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 ), Samuel R. Delany (Babel-17 , Nova ), and Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said ). 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 ), but the majority of them have simply adopted the mood, imagery, and philosophy of the cyberpunk template (e.g. Lawnmower Man , Strange Days , Dark City ).
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.