I’ve been fretting and procrastinating over another definition I’m writing for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, you see, this one’s on cyberpunk (the genre) and I’ve never published a thing on cyberpunk. Except for a hastily written definition I sent to the Narrative mailing list a few months ago when someone said “what’s cyberpunk?” That definition is why I was asked to write the encyclopedia entry – an editor of the encyclopedia happened to read it, you see. Today I’ve started reading the pile of books I got from the library about cyberpunk, and now that I’ve actually opened them I’ve discovered it’s fascinating stuff, and I’ve read almost all the books they’re talking about too. Better yet, I went and found the definition I posted to the mailing list, and do you know what? It’s pretty damn good for a hasty, informal definition:

Cyberpunk is a kind of science fiction which is set in a nearish future where the world is totally wired. It started (I believe) with William Gibson’s mid-eighties novel Neuromancer, in which the word “cyberspace” was first used. In typical cyberpunk worlds nation states are extinct and instead corportations (like Disney, Microsoft, Nike, Nokia) or sects or racial or ideological groupings have divided the world between them. I guess the -punk is because the protagonists are often skateboarding streetkids who in addition are wired, wear enhanced reality glasses and are brilliant (often morally good) hackers. The worlds are usually both utopic (there is definitely an enjoyment of technology here) and dystopic (extreme poverty, corruption, evil etc). Famous authors include William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling.

Obviously this will need editing and I’ll be adding references, origins, context, a mention of the gothic influence and so on but it’s an excellent start. It’s 144 words already and the maximum is 500, which includes references. That’s not much. And oh, I’m just so relieved at discovering (to my surprise) that I’m not such a fraud as I’d thought I was.

12 thoughts on “fraud no more

  1. Thomas

    In the last issue of Wired Neal Stephenson declared Cyberpunk dead. His arguments are convincing and that really saddens me as it is my favorite subgenre in Science Fiction. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/history.html
    Torbj¯rn Moen writes pretty good cyberpunk for young adults (in norwegian only) http://home.online.no/~tmoen/

  2. Dennis G. Jerz

    That’s pretty good for such quick work! This area isn’t my specialty, but besides the race/ethnicity issues, is it worth mentioning that cyberpunk technology often comes with a pseudo-religious/spiritual aura? And maybe something about the tension between the reasoned anti-technology philosophy of peripheral characters… that small group of characters who choose to reject technology is often a mirror/analaogy of the small groups in today’s society who embrace technology with just as much passion.

    I realize the audience for an encyclopedia of narratology will have its own interests, but it might also be worth noting the retro, noir feel of much the technology and setting (influenced by Metropolis and the 1982 Blade Runner movie).

    What else deserves mention… ecocide, class, and explorations of race/postcolonialism (often via Robots, cyborgs, mutants, etc. standing in for the racial “other”). Androgynity and gender-bending… dark humor… influnces from the visual narrative of comic books… Do you want to dignify “Steam Punk” with a reference?

    Is it fair to say that in cyberpunk, the “other” is usually a form of altered humanity, rather than an alien visitor or extra-terrestrial race? Is it fair to say that this is a fairly realistic form of SF, in that it does not expect us to swallow the presence of extra-terrestrials or faster-than-light travel? It might be useful to read the encyclopedia’s definition of SF.

  3. Jill

    Oh, wonderful, there’s heaps here, thanks, Dennis! The cyberpunk theory I’ve been reading all stresses that cyberpunk is far more concerned with the present than most earlier science fiction is. This follows on from the New Wave in science fiction in the fifties (Brian Aldiss keeps getting mentioned here). So instead of being about deep space travel or time machines cyberpunk takes issues that are important today (politics, the environment, multi-national cooperations, technology, obviously) and uses these – so, yes, realism.

    Thomas, I’m so glad I’ve just read Bruce Sterling’s rebuttal of Lewis Shiner’s 1990 declaration of the death of cyberpunk. Having read that I can sound like an authority when I say cyberpunk is regularly declared dead but seems to be thriving. Interesting, actually, that Shiner, one of hte original cyberpunk writers, declared the genre dead after ten years. Stephenson started writing cyberpunk ten years later and ten years after starting (more or less) also declares it dead. Perhaps it takes about ten years of being identified with a genre to get thoroughly sick of it?

  4. charlie

    I’ve always liked this paragraph from the alt.cyberpunk FAQ which is quoted extensively on the web (from a mirror):

    “Cyberpunk literature, in general, deals with marginalized people in technologically-enhanced cultural “systems”. In cyberpunk stories’ settings, there is usually a “system” which dominates the lives of most “ordinary” people, be it an oppresive government, a group of large, paternalistic corporations, or a fundamentalist religion. These systems are enhanced by certain technologies (today advancing at a rate that is bewildering to most people), particularly “information technology” (computers, the mass media), making the system better at keeping those within it inside it. Often this technological system extends into its human “components” as well, via brain implants, prosthetic limbs, cloned or genetically engineered organs, etc. Humans themselves become part of “the Machine”. This is the “cyber” aspect of
    cyberpunk.”

  5. Dennis G. Jerz

    10 years to get sick of a genre… or to run out of marketable ideas in it? Interesting thought.

  6. Alex

    I took a cyberpunk slant in one of my introductory courses at UW, having them read a handfull of books and stories alongside Wired-esque stuff and more grounded social lit. First day website:

    http://project.cyberpunk.ru/ (though it didn’t used to be .ru…)

  7. Anonymous

    It’s been a long time since I was interested in cyberpunk (my Masters supervisor initiated the alt.cyberpunk newsgroup while a student and he turned me on to Gibson inter alia) but I recall that Gibson was certainly not the first cybperpunk author. I’m not sure why I think this but I remember reading Shockwave Rider (by John Brunner) as the earliest (or perhaps last proto-) cybperunk narrative.

    I am a big Gibson fan (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read Count Zero) but I think that he is too often cited for things he did not do. He did coin the term cyberspace but the concept came earlier from Vernor Vinge and Gibson gives Vinge credit (albeit subtlely, in Neuromancer) and then puns on that credit and his own fame in Count Zero.

    As for a definition of cybperpunk: if anyone can explain to me the connection between Rudy Rucker’s Houdini story in the Mirrorshades cyberpunk collection and any of Gibson’s novels I’d be grateful. I don’t see the relationship at all.

    If you are looking for particularly interesting examples of cyberpunk then I recommend the Guru of News (you can find it at http://www.netfunny.com/rhf/jokes/91q1/ozpunk.html)
    and Neil Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash. Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is also rather well known in hypertext circles.

  8. charlie

    Vernor Vinge’s True Names (1981) is a great read 🙂

  9. nickm

    “cyberpunk is far more concerned with the present than most earlier science fiction is”? It seems to me like almost all science fiction, including that about the far future, time travel, and deep space exploration, is very concerned with the present, more than any other genre is, perhaps. What are these people of the future doing in deep space if not playing out early Cold War scenarios and confronting a wave of increasing computerization (perhaps in the form of humanoid robots rather than industrial robots and mainframe computers)? I suspect that’s the real reason that “golden age” science fiction seems so dated – not because of the clunky technologies that are portrayed, but because of the outdated political concerns that are central. Cyberpunk just deals more explicitly with the present by being set in the near future.

    By the way, other “-punk” genres include not only steampunk but (in horror) splatterpunk and (in fantasy) elfpunk. Google if you think I’m making this up.

  10. Dennis G. Jerz

    Point well taken. I should have specified “near-future setting.” When I was at U.Va., E.D. Hirsch was fond of pointing out that Arisophanes’ The Frogs wasn’t about frogs, it was about contemporary society.

    Elfpunk… wow!

  11. Jill

    Aahz’s law: The best way to get information on Usenet is not to ask a question, but to post the wrong information. (alt.culture.usenet FAQ)

  12. George Kelly

    @spin Also perhaps useful: http://jilltxt.net/?p=327

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