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December, 2004 : Sub-Genre Spotlight:

Cyberpunk

For most science fiction aficionados, "cyberpunk" is a sub-genre epitomized by William Gibson's novel, Neuromancer (1984), and the movie Blade Runner (1982). One, furthermore, that popped into existence, climaxed, and surrendered to commercial dilution in the span of a single decade: the '80s. But cyberpunk's influence on literature and pop culture has spread like a high-level computer virus.

How it started:

The origins of classic cyberpunk literature can be traced to the seminal works of such authors as Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination [1956—originally titled Tiger! Tiger!], The Demolished Man [1951]), Samuel R. Delany (Babel-17 [1966], Nova [1968]), and Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [1968], Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said [1974]). These writers wrote about the evolution of humanity's relationship to culture via technology. Pervasive elements in cyberpunk—such as disillusionment, the fusion of entertainment and politics, the blurring of the artificial and the organic, and rebellion against the system—are commonplace in these earlier writings.

What it was:

The one-page newsletter Cheap Truth (1983-1986), edited by Bruce Sterling, was the start of cyberpunk as a literary movement. The term was coined by Bruce Bethke, whose short story, "Cyberpunk," was published in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, Nov. 1983. The word was popularized by Gardner Dozois in a review of "hot new writers" for the Washington Post in Dec. 1984.

The defining characteristic of these works is the visceral nature of technology, the "cyber" in cyberpunk. It is personal and tangible, part of people's bodies and minds. The border between the organic and the mechanistic is blurred or dissolved, advanced technology integrates with culture, and citizens merge with machines. Instead of holding a position of antagonism and danger or isolated idealization, technology simply is. This techno-phenomenon culminates in "cyberspace," a word that first appeared in Gibson's novelette "Burning Chrome" (1982) meaning an information space within the machine, often more hospitable than the "real" world.

The protagonists are misfits, outlaws, rogues, rebels, and outcasts at odds with an oppressive regime—in short, "punks." The heroes (or rather, anti-heroes) tend to be delinquents with an aptitude for manipulating advanced technology, who use their skills to widen the cracks that appear in an overloaded society.

These elements are present in the works published by the core cyberpunks—William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, and Lewis Shiner—as demonstrated in Mirrorshades: the Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling (1986), sometimes referred to as the "Cyberpunk Bible." They are also in vivid evidence in other authors' works, such as: Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams (1986), Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick (1987), and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992).

What it is:

One of cyberpunk's stylistic mainstays was visionary passion illustrated by information-packed descriptions and staccato prose. Ironically, this contributed to its transformation and evolution from a purely literary movement. Those who should have been its strongest supporters and fan base—the techno-savvy disaffected youth—had difficulty appreciating the oftentimes convoluted and dense literary style.

What has emerged is a scene that embraces more accessible entertainment media, like movies—The Terminator (1984), Total Recall (1990), The Matrix (1999)—the short-lived Max Headroom (1985) television series, and mainstream magazines like Mondo 2000 and Wired. Some of these post-'80s works are based upon literary cyberpunk (e.g. Johnny Mnemonic [1995]), but the majority of them have simply adopted the mood, imagery, and philosophy of the cyberpunk template (e.g. Lawnmower Man [1992], Strange Days [1995], Dark City [1998]).

It can also be argued that cyberpunk influenced or inspired recent technological advances—personal computers, virtual reality games, clone research, stem cell applications, genetically engineered animals and crops. While we are a ways from Gibson's Neuromancer world, or the dark future of Blade Runner, as William Gibson himself said: "The future is already here; it's just not evenly distributed."

For further essays, commentary, and insight into all things cyberpunk, these are excellent online communities/resources: The Cyberpunk Project, The Official Cyberpunk Website, and the alt.cyberpunk FAQ.

Works Referenced

Essential Novels

Blood Music by Greg Bear
A scientist injects himself with his own cell restructuring experiment, with profound repercussions.
Frontera by Lewis Shiner
The first Mars settlement is forsaken by Earth until the colony develops a matter transporter.
Hardwired | Voice of the Whirlwind by Walter Jon Williams
Corporate Orbitals control what's left of postwar America. An ex-fighter pilot wired directly to electronic hardware fights for independence against them.
Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling
The global net is a hub of data pirates, nanotechnology, and mercenaries.
The Long Run: A Tale of the Continuing Time by Daniel Keys Moran
A professional high-tech thief is on a quest to get back at the authorities that killed his loved ones with a nuclear bomb.
Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan
The Brain Police give a woman a choice when a techno-device turns her psychotic: jail time as a mind criminal, or become a mind player.
Neuromancer | Count Zero | Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson
The definitive cyberpunk trilogy.
Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling
Better living through genetic engineering in humanity's future á la a group called the Shapers.
The Silicon Man by Charles Platt
An FBI agent discovers a project that enables personality and memories to be uploaded as a computer program.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
In the future, America is divided into corporate-owned and ruled city-states, designer drugs turn brains nice and crispy, and the Metaverse, the internet of the future, is where it's all happening.
Software | Wetware | Freeware | Realware by Rudy Rucker
The Boppers saga—about sentient robots who throw off the yoke of human oppression.
Synners by Pat Cadigan
Technology ferments crime before it can even be distributed, and the lines between reality and VR are absent or accidental.
Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick
A woman in a vocational accident has a valuable personality template burned into her own brain during testing.

Essential Short Fiction

"Cyberpunk" by Bruce Bethke
The first coining of the term "cyberpunk." A rebellious youth uses his computer to commit petty acts of vandalism and theft.
"The Girl Who Was Plugged In" by James Tiptree, Jr.
The world is controlled by corporations who control people via celebrities as role models. These celebrities have their personalities transferred into "perfect" bodies via computer.
"Little Heroes" by Norman Spinrad
The creation of the world's first fully cybernetic rock star who is under the dictatorial thumb of the music industry.
"Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick
Basis of the movie with the same title. In the future, criminals are caught before committing their crimes, but one of the officers is accused and sets out to prove his innocence.
"True Names" by Vernor Vinge
A group of disaffected computer wizards expand their minds using machines and interact with an artificial intelligence, created and abandoned by the government.
"We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick
Loose basis of the movie Total Recall. A man goes on a virtual vacation by having memories of the planet Mars directly implanted into his mind. But something goes terribly wrong and he finds himself questioning which memories are real, and which are artificial.

Essential Collections, Anthologies, and Serials

Burning Chrome by William Gibson
Gibson's short stories.
Cheap Truth (1983-1986)
Newsletter edited by Bruce Sterling containing reviews, rants, interviews, and the occasional creative expulsion by Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and John Shirley. The beginning of cyberpunk as an SF "movement."
Crystal Express by Bruce Sterling
Sterling's short stories.
Mirrorshades edited by Bruce Sterling
The authoritative cyberpunk anthology. Often called the "Cyberpunk Bible."
Mondo 2000
The leading techno-pop culture 'zine that introduced cyberpunk to the mainstream.
Wired
The magazine for people who live an Internet-centered lifestyle.

Essential Movies and TV Series

Blade Runner (1982)
The definitive cyberpunk movie. In Los Angeles, 2019, a cop must track down and terminate four rogue replicants—human clones used as off-world slaves.
Dark City (1998)
In a perpetually nighttime world run by beings with telekinetic powers, a man struggles with different memories of reality implanted into his brain.
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Based on the William Gibson story with the same title. A data courier has twenty-four hours to deliver 320 gigabytes of crucial information stored in his neural implant while pursued by Japanese mafia agents and a cyborg religious zealot.
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
A scientist augments the intellect of a mentally retarded man with drugs and virtual reality.
The Matrix (1999) | The Matrix Reloaded (2003) | The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
In this trilogy a computer hacker discovers that the world as he knows it is a fake veneer, a virtual soporific to keep humans docile during a man versus computer mega-war.
Max Headroom (1987—TV series)
It is twenty-three minutes into the future, and it's illegal to turn off your television. Network television ratings are the coin of the realm, and a roving reporter gets caught in an experiment to create a computer-generated personality.
Minority Report (2002)
Based on the Philip K. Dick story by the same name. In the future, criminals are caught before committing their crimes, but one of the officers is accused and sets out to prove his innocence.
RoboCop (1987)
Detroit of the future is a crime-ridden dystopia run by a massive company. A terminally wounded cop returns to the force as a cyborg with submerged memories haunting him.
Strange Days (1995)
A dealer in data-discs that hold recorded memories and emotions receives one that contains the memories of a murder.
The Terminator (1984) | Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) | Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
In the Year of Darkness, 2029, humanity is at war with the machines. The machines decide to reshape the future by changing the past by sending a cybernetic assassin to kill the future leaders of the resistance.
The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
A computer scientist leaves a trail of clues in a virtual reality '30s setting to finger his killer.
Total Recall (1990)
Based on the Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." A man goes on a virtual vacation by having memories of the planet Mars directly implanted into his mind. But something goes terribly wrong, and he finds himself questioning which memories are real, and which are artificial.
Tron (1982)
A true classic, one of the first CGI movies. A programmer is hijacked into cyberspace and forced to participate in gladiatorial video games.

Other Recommended Works (Fiction, Anthologies, and Collections)

Other Recommended Movies and TV Series

Additional Information

The Table of Contents for Mirrorshades: A Cyberpunk Anthology is as follows:


Copyright © 2004, Eugie Foster. All Rights Reserved.

About Eugie Foster

Eugie Foster calls home a mildly haunted, fey-infested house in Metro Atlanta that she shares with her husband, Matthew, and her pet skunk, Hobkin. Her publication credits number over 100 and include fiction in Realms of Fantasy, Jim Baen's Universe, Interzone, Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, Cicada, Cricket, and anthologies Best New Fantasy (Prime Books), Heroes in Training (DAW Books), Magic in the Mirrorstone (Mirrorstone Books), and Best New Romantic Fantasy 2 (Juno Books). Her short story collection, Returning My Sister's Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice, will debut in 2009 from Norilana Books. She is also the managing editor of the short fiction and poetry review magazine, The Fix, published by TTA Press.