Cyberpunk in Context: The Emergence of Gibson’s Vision

Hello again, everyone. This week I’ll be getting back to my discussion of cyberpunk within the history of science fiction history. As a reminder, this is a brief overview, and as such I am sure to miss certain things you might have added yourself. If you have any suggestions, please let me know in the comments.

We looked at the development of trends leading up to Gibson’s entrance to the literary field with the Golden age and New Waves of SF, now let’s take a closer look at GIbson’s debut novel, and where it fit in the larger cyberpunk movement.

A Coalescence of Style and Ideas

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…

(Neuromancer 51)


William Gibson

When William Gibson’s first full-length book was published in 1984, it was heralded by some academics and science fiction writers as the arrival of a new paradigm in the genre. The experimental New Wave had become, in many critics’ estimations, tired and lacking the drive and enthusiasm that would both generate great new works and new readership. Gibson’s novel came onto the scene with a bang, and everyone quickly took notice. The celebrated elements in Neuromancer were its dark tone, gritty milieu, and harshly-rendered anti-heroes, all clothed in beautiful and dense description which


Bruce Sterling

utilized technological jargon in nearly poetic verse. Turning aside the New Wave’s aversion to high technology, Gibson’s book was filled with technical language and authentic-sounding predictions of technologies based on the current generation, operating within reasonably hard-science boundaries without the Golden Age’s utopian idealism or cynical doom-saying. In Neuromancer, things simply are. Technology is not good or evil on its own. The street simply “finds its own use for things.”


Rudy Rucker

The clamor and fanfare for Gibson’s new style was lead by Bruce Sterling, himself a science fiction writer, who became the new genre’s foremost advocate. Sterling pushed the genre, wrangling in as many authors as he could into it, either by attributing the term “cyberpunk” to their writing or by inspiring them to write in its characteristic high-tech, low-life flavor. These “Cyberpunk Authors” later included Neal Stephenson, famous for Snow Crash, Pat Cadigan, whose first novel Mindplayers was also foundational in establishing the genre, Rudy Rucker, known for his Ware Tetralogy, and John Shirley, who wrote several Cyberpunk novels including City Come A Walkin’. These writers and novels were all a part of setting up the boom that hit wide and fast, but it started with Neuromancer.


Neal Stephenson

However, shortly after the coining of the term “cyberpunk” and its general acceptance as a legitimate development in the literary sphere, the science fiction and academic communities began to question what specifically was so special about it. Many critics found the often-praised narrative techniques in cyberpunk to be not much more than basely reactionary to the “New Wave” science fiction of the 60s. They also pointed out, especially when examining Gibson’s debut novel, that much of the inspiration came from the same traditional sources from whom Sterling and his cyberpunk troupe supposedly rebelled. Examples of these were William S. BurroughsNova Express published in 1964 (which was arguably an artistic statement of much larger


John Shirley

scope than Gibson ever intended), Philip K. Dick’s work (especially “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” upon which the preeminently cyberpunk film Bladerunner was based), and many other fixtures of the previous generation. Even Gibson’s own cyberspace can be traced in part to these authors, such as John Ford’s Web of Angels in which the virtual realm is described, and the much lauded narrator of Neuromancer seems eerily similar to Raymond Chandler’s in his novel The Big Sleep.


Pat Cadigan

Aside from these comparisons, critics pointed out the simple fact that Gibson and Sterling’s movement apparently failed to capture the interest of the very social outcasts and technofetishists it claimed to represent. The dense prose and technical nature of these works tended to fall outside the comfort zone of these misfits, even if the angst, rebellion, and paranoia matched their collective attitude. However, through the avenue of popular films, the development of popular computer and video games, and of the internet culture quickly becoming mainstream, cyberpunk grew to establish itself as an underlying expression of the modern technological society, and, through these radical changes in western and eastern culture, cyberpunk was cemented into the background of technological development from the 80s on.

From there, things get really interesting. Cyberpunk mutated, differentiated, evolved into many, often wildly different forms, and nearly every literary genre in and outside SF bears some of the movement’s influence. But that’s a discussion for next week! Until then, has anyone read any of these authors? Nearly all of them moved on from cyberpunk-style novels after the genre started losing steam, so you might have been surprised to discover them listed here. Let me know in the comments below!


About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on April 17, 2013, in Authors, Books, Cyberpunk, Erik Marsh, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Neuromancer, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, William Gibson and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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