Saturday 3 September 2011

C is for Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk is often mischaracterized as being science fiction about computers and hackers. It is true that some of the best golden age cyberpunk contains the features identified by participants in a Twitter #Cyberpunkchat discussion in early 2011 as core to the genre: “science fictional setting; use of computer technology core to the plot (the ‘cyber’); preferably a dystopian or hyper-corporate society; protagonists who are anti-establishment rebels, activists, underdogs, or hackers (the ‘punk’).”[1] These are, as the group recognised, almost entirely features of William Gibson’s Sprawl novels rather than of any coherent genre. The editors of and contributors to the Mirrorshades cyberpunk anthology, published at the height of the cyberpunk craze in 1986, included many stories with no computer elements at all, and in some cases highly Weird or Fantastic rather than science fictional. (Indeed there are more computer tech stories in Rewired, the 2007 “post-cyberpunk” anthology, who claim to rebel against their cyberpunk roots, than in Mirrorshades.)

As defined by Sterling, cyberpunk is a movement in science fiction that was inevitable in, and perhaps technically restricted to, the 1980s. It combined the New Wave ethos of Ellison, Delaney, Moorcock and Ballard, with the surreal or psychedelic techno-literacy of Farmer, Dick and Pynchon. The Cyberpunks were a generation of writers who came of age in a decade that was science fictional (at least by the standards of all earlier generations): personal computers made their way into every household, portable communication devices became commonplace, electronic communication entered the public consciousness; all of these things were a source of great excitement (techno-fetishism), but also of social vertigo, fear of rapid change, and a certain anarchic, revolutionary danger. Most importantly, they were obviously going to change the world, whether you believed that would turn the old power structures upside down in favour of a democratic utopia, or that it would destroy everything. (Obviously it has done neither, because the old élites, the capitalist rich and the privileged, are still in power, but it has also changed everything.)

Whether we live in a cyberpunk or a postcyberpunk world, therefore, writing about these changes, whether they be informatic, biological, cybernetic, economic or social-political requires real foresight into the way the modern world works and the way we interact with it. If you have a streetwise sympathy for the underdog, a penchant for questioning conservative mores, the vision to extrapolate these changes into the future, the energy for a rock n’ roll lifestyle, and the courage to question every level of your perceived reality, then you are probably a cyberpunk, and you will probably write the kind of speculative fiction that The Future Fire is looking for.

[1] The consensus was that cyberpunk literature or film needs to have some elements of: science fictional setting; use of computer technology core to the plot (the “cyber”); preferably a dystopian or hyper-corporate society; protagonists who are anti-establishment rebels, activists, underdogs, or hackers (the “punk”). In addition to these fairly basic requirements, it was generally felt that certain settings and flavours helped set the cyberpunk theme for a piece, including: “used world”, graffiti, garbage, derelict neighborhoods, music, young protagonists, body art/modification, home-made/modded tech. Likewise some genres and settings are so strong that even if the story otherwise fit the criteria defined above, they would overshadow it and not really feel like cyberpunk (e.g. space opera: Alien and Firefly/Serenity both have cyberpunk elements, but we don’t really call them cyberpunk shows per se). It was also recognized that a lot of these features are part of our consciousness as a direct result of the “canonical” cyberpunk text, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and this is not necessarily a weakness of this definition. (Carlisle 2011)


Anonymous said...

I didn't know about the Rewired or Mirrorshades anothologies. I'd be interested in reading cyberpunk that has no computer presence. The definition is a lot broader than I realized. Do you think the Gibson style of cyberpunk was necessarily confined to the 80s? Do you think there could be a resurgence of this sort of attitude, following on the heels of the riots in London this summer? It seems like there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the status quo that has bubbled over.

Johann Carlisle said...

I think the argument of the postcyberpunks is that science fiction about computers and hackers and countercultural l33ts and phreaks today would be a very different kind of fiction than it was in the 1980s, because of the cultural environment it came from.

By the same token, then, reading Gibson, Sterling, Cadigan et al. now is no longer the same experience as reading it in the decade when computers were just starting to appear in every home, when stories about hackers were appearing in the news, when films about cracker kids almost starting nuclear war were popular. If you were an Internet user in the 1980s, you really were élite: the rest of us were wannabes.

I wonder if the future of cyberpunk is not so much on the streets of London (those kids were mostly stealing game consoles, blackberry cellphones and sports shoes, not dreaming of being hackers), but in parts of the world where information technology is still in the process of being a game changer. In these places (I'm thinking of rural India and parts of subsaharan Africa in particular, but it may be more global than that), the game changer is not the Internet, but a peer-to-peer network of cellphones and other devices that enable communication in remote areas without access to a single hub or service provider.

That's a real digital frontier, so the stories that take place out there are based on real excitement and rebellion, real punk. I look forward to reading the future of cyberpunk from authors like the Afrocyberpunk Jonathan Dotse.

Anonymous said...

The reference to London was just the mindset that sparked it, not the actions that transpired. I think people are starting to feel really squashed by the cultural elite (no doubt they've been feeling it for some time, but now it's reached the point where things are happening, people are less content to simply grumble about it), and rebellion is bound to break out.

Indeed, the days of "War Games" and 13-yr-olds hacking into mainframes are behind us. The targets of hacking will change, as you said, to be more focused on allowing communication (like when Egypt tried to squash the Blackberry service).

Djibril said...

I was meaning to raise the question of Cyberpunk by non white, male, anglo, punk types, which Johann touches on in his comment above re Jonathan Dotse's work, but it turns out that Kathryn Allan (@BleedingChrome on Twitter) has beaten me to it with this post about cyberpunk by "women, people of colour, and non-Western world writers". She makes the case that the "cyberpunk is dead" meme effectively wipes out all the exciting work in this genre by these people, the same way that Sterling wiped out a decade of great feminist science fiction by saying that there had been nothing exciting going on in between New Wave and Cyberpunk. Good stuff, worth reading. I want recommendations!

Anonymous said...

@Djibril -- Kal Cobalt's collection "Robotica" is very definitely cyberpunk but I'm trying to figure out if the author being male-identified genderqueer counts as yes or no in what you're looking for...

I published my share of cyberpunk short stories in the 1990s (most of them written in the 1980s when I was getting my degree in cognitive science...) but don't have a novel in print I can recommend to you of my own, alas.

Djibril said...

@ceciliatan: yes, a genderqueer author could be a step away from the Gibson/Sterling/Stephenson axis. Is there any LGBTQ content in his stories? (Are any of your CP stories available to read anywhere these days?)

Other titles that have been recommended elsewhere than these comments now include:

Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber
Tricia Sullivan, Maul
Laura J. Mixon, Proxies
M.H. Mead, Fate's Mirror
Melissa Scott, Trouble and Her Friends
Nicola Griffith, Slow River
Pat Cadigan, Dervish is Digital

Johann Carlisle said...

Slightly shamed by all of these fine responses and excellent suggestions, I have written a new post (on my own blog: Is Cyberpunk still Punk?) which I hope gives a better summary of what progressive social-political cyberpunk might look like.

Thanks for all the feedback. I now have a reading list ahead of me!