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Who Owns Cyberpunk ?

James Patrick Kelly
3 July 2013


In the beginning, nobody could decide what to call the Cyberpunks. Various names were proposed : Radical Hard SF, the Outlaw Technologists, the Eighties Wave, the Neuromantics and the Mirrorshades Group. You can see the problem. For a movement to catch on, it needs a catchy name. In 1983, a writer named Bruce Bethke had published a story called "Cyberpunk" in the November issue of Amazing Stories. But although he can claim the original coinage, Bethke did not exercise his naming rights. Editor Gardner Dozois is generally credited with popularizing the term. Here he is, writing in 1985 : "about the closest thing we have to a self-willed aesthetic school would be that group of writers, purveyors of bizarre, hard-edged, high-tech stuff, who have on occasion been referred to as 'Cyberpunks'".

Of course, 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. Published pseudonymously by Bruce Sterling (as "Vincent Ominiaveritas"), not only did it slag SF's literary establishment, which produced "stories that lie gasping and wall-eyed with anemia", but it also ridiculed those up-and-coming writers who had yet to acknowledge the Cyberpunk agenda :

SF must stop recycling the same half-baked traditions about the nature of the human future. And its most formally gifted authors must escape their servant's mentality and learn to stop aping their former masters in the literary mainstream. Until that happens, SF will continue sliding through obsolescence toward outright necrophilia.
-- Sterling, 1983

Couched in such hyperbole, the Cyberpunks' message was greeted with bemusement or outright hostility by many working in the genre. For each of those who came to share the Cyberpunk sensibility, writers like Mark Laidlaw, Tom Maddox and most notably Pat Cadigan, there seemed to be three naysayers ready to decry it as a sham or a clever public relations ploy. In the otherwise celebratory Cyberpunk issue of the Mississippi Review, several irate critics fired back. "What we have here, folks", argued Gregory Benford, "is a marketing strategy masquerading as a literary movement". David Brin agreed : "Nitty gritty time ? 'Cyberpunk' is nothing more or less than the best publicity gimmick to come to Speculative/Fiction in years. Adherents make their grand pronouncements and thereby attract roving press flocks, always eager to do a piece on the latest rebel". Fred Pohl dismissed the Movement entirely : "I have yet to find a character in any cyberpunk story that I care about, or indeed believe".

In order to showcase their fiction, Sterling floated a proposal for an anthology of the Movement's greatest hits. Editor David Hartwell, who ultimately bought Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, remembered some of the negotiation over the book's contents :

As I recall, [Sterling] had six writers (two of them collaborators of the original four), and I said that there had to be twelve to make a movement, or words to that effect. He said it would be no problem to include twelve, and so he surprised people such as James Patrick Kelly, Greg Bear and Paul Di Filippo by making them part of the Movement and including them in Mirrorshades.
-- qtd. in Kelly 2001, 9

It is with Mirrorshades, intended to be the definitive statement of what the first Cyberpunks were all about, that the debate over ownership begins. With the publication of this book, it was now officially possible to write like a Cyberpunk without being one. After Mirrorshades, we are no longer necessarily talking about the group of writers called Cyberpunks, but rather cyberpunk, the literary genre that was soon to become a cultural phenomenon.

Image and Idea

Had its critics been right, there would have been no cyberpunk phenomenon. But as Sterling laid out cyberpunk's central concerns in the introduction to Mirrorshades, he was, in fact, describing a different direction for modern science fiction :

Certain central themes spring up repeatedly in cyberpunk. The theme of body invasion : prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, genetic alteration. The even more powerful theme of mind invasion : brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, neurochemistry - techniques radically redefining the nature of humanity, the nature of the self.

The Cyberpunks were reacting to the kinds of traditionally technophilic stories in which humanity explores and changes the physical world - far flung space-based fiction in particular. It did not escape their attention that a decade had passed since the last moon landing with no return in prospect. So they advocated for a change of focus. Their stories were more personal, using technology to explore what it meant to be human. They wanted science fiction to acknowledge that changes to what we do are not as important as changes to who we are. "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". Were the Cyberpunks, in fact, the only ones addressing these issues ? Of course not. Not only members of their own generation, but many established writers were thinking very hard about the impact of pervasive computing and invasive enhancement. But Cyberpunks were reliably obsessive about these matters. And for a time, the Cyberpunks' flamboyant style and uncompromising attitude were at least as important as the quality of its ideas.

At the outset, the Cyberpunks believed they were creating a renegade genre. They were new on the literary scene, at once ambitious to make their mark and dismissive of much of what had come before them. The heroes of their stories were technological outlaws, as alienated from their dystopian worlds as the core Cyberpunk writers were from mainstream science fiction. Indeed, it can be instructive to map some of the earliest cyberpunk plots onto the careers of their creators. If the "cyber" in cyberpunk points to the extrapolations of the protogenre, then the "punk" is all about presentation. "Cyberpunk work is marked by its visionary intensity. Its writers prize the bizarre, the surreal, the formerly unthinkable. They are willing - eager, even - to take an idea and unflinchingly push it past its limits" (Sterling, 1986). They do this to achieve "classically punk shock value" according to Sterling, who again and again links the cyberpunk literary style to the music of the time :

With this intensity of vision comes strong imaginative concentration. Cyberpunk is widely known for its telling use of detail, its carefully constructed intricacy, its willingness to carry extrapolation into the fabric of daily life. It features "crammed" prose : rapid, dizzying bursts of novel information, sensory overload that submerges the reader in the literary equivalent of the hard-rock "wall of sound".

If there was a flaw in the conceptualization of cyberpunk in this founding text, it is the symbolism of the mirrorshades. According to Sterling, "By hiding the eyes, mirrorshades prevent the forces of normalcy from realizing that one is crazed and possibly dangerous" (Sterling, 1986). Well, maybe. But they are also an affectation tied to a particular time and place. When we revisit near-future science fiction, we tend to judge how well it has aged. Quaint is the enemy of cutting edge. Unfortunately, mirrorshades make an '80s fashion statement that also reminds us that much of the tech in early cyberpunk has gone out of date and that some of the extrapolation has proved wrong.

Nowhere is the obsolescence problem more evident than in Neuromancer. How could it be otherwise ? When William Gibson wrote what many consider to be his masterpiece, there were no mice, no hard disks. In those the pre-Macintosh days, before Windows opened, there were just over one thousand Internet hosts; in 2010, we approached or passed a billion. And Gibson famously was never a fan of computers; he wrote the book on a 1927 model portable typewriter. Consider the opening line, once cited as an exemplar of his deft use of language : "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel". The image, undeniably vivid to his contemporaries, cries out for a footnote to explain it to twenty-first-century readers. What color is a digital TV screen tuned to no channel ?

And yet Neuromancer is without doubt the first and most important cyberpunk novel. It is lightning fast and always surprising. It manages to capture all the colors of alienation in an array of characters that shimmer on the page. Yes, it's a tour of outlaw neighborhoods filled with people you would hate to meet in a dark alley, but that's what Gibson was aiming for, and he hits the mark exactly. Not surprisingly, it manages to touch on almost all of the themes in the cyberpunk agenda as outlined in Mirrorshades. And although it is sometimes prone to rhetorical excess, it is nonetheless one of the most stylish novels ever written in the speculative genre. As a model for those who would come after, its "crammed" prose suggests a society that not only its characters truly inhabit but that also demands to see the reader's passport. You don't just visit Gibson's Sprawl and leave; you get it all over you and it won't come off. Consider :

The Panther Modern leader, who introduced himself as Lupus Yonderboy, wore a polycarbon suit with a recording feature that allowed him to replay backgrounds at will. Perched on the edge of Case's worktable like some kind of state of the art gargoyle, he regarded Case and Armitage with hooded eyes. He smiled. His hair was pink. A rainbow forest of microsofts bristled behind his left ear; the ear was pointed, tufted with more pink hair.
-- Gibson, 1984

Take that, Isaac Asimov !

Not Dead Yet

By 1986, cyberpunk was ascendant. Neuromancer had won the Nebula, the Hugo and the Philip K. Dick Awards. Mirrorshades had been published, making both an artistic and ideological case for the new genre. Still, it came as something of a surprise when The Last Cheap Truth came out. In it, Sterling issued a cryptic farewell, "I hereby declare the revolution over. Long live the provisional government". While this was, in retrospect, a shrewd move, it caused some confusion at the time. Was cyberpunk also over ? It seemed possible, as some of the first Cyberpunks were finding the label a mixed blessing. And without the party organ to enforce ideological purity, how would anyone know what was cyberpunk and what wasn't ? Sterling had drawn the cyberpunk struggle to a close. What was next ?

Who owned cyberpunk ?

But even though Cheap Truth seemed to be declaring that the party was over, writers of talent and ambition still wanted to celebrate cyberpunk values. Novels proliferated, many in series. Of the first Cyberpunks, William Gibson returned to the Sprawl in Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). John Shirley began his A Song Called Youth series with Eclipse (1985). Rudy Rucker followed up 1982's Software with Wetware (1988), putting his own unique spin on cyberpunk. Both of these novels won the Philip K. Dick Award. Lewis Shiner published just one cyberpunk novel, Frontera (1984), before distancing himself from the "c-word", as some veterans of the Movement were calling it, with Deserted Cities of the Heart (1988). With Schismatrix (1985), Bruce Sterling launched cyberpunk into space. Set in the twenty-third century, it described a posthuman society bifurcated into Shapers, who altered themselves biologically, and Mechanists, who used cybernetic and prosthetic enhancements. His next novel, Islands In The Net (1988), might be described as Cyberpunk 2.0. It depicted a world similar to those commonly associated with cyberpunk, but his story was told from the point of view of a stakeholder in the world. Its protagonist was a mom; she was part of a stable nuclear family and worked in public relations for a global corporation.

It was not only the original five who were busy. While some of the writers in Mirrorshades turned away from the work or fell silent, others prospered. Pat Cadigan published the novels Mindplayers (1987) and Synners (1991), contemplating the future of the mind with a welcome dash of dark humor too often missing from her male colleagues' work. Greg Bear, whose work shared DNA with cyberpunk but was definitely of a different species, expanded his award-winning story "Blood Music" into the 1985 novel of the same name. But the prolific Bear was also busy publishing novels of alien contact, global catastrophe and elves. Meanwhile, three writers who might well have been in the sequel to Mirrorshades had there been one - Walter Jon Williams, George Alec Effinger and Richard Kadrey - published Hardwired (1986), When Gravity Fails (1986) and Metrophage (1988), respectively. And these were just some of the best novels; there was an equal amount of fine short fiction.

While this flood of pharmaceutical-grade cyberpunk during the mid-to-late '80s marked what could be considered its Golden Age, plenty of shallow imitations and derivative works appeared as well. Some writers and readers got caught up in the cyberpunk fashion statement; others naively identified with the antiheroes fighting soulless corporations as they prowled the mean streets of the future. While the ideas behind cyberpunk became even more relevant as Internet culture spread and biotech advanced, the genre's neo-noir furniture began to seem worn and a just a bit dowdy.

The Street Also Runs Uptown

However, a funny thing happened as cyberpunk threatened to slide into cliché. In Gibson's 1982 story "Burning Chrome", there was a line that the Cyberpunks were fond of quoting : "The street finds its own uses for things". They meant to say that we will repurpose technology - or anything, for that matter - for whatever suits us without regard for the designer's intentions. In the context of the Gibson story, the "street" refers to the shadowy hacker subculture. But all kinds of people live on the metaphorical street, including suburban teens, ad executives, civil libertarians, software engineers and movie producers. And many of them took a sudden interest in this once obscure corner of science fiction. Before anyone realized what was happening, liquid sense of wonder had sloshed out of its genre containment and spilled across popular culture. Cyberpunk was hip, even glamorous. William Gibson in Rolling Stone ! Does a cameo in a television miniseries - about cyberpunk ! His neologism, "cyberspace", is enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary ! Bruce Sterling gets the cover of the debut issue of Wired ! However, although cyberpunk made some of its practitioners into stars, the excitement was really all about the new genre.

And what exactly caught people's fancy ? Perhaps it was that cyberpunk was a kind of science fiction in which ordinary folks might actually live. Nobody in her right mind expected to crew on the starship Enterprise or jaunt back to the Jurassic, but for a thousand dollars or so you could stick your head through the screen of a personal computer and breathe 100 percent pure cyberspace.

Movies quoted the familiar tropes. Actually, the first and best cyberpunk movie was Blade Runner (1982). In retrospect, perhaps it marks the real beginning of cyberpunk, since the first Cyberpunks were largely unknown short-story writers when it was released. But the film received mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office; only later did it become a cult favorite. Meanwhile Robocop (1987), Akira (1988), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Strange Days (1995), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Gattaca (1997), Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999), The Thirteenth Floor (1999) and Minority Report (2002) were all demonstrably under the influence. And these were just the films that bear close scrutiny; dozens of other knock-offs ranged from tolerable to unwatchable. Cyberpunk fared less well on television, with Max Headroom (1987-88) being the only notable example. Wild Palms (1993), the largely forgotten miniseries in which Gibson appeared, was a hodgepodge.

The Japanese were particularly avid producers and consumers; manga versions of Ghost in the Shell (1989) and Akira (1982-90) were followed by anime adaptations. Other notable manga include Battle Angel Alita (1990), BLAME! (1998-2003) and Gantz (2000). Meanwhile, after an abortive attempt to adapt Neuromancer (1989) into a graphic novel, English language cyberpunk comics flourished with The Hacker Files (1992-3, written by early Cyberpunk Lewis Shiner), Ghost Rider 2099 (1994-6), Transmetropolitan (1997-2002) and Singularity 7 (2004) being notable examples. The gaming industry, too, embraced cyberpunk. In 1988 Neuromancer was (loosely) adapted into a computer adventure game. It was followed by hits like Beneath A Steel Sky (1994), BioForge (1995), System Shock 2 (1999) and Deus Ex (2000). There were also board games and role-playing games, including the Cyberpunk series (beginning in 1988) and the cyberpunk/fantasy hybrid Shadowrun (beginning in 1989). In 1990 the Secret Service raided the headquarters of Steve Jackson Games, ostensibly because information in the GURPS Cyberpunk sourcebook it published could be used to commit computer crime. Although this proved not to be the case, the incident quickly became a cause célèbre and helped motivate computer-savvy civil libertarians to form the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Even some rock albums displayed distinct influences; among them were Sigue Sigue Sputnik's Flaunt It (1986), Warren Zevon's Transverse City (1989), Billy Idol's Cyberpunk (1993) and David Bowie's Outside (1995).

What many of these works captured was more the style than the substance of cyberpunk. That was to be expected. More troubling to those who took the form seriously were those commercial interests which used cyberpunk as a brand name for items and services that little or nothing to do with the new genre. CyberPunk Software offered Virtual Woman 2000, a computerized stripper program with a crude AI which could parse pickup lines. Vendors sold all kinds of cyberpunk jewelry; you could own a Cyberpunk TS100 stainless steel watch for about a hundred dollars. There were trademark applications for Cyberbroker, Cyberjunk, Cyberspace Holding Company and Cyberswain. Happily, an attempt to found the Cyberpunk CPU University School for the Digitally Enabled never got off the ground.

Not only did the Cyberpunks no longer own cyberpunk, but print science fiction seemed to have lost its claim as well.

Post It

Even as cyberpunk was hacking a niche into popular culture, some key players in science fiction were busy burying it. In the opinion of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993), "if cyberpunk is dead in the 1990s - as several critics have claimed - it is as a result of euthanasia from within the family" (Clute and Nicholls). This was due in part to the commodification of the bling, but there was also telling criticism from within the genre. It had always been an embarrassment that so few women wrote it, but feminist critics pointed out that while cyberpunk claimed to be revolutionary, it was still dominated by heteronormative conventions of gender, sexuality and power. The plots often expressed male anxiety over all those intimate enhancements to the body; there was a huge disparity between the number of strong male characters and the number of strong female characters, and gay and lesbian characters were all but invisible. In short, the Movement had inherited some of the conservative social values of the mainstream science fiction it sought to reform.

Moreover, the classic cyberpunk protagonists, alienated and emotionally crippled outsiders, had grown as tiresome as the classic cyberpunk worlds they lived in. The creators of the website CybRpunk actually outlined a formula for wannabe cyberpunks. All the familiar components were assembled for the Do-It-Yourself crowd : the subcultures ("Drug Culture is going to figure big"), the settings ("The USA is broken up into city-states, ruled by corporate dictators"), the hardware ("Personal tanks will be popular") and the wetware ("Neural jacks are possible, but difficult") (Wronkiewicz and Motley, 1996). As time passed, not only did the traditional trappings become clichéd, but technological and social developments made them seem bad extrapolation.

In 1998, writer and critic Lawrence Person published "Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto". It begins :

Bud, from Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, is a classic cyberpunk protagonist. An aggressive, black-leather clad criminal loner with cybernetic body augmentations (including a neurolinked skull gun), Bud makes his living first as a drug runner's decoy, then by terrorizing tourists for money.

All of which goes a long way toward explaining why his ass gets wasted on page 37 of a 455-page novel.

Welcome to the postcyberpunk era.

With the publication of Snow Crash (1992) and Hugo Award winning The Diamond Age (1995), Neal Stephenson established as good a claim as any to be called the first postcyberpunk. The genre had been mutating, as can be seen from novels like Pat Cadigan's Fools (1992), Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends (1994) and Night Sky Mine (1997) and Paul J. McAuley's Fairyland (1995). Both Fools and Fairyland won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Greg Egan's extraordinary hard science novels Quarantine (1992) and the Campbell Award-winning Permutation City (1994) clearly shared themes with cyberpunk. Meanwhile, Mirrorshades veteran Paul Di Filippo offered up Ribofunk (1996), a collection of contrarian biological riffs on cyberpunk. Bruce Sterling with Heavy Weather (1994) and Holy Fire (1996) and William Gibson with his Bridge trilogy - Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow's Parties (1999) - were also redefining the genre.

Reviewers and critics had no problem identifying cyberpunk themes and techniques in these works. For example, the take-no-prisoners "crammed" style, heavily laden with neologisms, had not gone away :

'Pooning a bimbo box takes more skill than a ped would ever imagine, because of their very roadunworthiness, their congenital lack of steel or other ferrous matter for the MagnaPoon to bite down on. Now they have superconducting poons that stick to aluminum body work by inducing eddy currents in the actual flesh of the car, turning it into an unwilling electromagnet, but Y. T. does not have one of these. They are the trademark of the hardcore Burbclave surfer, which, despite this evening's entertainment, she is not. Her poon will only stick to steel, iron, or (slightly) to nickel. The only steel in a bimbo box of this make is in the frame.
-- Stephenson

These postcyberpunk books were still passionately engaged with bleeding-edge technologies in information-saturated worlds. The Internet had helped writers give cyberspace a needed makeover. It had become as much a utility as heat or electricity - accessible, if not to everyone, then to a significantly larger and thus more diverse population. Cyberspace now encompassed virtual worlds and augmented sensoria; coping with mediated reality remained a necessary life skill. The Human Operating System was still subject to revision; add-ons continued to be commonplace. Advances in genomics and bioengineering had made the Cyberpunks' visionary re-design of nature in general and the human body in particular seem plausible, if not inevitable. The stories were still set mostly on earth - space travel, if it occurred at all, was an afterthought.

But if these books were indeed postcyberpunk, then how were they different from its original incarnation ? Unfortunately, it is impossible to cite a specific date and consign all works written before it to cyberpunk and all written after to postcyberpunk. Some differ in style but not so much in content; others explore the conceptual boundaries of the genre.

While characters in a postcyberpunk novel may be alienated from their society, they are usually integrated into it. They often have jobs and families; they value membership in a community. The cowboys and outlaws of cyberpunk stood outside their societies. Because their perspectives on their worlds were skewed, our understanding of them was imperfect. Who was designing and building and maintaining all the advanced computers in a traditional cyberpunk story ? Cyberspace needs electricians ! And while postcyberpunk worlds may be grim, they are usually not true dystopias. Or rather, they are no more dystopic than the world that presents itself to us in today's dreary headlines. Postcyberpunk writing can be playful. With the revolutionary fervor of the early eighties no longer necessary, there is more room in the genre for irony and humor. Of course, these writers are keenly aware that the technologies they invoke raise the possibility of a post-human future. And while the advent of Vernor Vinge's Singularity is by no means certain, it can't be entirely discounted.

In the first decade of the new century, postcyberpunk continues to flourish. More women have embraced the genre, for example, Justina Robson, with Silver Screen (1999), Mappa Mundi (2001) and Natural History (2003), Chris Moriarty with Spin State (2003) and Spin Control (2006) and Elizabeth Bear with her Jenny Casey trilogy, Hammered, Scardown and Worldwired, all of which were published in 2005. Fine novels like Will Shetterly's Chimera (2000); Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon (2002); Ian McDonald's River of Gods (2004) and Cyberabad Days (2009); Charles Stross's Accelerando (2005) and its sequel Glasshouse (2006); Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), Little Brother (2008) and Makers (2009); and Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl (2009) have maintained the high standards set by the early Cyberpunks. In fact, these writers have been recognized as among the best of their literary generation. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Hammered and Accelerando all won Locus Awards for Best First Novel. Altered Carbon and Spin Control were Philip K. Dick Award winners. Justina Robson has twice been shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association Best Novel award and Ian McDonald has won for River of Gods. Little Brother received the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and Windup Girl was awarded a Nebula.

Cyberpunk not only lives. It rules !

Or does it ? While both cyberpunk and postcyberpunk still have currency among critics, the distinction between them continues to blur. The '80s are history and the Movement has moved on. The literary sins of cyberpunk have been forgiven, or at least, nobody commits them anymore. Unlike their predecessors, the postcyberpunks as a group lack cohesion of purpose. Because they live and write in a culture that the Cyberpunks helped to create, we can point to certain of their techniques or habits of thought and say See there ? That's cyberpunk ! But more and more often, the terms cyberpunk and postcyberpunk describe tropes and not intentions. The ideas that genre writers grapple with in the twenty-first century are no longer tied to any specific ideology. They are now the provenance of science fiction.

Which means the revolution is truly over.

Owning up

In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal my bias in these matters. I have been at once an observer and a sometime participant in the evolution of this subgenre. I had a story in Mirrorshades. I have written many other stories which, if not cyberpunk, then are in close dialogue with it, including a novel published in 1994. In 2007, John Kessel and I edited Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology which surveyed the impact of cyberpunk in the period from 1996 to the present - well after its Golden Age. The opinions expressed in that book are repeated above. Some are controversial; writers even more closely associated with the Movement and its aftermath than I saw things differently.

Like any critic who takes on the dubious task of canon building, I have here claimed a kind of ownership of the genre by listing those whom I think belong and omitting those whom I believe do not. If I have overlooked your favorite writer, I apologize. However, that is why I strongly caution you to remember this :

I don't own cyberpunk. We all do.

Works Cited