Cyberpunk in the 80s and 90s

From Higher Intellect Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

(The following essay was printed in the volume _Thinking Robots,
an Aware Internet, and Cyberpunk Librarians_, edited by R. Bruce Miller and
Milton T. Wolf, distributed at the Library and Information Technology
Association meeting in San Francisco, during the 1992 American Library
Association Conference. An expanded version of the volume will be published
later this year.)

تتت After the Deluge: Cyberpunk in the '80s and '90s
تتت Tom Maddox

تتت In the mid-'80s cyberpunk emerged as a new way of
doing science fiction in both literature and film. The
primary book was William Gibson's _Neuromancer_; the
most important film, _Blade Runner_. Both featured a
hard-boiled style, were intensely sensuous in their
rendering of detail, and engaged technology in a manner
unusual in science fiction: neither technophiliac (like
so much of "Golden Age" sf) nor technophobic (like the
sf "New Wave"), cyberpunk did not so much embrace
technology as go along for the ride.

تتت However, this was just the beginning: during the '80s
cyberpunk _spawned_, and in a very contemporary mode.
It was cloned; it underwent mutations; it was the
subject of various experiments in recombining its
semiotic DNA. If you were hip in the '80s, you at least
heard about cyberpunk, and if in addition you were even
marginally literate, you knew about Gibson.

تتت To understand how this odd process came about, we have
to look more closely at cyberpunk's beginnings--more
particularly, at the technological and cultural context.
At the same time, I want to acknowledge what seems to me
an essential principle: when we define or describe a
literary or artistic style, we are suddenly in contested
territory, where no one owns the truth. This principle
applies with special force to the style (if it is a
style) or movement (if it is a movement) called
cyberpunk, which has been the occasion for an
extraordinary number of debates, polemics, and fights
for critical and literary terrain. So let me remind you
that I am speaking from my own premises, interests, even

تتت By 1984, the year of _Neuromancer_'s publication,
personal computers were starting to appear on desks all
over the country; computerized videogames had become
commonplace; networks of larger computers, mainframes
and minis, were becoming more extensive and accessible
to people in universities and corporations; computer
graphics and sound were getting interesting; huge stores
of information had gone online; and some hackers were
changing from nerds to sinister system crackers. And of
course the rate of technological change continued to be
rapid--which in the world of computers has meant better
and cheaper equipment available all the time. So
computers became at once invisible, as they disappeared
into carburetors, toasters, televisions, and wrist
watches; and ubiqitous, as they became an essential part
first of business and the professions, then of personal

تتت Meanwhile the global media circus, well underway for
decades, continued apace, quite often feeding off the
products of the computer revolution, or at least
celebrating them. The boundaries between entertainment
and politics, or between the simulated and the real,
first became more permeable and then--at least according
to some theorists of these events--collapsed entirely.
Whether we were ready or not, the postmodern age was
upon us.

تتت In the literary ghetto known as science fiction,
things were not exactly moribund, but sf certainly was
ready for some new and interesting trend. Like all
forms of popular culture, sf thrives on labels, trends,
and combinations of them--labeled trends and trendy
labels. Marketers need all these like a vampire needs

تتت This was the context in which _Neuromancer_ emerged.
Anyone who was watching the field carefully had already
noticed stories such as "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Burning
Chrome," and some of us thought that Gibson was writing
the most exciting new work in the field, but no one--
least of all Gibson himself--was ready for what happened
next. _Neuromancer_ won the Hugo, the Nebula, the
Philip K. Dick Award, Australia's Ditmar; it contributed
a central concept to the emerging computer culture
("cyberspace"); it defined an emerging literary style,
cyberpunk; and it made that new literary style famous,
and (remarkably, given that we're talking about science
fiction here) even hip.

تتت Also, as I've said, there was the film _Blade Runner_,
Ridley Scott's unlikely adaptation of Philip K. Dick's
_Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?_ The film didn't
have the success _Neuromancer_ did; in fact, I heard its
producer remark wryly when the film was given the Hugo
that perhaps someone would now go to see it. Despite
this, along with _Neuromancer_, _Blade Runner_ together
set the boundary conditions for emerging cyberpunk: a
hard-boiled combination of high tech and low life. As
the famous Gibson phrase puts it, "The street has its
own uses for technology." So compelling were these two
narratives that many people then and now refuse to
regard as cyberpunk anything stylistically and
thematically different from them.

تتت Meanwhile, down in Texas a writer named Bruce Sterling
had been publishing a fanzine (a rigorously postmodern
medium) called _Cheap Truth_; all articles were written
under pseudonyms, and taken together, they amounted to a
series of guerrilla raids on sf. Accuracy of aim and
incisiveness varied, of course; these raids were
polemical, occasional, essentially temperamental.
Altogether, _Cheap Truth_ stirred up some action, riled
some people, made others aware of each other.

تتت Gibson and Sterling were already friends, and other
writers were becoming acquainted with one or both: Lew
Shiner, Sterling's right-hand on _Cheap Truth_ under the
name "Sue Denim," Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Pat
Cadigan, Richard Kadrey, others, me included. Some
became friends, and at the very least, everyone became
aware of everyone else.

تتت Early on in this process, Gardner Dozois committed the
fateful act of referring to this group of very loosely-
affiliated folk as "cyberpunks." At the appearance of
the word, the media circus and its acolytes, the
marketers, went into gear. Cyberpunk became talismanic:
within the sf ghetto, some applauded, some booed, some
cashed in, some even denied that the word referred to
anything; and some applauded or booed or denied that
cyberpunk existed _and_ cashed in at the same time--the
quintessentially postmodern response, one might say.

تتت Marketing aside, however, cyberpunk had a genuine
spokesman and proselytizer, Bruce Sterling, waiting in
the wings. He picked up the label so casually attached
by Dozois and used it as the focal point for his own
concerns, which at times seem to include the outlandish
project of remaking sf from within. In interviews,
columns in various magazines and newspapers, and in
introductions to Gibson's collection of short stories,
_Burning Chrome_, and _Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk
Anthology_, Bruce staked out what he saw as cyberpunk
and both implicitly and explicitly challenged others to
contest it. If Gibson's success provided the motor,
Sterling's polemical intensity provided the driving

تتت Literary cyberpunk had become more than Gibson, and
cyberpunk itself had become more than literature and
film. In fact, the label has been applied variously,
promiscuously, often cheaply or stupidly. Kids with
modems and the urge to commit computer crime became
known as "cyberpunks," in _People_ magazine, for
instance; however, so did urban hipsters who wore black,
read _Mondo 2000_, listened to "industrial" pop, and
generally subscribed to techno-fetishism. Cyberpunk
generated articles and features in places as diverse as
_The Wall Street Journal_, _Communications of the
American Society for Computing Machinery_, _People_,
_Mondo 2000_, and MTV. Also, though Gibson was and is
often regarded with deep suspicion within the sf
community, this ceased to matter: he had become more
than just another sf writer; he was a cultural icon of
sorts, invoked by figures as various as William
Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Stewart Brand, David Bowie,
and Blondie, among others. In short, much of the real
action for cyberpunk was to be found outside the sf

تتت Meanwhile, cyberpunk fiction--if you will allow the
existence of any such thing, and most people do--was
being produced and even became influential. Bruce
Sterling published a couple of excellent novels,
_Schismatrix_ and _Islands in the Net_, that added new
dimensions to cyberpunk; Pat Cadigan, John Shirley and
Rudy Rucker did the same. Imitations appeared, some of
them pretty good, most noxious--I won't cite the worst
imitators' names because I don't want to publicize them.

تتت Also, various postmodern academics took an interest in
cyberpunk. Larry McCaffery, who teaches in Southern
California, brought many of them together in a
"casebook," of all things, _Storming the Reality Studio:
A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction_.
Many of the academics haven't read much science fiction;
they're hard-nosed, hip, and often condescending; they
like cyberpunk but are deeply suspicious of anyone's
claims for it. But whatever their particular views,
their very presence at the party implies a certain
validation of cyberpunk as worthy of more serious
attention than the usual sf, even of the more celebrated

تتت Thus, cyberpunk had _arrived_, however you construe
the idea. However, in postmodern days, by the time the
train pulls in, it's already left the station: the
media juggernaut excels at traveling at least fifteen
minutes into the future. And so, by the end of the '80s,
people who never liked it much to begin with were
announcing with audible relief the death of cyberpunk:
it had taken its canonical fifteen minutes of fame and
now should move over and let something else take the

تتت "No orchard here," the tv reporter says, her words
bouncing off a satellite. "Just all these _apple
trees_." However, Cyberpunk had not died; rather, like
Romanticism and Surrealism before it (or like Tyrone
Slothrop in _Gravity's Rainbow_, one of the ur-texts of
cyberpunk), it had become so culturally widespread and
undergone so many changes that it could no longer be
easily located and identified.

تتت Let me cite one example and comment briefly upon it.
Cyberspace is no longer merely an interesting item in an
inventory of ideas in Gibson's fiction. In _Cyberspace:
First Steps_, a collection of papers from The First
Conference on Cyberspace, held at the University of
Texas, Austin, in May, 1990, Michael Benedikt defines
cyberspace as "a globally networked, computer-sustained,
computer-accessed, and computer-generated,
multidimensional, artificial, or 'virtual' reality." He
admits "this fully developed kind of cyberspace does not
exist outside of science fiction and the imagination of
a few thousand people;" however he points out that "with
the multiple efforts the computer industry is making
toward developing and accessing three-dimensionalized
data, effecting real-time animation, implementing ISDN
and enhancing other electronic information networks,
providing scientific visualizations of dynamic systems,
developing multimedia software, devising virtual reality
interface systems, and linking to digital interactive
television . . . from all of these efforts one might
cogently argue that cyberspace is 'now under

تتت Indeed. Cyberpunk came into being just as information
density and complexity went critical: the
supersaturation of the planet with systems capable of
manipulating, transmitting, and receiving ever vaster
quantities of information has just begun, but (as
Benedikt points out, though toward different ends), _it
has begun_. Cyberpunk is the fictive voice of that
process, and so long as the process remains problematic--
for instance, so long as it threatens to redefine us--
the voice will be heard.
تتتتتتتتتتتتتتت Tom Maddox
تتتتتتت "I swear I never heard the first shot"
Wm. Gibson, "Agrippa: a book of the dead"

Share your opinion