Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Remembering the Future: 40 Years with “Cyberpunk” • by Bruce Bethke

“Cyberpunk” bookends my life. 

I’ve tried to ignore it, to turn my back on it and forget it, but its wires and filaments thread through and wrap around my life, and it keeps pulling me back inside. Here in the late summer of 2023, as we approach the 40th Anniversary of the original magazine publication of “Cyberpunk,” I can’t help but be philosophical about it, and perhaps even a bit maudlin. 

The other day a news article popped up in my feed, touting the newest Rocketbook Pro as being just the right new tech gadget for students this fall. In “Cyberpunk” I gave all my student characters a gadget that looked and behaved very much like a Rocketbook. When I wrote the story, I figured I was describing events set in a world that was about 40 years in the future. I’m pleased to see that the future is arriving right on schedule.

The question here for SF writers is: okay, posit that our students now all have Rocketbooks. We know what it’s designed to do and how it’s supposed to be used. Now, how will our characters misuse it, for things they aren’t supposed to do?

That, to me, remains the core question of cyberpunk. What makes a technology disruptive isn’t using it in the way the people who created it intended it should be used. Those people can only think of the right way to use a thing. The disruption comes later, when the people who grew up living with that technology start thinking of all the wrong ways to use it. When this happens, they come up with misuses the creators never dreamed might be possible, because the creators lack the fluency of someone who has grown up speaking the language of the thing.

So in 1980 I asked myself: in this bright and shiny high-tech future that’s coming in fast and hard, how are socially maladjusted younger people—let’s call them “punks”—living at the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain but possessing a technological fluency their elders can only begin to imagine, going to misuse this tech to rebel against society and get an edge over the eloi living above them?

Then I wrote a story that tried to explore one possible answer to this question. 

[Sidebar: Do I really need to explain again how between 1980 and 1982 this story was read and rejected by every short-fiction editor then working in SF publishing, and it most often came back with the standard, “Nice try kid, real close,” quasi-personal brush-off so often given to young and unknown writers who have written something good enough to make it all the way to the editor in chief, but whose name on the cover won’t sell magazines?]

Cyberpunk science fiction blossomed brilliantly and failed rapidly in the late 1980s to early 1990s, because the same thing happened to cyberpunk as happens to every other successful new thing in any branch of pop culture. At first it was a wonderful breath of fresh air into a stale and dying genre, as scores of new people with new talents and new ideas flooded into writing SF. Then publishers fixated on the commercial success of Neuromancer, and in a few short years cyberpunk fiction went from being something unexpected, fresh, and wildly original to being a trendy fashion statement—to being the flavor of the month—to being a hoary trope, complete with a set of stylistic markers and time-honored forms as immutable as an IEEE standard, to which one must pay heed if one is to write True Cyberpunk. It became, for the most part, Neuromancer fanfic, and the market was soon glutted with an enormous amount of “me too” work that copied the style of the genre’s pioneers but added nothing new to the vocabulary. 

Whereupon cyberpunk fiction, as a genre, suffocated on its own vomit and died. 


About ten years ago I wrote-up and shopped around a proposal for a book project I called Cyberpunk 2.0. My idea was that we were then coming up on the 30th Anniversary of the first publication of “Cyberpunk,” and it was time to toss out the original code base and start over. Cyberpunk fiction as I saw it was still stuck hopelessly in 1985, and still largely either Neuromancer fanfic, Blade Runner fanfic, or worse, anime and video game fanfic. It was all style, with nothing new to say, because it was based on the conceits, assumptions, and flawed grasp of technology of people who were working in genre publishing in 1980.

That book proposal obviously went nowhere, because, as I was told, either a.) cyberpunk was dead, or b.) rehashed 1985 sells very well, thank you. (And if you’ve ever read or seen Ready Player One, you must admit, the people who said that had a point.)

Then life overtook me, and I had far bigger things to worry about than a science fiction genre that was still preoccupied with 1985.


Now it’s 2023, and the 40th anniversary of the first magazine publication of “Cyberpunk” is fast approaching. It feels necessary to do something to mark the occasion, so right now we’re reading submissions for an all-cyberpunk issue of Stupefying Stories. No grand ambitions, this time. No book proposals. To do something like Cyberpunk 2.0 now would require either the backing of a major publisher, which I’m unlikely to get, or a Kickstarter campaign the likes of which I have neither the time, patience, or knowledge to run. Even if we were to start working on it right now, we couldn’t possibly have Cyberpunk 2.0 finished and released before the summer of 2024.

So a special issue of Stupefying Stories it is, then. And what I would truly, deeply, dearly love to see in my submissions inbox are at least a few stories that don’t try to recapitulate the 1980s vision of cyberpunk, but instead start fresh, from the baseline of now

The core notions of cyberpunk fiction remain. It’s an invitation to think seriously about ourselves, our society, and our relationships with our technologies. It’s an opportunity to consider how we interact with, and in turn are transformed by, the things we create. It’s a chance to cast a somewhat jaundiced and cynical eye on the near-term future and really think about what new technologies mean, not just for the lucky eloi living up in their shiny bright towers, but for we poor punks living down on the street. Cyberpunk fiction is an opportunity to get serious.

At least, I thought it would be.

Thus the meta-question: does cyberpunk in 2023 actually have anything new, original, and relevant to say, or is it a fossil form, forever trapped in the 1980s like an insect in amber? Has it become just another style?

I want to believe cyberpunk fiction still matters, but need to see proof that this is true.  

Ergo, it’s the 2020s. Technology and society have changed a lot in the past 40 years. Show me what you have to say that’s new.


Stupefying Stories 27 submission guidelines

Thanks for your interest. Stupefying Stories 27 is now closed to submissions.


In science fiction circles Bruce Bethke is best known either for his 1980 short story, “Cyberpunk,” his Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Headcrash, or as the editor and publisher of Stupefying Stories. What very few people inside the SF/F fiction bubble have known until recently is that he spent most of his career in software R&D, doing things that were fascinating to do but almost impossible to explain. What even fewer people have known is that he actually got his start in the music industry, as a composer, performer, and a member of the design team that developed MIDI, among other things, and he has an enormous repertoire of stories that begin, “This one time, this band I was in…” all of which are far too raunchy to tell in any medium his children or grandchildren might someday read.

Yes, he still has his 50-year-old cherry red Gibson SG with P-90 pickups, as well as his original 1971 ARP 2600, and he fully intends to get back to doing music, one of these days…



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Karin Terebessy said...

What a fascinating albatross you've got. That's the rub with gifts though, be they things or ideas, we don't get to decide how others use them. Still, I would rather be haunted a thousand times over by the ghosts of gifts I've given the world, than the ghosts of things I've stolen from it.

Dire Badger said...

There's absolutely cyberpunk today, but it has a new tag, 'Litrpg' or 'gamelit', because it has HAD to change to meet our new understanding of technology.

cyberpunk has had to mutate, and that mutation includes discarding ideas that once seemed possible like artificial sentience and nanites. Cyberpunk and science fiction go hand in hand, and as new ideas erupt and old ones are discarded, the genre has shifted as well.

Just like black holes, yesterday's cyberpunk has become ancient technology. It's just a matter of learning the new genre conventions.... and realizing that it exists in the edgy abysses of Kindle Unlimited, and patreon-fueled ongoing fictions like royal road.

GuyStewart said...

BTW, I have a copy of this issue -- would you sign it for me someday?