The term “cyberpunk” is a fiercely contested genre label, caught somewhere between the retro-worshipping fetishists of the jack-in age and the far-flung promise (or threat) of a future that can solve all of humanity’s current problems with imminent tech. The denizens of each are as varied and debated as the cityscape itself—some are stereotypes, living within labels bought from the society that feeds them, while others are renegades living life the way they want to. With or without permission.
Ultimately, the women of the cyberpunk genre are put through a Voight-Kampff litmus test of “if/then/else” that always seems intent to force her into a box of some easily prepared label. Her responses to the subjects around her, scenes she is in and stimuli she experiences are scrutinized, measured and debated until a verdict within the self is reached: yes, Virginia, this woman is a replicant. But then, aren’t we all?
Fortunately, one of the things cyberpunk does best is skew expectation, force characters to adapt (or die!), and get good. I’ve got five badass cyberpunk women who are experts at rolling with the punches. And who aren’t replicants.
As far as you know.
Michelle from The Gene Generation (film, 2007) / The DNA Hacker Chronicles by
In a futuristic world, DNA hackers are hunted down and removed by specially trained assassins. Michelle is one such badass, taking on grim bloody work to get herself and her trouble-magnet, family-hungry brother out of this place and somewhere safer. The comic series inspired the movie, was directed by the same fellow who wrote the comics, and intentionally brings out that comic over-the-top feel. That visual commentary was lost on some moviegoers, who commented more on Bai Ling’s push-up apparel and long legs than her sheer epic capability and unique sense of self. “Bai Ling does her best—she fills out her sexy costume and strips down for a couple of nude scenes,” said one commenter on Rotten Tomatoes, as if “her best” is limited only to what she looks like. An observation repeated on IMDB: “Oh, she[sic] easy on the eyes, especially when she did nude scenes. But her thick accent is distracting.” All the usual fixation on what a heroine looks like, how she soothes or offends expectations, how she isn’t perfect. But I see her for what she is: a woman who wears what she wants, doesn’t care what people say about her, a world-class assassin who is also human—working her ass off at a hard, dangerous job for her family. For a dream. Does this make her sub-human? Too girly? Too tough to be a romantic lead? Too Other? I don’t think so. I look around me and I see so many women in this modern world that do that and more for family; shedding blood, sweat and tears for the ones they love, with spines of steel and the emotional maturity to be more than a badass, more than an antihero or programmed robot. Michelle may have an artisan push-up bustier, but she wears it while kicking ass in the name of family. I can get behind that.
Rhye from “And You Shall Knew Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander
Listen, if you haven’t met Rhye, I don’t know what to say to you. In this Nebula-nominated story, Bolander introduces a woman so messed up, so hard, so balls-nailed-to-the-wall badass that any litmus test anyone tries to slap on her will roll them in the same place—rotting in a gutter. Rhye is foul-mouthed, aggressive, hot-tempered, fueled by the spite and vitriol that shapes a culture ground down by the privileged favored, and for all that, she’s hit rock bottom and iron-fisted her way back to something no one else would call good living. But it is. Because this is the life she exists in, the world she brutalizes into making room for her, and no one and nothing will stop her from taking what she wants. It might not be everyone’s drug of choice, but that’s the point. Rhye doesn’t give a damn if people think she’s lippy or unfeminine or bitchy or rude. If someone in Rhye’s way has a problem with it, they’d better prep to pay up—and Rhye don’t take credit. Her time is hers. Bolander may not be writing about every woman, everywhere, but I can say for a fact that there are women out there who see themselves reflected in Rhye’s eyes and say to themselves, “Oh, hell, yes.” I want Rhye at my back. And you can bet I’d have hers. The world needs more warrior women willing to push beyond every last iota of will and come back hungry for more.
Violet Song Jat Shariff from Ultraviolet (film, 2006) by Kurt Wimmer
Oh, yeah. I’m going here. Milla Jovovich, and by default the whole movie, got widely panned by critics in part because of the generally glamorous take on cyberpunk. Instead of black vinyl and grit, we saw cyberpunk that was something more than just pretty—it was viciously on fleek, colorful and vibrant while dangerous as a razor blade. The movie is slick, the world highly futuristic, (the plot, as always, is made to entertain) yet the improbability of a badass woman who looks great in colorful gear and has awesome hair and great make-up is somehow a minus in critical reviews. It’s one of the reasons I love Violet—because glam is as much a part of cyberpunk as street filth and blood, the Jem and the Holograms to the Rob Zombies of the futuristic world. She rocks it so confidently, so effortlessly, providing a role model for women who want to be badass and look freaking awesome doing it. (Also, anyone who thinks it’s for “girls only” may want to research how to pull a chrome stiletto out of one’s eye socket.) Jovovich’s Violet doesn’t let others make her decisions—and she is surrounded by authoritarian men who try. Instead, she obeys her gut, shows empathy without compromising herself for it, and has zero trouble storming a corporate fortress to right a wrong. And that, my friends, takes guts. If she happens to look hella awesome while doing it, that’s just frosting.
Dectective Newton, Dante Street Precinct from Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis
Do you remember Detective Newton? Did you pause at all while devouring the rotgut that is Ellis’ take on a world rapidly becoming ours to witness the beauty, the fury, the determination, the iron-bending heart in this detective? With a badge light-tattoo on her cheek and a world of bloody anguish in her eyes as she warns Spider Jerusalem away from a situation compromised by a nasty little case of “the blue flu,” this badass woman is the very model of a cop I want protecting my future streets. So loyal she stands her post even though she knows what’s coming, so filled with duty that it kills her to know she and her fellow officers are just pawns in a political set-up, and yet, willing to let Spider shoot her with a bowel-buster because it’s the only way he’ll get through the thin blue line and do what she has been kept from doing. She is loyalty and fierce pride in the badge, stalwart and dedicated, and pleased as freaking punch when she finally gets to nail the political rat that put innocent civilians in such bloody harm. She’s the kind of cop who can growl “not on my watch!” and mean every syllable. When I need help on the gritty cyberpunk streets, I got dibs on Detective Newton on my side. Full. Flat. Stop.
Deunan Kneute from Appleseed by Masamune Shirow
Appleseed is debatably cyberpunk, but when you think about cyberpunk as an umbrella term, it fits right in. Deunan is one of my favorite heroines, her world nothing but war until she’s scooped up and brought to Utopia—a city where things may be just too good to be true. It’s a high-tech, high-action look at the reach for perfection, and what it takes to preserve it…or destroy it. One of the things I love about this one is that she’s at home in military cargoes and strapped to the hilt with firepower, but when given the chance, she’ll roll out in a miniskirt and heels with all the attitude of a woman comfortable in her own skin. Not only that, but she’s as capable a fighter in one as she is the other—and trust me, I can sprint in high heels. It is possible. (Recommended? No. But that’s what sets her apart.) And frankly, that’s incredible, to swing from one world to the next and embrace the life in either. Deunan has so much spirit, empathy colored by her years at war, a cocksure attitude and a fiercely competitive streak that plays out in her combat methods. She is fearless, loyal, competent as hell, and even better, she’s willing to hear others out, to be wrong, and to adapt. Badass and kind, hardened but warm, cocky but friendly. Like real people are, she’s complex and layered and I’d like to be her friend. Deunan does not care what the world at large thinks of her; she knows who she is, and who she wants to be.
We could all be so lucky to call any one of these women a friend. Heavens help us if we land on the wrong side of enemy.
K.C. Alexander is the author of Necrotech, an aggressive transhumanist sci-fi called “a tight, violent thrill ride in a fascinating cyberpunk world with one of the most interesting women protagonists I’ve read in a long time.” (Stephen Blackmoore, author of award-nominated Dead Things) Hit up kcalexander.com or haunt 140-character brain bytes at @kacealexander.