I was listening to Fangs and Fonts’ most recent podcast on cyberpunk, and—
Okay, let me back up. “Fangs and Fonts” is a podcast about writing, hosted by four writers in (and out of) furry fandom: Roland Ferret, Yannarra, Tarl “Voice” Hoch and Ocean. So far the episodes have mostly come across as structure-free conversations about a given topic. There’s a lot of spontaneity and liveliness to it, although I suspect they’d benefit from spending an hour or so before recording making a list of Things To Cover.
Anyway. While it was fun listening in on the conversation, my impression was that none of the four hosts had read much of the genre past the Wikipedia entry. They’d seen movies with cyberpunk tropes to varying degrees, but… well. There’s no way to say this without an implied tsk tsk, but you guys, it’s a writing podcast!
So let me back up more. Specificially, to the early ’80s.
It’s pretty easy to discern the cyber of cyberpunk: ubiquitous networking that lets us always be “jacked in” to a sprawling virtual reality while also letting corporations and governments, which all too often seem to be one and the same, track us for a variety of purposes both nefarious and benign. But what about the punk? Well, it meant… punk. An anti-authoritarian, alienated and disaffected counterculture that neither fits in with the dominant culture nor has much interest in doing so. Heroes in cyberpunk weren’t necessarily punks—or necessarily heroic—but they tended to have a very edge-of-society vibe.
The problem with focusing almost exclusively on the cinematic aspect of cyberpunk is that you miss that the “punk” element wasn’t just in the relationship of the fictional characters to their settings. It was in the relationship of the writers to mainstream science fiction. William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker—they were very deliberately responding to the more utopian, and by then rather dated, science fiction of the 1950s and before, the Heinleins and Clarkes and Asimovs.
Thematically, cyberpunk had little in common with the “New Wave” of science fiction of the late 1960s and early 70s, the works of Michael Moorcock and Thomas Disch and J. G. Ballard—but stylistically, it’s pretty much a direct descendant. As Moorcock wrote rather snippishly, science fiction lacked “passion, subtlety, irony, original characterization, original and good style, a sense of involvement in human affairs.”
When we think about cyberpunk today, we mostly think about the visual trappings, the stuff that does look good on film—but those weren’t at all the point. A lot of these stories and novels were, in oft-bitter and backhanded fashion, deeply socially conscious. They had shit to say, and what’s more, they wanted to say it beautifully. The opening sentence of Neuromancer has become one of the most famous in science fiction:
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
Of course, the New Wave of science fiction doesn’t seem much less dated now than what it railed against, and the same is true of cyberpunk. (Bruce Sterling declared it dead as long ago as 1985.) Its aesthetics were assimilated into the mainstream long ago, and the very act of mainstreaming guts any legitimate claims to counterculture, rather like buying a Dead Kennedys tee at Hot Topic. But its treatment of technology, of dystopia, of the contentious relationship between individual freedom, corporate power and state control had a tremendous and lasting influence on science fiction. Yes, cyberpunk might have said “put on this black overcoat and these sunglasses and you’ll look awesome, trust me,” but it also said “science fiction is relevant not just as meditations on our possible long-term futures, but as a mirror to show us things about our here and now.
And that’s stuff that—mostly—didn’t come along for the ride when the glasses and overcoats went to Hollywood.
If you’re interested in reading more seminal cyberpunk stuff, here’s a few things to potentially investigate:
- Cyberpunk: Stories of Hardware, Software, Wetware, Evolution, and Revolution, an anthology that includes work by Sterling, Gibson, Cadigan, and others. Since Sterling’s original anthology Mirrorshades is long out of print, this is pretty much the collection to get for a broad overview of the important writers.
- Neuromancer, William Gibson. Poetic and bleak, with memorable characters and a striking take on artificial intelligence, this was the first novel to win the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick Awards, and has been cited as one of the most important novels—not just science fiction novels, but novels, period—of the twentieth century’s latter half.
- Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson. The main character is Hiro Protagonist, who delivers pizza for the Mafia in an armored supercar as his day job and is a warrior in the Metaverse by night. Either you already want to read it or I can’t help you. (The Metaverse as depicted here was a pretty direct influence on Second Life.)
For movies/TV, there are some interesting ones the Fangs & Fonts Folks touched on—especially Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix (the first one) and, of course, Blade Runner—but I’d also suggest the underrated Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), and—if you can find it—the short-lived cult TV series “Max Headroom.”