Follow science fiction long enough and you’ll notice a trend: most people, by default, associate the various generic traditions of SF with aesthetic or visual qualities. We see a spaceship or a robot or an alien species or a ray gun or whatever and immediately think “this is clearly science fiction.” In many respects, this is how fantasy with spaceships comes to be placed within the genre, despite lacking all the formal qualities of SF. No subgenre suffers this fate more so than cyberpunk.
I’ve often wondered why cyberpunk gets dumbed down so excessively. Much of the genre’s history (where it came from, what its authors were responding to, and so on) is not exactly hidden from the public eye. Yet we can talk about the formation of SF in the early 1900s and its immediate precursors in the late 1800s more accurately than we can the formation of cyberpunk — this despite having far less information about those periods than we do about the late 70s and the 80s (that’s not to say we don’t have a lot about the early 1900s and late 1800s). The latest example of this dumbing down hails from two episodes
of Writing Excuses (w/ Brandon Sanderson, Dan Well, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Taylor). The first
episode is an attempt on their part to define cyberpunk, while the second is an exercise in constructing a cyberpunk tale.
It’s the first I have issues with, since the hosts spend so much of their time applying aesthetic and visual objects to the genre or otherwise dumb down the heavily political momentum that made cyberpunk possible. The hosts also apply a number of stories to their definition, many of which are falsely associated with cyberpunk precisely because they only bear visual resemblance to the subgenre. Blade Runner, for example, is, at best, a proto-cyberpunk story (which one of the hosts, I think, points out), in part because the only things that tie it to cyberpunk are the environment and occasional bits of machinery, all of which are, once again, falsely associated with cyberpunk. While cyberpunk is a very visual medium, it’s not the surface level of the subgenre that matters, but what lies beneath. Any story can contain noir elements, hackers, evil corporations, and so on. But just as having a spaceship does not make a story science fiction, so too do the surface level visuals not make something cyberpunk. Akira is a cyberpunk movie; The Matrix is not. Neuromancer is cyberpunk; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not.
The only thing the folks on Writing Excuses got right was the fact that cyberpunk is a near future genre (post-cyberpunk is not, since it tends to transplant the formal qualities of cyberpunk into broader spaces of engagement, such as other planets, space stations, and so on). But they missed the crucial point that makes cyberpunk such a valid form of literature: we live in a cyberpunk world. Africa is cyberpunk with its manipulations of technology, its relationship to global capitalism, and its complex and troubled social conditions (and the interactions between all of these elements). Many parts of the western world are cyberpunk too. All you have to do is look around you to see cyberpunk in action.
But you also have to be careful with such real world associations, because so much of what is problematic about defining cyberpunk can be unfairly applied to the now. Cell phones and text messaging and phone hacking aren’t cyberpunk activities. Anonymous is not a cyberpunk group. It’s the “punk” that really matters to the “cyberpunk” label. And if you don’t know what a “punk” is, then you really can’t talk about the “cyber” part…
(For the record, I’ve written a bunch of stuff on the “punk” in cyberpunk and the formal qualities of the genre: here
, and here