Mark to Joseph:
Ever since the Gutenberg Printing Press, trends have come and gone in increasingly fast cycles due to the speed of information transfer. Like dark wave, alternative music, dubstep, trap, and other media genres, you get about a half decade out of them and they change. Was cyberpunk merely the victim of this fashion cycle, or was it indeed an originality issue, or both?Joseph:
If cyberpunk was ever a victim of fashion cycles, the loss of interest in the genre was less with the fans and more with its original writers. As you’ve already noted publishers and writers have constantly released more cyberpunk literature—over 600 titles! The readership isn’t bored with c-punk. The subgenre has staying power because its themes have become more visible in society since the ‘80s. In our ‘20s, AI is real and becoming more real, making the Turing test look too easy. The human genome is fully mapped and medical therapies involving genetic alteration / recombinant DNA are accelerating. Multinationals (the stacks) are wealthier and more powerful. Our Ultra cities are spaces marked by hyper-surveillance with citizens subject to draconian disciplinary measures. The symbiosis between flesh and human consciousness with computer technology and technological miniaturization is flowering.
But let’s return to the fashion cycle. Consider that the formulators of the genre were innovators, creative types. They wanted to pump new life into a stagnating genre, not develop a new version of science fiction that they could then profit from by endlessly rehashing. If you look at the career trajectory of Bruce Sterling, for example, you’ll note that he doesn’t write sequels. He doesn’t do trilogies. He’s never had any interest in mining the cyberpunk vein until the gold was gone. He never needed to. Though Gibson does write in trilogies, they aren’t true trilogies. His version of the “trilogy” is a snarky way of subverting the publisher’s playbook. You know, he tosses the next manuscript down and says, “Here’s the sequel,” even though it’s clearly not a sequel. He rarely even has a reappearing character across his books. Gibson’s first sequels, for example, were related loosely in theme with his cyberpunk ur-text Neuromancer
. But if you’ve read those books, Mona Lisa Overdrive
and Count Zero
, then you know that the story doesn’t build across books.
The other tension here is that the cyberpunks weren’t quite as original as commonly conceived. For example, James Blish rigorously explored genetically or technologically altering human subjects in the ‘40s and ‘50s—check out The Seedling Stars. A. E. Van Vogt considered the transformation of societies as a result of advanced computerization—The World of Null-A. Van Vogt didn’t call his computers artificially intelligent and Blish didn’t drop his primogenitures into cyberspace, but most of the raw material that the cyberpunks refashioned was all there in the science fiction from the previous half century.
Bruce Sterling has responded to the question of the cyberpunk movement by saying that it was useful to develop friendships with other like-minded writers. By uniting under the banner of cyberpunk, lots of mostly Texan writers in the ’80s sold a lot of books. But they didn’t intend to call themselves cyberpunks. That term had a lot of appeal and became affixed to them even though the writers initially referred to as cyberpunks had wide-ranging interests and sometimes wrote books that didn’t fit into the cyberpunk brand by any stretch of the imagination. So, neither was their abandonment of cyberpunk planned. They wrote science fiction. Sterling notes that because he was termed a cyberpunk in the ‘80s, he’s always had the term follow him, always will.Watch the Video Review on YouTube.Join the discussion forum dedicated to this article (156 comments)