Cyberpunk Essay - Critical Essays

Cyberpunk

Introduction

Cyberpunk

The term cyberpunk refers to a literary offshoot of the science fiction genre that generally focuses on the effects of advanced technology—particularly computers—on individual and collective human psychology and behavior. More specifically, cyberpunk came to describe a cultural movement, which included not only fiction but also music, film, print and online magazines, and scholarly theory, that sought to come to terms with the post-industrial Age of Information by confronting it with punk subculture rebelliousness. Characterized by a self-conscious style and dystopian themes, cyberpunk reached the height of its popularity in the 1980s alongside the deconstructive and postmodernist theories of thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard, who emphasized subjective interpretation and denied the existence of central meaning in literature and society. These ideas coincided with the rise of Internet culture, a phenomenon that moved the personal computer from the workplace to the home, where it became entrenched in daily human life. Cyberpunks imagined a world devoid of human contact, where robots and cyborgs—hybrids of humans and machines—ruled and human consciousness was usually detached from the body. While the cyberpunk movement explored valid fears about the encroachment of machines into human life, it was strongly criticized by feminists, who believed that it promoted the needs and desires of white middle-class males. Consequently, a branch of cyberpunk arose that addressed the concerns of women, homosexuals, and people of color in the technological era. Cyberpunk began dying off as a literary subgenre in the early 1990s, as acceptance of cyberculture and computers increased among the public. Critical assessment of cyberpunk ranges from those who approach it with scorn to those who view it as a legitimate literary exploration of life in the post-humanist age.

Representative Works

Greg Bear
Blood Music (novel) 1986

Gregory Benford
Great Sky River (novel) 1987

Emma Bull
Bone Dance (novel) 1991

Pat Cadigan
Mindplayers (novel) 1989
Synners (novel) 1991
Fools (novel) 1992

William Gibson
Neuromancer (novel) 1984
Burning Chrome (short stories) 1986
Count Zero (novel) 1986
Mona Lisa Overdrive (novel) 1988

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
The Difference Engine (novel) 1991

Joe Haldeman
Worlds: A Novel of the Near Future (novel) 1981
Worlds Apart (novel) 1983
Tool of the Trade (novel) 1987

Donna Haraway
“A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s” (essay) 1985

K. W. Jeter
Dr. Adder (novel) 1984
Farewell Horizontal (novel) 1989

Lisa Mason
Arachne (novel) 1990

Maureen McHugh
China Mountain Zhang (novel) 1992

Misha
Red Spider White Web (novel) 1990

Laura Mixon
Glass Houses (novel) 1992

Thomas Pynchon
Gravity's Rainbow (novel) 1973

Mary Rosenblum
Chimera (novel) 1993

Rudy Rucker
Software (novel) 1982

Rudy Rucker, R. U. Sirius, and Queen Mu, eds.
The Mondo 2000 User's Guide to the New Edge (magazine) 1992

Joanna Russ
The Female Man (novel) 1975

Lewis Shiner
Frontera (novel) 1984
Slam (novel) 1990

Bruce Sterling
Schismatrix (novel) 1985
Mirrorshades (novel) 1986
Islands in the Net (novel) 1988

Sue Thomas
Correspondence (novel) 1991

James Tiptree, Jr.
The Girl Who Was Plugged In (novella) 1973

Walter Jon Williams
Hardwired (novel) 1989

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

John Fekete (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “The Post-Liberal Mind/Body, Postmodern Fiction, and the Case of Cyberpunk SF,” in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, No. 58, November, 1992, pp. 395-403.

[In the following essay, Fekete reviews the volume Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction, providing a brief overview of the cyberpunk movement.]

We see through eyeglasses and contacts; we eat with dentures. We remove cataracts and replace the lenses. We insert video cameras inside our bodies to aid in “keyhole” surgery; we remove our gall bladders and throw them away. We replace our hearts, kidneys, and livers with other organs: human, baboon, or...

(The entire section is 4195 words.)

Lance Olsen (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Cyberpunk and the Crisis of Postmodernity,” in Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative, edited by George Slusser and Tom Shippey, The University of Georgia Press, 1992, pp. 142-52.

[In the following essay, Olsen examines the increasing conservatism and mainstream acceptance of cyberpunk and postmodernism.]

The 1980s may have marked the beginning of the end of postmodernism—that mode of radical skepticism that challenges all we once took for granted about language and experience—as the dominant, or at least quasi-dominant, form of consciousness in American culture. This demise may be partially the result of our country's drift toward...

(The entire section is 3917 words.)

Robert Crossley (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Fiction and the Future,” in College English, Vol. 55, No. 8, December, 1993, pp. 908-18.

[In the following essay, Crossley provides a survey of futuristic science fiction works and reviews several works that critically examine science fiction and cyberpunk.]

The future has been a viable locale for the novel ever since Mary Shelley imagined a twenty-first century world depopulated by plague in her 1826 The Last Man. H. G. Wells turned Shelley's isolated experiment into a career, patenting the future as a playground of imagination and a laboratory for disciplined speculation. Beginning in 1895 with The Time Machine, he produced a series of...

(The entire section is 4984 words.)

Rob Latham (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Cyberpunk = Gibson = Neuromancer,” in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, July, 1993, pp. 266-72.

[In the following essay, Latham reviews Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative, finding the volume narrow in scope and lacking in substance.]

In the informal interview that closes Fiction 2000 (a collection of essays from “an international symposium on the nature of fiction at the end of the twentieth century … held in Leeds, England … between June 28 and July 1, 1989 … [and focusing] specifically on the form of science fiction called cyberpunk” [279]), Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, responding to a remark that the conference...

(The entire section is 3034 words.)

Criticism: Feminism And Cyberpunk

Nicola Nixon (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?”1 in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2, July, 1992, pp. 219-35.

[In the following essay, Nixon questions the feminism of cyberpunk.]

In the 1970s feminist writers made successful intrusions into the genre of the popular SF novel, a genre whose readership, then and now, is assumed to be one who can appreciate, for example, that taking blue mescaline inspires the confidence “you'd feel somatically, the way you'd feel a woman's lips on your cock” (Shirley, Eclipse 74). One hardly needs recourse to Althusserian models to determine who the interpellated...

(The entire section is 8235 words.)

Anne Balsamo (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Feminism for the Incurably Informed,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, edited by Mark Dery, Duke University Press, 1994, pp. 125-56.

[In the following essay, Balsamo examines the effects of techo-culture on women and the feminist implications of cyberpunk.]

All we ever want (ever wanted) was to be on that mailing list.

—Ron Silliman, What

My mother was a computer, but she never learned to drive. Grandmother was an order clerk in a predominantly male warehouse; she did all the driving for the family, having learned to drive...

(The entire section is 12010 words.)

Karen Cadora (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Feminist Cyberpunk,” in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, November, 1995, pp. 357-72.

[In the following essay, Cadora contrasts early, male-dominated, cyberpunk with the later wave of the movement led by feminists.]

Rumor has it that cyberpunk is dead, the victim of its own failure to live up to its extravagant pretensions (Easterbrook 378). Initially touted as an imaginative engagement with the postmodern condition, cyberpunk envisions human consciousness inhabiting electronic spaces, blurring the boundary between human and machine in the process. Cyberpunk's deconstruction of the human body first appeared to signal a revolution in political art....

(The entire section is 7936 words.)

Mary Catherine Harper (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Incurably Alien Other: A Case for Feminist Cyborg Writers,” in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, November, 1995, pp. 399-20.

[In the following essay, Harper presents an overview of feminist cyberpunk criticism and argues that feminist cyborg literature is the seminal movement in a changing sociopolitical worldview.]

Somewhere, very close, the laugh that wasn't laughter. He never saw Molly again.—William Gibson, Neuromancer

He stared hard at her. He had never seen—he hadn't expected. He threw his head back—all his white artie teeth showed—his shining carmine...

(The entire section is 11317 words.)

Criticism: History And Cyberpunk

Ruth Curl (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “The Metaphors of Cyberpunk: Ontology, Epistemology, and Science Fiction,” in Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative, edited by George Slusser and Tom Shippey, The University of Georgia Press, 1992, pp. 230-45.

[In the following essay, Curl explains the historical metaphors of science that led to the development of science fiction and cyberpunk.]

Science is not generally considered metaphoric. Rather, metaphor has been more or less consigned to the nonscientific realm, and more particularly to the literary sphere. A dichotomy has been established in which an either-or-proposition is expressed: if it is scientific it is not metaphor, and vice...

(The entire section is 6150 words.)

Erik Davis (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Techgnosis: Magic, Memory, and the Angels of Information,” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 585-616.

[In the following essay, Davis analyzes the place of historical gnosticism and allegory in cyberpunk fiction.]

One of the most compelling snares is the use of the term metaphor to describe a correspondence between what the users see on the screen and how they should think about what they are manipulating. … There are clear connotations to the stage, theatrics, magic—all of which give much stronger hints as to the direction to be followed. For example, the screen as “paper to be marked on” is a...

(The entire section is 10915 words.)

Herbet Sussman (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Cyberpunk Meets Charles Babbage: The Difference Engine as Alternative Victorian History,” in Victorian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1, Autumn, 1994, pp. 1-23.

[In the following essay, Sussman discusses the cyberpunk reinterpretation of Victorian history in The Difference Engine.]

Taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skilful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts. It is not just that science and technology are possible...

(The entire section is 9011 words.)

Christine Kenyon Jones (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “SF and Romantic Biofictions: Aldiss, Gibson, Sterling, Powers,” in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1, March, 1997, pp. 47-56.

[In the following essay, Jones finds similarities between cyberpunk and the period of English Romanticism.]

When St Paul's and Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins, in the midst of an unpeopled marsh; when the piers of Waterloo Bridge shall become the nuclei of islets of reeds and osiers and cast the jagged shadows of their broken arches on the solitary stream, some transatlantic commentator will be weighing in the scales of some new and now unimagined system of criticism, the...

(The entire section is 4974 words.)

Steffen Hantke (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 40, No. 3, Fall, 1999, pp. 244-54.

[In the following essay, Hantke examines a subgenre of science fiction called “steampunk,” which rewrites and reinterprets events in the Victorian period.]

In the introduction to The Other Victorians, Steven Marcus states that “as we try to understand the past we try to understand ourselves in relation to the past” (xix). Marcus's words, as much as they provide a rationale for historiography in general, are particularly pertinent to the fascination that the Victorian period has for contemporary audiences....

(The entire section is 5431 words.)

Criticism: Sexuality And Cyberpunk

Claudia Springer (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Sex, Memories, and Angry Women,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, edited by Mark Dery, Duke University Press, 1994, pp. 157-77.

[In the following essay, Springer explores images of sexuality and technology in cyberpunk fiction.]

One thing is certain: the riddle of mind, long a topic for philosophers, has taken on new urgency. Under pressure from the computer, the question of mind in relation to machine is becoming a central cultural preoccupation. It is becoming for us what sex was to the Victorians—threat and obsession, taboo and fascination.

—Sherry Turkle

The...

(The entire section is 7586 words.)

Donald Morton (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Birth of the Cyberqueer,” in PMLA, Vol. 110, No. 3, May, 1995, pp. 369-81.

[In the following essay, Morton examines homosexuality in postmodern and cyberpunk theory.]

In today's dominant, “post-al” academy, the widely celebrated “advance” in the understanding of culture and society brought about by ludic (post)modernism has been enabled by a series of displacements: of the signified by the signifier, of use value by exchange value, of the mode of production by the mode of signification, of conceptuality by textuality, of the meaningful by the meaningless, of determination by indeterminacy, of causality by undecidability, of knowing by feeling, of...

(The entire section is 8602 words.)

Thomas Foster (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “‘The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic’: Posthuman Narratives and the Construction of Desire,” in Centuries' Ends, Narrative Means, edited by Robert Newman, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 276-301.

[In the following essay, Foster examines the implications of disembodied sexuality in cyberpunk culture.]

You are seduced by the sex appeal of the inorganic.

—Barbara Kruger

The computer takes up where psychoanalysis leaves off.

—Sherry Turkle, The Second Self (309)

During the Post-Body...

(The entire section is 9345 words.)

Criticism: Social Issues And Cyberpunk

Terence Whalen (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “The Future of a Commodity: Notes Toward a Critique of Cyberpunk and the Information Age,” in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, No. 1, March, 1992, pp. 75-87.

[In the following essay, Whalen explores the cyberpunk notion of “information” and its place in post-industrial society.]

Imagine an alien … who's come here to identify the planet's dominant form of intelligence … What do you think he picks? The zaibatsus, Fox said, the multinationals. The structure is independent of the individual lives that comprise it.

—William Gibson, “New Rose Hotel”

Near the end of the...

(The entire section is 6166 words.)

Lewis Shiner with Larry McCaffery (interview date 1992)

SOURCE: “Skating Across Cyberpunk's Brave New Worlds: An Interview with Lewis Shiner” in Critique, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, Spring, 1992, pp. 177-96.

[In the following interview, Shiner and McCaffery discuss cyberpunk, skatepunk, and post-industrialism.]

You can't sit around and cry because they cut down some trees and pave everything. Concrete is radical. Concrete is the future. You don't cry about it, you skate on it.

These words are spoken by Bobby, a teenage skatepunk in Lewis Shiner's 1990 novel, Slam. Bobby is commenting about the whining attitude of his dad—and, presumably, of other...

(The entire section is 10383 words.)

Claire Sponsler (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Beyond the Ruins: The Geopolitics of Urban Decay and Cybernetic Play,”1 in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, July, 1993, pp. 251-65.

[In the following essay, Sponsler discusses dystopic predictions in cyberpunk.]

For better or for worse, “cyberpunk” no longer needs much introduction. Used as commonly and casually as its cousins “cyborg” and “postmodernism,” “cyberpunk” has become a widely accepted term for describing a specific kind of cultural production found in music, film, and fiction in 1980s America.2 A fusion of high-tech and punk counterculture characterized by a self-conscious stylistic and ideological...

(The entire section is 7469 words.)

Ronald Schmitt (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Mythology and Technology: The Novels of William Gibson,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 65-78.

[In the following essay, Schmitt discusses William Gibson's mythologizing of technology in his fiction.]

With only three published novels and a collection of short stories, William Gibson has quickly risen to the top of his field, winning the Nebula, Hugo, and Philip Dick awards for Neuromancer. Even more important is the fact that Gibson is considered one of the principal, formative forces in a movement within science fiction known as “cyberpunk.” I see “cyberpunk” as an appropriate label for Gibson's heroes since they share...

(The entire section is 6175 words.)

Steve Jones (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Hyper-Punk: Cyberpunk and Information Technology,” in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 28, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 81-92.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses cyberpunk's place in the “information marketplace.”]

What is it you're after?

Uh, information?

Oh. Another one. Life was simple before the first war. You wouldn't remember. Drugs, sex, luxury items. Currency in those days was no more than a sideline … Information. What's wrong with dope and women? Is it any wonder the world's gone insane, with information come to...

(The entire section is 4323 words.)

Tom Moylan (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Global Economy, Local Texts: Utopian/Dystopian Tension in William Gibson's Cyberpunk Trilogy,” in Minnesota Review, Nos. 43 & 44, 1995, pp. 182-97.

[In the following essay, Moylan examines contradictory views of future sociopolitical events in William Gibson's writing.]

I

In 1990, in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, George Bush invoked the utopian figure of the millennium as he called for a new world order, an order of peace and prosperity that would remove the darkness of the Cold War.1 In 1980, Ronald Reagan invoked another utopian figure: the “city on the hill” that recalled the dream...

(The entire section is 7166 words.)

Claudia Springer (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Deleting the Body,” in Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 16-49.

[In the following essay, Springer discusses the social implications of the disembodiment celebrated by cyberpunk.]

Can thought go on without a body?

—Jean-François Lyotard1

When René Descartes compared human beings to machines in the year 1637, he maintained that humans would always be superior to machines because humans possess the unique ability to reason. He wrote that although “machines could do many things as well as, or perhaps even...

(The entire section is 11320 words.)

Robert Latham (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Post-Bodied and Post-Human Forms of Existence,” in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, July, 1997, pp. 344-49.

[In the following essay, Latham reviews Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment and discusses the merging of human and machine known as cyborgs.]

Simultaneously published as a special issue of the journal Body & Society, Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment offers further evidence that cyberpunk sf has now crossed over into the terrain of mainstream critical inquiry, especially studies devoted to the relation between the human body and electronic technologies,...

(The entire section is 2587 words.)

Joseph W. Slade (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk, in Technology and Culture, Vol. 38, No. 4, October, 1997, pp. 957-59.

[In the following essay, Slade briefly discusses notions about the “technological sublime” in Joseph Tabbi's Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk.]

In a 1932 essay that was once standard reading for students of American literature, Hart Crane insisted that writers had to “absorb” the machine by “acclimatizing” it instead of “pandering” to readers awed by technology. Crane's own awe overwhelmed his hope that literature could domesticate...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

Geoffrey C. Bowker (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Modest Reviewer Goes on Virtual Voyage: Some Recent Literature of Cyberspace,” in Technology and Culture, Vol. 39, No. 3, July, 1998, pp. 499-511.

[In the following essay, Bowker reviews several volumes of cyberpunk theory and maintains that the writing of cyberspace has global social significance.]

What is this thing called cyberspace? According to some, we are witnessing the emergence of the global mind: a revolutionary change in human practice of no less import than the invention of printing, or, before it, of language. Most of the contributors to the five books under review here adopt this position—though, like a box of fireworks into which a lighted...

(The entire section is 6112 words.)

Further Reading

CRITICISM

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “An Elaborate Suggestion.” Science-Fiction Studies 20 (1993): 457-64.

Reviews Brian McHale's Constructing Postmodernism and explains characteristics of postmodernism and cyberpunk.

Dery, Mark, ed. Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994.

Collection of essays covering most aspects of Internet culture and cyberpunk writing.

Easterbrook, Neil. “The Arc of Our Destruction: Reversal and Erasure in Cyberpunk.” Science-Fiction Studies 19, No. 3 (November 1992): 378-94.

...

(The entire section is 407 words.)