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TUCoPS :: Cyber Culture :: maddox.txt

After the Deluge: An essay on cyberpunk




From: tmaddox@netcom.com (Tom Maddox)
Newsgroups: alt.cyberpunk
Subject: After the Deluge (an essay on cyberpunk)
Date: 13 Jul 92 09:42:14 GMT
Organization: Netcom - Online Communication Services  (408 241-9760 guest)
Lines: 262


	(The following essay was printed in the volume _Thinking Robots,
an Aware Internet, and Cyberpunk Librarians_, edited by R. Bruce Miller and
Milton T. Wolf, distributed at the Library and Information Technology
Association meeting in San Francisco, during the 1992 American Library
Association Conference.  An expanded version of the volume will be published
later this year.)


	After the Deluge:  Cyberpunk in the '80s and '90s
			
	Tom Maddox



	In the mid-'80s cyberpunk emerged as a new way of 
doing science fiction in both literature and film.  The 
primary book was William Gibson's _Neuromancer_; the 
most important film, _Blade Runner_.  Both featured a 
hard-boiled style, were intensely sensuous in their 
rendering of detail, and engaged technology in a manner 
unusual in science fiction:  neither technophiliac (like 
so much of "Golden Age" sf) nor technophobic (like the 
sf "New Wave"), cyberpunk did not so much embrace 
technology as go along for the ride.

	However, this was just the beginning:  during the '80s 
cyberpunk _spawned_, and in a very contemporary mode.  
It was cloned; it underwent mutations; it was the 
subject of various experiments in recombining its 
semiotic DNA.  If you were hip in the '80s, you at least 
heard about cyberpunk, and if in addition you were even 
marginally literate, you knew about Gibson.

	To understand how this odd process came about, we have 
to look more closely at cyberpunk's beginnings--more 
particularly, at the technological and cultural context.  
At the same time, I want to acknowledge what seems to me 
an essential principle:  when we define or describe a 
literary or artistic style, we are suddenly in contested 
territory, where  no one owns the truth.  This principle 
applies with special force to the style (if it is a 
style) or movement (if it is a movement) called 
cyberpunk, which has been the occasion for an 
extraordinary number of debates, polemics, and fights 
for critical and literary terrain.  So let me remind you 
that I am speaking from my own premises, interests, even 
prejudices. 

	By 1984, the year of _Neuromancer_'s publication, 
personal computers were starting to appear on desks all 
over the country; computerized videogames had become 
commonplace; networks of larger computers, mainframes 
and minis, were becoming more extensive and accessible 
to people in universities and corporations; computer 
graphics and sound were getting interesting; huge stores 
of information had gone online; and some hackers were 
changing from nerds to sinister system crackers.  And of 
course the rate of technological change continued to be 
rapid--which in the world of computers has meant better 
and cheaper equipment available all the time.  So 
computers became at once invisible, as they disappeared 
into carburetors, toasters, televisions, and wrist 
watches; and ubiqitous, as they became an essential part 
first of business and the professions, then of personal 
life.

	Meanwhile the global media circus, well underway for 
decades, continued apace, quite often feeding off the 
products of the computer revolution, or at least 
celebrating them. The boundaries between entertainment 
and politics, or between the simulated and the real, 
first became more permeable and then--at least according 
to some theorists of these events--collapsed entirely.  
Whether we were ready or not, the postmodern age was 
upon us.

	In the literary ghetto known as science fiction, 
things were not exactly moribund, but sf certainly was 
ready for some new and interesting trend.  Like all 
forms of popular culture, sf thrives on labels, trends, 
and combinations of them--labeled trends and trendy 
labels.  Marketers need all these like a vampire needs 
blood.

	This was the context in which _Neuromancer_ emerged.  
Anyone who was watching the field carefully had already 
noticed stories such as "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Burning 
Chrome," and some of us thought that Gibson was writing 
the most exciting new work in the field, but no one--
least of all Gibson himself--was ready for what happened 
next.  _Neuromancer_ won the Hugo, the Nebula, the 
Philip K. Dick Award, Australia's Ditmar; it contributed 
a central concept to the emerging computer culture 
("cyberspace"); it defined an emerging literary style, 
cyberpunk; and it made that new literary style famous, 
and (remarkably, given that we're talking about science 
fiction here) even hip.

	Also, as I've said, there was the film _Blade Runner_, 
Ridley Scott's unlikely adaptation of Philip K. Dick's 
_Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?_  The film didn't 
have the success _Neuromancer_ did; in fact, I heard its 
producer remark wryly when the film was given the Hugo 
that perhaps someone would now go to see it.  Despite 
this, along with _Neuromancer_, _Blade Runner_ together 
set the boundary conditions for emerging cyberpunk:  a 
hard-boiled combination of high tech and low life.  As 
the famous Gibson phrase puts it, "The street has its 
own uses for technology."  So compelling were these two 
narratives that many people then and now refuse to 
regard as cyberpunk anything stylistically and 
thematically different from them. 

	Meanwhile, down in Texas a writer named Bruce Sterling 
had been publishing a fanzine (a rigorously postmodern 
medium) called _Cheap Truth_; all articles were written 
under pseudonyms, and taken together, they amounted to a 
series of guerrilla raids on sf.  Accuracy of aim and 
incisiveness varied, of course; these raids were 
polemical, occasional, essentially temperamental.  
Altogether, _Cheap Truth_ stirred up some action, riled 
some people, made others aware of each other.

	Gibson and Sterling were already friends, and other 
writers were becoming acquainted with one or both:  Lew 
Shiner, Sterling's right-hand on _Cheap Truth_ under the 
name "Sue Denim," Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Pat 
Cadigan, Richard Kadrey, others, me included.  Some 
became friends, and at the very least, everyone became 
aware of everyone else.  

	Early on in this process, Gardner Dozois committed the 
fateful act of referring to this group of very loosely-
affiliated folk as "cyberpunks." At the appearance of 
the word, the media circus and its acolytes, the 
marketers, went into gear.  Cyberpunk became talismanic:  
within the sf ghetto, some applauded, some booed, some 
cashed in, some even denied that the word referred to 
anything; and some applauded or booed or denied that 
cyberpunk existed _and_ cashed in at the same time--the 
quintessentially postmodern response, one might say.

	Marketing aside, however, cyberpunk had a genuine 
spokesman and proselytizer, Bruce Sterling, waiting in 
the wings.  He picked up the label so casually attached 
by Dozois and used it as the focal point for his own 
concerns, which at times seem to include the outlandish 
project of remaking sf from within.  In interviews, 
columns in various magazines and newspapers, and in 
introductions to Gibson's collection of short stories, 
_Burning Chrome_, and _Mirrorshades:  The Cyberpunk 
Anthology_, Bruce staked out what he saw as cyberpunk 
and both implicitly and explicitly challenged others to 
contest it.  If Gibson's success provided the motor, 
Sterling's polemical intensity provided the driving 
wheel.

	Literary cyberpunk had become more than Gibson, and 
cyberpunk itself had become more than literature and 
film.  In fact, the label has been applied variously, 
promiscuously, often cheaply or stupidly.  Kids with 
modems and the urge to commit computer crime became 
known as "cyberpunks," in _People_ magazine, for 
instance; however, so did urban hipsters who wore black, 
read _Mondo 2000_, listened to "industrial" pop, and 
generally subscribed to techno-fetishism. Cyberpunk 
generated articles and features in places as diverse as 
_The Wall Street Journal_, _Communications of the 
American Society for Computing Machinery_, _People_, 
_Mondo 2000_, and MTV. Also, though Gibson was and is 
often regarded with deep suspicion within the sf 
community, this ceased to matter:  he had become more 
than just another sf writer; he was a cultural icon of 
sorts, invoked by figures as various as William 
Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Stewart Brand, David Bowie, 
and Blondie, among others. In short, much of the real 
action for cyberpunk was to be found outside the sf 
ghetto.  

	Meanwhile, cyberpunk fiction--if you will allow the 
existence of any such thing, and most people do--was 
being produced and even became influential.  Bruce 
Sterling published a couple of excellent novels, 
_Schismatrix_ and _Islands in the Net_, that added new 
dimensions to cyberpunk; Pat Cadigan, John Shirley and 
Rudy Rucker did the same.  Imitations appeared, some of 
them pretty good, most noxious--I won't cite the worst 
imitators' names because I don't want to publicize them.

	Also, various postmodern academics took an interest in 
cyberpunk.  Larry McCaffery, who teaches in Southern 
California, brought many of them together in a 
"casebook," of all things, _Storming the Reality Studio:  
A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction_.  
Many of the academics haven't read much science fiction; 
they're hard-nosed, hip, and often condescending; they 
like cyberpunk but are deeply suspicious of anyone's 
claims for it.  But whatever their particular views, 
their very presence at the party implies a certain 
validation of cyberpunk as worthy of more serious 
attention than the usual sf, even of the more celebrated 
sort.  

	Thus, cyberpunk had _arrived_, however you construe 
the idea.  However, in postmodern days, by the time the 
train pulls in, it's already left the station:  the 
media juggernaut excels at traveling at least fifteen 
minutes into the future. And so, by the end of the '80s, 
people who never liked it much to begin with were 
announcing with audible relief the death of cyberpunk:  
it had taken its canonical fifteen minutes of fame and 
now should move over and let something else take the 
stage.  
  
	"No orchard here," the tv reporter says, her words 
bouncing off a satellite.  "Just all these _apple 
trees_."  However, Cyberpunk had not died; rather, like 
Romanticism and Surrealism before it (or like Tyrone 
Slothrop in _Gravity's Rainbow_, one of the ur-texts of 
cyberpunk), it had become so culturally widespread and 
undergone so many changes that it could no longer be 
easily located and identified.  

	Let me cite one example and comment briefly upon it.  
Cyberspace is no longer merely an interesting item in an 
inventory of ideas in Gibson's fiction.  In _Cyberspace:  
First Steps_, a collection of papers from The First 
Conference on Cyberspace, held at the University of 
Texas, Austin, in May, 1990, Michael Benedikt defines 
cyberspace as "a globally networked, computer-sustained, 
computer-accessed, and computer-generated, 
multidimensional, artificial, or 'virtual' reality." He 
admits "this fully developed kind of cyberspace does not 
exist outside of science fiction and the imagination of 
a few thousand people;" however he points out that "with 
the multiple efforts the computer industry is making 
toward developing and accessing three-dimensionalized 
data, effecting real-time animation, implementing ISDN 
and enhancing other electronic information networks, 
providing scientific visualizations of dynamic systems, 
developing multimedia software, devising virtual reality 
interface systems, and linking to digital interactive 
television . . . from all of these efforts one might 
cogently argue that cyberspace is 'now under 
construction.'"

	Indeed.  Cyberpunk came into being just as information 
density and complexity went critical:  the 
supersaturation of the planet with systems capable of 
manipulating, transmitting, and receiving ever vaster 
quantities of information has just begun, but (as 
Benedikt points out, though toward different ends), _it 
has begun_.  Cyberpunk is the fictive voice of that 
process, and so long as the process remains problematic--
for instance, so long as it threatens to redefine us--
the voice will be heard.  
-- 
				Tom Maddox
		    	    tmaddox@netcom.com
		   "I swear I never heard the first shot"
                Wm. Gibson, "Agrippa:  a book of the dead"



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