April 27th, 2020

Cyberpunk was all a lie

I recently took a look through Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, a collection of cyberpunk stories which was released in 2007, although the stories are older than that--about half of them are from before the year 2000. The central premise of the book is that cyberpunk itself is dead, which is not a new idea today (I wrote not too long ago that all of science-fiction, including cyberpunk, is dead), but perhaps this idea was a little more radical in 2007, when the Great Recession hadn't yet started and people still believed that technological progress would start up again soon. In the vacuum left behind by cyberpunk, however, a new flavor of science-fiction was supposed to take form, a new direction of "speculative fiction" which was certainly influenced by the cyberpunk ethos it had just left behind (because there was no way to not be influenced by the genre that had pretty much defined much of science-fiction for 20 years), but which also defined new directions for humanity's explorative and innovative impulses to follow.

Those new directions never came.

Rewired opens with a quote from a 1985 letter written by Bruce Sterling, one of the most well-known cyberpunk writers, to John Kessel, one of the editors of Rewired. The quote says, in part: "As a 'movement,' 'Punk SF' is a joke... By '95 we'll all have something else cooking."

It's hard for some people to imagine these words coming from one of the names which has come to be most synonymous with cyberpunk, but there it is. When you look at the history of cyberpunk, it becomes clear that none of it was very serious from the beginning. It was never supposed to define or even anticipate the future; even its own writers denigrated it as a joke, a vision of tough-talking street punks wearing leather jackets and sunglasses at night and doing something which vaguely involved technology somehow. Most cyberpunk writers knew nothing about actual computer technology and just imagined how such technology might change the future; most of it was nothing more than the same stories which people had been writing since forever, just in a different setting.

As a kid, I was heavily into computers, and so I saw cyberpunk as important to this interest, since I perceived cyberpunk as "science-fiction about computers". Many people saw cyberpunk this way in the 1980s and 1990s. It's only now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I understand that cyberpunk has nothing to do with computers. In fact, it really doesn't have anything to do with anything; most of it is just the drivel spewed by a bunch of drug-addicted writers who had heard of computers and, in their drug-induced hazes, wrote about how they imagined humanity's future in a world where computers were ubiquitous. Most of the stories which resulted are about computers in the same way that Hamlet is about skulls: Sure, one pops up at one point in the story, but only as a glancing plot element before the story goes off to be about something else.

Only now do I understand this clearly. Sure, it may seem "obvious" in hindsight, but when you're a kid growing up in a world where every media story is about how computers are changing the world and every commentary on William Gibson is about how he's a brilliant visionary who predicted the rise of the Internet, it's easy to get caught up in the hype and believe all of it, especially if you're a kid who isn't used to thinking critically. Today, we see things like that ridiculous clip of a 12-year-old Julia Stiles from a 1994 episode of Ghostwriter where she starts talking tough and acting like she knows a lot about computers because she's read Neuromancer, and it's easy for us to say "This whole thing was an embarrassing joke; how could anyone have ever taken it seriously?", but the 1990s were a different time, a very different time, and people believed things then which they do not believe now.

Only now do I understand that I should have spent less time in my youth trying to get my head around William Gibson's writing, trying to understand how it had anything to do with computer or network technology; I should have spent that time reading Kernighan and Ritchie's The C Programming Language, or the IBM Personal Computer Technical Reference manual, or Mueller's Upgrading and Repairing PCs, or Malvino's Digital Computer Electronics, or any other book which contained actual circuit schematics and program code; any of these would have been a much better education than the time I wasted trying to make sense of Gibson's half-formed sentences written in a haze of whatever he was on at the time. I can't believe I ever took any of that stuff seriously. I feel ashamed to think that I did.

Cyberpunk was all a lie. Even its biggest names readily admit that now. But in the 1980s and 1990s, they sure had people going for a while. I was one of them. I spent my childhood being lied to. I'm glad that the world finally understands the truth now.

Oh, and Sterling was wrong about one other thing, too: "By '95 we'll all have something else cooking." The timeframe was wrong, but this is just a matter of being off by a few years, the same way Orwell's estimate of the year 1984 was off by a few decades. Sometimes things take a lot longer than you expect, and sometimes they happen a lot faster, but the date aside, the real mistake was the assumption that "something else" would start cooking after cyberpunk. After cyberpunk, there is nothing.