The Death and Rebirth of Cyberpunk

“Catholics Have More Fun” By Paul T. Riddell “The Death and Rebirth of Cyberpunk” or “I Don’t Want A Holiday In The Sun, ‘Cause I Wanna Be Sedated” Originally published in Tangent (Spring 1997)

Back at the beginning of last summer, my wife Liz and I decided to pick up stakes and move from the barren plains of Dallas to the drizzly woods of Portland, Oregon. While discovering many interesting facets of the natives (most importantly, Oregonians drive like they received their drivers’ licenses and discovered crack on the same day, and that was last Tuesday), we started our tour of the state by stopping in the scenic town of Cove, Oregon, to visit Misha, the author of Red Spider, White Web, and her husband Michael Chocholak, the famed musician. While Misha and Mez showed us around the farm (a pretty good stretch of land, even if most of it was just a tad off plumb vertical), we traded tales of the past few months.

One of the best tales concerned John Shirley, a regular guest at Badger Set. The farm received its name from the badgers living toward the back of the farm, and apparently they were much more sociable neighbors than the yuppies who invaded Cove to “develop” it. Anyway, Misha led Mr. Shirley to the badger warrens one day back last spring, and he stunned her (and everyone else who heard this story) by sticking his arm up to the shoulder into a badger hole and yelling “Here, Mr. Badger!”

At first, I attributed his continued health to an absolute miracle: most individuals, upon doing something that utterly insane, would have pulled back a bleeding stump. However, after reading some of Shirley’s more recent work, I suspect the badger was cowering in the back of the burrow, praying that Shirley wouldn’t start digging in after it.

Misha related this tale at a very interesting time: just as with punk music, cyberpunk is making a rather interesting comeback. As far as America’s concerned, punk and cyberpunk came too early, but conditions are just right for their resurgence.

For those unfamiliar with the music industry circa 1975, punk started not as a major political statement (as expounded in Greil Marcus’ boring Lipstick Traces or Jon Savage’s unreadable England’s Dreaming), but as an alternative to the garbage on the radio. Radio programming at that time was dominated with treackly gibberish (“Afternoon Delight” or Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs”) or dinosaur cock rock (anything by Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones), and a few music fans in Britain and the US decided to try something different. While the roots of punk started with American acts like the New York Dolls, the Ramones, and even Alice Cooper, punk needed a catalyst, and it found one in a quartet from London: the Sex Pistols.

The Sex Pistols weren’t unique, but the rage emitted by lead singer Johnny Rotten struck England at a time when the country was going straight to hell. For about two years, the Pistols (particularly after they replaced original bassist Glen Matlock with Johnny’s buddy John Simon Ritchie, better known as Sid Vicious) were the closest thing to the Antichrist in the United Kingdom: while their act was pretty mild by today’s standards, they expressed an almost American urge to crap on the establishment. By the time they sang “God Save the Queen” during Elizabeth Regina’s Silver Jubilee, the Pistols had become a true dirty word to both the Tories and to standard rock fans, but they set off a shaped charge in the center of a huge festering pile of angst and rage.

Sadly, the shock wave they produced didn’t last long: unlike the UK, America was in the middle of the post-Watergate doldrums politically and spiritually, and only the fashion aspects of punk caught on here. Between a massive backlash by the music industry (which co-opted neopunk musicians like Debbie Harry and Billy Idol, cleaned them up, and presented them as “New Wave”, thus marginalizing real punk musicians) and the inability of most copycat punk bands to do much more than go for shock value, the whole movement folded: as a true movement, American punks had about as much political clout as the Libertarians, but at least the punks were better dressed.

Cyberpunk went through a similar genesis: just as the appellation “punk” was intended as a pejorative, cyberpunk was a smartass title tacked on by outsiders (the word itself is regularly but incorrectly attributed to Gardner Dozois) for a subgenre of science fiction. Dystopias in SF weren’t new (look at the works of Brian Aldiss, Harlan Ellison, and Michael Moorcock, as well as the obvious Philip K. Dick, for the early seeds of what became cyberpunk), but the general milieus took notice of popular culture and general human greed instead of just focusing on technological advances as did the rest of SF. Cyberpunk started with the same level of rage as well: read John Shirley’s City Come A-Walkin’ or K.W. Jeter’s Dr. Adder and just try to tell me that these are sweet little novels full of sugarplums and light.

Sadly, the same factors that trivialized punk took out cyberpunk: they were both concepts that were a response to a certain critical mass, but they both showed up just a little too early. Jeter and Shirley may have filled the roles of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, with other excellent writers such as Lewis Shiner, Richard Kadrey, and Misha riding point, but cyberpunk received its greatest attention from William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the movie Blade Runner. (Let me go on record on Blade Runner by saying that only the Star Wars films have received more undeserved accolades of classic status in science fiction film: the illustrator Phil Foglio summed up Blade Runner fifteen years ago by surmising that Harrison Ford prepared for playing Rick Deckard by staring into the mirror and saying “Shhh: be vewy, vewy qwiet. I’m hunting wepwicants. Huhuhuhuh!” As with Star Wars, removing the special effects reveals a script that would have embarrassed Ed Wood.)

Finally, cyberpunk went into a coma. The name stopped referring to the fiction and started appearing as a catchall for the pathetic Unix geeks who wanted people to believe that 16-hour copulation sessions with a SPARC station was better than having a real life. (You know: the sort who write manuals on how to program in Perl or Java and then cry about how they aren’t getting groupies and autographing sessions.) Sadly, although Gibson intended his comments to be satire, Neuromancer best appealed to a certain brand of sociopath that thrilled to the idea of leaving the “meat” behind and gaining power by screwing over others’ computers: by the time Wired appeared in 1992, the “punk” had been discarded for the “cyber”. Angst is something best left to the younger, so Lewis Shiner abandoned cyberpunk for straight fiction (as evidenced by his brilliant books Slam and Glimpses), Misha left fiction writing in favor of horse ranching, and Bruce Sterling went from being one of the grand angry turks to the Barney the Dinosaur of the “Wired” crowd. (Sorry, Bruce is a very nice fellow in person, and he put up with me at Armadillocon in ’93, when my life was going right to hell, but I just wish he’d start writing something with an edge again.) The end seemed near when two role-playing games with a cyberpunk base appeared in the late 1980s: the more successful of the two, “Shadowrun”, combined traditional fantasy elements such as elves and orcs to the now-cliched cyberpunk mix and thereby made life easier for players who read nothing but trashy fantasy.

These days, though, times are different. Cyberpunk is starting to make a comeback: Ernest Hogan gave the subgenre a good salsa flavor with High Aztech, Paul Di Filippo added organics with Ribofunk, and check out Lance Olsen’s Tongueing the Zeitgeist for some really nasty cyberpunk satire. While Gibson writes increasingly trite novels like Virtual Light and Idoru (both of which read like scripts for MTV videos, not books with storylines), John Shirley keeps giving us vicious novels like Silicon Embrace, and Eyeball Books is now reprinting The Exploded Heart and City Come A-Walkin’ for those who missed out on these stories the first time around. The audience for cyberpunk is younger: instead of starting out as science fiction readers (a notoriously reactionary group), cyberpunk readers are generally people looking for fiction with an edge and some relevance, and they’re angry enough with the world to listen to what old and new cyberpunk has to offer. These readers also have the same tastes in music: the whole “alternative” movement in rock is dying right now, mostly because these members of the buying public would rather alternate Siouxsie and the Banshees with Pumpin’ Ethyl’s “Jesus Was A Homo” than listen to Pearl Jam’s whining over and over again.

Part of this renewal of interest in cyberpunk may be due to its new relevance: in 1977, the thought of a few corporations controlling communications media the world over was an entriguing fiction, and nobody would have accepted a third-rate Davros like Bill Gates having literal power over a multi-trillion-dollar industry. (Bill Gates as Davros? Why not: tell any Microserf that you’d eat broken glass before giving up your Macintosh, and s/he starts shrieking “EX-TER-MI-NATE!” like a Phil Gramm or Bob Dornan staffer.) Of course, it could be a typical blip in the tastes of the reading public: after a few years of reading a constant procession of “Shiny Happy People” SF stories, who wouldn’t want to quote Denis Leary and yell: “Pull that bus over to the side of the pretentiousness turnpike, all right? I want everybody off the bus: I want the shiny people over here, and the happy people over here, okay? I represent angry, gun-toting, meat-eating fucking people!”

And when you consider that Denis Leary is now a spokesman for LotusNotes, things are going to get interesting.

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