Since the early 1980s cyberpunk has gone from being four guys in a garage, more or less, to being a central part of what most people think of when they hear the words science fiction. BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX took cyberpunk attitude (and the cliché black leather and latex cyberwear) to the general non-SF reading public. Classic cyberpunk authors like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson have become some of SF's most durable bestsellers. In fact, cyberpunk has gotten so big and gone so mainstream that one prominent cyberpunker oh-so-predictably pronounced the movement dead. So. Is cyberpunk dead? If so, what was it? If not, what is it ... and what is it turning into?
Like any other question that's worth asking, this one doesn't have a black and white answer attached to it. I think, however, that most people make two mistakes when looking at the genre. First, they define it too narrowly and fail to see its roots in earlier SF. Second, they get distracted by the aesthetics -- the furniture, to re-borrow a phrase that Walter Jon Williams borrowed from George R. R. Martin -- and fail to notice the extent to which the ideas that drove the style were part of a larger trend in SF as a whole. So that's my two-bit lecture. And here's a brief history of the rise and fall of cyberpunk as seen by me . . . .
'LIVEWIRE VOODOO' (cyberpunk origins). Cyberpunk is the child of science fiction’s dark side, dystopia. Dystopias have been around since the birth of fantastic literature, and books like George Orwell’s 1984, Zamyatin’s WE, and Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD herald many aspects of cyberpunk politics-- particularly the fear that individual freedom and identity may threatened by increasingly intrusive technology. In SF’s golden age writers like Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury continued to explore dystopic futures, often as precautionary tales, and began to edge toward the combination of SF and hardboiled noir that characterizes classic cyberpunk.
THE SPY WHO WAS PLUGGED IN. And then came Tiptree, the incognito ex-military officer and CIA agent who took the SF world by storm in the late 60s and early 70s. In stories like "Your Haploid Heart," "Houston, Houston, Do You Read Me?" and "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," James Tiptree, Jr. introduced many of the characteristic tropes of what would later be called cyberpunk, and did it in a low-affect, Hemingwayesque style that few cyberpunkers have matched since. Tiptree's cybernetic celebrities, tough enigmatic women and wired corporate flunkies populate some of the first SF stories that are recognizably proto-cyberpunk in feel and narrative style. The characters presage the low-affect machismo of cyberpunk protagonists, and the fundamental cyberpunk revelation that humans will and must be changed by the technology they create, and that such change isn't good or bad . . . it just is. The female characters are particularly remarkable -- the first appearance in SF of the "I have a right to be just as much of a bastard as any man" brand of hyperindividualism that has become so inextricably associated with cyberpunk. Perhaps most significant, however, Tiptree's work is full of the same sly and ironic digs at traditional SF that would later arouse so much ire against the cyberpunks. Tiptree became more or less persona non grata in the SF community when a fan tracked Tiptree to his PO Box in the early 70s and revealed that "James" was actually an "Alice." (Ironically Sheldon insisted to the last that she had never "lied" to SF fans. "Everything in Tiptree's biography was true," she claimed in a statement mocking enough to be hot off the lips of a cyberpunk street ninja. Was it her fault if readers were dumb enough to assume that an ex-military officer and CIA operative who wrote fluently about military operations, piloting light planes, big game hunting, and saltwater flyfishing had to be a man?) The sad story of Alice Sheldon's fall from grace and eventual suicide in 1980 is usually read as a morality play about the barriers facing women in SF. True, as far as it goes. But other women had written under male pen names before and not been slammed for it. And anyone who reads Tiptree's stories from a post-cyberpunk perspective can't avoid a sneaking suspcion that her real crime against SF was . . . laughing at it.
Tiptree's attack on traditional SF from inside the walls was soon echoed by an equally disturbing attack from outside the walls. In 1973 Thomas Pynchon's GRAVITY'S RAINBOW was nominated for a Nebula Award and read and praised by many younger writers of the day . . . including Samuel L. Delaney and a certain as yet unknown William Gibson. Pynchon's influence on SF from the 1970s through today is one of the great unspokens of SF. Indeed, many of the more reocgnized splits in the genre can arguably be boiled down to dividing 'Those Who Read The Pynchon' from 'Those Among Whom The Pynchon's Name May Not Be Spoken'. Silly . . . but, like a lot of other silly things it is also true.
Ambiguous Utopias The mid-70s brought two giants of Science Fiction into proto- cyberpunk territory: Ursula K. LeGuin and Samuel Delaney. Delaney’s DAHLGREN (1975) is a widely recognized source of cyberpunk street chic, and William Gibson’s foreword to the recent edition of DAHLGREN is a cogent restatement of many of the underlying ideas and attitudes of the genre. DAHLGREN is richly rewarding reading for anyone familiar with the core cypberunk cannon. It brings home to the reader what deeper reading in any area of this 'idea-driven' genre brings home; that there are no truly new ideas (only new twists on old ones), and that the history of SF is really a history of writers arguing back and forth with each other from book to book about what the old ideas really mean . . . or could mean when looked at from an unexpected angle.
A less recognized influence on cyberpunk (and on SF as a whole) is Ursula K. LeGuin's remarkable book THE DISPOSSESSED (1974). Subtitled ‘an ambiguous utopia,’ it was one of the first SF books to move beyond the utopia/dystopia dichotomy and give a future society the kind of rounded and subtle rendering that characterizes the best 19th century realist fiction. THE DISPOSSESSED was a watershed moment for literary SF in general, including cyberpunk. It's worth reading, and you can see the roots of a lot of later SF in this elegantly written yet gritty story.
CHEAP TRUTH (classic cyberpunk 1983-1990). The core of first-generation cyberpunk is the work of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The first real shot across the bow of mainstream SF was the publication of Sterling’s THE ARTIFICIAL KID (1980) and several influential short stories, most notably Gibson’s ‘Burning Chrome.’ With the publication of NEUROMANCER (Gibson, 1983) and SCHISMATRIX (Sterling, 1985), Gibson and Sterling cemented the core components of cyberpunk including a gritty, down-and-out perspective, thick description and close extrapolation - principles, that, though often observed in the breach, remain synonymous with cyberpunk.
Other important first generation cyberpunkers are Pat Cagidan, whose book SYNNERS is rightly considered a classic, Walter Jon Williams, author of the cyberpunk-meets-tank-war classic, HARDWIRED, and Michael Swanwick, whose books create a fascinating near-future based on bioengineering. The full spectrum of first generation cyberpunk work is accessible in two short story collections, BURNING CHROME and MIRRORSHADES, edited by Gibson and Sterling respectively. These two anthologies are a great way to get a quick overview of the genre. Finally, you can't talk about cyberpunk and not mention Vernor Vinge, who is usually (and I think correctly) identified as a hard SF writer, but whose TRUE NAMES was one of the only cyberpunk novels that backed up all the VR handwaving with solid computer science.
SNOW CRASH (second generation cyberpunk). The next era of cyberpunk is dominated by Neal Stephenson, whose astounding and exuberant novel SNOW CRASH set a new standard of ... well, something. Other fine cyberpunk writers of the late 80s to early 90s include Lisa Mason, whose ARACHNE is a classic begging to be brought back into print, and Melissa Scott (see chickpunk page). My personal favorites from this period are Stephenson's DIAMOND AGE and Greg Bear's SLANT. Both Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson exemplify another major trend that emerges in the 90s: the rapprochement of cyberpunk with the larger world of hard science fiction.
'LIFE MOVES IN CLADES' (Offshoots of Cyberpunk). The cyberpunk movement also spawned several offshoots, some of which have gotten close to becoming their own genres.
STEAMPUNK, which sets tech oriented stories in (usually but not always Victorian) historical settings, goes back to an odd duck of a book, THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE, co-authored by Gibson and Sterling. Other writers who've turned their hand to steampunk include Connie Willis, the queen of smart and quirky time travel lit; Neal Stephenson in the radical Victorian futureworld of DIAMOND AGE; L.E. Modessitt, Jr. in thoughtful and atmospheric alternate history spy story, TANGIBLE GHOSTS, and fantasy writer Sean Russell in the ambiguous, de-magicked alternate 18th century world of THE RIVER OF DARKNESS. If you enjoy steampunk, or are just a fan of smart, hip alternate history in general, I also recommend arguably the first ever steampunk novel: PAVANE, by Keith Roberts.
CYPHERPUNK jumps off from the stylistic and ideological base of cyberpunk to explore ideas originating in information theory and cryptography. Bruce Sterling dipped a toe into these waters with his nonfiction book THE HACKER CRACKDOWN, and Neal Stephenson has more or less defined the genre with the magnificently quirky and intellectual CRYPTONOMICON. While cypherpunk is almost too new to call a genre, a number of exciting young writers seem to be moving toward a cyberpunk-influenced style of SF in which the math, engineering and physics behind today’s information economy are placed squarely front and center. If I had to guess at what the next ten years will bring, I’d predict the biggest shake-up to SF as we now know it will be the arrival of a generation of writers who’ve grown up in the digital culture that the original cyberpunks predicted ... and who have the tools to take it apart from the inside.
... AND A PARTING HOMAGE TO MR. HOLMES. The original cypherpunk tale is, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story, THE MYSTERY OF THE DANCING MEN, whose diabolically clever code has bewitched many a future SF writer. I would have put a picture of the dancing men on this page, but I can't find one on-line and my copy of the book is in an unlabeled box in my basement under a lot of other unlabeled boxes ... which just proves that the blinking twelve problem existed long before the digital era named it. (2002)
POSTSCRIPT (2005). So where does this all leave us? When I originally wrote this essay, the most obvious answer would have been that cyberpunk was dead and gone, but its ideas lived on in the high-tech, computer-savvy brand of hard sf being done by writers like Vernor Vinge, Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson. Today, however, cyberpunk seems to be everywhere you look. But . . . is every story or movie that features a hardboiled hero or a leatherclad razorgirl really cyberpunk? Is some of this stuff even science fiction? I mean, sure it's nice to see Schismatrix back in print, and all, but . . . was black latex, mirrorshades and VR violence really all cyberpunk had to offer?
In order to unpack that question I think it's helpful to go back to the distinction between the underlying structure of an SF story and its 'furniture.' For most SF readers -- and certainly for anyone whose main exposure to SF is through the movies -- furniture trumps category: "If a book has dragons in it, then it's fantasy ... If a book has flying cars and computers in it, then it's SF." To my mind, however, the real added value of cyberpunk is not in its easily recognizable furniture, but in its underlying ideas and attitudes. In particular two ideas that I think drive and define the best cyberpunk.
Bear in mind, however, that these two ideas aren't of the black-and-white Petersen's Guide to Birds variety. They're a feel, that's all. You might say a worldview. This worldview has nothing to do with wearing black leather and mirrorshades, or with writing SF about violent loners in a style derived from Raymond Chandler or Ernest Hemingway. Nor are self-identified cyberpunk writers by any means the only SF writers who have explored this worldview. In fact, I would argue that the real contribution of cyberpunk was to take a piece of the SFnal territory, so to speak -- one that had been sighted from orbit and visited by a few hardy explorers, but that still had at least its share of dragons and white beauties -- and make a systematic push to develop a writing style, a group of scientific and technological ideas, and a range of character types that would serve as good tools to explore this territory.
Evolution(TM). The first major feature on the cyberpunk map boils down to the following statement: technology shapes humans every bit as profoundly as humans shape technology. Think of the famous Escher picture, Drawing Hands, and you've got yourself a tidy little image of the basic cyberpunk paradigm of the relationship between humans and technology. The idea that human nature can be manipulated by governments or scientists was broached by earlier writers including (among others) Yevgeny Zamyatin, George Orwell, Alfred Bester, and James Tiptree, Jr.. But the cyberpunk writers signed onto this idea with an enthusiasm that no other writers did before them. They also had the advantage of working in the 1980s, a time when evolutionary theorists were shedding the last traces of the teleological fallacy, and the 'greed is good' economy was showing that the corporate competition could be a far more potent force in shaping culture and technology than any totalitarian government. The realization that humanity -- indeed, human nature itself -- is for sale to the highest bidder pervades pervades every line Gibson has ever written, and was taken to its maximum logical extension in Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix.
Dilberts All the Way Down.The second core cyberpunk idea was that evolution isn't
good or bad. Evolution just is. And the idea that a single heroic human can stop or
redirect evolution is every bit as naive as the idea that some shadowy corporate conspiracy (as opposed
to, say, an infinite number of Dilberts slaving cluelessly away in their respective cubicles) is secretly
controlling it. This is where a lot of readers (especially non-SF readers) get a little loopy about
cyberpunk. Reading books like Neuromancer or
So. We have two core ideas here: (1) human nature is a product of evolution, and our technological advances have made us a driving force in our own increasingly accelerated future evolution; (2) we cannot realistically hope to control, or even understand, the evolutionary process that our own actions have set into motion.
These two concepts cast doubt on the humanist paradigm of technology and scientific invention that dominated golden age SF and continues to live on in the work of many SF writers even today. That paradigm insists that humans create technology and not the other way around; that humans can (utopia) or should (dystopia) maintain control over their technological creations; that no matter how technologically advanced humans become they will (utopia) or should (dystopia) always retain some ineffable "human" quality that transcends technology. The cyberpunks blew that paradigm apart. In fact, they demolished it with such cheerful enthusiasm that their futuristic visions are often called 'dystopic,' 'nightmarish' or 'apocalyptic' by readers who are still addicted to the pre-Darwinist illusion that 'human nature' exists above and beyond the process of evolution . . . a process of which the people who create new technologies (and the corporations that fund their R&D and own their work product) are now a major driving force.
(What? You thought we were talking about science fiction? Sorry, Dorothy. Toto's dead and we're not in Kansas anymore.)
The cyberpunk worldview blossomed into a handful of extraordinary books and stories in which SF techniques and tropes were used to make what I continue to believe was a deeply meaningful contribution to the collective 'idea pool' of science fiction. The cyberpunks seemed willing to accept, as few writers before them have, the psychological and ethical implications of the theory of evolution. They took as a given the idea that scientific and technological advances change human beings in ways so profound that they throw into doubt the very idea of an identifiable "human nature." This theme has always attracted me to cyberpunk, especially to the thread of free-floating speculation that runs from cyberpunk forerunners like Dick, Sturgeon and Tiptree, through Bruce Sterling, Lisa Mason, and James Patrick Kelly. It's something you smell, even if you don't think it through. It's in the aliens who pop up now and then on the peripheries of cyberpunk stories, intervene in human affairs in inexplicable and sometimes pointless ways . . . and then vanish. It's in the 'two of our possums are missing' punchline to Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See." It's in Sterling's posthuman genetically engineered swarms. It's in Gibson's female cyborgs, who drift away -- enigmatic and self-reliant to the last -- from men who never manage to figure out what's going on behind their surgically-implanted mirrorshades or what kind of elusive post-humanity they're headed for.
This sense of human nature as something shifting, provisional and ultimately unknowable is at the bottom of the infamous 'low affect' of cyberpunk characters. They often appear flat and undefined when compared to the characters in traditional SF . . . and bear in mind that traditional SF characters are usually not treated too kindly by mainstream literary critics! In fact, I'd argue that the cyberpunk low affect is not a counter-reaction to, but a logical extension of the character types of traditional hard sf. If "the idea is the hero" in traditional science fiction, and the human characters are demoted to second rate status, then cyberpunk takes that demotion one step further. The world is the hero in any real cyberpunk tale -- and it is a character so vibrant and dominating that even the most ambitious human player can hope for a fleeting walk-on part. The outer flatness of cyberpunk characters often seems to me like the asymptomatic phase of a viral infection. On the outside, nothing; on the inside, a shifting, swirling, chaotic battle for survival in which entire populations of viruses and antibodies evolve, crash and vanish. The characters seem to understand this intuitively, though they rarely articulate it. They drift together, they drift apart. They are pushed around by corporations, by governments, and by disembodied money (which sometimes seems to have more personality than any human character). Occasionally they take a stand or make a decision. This is always done on the basis of partial and contaminated information . . . and it usually turns out at least as badly as you'd expect it to. If there's any moral lesson at all in most cyberpunk stories, it's a warning about the absurdity of check-the-box morality and the impossibility, in any real world situation, of identifying the "right" or "good" or "moral" -- or even the "human" -- thing to do.
In some basic sense the core message of cyberpunk is that we have looked into the face of those aliens that traditional SF was always warning us about . . . . and the aliens are us. But where that kind of 'aliens are us' message in pre-cyberpunk SF was usually freighted with fear, loathing, and moralizing warnings about threats to "the human spirit", in cyberpunk it's morally neutral . . . perhaps even shyly hopeful.
"Just look in the mirror," the cyberpunks seem to be saying as they sketch out their speculative anthropology of post-humanity. "Nothing out there is ever going to be any stranger than this."
NOTE TO NEW READERS: This essay was originally written in 2004, and I've left it up here as I wrote it because there were too many incoming links to deal with and because ... well ... history's history. On the other hand, I'm still thinking and talking about these issues, and so are a lot of other people. So if you feel the urge to comment, criticize, disagree, or suggest updates and additions, come over to SFness and tell me about it.