Punked: According to Ashton Kutcher, it meant to be 100 percent-bonified-pranked by one’s friends or family in complete view of the public or, if one is lucky enough, on cable television. Unfortunately, Merriam-Webster doesn’t even have a definition for the word. Luckily for many individuals of the later 20th, and now, 21st centuries, they don’t need one. This particular colloquial term has been associated with more than a few generations, numerous and sometimes embarrassingly funny situations, and even multiple forms of artistic expression. It seems there is “to be punked,” or “being a punk” or “punk rock” with the latter stigmatized by black eye make-up, faux-hawks and ear-splitting guitar riffs by young men and women wearing neon colored sneakers.
In the world of literature, there is has been deemed an influential genre of science fiction called cyberpunk. With the imaginative creativity that only science fiction offers and futuristic technological possibilities, cyberpunk has permeated manifold forms of entertainment particularly with infamous leading figures like Mary Shelley, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Even in its earlier stages, cyberpunk science fiction literature was characterized by facets that make it distinctly different from other types of science fiction and fantasy works. This article will reveal the definition and history of cyberpunk literature, marked characteristics of it and finally, examples and comparisons of successful cyberpunk authors.
According to literary critic and analyst Edward Quinn, cyberpunk is “a type of fiction based on future possibilities, derived from scientific discoveries” (par 1) as well as “an amalgam of cybernetics, the science that links control processes in human and electronic systems, and punk, the youth culture phenomenon characterized by angry rejection of the norms of traditional behavior” (par 1). Quinn has provided a simple and even somewhat generic definition of cyberpunk with his first statement which is very easily used for the definition of the science fiction genre. His second statement does bring to light, though, how the term itself came to being. Aptly described, cyberpunk is the combination of human society and, specifically, its interaction with technological advancement. This include robots, virtual reality and the prolific dependence of the human necessity and consumption of information. The science fiction genre does encompass these same characteristics in its own definition but is still a subjective enough genre that many other literary works will be science fiction but not cyberpunk, such as Ursula Le Guin’s tendency to be a green-friendly science fiction author or Samuel Delany’s tendency to remain preoccupied with the evolution of the human’s interpersonal relationships while existing in a futuristic world.
Critic and analyst Quinn openly acknowledges, like many science fiction authors and audiences do, that Mary Shelley is the forerunner in the science fiction movement. Her work Frankenstein, written in 1818, is one of the first examples of humans experimenting with scientific discovery using a man-made entity that leads to disaster. Literary critic Steve Jones in his article “Hyper-punk: Cyberpunk and Information Technology” dutifully indicates that science fiction author William Gibson is the forerunner of the cyberpunk movement with his early novels written in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. These works dictate what the cyberpunk movement is about introducing a not-so-far-away future with high-tech electronics, computers, and pop culture.
Further in Jones’s journal entry he states that, “Three striking characteristics frame cyberpunk” (82). First, society is a multi-cultural conglomeration of peoples blended into one inter-culture uncovered by language and the economic structure is determined by the multi-cultural corporation. Second, there is a post-Industrial bleakness that permeates the environment and its society. Finally, the most significant characteristic of cyberpunk is the scene of cyberspace, determined to be the information matrix that envelopes society with virtual realties and data overload.
Cyberpunk can also be described as different from the more open science fiction genre by its tendency to create a more dystopic environment. This is done in a very post-modern way and one may very well choose to align cyberpunk with that of post-modernism, although cyberpunk carries a more realistic style with its lone adventurous characters who are technically proficient and often use the powers of technology and electronics against dominant forces.
These specific characteristics lead into who some of the dominant cyberpunk authors are, as well as what works contribute to the movement. Of those considered The Big Three, Isaac Asimov is one of the only authors who can be classified to contribute with numerous short stories and novels. Asimov began integrating robots into his stories as early as the 1940’s using what is called The Three Laws of Robotics. This is an informal set of guidelines used when creating and interacting with artificial intelligence. His short story titled “Robot Dreams” is set during a futuristic time period when artificial intelligence is an integral part of human society. One of the main characters, Linda, has utilized mathematical formulas to alter a robot’s “brain” in order for it to become as similar and complex as that of a human’s. The robot, Elvex, speaks of dreams he has had inviting ideas of a robot rebellion against human society, of which he is the leader. These dreams highly contradict the Three Laws set in place by humankind and Elvex never sees them come to fruition. As is human tendency to desire power and control of its environment, he does so by making leaps and bounds in scientific and technological advancement. Asimov has exploited this often rash and uncontrollable facet of humankind in this short story, creating an ending that successfully indicates the outcome should the human race feel the remotest of threats to its survival, especially by its own creations.
A novel essentially cyberpunk, although much later than Asimov’s short story is Snow Crash written by Neal Stephenson. This particular novel is rightfully more complex in characters and settings than Asimov’s story but utilizes the characteristics outlined by Jones, the literary critic mentioned previously. Snow Crash is set during a time period when centralized American government has turned over much of societal control to privatized companies and few elite individuals. The American communities are divided into their own city-states, each with their own rules. Society at this time has evolved in such a way that economic standing and individual careers have veered onto different paths, elevating those that current reality would deem lacking prestige. This includes pizza delivery, which is the initial and primary job of the novel’s main character Hiro Protagonist. Hiro is not only a pizza deliveryman for a Mafia-controlled business but he is also a proudly skilled computer hacker who obtains “intelligence” from the world around him and sells that via the federal agency one would liken to the CIA. With many additional characters and settings, this novel expounds on the multi-cultural, post-Industrial and cyberspace dimensions that make cyberpunk what it is. Stephenson has utilized the emphasis current society places on computer technology, information cravings and the desires to create a perfect life in a virtual reality. Eerily enough, this novel describes a completely viable world that may not be as nearly hard to imagine in contrast to other science fiction authors.
Science fiction is such a broad literary category but yet still very exclusive. This genre retains many additional attributes that one will find in the genres of romance or suspense or even horror. There will always be the influence of the world a person knows in his authorship as well as traits that desire to communicate to a broader audience which may enjoy a love story among robotic aliens on a planet that endorses nudity. Within any literary genre, there still remain sub-categories that allude to specific ideas and creativity. Cyberpunk does this for science fiction. One can easily read a science fiction novel and aptly state it is cyberpunk or it is definitely not. With the speed of current technological advancement and scientific exploration, the authors of cyberpunk are not nearly so far away in the ideas they express in their works. Confidently a person can ask, “And how many other science fiction authors can say that?”