M a r k   E v e r g l a d e

Cyberpunk's Impact on Society - An Interview with Dr. Ben Menadue

asian city at night tokyo


Dr. Christopher Menadue (Ben) is a social psychologist at John Cook University who researches the intersection of Science Fiction (Sci-Fi), science, and culture. I interviewed him in October 2021 about his thoughts on the impact of dystopian literature on society, and the connection between cyberpunk and class consciousness. Dr. Joseph Hurtgen (Joe) assisted with the questions and analysis. Section headers in italics are paraphrased summaries and not direct quotes.


Sci-Fi is a cultural phenomenon whose impacts are often hidden. It creates entire sub-cultures of beautiful escapism. It allows people to view the human condition from new perspectives, as space and its multitude of races allow for an infinitude of societies to be created and explored without limitation. It provides a roadmap to our culture, detailing its social evolution over time (Menadue, 2017, Menadue & Jacups, 2018). It also provides an epidemiological awareness of the level of discourse that exists surrounding public health crises (Menadue, 2020).

Science fiction and real science share a complex relationship.

Sci-Fi influences public opinion to be more open to scientific advancements, and can direct the progress and funding of real scientific research (Menadue & Jacups, 2018). It also bridges the gap between the sciences and the humanities (Schwartz, 1971). When complex theorems and fantastical technology inspire fiction, it jumpstarts the imagination, which creates an interest in science and improves learning. However, Sci-Fi may also provide unrealistic expectations of science, and can bias cultural narratives (Menadue & Cheer, 2017).

Cyberpunk details our relationship with both ourselves, and God.

Cyberpunk is a distinctive sub-genre that will once more hit center stage as The Matrix Resurrections releases this month. Movies like Blade Runner make us question what it means to be human (Menadue, 2017, Geraci, 2007). Beyond our humanity, cyberpunk’s take on artificial intelligence represents the sublime in an existential way that impacts even our concept of God. William Gibson’s work is crucial in this regard since it balances technowrath and technoredemption (Geraci, 2007), but even before Gibson, the connection between technology and religion had been made in the proto-cyberpunk short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison. The strong impact of these narratives warrants closer examination.

Interview with Dr. Christopher Menadue (Ben):

Mark: In your research, you found that science fiction often reflects events of great concern, such as pandemics (Menadue, 2020). From the threat of war, to the fear of new technologies, the dystopian nature of Sci-Fi enables it to capture these concerns. As a sociologist, the idea of social release valves in society interests me, in other words, the ways society relieves itself of pressure.
How does dystopian science fiction act as a safety release valve for society as it expresses this pressure building within it?

Dystopian literature helps us rehearse how to respond in an actual disaster, putting us at ease.

Ben: …The anxieties and stresses that cause conflict and aggressive behaviour through fear and uncertainty are reduced when the population has been able to ‘rehearse’ their responses to dystopian real-world situations in advance. Consider the irrational reactions to mandates for mask wearing, vaccination and other scientifically logical actions to reduce the impact of the pandemic, for example. The way we can do this is through exposure to forms of entertainment that incorporate what-if scenarios derived as thought experiments about similar eventualities, but which are less confrontational as they are fictional.

Exposure to fictional versions of traumatic and life-changing scenarios may have the effect of conditioning us to expect to ‘survive’ the experience
– we come out of a film about a global pandemic or finish reading a book on environmental disasters without being physically harmed, but having been exposed to many of the same perceptual and cognitive triggers that we might experience in the real-world version of events. The degree to which dystopian futures exaggerate the reality may also offer some reassurance when things do not seem to be quite as bad in the real-world version of these scenarios.

cyborg drinking control chip from coffee cup

Interesting, and I agree regarding rehearsal. Sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) discusses this rehearsal as follows in applying his theory of dramaturgy, “A third application is to rehearse the whole routine so that the performers can become practiced in their parts and so that contingencies that were not predicted will occur under circumstances in which they can be safely attended to. A fourth is to outline…the line of response they are to take to the performance…(within this process) It becomes more difficult to distinguish between performers and audience.”

One of these "rehearsals" that cyberpunk runs is how we will deal with an A.I. that has run rampant.
A.I. promises a new, transcendent world for us to live in in cyberspace, the singularity bringing about a new body for humanity, if it doesn't bring apocalypse first. This is similar to Judeo-Christian beliefs (Geraci, 2012).

Dystopian Sci-Fi fans may be less anxious about COVID-19.

Ben: One of the interesting findings to come out of COVID-related health research was the discovery that young people who are fans of Sci-Fi, and particularly dystopian Sci-Fi, may be less anxious about the pandemic. An interesting article in The Conversation discusses this effect.

Sci-Fi reflects real-life concerns about the recent past, the present, and the near future.

Ben: I think there is also a degree to which as humans we seek answers to our questions about reality and the problems that arise in our societies. My research has found strong correlations between historic changes in local and global economic, environmental, technological and other factors and the mirroring of these in contemporary Sci-Fi. One of the reasons that I found my own research so compelling was the stark and repeated evidence that social and cultural concerns did indeed leave strong impressions ‘on the page’ of contemporary fiction – the fact that stories with particular topics have special resonance and popularity at times that mirror their content is naturally a two-way phenomenon.
airplane hangar disaster with palm tree

Sci-Fi relieves our uncertainty as we conceive of, and practice handling, life's inevitabilities.

When you live in daily fear of nuclear armageddon, as inhabitants of Europe and the USA did from the 1960s through to the 1980s, for example, the incredible density of apocalyptic stories in Sci-Fi reflects both a major concern about immediate consequences as well as a desire by readers to be able to make some sense of it, and in some ways to feel better prepared, even reconciled, to outcomes over which they may individually have very little control. In this way Sci-Fi can perform the function of a ‘safety valve’ – allowing people to explore the limits of their fears and anxieties in relative safety, and by repeated exposure without immediate consequences, perhaps to achieve a degree of immunity to the horror of the reality.

Why Japan produces so much dystopian fiction.

Mark: It’s not surprising then that Japan, with its large amount of dystopian and disaster-oriented anime and fiction, is one of the three highest ranking countries on uncertainty avoidance according to Hofstede (2021). Uncertainty avoidance pertains to how concerned countries are with alleviating anxiety over unpredictable events (Hofstede, 2001). The graph below depicts cultural scores for four major countries, including those for uncertainty avoidance, showing Japan having very high levels. This gives considerable creditability to your statement, and I would hypothesize Greece, another high-scoring country, would follow suit

hofstede cultural scores for countries uncertain avoidance
Australia - Blue, United States - Orange, Japan - Green, Ireland - Purple
Mark: While much psychological research has been done to show how reading fiction helps develop critical thinking skills and empathy, it’s great that you revealed the larger social implications of Sci-Fi. Beyond natural disasters and war, one of the major issues facing the world is inequality. Cyberpunk, typified by Gibson, Sterling, and Stephenson, is the most class conscious of all Sci-Fi in my opinion. In an era where people are casually using the term “woke,” and the U.S. is experiencing thousands of strikes, in what way might Sci-Fi influence the awakening of class consciousness?

Cyberpunk still reflects the middle class and its privileged authors despite its efforts.

Ben: I’m not sure I would describe cyberpunk as ‘class-conscious’ – the ‘Hero Protagonists,’ to shamelessly nod at Stephenson, tend to be very much of a particular socio-economic class (middle-class, nerdy, educated) with a gloss of racial and gender fluidity. I think that cyberpunk has had a role in ‘mainstreaming the geek’ but for class conscious literature (and more sophisticated treatments of race and gender) you get a lot more depth from Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler and, of course, Ursula K. LeGuin.

Of the three authors you mention, I think Sterling is perhaps the most politically conscious by a small margin. Gibson and Stephenson are Mad and Clever (respectively), but I don’t think they have done much to influence the awakening of class consciousness. Sci-Fi has done a lot more in terms of class consciousness before the appearance of cyberpunk – in fact a lot of early Sci-Fi has relevance; consider Asimov’s Empire novels. Many authors have attempted to write ‘woke’ novels well before the term existed, such as Delany.

(Despite this, Sci-Fi is limited)… because the vast majority of Sci-Fi authors are White and middle-class – My surveys of Sci-Fi fans indicated a very well educated demographic with pretty good jobs…The Sci-Fi authors who write about class and social structures tend to be considered more ‘literary’ – and even deny writing Sci-Fi at all (like Margaret Atwood…). Consider that one of the greatest observational writers on class and race (George Orwell) was also the author of 1984 and Animal Farm – but Orwell also had a much broader life experience than most modern Sci-Fi authors.

Sci-Fi portrays class issues out of obligation rather than a scholarly passion.

Ben: What a lot of Sci-Fi tends to do when trying to talk about ‘woke’ issues appears to me to be more about trying to tap into a demographic than to seriously explore the issues. There are good examples like Cleverman, some of LeGuin’s work, Delany…but () Sci-Fi is hampered by the lack of authors who have actually experienced severe prejudice, hardship and poverty, so many Sci-Fi thought experiments on class, society, gender, race and politics tend to read more like undergraduate essays than visceral experiences (which is
why Octavia Butler’s work can be so powerful – having been someone who experienced the sharp end of racism and prejudice).

William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, and Neal Stephenson’s backgrounds influenced their writing.

Ben: I think it is interesting to look at the biography of writers to get a better feel for the authenticity and sources of their ideologies and rationalisations – LeGuin accepted that she had to learn to be a woman writing about women in a man’s world and that she didn’t do it very well at the start, probably in part due to being so well insulated from the kind of negative experiences that happen to women who are less well supported. Philip K. Dick makes a lot more sense, and what he says is much more interesting when you know that he is writing from the perspective of someone heavily immersed in drug culture, paranoia and addiction. Gibson’s eccentricity-to-the-point-of-insanity is undoubtedly a reason why his work feels so authentic compared to the much more urbane and cerebral Stephenson…
arcade in city street of vendor stalls
Mark: I agree that cyberpunk authors are typically privileged, and write highly educated protagonists. These heroes are often self-taught though, since they didn’t have access to top tech schools, and they’re outcasts. Take Eric Malikyte's (link) hero in Ego Trip, who works at a fast-food joint and (unknowingly at first) is involved in virtual assassinations to make an extra buck. Stephenson’s Diamond Age contrasts the life of a street urchin, Nell, with the education of a Victorian boarding school. From a Marxist standpoint, class is defined by not only the antagonism and discrimination wrought by other classes, but also from having a differential educational experience. Joe, what do you think about cyberpunk and class?

Joe: In The Archive Incarnate (link) I go through the novel forms of poverty that Neal Stephenson reveals (such as people living in storage units). Le guin and Asimov dealt with class but not in near as radical ways as cyberpunk. Consider the hacker figure, generally a down and out social pariah that steals from the wealthy and liberates information, upending class structures. The entirety of Blade Runner (link) can be viewed as class commentary.

Mark: Yes, as executive producer Joseph Chou puts it, “Blade Runner looks at class struggle” as well as racial discrimination (Fox, 2021). The cyberpunk maxim, information wants to be free, at its core is about undoing the clandestine secrets of governments and corporations to empower the masses against their oppression. There’s some representation of the lumpen proletariat as protagonists as well. The protagonists in the Bridge Trilogy by William Gibson gives us Rydell, a poor rent-a-cop, accompanied by the homeless Chevette Washington. The entire bridge represents the class divide that technology exacerbates as society moves beyond the modern era. As one of his characters states, "There's only two kinds of people. People can afford (rich) hotels like that, they're one kind. We're the other. Used to be like a middle class, people in between. But not anymore." (Gibson, 1993). Geraci (2007) writes, “Cyberpunk characters wander in the gritty seams of a world dominated by multinational corporate interests; their crimes are committed against such powers and, indeed, under the employment of them. Subjectivity is fragmented to the point of confusing what remains of the human person.”

Ben: The potential for Sci-Fi to awaken (the) consciousness of anything comes from how it has become what Brian Aldiss described as ‘cultural wallpaper’.... When studios will fund films like GATTACA, with it’s overt ‘pre-woke’ wokeness on the subject of disability and Black Mirror can be a hit TV show, you know that the population of Sci-Fi consumers has become extremely general, and receptive to messages that may have some impact, if only because the messages are couched in fictional landscapes – the ‘soft sell’ of changing cultural perspectives and attitudes

Sci-Fi's power lies in its accessibility to a diverse population.

Ben: The potential for Sci-Fi to awaken class consciousness lies in the mainstreaming of Sci-Fi as a perfectly acceptable form of entertainment for people of all classes, genders, races and experiences. This leads to it being a potential showcase for thought experiments written by people from all different backgrounds, who just happen to be writing Sci-Fi, but have an audience that includes those who share or are on the periphery of their own experiences. The accessibility of stories as ways of infiltrating the social conscience is not a new thing – it has been observed that (those) who read Dicken’s work were the middle-class wives of men in positions of power and influence (that) may have been a significant driver in the changes in social perspectives towards poverty and disadvantage in late Victorian England.

Can Sci-Fi be a driver for social change?

Ben: There is a bit of a risk of pushing the case that in some way Sci-Fi has a radical potential for dramatic influences on society and change, when it is more of a harbinger of current and near-future concerns and a vehicle for expressing them in a way that is less confrontational for audiences than ‘realistic’ fiction (your average White supremacist might stomach watching Black Panther, but you couldn’t drag them in to watch 12 Years a Slave…). Ballard’s irritation about the ‘apotheosis of the hamburger’ of Sci-Fi is something to keep in mind.

The vast majority of Sci-Fi… (has) predictable and overblown plots and plastic characters, and authors are probably not spending much time on genuine world-building, so we tend to get some pretty flimsy pastiche of potential futures. We look back on the ‘Golden Age’ of Sci-Fi of the 50s and 60s and pick out some really amazing books with extraordinary world-building and intricately wild plots (Dick and Bester, for instance) but we tend not to recall the vast volume of dross that was also being written. High quality, well considered, ‘literary’ Sci-Fi that deals with things like race, class and social structures is hampered by being associated with a sea of dreadful claptrap…

Mark: Given the proclivity of which Sci-Fi fans read the genre, and the degree of violence within it, to what degree might dystopian literature be creating, or reinforcing, the negative aspects of the society it is critiquing?

Ben: The corollary to having a fictional form that reduces people’s anxieties and fears about current events is, of course, that it may lead them to simply accept injustices and the sort of political insanity that has been unfolding in the last decades rather than fight it. When every dystopian Sci-Fi film features mega-corporations that control every aspect of our lives, it can easily be argued that the lazy short-hand of that sort of ‘cultural wallpaper’ may have a damaging effect in making it seem natural.

space with cloud in front

We consciously evaluate the warnings that Science Fiction offers and their impact on us.

There is a risk in arguing that Sci-Fi may reinforce the negative aspects of the societies it depicts (by) applying a misplaced Sapir Whorf hypothesis to the effects of fiction on society – I really do not think that there is a strong case for arguing that because there are repeated negative visions of socio-cultural evolution in Sci-Fi that people are going to adopt these as ‘normal’ without considering at least how it will impact on them individually. I prefer to imagine that audiences experience these repeated negative portrayals as more of a warning than a necessary inevitability.

In my research I have tended to find Sci-Fi providing a near future commentary on social concerns and events of the recent past – some of these being dire warnings about emerging technology.

Mark: I can appreciate this cognitive psychological approach whereby we are not only exposed to media stimuli through osmosis, but we consciously assess how it will impact us. The degree to which these dystopias are perceived as a warning may have to with the degree to which they are perceived as reflecting the present versus the future. If people perceive these dystopias as representing the current state of society, it could be more reinforcing than if they perceive them as being warnings about the future, a future they could change. In this case, the person’s own beliefs and cynicism, perhaps even their learned helplessness, could mediate the impact of the literature on them, particularly in books that are ambiguous as to what time period they are representing. I do agree that most Sci-Fi books are focused on the near future and recent past.

Ben: I used the example in Trysts Tropiques (Menadue, 2017) of a story that appeared about 18 months after Monsanto described gene splicing crops in which researchers working for ‘Monagro’ build a designer algae that they realise will out-compete all other life on Earth – when you look at the parallel rise of Whole Earth and environmental activism it becomes clearer that Sci-Fi seems to be a good indicator for things people want to do something about and/or respond to and understand rather than leading to acceptance – the same could easily be said for the stories about pandemics I identified in my more recent paper (Menadue, 2020).

Mark: Yes. You have written that dystopian science fiction describes the zeitgeist of the times, acting as a measuring glass for socio-cultural evolution, based on your research and meta-analysis (Menadue, 2017). The 1956 Japanese film Warning from Space, for instance, shows this relationship between sci-fi and what was happening culturally in Japan. It was released 14 years after the atomic bombs were dropped by the U.S. In the film, a benevolent alien race warns the human race about the need to disarm nuclear weapons, while also helping them to develop a new, more powerful one as long as they act as a group for the common good. As life on Earth is threatened by a planet about to collide with it, Japan must rely on the global council and the alien race to assist them with answering this external, depersonalized threat they’re too afraid to name. So there's definitely a close relationship between history and the near futures being described.


Science Fiction continues to offer us glimpses into not only our would-be futures, but the complex socio-cultural evolution that has driven society to its current state. The only aliens in Sci-Fi is our own alienation amidst the threat of the unknown. Sci-Fi is less about conquering other planets than conquering that which is uncertain as we rehearse how to respond to adversity in a safe environment that frees us from preexisting biases. Sci-fi is freedom from fear.

Dr. Menadue continues to instruct and research at James Cook University. His research may be viewed here.

For further conversation on the value of dystopian literature, see my interview with Dr. Paul Graham Raven.


Fox, Kevin. (2021). Blade Runner: Black Lotus and the Perpetual Relevance of Cyberpunk.
Available at URL: https://www.pastemagazine.com/comedy/blade-runner/blade-runner-black-lotus-preview/

Geraci, R. M. (2007). Robots and the sacred in science and science fiction: Theological implications of artificial intelligence. Zygon, 42, 961-980.

Geraci, R.M. (2012). Apocalyptic A.I.: Visions of heaven in robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. Oxford University Press.

Gibson, William. (1993). Virtual Light. Penguin.

Goffman, Erwing. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday Anchor.

Hofstede, Geert. (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Sage Publications.

Hofstede, Geert. (2021). Compare Countries. Available at URL: https://www.hofstede-insights.com/product/compare-countries/

Menadue, Christopher Benjamin. (2017). Trysts tropiques: The torrid jungles of science fiction. Etropic, 16, 125-140.

Menadue, Christopher Benjamin, and Cheer, Karen Diane. (2017). Human Culture and Science Fiction: A Review of the Literature, 1980-2016. Sage Journals. Available at URL: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244017723690

Menadue, Christopher Benjamin, and Jacups, Susan. (2018). Who Reads Science Fiction and Fantasy and How Do They Feel About Science? Preliminary Findings From an Online Survey. Sage Journals.
Available at URL: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2158244018780946

Menadue, Christopher Benjamin. (2020). Pandemics, epidemics, viruses, plagues, and disease: Comparative frequency analysis of a cultural pathology reflected in science fiction magazines from 1926 to 2015. Social Sciences & Humanities Open, 2: 1.
Available at URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2590291120300371?via%3Dihub

Schwartz, Sheila. (1971). Science Fiction: Bridge between the Two Cultures. English Journal 60:1043–51.