Cyberpunk

Tagged: Theme

Term used to describe a school of sf writing that developed and became popular during the 1980s. The word was almost certainly coined by Bruce Bethke in his story "Cyberpunk" (November 1983 Amazing), which had for some time before publication been circulating in manuscript. The term was picked up, either directly or indirectly, by writer and editor Gardner Dozois and used by him to characterize a literary movement whose main exponents, at first – in stories from about 1981-1982 onwards – were seen as being Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, along with Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner and perhaps John Shirley. It was not long after the publication of Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer (1984), that the term began to come into general use, and Neuromancer was the book that definitively shaped our sense of the subgenre to which "cyberpunk" refers.

The "cyber" part of the word relates to Cybernetics: to a future where industrial and political blocs may be global (or centred in Space Habitats) rather than national, and controlled through information networks; a future in which machine augmentations of the human body are commonplace, as are mind and body changes brought about by Drugs and biological engineering. Central to cyberpunk fictions is the concept of Virtual Reality, as in Gibson's Neuromancer sequence, where the world's data networks form a kind of machine environment into which a human can enter by jacking into a cyberspace deck and projecting "his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix" (see Cyberspace). The "punk" part of the word comes from the rock'n'roll terminology of the 1970s, "punk" meaning in this context young, streetwise, aggressive, alienated and offensive to the Establishment. A punk disillusion, often multiple – with progressive layers of illusion being peeled away – is a major component of these works.

Data networks are more than just a part of cyberpunk's subject matter. Density of information, often slipped into stories by near-subliminal means, has from the outset strongly characterized cyberpunk's actual style. An important cyberpunk forebear was the film Blade Runner (1982), whose Near-Future milieu – mean, drizzling, populous streets lit up by enormous advertisements for Japanese products, alternating street junk with hi-tech – is, in the intensity of its visual Infodumps, like a template for a cyberpunk scenario. Even more central to the cyberpunk ethos, however, are the films of David Cronenberg, whose Videodrome (1982) in particular is a central cyberpunk document in its emphasis on bodily metamorphosis, media overload and destructive sex.

Cyberpunk did not spring full-grown from Gibson's forehead, of course. Indeed, unfriendly critics have rejoiced in locating cyberpunk ancestors, as if this somehow devalued the entire movement; obviously cyberpunk can be read as the apotheosis of various idea-clusters that appeared earlier, but this seems neither surprising nor damaging. Ancestral texts include Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (1952; vt Limbo '90 1953), with its prosthetic ironies, Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996), with its protopunk Antihero, William S Burroughs's The Soft Machine (1961; rev 1966) and its various quasi-sequels, with their Drug and biological fantasias, Samuel R Delany's Nova (1968), with its streetwise Cyborgs, James Tiptree Jr's The Girl Who Was Plugged In (in New Dimensions 3, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg; 1989 chap dos), with its painful ironies about altered body-image, and Ted Mooney's Easy Travel to Other Planets (1981), with its interspecies sex and its information sickness. Other forebears would include J G Ballard, John Brunner – notably with The Shockwave Rider (1975) – Norman Spinrad, John Varley and perhaps even Thomas Pynchon.

Cyberpunk is often seen as a variety of Postmodernist fiction, a point made by the title of Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction (anth 1992) edited by Larry McCaffery. Many of Postmodernism's allegedly principal qualities fit cyberpunk like a glove.

The sense that cyberpunk was almost a political movement, not just a form of fiction, came in part from outside the fictions themselves. There had been nothing like it in the sf world since the New-Wave arguments of the 1960s. In convention panels, in magazines (especially from 1987 in a critical semiprozine, Science Fiction Eye edited by Stephen P Brown) – in all sorts of media – passionate and sometimes heated arguments took place from about 1985 affirming the cyberpunks as shapers and movers in the sluggish, complacent world of sf publishing. Bruce Sterling's fervour in polemic of this sort was messianic, and it was he who edited the first influential anthology of the movement: Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (anth 1986), whose preface resembles a manifesto. The arguments of Sterling and various of his colleagues have been not merely vigorous but also intelligent about the changing shape of our world (particularly as regards information technology and biological engineering), and many readers must have been attracted by the sense that here was a bunch of writers doing what sf authors are supposed to do best, surf-riding on the big breakers of change and the future. On the other hand, some of the cyberpunk propaganda was so aggressive that it irresistibly reminded older observers of the mid-century politics of the extreme international-socialist left: enjoyable, but tiring to watch.

Some other sf writers, not part of the movement, were a bit taken aback by all the fuss – as well they might have been given the comparatively small amount of published fiction that was receiving such vast hype (the media picked up on cyberpunk in a big way around 1988). On the whole, cyberpunk received a friendly reception, although several of these outside writers seemed to see it as a matter more of tone than of content. Orson Scott Card wrote a cyberpunk pastiche, "Dogwalker" (November 1989 Asimov's), that was apparently intended to make a point about this. In his comment on this story when it appeared in his Maps in a Mirror (coll 1990), Card wrote: "But the worst thing about cyberpunk was the shallowness of those who imitated it. Splash some drugs onto brain-and-microchip interface, mix it up with some vague sixties-style counterculture, and then use really self-conscious, affected language, and you've got cyberpunk." This was unfair to much of it, though certainly cyberpunk produced instant Clichés, as in books like Hardwired (1986) by Walter Jon Williams (although he rendered them rather well, and is by no means the most cynical-seeming of those who climbed or were hauled onto the bandwagon).

In a magazine piece, "The Neuromantics" (May 1986 Asimov's; reprinted in Science Fiction in the Real World coll 1990), Norman Spinrad argued cogently that the "romance" component of Gibson's triple-punning title Neuromancer ("neuro" as in nervous system; "necromancer"; "new romancer") is basic to the cyberpunk form. Spinrad proposed ingeniously that the cyberpunk authors should in fact be called "neuromantics" (nobody seems to have taken him up on this), for their fiction is "a fusion of the romantic impulse with science and technology". (Spinrad sees romanticism and science as having been damagingly split during the New Wave vs Hard SF debates of the 1960s; only with cyberpunk, he argues, did they fuse together again.) He also argues, correctly, that Greg Bear is – despite his denials – a cyberpunk writer, and an important one. Certainly the romance element is strong in Bear's work, as is the cyberpunk theme of literally remaking humanity. Gibson is not just mildly romantic: he is deeply so, as affirmed by the continuing homage his earlier work paid to the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler (1888-1959). On the other hand, Sterling's work – notably his Shaper/Mechanist stories – is not very romantic at all. Sterling's cool fictions are perhaps the strangest and most estranging of the cyberpunk stories in that their embracing of the future leaves remarkably few lifelines whereby readers might connect themselves back to the present; his prose, too, is more machine-like than Gibson's (which is notably stylish). All this, while making Sterling's work rather formidable for the reader, goes to show that Spinrad's definition, like most definitions of literary movements, has major exceptions to its rule (see Definitions of SF).

Cyberpunk has been accused of being a phallocratic movement, and certainly only one woman writer, Pat Cadigan, is regularly associated with it in the public mind. But surely cyberpunk influence can be seen in the work of, for example, Candas Jane Dorsey, especially in her fine "(Learning About) Machine Sex" (in Machine Sex and Other Stories, coll 1988), Elizabeth Hand, in Winterlong (1990), and even perhaps Kathy Acker, although arguably she influenced cyberpunk more than it influenced her. Other candidates might be Storm Constantine and Misha.

Many further writers have been associated with cyberpunk, centrally so in the instances of Tom Maddox and Richard Kadrey, perhaps more marginally so with George Alec Effinger, K W Jeter, Michael Swanwick and Jack Womack; this is far from a fully comprehensive list. These authors, however, along with the others cited above, are by and large sufficiently distinguished to make it clear why cyberpunk made such a splash. To contemplate them all is certainly to evoke a sense of where some of the most exciting US sf action was during the 1980s.

Towards the end of that decade, however, it became clear that the term "cyberpunk" no longer pleased all those whose work it had come to envelop. Perhaps it had begun to represent too many clichés, too many literary constraints, too big a readership wanting more and more of the same. If cyberpunk died in the 1990s – as several critics have claimed – it was as a result of euthanasia from within the family. Certainly the effects of cyberpunk, both within sf and in the world at large, have been invigorating; and, since most of its authors still continue to write – if not necessarily under that label – we can safely assume that the spirit of cyberpunk lives on. [PN]

see also: Cyberpunk [game]; Deus Ex; Syndicate; System Shock; Transhuman Space.

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