Cyberpunk Short Fiction Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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.”