression of Cyberpunk is something like this...
Cyberpunk writers rejected contemporary American society. They were the modern descendants of the '60's Countercuture. Political leftists had a vision of an idealized future that could come to be from Marxist/"New Left" politics; cyberpunk was their version of what would be if those policies weren't adopted. These fears are portrayed in the worst, most apocalyptic (and lurid) fashion, resulting in a dark and dystopic future.
Some of the common themes (as noted, not all apply to every story that is called "cyberpunk," but these are common to many stories of the genre):
Hyper capitalism (manifesting as corporate fuedalism and serfism), corporate greed resulting in their control of the government and economy. Environmental disasters (as the corporations either have the enviromental protection laws repealed or are so powerful they can ignore them). The "Rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer"- utter poverty on a wide scale, utter luxury for a small minority. There's no social "safety net" for those down and out, and extreme poverty and disenfranchisement is common.
This was the view of what (certain) Leftists feel was the inevitable result of American society and, in particular, Reaganite America. Bruce Sterling, on a website, in fact wrote an essay (just a couple of years ago) claiming that cyberpunk was the inevitable future.
This generation also fetishized the rebels (ex.: Vietnam war protesters) and blamed the system for crushing the hopes of the common man. The system (including the law, the police, government, and the corporate economy) is wrong and so rebelling against it by breaking laws is morally acceptable. Thus most of cyberpunk glorifies rebels, and people who reject the values of society: hackers, criminals, thieves, assassins, and so forth.
Cyberpunk adopted an anti-hero ethic and a nihilistic ethos. It also had a certain style and edge which appealed to adolescents and misfits. Acting and looking "cool" was lauded, as cool people are almost by definition rebels who defy the system and don't take no guff from The Man. Mirrorshades, trenchcoats, leather, guns, katanas, "live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse", "style over substance", etc.
To disagree a mite with Chris Helton, most cyberpunk is not about making the world better, its about fighting to survive in a cold, heartless world of crime and poverty, made so because of the greed of corporations and the rich. There is no chance to make things better (if the protagonists even care to try), because the system is so much bigger than you and simply grinds on, ignoring your efforts.
Thus the nihilistic ethos- there is simply no chance to save the future or make meaningful change. The masses don't care (or are too poor to make a difference), the media is controlled by the government and corps, the rich own everything, and they don't even bother crushing rebels, because rebellion is small and pointless and the rebels are ants to their Death Star. If nothing matters, and the world sucks anyway, and nothing you do will make a difference, then you can do anything you want, because it all the same in the end.
Cyberpunk is a high-tech, computer-hip (but computer-ignorant), nihilistic version of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Instead of a Red revolution freeing the workers, the protagonists just survive (maybe) and move on.
Some cyberpunk writers do have a more hopeful outlook (Much of Gibson's stuff could be said to reflect this) but most of it was dark and hopeless.