Monday, February 9, 2015


I'm highly susceptible to nostalgia, especially if that nostalgia references the formative decade of my life--the 1980s. Sure, '80s nostalgia has been done. And redone. And then done again. But let's be frank--the decade is like a golden goose for the nostalgia-inclined. I mean...

So it was with some glee that I grokked a budding nostalgia movement for cyberpunk, the path-breaking science fictional literature of the 1980s--the one that gave us terms like "cyberspace" and predicted the rise of hacker collectives and online corporate espionage. The one that envisioned a future marked by endless, inescapable urban sprawl, in which transhumanism and cybernetic enhancement would become commonplace, multinational corporations would grow autonomous from the control of national states while the states themselves withered away. And the one that birthed a million tropes, from "jacking in" to virtualized data fields via a physical plug to the head (typically located on one side of the requisite mohawk) to the ubiquity"street samurai."

Clearly while some elements of cyberpunk are as plausibly futuristic now as they were thirty years ago, and other things have already happened, certain visions of the future feel, well, a bit silly from our 2015 perch. So what is it like to (re) read Neuromancer or Mindplayers in 2015? What are the enduring legacies of cyberpunk--in literature, film, music or popular culture? This series, which will unfold over the course of an as-of-yet-undetermined period of time will explore these and other questions. It will envelope many of our bread-and-butter post series: reviews, We Rank 'Ems and an episode each of Blogtable and Perspectives.

An Abridged History of Cyberpunk

Though William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer is often credited with launching cyberpunk, it is perhaps more accurately described as the first novel to capture the attention of science fiction writ large. As such, it is arguably the most important work of cyberpunk. But it was not the first--either Rudy Rucker's Software (1982) or John M. Ford's Web of Angels (1980) has that distinction, depending on what you count as cyberpunk. And the term "cyberpunk" was actually coined by Bruce Bethke--the title of a short story about hackers, written in 1980 and eventually published three years later within the pages of Amazing Stories. In Bethke's words:
[In 1980] I was living in River Falls, Wisconsin (population 7,000), selling Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1's, taking courses at the local college, and hanging out on the very distant periphery of the Minneapolis music scene. I thought I was doing okay; after all, I'd gotten the sales job by a dazzling display of computer prowess (I'd shown the Radio Shack store manager how to load and run the BASIC demo program for his display model), and I was making as much money each month as I'd made in the previous year as a musician. (Which mostly speaks to how badly the music business sucks if you're not doing Top 40 covers.) 
Then one day a trio of kids, the oldest maybe 14, came into the store and started puttering with the demo computer. I turned my back on them for about two minutes. When I looked again the kids were gone, the demo program was trashed, and in its place they'd left me with something that had the Model 1 jumping through hoops. I took a few minutes to admire their ingenuity, then broke out of the program and looked over the code. Damned if I could figure out what it was doing. Okay, no problem. The Model 1 had this big orange RESET button on the front panel. I hit the button, reloaded my only copy of the demo program (can you tell where this is leading?), keyed in RUN -- And that's when I discovered their other little surprise.
That got Bethke thinking: kids and teenagers were wired for language acquisition in way adults never would be, yet were also, when left to their own devices, loose cannons. So what would the next generation of kids be like, particularly if they were living in a social environment in which power was a function of your ability to manipulate computer systems? He continues:
The kids who trashed my computer; their kids were going to be Holy Terrors, combining the ethical vacuity of teenagers with a technical fluency we adults could only guess at. Further, the parents and other adult authority figures of the early 21st Century were going to be terribly ill-equipped to deal with the first generation of teenagers who grew up truly "speaking computer." THEREFORE, if you thought that punks on motorcycles were a problem, just wait until you meet the -- the -- You know, there isn't a good word to describe them?
The term stuck--mostly due to the influence of editor Gardner Dozois, who felt "cyberpunk" captured the essence of an emerging style of science fiction that matched an abiding interest in cybernetics to visions of the near-future marked by urban sprawl, the rise of megacorporations accountable to no one but shareholders and a concomitant decline of the social and political institutions that would otherwise provide the checks and balances.

Though styling themselves a movement, the early practitioners of this style were, in reality, a small and close-knit group of writers developing the "meta-world" of cyberpunk. Writing in the New York Review of Science Fiction, James Patrick Kelly describes the "movement" thusly:
...the first Cyberpunks were less a “self-willed aesthetic school” and more a group of ambitious, like-minded, American late baby-boomers who read and liked each other’s work. Mostly writers at the beginning of their careers, their influence on one other grew until they coalesced into a self-styled Movement. They included William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, and Lewis Shiner. As their stories hit home, their ideas about science fiction began to gain traction, in part due to the withering attacks on the status quo that appeared in their fanzine-cum-propaganda organ, Cheap Truth.
Cyberpunk, then, was to be a vanguard literature--a self-styled revolutionary literature, and one its progenitors framed as a total break from the past. In truth, though, like all other things cyberpunk had its antecedents--many of which have been explicitly acknowledged by Sterling, Bethke, Gibson and others. Among the most significant and influential works of "protocyberpunk" are:

John Brunner's futureshock novels Stand on Zanzibar, Shockwave Rider and The Sheep Look Up; the films Blade Runner and Videodrome; James Tiptree Jr.’s The Girl Who Was Plugged In; Alfred Bester's The Stars, My Destination and The Demolished Man; Nova by Samuel R. Delaney; Through a Scanner, Darkly by Philip K. Dick; and the non-fiction futurism of sociologist Alvin Tofler--all of which laid groundwork for cyberpunk in significant ways. Some, like Shockwave Rider, are as close to cyberpunk as Kraftwerk is to techno.

It is, however, undeniable that cyberpunk captured genre's collective imagination, with a cultural influence that has reached far beyond the relatively small confines of science fiction fandom. Cyberpunk ideas not only appeared to describe an emerging future, but began to shape it as well. And its main themes have been revisited and repackaged again and again--in films like The Matrix, video games like Deus Ex, in music, fashion and even farther afield. Whether one cares for it or not, cyberpunk is, without question, one of the most culturally impactful styles of science fiction to emerge in the past half-century--perhaps second only to the New Wave.

Themes and Tropes

Cyberpunk's central thematic concern is with the integration of "high-tech" and "low-life." As Sterling notes in his introduction to the influential Mirrorshades anthology:
Thus, "cyberpunk"...captures something crucial to the work of these writers, something crucial to the decade as a whole: a new kind of integration. The overlapping of worlds that were formerly separate: the realm of high tech, and the modern pop underground.

In another era this combination might have seemed far-fetched and artificial...But the gap is crumbling in unexpected fashion. Technical culture has gotten out of hand. The advances of the sciences are so deeply radical, so disturbing, upsetting, and revolutionary, that they can no longer be contained. They are surging into culture at large; they are invasive; they are everywhere. The traditional power structure, the traditional institutions, have lost control of the pace of change.
And suddenly a new alliance is becoming evident: an integration of technology and the Eighties counterculture. An unholy alliance of the technical world and the world of organized dissent - the underground world of pop culture, visionary fluidity, and street-level anarchy.
Cyberpunk writers self-consciously rejected the elite heroes of classic SF--the brilliant scientists, the wealthy industrialists, the space-faring starship captains and other "leaders of men"--in favor of antiheroes living on the margins of society--hackers, mercenaries, anarchists, criminals and streetwise punks. It is, in essence, technonoir, a conscious inversion of the social and moral order situated at science fiction's institutional center. Sterling again:
Science fiction - at least according to its official dogma - has always been about the impact of technology. But times have changed since the comfortable era of Hugo Gernsback, when Science was safely enshrined - and confined - in an ivory tower. The careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control.

For the cyberpunks, by stark contrast, technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.

This was an explicitly political stance. Rucker sums it up thusly:
All of us had, and still have, an implacable and unrelenting desire to shatter the limits of consensus reality....We started writing cyberpunk because we had a really strong discontent with the status quo in science fiction, and with the state of human society at large.
 Or as Gibson put it to David Wallace-Wells:
It seemed to me that midcentury mainstream American science fiction had often been triumphalist and militaristic, a sort of folk propaganda for American exceptionalism. I was tired of America-as-the-future, the world as a white monoculture, the protagonist as a good guy from the middle class or above. I wanted there to be more elbow room. I wanted to make room for antiheroes.
These antiheroes were positioned within clearly dystopian futures--marked, in varying degrees, by: unchecked globalization; urban sprawl; the accumulation of power by autonomous multinational corporations; the privatization of violence; rising crime; the decline of democracy, social welfare and the nation-state; and rapidly scaling inequality. Yet there is nothing Orwellian about the cyberpunk dystopia--it is a loose, chaotic hotbed of social activity. It may be horrible, but it is also, fundamentally, a place of opportunity--even for the "low-lifes."

Cyberpunk is, then--like other forms of genre focused on "low-life"--centrally concerned with questions of agency. In cyberpunk, however, agency is typically mediated by cybernetics--enhancements rendering the bearer "more than human"; modules that allow the user to navigate visualized data streams; drugs that heighten sensory perception; and so forth. These are not just elements of world-building, but tools--mechanisms through which agency is realized and with which opportunities are seized.

By the end of the 1980s, the boom had largely run its course, with many cyberpunks authors beginning to distance themselves from the style, or at least from the label. Presumably what had once felt like a shot across the bow of genre convention had become a straightjacket of tropes and expectations. After all, like any art movement based on a strong critique of reigning conventions (real or imagined), cyberpunk risked losing its edge once it was accepted as part of the mainstream, and that's exactly what happened. Bethke again:
Cyberpunk fiction went from being something unexpected, fresh, and original, to being a trendy fashion statement; to being a repeatable commercial formula; to being a hoary trope, complete with a set of stylistic markers and time-honored forms to which obeisance must be paid if one is to write True Cyberpunk.
And Shirley:
But on the whole what happened to it, is that it was appropriated, co-opted, by other people, into other forms…cannibalized…

Cyberpunk's Ending Legacy

Fans of other media--film, TV, games, etc.--probably associated cyberpunk more with 1990s culture than the 1980s literary artifact. After all, the 1990s were the decade that gave us a slew of cyberpunk-inspired films, most of which--like Timecop (1994), Hackers (1995), Strange Days (1995) and The Matrix (1999)--had the form but not the substance of the 1980s literature. (It also gave us the occasional gem, like the 1995 anime film Ghost in a Shell).

For gamers, the 1990s were the golden decade of the Shadowrun franchise (launched in 1989 as a pen-and-paper RPG but later also serving as the basis of a revered 1993 Sega Genesis game), which mixed traditional fantasy elements (non-human races, magic, etc.) into a dark cyberpunk world littered with tropes lifted straight out of Neuromancer. And it concluded with Deus Ex, technically released in 2000, but with its cultural feet planted firmly in the 1990s--a video game that is still considered one of the best ever made.

The 1990s were also, of course, the decade in which the internet evolved from something some people do to that thing everyone does all the time. And like Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash seemed to perfectly capture where everything was headed from inside the moment of change. Snow Crash is, among other things, a defining work of postcyberpunk, a style that strips off the tropes and adapts the framework of 1980s cyberpunk to the new reality and the new futures that reality implies.
In the years since we have seen countless works--fiction, comics, film and games--resurrect and reconfigure the initial formula--testament to our enduring fascination with cyberpunk. Some have even been good and original and forward-thinking--like Charles Stross' collection of linked, singaularity-themed short stories, Accelerando. Others have been...well, not so much.

Also worth noting is the cyberpunk revival movement. It is driven by nostalgia for the aesthetic and atmosphere of first-wave cyberpunk, the best examples of which ooze retro cool, but which--in celebrating the outmoded futurism of days past--arguably tilts more fantasy than science fiction. Nevertheless, this is an active fan culture that can be really fun for the nostalgia-minded. There are high-quality cyberpunk blogs, a dedicated subreddit with an active community and a dizzying array of cyberpunk-themed tumblrs--all testament to the enduring legacy of cyberpunk. I love it.

"Cyberpunk Revisited"

...which brings us back to the idea I had: to re-examine cyberpunk as a distinctly science fictional literature and as a set of themes within science fiction, from our position 30 years into the future. So we'll be doing that--starting with a series of structured reviews of classic cyberpunk fiction from the 1980s, but eventually moving on to other media and decades. We'll critically examine both the positives and negatives about the approach--the stuff cyberpunk does well, not so well or not at all--and also ask the tough questions, such as whether cyberpunk suffers from an "orientalism problem." Throughout the project, we will try to contextualize cyberpunk within broader histories of science fiction and global culture, and we'll draw in diverse voices (both among and beyond ourselves) to do so.

Practically speaking, our reviews will take the form of dossiers with standardized subheadings to help tease out the comparables, such as:
Filetype: whether it's a book, film, comic, game, etc.
File under - whether it's cyberpunk (i.e. the 1980s literature), proto-cyberpunk (i.e. something that foreshadowed cyberpunk), postcyberpunk (i.e. later evolutions/adaptations of the cyberpunk framework to new conditions), a cyberpunk derivative (i.e. something that draws from cyberpunk but is not cyberpunk) or a cyberpunk legatee (i.e. a derivative that is more substantively attached to the legacy of cyberpunk). 
High-tech - the technologies involved and how are they portrayed.
Low-life - how the nitty-gritty of life at the lower rungs is portrayed.
Dark times - the essence of the future envisioned, the degree and form of dystopianism involved and the key structures of the sociopolitical environment action takes place in. 
Legacy - the significance/influence of the work in question. 
In retrospect -  what it's like to read/watch/play it today.
The Cyberpunk Revisited project, of course, won't just consist of reviews. As I mentioned earlier, we'll be doing other stuff too--essays, lists, interviews, discussions and so forth--drawing in many of our writers and also some illustrious guests.

So sit back, jack in and enjoy the ride, decker.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator (2012).