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Friday, February 26, 2021

Ask Dr. Cyberpunk • with your host, Bruce Bethke

In the early spring of 1980, I wrote a little short story about a gang of teenage hackers. From the very first draft the story had a one-word title—a new word, one that I’d made up, in a deliberate attempt to grok the interface between the emerging high technology scene and teenage punk attitudes, and this word was—

Oh, I bet you can guess. 

Half a lifetime later I’m still getting questions about this story, so rather than answer them privately and one at a time, I’ve decided to make answering questions about cyberpunk a regular feature on this site. If you have a question you’ve always wanted to ask me, post it here, IM me on Facebook, or email it to brb[at]rampantloonmedia[dot]com.

Today’s question comes from Mark, who asks:

“Many people speak of solarpunk, post-cyberpunk, and even the death of cyberpunk. In your opinion, looking at cyberpunk as a sub-genre of the 1980s and compared to the past ten years or so, what do you think is the biggest difference in cyberpunk media today?”

First off, it's hard to convey just how amusing I find it that people seem to expect me to be some sort of Elder Statesman of Cyberpunk. “Elder”and “Punk” are antithetical. An elder spokesperson of any kind of punk is an oxymoron. (Nonetheless, I think John Shirley claims to be the Elder Patriarch of Cyberpunk from time to time, and Pat Cadigan does seem to want to be recognized as the Den Mother of Cyberpunk or something like that.)

Me, I’m just a guy who wrote a story, and who put a good deal of effort into coming up with a snappy, fresh, one-word marketing label to use as the title of that story. I never for a moment imagined we’d still be talking about the thing more than forty years later.

Second, to understand where cyberpunk came from, you have to understand what was going on in SF/F publishing in the years just before it hit. The fantasy market was absolutely saturated with Imitation Tolkien in those days, to the point of it being a joke. (An elf, a dwarf, and a wizard walk into a tavern. The bartender says...) Pocket Books was moving an absolutely ungodly number of Star Trek spinoff novels, which were rotting the minds of readers and wasting the talents of writers world-wide. We’d just gone through a Robert E. Howard revival, and book racks everywhere were still overflowing with Gonad the Barbarian and his many imitators and spinoffs, striking body-builder poses as they stood there in their fur-lined jockstraps, holding insanely oversized and overtly phallic swords. 

Science fiction proper—serious, “hard” science fiction—had gone from being the literature of ideas (if it ever was) to being the literature of trope and melisma. Heinlein had become a self-indulgent self-parody. Asimov was writing turgid and flaccid mystery novels and calling them SF because they had robots in them. Larry Niven had turned Ringworld into a franchise (Real Estate Agents of Ringworld!), Frank Herbert was busy turning Dune into a both multi-generational soap opera and the family cash-cow, and Gordon Dickson—man, I loved Gordie, he was a good friend, but there was no excuse for The Final Encyclopedia. By the early 1980s the big-name heavily promoted SF authors that the publishers loved to throw six-figure hardcover contracts at had become the literary equivalent of arena rock acts, going out there and playing their greatest hits over and over again, but never actually bringing anything new to the table. It wasn’t science fiction anymore. It was self-referential metafiction.

Then along comes this next generation of writers—my generation—who came of political age during the Vietnam War, and who grew up on Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, John Brunner, Harlan Ellison, Thomas Disch, Anthony Burgess, the alternately brilliant or psychotic Philip K. Dick, and all the other writers who emerged from the 1960s New Wave, and we were carrying a surplus of cynicism and nihilism in our stony little hearts, and we looked at the future that lay ahead of us...

And said, uhn-uh. That clean, bright, and beautiful Star Trek future? Ain’t gonna happen. Well, maybe it will for the rich people at the absolute top of the food chain, but for everyone else the future is gonna be a whole lot dirtier, darker, more dangerous, and considerably less white. What’s coming down the pipe for us is going to make George Orwell look like an optimist.

So by 1980, the punk part—the cynicism, the nihilism, the anomie, the willingness to embrace anarchy, and the outright contempt for the Big Ideas of the 1940s~50s generation of science fiction writers—was already installed. All it would take was one good push...

That push, you may be surprised to learn, was not “Johnny Mnemonic.” It was Star Wars. When that cultural juggernaut hit, people all over the entertainment industry realized, “Damn, there’s serious money to be made peddling that Buck Rogers shit!” So while the most visible aspect of that realization was the flood of big budget sci-fi movies that followed in the years after Star Wars, a less visible but more pertinent knock-on effect was that there was a major influx of capital into SF print publishing, as publishers scrambled to get just a little piece of that Star Wars action.


Except the new writers who were producing the content to fill those newly opened publication slots, and the new editors who were choosing the content to be published in all those newly emerging magazines and books—well, quite a few of them harbored punkish sympathies, and they were saying, Nope. You may think that because of Star Wars, the science fiction of the 1980s is going to look just like 1935 all over again—but we’ve got some surprises in store for you.

The original 1980s cyberpunk wave came and went surprisingly fast. I think Bruce Sterling was already declaring cyberpunk dead by ‘85 or ‘86. I do know that by the early 1990s I was being told by agents and editors all over the industry that cyberpunk was dead, and there was no point in trying to write or sell anything like that anymore.

Then, of course, The Matrix hit in 1999, and it was like Star Wars all over again.

What happened to cyberpunk fiction in the 1980s was the same thing that happens to every successful new thing in any branch of pop culture. At first it was something unexpected, fresh, and original. Then it became a trendy fashion statement. Then it became a repeatable commercial formula, and publishers began signing writers who could work the formula and ape the style without doing anything too fresh or original, as in the publishing business genuinely original is always a tough sell. It’s much easier to sell a book if you can use the pitch, “If you liked X, then you’ll love Y!”

In time, cyberpunk became a hoary and ossified trope, as immutable as an IEEE standard, complete with a checklist of stylistic markers and time-honored forms to which obeisance must be paid if one is to write True Cyberpunk.

And in time the market became saturated with “me too” work, a lot of it written by people who had good writing chops but no fucking clue what they were writing about, they were just working the formula, and cyberpunk was dead again.

Looking at it from the vantage point of 2021, I must admit that as the editor of Stupefying Stories, it cracks me up every time I read a cover letter from some eager young writer who is gushing about how I of all people should appreciate his (or her, or their) new cyberpunk story. Yes, there are some really bright new talents out there writing some really great new cyberpunk-style stories that would be absolutely perfect—in the pages of Asimov’s in 1985!

But out here in the larger world time has moved on, and those kinds of stories look as quaint now as Chesley Bonestell’s beautiful 1950s spaceship art did after Apollo landed on the moon. A huge—enormous—depressingly mountainous amount of the self-identified cyberpunk fiction I see now is stuck firmly in the 1980s. It’s not new, fresh, or original. It’s paint-by-numbers Imitation Gibson. It’s Blade Runner fan fic, or Akira fan fic, or worse, wannabe Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2077 media tie-in fan fic.

The original cyberpunk writers of the 1980s: they were operating from a 1970s punk rock ethos, an awareness of the social and political milieu of their times, and a seemingly reasonable set of extrapolations based on the technologies that were just beginning to emerge at that time. Thanks to a certain few editors, this body of work developed into a sort of consensual vision of the future, some of which was spot-on, and some of which was laughably wrong.

I have spent the past forty years since writing “Cyberpunk” working in the computer industry; the past 20 working in supercomputer software R&D. And I am here to tell you: the baseline assumptions have changed.

I would dearly love to see a truly new form of SF emerge that reflects the baseline of now, and begins a whole new series of extrapolations that creates a new consensual vision of a different future. But I think that as long as you're intentionally labeling your fiction as “cyberpunk,” you’re deliberately handicapping yourself.

But probably playing right into Amazon’s marketing algorithms, because as I said before, genuinely original is always a tough sell.
To reiterate, I would dearly love to see something truly new. A lot of the assumptions that underlay the original 1980s cyberpunk, and thus the retro-1980s cyberpunk of today, were based on imagining how the wired world of the future might work. Now that we’re here, 40 years further on, we know that a lot of the things that were imagined then were just plain wrong; it doesn’t work like that; it can never work like that. Because physics.
I hope I don’t come off like someone just one shot of Geritol short of shouting, “Get off my lawn!” As I said, I’ve spent a lifetime working out on the bleeding edge of the computing industry. And the ideas that were originally behind the cyberpunk trope—that’s the cool part. My friends who went into aerospace tell me the old guys who built their industry all grew up reading Heinlein and Clarke, and went into aerospace to turn those crazy things they read about as kids into practical realities as adults.

In my industry I get to meet a lot of really brilliant young kids fresh out of MIT, or Carnegie-Mellon, or Urbana-Champaign, and every once in a while one of them sees my name, does a double-take, and then starts to tell me all about how they grew up reading Gibson, Vinge, and Rucker—and yes, me—and that’s why they went into this field: to turn that crazy sci-fi stuff they read about as kids into practical realities as adults.

We don’t quite live in the world that the cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s predicted. But we live in the world that the kids who grew up reading that fiction built, and that is a very cool thing indeed. 
—Bruce Bethke


Pete Wood said...

If a writer is trying to fit into a certain genre, that work is barely above fan fiction. If your story has to have Darth Vader or James Kirk in it, I'm not going to read it. If you bill yourself as the next William Gibson and you label yourself as a "cyberpunk" author, I'm probably not going to read your stuff either.
I like stories with good compelling characters, believable responses to whatever world you've created, and a strong narrative that sucks me in and holds me to the end. If you look at the writing guidelines for most pro markets, nobody is calling for stories of a particular genre, they're asking primarily for stories with strong characters. Most of the pro markets publish a wide range of stories. What those stories all have in common is good solid writing.
The world doesn't need the next William Gibson or the next Tolkien or Asimov or Bradbury. Forget the greats. Don't try to update them or copy them. Learn how to write and learn about people. Trust me. If you can write well and craft good characters, I'll read whatever you write, no matter what genre it falls into.
Write what you know. Don't try to figure out what some other successful writer knows and be like him/her. Figure out your own strenths and weaknesses and loves and passions and write along those lines. Create your own genre.

~brb said...

> Create your own genre.

Good advice. After all, when I wrote "Cyberpunk," I was just trying to write the kind of hard sci-fi story that I wanted to read, and that in 1980 no one else seemed to be writing.

Write your own story. Don't worry about genre straitjackets. And who knows: maybe in a few years everyone will be asking you how you did it when you spawned that new genre.