Defining Cyberpunk

There are competing claims about the origins of the term "cyberpunk": according to John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (s.v. "Gibson") the term originated as the title of a short story by Bruce Bethke in the November, 1983 issue of Amazing. Gardner Dozois then used the title to describe near-future SF focused on heavily-computerized global economic culture with a strong popular-culture ambience. The most-quoted description of cyberpunk is found in Bruce Sterling's "Preface" to Mirrorshades (the full preface is available from The Cyberpunk Project):

Science fiction - at least according to its official dogma - has always been about the impact of technology. But times have changed since the comfortable era of Hugo Gernsback, when Science was safely enshrined - and confined - in an ivory tower. The careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control.

For the cyberpunks, by stark contrast, technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.

Technology itself has changed. Not for us the giant steam- snorting wonders of the past: the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, the nuclear power plant. Eighties tech sticks to the skin, responds to the touch: the personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens. (Sterling xiii-xiv)

Characters in cyberpunk fiction adopt the surface attributes associated with the popular culture movement known as punk, but its characters are accomodationists. The "Panther Moderns," the group that creates a diversion during the "run" to retrieve the ROM construct of Dixie Flatline, are one apparently oppositional exception, but there is little beyond transient excitement in their action. For all its "punk" sensibilities, "cyberpunks" do not rebel as did the "real" punks; they accept and negotiate their world. According to Inge Erickson in her Foundation article, "The Aesthetics of Cyberpunk," information is the lifeblood of cyberpunk (40); one might add that information is simply a commodity to be traded, preferably outside official channels.

John Clute, in The Cambridge Guide to Science Fiction uses the term "noir" to characterize cyberpunk. Cyberpunk does not try to explicate or illuminate the changes in corporate technological life that change "daily routine" for industrialized world; instead, it takes changes as given and hegemonic (67). For Clute, the opposite of cyberpunk is "heroic/humanist" SF (73). In Carol McGuirk's essay "The New Romancers..." in Fiction 2000, "noir" is not dystopia, since it does not focus on reform or even on analysis (118); nor is it satire, since satire uses human malaise as a metaphor for societal malaise. SF noir uses social malaise as a metaphor for character malaise (119), yielding damaged characters such as Alfred Bester's Gully Foyle in The Stars My Destination or Case and his "team" in Neuromancer.

Despite Sterling's Mirrorshades "manifesto," and despite the seminal influence of Gibson's Neuromancer and the works of Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Louis Shiner, Melissa Stone, and others, cyberpunk never quite constituted a movement. The title of the preface to Pat Cadigan's historical anthology The Ultimate Cyberpunk is "Not a Manifesto"--a useful corrective. The Cadigan anthology is also useful for its historical positioning of cyberpunk; these stories are the literary "ancestors" of cyberpunk fiction. The inclusion of James Tiptree, Jr. further reminds readers that cyberpunk stems from the writings of both female and male SF writers, a point emphasized by Samuel R. Delany in his essay, "'Some Real Mothers...': the SF Eye Interview" (173).


Defining SF
Defining Cyberpunk
SF and Postmodernism
The Motifs of Cyberpunk
A Short Bibliography

Amelia A. Rutledge
English Department
Updated 1/17/2005