Cyberpunk Short Fiction
Cyberpunk Short Fiction
The following entry presents criticism on the representation of cyberpunk in world short fiction literature; for discussion of cyberpunk literature in the twentieth century, see TCLC, Volume 106.
According to Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (1995), cyberpunk is defined as: “A science-fiction subgenre comprising works characterized by countercultural antiheroes trapped in a dehumanized, high-tech future.”
In the periodical Amazing Science Fiction Stories (1983), Bruce Bethke published a story entitled “Cyberpunk,” coining the phrase from an amalgam of the words cybernetics—the art of replacing human body parts with computerized ones—and punk—the musical and cultural youth movement of the 1970s and 1980s. The editor of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Gardner Dozois, is credited with first using this term to designate a new literary offshoot of the science fiction genre. Cyberpunk's literary roots date back to the technological fiction and hardboiled crime writing of the 1940s and 1950s (especially the rough, urban idiom of Raymond Chandler), to the subversive fantasies of William S. Burroughs and J. G. Ballard, and to the visionary prose of Samuel R. Delany and Philip K. Dick who took up themes of alienation in a mechanized future. During the 1970s, author and critic Bruce Sterling called for a modernized science fiction, one that reflected contemporary social and scientific concerns, and cyberpunk was often seen as an exemplar of this demand. Important cyberpunk short fiction writers include Sterling, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner, Rudy Rucker, William Gibson, and Pat Cadigan.
Cyberpunk fiction 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.
In 1986, Sterling published Mirrorshades, a collection of cyberpunk short fiction. In his preface to Mirrorshades, Sterling provided the definitive explanation of cyberpunk's nature and ambitions: “Technical culture has gotten out of hand. The advances of the sciences are so deeply radical, so disturbing, upsetting, and revolutionary that they can no longer be contained. … And suddenly a new alliance is becoming evident: an integration of technology and the Eighties counterculture. An unholy alliance of the technical world and the world of organized dissent—the underground world of pop culture, visionary fluidity and street-level anarchy. … For the cyberpunks … technology is visceral. … Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds. … Eighties tech sticks to the skin, responds to the touch: the personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens.”
Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology [edited by Bruce Sterling; contributors include Pat Cadigan and William Gibson] (anthology) 1986
Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Post-Modern Science Fiction [edited by Larry McCaffery; contributors include Kathy Acker, J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon] (anthology) 1992
*Blood and Guts in High School (novel) 1982
J. G. Ballard
*The Atrocity Exhibition (short stories) 1969
*The Stars My Destination (novel) 1956
“Cyberpunk” (short story) 1983
William S. Burroughs
*Naked Lunch (novel) 1959
“Rock On” (short story) 1984
“Angel” (short story) 1987
Patterns (short stories) 1989
“True Faces” (short story) 1992
*The Big Sleep (novel) 1939
Samuel R. Delany
*Nova (novel) 1969
“Among the Blobs” (short story) 1988
Philip K. Dick
*Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (novel) 1968
“The Gernsback Continuum” (short story) 1981
Burning Chrome (short stories) 1987
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Sterling, Bruce. Preface to Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling, pp. ix-xvi. New York: Arbor House, 1986.
[In the following introduction to his seminal anthology Mirrorshades, Sterling introduces and elucidates the defining characteristics of the genre of cyberpunk.]
This book showcases writers who have come to prominence within this decade. Their allegiance to Eighties culture has marked them as a group—as a new movement in science fiction.
This movement was quickly recognized and given many labels: Radical Hard SF, the Outlaw Technologists, the Eighties Wave, the Neuromantics, the Mirrorshades Group.
But of all the labels pasted on and peeled throughout the early Eighties, one has stuck: cyberpunk.
Scarcely any writer is happy about labels—especially one with the peculiar ring of “cyberpunk.” Literary tags carry an odd kind of double obnoxiousness: those with a label feel pigeonholed; those without feel neglected. And, somehow, group labels never quite fit the individual, giving rise to an abiding itchiness. It follows, then, that the “typical cyberpunk writer” does not exist; this person is only a Platonic fiction. For the rest of us, our label is an uneasy bed of Procrustes, where fiendish critics wait to lop and stretch us to fit.
Yet it's possible to make broad statements...
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SOURCE: Jonas, Gerald. Review of Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling. New York Times Book Review (18 January 1987): 33.
[In the following review, Jonas characterizes the stories comprising the cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades.]
Mirrorshades is subtitled “The Cyberpunk Anthology.” The editor, Bruce Sterling, explains in a brief preface that, “cyberpunk” is a new science-fiction esthetic for our time, born of “an unholy alliance of the technical world and the world of organized dissent—the underground world of pop culture, visionary fluidity, and street-level anarchy. … Cyberpunk comes from the realm where the computer hacker and the rocker overlap, a cultural Petri dish where writhing gene lines splice.” A few pages of this word-hype and it is a relief to turn to the stories themselves, 12 in all, the earliest originally published in 1981, the most recent in 1986.
What we find is a science fiction that takes the runaway power of science and technology for granted, that plays paranoia straight and finds comic relief in anarchy, and that gives center stage to characters who ask of the future not, “What's new under the sun?” but “What's in it for me?” The best known exponent of cyberpunk is William Gibson, whose 1985 novel Neuromancer (a computer hacker's power fantasy) won every major prize in science fiction....
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SOURCE: McCaffery, Larry. “Introduction: The Desert of the Real.” In Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction, edited by Larry McCaffery, pp. 1-16. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.
[In the following introduction to his Storming the Reality Studio, McCaffery explores “the way in which cyberpunk and other innovative forms of SF are functioning within the realm of postmodern culture generally.”]
But how could we know when I was young
All the changes that were to come?
All the photos in the wallets on the battlefield
And now the terror of the scientific sun?
—The Clash, “Something About England”
It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.
—Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of the Simulacra”
i haven't fucked much w/ the past but i've fucked plenty w/ the future.
—Patti Smith, “babelogue”
In gathering together the materials...
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SOURCE: McHale, Brian. “Elements of a Poetics of Cyberpunk.” Critique 33, no. 3 (spring 1992): 149-75.
[In the following essay, McHale delineates the relationship between the “postmodernist poetics of fiction and cyberpunk poetics.”]
Cyberpunk science fiction is clearly on the postmodernist critical agenda. If it had not been already, it surely is now with the appearance of the new book on postmodernism by Fredric Jameson, whose contribution to the setting of that agenda can hardly be overestimated. In the new book's first endnote, Jameson laments the absence of a chapter on cyberpunk, “henceforth, for many of us, the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself” (Jameson  417). If I understand the tenor of this somewhat enigmatic note and the other scattered allusions to cyberpunk (28, 286, 321), Jameson seems to be identifying cyberpunk as the literary manifestation of postmodernism, otherwise predominantly a nonliterary, visual, and spatial cultural phenomenon, whose preferred media is architecture, photography, art installations, film, video, and the like. He seems even to be implying that cyberpunk is somehow the direct expression of late capitalism, almost as though it were unmediated by inherited literary forms or historical genres. This would be an extraordinary position for someone who has taught us so much about the...
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SOURCE: Foster, Thomas. “The Rhetoric of Cyberspace: Ideology or Utopia?” Contemporary Literature 40, no. 1 (spring 1999): 144-60.
[In the following review, Foster analyzes Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment and Virtual Realities and Their Discontents, in terms of rhetorical and ideative content.]
As I write this review, in the fall of 1998, it is almost impossible to avoid encountering the rhetoric of “cyberspace” or electronic communications networks, if only in the form of television commercials, most notably for AT& T's and MCI's Internet services. Over the course of the last year, these multinational telecommunications companies have begun to produce advertisements celebrating computer-mediated communication in explicitly utopian terms. Typically, such advertisements stress the obsolescence of physical appearance and bodily markers of difference: cyberspace, the imaginary site of social interactions conducted through networked computers, is a “place” where gender, race, and physical disability cease to matter, we are told.
At the same time, MCI's most recent ads, for its Worldcom system, end by announcing that “now the world is officially open for business.” These ads also boast of MCI's proprietary ownership of a world-spanning segment of the Internet, celebrating the fact that users can now depend on one...
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Criticism: Major Writers Of Cyberpunk Fiction
SOURCE: Maddox, Tom. “The Wars of the Coin's Two Halves: Bruce Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper Narratives.” In Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction, edited by Larry McCaffery, pp. 324-30. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1988, Maddox provides a thematic overview of Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper stories.]
Cyberpunk, science fiction's new movement of the 1980s, continues the style and spirit of the 1960s' New Wave: literary, insurgent, contemptuous of the genre's prevailing standards. As critics have remarked, however, the new writers differ in not being repulsed by technology; rather, they use hard science and technology as the stone on which to hone their aesthetic edge.
Bruce Sterling is one of the movement's most visible and characteristic figures, its leading pamphleteer, provocateur, promoter, and critic; also one of its most accomplished and influential novelists and short story writers. As “Vincent Omniaveritas,” editor of the mimeoed Cheap Truth, Sterling stirred up argument and self-examination within sf's typically self-congratulatory community through inciting and publishing rude, pseudonymous voices. In prefaces to William Gibson's Burning Chrome (1986b) and the Mirrorshades (1986a) anthology—edited by Sterling—he mapped a territory...
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Criticism: Sexuality And Cyberpunk Fiction
SOURCE: Foster, Thomas. “‘Trapped by the Body’?: Telepresence Technologies and Transgendered Performance in Feminist and Lesbian Rewritings of Cyberpunk Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 43, no. 3 (fall 1997): 708-42.
[In the following essay, Foster analyzes the predominance of “themes of gender and sexual performativity or cross-identification in these narratives about cyberspace.”]
What we have in today's virtual-reality systems is the confluence of three very powerful enactment capabilities: sensory immersion, remote presence, and tele-operation.
—Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre
In cyberspace the transgendered body is the natural body.
—Allucquère Rosanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology
Virtual reality, it turned out, was nothing but air guitar writ large.
—Robert J. Sawyer, The Terminal Experiment
Andrew Ross once rather notoriously described the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson, originator of the cyberspace metaphor, as “the most fully delineated urban fantasies of white male folklore” (145).1 In Ross's reading, cyberpunk representations of virtual realities and human-computer interfaces do indeed turn out to be...
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Criticism: Additional Pieces
SOURCE: Hollinger, Veronica. “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism.” Mosaic 23, no. 2 (spring 1990): 29-44.
[In the following essay, Hollinger views cyberpunk in its relation to postmodernism, genre science fiction, and literary realism.]
If, as Fredric Jameson has argued, postmodernism is our contemporary cultural dominant (“Logic” 56), so equally is technology “our historical context, political and personal,” according to Teresa de Lauretis: “Technology is now, not only in a distant, science fictional future, an extension of our sensory capacities; it shapes our perceptions and cognitive processes, mediates our relationships with objects of the material and physical world, and our relationships with our own or other bodies” (167). Putting these two aspects of our reality together, Larry McCaffery has recently identified science fiction as “the most significant evolution of a paraliterary form” in contemporary literature (xvii).
Postmodernist texts which rely heavily on science-fiction iconography and themes have proliferated since the 1960s, and it can be argued that some of the most challenging science fiction of recent years has been produced by mainstream and vangardist rather than genre writers. A random survey of postmodernist writing which has been influenced by science fiction—works for which science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling...
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SOURCE: DeCandido, Keith R. A. Review of Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction, edited by Larry McCaffery. Library Journal 116, no. 18 (1 November 1991): 99.
[In the following review, DeCandido cites Storming the Reality Studio as “an important work.”]
Editor McCaffery here [in Storming the Reality Studio] collects over 50 essays, short stories, novel excerpts, literary criticism, poetry, artworks, and a comic strip that illustrate the influences on and of the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction and its distinctive sensibility. Most of the space goes to the two godfathers of cyberpunk, William Gibson (whose Neuromancer, Berkley, 1984, won the science fiction triple crown—Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards) and Bruce Sterling, but most other major cyberpunk writers are represented. McCaffery does not limit cyberpunk to science fiction but puts it in the context of postmodern literature and 1980s popular culture. The only flaw is that Sterling's preface to Mirrorshades, often considered a cyberpunk manifesto and constantly referred to in the essays, is not presented until the end of the nonfiction section. An important work; highly recommended for all sf, literature, and pop culture collections.
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SOURCE: Polan, Dana. Review of Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction, edited by Larry McCaffery. Poetics Today 14, no. 4 (1993): 771-72.
[In the following review, Polan calls Storming the Reality Studio “a wonderful introduction to the cyberpunk phenomenon.”]
It may seem strange to find reviewed in a journal of poetics a book devoted to fiction, half of which is made up of primary works in that genre. But as the foremost genre of “cognitive estrangement” (in Darko Suvin's nice description), science fiction has always raised compelling questions of and for poetics—questions about the relations between standard and alternative language systems, about the nature of textual representation, about formula and its subversion, and so forth. Not for nothing did Poetics Today editor Brian McHale devote a major portion of his Postmodernist Fiction (1987) to science fiction; not for nothing does he have a follow-up essay in Storming the Reality Studio.
And in the branch of science fiction with which this anthology is concerned in particular—cyberpunk—the relation to poetics can become even more explicit. To a large degree, cyberpunk is a literature of what French writer Guy Debord termed “the society of the spectacle,” a universe in which we experience reality through, and as, a series of signs,...
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Butler, Andrew M. The Pocket Essential Cyberpunk. London: Harpenden, Pocket Essentials, 2000, 96 p.
Offers an entry-level primer on cyberpunk.
“Johnny Mnemonic: Cyberpunk William Gibson Gets the Hollywood Treatment.” Cinefantastique 26, no. 3 (April 1995): 44, 46.
Discusses the cinematic adaptation of Gibson's short story “Johnny Mnemonic.”
Kelly, Kevin.“Cyberpunk Era: Interviews with William Gibson.” Whole Earth Review 63 (summer 1989): 78-83.
Collage of seven interviews with cyberpunk author Gibson.
Leblanc, Lauraine. “Razor Girls: Genre and Gender in Cyberpunk Fiction.” Women and Language 20, no. 1 (31 March 1997): 71-6.
Examines the construction of gender with the cyberpunk genre through a reading of three fictional works by Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and Laura J. Mixen.
Stockton, Sharon. “‘The Self Regained’: Cyberpunk's Retreat to the Imperium.” Contemporary Literature 36, no. 4 (1995): 588-612.
Investigates the relationship between capitalism, gender issues, and cyberpunk.
Wolmark, Jenny. “Cyberpunk, Cyborgs, and Feminist Science Fiction.” Feminist Contributions to the Literary Canon: Setting Standards of Taste, edited by Susanne Fendler,...
(The entire section is 193 words.)