Grossly Exaggerated, by Djibril

Thoughts on the Death of Cyberpunk

'Cyberpunk' is the name of a sub-genre created to incorporate the seminal works of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and a generation of pre-Worldwide Web science fiction writers whose stories inhabit a dark future populated by virtual realities, artificial intelligences, desperate hackers, man-machine hybrids, life-changing technology, ruthless corporations, and dystopic regimes. This was a future with frightening possibilities for subtle totalitarianism or rampant consumerism, and with heroes who were individualistic, intelligent, and plugged-in members of technologically-savvy underclass.

This was perhaps a natural development for science fiction in a decade during which computers caught the public imagination for the first time; when the first personal computers became affordable, and began to be used in primary schools; when viruses became a tangible threat to information integrity; and when hackers could steal millions, and be given equally brutal prison sentences for bringing down the FBI network or circulating pirated, harmless software manuals from a telco. Everybody had heard of computers, and networks, and hackers, but only an élite few understood what any of these really meant.

But is that really all that Cyberpunk is: Science Fiction with computers at centre stage? That would not be enough to define a sub-genre any more, because science fiction has always included an interest in future technology, and computers are the most paradigm-changing technology around at the moment. Nor are the dystopic elements and the cowboy protagonists anything especially new in science fiction: Dick and Ellison have being doing this sort of thing for decades. (Not that precedent disqualifies a brand of literature from sub-genre status; as with the Mundane SF movement of recent years, authors and works can be retrospectively assigned generic titles if they fit.)

I read cyberpunk because the computing and internet technologies that are the staple diet of that subgenre are those that really are changing faster than most of us can keep up with them, and are changing the rest of the world around them unrecognisably. It may be that the internet will not turn into Gibson's matrix, but it's fascinating to be able to explore the possibilities for individuals, for cultures, for corporate entities, for the mass media, and for government of the sort of changes in paradigm that these technologies will force. And cyberpunk (at least the form of the subgenre that came into being in the 1980s) lends itself very well to social observational SF, especially observation of the marginal in society, the hacker, the dissident, the blogger, the radical. I could say many of the same things about why I like eco-SF, or "Mundane" SF, because the science is science that matters, and the people are people here on Earth, and the issues are those that are worth exploring, both in terms of social observation and of poetic representation.

According to the Wikipedia entry (, Cyberpunk became science fiction that critics could engage with. In other words, for a while there was a sub-genre that was simultaneously accepted within science fiction and within serious literature. This is an important point, and an important observation in the study of science fictional literary criticism, but it does not tell us much about what Cyberpunk is or whether it still exists.

Is it the case, therefore, that Cyberpunk was only a sub-genre when it was new, when it was special, when it was taken seriously by the world outside of fandom? Before everybody jumped on the bandwagon, and the founders hastily jumped off, announcing themselves "post-Cyberpunks"? If it is no longer a sub-genre, what is it now, and what are those people writing who are still on the bandwagon?

For Richard Morgan, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, Neal Stephenson, and many others still write fiction with the trappings of Cyberpunk, the computer technology that transcends human intelligence, life, and culture; the maverick, misfit protagonists; and the social awareness of exaggerated forms of consumer society (not all with the same political or social agendas, to be sure). So are they writing Cyberpunk, or just science fiction? Are we doing science fiction a disservice by fencing off part of its natural territory in this way?

Is the Cyberpunk label any more a sub-genre of science fiction than simply a way for a reader or venue to say, "I like SF to be", say, dark, dystopian, with real, or lowlife, protagonists rather than élite heroes? And even if it is just such a label, is it not fair enough to say "I want to read Cyberpunk"? I want to read about our plugged-in future...

Is not all SF fiction of the future? And is not the future obviously a cybernetic one? Is it not now obvious that computers will change our social, cultural, political, economic, and biological lives more than space travel, FTL drives, alien contact, or hi-tech weaponry? Potentially the only things likely to have as profound an impact on the world are biological engineering and environmental catastrophe.

So is that it: Cyberpunk is a way of saying "I like IT-sf more than eco-sf or biotech-sf"? (And "I like my protagonists to be cowboys and junkies, not princes and officers"?) And if so, is it a sub-genre, or just a flavour? Is it a branch of science fiction, or of politico-economic speculation? Is it a movement in its own right, with reasons and arguments to justify its own existence, or does it just exist by virtue of the writing that appears in the genre?

In a recent interview, Cory Doctorow said that anyone who writes about a future in which bits of information are not easier to copy has no business calling what they write science fiction. Are we all Cyberpunks now? Is it just so pointless to talk about a sub-genre any more because all science fiction potentially lives in what used to be the cyber ghetto?

And then is it dead, or has it taken over the world?

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