This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Years ago, in my review of Mirrorshades, Bruce Sterling’s allegedly definitive cyberpunk anthology, I opined that the cyberpunk movement, as Sterling defined it, didn’t exist. I still stand by that, but only because Sterling was using a definition of cyberpunk cobbled together in the heat of the moment, when the movement was in full swing, and it’s naturally easier to characterise it in hindsight. Nobody appointed me the grand arbiter of what is and is not cyberpunk, but I’m going to offer some ideas anyway:
- Cyberpunk is about the little people. It is focused tightly not on the movers and shakers of the world, or the inventors who come up with grand new technologies, but on the ordinary people who manipulate and exploit those technologies for their own ends. The more rich and powerful a character in cyberpunk fiction is, the more likely they are to be a villain, or at the very least coldly unsympathetic.
- Cyberpunk is pessimistic. Technological progress might help the interests of corporations or nation-states, but people often end up grist in the mill. The advancements presented often don’t make life better; at best, they just make it stranger. Characters may adapt to the presence of these technologies, and even specialise in exploiting them, but at the end of the day a hit man is still a hit man no matter how many weapons you implant in him.
- Cyberpunk isn’t about changing the world. Deckard might take down the replicants in Blade Runner, but he doesn’t blow up the Nexus-6 manufacturing plant. The consequences of technological advancement are there, for good or ill, and characters in cyberpunk fiction must cope with it as best they can.
- Cyberpunk is set in today, turned up to 11. Computer networks, corporations overruling national governments, cyberspace, and a heap of other tropes of cyberpunk fiction are all a consequence of authors taking the social trends they see around them in their present day and extrapolating them forwards, rather than speculating about the social impact of entirely novel trends and ideas. For example, in his classic early 1980s works William Gibson didn’t speculate about the spaceships we’ll have in 500 years time, he speculated about the sort of computer networking technology we’d have about now. (Incidentally, this is why it’s difficult-to-impossible to write genuinely compelling 80s-style cyberpunk fiction today; if you’re looking backwards and trying to imitate the style of earlier authors and draw on their speculations, you’re inherently deviating from their forward-looking approach.)
- Cyberpunk wants to look cool. Sometimes it succeeds, sometimes it doesn’t, but much cyberpunk fiction is brash, stylish, and tries its best to be down with the kids (or at least look capable of walking into a tough bar in the wrong part of town and not get hassled). This ties in partially with the focus on the working classes and criminal underclasses of the societies cyberpunk explores, and partially with a desire on the part of the authors not to sound like stuffy old intellectuals. Hence the “punk”.
The cyberpunk movement – in the sense of an identifiable collection of authors all semi-consciously the same model – was a phenomenon of the 1980s, but it wasn’t without its predecessors. Philip K. Dick was concerned with the little people, but his ideas tended to be inspired not by current social and technological trends so much as they burst screaming and howling from the drug-fucked hellhole of his subconscious mind. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty is a grim vision of corporations operating out of modern-day castles lording it over the rest of the world, but focuses a bit too much on the corporate executives themselves.