Cyberpunk Short Fiction Essay - Critical Essays

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.”

Representative Works

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

Kathy Acker
*Blood and Guts in High School (novel) 1982

J. G. Ballard
*The Atrocity Exhibition (short stories) 1969

Alfred Bester
*The Stars My Destination (novel) 1956

Bruce Bethke
“Cyberpunk” (short story) 1983

William S. Burroughs
*Naked Lunch (novel) 1959

Pat Cadigan
“Rock On” (short story) 1984
“Angel” (short story) 1987
Patterns (short stories) 1989
“True Faces” (short story) 1992

Raymond Chandler
*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

William Gibson
“The Gernsback Continuum” (short story) 1981
Burning Chrome (short stories) 1987

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
“Red Star, Winter Orbit” (short story) 1986

Rob Hardin
“Fistic Hermaphrodites” (short story) 1988
“Microbes” (short story) 1988
“nerve terminals” (short story) 1988

Harold Jaffe
“Max Headroom” (short story) 1988

James Patrick Kelly
“Solstice” (short story) 1985

Marc Laidlaw
“400 Boys” (short story) 1983

Tom Maddox
“Snake-Eyes” (short story) 1986

“Wire for Two Tims” (short story) 1983
“Wire Movement #9” (short story) 1983

Thomas Pynchon
*Gravity's Rainbow (novel) 1973

Rudy Rucker
“Tales of Houdini” (short story) 1983

Lewis Shiner
“Till Human Voices Wake Us” (short story) 1984

John Shirley
“Freezone” (short story) 1985
“Wolves of the Plateau” (short story) 1988

Olaf Stapledon
*Last and First Men (novel) 1937

Bruce Sterling
Crystal Express (short stories) 1990

Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner
“Mozart and Mirrorshades” (short story) 1985

Robert Stone
*Dog Soldiers (novel) 1973

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

*These works are considered important cyberpunk influences. Source: Kadrey, Richard. “Cyberpunk 101 Reading List.” Whole Earth Review (summer 1989): 83.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Bruce Sterling (essay date 1986)

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....

(The entire section is 2546 words.)

Gerald Jonas (essay date 18 January 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Larry McCaffery (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 5902 words.)

Brian McHale (essay date spring 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 11985 words.)

Thomas Foster (review date spring 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 6021 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 2370 words.)

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


(The entire section is 13207 words.)

Criticism: Additional Pieces

Veronica Hollinger (essay date spring 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 7214 words.)

Keith R. A. DeCandido (review date 1 November 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 186 words.)

Dana Polan (review date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 735 words.)

Further Reading


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....

(The entire section is 193 words.)