Cyberpunk Discussion Notes

The following is a set of notes written for a regular Phoenix SF Society meeting.† They are designed as an introduction for a group discussion, hence the occasional reference to the audience.

Cyberpunk - Near future hi tech anarchy or something else?

Cyberpunk is a product of the 1980ís - it arose in the early Ď80ís following on from the work of a very respectable of predecessors.

I am not one of those people who ascribe to the habit of pointing to a predecessor of a movement and claiming that this person was "doing cyberpunk" (for example) before any of the other members of the movement.† Nothing springs from the ground fully formed - all movements have antecedents, people whose work has elements of the what is to come - ideas, scenarios, styles etc. Cyberpunk is no exception to this - and in fact is a very good example of what I mean - In the same way that Mick Jagger or Pete Townsend were not punk rockers but were important influences on the spikey haired ones who came later.

These antecedents include from the "new wavish" side of things Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delany, Norman Spinrad, Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss and particularly JG Ballard.

On the harder side of things we could even include the likes of Wells, Niven, Poul Anderson and Heinlein - well these are the names that Bruce Sterling quotes.

Of even more significance are some of the more eccentric visionaries Philip Jose Farmer, John Varley, Philip K Dick, Alfred Bester, William Burroughs† and Thomas Pynchon.

Now these are the guys who set the stage (all male I might add) - So the question is, where did cyberpunk proper arise. It really began as a coherent movement with a small group of writers (mostly from the american west coast) - some you may not have heard of such as Rudy Rucker and Louis Shiner. John Shirley who was a successful (in California) musician was an important link for them in the early days.

In the early days they didnít call themselves cyberpunk.† If they called themselves anything it was - "the Movement" or sometimes "the mirrorshades group". The latter being a reference to their most obvious icon.† The name cyberpunk comes from a story by† Bruce Bethke of the same name.† Bethke was not a cyberpunk writer and the name wasnít chosen by any author who was. If anyone decided that it was to be the label, it was probably magazine editors looking for a way of describing this new phenomenon that was starting to make an impact in the SF world.

So what is it that distinguishes this movement from others?

Style - not literary style as such (althought some authors are very stylish in the usual "literate" sense of the word), but a preoccupation with style.† The style of the prose, the settings and the personal style of the characters. This is why you tend to get somewhat more detailed descriptions of the characterís clothes than otherwise.† And you tend to get a lot of brand names - cyberpunk characters donít wear generic brands.

Attitude - lots and lots of attitude. Cyberpunk is all hard edges and cynicism.

Darkness - cyberpunk tends to be dark - you donít get many cyberpunk humour writers.† Kim Newman may qualify but then he can be very dark and still raise a smile - debatable whether he is actually a cyberpunk writer al all however.

Attitude to technology - These authors are from a time where technological marvels have become commonplace.† This is reflected in the writing where hi tech is not treated as a thing to be marveled at or exploited - in cyberpunk it just is.

Energy and Pace - things happen fast in cyberpunk novels - most of them are short.†

The crux of what I want the discussion to follow to think about is the setting of cyberpunk novels.† There is a perception that all Cyberpunk novels are set in a near future environment where rule by government has broken down.† But technology has continued to grow - the world wide computer netwok has grown to dominate culture, virtual reality is a reality etc... What I have described as a near future hi tech anarchy.† Not too surprising a perception when you consider the elements of the name - cyber = hi tech and punk = anarchy.† But then the writers didnít choose the title.

The question, is this a defining element of cyberpunk? There are works by a number of cyberpunk authors which are not set in this setting.† Much of Bruce Sterling work is set off planet and way beyond the immediate future.† Rudy rucker has written works which are on the edge of fantasy and much of John shirleys work is very akin to horror.† Greg Bear - yes he is a cyberpunk author - writes in a wide variety of settings.

But they also write in the near future high tech anarchy as do others such as Pat Cadigan, Tom Maddox and Lewis Shiner. The question is, if you write in this environment, does that make you a Cyberpunk author? Allan Dean Foster wrote a story in this setting, does that make him a cyberpunk author or a fad following hack.† Well he is certainly a hack.

The same applies to the likes of shadowrun - it may be set in a high tech near future but it does not fit any of the other criteria - just another game really.

At this point, I should remind you of the question again.† What I have presented here is my personal view of cyberpunk based on what I have read and seen. But the question has to be asked, if the perception of Cyberpunk is defined by this scenario then isnít this a more important definition.

Of all the books I have read, the most important of them is Mirrorshades by Bruce Sterling - this is really a manifesto of the Cyberpunk movement - none of Sterlings text mentions near future hi tech anarchies, and many of the stories are not placed in such a setting - neither does Semiotext(e) the other, somewhat more radical, view of Cyberpunk and associated phenomena.† But if you ask John Q Nerd what cyberpunk is, he will probably start to rabbit on about console jockies and giant corporations - ie near future hi tech anarchies. Who is right the writers who founded it, or the majority of the readers who feed it and feed of of it.

Thats the core of the question for you all. Just one final pint however - cyberpunk is not just the product of a handful of authors.† The movement has become very important - here are a few names from my reading - this is excluding the wannabes and outright hacks.

The names are...

  • Bruce Sterling,

  • Tom Maddox,

  • Lewis Shiner,

  • Rudy Rucker,

  • John Shirley,

  • Pat Cadigan,

  • Marc Laidlaw,

  • Greg Bear,

  • KW Jeter,

  • Wilhelmina Baird,

  • Walter Jon Williams,

  • WT Quick,

  • Paul De Filippo,

  • James Patrick Kelly,

  • Jack McDevitt,

  • Michael Swanwick,

  • Richard Paul Russo,

  • Jack Womack,

  • Bradley Denton,

I have left one out† - it should be pretty obvious who.† When you consider this question, you might like to think about the impact that he has made and how this distorts the wider view of Cyberpunk.