When William Gibson began writing in 1977, he did not set out to reform science fiction or ignite a controversy. In retrospect, however, it seems clear to him that he could never have written the kind of material he had devoured as a youngster.
"So much of the stuff I was buying off the Woolworth's rack had been written during the 1940s by people like Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon and Ray Bradbury--writers who came out of small towns in the Midwest," he said. "Virtually none of it was written with the urban sensibility I think is needed to describe most contemporary reality."
What Gibson came up with to describe that reality--and a future one--was a book called "Neuromancer" (Ace), a highly stylized vision that catalogues the wonders of the new New Age, including designer drugs, designer memory implants, and even designer personalities.
Published in 1985, the book hit the insular community of science-fiction writers like a bucket of ice water and went on to win many awards.
Soon after the book's appearance, Gardner Dozois, a well-known science-fiction editor, announced that "Neuromancer" had generated a new trend in science fiction and coined the term cyberpunks to describe the small coterie of writers whose stories--like Gibson's--deal with the feel of life in the information age.
In their view, technology has affected the surface texture of contemporary life in addition to the core of human existence. To communicate this vision of the techo-turbulent '80s, they have assumed a style that is hard-boiled and street-smart but also information-dense, hallucinatory and fast-paced.
George Slusser, an English professor at UC Riverside, and curator of the Eaton science-fiction collection there, recently described cyberpunk as "optical prose" depicting a new reality and reflecting "an increasing fusion of electronic matrix and human brain, the world of the global village, and its electronic nightside--rock music, artificial stimulants and vicarious sex."
Indeed, in recent years, cyberpunk has leaked out of the realm of science-fiction writing and into the Zeitgeist to become what some trend-spotters characterize as a cultural crossover phenomenon--a controversial one at that.
Echoes of the genre have been popping up outside of literature in movies like "Blade Runner," "Brazil" and "RoboCop," and in television, commercials, music videos by Peter Gabriel and Sisters of Mercy, the compositions of John Cage, Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno, and the gyrations of performance artist Stelarc.
A Religious Experience
In fact, drug-guru-turned-technophile Timothy Leary said cyberpunk is to the '80s what the Beats were to the '50s and the hippies to the '60s. He said reading William Gibson's "Neuromancer" was, for him, a genuinely religious experience. "Like St. Paul, I was converted. Not only has Gibson given us a sociology and culture of the 21st Century, but a theology as well."
The term cyber , he said, comes from the Greek "to pilot." "And if you're going to pilot your way through the 21st Century, you have to know how to move electrons around.
"Gibson intuitively understands cybernetic technology," Leary said. "He knows where this technology is going, and he has an extraordinary sense of street smarts, which most science-fiction writers lack. But he hasn't invent ed this stuff--it's just out there, like rain clouds. And Gibson is the weather reporter."
Because he was among the first to articulate this sensibility in commercial fiction, Gibson is regarded--however reluctantly--as cyberpunk's founding father. But the 39-year-old Vancouver, Canada, writer does not look like the leather-clad literary terrorist his fans and detractors often expect. Thin and lanky, his manner low-key and affable, Gibson is still faintly embarrassed by the success of his first novel.
After devouring the literature of William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and J. G. Ballard, Gibson said he eventually returned to his roots. "I came to the conclusion that we need something like science fiction to describe the world we live in. And it never occurred to me that 'Neuromancer' was anything other than science fiction. I just never expected it to be well-received. It didn't seem to play with the usual deck."
With its punk sensibilities and noir outlook, the movement he inspired is not without its detractors. David Brin of Los Angeles, a science-fiction writer and astrophysicist, calls Gibson the "most brilliant metaphorist in the English language" but is critical of the pessimism and pretension of cyberpunk.
"I have never seen a better-managed campaign by a group of young writers claiming they invented things they never invented," he said. "The gritty, rhythmic style, the emphasis of metaphor overlaid by metaphor, the glitzy, high-tech future, the predominance of style and gloss over plot--these were done better by people like John Brunner, J. G. Ballard and the late Alfred Bester years ago.
"There appears to be a common need particularly endemic among artistic young men for ego aggrandizement. Cyberpunk represents a pandering to the old song of youth egocentrism--young males giving the finger to society. And there is a real need in the world for young men's ego-rage. But let's face it--Jonathan Swift was doing it centuries ago."
John Shirley, a 34-year-old novelist and former New Wave musician now living in Thousand Oaks, is among cyberpunk's proponents and believes the subgenre represents a significant development. He and his fellow cyberpunks represent a new kind of science-fiction writer, he said. "We tend to share a global view of the world. We write with an underground attitude, with an intensity and tone sometimes taken for punk, and with an undercurrent of anger. Our sources of information are generally alternate to those employed by other S-F writers. We are influenced by writers outside the genre, and by the better aspects of the rock culture.
"Ours is the perspective of the new, constantly transforming flux of worldwide media. And the fact that all of this sounds horribly pretentious shouldn't stop us. A movement is always going to sound pretentious. But maybe it's important to be a bit histrionic, to shoot off a few flares."
Shirley, whose most recent novel is "Eclipse" (Pocket Library), said politics are at the crux of the controversy over cyberpunk.
"What's at issue here," he said, "is (science fiction's) insularity. The people attacking it prefer science fiction to remain their own personal, pleasant, escapist playground. They resent what we're doing and feel threatened by it. They like their middle-class heroes."
Political in Nature
Norman Spinrad of Los Angeles, one of science fiction's reigning iconoclasts, agreed that most objections about cyberpunk have been political in nature.
"The politics in their stuff," he said, "is way to the left of center. You see this most clearly in Shirley's work--he's halfway to being a Marxist, though he would describe himself as a Fabian socialist. That is not a mainstream view in S-F, which has a real conservative streak running through it."
The characters in cyberpunk literature are clearly not yuppies, said Spinrad. "They may have the money of yuppies and the toys of yuppies, but they are outsiders, bandits, punks. And that word-- punk --still raises a red flag with many people."
Gregory Benford, a physicist at UC Irvine and a prominent science-fiction writer, isn't bothered by the anti-heroes who populate cyberpunk but objects to "a marketing strategy masquerading as a literary movement. (Cyberpunk) pretends to be a new direction in science fiction. In fact, it stands at the end of a long tradition within the field."
Benford said that members of the movement have failed to define the term cyberpunk, although they never run short of adjectives to describe it. He defines it as "a mid-'80s, manifestoed movement advertising a hard-edged style, an aesthetic of surfaces, and an absorption of the implications of machine-intelligence.
"My problem with it is that it is also another reductionist literary movement announcing that the vanguard of history has arrived, folks, and everybody else had better shuffle off into the ash heap."
David Brin is alarmed by what he views as the anti-science bias of cyberpunks. "In cyberpunk, mankind is doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. Society has gotten glitzier, more technologically sophisticated, and yet has not learned a thing, has gained no wisdom.
"The fact is that we have gained wisdom, though perhaps not fast enough to save ourselves. We have the only culture in human history that worries about problems before they become catastrophes," Brin said. "We're worried about holes in the freaking ozone layer, although no one has been killed by them yet. And yet we're acting on it."
Brin and Benford are astounded that the controversy about cyberpunk continues to rage. "I'll give them this," Brin said. "I thought all this talk and jabber would be over by now, but it hasn't let up."
Bruce Sterling, another of cyberpunk's premier propagandists and a resident of Austin, Tex., said he continues to notice shades of cyberpunk in "a broad range of contemporary artistic expression" and is disturbed by the speed with which cyberpunk has been co-opted and transformed by the cultural environment.
Used in Commercials
" 'Max Headroom'--at least the British pilot for the series--was hard-edged cyberpunk. But when Max was featured on American TV, his fangs were drawn. Max ended up being a spokesman for Coca-Cola, which is the ultimate in commercial absorption. And the Road Warrior is selling gasoline for Amoco."
Gibson, who said he never had a stake in the "polemic of cyberpunk," thinks the genre has become a stylistic commonplace. "The trouble with the label, though, is that it leads people to assume there's a sort of center for this stuff. In fact, the label has been applied to an existing phenomenon."
A famous science-fiction writer once said that when it's raining chicken soup, the wise man buys a bucket. Indeed, Gibson and Shirley have found cyberpunk to be a useful springboard for launching film-writing careers. Gibson is hammering out the script for "Aliens III," which producer Walter Hill says will inevitably and directly reflect cyberpunk issues and aesthetics. Shirley and Gibson are also adapting one of Gibson's short stories, "The New Rose Hotel," for a film version slated to be produced by Ed Pressman ("Salvador," "Wall Street") and directed by Kathryn Bigelow ("Near Dark"), a professed Gibson devotee.
But Gibson, Shirley, Sterling and the other writers associated with cyberpunk appear to be moving beyond it. Gibson, for instance, plans to write a playful alternate history of the Industrial Revolution. Shirley, meanwhile, has plunged into surrealism with his upcoming novel, "A Splendid Chaos," to be published in the spring by Popular Library.
"The attention I've received from this thing has blown it for me," said Gibson. "I doubt I'll ever write anything like 'Neuromancer' again."
With an irony that is particularly apt because it reflects how most movements have mutated or stagnated by the time they have been recognized by the culture at large, cyberpunk is only now making a bid for recognition within the arena of American letters.
Editing Special Issue
Larry McCaffrey, an English professor at San Diego State University, is editing a special issue about cyberpunk for the literary journal Mississippi Review.
"Most contemporary fiction," McCaffrey said, "does not attempt to deal with the fundamental way that technology has changed our lives. The only recent novel I can think of that addressed the issues cyberpunk tackles was Don Delillo's 'White Noise.' Meanwhile, the trend in post-Modernist literary criticism these days seems to be to identify the places where literature intersects with rock music, film, jazz, TV and image making.
"I think that if cyberpunk leaves any lasting legacy, it will be this breakdown of barriers, both between science fiction and non-generic fiction and between the written word and the rest of the arts."