Once upon a time, I was a cyberpunk. Well, sort of. Something like. I guess maybe you had to be there.
The problem with artistic movements is that they tend to break up almost as soon as they are discovered. It's easy for a group of like-minded painters or poets or science fiction writers to exchange theories, flattery, condolences, cheap ethanol and sexual favors while they're young, struggling artists. It's not so easy to maintain ideological rigor and group identity once a Movement has been anointed. As soon as members acquire book contracts and mortgages and kids and ex-spouses, keeping them together is like herding cats.
So it was with the cyberpunks. In the beginning, the core cyberpunks, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker , Lewis Shiner, John Shirley and Bruce Sterling were writing buddies with compatible, if not necessarily similar, sensibilities. (Interestingly enough, while William Gibson does not appear to have an official website at the moment, he is the only cyberpunk to have his own Web Ring. As they struggled to sell their stories, the cyberpunks decided to cast themselves as literary rebels out to topple a right-wing and decadent sci-fi establishment. To announce their revolution, they published Cheap Truth , a little broadside with all the charm of barbed wire. The Cheap Truth archives still smolder with an almost toxic ambition for the goals of the Movement, as the cyberpunks liked to call themselves. As I revisit them now, these screeds read like hyperbolic satire, but in the early eighties, they drew blood. If not exactly dangerous, the cyberpunks were flamboyantly reckless, shouting defiance at an Us v. Them universe. Here's a 1984 review of Gardner Dozois's First Annual The Year's Best Science Fiction, referring to the accomplishments of "the '80's generation," written by one Vincent Omniaveritas, the pseudonymous perp of Cheap Truth:
"If these heirs-designate were dropped into a strong magnetic field, Gibson, Shiner, Sterling, Cadigan and Bear would immediately drift to one pole. Swanwick, Robinson, Kessel, Kelly, Murphy and Willis would take the other."
Although I was certainly flattered by the company Cheap Truth had put me in, I thought its rhetoric could use degaussing, so I committed a few cyberpunk stories just to prove I could. Take that, Vince! Among them was "Solstice," which appeared in these pages in June of 1985. Meanwhile, Bruce Sterling was of a mind to document the accomplishments of cyberpunk in a reprint anthology. He approached David Hartwell , one of the field's greatest editors and secret masters, with a proposal for a collection of the Movement's greatest hits, to be called Mirrorshades. David writes,
"As I recall, he had six writers (two of them collaborators of the original four) and I said that there had to be twelve to make a movement, or words to that effect. He said it would be no problem to include twelve, and so he surprised people such as James Patrick Kelly, Greg Bear, and Paul DiFilipo by making them part of the Movement and including them in Mirrorshades."
Of course, I was thrilled to have "Solstice" in such an important book. To change my literary image, I spent hours in front of the mirror with my shades on, working on a world-weary sneer. But no sooner did Mirrorshades come out than Vincent Omniaveritas killed Cheap Truth. "I hereby declare the revolution over," he wrote in the last issue. "Long live the provisional government." Many of the original cyberpunks declared the Movement was now history. Some renounced it, or at least spoke slightingly of "the c-word." Revisionists claimed that there never really had been any Movement at all and that William Gibson was the only true cyberpunk. Indeed, in his first flush of fame and fortune, William Gibson himself seemed much larger than any obscure sci-fi Movement.
Life Imitates Art
But then something strange happened. There was some careless handling of hazardous cyberpunk materials and liquid sense of wonder sloshed out of its science fiction containment. The spill of Neuromancer alone coated imaginations from Bayonne to Berkeley. William Gibson became an icon of popular culture. He put a cheesy sf neologism, cyberspace, into the freaking Oxford English Dictionary! You see, the beauty of this cyberpunk stuff was that it was the first kind of science fiction you could actually live. Nobody in his right mind expected to crew on the Starship Enterprise or jaunt back to the Jurassic, but for a thousand bucks or so you could stick your head through the screen of a PC and breath 100% pure cyberspace. And it just kept getting bigger and better and stranger every minute, like the mother of all acid trips. Indeed, Timothy Leary declared cyberspace the LSD of the eighties and formed alliances with some of the cyberpunks. A cyberpunk subculture exploded into hackers and crackers and cypherpunks and otakus and ravers and transhumans and extropians and zippies, to name but a few. This is not to say all of these groups consciously trace their cultural ancestry back to science fiction's cyberpunks -- although many of them do. But the hardware we were extrapolating in the eighties is starting to turn up in the Fetish column of Wired , which has become something like the Popular Science of cyberpunk. And some of those who helped create the net as we know it have acknowledged that they reverse engineered it from William Gibson' conception of cyberspace.
For a field guide to the real world cyberpunks and their siblings, try alt.culture, an encyclopedia of '90's youth culture. You can find more in-depth analysis at the excellent net culture archives of the Electronic Freedom Foundation . But perhaps the most comprehensive cyberpunk site on the web is something called The Cyberpunk Project. Unfortunately I cannot recommend it to you because, as I write this, it features not only pirated articles but entire novels by some of the core cyberpunks, posted without permission. I know, I know -- pirating data would seem to be a very cyberpunk thing to do. But that's always been a contradiction of cyberpunk; it's a literature with an outlaw attitude that is nonetheless a captive of its bourgeois infrastructure.
Of course, since nobody really owns the word cyberpunk, people feel free to bend it to their own purposes. Take for example, Cyberpunk 220.127.116.11 which is "The original role-playing game of the dark future; a world of corporate assassins, heavy-metal heroes and brain-burning cyberhackers, packed with cutting-edge technology and intense urban action." For a mere $599, Cyberpunk studios will design your website. "Our website packages provide you with a starting point for your Internet identity." Turnkey web packages for the Celebrity/Model/Actor are a specialty. CyberPunk Software will sell you Virtual Woman 2000, an infinitely customizable cartoon babe with a limited AI which can parse your best pickup lines. Say just the right words and VW2000 will disrobe for your viewing pleasure. Cyberpunk Services for the Internet provides "leading edge networking, hosting, programming and consulting services and transaction processing systems for the demanding needs of the business community."
Although not a commercial site, CybRpunk attempts to pass ownership of cyberpunk literature to the masses by explaining the formula for those who aspire to write the stuff. "… once you have the rudiments of speculative fiction down, cyberpunk will be easy for you." All the familiar tropes are here for the taking: the subcultures, "Drug Culture is going to figure big," the settings, "The USA is broken up into city-states, ruled by corporate dictators," the hardware, "Personal tanks will be popular," and the wetware, "Neural jacks are possible, but difficult." Webmasters Ken "Wirehead" Wronkiewicz and Marshall Motley have made a neat andthorough dissection of classic cyberpunk here; unfortunately, what they have left us with is a corpse. For by codifying the cyberpunk formula, they have stripped it of its ability to surprise. And that, for me at least, was one of its chief attractions.
The cyberpunks were no revolutionaries; instead what they accomplished was much-needed reform. There was a staleness to sf in the late seventies; the genre as a whole was thinking very hard about old news. The cyberpunks pointed me and lots of other writers at some troubling issues and bleeding edge technology; I was a better writer for it. Yes, the their attitude was a bit hard to take at times, but it was fresh in every sense of the word.
Of course, people have been claiming that cyberpunk is finished, played out, obsolete, hopelessly compromised and therefore irrelevant -- not to mention stone cold dead -- ever since our own Gardner Dozois hung the "c-word" on the Movement. And still it persists. Let me point you toward a couple of excellent sites which, while they do not sport mirrorshades, nevertheless share cyberpunk's take-no-prisoners approach to extrapolation.
Several years ago, late one night at a party at some science fiction convention or other, I found myself talking trends in the field with David Hartwell and a bunch of other writers. David opined that we needed to rethink robots and made a persuasive case that there was much new territory for us to explore. I think that he is right and that there is no better guide to this territory than Hans Moravec . Moravec is Principle Research Scientist at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie-Mellon University. He is also a visionary. I confess that I cribbed ideas like crazy from Moravec's Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (1988) for my last novel. His latest book, Robot, Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind (Oxford University Press, 1999) is essential reading for anyone who aspires to think seriously about the future. Even if you believe that he is wrong, you had better know exactly why if you want to convince anyone that you can imagine much beyond next Tuesday. If you can't raise the sixteen bucks to buy the trade paper, a close reading of his website will do almost as well. He has been extraordinarily generous here, putting not only much of his scholarly work online but also many wonderful articles slanted to the general audience as well.
Cyberpunk's great polemicist, Bruce Sterling, has grown up some, raised a lovely family, built a big house and written some of the best and most important science fiction of the late twentieth century. So what does he do for an encore? Just try to save the world by designing a new art movement, The Viridians . The Viridian Movement, of which Bruce has proclaimed himself "absolute monarch," is his attempt to bring an aesthetic to bear one of the most alarming environmental problems humanity has ever faced: global warming and the Greenhouse Effect. I am not going to try to summarize the sprawl of Bruce's Viridian thinking, which at first blush seems quirky and quixotic but which upon reflection proves to be not only relentlessly intelligent but profoundly moral. Go to the site with an open mind and spend some time in the archives and, if you see the sense in the Viridian Movement, sign up for the listserv to receive regular Viridian Notes.
Was I ever really a cyberpunk? And if I was, when did I stop being one? Many writers find it helpful to write to an audience and there was a time when I addressed some stories to the cyberpunks. Science fiction, like other kinds of creative writing, often takes on the attributes of a dialog -- or perhaps argument is the more descriptive word in this case. Once I thought I had made my point, I moved on. However, if I was never really part of the Movement, I can certainly say that cyberpunk left its mark on me. It made me a more adventurous researcher and a more rigorous extrapolator. You know, it may be just a coincidence, but as I glance back over my bibliography, I think it was about the time that the cyberpunks were in full cry that I relaxed and started having fun writing.
And I still have my mirrorshades.