Cyberpunk

In the 1980s, a group of rebellious young writers set out to rejuvenate science fiction. Some of these writers knew each other, worked together, called themselves The Movement. Others were doing something similarly different on their own, and when they went to conferences, mutual friends told them, You should really get to know these guys—using guys to refer to people in either gender, though Pat Cadigan was the only woman to join The Movement at this point. These writers soon were called the Cyberpunks. They used a lot of virtuoso pyrotechnics in their literary style, mixing the noir hard-boiled detective cynical prose of Raymond Chandler with scientific and technological terms from manuals describing the next generation of hardware and software. This gave readers a giddy feeling of a future unfolding around them, punctuated by abrupt shifts modeled on the jump cuts between scenes in the then- cutting edge medium of MTV music videos.

The contrast between the unreachable vast powers that really controlled things— multinational corporations—and the alienated individual on the street—usually the narrator or main character—seemed right to readers who had grown up in Marshall McLuhan’s “electronic village:” events were ultimately out of the control of the individual. Their generation had been told by Vance Packard’s study The Hidden Persuaders (1957) just how marketing media manipulated the consciousness of the man in the street. At the same time, real-world technology was inserted into people’s bodies, in the form of heart implants—the first artificial heart was implanted in 1969, and by the 1980s, this had become a relatively frequent operation—hearing aids, and increasingly biocompatible soft contact lenses. Cyberpunk fiction takes such devices to the next level: prosthetic arms with “real-limb” sensivity, artificial eyes that facilitate computer- brain interfaces through the optic nerve, and miniature but powerful hard drives inserted in the occipital ridge of the skull. All of this is shot through with a much moodier tone than earlier science fiction has, which is, after all, often narrated by a confident maverick scientist or a bold, capable space pilot. The narrator of many cyberpunk stories is the bitter, seemingly washed-up hacker or music-video synthesizer whose instrument is her brain playing its imaginings into the recording company’s consoles.

This group of writers had grown up reading Golden Age sci-fi in the pulps, they had seen science fiction in the movies, and they had seen it on TV, which they were the first generation to watch from a very early age. Tales of the strange, stretching their concepts of reality, could be seen in The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, both the Stone Age and the Future were available in the weekly animated series The Flintstones and The Jetsons, and, during the fabled Sixties, the New Wave of science fiction and its TV incarnation, Star Trek, as well as the theatrical releases of 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Fantastic Voyage, and Planet of the Apes all shaped their view of the genre as one where the setting could be in interplanetary space, within the human body, or on an Earth inhabited by civilized simians rather than homo sapiens. However, by the 1980s, when the New Wave had ossified into the Permanent Wave, this group of writers wanted to assert their own view of future reality in a way that departed from the Far Future optimism of the Golden Age and the dystopian bleakness of much of the New Wave. These writers’ view of the future was less that of a reality distinct from the present, than an extension of that present, in which computers were just starting to be made available for individuals to use in their own homes, in the form of Word Processors, but their fictional future reality was sped up on amphetamines and adrenaline to match the near-instantaneous speed of those computers.

Just as the cyberpunk authors looked to Japan as a leader in technological innovation and romanticized Japanese organized crime “families,” the Yakuza—or Yak, as cyberpunk authors affectionately abbreviate the term—cyberpunk had a reciprocal influence on Anime and Manga. The Manga, or comic-book, versions of Akira and Ghost in the Shell, influenced by the post- Apocalyptic and cyborgizing elements in cyberpunk, inspired the anime films Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) and their sequels, which have in turn gained devoted audiences in the United States. Serial Experiments: Lain (1998) was a Japanese television series involving an adolescent girl and her interactions with the Wired, a virtual reality highly influenced by the cyberpunk realm known as cyberspace, Artificial Reality, or the Metaverse. Its parallels to the simultaneous Pat Cadigan novel Tea from an Empty Cup are eerie in their synchronicity.

Cyberpunk was the first significant movement in science fiction to emerge since the decline of the New Wave of the late 1960s and 1970s. Arguably, the first published story in the subgenre was William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981), although the term “cyberpunk” itself originated in a short story Bruce Bethke wrote in 1980; his “Cyberpunk” was not published, however, until 1983. Gibson’s groundbreaking novel Neuromancer (1984) established that small group of writers who initially had referred to themselves simply as “the Movement” as the Cyberpunks, and established Cyberpunk as a genre of science fiction that soon penetrated literature, film, graphic art, video games, and the world of fashion. By the time the documentary Cyberpunk was released by Mystic Arts Video in 1991, the movement qua movement had diffused out into the culture at large, with original cyberpunk author Pat Cadigan stating in 1992 that cyberpunk was dead, reidentifying herself as a “technofeminist.” However, it was in 1992 that one of the most significant cyberpunk novels was published—Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Then, in 1999, one of the films most heavily indebted to cyberpunk elements, The Matrix, was released, with two sequels appearing in 2003. Finally—and I use that word advisedly—a “Post-Cyberpunk Anthology,” Rewired, was published in 2007. For a movement that was first officially pronounced dead in 1986—by Vincent Omniaveritas, a.k.a. Bruce Sterling, in Cheap Truth, a cyberpunk periodical—cyberpunk is demonstrating a remarkable postmortem longevity.

The word “cyberpunk” itself was derived by Bethke from the Greek κυβερνήτης, or “steersman,” via Norbert Weiner’s coinage “cybernetics,” combined with “punk,” as in Punk Rock. The two elements thus combined are computer technology and the hard-edged youthful rebellion characterizing that particular style in popular music, and these two elements can be seen threaded through much of the literature. The sources of the aesthetic lie in much of the earlier science fiction, and Sterling, in the Preface to his 1986 Mirrorshades, the first cyberpunk anthology, lists such influences as Olaf Stapledon, Robert Heinlein, Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, and Poul Anderson.

However, two films released in 1982—Blade Runner and Tron—either influenced or anticipated major aspects of that aesthetic. Blade Runner, based on but parting significantly from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, focuses on the near-future relations between humans and androids who have illegally returned to Earth to live posing as humans, and uses a very complexly textured surface style, blending antique, futuristic, and trashy exteriors for the Los Angeles in which it is set. William Gibson recounted walking out of a showing of Blade Runner, because the look—the complex mix of eclectic architectures and decay, the street people scavenging among the garbage, the giant holographic images of geishas advertising cigarettes—was so much like what was running through his mind in composing Neuromancer, which is what he was writing at the time. Years later, he and director Ridley Scott found that both of them had been visually influenced by the work of French comics artist Moebius (Jean Giraud), which had appeared in Métal Hurlant, the French original of Heavy Metal magazine. Blade Runner was a failure both among critics and in the box office after its initial release, but it influenced cyberpunk writers greatly and soon became a cult film. Tron, although initially set in a human reality, has most of its action unfold in the virtual reality within a video game, where one of the characters has been actually transformed into one of the programmed players racing around in what would soon come to be called “cyberspace.” Tron owes more, perhaps, visually to the 1926 German film Metropolis, and its programs or players racing around inside cyberspace—prefiguring the motorcycle race through the Metaverse in Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash—are dressed like 1920s Art Deco spacemen. While Blade Runner would influence the look of many video games, Tron was a film explicitly set in a game, and the Tron game was released soon after the film.

William Gibson is credited with inventing the term “cyberspace,” allegedly because he hated to write transition scenes, and jacking into cyberspace is an instantaneous jump into another reality. The only appearance of the word “cyberspace” itself in his 1982 short story “Burning Chrome” is as part of a nickname for a computer setup: “your workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the ‘Cyberspace Seven’”(168). Throughout the story, the narrator, Automatic Jack, reminds us repeatedly of both how the physical setup of equipment looks “out here” and how the hacker experiences it “in there.” This dualism will run through many of the cyberpunk works, from Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer, in which the hacker Case alternates between an embodied existence in actual reality, a “disembodied” existence floating—or flying—through cyberspace, and a “trans-embodied” state where he feels the kinesthetic experience of a woman who is wired for “simstim,” or simulated stimulus. Other levels of consciousness in the novel include various different types of computer awareness and the downloaded consciousness of another hacker, since deceased, stored as a ROM construct. What is happening in this novel and its two sequels is an exploration of the definition and boundaries of consciousness itself insofar as artificial intelligence and embodiment are concerned.

Variations on these themes will be found in other cyberpunk works, particularly those of Pat Cadigan, whose novel Mindplayers (1987) features a future in which “mind on mind” contacts are possible through a computer interface; the protagonist, Deadpan Allie, specializes in a therapeutic form of mindplay as a “pathosfinder,” or someone who enters a shared imagined space with another person to identify the source of the individual’s particular psychopathology. Other types of mindplay in the novel include dreamfeeding and neurosis peddling, and at one point Allie is hired to go mind-on-mind with the preserved brain of a deceased character. One of Allie’s instructors is an artificial intelligence, although nothing in particular is made of that circumstance in the way that Gibson’s emerging A.I.s set off alarms in Neuromancer.

Pat Murphy’s 1987 story “Rachel in Love” shares the “projected consciousness” motif with some cyberpunk authors, in that Rachel’s scientist father has discovered how to copy the electronic pattern constituting a person’s mind, and then projects his daughter’s mental configuration onto the brain of a chimpanzee when his wife and daughter are killed in a car crash; however, Murphy is not usually classified as “cyberpunk,” quite possibly because her story lacks the defiantly assertive and rebellious qualities going with the “punk” aspect of the movement, and the setting of the story lacks all of the gritty eclecticism of Movement settings. In post-cyberpunk fiction, Cory Doctorow will explore variations on such (dis)embodiments of consciousness in “I, Row-Boat” (2006).

Greg Bear’s 1983 short story “Blood Music” was expanded into novel form, Blood Music (1985), and presents another theme frequently used by cyberpunk authors, that of the implications of genetic engineering. Sterling pairs that theme with the theme of cyborgization, or the grafting of cybernetic and robotic parts into a human body, ostensibly to replace or enhance damaged or inadequate biological parts, in his Schismatrix stories, published between 1982 and 1984, followed by the novel Schismatrix in 1985. In the Schismatrix universe, two branches of Posthumans, known as the Shapers and the Mechanists, represent these two possible paths of future human development, the genetic and the biomechanical. Both Bear and Sterling explore the implications of research and technological developments that they see as possible in their near futures, or as extensions of research already under way in the present. In this, they, along with Gibson, Cadigan, and others, are more interested in near-future realities than in the Golden Age science fiction fascination with deep-space far-future settings.

Sterling’s abovementioned anthology Mirrorshades (1986) presents ten cyberpunk authors in twelve stories, with two of the stories being co-authored by two writers each. These authors are: Sterling, Gibson, Cadigan, Bear, Rudy Rucker, Tom Maddox, Marc Laidlaw, James Patrick Kelly, and Lewis Shiner. Sterling’s “Preface” acts as a manifesto for the movement, listing sources, publications, and principles, with the caveat that the writers all resist such categorization, even in the interest of presenting a common front to whatever literary and societal rigidities they are writing against. Two years after Mirrorshades appeared, a double issue of the Mississippi Review 47-48 (1988) devoted to Cyberpunk was published, containing mostly new stories by the Mirrorshades authors and others, and also essays and criticism; this has since been enlarged and reprinted as Storming the Reality Studio (McCaffery 1991). Two of the writers from Mirrorshades, Sterling and Maddox, contributed essays to an anthology on library science entitled Thinking Robots, an Aware Internet, and Cyberpunk Librarians (Miller 1992), showing how quickly cyberpunk started to infiltrate the culture at large.

Cyberpunk was a movement involving a dozen or score of authors, depending on who is counting and what criteria are being used for inclusion. One instance of the sharing among members of the original group is the invention of ICE, an acronym for “Intrusions Countermeasures Electronics,” referring to protective software designed to block unauthorized access to databanks; these are now referred to as “firewalls.” Maddox used the term in a story that he never completed; Gibson told him that he’d have to steal it. Maddox said fine, the story’s not going anywhere anyway. Gibson acknowledges the provenance of the term in Neuromancer (273). Michael Swanwick, who was not among the authors in Mirrorshades, nonetheless co-authored the story “Dogfight” (1985) with William Gibson, and his 1987 novel Vacuum Flowers is numbered among the outstanding cyberpunk novels.

Many of the original group of writers have branched off into other realms—Sterling, for example, the historian and theorist of the movement, has written a novel, The Zenith Angle (2004) with a contemporary setting and contemporary computer technologies—while Gibson and Sterling together have written a Steampunk novel, The Difference Engine (1990), set in an alternate Victorian England. Cadigan’s output has diminished in recent years, as her energies have been devoted to caring for her aging mother, but her most recent novels—Tea from an Empty Cup (1998) and Dervish Is Digital (2001)—have many cyberpunk hallmarks familiar to readers of her earlier works: the boundaries between “AR” or Artificial Reality and the physical world “out here” are breaking down in certain respects, so that special officers of the police are called in to solve murders that apparently occurred in AR but have resulted in deaths “out here;” these are in essence tightly plotted detective novels set in cyberspace. Kelly, as mentioned above, has joined with a non-cyberpunk contemporary, John Kessell, to edit the “Post- Cyberpunk Anthology” Rewired. Cory Doctorow is a post-cyberpunk author whose experience working as a sysadmin, or systems administrator in a computer network’s infrastructure, has so informed some of his work that, were it not set in the present and apparently theoretically possible, it would read as futuristic science fiction. Which, perhaps, estranged from most readers by its richly complex techie lingo, it still is. Meanwhile, in England, Charles Stross, with degrees in Pharmacy and Computer Science, writes in a number of genres, including a neo- cyberpunk where the electronically connected lifestyle is in tension with the old-fashioned, fleshly biological layer of being. Finally, Bear has joined with Neal Stephenson and others to create The Mongoliad, a series of stories advertised, as of this writing, as an experiment in interactive “post-book” literature. So, the Movement has experienced the fractal evolutions described in Chaos Theory, and has moved into various other realms, but retained elements of its original nature and drive.

Works Cited

Bear, Greg. Blood Music. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Cadigan, Pat. Dervish Is Digital. New York: Tor, 2000.

__________. Mindplayers. New York: Spectra, 1987.

__________. Tea from an Empty Cup. New York: Tor, 1998.

Doctorow, Cory. Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present. Philadelphia, PA: Running Press, 2007.

Gibson, William. Burning Chrome. New York: Ace, 1986.

____________. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

Gibson, William and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Gibson, William and Michael Swanwick. “Dogfight.” Omni, July, 1985.

Kelley, James Patrick, and John Kessell, eds. Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology.

San Francisco: Tachyon, 2007.

McCaffery, Larry, ed. Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern

Science Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.

Miller, R. Bruce and Milton T. Wolf, eds. Thinking Robots, an Aware Internet, and Cyberpunk

Librarians: The 1992 LITA President’s Program. Chicago: Library and Information Technology Association, 1992.

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1992.

Sterling, Bruce. Mirrorshades. New York: Ace, 1986.

____________. Schismatrix Plus. New York: Ace, 1996.

____________. The Zenith Angle. New York: Del Ray, 2004.

Swanwick, Michael. Vacuum Flowers. New York: Ace, 1987.

Written by Don Riggs

This entry appeared originally in Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction (ed. Leigh Ronald Grossman), Wildside, 2011, Rockville MD. Used by permission.