The Rise and Crash of the Cyberpunk Hype Train, 1984-1995
I think most neoreactionaries give cyberpunk too much credit for originating ideas. For example, some Gibson fans think that Gibson was the first guy to imagine a world run by corporations rather than nation-states. Talking about the Tannehills’ Market for Liberty is one way to address that kind of notion.
I noticed that neoreactionaries talk about cyberpunk a lot, so I thought I would fill up the menu with essays like this one:
The Rise and Crash of the Cyberpunk Hype Train, 1984-1995
From the days when the Hollywood gangsters stole Thomas Edison’s movie projector, to the days when international conglomerates constructed artificial marketing personas known as “rock stars” and “movie stars,” the 20th century was dominated by centralized, for-profit media. The gangsters who ran these bandit empires delighted in using hype and propaganda to exploit their customers. Cyberpunk was one of the last big cultural trends to exist in this atmosphere of centralized hype.
The exact origins of cyberpunk can be debated. Cyberpunk societies often feature some version of polycentric order and anarcho-capitalism, but Tannehill and Tannehill’s Market for Liberty (1969) is not a cyberpunk work. Neither Arthur C. Clarke’s biots in Rendezvous with Rama (1972) and the synthetic humanoids in Alien (1979) were cyberpunk, but both foreshadowed Blade Runner‘s replicants. Delany’s invasive neural sockets are an essential gimmick of cyberpunk, and Delany’s sexually provocative characters fit with cyberpunk, but Delany’s works were not cyberpunk. Brunner’s Shockwave Rider lacked many stereotypes of cyberpunk, such as invasive neuron-to-digital sockets, but it is either a hugely important proto-cyberpunk book, or else it is the first cyberpunk book. The term “Cyberpunk” was the title of a 1980 story which had villain protagonists, but lacked the essential gimmicks of cyberpunk.
Computers were glamorized in non-cyberpunk films such as Tron(1982) and War Games(1983). After Blade Runner (1982), the mass media hype train was searching for a messiah to anoint (in order to feed the centralized dream factory) and they found him in the person of William Gibson. In my opinion, Gibson never was a very good writer, but for whatever reason, he is the god-emperor of cyberpunk. In Western discussions of cyberpunk, Gibson is typically assigned disproportionate importance.
As the 1980s progressed, various nonfiction works influenced technology. In 1984, the paper magazine 2600 offered a few hints on security engineering for computers and landline telephones. In 1986, Drexler’s Engines of Creation prepared a hype train for optimism about nanotech. In 1988, Timothy C. May published the Cryptoanarchist Manifesto to groups of self-proclaimed “hackers” and “cypherpunks.” The growing number of amateur computer geeks who wanted to be hackers inspired Bruce Sterling to celebrate the potential of cryptography for libertarian societies in Islands in the Net.
Sterling’s contributions were many; in particular, Mirrorshades (1986) and Islands in the Net (1988) blazed some very optimistic trails in the angsty gloom of the cyberpunk hypestorm. Sterling initially presented a world that had room for individual freedom and libertarian self-expression. In particular, Islands in the Net stressed cryptoanarchist ideas, such as the use of cryptography for data havens. However, in 1990, the USA conducted Operation Sun Devil, a totalitarian act of brutality masquerading as law enforcement. The law enforcers caused a great deal of unnecessary damage – some of which was due to their ignorance. In a separate action motivated by similar ignorance, the enforcers raided Steve Jackson Games, an entertainment company, in the misguided belief that it was producing nonfiction books that provided terrorist techniques. In 1992, Sterling wrote Hacker Crackdown, a nonfiction book describing how law enforcement was strong and resistance was futile. Shortly thereafter, Sterling turned to the dark side; he disavowed his ideas from Islands in the Net and proclaimed that the USA was an unstoppable hyperpower that no individual could hope to resist. In light of later revelations of USA surveillance, torture, and war crimes, one can only hope that Sterling was ignorant of the atrocities he was celebrating. May the chains of slavery rest lightly on Sterling, and may history forget that we were ever called brothers.
While Japan had a robust tradition of sci-fi dealing with robots and man-machine hybrids (e.g. Astro Boy (1952), 8Man (1963)), the popularization of Hollywood cyberpunk films caused considerable cross-fertilization in Japanese sci-fi. The “bioroids” of 1985’s Appleseed are often classed as cyberpunk, even though their sci-fi lineage could be traced at least as far back as Shelley’s Frankenstein. The 1987 OVA Bubblegum Crisis has homages to Blade Runner, such as the use of the name “Pris.” Not all Hollywood-inspired 1980s Japanese sci-fi can be called cyberpunk; e.g. Dominion Tank Police (1985) is a tribute to over-the-top Hollywood action movies that celebrate police brutality; its androids/bioroids are not identifiably cyberpunk.
From 1984 to 1992, cyberpunk reigned as a dominant idiom of science fiction produced by profitable, centralized media corporations. Recall that these were the days before PDFs circulating on the Internet; BBS access was expensive and slow, copyright was hard to violate, and most Westerners were so bored that they were willing to pay money to rent videocassettes. The massive decentralization of popular Internet access had yet to materialize, and so it was hard to foresee the disintermediation of art and entertainment. Classic characters like Edison Carter and Pris Asagiri were media stars for societies with centralized media. For at least eight years, cyberpunk ripped itself off and became stereotypical. As early as 1990, some media snobs and culture vultures were already sniffing around for the next big trend, claiming that cyberpunk was already dead.
In 1991, the USA Senate Bill 266 resolved that communications equipment makers put back doors into their products to facilitate USA spying. In response, Phil Zimmerman published Pretty Good Privacy.
As the centralized mass media culture vultures were slouching toward professional leftist political activism, and as popular technology was becoming decentralized, cyberpunk science fiction was expanding into a new, less-centralized market. In 1993, Bullfrog published the tactical squad-based game Syndicate. Computer games were easily copied by enthusiasts, which opened up a crack in the suffocating embargoes of mass-media empires. As the 1990s went on, more and more creative minds expressed themselves in computer games rather than the leftist “fine arts” and “entertainment” worlds.
In 1992, Neal Stephenson wrote a fairly readable novel that cashed in on cyberpunk stereotypes – Snow Crash. In 1995, he followed it up with The Diamond Age, which started with a stereotypical cyberpunk character and then subjected that character to a humiliation intended to reflect Stephenson’s opinion that cyberpunk was long past its prime and in need of retirement. The rest of the book concerned Drexlerian fantasy. (Drexler’s optimistic predictions failed to pan out in real-world tech, but possibly sci-fi readers can claim that Drexler’s nano-assembler idea has produced good fiction.)
With Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, the culture vultures were free to squawk that cyberpunk was well and truly dead, and cyberpunk’s creators (who were heartily sick of the hype) agreed with them. However, the stereotypes of cyberpunk continued to contribute to good fiction in Japan. The end result of this stereotyping process can be observed in mass-marketed media sci-fi noir products such as Solty Rei (2005), which was made long after cyberpunk’s originators had pronounced it dead.
In 1996, diFilippo published the post-cyberpunk collection Ribofunk, which blazed some interesting trails, but did not, to my knowledge, produce a hype train comparable to cyberpunk. As mentioned in connection with Appleseed, biological technology in sci-fi goes back at least as far as Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Now, in 2014, cyberpunk is not primarily a print-sci-fi phenomenon – but computer games are widespread, and crypto-anarchism is still a real-world area of fourth-generation warfare.
Bruce Bethke wrote:
I never claimed to have invented cyberpunk fiction! That honor belongs primarily to William Gibson, whose 1984 novel,Neuromancer, was the real defining work of “The Movement.” (At the time, Mike Swanwick argued that the movement writers should properly be termed neuromantics, since so much of what they were doing was clearly Imitation Neuromancer.)
Then again, Gibson shouldn’t get sole credit either. Pat Cadigan (“Pretty Boy Crossover”), Rudy Rucker (Software), W.T. Quick (Dreams of Flesh and Sand), Greg Bear (Blood Music), Walter Jon Williams (Hardwired), Michael Swanwick (Vacuum Flowers)…the list of early ’80s writers who made important contributions towards defining the trope defies my ability to remember their names. Nor was it an immaculate conception: John Brunner (Shockwave Rider), Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), and perhaps even Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination) all were important antecedents of the thing that became known as cyberpunk fiction.
However, the 1980s writers who got their 15 minutes of fame from cyberpunk should be understood in the larger context of fiction that involves cyborgs. Cyberpunk is about “high tech, low life.” Cyberpunk has diverse roots in non-cyberpunk fiction, much of which involves cyborgs.
It would be reasonable to say that cyberpunk became a cultural phenomenon in 1982, with Blade Runner, or in 1985 with Max Headroom, or in 1986 with Robocop.
Most Cheap Truth fans insist that cyberpunk became a cultural phenomenon in 1984, with Neuromancer, or even in 1975 with Brunner’s Shockwave Rider.
In my reckoning, written cyberpunk became a cultural phenomenon in 1986, and the man who made it happen was Walter Jon Williams. His book, Hardwired, will always have a special place on at least one of my hard drives.
Various sci-fi writers, notably Zelazny, had presented characters that transgressed conventional categories of man and machine. The man-machine hybrid was a well-loved sci-fi theme long before cyberpunk.
Various stories had presented prostheses as transgressions of physical integrity — even Edgar Allen Poe wrote such stories! Various sci-fi writers, notably Samuel Delany, had written about transgressions of human nervous systems, bodily functions, and sex roles. He had written various stories about the notion that a implant could link the human nervous system to various machines.
However, while Delany celebrated the polymorphously perverse liberation of future worlds without sex role boundaries, Williams presented a perspective that hetero males could sympathize with.
Williams’ perspective was this: the failure of boundaries is sometimes liberating and sometimes highly unpleasant. The implanted socket that connects your nervous system to a machine might give you expanded personal effectiveness for a few years, but every second of those years might be a life-and-death struggle for dominance – and even then, at the end of the battle, you will only live long enough to be trampled by younger, more ruthless competitors.
Williams neatly inverted some sex roles and retained others. The female love interest has more hand-to-hand combat skill than the male hero, which is untraditional, but she is also a Whore With A Heart of Gold, which is traditional.
Williams presents an interesting perspective on sexual perversion. Some lower-class perverts prostitute themselves; other perverts have combat skills and are presented as the social peers of the hero. However, neither the sideshows of perverted sex, nor the relatively traditional sex between the hero and the love interest, distract the reader much from the action-adventure story.
Williams presented a world that retained enough traditional ideas so that a real-world reader in 1986 could sympathize with the hero. Wild fantasies sometimes get hard to understand – particularly if the storyteller organizes the narrative poorly. Williams’ book was (in my opinion) very good at presenting clear images to the reader’s imagination. Gibson’s Neuromancer was (in my opinion) much less effective at creating vivid images.
However, as a timeline of cyberpunk takes shape, I think it will be evident that cyberpunk was just a 1980s way of re-telling narrative themes that had been told for many years – but with a 1980s sensibility. That is to say, a man-machine hybrid in 1970s fiction was likely to be a patriotic, ethical, wholesome Steve Austin, but a man-machine hybrid in 1980s fiction was likely to be a gritty, hedonistic, nihilistic cynic. The 1980s sensibility was linked to cultural changes triggered by socioeconomic changes, such as the rise of Japan and Ronald Reagan’s war on traditional lower-class privileges.