Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and
speculative fiction enthusiast.
“The sky above the port was the color of a television, tuned
to the dead channel.” If ever another novel’s beginning so sets the tone for
what is to come, I’m not sure I’ve read it. This sentence, of course, is the
opening line for Neuromancer by William Gibson, the seminal cyberpunk novel. It’s hard
to believe now that it was published in 1984. I have a very distinct memory of
reading that first page. It was maybe 1988 and I was a high schooler in the
Pacific Northwest. I remember looking outside at the typically overcast sky,
and I was hooked right away. I had never read anything like it before.
There were certainly books I had encountered that dealt with
“cyberspace.” In fact, I had read Ender’s Game around the same time.
Ender’s entire experience in battle school prefigures modern gamer culture, the
internet, and even tablets to such an eerie degree that it’s equally hard to
believe that it was published in 1985. What Orson Scott Card did with those
notions, however, was much more in keeping with themes established by Golden
Age science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein—specifically military science
fiction concerning alien invasion and the human response, while quasi-fascist notions
of state control play heavily against the Libertarian ethos of individual
freedom. In his own way, Orson Scott Card charted new territory by bringing the
nascent digital age into the curriculum of the Heinlein school of military SF.
What Gibson did with cyberspace and digital networking was
far different. He didn’t bring those
futuristic concepts to an existing form of science fiction; he brought that
cutting edge to the world of noir fiction. In addition to his explorations of
cyberspace, Gibson followed concepts like urban sprawl, environmental
degradation, and privatization and corporate hegemony right into a futuristic
outlaw underworld populated by hackers, addicts, thugs, and gangsters—one and
all jacked or modded with some kind of cybernetic hardware. It was a watershed
Of course Gibson didn’t write Neuromancer in a vacuum. It goes without saying that he had several
contemporaries doing highly innovative and influential work. Readers are
probably well acquainted with works like Snow Crash and The Diamond Ageby Neal Stephenson; the early work of futurist Bruce
Sterling, which includes Schismatrix
and Islands in the Net; or even the
proto-cyberpunk work of Philip
K. Dick and J.
G. Ballard. The deep cuts, however, the writers perhaps less well known
among these pioneers of the genre are writers like John Shirley and Rudy
Conveniently, Rudy Rucker’s primary cyberpunk oeuvre, The
Ware Tetralogy, is available in an omnibus with a great introduction by
William Gibson. If there were ever any doubt about Rucker’s importance to the
genre, Gibson disabuses us of it rather blithely. The four titles (Software, Wetware, Freeware, and Realware) that compose this series are
every bit as important in forming cyberpunk as were the early works of Gibson.
But the man who put the “punk” in cyberpunk is John Shirley.
His trilogy A
Song Called Youth is also available in one electronic volume with an
excellent biographical note by Bruce Sterling that details the authenticity of Shirley’s
hold on the punk aesthetic. Shirley’s future view in these novels seems born of
the same scrap yard vistas of economic decline, Cold War pessimism, and Reagan-era
paranoia that engendered not only bands like Black
Flag, but also movies like Alex Cox’s Repo Man—the purest of anti-establishment entertainments.
Neither are strictly cyber, but both are undoubtedly punk.
In the end, perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of the
genre is the name itself. Much in the way Watergate has defined the way we
label scandals in the United States (Spygate, Whitewatergate, Lewinskygate, and
Irangate to name a few), the popularization of cyberpunk has led to countless
subgenres and movements labeled with “punk,” steampunk and mannerpunk among them,
but also lesser known “punks” like cypherpunk (of which Cryptonomicon might be the defining
novel), and the improbable medievalpunk.
Needless to say, it’s unlikely Bruce Bethke knew what the legacy of his short story title
would be. Fortunately for the literary world and beyond, he wasn’t able to
trademark cyberpunk like the insidious Pat Riley did with “three-peat.”