Bruce Sterling. Cyberpunk in the Nineties
Sixth INTERZONE column
"Cyberpunk in the Nineties"
This is my sixth and last column for INTERZONE, as I promised a
year ago when I began this series. I've enjoyed doing these pieces,
and would like to thank the energetic editor and indulgent readership
of INTERZONE. A special thanks to those who contributed terms and
comments for "The SF Workshop Lexicon," which remains an ongoing
project, and will show up again someday, probably in embarrassing
company. Those readers who had enough smarts and gumption to buy
the SIGNAL catalog (see column one in issue 37) have been well
rewarded, I trust.
In this final column, I would like to talk frankly about
"cyberpunk" -- not cyberpunk the synonym for computer criminal, but
Cyberpunk the literary movement.
Years ago, in the chilly winter of 1985 -- (we used to have chilly
winters then, back before the ozone gave out) -- an article appeared in
INTERZONE #14, called "The New Science Fiction." "The New Science
Fiction" was the first manifesto of "the cyberpunk movement." The
article was an analysis of the SF genre's history and principles; the
word "cyberpunk" did not appear in it at all. "The New SF" appeared
pseudonymously in a British SF quarterly whose tiny circulation did
not restrain its vaulting ambitions. To the joy of dozens, it had
recently graduated to full-colour covers. A lovely spot for a
Let's compare this humble advent to a recent article,
"Confessions of an Ex-Cyberpunk," by my friend and colleague Mr.
Lewis Shiner. This piece is yet another honest attempt by Someone
Who Was There to declare cyberpunk dead. Shiner's article appeared
on Jan 7, 1991, in the editorial page of THE NEW YORK TIMES.
Again an apt venue, one supposes, but illustrative of the
paradoxical hazards of "movements." An avalanche, started with a
shout and a shove somewhere up at the timberline, cannot be stopped
again with one's hands, even with an audience of millions of mundanes.
"Cyberpunk," before it acquired its handy label and its sinister
rep, was a generous, open-handed effort, very street-level and
anarchic, with a do-it-yourself attitude, an ethos it shared with garage-
band 70s punk music. Cyberpunk's one-page propaganda organ,
"CHEAP TRUTH," was given away free to anyone who asked for it.
CHEAP TRUTH was never copyrighted; photocopy "piracy" was actively
CHEAP TRUTH's contributors were always pseudonymous, an
earnest egalitarian attempt to avoid any personality-cultism or
cliquishness. CHEAP TRUTH deliberately mocked established "genre
gurus" and urged every soul within earshot to boot up a word-
processor and join the cause. CT's ingenuous standards for SF were
simply that SF should be "good" and "alive" and "readable." But when
put in practice, these supposed qualities were something else again.
The fog of battle obscured a great deal at the time.
CHEAP TRUTH had rather mixed success. We had a laudable
grasp of the basics: for instance, that SF writers ought to *work a lot
harder* and *knock it off with the worn-out bullshit* if they expected
to earn any real respect. Most folks agreed that this was a fine
prescription -- for somebody else. In SF it has always been fatally
easy to shrug off such truisms to dwell on the trivialities of SF as a
career: the daily grind in the Old Baloney Factory. Snappy
cyberpunk slogans like "imaginative concentration" and "technological
literacy" were met with much the same indifference. Alas, if
preaching gospel was enough to reform the genre, the earth would
surely have quaked when Aldiss and Knight espoused much the same
ideals in 1956.
SF's struggle for quality was indeed old news, except to CHEAP
TRUTH, whose writers were simply too young and parochial to have
caught on. But the cultural terrain had changed, and that made a lot
of difference. Honest "technological literacy" in the 50s was
exhilirating but disquieting -- but in the high-tech 80s, "technological
literacy" meant outright *ecstasy and dread.* Cyberpunk was *weird,*
which obscured the basic simplicity of its theory-and-practice.
When "cyberpunk writers" began to attract real notoriety, the
idea of cyberpunk principles, open and available to anyone, was lost
in the murk. Cyberpunk was an instant cult, probably the very
definition of a cult in modern SF. Even generational contemporaries,
who sympathized with much CHEAP TRUTH rhetoric, came to distrust
the cult itself -- simply because the Cyberpunks had become "genre
It takes shockingly little, really, to become a genre guru.
Basically, it's as easy as turning over in bed. It's questionable whether
one gains much by the effort. Preach your fool head off, but who
trusts gurus, anyway? CHEAP TRUTH never did! All in all, it took
about three years to thoroughly hoist the Movement on its own petard.
CHEAP TRUTH was killed off in 1986.
I would like to think that this should be a lesson to somebody
out there. I very much doubt it, though.
Rucker, Shiner, Sterling, Shirley and Gibson -- the Movement's
most fearsome "gurus," ear-tagged yet again in Shiner's worthy article,
in front of the N. Y. TIMES' bemused millions -- are "cyberpunks" for
good and all. Other cyberpunks, such as the six other worthy
contributors to MIRRORSHADES THE CYBERPUNK ANTHOLOGY, may be
able to come to their own terms with the beast, more or less. But the
dreaded C-Word will surely be chiselled into our five tombstones.
Public disavowals are useless, very likely *worse* than useless. Even
the most sweeping changes in our philosophy of writing, perhaps weird
mid-life-crisis conversions to Islam or Santeria, could not erase the
Seen from this perspective, "cyberpunk" simply means "anything
cyberpunks write." And that covers a lot of ground. I've always had a
weakness for historical fantasies, myself, and Shiner writes
mainstream novels and mysteries. Shirley writes horror. Rucker was
last seen somewhere inside the Hollow Earth. William Gibson,
shockingly, has been known to write funny short stories. All this
means nothing. "Cyberpunk" will not be conclusively "dead" until the
last of us is shovelled under. Demographics suggest that this is likely
to take some time.
CHEAP TRUTH's promulgation of open principles was of dubious
use -- even when backed by the might of INTERZONE. Perhaps
"principles" were simply too foggy and abstract, too arcane and
unapproachable, as opposed to easy C-word recognition symbols, like
cranial jacks, black leather jeans and amphetamine addiction. But
even now, it may not be too late to offer a concrete example of the
genuine cyberpunk *weltanschauung* at work.
Consider FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley, a wellspring of
science fiction as a genre. In a cyberpunk analysis, FRANKENSTEIN is
"Humanist" SF. FRANKENSTEIN promotes the romantic dictum that
there are Some Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. There are no
mere physical mechanisms for this higher moral law -- its workings
transcend mortal understanding, it is something akin to divine will.
Hubris must meet nemesis; this is simply the nature of our universe.
Dr. Frankenstein commits a spine-chilling transgression, an affront
against the human soul, and with memorable poetic justice, he is direly
punished by his own creation, the Monster.
Now imagine a cyberpunk version of FRANKENSTEIN. In this
imaginary work, the Monster would likely be the well-funded R&D
team-project of some global corporation. The Monster might well
wreak bloody havoc, most likely on random passers-by. But having
done so, he would never have been allowed to wander to the North
Pole, uttering Byronic profundities. The Monsters of cyberpunk never
vanish so conveniently. They are already loose on the streets. They
are next to us. Quite likely *WE* are them. The Monster would have
been copyrighted through the new genetics laws, and manufactured
worldwide in many thousands. Soon the Monsters would all have
lousy night jobs mopping up at fast-food restaurants.
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. Stern
moral indignation at the prospect is the weakest of reeds; if there were
a devilish drug around that could extend our sacred God-given
lifespans by a hundred years, the Pope would be the first in line.
We already live, every day, through the means of outrageous
actions with unforeseeable consequences to the whole world. The
world population has doubled since 1970; the natural world, which
used to surround humankind with its vast Gothic silences, is now
something that has to be catalogued and cherished.
We're just not much good any more at refusing things because
they don't seem proper. As a society, we can't even manage to turn
our backs on abysmal threats like heroin and the hydrogen bomb. As
a culture, we love to play with fire, just for the sake of its allure; and if
there happens to be money in it, there are no holds barred.
Jumpstarting Mary Shelley's corpses is the least of our problems;
something much along that line happens in intensive-care wards every
Human thought itself, in its unprecedented guise as computer
software, is becoming something to be crystallized, replicated, made a
commodity. Even the insides of our brains aren't sacred; on the
contrary, the human brain is a primary target of increasingly
successful research, ontological and spiritual questions be damned.
The idea that, under these circumstances, Human Nature is somehow
destined to prevail against the Great Machine, is simply silly; it seems
weirdly beside the point. It's as if a rodent philosopher in a lab-cage,
about to have his brain bored and wired for the edification of Big
Science, were to piously declare that in the end Rodent Nature must
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
*This* is cyberpunk.
This explains, I hope, why standard sci-fi adventure yarns
tarted up in black leather fail to qualify. Lewis Shiner has simply lost
patience with writers who offer dopey shoot-em-up rack-fodder in sci-
fiberpunk drag. "Other writers had turned the form into formula," he
complains in THE NEW YORK TIMES, "the same dead-end thrills we get
from video games and blockbuster movies." Shiner's early convictions
have scarcely budged so much as a micron -- but the stuff most folks
call "cyberpunk" no longer reflects his ideals.
In my opinion the derivative piffle is a minor issue. So is the
word "cyberpunk." I'm pleased to see that it's increasingly difficult to
write a dirt-stupid book, put the word "cyberpunk" on it, and expect it
to sell. With the c-word discredited through half-witted overkill,
anyone called a "cyberpunk" will have to pull their own weight now.
But for those willing to pull weight, it's no big deal. Labels cannot
defend their own integrity; but writers can, and good ones do.
There is another general point to make, which I believe is
important to any real understanding of the Movement. Cyberpunk,
like New Wave before it, was a voice of Bohemia. It came from the
underground, from the outside, from the young and energetic and
disenfranchised. It came from people who didn't know their own
limits, and refused the limits offered them by mere custom and habit.
Not much SF is really Bohemian, and most of Bohemia has little
to do with SF, but there was, and is, much to be gained from the
meeting of the two. SF as a genre, even at its most "conventional," is
very much a cultural underground. SF's influence on the greater
society outside, like the dubious influence of beatniks, hippies, and
punks, is carefully limited. Science fiction, like Bohemia, is a useful
place to put a wide variety of people, where their ideas and actions can
be examined, without the risk of putting those ideas and actions
directly into wider practice. Bohemia has served this function since its
start in the early Industrial Revolution, and the wisdom of this scheme
should be admitted. Most weird ideas are simply weird ideas, and
Bohemia in power has rarely been a pretty sight. Jules Verne as a
writer of adventure novels is one thing; President Verne, General
Verne, or Pope Jules is a much dicier proposition.
Cyberpunk was a voice of Bohemia -- Bohemia in the 1980s.
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 today, it must be admitted that the cyberpunks -- SF
veterans in or near their forties, patiently refining their craft and
cashing their royalty checks -- are no longer a Bohemian underground.
This too is an old story in Bohemia; it is the standard punishment for
success. An underground in the light of day is a contradiction in terms.
Respectability does not merely beckon; it actively envelops. And in
this sense, "cyberpunk" is even deader than Shiner admits.
Time and chance have been kind to the cyberpunks, but they
themselves have changed with the years. A core doctrine in
Movement theory was "visionary intensity." But it has been some time
since any cyberpunk wrote a truly mind-blowing story, something that
writhed, heaved, howled, hallucinated and shattered the furniture. In
the latest work of these veterans, we see tighter plotting, better
characters, finer prose, much "serious and insightful futurism." But we
also see much less in the way of spontaneous back-flips and crazed
dancing on tables. The settings come closer and closer to the present
day, losing the baroque curlicues of unleashed fantasy: the issues at
stake become something horribly akin to the standard concerns of
middle-aged responsibility. And this may be splendid, but it is not
war. This vital aspect of science fiction has been abdicated, and is open
for the taking. Cyberpunk is simply not there any more.
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.
Cyberpunks write about the ecstasy and hazard of flying
cyberspace and Verne wrote about the ecstasy and hazard of FIVE
WEEKS IN A BALLOON, but if you take even half a step outside the
mire of historical circumstance, you can see that these both serve the
same basic social function.
Of course, Verne, a great master, is still in print, while the
verdict is out on cyberpunk. And, of course, Verne got the future all
wrong, except for a few lucky guesses; but so will cyberpunk. Jules
Verne ended up as some kind of beloved rich crank celebrity in the
city government of Amiens. Worse things have happened, I suppose.
As cyberpunk's practitioners bask in unsought legitimacy, it
becomes harder to pretend that cyberpunk was something freakish or
aberrant; it's easier today to see where it came from, and how it got
where it is. Still, it might be thought that allegiance to Jules Verne is a
bizarre declaration for a cyberpunk. It might, for instance, be argued
that Jules Verne was a nice guy who loved his Mom, while the brutish
antihuman cyberpunks advocate drugs, anarchy, brain-plugs and the
destruction of everything sacred.
This objection is bogus. Captain Nemo was a technical anarcho-
terrorist. Jules Verne passed out radical pamphlets in 1848 when the
streets of Paris were strewn with dead. And yet Jules Verne is
considered a Victorian optimist (those who have read him must doubt
this) while the cyberpunks are often declared nihilists (by those who
pick and choose in the canon). Why? It is the tenor of the times, I
There is much bleakness in cyberpunk, but it is an honest
bleakness. There is ecstasy, but there is also dread. As I sit here, one
ear tuned to TV news, I hear the US Senate debating war. And behind
those words are cities aflame and crowds lacerated with airborne
shrapnel, soldiers convulsed with mustard-gas and Sarin.
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
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. I don't know you, but I do know you're out there. Get
on your feet, seize the day. Dance on tables. Make it happen, it can be
done. I know. I've been there.
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