The C Word

No not that C-Word, you made it dirty in your own head. I’m talking about the most denigrated of sub-genres. That 80’s flash in the pan. That triumph of style over substance. That word you must never use when trying to sell your shiny new SF novel. That genre movement that was over before it started. That backlash conducted with more ruthless efficiency than the British music press savaging the last big Indie band. I am, of course, talking about (cue sinister electronic music): Cyberpunk. 

Influenced by the likes of Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, JG Ballard and Harlan Ellison (if you haven’t already, then go and read Deathbird Stories, now!) Cyberpunk burst out of the shattered rib cage of new-age SF like an angry infant alien… Okay it didn’t happen quite that way: some people wrote some stories, Bruce Bethke coined the phrase, which Gardner Dozois popularised. Then Blade Runner was released. Then William Gibson wrote Neuromancer. Then marketing people cottoned onto to it, and then an arguably disparate group of writers got lumped together. Then the imitators started. Then the old guard became frightened. Then the backlash kicked in, and Cyberpunk became a dirty word.

But between birth and so-called death, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Walter Jon Williams, Rudy Rucker, Pat Cadigan and friends took us to dark near futures of virtual reality Robin Hoods, fighting monolithic corporations in a pseudo-free market feudalism. They walked us across bleak urban landscapes that were looked down on from orbit by humanity’s elite.   The new life forms weren’t aliens. They were Artificial Intelligences born in digital wombs. The heroes were criminals who did a lot of drugs and the villains all had good jobs. They fused flesh with metal and plastic, and dragged Post and Transhumanism down into the muck with the rest of us. They may not have destroyed the Utopian ideals of 1950’s SF but they certainly suggested that it needed a bit of a rethink. They even, briefly, reclaimed the ninja from hokey nonsense.



Whilst the critics where screaming Cyberpunk is dead, the sub-genre was influencing style, design, art, advertising, technology, film, television, music, comics, gaming, even lifestyle and arguably criminality. Not to mention many other writers who daren’t mention the C-word.

Blade Runner’s a bit of a chicken and egg story with Cyberpunk but the influences of the sub-genre can be seen with films like Aliens, both Tron films, the Matrix trilogy, the first two Terminator films, Hardware and more recently Elysium. It can be seen in Anime like Akira, and the haunting Ghost in the Shell, and in other animation like the excellent, if painful to watch, Renaissance. Personally I think its influence can also be seen in non-genre films like Michael Mann’s Blackhat.

Wild Palms, Dark Angel and Dollhouse are the most blatantly Cyberpunk television series but its influences can be felt in the X-Files (William Gibson co-wrote two episodes of the show, Kill Switch and First Person Shooter), Fringe (because if it’s good enough for the X-Files…) and numerous other genre and non-genre shows. More recently Cyberpunks’s presence has been felt in the excellent Expanse TV series, adapted from the books of the same name, and of course Mr Robot.


Cyberpunk without the SF?

The sub genre has inspired numerous role-playing games, including of course R.Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020, which dominated role-playing in the late 80’s, and FASA’s Shadowrun.  The latter successfully mixing elements of high fantasy with the sub genre. It also influenced White Wolf’s World of Darkness games, particularly their Mage line.

It’s not as silly as it sounds! Well okay it is, but it’s still awesome.

The Industrial and Techno music of the 80’s and 90’s provided the soundtrack for Cyberpunk, particularly bands like the Ministry (anything up to and including the Psalm 69 album) and their spin off band the Revolting Cocks, Front 242, Front Line Assembly (and other bands with Front in their name?), the Future Sound of London (particularly the album Dead Cities), Nine Inch Nails (anything before the Fragile album).

(I should point out that the above is far from an exhaustive list, I didn’t even mention computer games, but that ‘s what Wikipedia’s for.)

Cyberpunk also influenced other subgenres:

Steampunk is Cyberpunk’s less challenging, homely, buck-toothed, red-haired, country cousin who whispers comfort lies about Empire whilst charging into battle screaming: “Jolly Hockey Sticks!” (This description will probably be responsible for me being chased down the cobbled streets of our nation’s capital and given a thorough kicking by Dickensian hoodlums wearing brass goggle and steam powered top hats.)

Splatterpunk is a more worrying and less comforting, red painted, relation. The sort of relative that we never talk about, lock in the basement and beat with staves so they’ll keep quiet when we have guests over. (Incidentally I’ve heard tell but never managed to track down literary Cowpunk, if anyone can suggest titles/writers worth reading in this western subgenre I’d greatly appreciate it.) Of course there is an argument sometimes people just put the word punk on the end of something to make it sound cooler. Erotic Gingerpunk for Rupert Grint fan fiction for example.

In fact I struggle to think of another movement in genre fiction that has had such a strong influence on culture. Space Opera and High Fantasy may be given a lot of lip service in terms of pop cultural references thanks to Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter but their effects on style, design, clothing, lifestyle and music are at best jokey, and at worst a little worrying. (Cybergoths look cooler than cosplaying Klingons, Storm Troopers, and Daleks, I’m sorry but they just do.)

And what of the imitators? Well like all cheap carbon copies nobody ever heard of them again. After all do you know who Neal Stephenson, Richard Morgan or Lauren Beukes are? (I should point out that calling the above three authors cheap carbon copies, or indeed imitators, is meant ironically to prove the influence of Cyberpunk, not to denigrate their excellent work, I’m a fan of all three.) But Stephenson, Morgan and Beukes are post-cyberpunk! I hear you cry. Sure, I mean there’s little discernable difference between what they’re doing and what the originators of the Cyberpunk sub-genre were doing, but the narrative is that cyberpunk is dead, so hey-ho.


Okay, even in the eighties I had my doubts about this cover.

I got to Cyberpunk a little late, round about the time William Gibson’s third novel in the Sprawl Trilogy, Mona Lisa Overdrive, was released. It’s not my fault I was only 11 when Neuromancer came out and my SF at that age tended to be more Keill Randor: Young Legionary flavoured. By the time I got to Cyberpunk it was all over bar the shouting. I was left to play with the sub-genre’s still warm corpse, but what a corpse! (This paragraph’s gone somewhere I didn’t quite expect. I don’t want people thinking that I’m a literary necrophiliac, or indeed any kind of necrophiliac.)

To me this was SF that was grounded, gritty, had the feeling of realism that was more in line with what I’d been reading in 2000AD, and less to do with the fluffiness of Star Wars, or the shininess of Star Trek. It made sense in terms of what was going on around me in 80’s Britain. These stories weren’t comfortable. They were often critical of various aspects of both society and the SF genre, and they frequently had a nasty edge to them.

Other sub-genres that kicked off at roughly the same time, such as the New Space Opera and Steampunk, have weathered better. I wonder if this is because they are less challenging, more comfortable, and more escapist. After all I would rather live in Iain Banks’ Culture than in one of William Gibson’s Sprawls. On the other hand perhaps Cyberpunk was just too cool for school. I wonder if, as genre fans, we’re just too comfortable in our anoraks, with our flights of fancy. Maybe Cyberpunk went too mainstream, too quickly, and we preferred to live in our genre ghetto, enjoying obscure underground SF like Star Wars.

So I have heard it said that SF is dead, and as I sit next to an alien, travelling on an in-system cutter to the wormhole gate orbiting Ganymede, for my holiday to the icy wastes of Proxima IV I am forced to admit these people are right. There are no more SF stories to tell…oh no wait a minute. If we were living in a Type 4 Kardashev society, maybe there would be no more SF stories to sell, maybe. Claiming SF is dead is a little like suggesting that the US patents office should b eclosed because everything has been invented (like Charles Holland Duell didn’t). One of the reasons that people have suggested that SF is dead, however, is due to the geometric rate that technology is advancing. Now as an SF writer it can be difficult to keep up with the rampaging advance of science and technology but the idea that SF is dead is of course patent nonsense. If we were living in an interstellar society then some aspects of SF might lose a degree of relevance. This criticism does, however, hold up a little better for Cyberpunk. No I’m not plugging my computer into a jack at the back of my neck but my phone can do all sorts of wondrous and mostly baffling things. (I suspect it’s sentient and plotting against me!) We are connected to a global communications network (at least the small percentage of us in the world that have regular computer access are). Virtual Reality seems to be on the cusp of coming into its own. Big business does make far too many decisions for us. Robots are starting to fight wars and whilst society is pretty far from collapse, it is being given a thorough kicking at the moment (and Putin seems determined to turn Eastern Europe into a Jack Womack novel.)

So maybe Cyberpunk ‘died’ because history caught up. Except I still see it flourishing. I see it in the works of writers like Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynold’s and in Hannu Rajaniemi’s amazing Jean de Flambeur sequence.   They are not Cyberpunk stories in themselves, but the influence is two-fold. Firstly it seems difficult to get away from Cyberpunk when dealing with any street level SF culture. Secondly much modern futuristic SF seems to point to a Cyberpunk-style era in the setting’s its fictional history, and perhaps that’s the era we’re living in now.

The observation that Cyberpunk is a self-fulfilling prophecy is of course neither a new or original idea. But of course Cyberpunk is dead. This would explain why this year we’ll see Blade Runner 2 (never have I more nervously anticipated a film), the live action adaption of Ghost in the Shell and the TV serialisation of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.

Cyberpunk looks pretty good despite it’s apparent death.

All I’m trying to say is go easy on the C-word. It’s still okay to write Cyberpunk fiction. Cyberpunk’s still with us, it didn’t die it got sneaky, it subverts from within. It’s worm malware on the genre, but in a good way. So put on the mirror shades, play Front Line Assembly’s Tactical Neural Implant album (I find it slightly ironic that I have it on vinyl), try and forget about Keanu Reeves as you re-read Johnny Mnemonic, and perhaps have a little bit of a re-evaluation of this cruelly maligned sub-genre.

So Bastard Legion Book 1: The Hangman’s Daughter is out on Ebook now and I’m happy to report it has been heavily influenced by cyberpunks, young and old!

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