This is the first assignment for ‘Introduction to Cyberpunk Literature’ at P2PU.org, writing a short essay on what makes Cyberpunk stand apart from the rest of Science Fiction. To this end I will recount an horrifically incomplete history of the genre, attempting to describe the interrelation of the advances in culture and technology that influenced the authors, the concepts they explored and the day to day realities of their audience.
“Rooted as they are in the facts of contemporary life, the phantasies of even a second-rate writer of modern Science Fiction are incomparably richer, bolder and stranger than the Utopian or Millennial imaginings of the past.”
Rockets glared red throughout the Golden Age of Science Fiction as space cowboy yarns matured into sprawling space operas and the bleep-blorp robots of the preceding pulp era grew more complex personalities. The industrial age had raised the average standard of living considerably, and as luxury goods became more commonplace consumerism took its hold. The atom was split, electronic devices became standard household items, and consumer well-being never ceased to improve. This material progress seemed unstoppable, inspiring authors to extrapolate fantastic visions of the coming Space Age, but as their heroes went forth in adventure there was no way for readers to actually live these fantasies. The miracles of modern science brought them fridge-freezers and TV’s but there was nothing much that allowed them participate in the fictional worlds that had been created besides the scope of their own imaginations.
Modernity attempted to rationalize the world by inflicting optimal configurations of form following function on its surroundings and the dream of space culminated in the largest media event ever seen. Man set foot on the moon, and then the excitement soon wore off. Meanwhile a cultural revolution was underway, bringing forth the New Wave as Science Fiction reviewed its old ideas, explored inner space and expanded its reach into a wider range of social and political issues. Now fictional scenarios were being described that a lot more people were able to directly relate to as they acted out their own experiments on how the future should be lived. And so while the children of the Golden Age took drugs, got laid and danced, Modernism gave way to Postmodernism. The computer began its rise, and the electronic age shifted towards the digital as technology spread and the fledgling networks grew, talking amongst themselves.
“You have a group of bohemians armed with digital technologies and a certain kind of gloomy optimism. I see a great deal of dyspepsia about technology along with a willingness to embrace anything that comes along. Cyberpunk seems to be filled with grim predictions about the future coupled with a willingness to hasten its advent by whatever means possible.”
So you’re a young author based firmly in counterculture, fed up with the current state of establishment Science Fiction, very well aware of new futures on the horizon and in need of a vehicle to explore them in. What do you do? Take a hard boiled detective noir set, re-dress it with mega corporations, mob cartels and data pirates, then add some blades, leather and neon for good measure. Pick out plausible locations amidst the networked, media rich futures envisioned by the likes of Vannevar Bush and Marshall McLuhan. Have the actions of your characters be informed by the social ineptitude and behavioral quirks you observe in the academics and hackers who have access to this new computer hardware, and splash on the erratic violence, backstabbing and general sleazy depravity of romanticized street lowlifes. Last but not least charge the mixture with a vital ingredient, a new virtual realm of data and thought called Cyberspace and you’re off on fire.
As the future unfolded over the course of the following decades, the internet spread out from universities and businesses into schools and homes, and then further still into backpacks, purses and pockets, all the way bringing the new cyberculture along with it. This allowed what had recently just been a set of tropes to evolve into a fully blown subculture complete with an underground elite, scenesters, posers, art, literature, music, fashion, cashing in, selling out and the hallmark of any culture with staying power; being declared dead as soon as it hit the mainstream. The Cyberpunk label stuck, but the culture it represented has raged on past it and permeated the everyday lives of us all.
“The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed.”
A kid growing up reading the Science Fiction of the first half of the 20th century could have been inspired to study real hard and become an astronaut, but there was no way he or she would ever be able to experience the dreams of interstellar exploration, starships, strange new worlds and android sidekicks. There was little to no overlap between the future visions of their time and the day to day reality of the world they inhabited.
Now if you’ve ever grabbed your laptop and gone to a friends house to use the internet, congratulations. You just became a vagrant net surfer, possibly even a data pirate. With your hardware strapped to your person in its carrier you set out on a quest to return to cyberspace. Hopefully you wore black. If you had to cross town you probably told a junkie or two to get lost, and maybe made an effort to avoid some random crackhead. Your journey is now wrought with hidden perils, backed by the power struggles that constantly strain the structures of the criminal underworld. Maybe you rolled up a quick spliff for the walk and grabbed your Walkman on the way out, well then welcome to the drug induced paranoia that is your voyage through space and time, fueled forward by a soundtrack of whatever electronic audio experiments have made their way back from the frontiers of musical innovation to the output of your personal media device. Shit if its dark, rainy and hot outside I hope you’re headed through an area where there’s some brightly lit advertising going on, because you are about to live the dream.
This is Cyberpunk. There is an almost complete overlap between the features of the fictional and real worlds and the hi-tech of old has become cheap, disposable and omnipresent, leaving wave after wave of disruptive emergent futures in its wake.
“In the future it will be everywhere, but it won’t be called cyberculture, it will just be called culture.”
Today we are well into the information age and the net holds together the fabric of society. Bruce Sterling has raised the threat level from ‘gloomy optimism’ to ‘dreadful euphoria’, and everyone is scrambling just to figure out what the fuck is going on. In the Postcyberpunk era, Science Fiction has almost completely caught up with reality, and we all have the means to exert our influence on progress in the areas where it hasn’t. We have gained tools that allow us to shape our own visions of the future, and they are only ever going to get more powerful.
Cheap Truth – Vincent Omniaveritas, 1983-1986
Trillion Year Spree – Brian W. Aldiss, 1986
Rocket Radio – William Gibson, 1989
Cyberpunk – Terminal Chic? – Nathan Cobb, 1992
Fiction that bleeds truth - Jon Lebkowsky, 1992
Cyberpunk in the Nineties – Bruce Sterling, 1998
Freedom and the Independence Declaration of Cyberspace
On the Independence Declaration of Cyberspace and founding the Electronic Frontier Foundation. John Perry Barlow, 2006
Reboot 11 closing talk
On Favela Chic, Gothic High Tech, Dreadful Euphoria, Stuffed Animals and your dead Grandfather. Bruce Sterling, 2009
Thanks to Benjamin Becker.