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Friday, February 19, 2021

Ask Dr. Cyberpunk: with your host, Bruce Bethke


One of the weirder things about being known the world over as “the guy who wrote ‘Cyberpunk’” is that people seem to think I am some sort of judge, arbiter, or elder spokesman for the genre. On the face of it the idea of there being any sort of elder anything for cyberpunk is a contradiction in terms. What part of punk don’t you get? 

Nonetheless the questions keep coming in, so I may as well get some value from this smelly dead albatross I’m wearing and turn it into a regular weekly feature. Friday seems as good a day as any for it, so beginning right now, the lines are open. Have a question you’ve always wanted to ask me about that story? Post it here, email it to me, send me an IM—or what the hell, think it at me, really hard. But be advised that I am absolutely immune to telepathy, so I probably won’t answer.

Today’s question comes from Adrian, who asks: What comes between atompunk and cyberpunk, timeline-wise? 

The answer, obviously, is “beepunk:” stories of tech-savvy rebel gardeners hacking the genomes of common backyard pollinators in order to fight the agribusiness megacorporations and stick it to the man. Like this one: SHOWCASE: “Bootleg Bees,” by Laura Jane Swanson

Somewhat more seriously: cyberpunk began as a self-conscious attempt to apply 1970s punk rock anomie to the emerging 1980s high tech scene, and then to extrapolate what might happen next and take it forward from there. I have always been more interested in what comes next than in what’s already been done, and figured that—

Well, that doesn’t matter, because that book was never written.

In the meantime, while almost every other young sci-fi writer around was writing Bill Gibson fanfic and every agent and publisher in the business was scrambling to find another book “just like Neuromancer only different,” Paul Di Filippo took a really good crack at “what’s next?” in Ribofunk, and essentially invented biopunk. 

Unfortunately, Gibson & Sterling had a much bigger hit with The Difference Engine, and thus invented steampunk.

I thought the basic idea of The Difference Engine was fairly clever—that Charles Babbage’s analog computers had actually worked, and therefore the computer revolution hit western civilization a century earlier than it actually did—but what most everyone else seemed to seize on was the Victorian Era costumes, trappings, and set dressings. Instead of going forward and thinking about what might be next, it was as if science fiction as a whole suddenly took a great leap backward and started over again with Jules Verne.

Ontology recapitulates phylogeny. Steampunk begat clockpunk—and gods below, I grew to hate clockpunk. Seemed like every week one of the major publishers was launching a new series with the word “clockwork” in the title: The Clockwork King, The Clockwork Crowbar, The Clockwork Assassin, The Clockwork Toaster, The Clockwork Schlockwork...

Nota bene: A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, is not a steampunk novel.

Steampunk begat dieselpunk, which begat raypunk, which begat atompunk, which begat solarpunk, which begat … oh, I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few more in there. The point is that science fiction is now cluttered with dozens of *.punk microgenres, all of them suffering from such paucity of imagination that they can’t even think of a word to describe themselves that doesn’t end in punk. Speaking ex cathedra, Doctor Cyberpunkenstein heartily wishes that all these eager young writers would find their own damn names for their new genres! 

Ahem. Excuse me.

So to answer the initial question: if atompunk is a sort of refurbished atom-age SF of the 1940s~1950s as derived by way of steampunk, and cyberpunk begins in the 1970s, then what falls between them in the timeline would be …

Hippiepunk? Except hippiepunk is an oxymoron, as punk rock was first and foremost a rebellion against hippies in general and the pompous dinosaur arena bands that evolved in the 1960s in particular, so let’s call it, oh —

Acidpunk. Stories of society’s rebels and outcasts fighting the pharmaceutical megacorporations and sticking it to the man by hacking the chemistry lab and cooking up new psychedelic drugs.

While listening to The Doors and Jefferson Airplane? Suddenly this all begins to seem terribly familiar to me. I suppose, just as William Burroughs and Alfred Bester were the points of departure for so many of the early cyberpunk writers, this means your points of departure for acidpunk would be Ken Kesey, Thomas Wolfe, and Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories. Considering that out here in the Real World we seem to be recapitulating 1968 through 1973 right now, this is also probably exactly the right time to be revisiting Kurt Vonnegut’s early novels, with an eye towards giving Vonnegut’s ideas a punk style refresh. If I were to do this, I think I’d start by rereading Cat’s Cradle.

Over to you.

—Bruce Bethke

In lieu of an author’s bio, Bruce Bethke would like to direct your attention to this very short story:

“On the Conservation of Historical Momentum”



Mark Keigley said...

got a title for a story..."A clockwork Toiletpunk" Now, where did I put that plunger? :)

snowdog said...

Great post! Made me think of the old Ranting Room days. Now where did I put my copy of Rush's Clockwork Angels CD?

~brb said...

@snowdog! Great to see your byline again. It's been a long time. Glad to see you're still with us!