“Cyberpunk” by Richard Roberts
Is cyberpunk a literary genre or a zeitgeist? Was it really birthed with William Gibson’s Neuromancer or a year earlier with Bruce Bethke’s actual story Cyberpunk? Or earlier even, as many will argue.
I posit that Cyberpunk was and is an inevitable zeitgeist, begun in literature, that lives as an ever evolving genre across multiple media. I will also go on the record as stating that i fully embrace the notion that it was indeed birthed in 1984 with William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, but birth and conception are two different things. The conception was a process beginning in 1981.
Steampunk, Dieselpunk and Atompunk are genres that go backwards in time to past eras. Cyberpunk, the first -punk genre was actually born looking forward. It is a sub genre of science fiction, but instead of one taking place in the far future or involving aliens and other classic sci fi tropes, it took place in the near future and extrapolated upon where the digital technology of the time was headed.
In the 1950’s, an incredible wave of science fiction took place. It was lead by giants such as Isaac Asimov, the wonderful Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke. It is sometimes referred to as Futurist, or “classic” sci fi, but futurism is its overarching theme. It spilled over into movies like The Day The earth Stood Still, When Worlds Collide and Forbidden Planet.
Cover art for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, one of the masterpieces of the 1905s futurist genre.
The science fiction literary genre before Futurism is now referred to as Raypunk, and was known for incredibly imaginative space operas such as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and John Carter. The futurists toned down the operatic intensity and focused on actual themes, specific technology and how that technology would affect society.
In the late 60s and early 70s another movement began, New Wave science fiction. This wave was lead by giants such as Michael Moorcock and Philip K Dick and included Roger Zelazny, Philip Jose Farmer, Harlan Ellison and J. G. Ballard. It was more experimental, more daring from a literary perspective, more psychedelic. Drugs and sex were included, dystopian outcomes were often brought into play and hard science discarded into favor of a “don’t worry how it works, just check this shit out” approach. (My own personal approach, you’ll be shocked to hear.)
Cover Art for J G Ballard’s The Crystal World
Cyberpunk of course borrows from both traditions. It continues many of the themes presented in New Wave, embraces the futurist’s obsession with specific tech, adds an emotional noir mood, and dials down the far future craziness to reflect on what was happening with the advent of digital technology and personal computing. It questioned where it might lead with a dark edge. As computers began to appear in middle class households, kids’ relations with tech became more personals instead of simply broad societal outcomes. Cyberpunk embraced this and stories reflects where the lines between the personal and tech intrusion merge.
The mood of cyber punk can be traced to a large degree to J G Ballard. A New Wave sci fi writer, he was adored by many of the early cyberpunk authors, and he was widely known for themes of dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.
“In the circle of American science fiction writers of my generation — cyberpunks and humanists and so forth — [Ballard] was a towering figure. We used to have bitter struggles over who was more Ballardian than whom. We knew we were not fit to polish the man’s boots, and we were scarcely able to understand how we could get to a position to do work which he might respect or stand, but at least we were able to see the peak of achievement that he had reached” -Bruce Sterling
Now for a timeline.
The first true seed of cyberpunk, the conception of the sperm of New Wave and futurism with the egg of the modern condition of digital technology happened in 1981 with Vernor Vinge’s novella True Names. It is the first story to have a recognizable “cyberspace” and discussed transhumanism, anarchism and even the singularity.
“The story follows the progress of a group of computer hackers (called “warlocks” in the story) who are early adopters of a new full-immersion virtual reality technology, called the “Other Plane”. Warlocks penetrate computers around the world for personal profit or curiosity. Forming a cabal, they must keep their true identities—their “True Names”—secret even to each other and to the “Great Adversary”, the United States government, as those who know a warlock’s True Name can force him to work on their behalf, or even cause a “True Death” by killing the warlock in real life.”
A quick note: Vernor Vinge’s 1992 novel A Fire Upon The Deep is also ahead of its time and is a precursor to much of current sci fi. It is a much read for sci fi fans.
Also in 1981 is the short story Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson. “Johnny Mnemonic” is a data trafficker who has undergone cybernetic surgery to have a data storage system implanted in his head. The system allows him to store digital data too sensitive to risk transmission on computer networks.” Between this and True Names, cyberpunk has in fact been conceived. But while conceived, it has not yet jump started a genre or full on movement. Still, if anyone wants to contend that cyberpunk truly begins in 1981, all other fussing about be damned, it’s a hard stance to argue against.
Ridley’s Scott’s Bladr Runner is released. It takes a class New Wave story by Philip K Dick and creates am incredible cyberpunk aesthetic. It visually nails what would become much of cyberpunk as well as thematically moving beyond the novel into fledgling cyberpunk territory. It is a major inspiration to the genre that was gestating.
The movie Tron is released. Once again, it goes a long way to defining cyberpunk aesthetics and even themes for the general populace.
The term Cyberpunk is actually coined by Bruce Bethke in his short story Cyberpunk, published in Amazing Stories. it features a protagonist who “is a proficient and troublemaking computer virtuoso, essentially a “hacker”, though this term is not used in the story. He hangs out with friends who cause trouble online, encounters interference from his parents, and uses his skills to circumvent their will”.
After this story, the editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Gardner Dozois, begins using the term.
William Gibson publishes Neuromancer. It is a full fledged novel, Gibson’s first after several years of short stories, and won the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. It put cyberpunk on the map and is the archetypal cyberpunk story. It began the zeitgeist that was to flourish over the next two decades, watered by Bruce Sterling and given further leaps forward in the early 90s by Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Diamond Age.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Neuromancer truly began the zeitgeist, and is why it can be pointed to as the birth, although not conception of cyberpunk. I will grant, however, that had Neuromancer never been published, cyberpunk would still have been born. The discussion about digital technology and the tropes leading from the New Wave authors to the computer age were inevitable. It was Gibson who did it, but remove him from the picture and someone else would have done it.
By the 90s cyberpunk was in full form. The 90s was truly the cyberpunk decade, and when cyberpunk is played with now, its 90s tropes more often than not serve as the basis. But 90s cyberpunk is built almost entirely on a full works created over a short , few years back in the early 80s.