Cyberpunk as Literature: Shattered Reflections of a Post-Modern Future.
By Jason Conrad Teague


Once upon a time there was a society that did not know itself. It had known itself once, when it had been modern. When everything had fit. When everybody agreed on everything. All was in harmony, or so it had seemed. But slowly it had lost its homogeneity and had fractured into a multitude of subcultures, all of which seemed to contradict one another. There were the yuppies, the alternatives, the rednecks, the intellectuals, the liberals, the conservatives, the Socialists, the Nazis, the skinheads, the punks, the hippies, and many many more. There were so many different groups that no one could seem to agree on anything, and the people became very confused. So they looked to the past. They cut it up, rearranged it, deconstructed it, and reworked it. They took the modern and created the postmodern.


Postmodernism is now a well established and documented cultural fact that has been argued over for at least the past two decades, and should be of keen interest to the literary critic today. Defining such a term and how it relates to literature, though, is at best difficult and at worst totally useless due to the anarchistic nature of postmodernism. Postmodernism, on the surface, encompasses many different and often contradictory ideas.

In no other genre of fiction are the postmodernist ideals for literature expressed better than in the sub-genre of science fiction, cyberpunk. This relatively recent offshoot of science fiction, has come into its own with its recognition as a form of postmodernist writing. Yet cyberpunk is as difficult to define as postmodernism, because like postmodernism, cyberpunk has many different individuals contributing to an uncentralized and unmanifested concept. One must, then, look not for simple one line definitions of the term, but instead try to gain an understanding of it through thorough examination and exploration of the concept. By looking at the fiction, interviews and essays by the leading authors in this genre, and tying this into the postmodern context, one can more accurately and substantially comprehend the term cyberpunk and hopefuly come to a better understanding of postmodernism.



"The future isn't what it used to be!" - Arthur C. Clarke

In the late 1970's a new kind of music burst onto the scene which has had a profound effect on western popular culture. Punk Rock comes out of the back streets of London, and although loosely based on the Rock-a-billy tradition, the same style that produced the Beatles, its ferocity of tone and lyrics set it apart from previous music. Punk Rock groups, in general, preached Anarchy and individuality in violent and rebellious songs. Groups such as The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Ruts, scream their music to audiences who are tired of hearing how great the world is, when they can look around them and see the truth. These groups, wrote Griel Marcus,

made music so brutal, haphazard, or obscene that airplay was out of the question. Given that the normal channels of pop communication were irrelevant, all restrictions on what could go into a record or a performance, on what a record could sound like or what a performance could look like were forgotten.

These new musicians ignored all the conventions of pop music, and instead sang and played staccato lyrics and beats designed not to entertain but to irritate. Coming quick and sharp they gave little time for digestion before another round would hit.

Many writers of the late 1970's pick up this style and begin to write science fiction stories with the same jarring feeling that punk rock music gives. It is highly debatable as to whether these writers do this consciously or not, but the term cyberpunk is conceived to describe these new authors and their abrasive stories. In the introduction to his anthology Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, Bruce Sterling, one of the innovators of the sub-genre, reflects on this term,

This movement was quickly recognized and given many labels: Radical Hard SF, the Outlaw Technologists, the Eighties Wave, the Neuromantics, the Mirrorshades Group.

But of all the labels pasted on and peeled throughout the early Eighties, one stuck: cyberpunk.

Thus, "cyberpunk" - a label none of them {the writers of cyberpunk} chose. But the term now seems a fait accompli, and there is a certain justice in it. The term captures something crucial to the work of these writers, something crucial to the decade as a whole: a new kind of integration. The overlapping of words that were formerly separate: the realm of high tech, and the modern pop underground. (xi)

This "overlapping" of ideas is crucial to the success of cyberpunk, as it shows that science fiction needs not be unrelated to our daily existence. The term then defines the sub-genre, and it is the rebelliousness that it represents against traditional science fiction that attracts a whole new generation of readers and writers to its flag, "The point of the cyberpunk argument," argues one writer," is that this old technofuture is a flabby, outmoded idea, one that makes for boring science fiction because it's based on an old-fashioned dream of the future and therefore obscures our view of the burgeoning dystopia we're inhabiting right now". Cyberpunk can directly deal with our culture, and its immediate future. This subgenre is a bringing together of the cyber, referring to the technology used to artificially augment the human body and human abilities, with the popular culture and social ideas found in punk rock and roll music.

No idea can come from only one source, and cyberpunk does not merely evolve directly from science fiction. Instead, it derives its style from a verity of literary sources, and it seems that, almost surprisingly so, one of those chief sources would be the detective novel genre, especially those written in the 1920's. In an interview conducted by Larry McCaffery, William Gibson, considered the father of cyberpunk, comments on Dashiell Hammett, famous for his creation of the character Sam Spade in the novel The Maltese Falcon;

I remember being very excited about how he had pushed all this ordinary stuff until it was different - like American naturalism but cranked up, very intense, almost surreal. You can see this in the beginning of The Maltese Falcon, where he describes all the things in Spade's office. Hammett may have been the guy who turned me onto superspecificity.

Novels such as those by Hammett and his contemporaries, portray raw details, giving an almost hyper or paranoid awareness of what is happening in the story.

This "superficialness" is what writers like Gibson pick up on, and use. Dialogue is kept short and punchy, with incomplete sentences trying to capture more accurately normal human speech. In this selection from Hammett's The Maltese Falcon the reader is presented with a phone conversation between Sam Spade and an unknown caller. The reader does not know who is calling or why, and we are only privileged enough to hear Spade's end of the conversation, "Hello... Yes, this is Spade... Yes, I got it, I've been waiting to hear from you... Who?... Mr. Gutman? Oh, yes, sure!... Now - the sooner the better... Twelve C... Right. Say fifteen minutes... Right.". On the one hand, this dialogue sounds trite and meaningless, empty of deeper content, since, unlike the modernist writers, who also attempt to represent realistic human speech in writing, we never see the thoughts or conscience behind the words; but the problem is that in real human communication there often is not anything deeper than what is being said. Writers like Hammett present the reader with an ultra real surface, with the events, nothing more than you would get than if you were actually standing in the room with the characters. Rather than attempting to analyze events and actions for the reader, the reader is left to puzzle through the characters motives just as in "real" life. Many cyberpunk writers also work at this surface level, allowing the reader a more active role in character development than in the modernist novels, since the reader judges the characters not upon their intentions, for which the reader has only the narrator to interpret, but upon their actions, which are left to the the reader to interpret.


The Fall of Western Civilization: The Cyberpunk Years

"Puttin' on the Ritz" - ?

Cyberpunk quite defiantly creates a niche all its own through its writers' innovative use of language and embracing of popular culture. Cyberpunk stands out from other forms of science fiction due to its unique vocabulary, its "slang", which the uninitiated often find difficult to understand. Cyberpunk stories often concern themselves with images and facades: the mystique. This might come across as trite and superficial, but what the writers are trying to get to are the substances within a superficial world.

The people who populate the dark urban sprawl cities of the future, who are caught in the cogs of an immense world machine, follow trends and fashion as if their lives depend on it because there lives often do. Cyberpunk writers are fascinated by popculture as a skill, not just popular culture as a topic of academic interest, "In pop culture, practice comes first; theory follows limping in its tracks," writes Bruce Sterling. They explore the immediacy of the latest trends; and in cyberpunk trends and fashions are indistinguishable. They pass so quickly that it is a full time job just keeping up with them. In his short story "Freezone," John Shirley explores a society in its different fads, and how these fads conflict with one another. There are two "crowds" in this story vying for popularity: the Minimonos, who are rising in popularity, and the Flares whose popularity is waning,

The Minimono crowd wore their hair long, fanned out between the shoulders and narrowing to a point at the crown of the head, and straight, absolutely straight, stiff, so from the back each head had a black or gray or red or white tepee-shape. Those, in monochrome, were the only acceptable colors. Flat tones and no streaks. Their clothes were stylistic extensions of their hairstyles. Minimono was a reaction to Flare. And to the chaos of the war, and the war economy. The Flare style was going, dying.

These fleeting fashions also reflect the immediacy of life in these stories because fashions come and go as quickly as the people.

One of cyberpunk's chief characteristics is the portrayal of life in the future as a cheap commodity. In a way, they present the immediate future (the next 50-100 years) as being parallel to the Dark Ages, or to the fall of the Roman Empire, with society corroding from within and without. So what is left to a society that had been the greatest ever produced? America is typically represented as a kind of decadent playhouse, and all that remains is the flash of neon lights in a smoke filled night, and the apathy of a people destroying themselves. Tough attitudes and tribal instincts take over from organized society.

Although the future in the majority of cyberpunk writings is a dark and stygian place, which at face value seems like nothing more than a twisted view of today's worst social and economic problems, at its heart, cyberpunk retains a kind of romanticism about it, but a romanticism with razor blades and silcon chips attached: a "Neuromantacism" (Glazer 160-161). The worlds of cyberpunk are places were danger is a daily necessity of life, where everyone lives in a constant state of mild paranoia. The protagonists in these stories are rarely heroes, and are far more likely to be anti-heroes. There is no line between good and evil, and the valorous are eaten for breakfast. In the short story "Spook," the protagonist is a hired mercenary who is sent out to "save the world" from a group of "crack pots" who are trying to get back to nature in an extreme way. But the reader is given insight into the mercenary's true feelings: "Talk of loyalties and ideologies bored him. He cared very little for Synthesis [the company hiring him] and its ambitious efforts to unite the planet under one cybernetic-economic web" (Sterling 167). These are worlds of adventure and intrigue, where governments and corporations wage unseen wars by computer, and the "little guy" can get a "piece of the action" if s/he has the right connections.

Within this social disintegration, a new world power arises: the "multicorp". The idea of huge corporations that almost replace the need for a central government plays heavily in cyberpunk, and it is not as abstract a concept as might be thought. We see around us today companies taking on more and more functions outside of their traditional roles: providing health service for their employees, keeping large security forces, etc... Leveraged buy outs, mergers, hostile takeovers are buzz words that are quite commonplace, but what happens when these corporations grow out of all proportions and become powers unto themselves? Will it become the new basis for society, with patriotism related to corporate status? There is no doubt that the corporations of today will continue to grow, but it is the role of science fiction to attempt to predict where these trends in growth might lead. One possibility put forth by Bruce Sterling in his novel Islands In the Net is of a democratically controlled corporation, where all of the employees actually vote on who their chairpersons will be.


Man V. Machine

"Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto." - STYX

Information, data, controls our lives. From our bank account to the prices at the grocery store, to personal records, to the type of pizza we order from Domino's (which does keep records of such things), data is constantly being sorted and sifted through. The data about us defines, and in many ways, controls us. It is only the easy access to information, via computer, that allows credit cards to function as they do. And with the future, data will become power, according to the cyberpunk authors. A new bread of pirates will plunder the stocks of data. Corporations will higher net runners to infiltrate their competitors systems, to steal and destroy them, and plant computer viruses. Wars will be fought through modems and over telephone lines, all by computers with their human interfaces.

Computers become more and more sophisticated every year. It seems that as computers decrease in size they increase in capability, such that by the time the cutting edge is established it is already outdated and outmoded. One of these cutting edge technologies is artificial intelligence, trying to make a machine "think". Thinking machines have been a favored topic in science fiction almost since its advent. What happens when the machines begin to replace the humans, when we create our own superiors, and they bite the hand that feeds them.

There have been many examples of androids (robots that can look and act like humans), especially in the cinema, that turn on their human masters: The Terminator, in which a computer gains sentience and decides to annihilate the world population, In Blade Runner (movie version) there are several androids who are dissatisfied with their limited life span and try to force their creator to extend it, and Alien has an android programmed with a secret mission that supersedes any programing against killing humans. All of these movies fall into a cinematic form of cyberpunk, with dark and oppressive scenery of crumbling cities and tacky housing projects, technology being used not for good or evil but simply being used: a distopic view of the future. These movies actually result from the literary movement.

The cyberpunk tradition often will use androids as slaves, and explore the ethics of slavery from a new angle. These machines have been made artificially intelligent and yet are still bout and sold. Displeased with the way humans are running things, much as a young child might dislike the way their parents treat them, they decide to take control, only these children are far "superior" to their parents, physically and mentally. Of course this idea is easily traced to Mary Shelly's Frankenstien, the major difference being that in her novel the monster lost.

This is not to say that all intelligent computers are going to end up blood thirsty maniacs. In Mona Lisa Overdrive we see androids and computer generated holographic images entering into strange friendships with human beings. In this scene a young girl, Kumiko, is traveling to London, and her father has sent along a computer that uses a hologram to communicate with its user:

The ghost woke to Kumiko's touch as they began their descent into Heathrow {airport}. The fifty-first generation of Maas-Neotek biochips conjured up an indistinct figure on the seat beside her, a boy out of some faded hunting print, legs crossed casually in tan breeches and riding boots. "Hullo," the ghost said.

But however these new intelligent "life" forms are represented, they do question what humanity is by allowing us to play god and create them "in our own image", thus making them a reflection of the extremes of good and evil in human kind.


What The! Part 1.








- The Sex Pistols


Whatever the future holds it is important that we see that its seeds are sown around us today, and that science fiction authors, especially those writing cyberpunk, are merely following these lines to their logical, although often exaggerated, conclusions. Cyberpunk has at its heart a dark view of the future. The societies in them have already destructed, for whatever reason whether social, political, economic, or military. Either this or the people of the society in the midst of collapsing under their own lethargy and stagnation. The inhabitants rut through the decay to find what is left to live for in a society that has given up on itself. Cyberpunk is a bringing together of the "armogedon" futures of the sixtiess with the "technology will save us" veiws of the fifties, leaving worlds that, although seeming bleak and hopeless, are still filled with marvels beyond imagining.

WHAT THE? Part 2.

"Hell of a world we live in, huh? But it could be worse, huh?"

"That's right , or even worse, it could be perfect."

- The Gernsback Continuum

Whether cyberpunk can continue as the rebellious sub-genre it was in the early 1980's, especially in light of the recent attention placed on it, is unsure. Many feel that the sub-genre is already dead, killed by its own unadaptability to new world problems.

Cyberpunk is the fulfillment of postmodernism within the narrow confines of the science fiction genre. But if both postmodernism and cyberpunk are understandable and definable terms, does this mean that culture has moved on, and if so where are we now? Some of the most recent work to come from recognized cyberpunk authors might shed some light on this. In Islands in the Net, Bruce Sterling creates a world that is out of the cyberpunk mold. Gone are the dark and sinister mega-cities and video junkies. Instead the world is in the midst of unifying. And instead of looking at the problems of the entirety of humanity, such as modernism did, or the problems of the individual, like post modernism, we are faced with the problems of the community.

-- Jason Conrad Teague

Post Script

Note: The image from the cover of William Gibson's Virtual Light is used here without the permission of the copyright holder and publisher, Bantam Books. If the copyright holder has a problem with this form of free advertising, we invite you to contact Circuit Traces.

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