Cyberpunk continued – what is behind the dystopian view?

A response to a post on my SF book group about cyberpunk and the dystopian future it presented, said it was because of growing up in the 80s with the threat of nuclear holocaust hanging over their heads. That their generation didn’t believe it would last until 1990. So, hence the dystopian view.

But, curious… I was born in 1957, the year Sputnik went up, so I consider myself a child of the space age, but we were also always aware of the “nuclear” holocaust and MAD that lay just around the bend. On the Beach and Alas, Babylon were often required reading. So why did it seem affect his generation more than mine? What changed? When did the more halcyon days of the 60s and 70s (ok, there was that little war), leave for the dystopian 80s? When did Mad Max’s vision of the future appear?

The same sword hung over all of us – we had drills to lay down under our desks (along with the tornado ones), and although the bunkers in the backyards were gone, the fear was still there – the Cuban missile crisis when I was a kid, etc.

So why did they fear not making it to the 1990s? Maybe the difference lies in a little chart I found on Wiki under Nuclear Disarmament: The U.S. stockpile started 1965, and was on the slow downhill until the 80s when it started to fall, but Russia’s stocks, which we so feared as a child, didn’t go up until a peak between 1985-1990. But I was alive and just starting a family about that time, and I don’t recall being particularly concerned with nuclear “war.” SALT II was signed in 1979, so we thought it was going out.

According to the page on Gorbachev:

“On October 11, 1986, Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavík, Iceland to discuss reducing intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe … the two agreed in principle to removing INF systems from Europe and … they also essentially agreed in principle to eliminate all nuclear weapons in 10 years (by 1996),… this would culminate in the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987.”

So the nuclear proliferation was already on it’s way to being halted at that time (1985+), and with the continual slide of the Soviet economy, there was a sharp drop in nuclear arms.

The Soviet state fell in 1991, after Glasnost (liberalization, opening up) and perestroika (restructuring) were introduced around 1985.

So, if the Soviet empire was on the brink of collapse by the second half of the 1980s, why the dystopian view?

And on another note (back to the original stuff) how did William Gibson so effectively predict the WWW and the Internet, and it’s importance? Why was he the visionary? I know volumes could be written about it, and have, but I’m curious to hear from those who were young and lived through it, without the encumbrances like jobs and family that can occupy your time and attention so fully.


But more on an SF note, why the sudden infestation of the information networks, and the biocybernetic definition of “wetware,” first found in 1987:

“Vacuum Flowers is a science fiction novel by Michael Swanwick, published in 1987. It could be described as cyberpunk (some critics credit it as one of the progenitor works of that genre), and features one of the earliest uses of the concept wetware.”

“Johnny Mnenomic” was one of the first and most influential movies to visualize this form of the term.

There is also a “disconnect” I found in Wiki – a contradiction if you will. According to the Vacuum Flowers site, the novel was published in 1987, and as above, was called by some as the progenitor of cyberpunk.

But the entry for cyberpunk puts it much further back, to the early 80s, and said it was coined by Bruce Bethke as the title of his short story “Cyberpunk,” written in 1980, but not published until 1983, and that Gibson was one of the early writers with “Neuromancer” in 1984. It also states that science-fiction editor Gardner Dozois is generally acknowledged as the person who popularized the use of the term “cyberpunk” as a kind of literature, prior to Bethke’s use of it in his title.

So, when does cyberpunk really start with earnest? Blade Runner (1982) was considered to be the movie that started the cyberpunk theme for cinema. “The film is credited with prefiguring important concerns of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, such as globalization, climate change, and genetic engineering. It remains a leading example of the neo-noir genre.” It is mentioned in most cyberpunk essays and contains the essential ingredients.

There is also a class that was taught at U of Texas at Austin in 2000, “Rhetoric of the Cyberpunk,” The same department (Rhetoric and Writing – Computer Writing and Rhetoric Lab) also participates in the Second Life project at “the Alley Flat Initiative.”

I found a site that answers some of this, the Cyberpunk Project @ 1994, at site about the coinage of the term cyber + punk = cyberpunk, the author states:

“The story was titled “Cyberpunk” [1980] from the very first draft. In calling it that, Bethke was actively trying to invent a new term that grokked the juxtaposition of punk attitudes and high technology. His reasons for doing so were purely selfish and market-driven.”

“Originally the term ‘cyberpunk’ was meant to be a only character type name, meaning ‘a young, technologically facile, ethically vacuous, computer-assisted vandal or criminal.’ Nowadays the term means much more, it’s the name for whole subculture and movement.

Bethke wanted to include these notions in the term:

  1. That children have some undefined wiring which enables them to learn languages far easier than adults do, and this ability is not limited to ‘organic’ languages.
  2. That teenagers can be dangerous because they live in a sort of ethically neutral state. They haven’t got the hang of empathy yet, nor have they really grasped the linkage between their causative actions and the resulting effects.
  3. That, just as command of a language is power, technological skill is enfranchisement, and in 1980 we were 20 to 30 years away from an explosion of technology that would radically change the distribution of power in society.
  4. That parents and other adult authority figures were going to be terribly ill-equipped to deal with the first generation of teenagers who grew up ‘speaking computer.’
  5. THEREFORE, if you thought punks on motorcycles were a problem, just wait until you meet the— the— Y’know, there isn’t a good word to describe them? “

… So, words ‘cyber’ and ‘punk’ emphasize the two basic aspects of cyberpunk: technology and individualism. Meaning of the word ‘cyberpunk’ could be something like ‘anarchy via machines’ or ‘machine/computer rebel movement’. ”

There were some good links at the Cyberpunk Project site about cyberpunk and SF:

A timeline:

And the history of cyberpunk in Science Fiction:

The link to “Eighties Cyberpunk,” Barbara L. Zavala, is a basic retred (or ‘pretred’?) of what is found on the Wiki cyberpunk site, and lists the top five writers in the sub-genre: William Gibson, the subject of an earlier post, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley and Lewis Shiner. But she adds a new dimension – the declining global environment.

“In Neuromancer, Gibson uses this information in his writing and predicts a futuristic environment with quartz–halogen floods lighting up the docks, and sea gulls flying above shoals of white styro foam in Tokyo, (19). Using the negligence of present global issues to predict the outcome of futuristic environments in cyberpunk, helps establish the form of the society associated with cyberpunk.”

In “Cyberpunk in the 80s and 90s” by Tom Maddox (1992), he gives his perspective on the information age, the cyber part:

“By 1984, the year of ‘Neuromancer’s’ publication, personal computers were starting to appear on desks all over the country; computerized videogames had become commonplace; networks of larger computers, mainframes and minis, were becoming more extensive and accessible to people in universities and corporations; computer graphics and sound were getting interesting; huge stores of information had gone online; and some hackers were changing from nerds to sinister system crackers. And of course the rate of technological change continued to be rapid – which in the world of computers has meant better and cheaper equipment available all the time. So computers became at once invisible, as they disappeared into carburetors, toasters, televisions, and wrist watches; and ubiquitous, as they became an essential part first of business and the professions, then of personal life.

Meanwhile the global media circus, well underway for decades, continued apace, quite often feeding off the products of the computer revolution, or at least celebrating them. The boundaries between entertainment and politics, or between the simulated and the real, first became more permeable and then – at least according to some theorists of these events – collapsed entirely. Whether we were ready or not, the postmodern age was upon us.

In the literary ghetto known as science fiction, things were not exactly moribund, but sf certainly was ready for some new and interesting trend. Like all forms of popular culture, sf thrives on labels, trends, and combinations of them – labeled trends and trendy labels. Marketers need all these like a vampire needs blood.

This was the context in which ‘Neuromancer’ emerged.”

“Early on in this process, Gardner Dozois committed the fateful act of referring to this group of very loosely -affiliated folk as ‘cyberpunks.’ At the appearance of the word, the media circus and its acolytes, the marketers, went into gear. Cyberpunk became talismanic: within the sf ghetto, some applauded, some booed, some cashed in, some even denied that the word referred to anything; and some applauded or booed or denied that cyberpunk existed AND cashed in at the same time – the quintessentially postmodern response, one might say.

Marketing aside, however, cyberpunk had a genuine spokesman and proselytizer, Bruce Sterling, waiting in the wings. He picked up the label so casually attached by Dozois and used it as the focal point for his own concerns, which at times seem to include the outlandish project of remaking sf from within. In interviews, columns in various magazines and newspapers, and in introductions to Gibson’s collection of short stories, ‘Burning Chrome,’ and ‘Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology,’ Bruce staked out what he saw as cyberpunk and both implicitly and explicitly challenged others to contest it. If Gibson’s success provided the motor, Sterling’s polemical intensity provided the driving wheel.”

In “Cyberpunk in the 90s” by Bruce Sterling,, he states that the genre took on a life of its own, and that the 5 writers became the genre’s gurus, and that the term, although now bastardized, will not die until they are gone – it will be etched on their tombstones. But he argues for a continuation of the dystopian views:

“In the moral universe of cyberpunk, we already know Things We Were Not Meant To Know. Our grandparents knew these things; Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos became the Destroyer of Worlds long before we arrived on the scene. In cyberpunk, the idea that there are sacred limits to human action is simply a delusion. There are no sacred boundaries to protect us from ourselves.

Our place in the universe is basically accidental. We are weak and mortal, but it’s not the holy will of the gods; it’s just the way things happen to be at the moment. And this is radically unsatisfactory; not because we direly miss the shelter of the Deity, but because, looked at objectively, the vale of human suffering is basically a dump. The human condition can be changed, and it will be changed, and is changing; the only real questions are how, and to what end.

This “anti-humanist” conviction in cyberpunk is not simply some literary stunt to outrage the bourgeoisie; this is an objective fact about culture in the late twentieth century. Cyberpunk didn’t invent this situation; it just reflects it.

Today it is quite common to see tenured scientists espousing horrifically radical ideas: nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, cryonic suspension of the dead, downloading the contents of the brain… Hubristic mania is loose in the halls of academe, where everybody and his sister seems to have a plan to set the cosmos on its ear.”

“Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats. This is a hard thing to think about, but it’s the truth. It won’t go away because we cover our eyes.

This is cyberpunk.”

“Cyberpunk was a voice of Bohemia – Bohemia in the 1980’s. The technosocial changes loose in contemporary society were bound to affect its counterculture. Cyberpunk was the literary incarnation of this phenomenon. And the phenomenon is still growing. Communication technologies in particular are becoming much less respectable, much more volatile, and increasingly in the hands of people you might not introduce to your grandma.”

“But science fiction is still alive, still open and developing. And Bohemia will not go away. Bohemia, like SF, is not a passing fad, although it breeds fads; like SF, Bohemia is old; as old as industrial society, of which both SF and Bohemia are integral parts. Cybernetic Bohemia is not some bizarre advent; when cybernetic Bohemians proclaim that what they are doing is completely new, they innocently delude themselves, merely because they are young.”

“There is much bleakness in cyberpunk, but it is an honest bleakness. There is ecstasy, but there is also dread … This generation will have to watch a century of manic waste and carelessness hit home, and we know it. We will be lucky not to suffer greatly from ecological blunders already committed; we will be extremely lucky not to see tens of millions of fellow human beings dying horribly on television as we Westerners sit in our living rooms munching our cheeseburgers. And this is not some wacky Bohemian jeremiad; this is an objective statement about the condition of the world, easily confirmed by anyone with the courage to look at the facts.

These prospects must and should effect our thoughts and expressions and, yes, our actions; and if writers close their eyes to this, they may be entertainers, but they are not fit to call themselves science fiction writers. And cyberpunks are science fiction writers – not a ‘subgenre’ or a ‘cult,’ but the thing itself. We deserve this title and we should not be deprived of it.

But the Nineties will not belong to the cyberpunks. We will be there working, but we are not the Movement, we are not even ‘us’ any more. The Nineties will belong to the coming generation, those who grew up in the Eighties. All power, and the best of luck to the Nineties underground.”

So the question that remains is what of the 21st century – what or who do we belong to – where are we going? Where is Science Fiction heading – what is the hallmark of this time?


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