The Origins of Cyberpunk

There are many ways to search for origins. For example one could look at preceding thoughts and works to determine conceptual roots. In this post I use a different method and look at the origins of the word. When was it first used and what was its first context?

Cyberpunk – as a word  – goes back to an author called Bruce Bethke. Until 1995 – when he won the Philip K. Dick Award for his novel Headcrash – Bethke was an author who wasn’t very well known. But in 1980 he wrote a short story called Cyberpunk. This was the very first use of the word. In a short piece published online he explains how he came to the idea for the word. At the end of the 70s Bethke was (and maybe is) a musician experimenting with synthesizers and their programming. One event lead him to the idea and title for the story:

I was living in River Falls, Wisconsin (population 7,000), selling Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1’s, taking courses at the local college, and hanging out on the very distant periphery of the Minneapolis music scene. I thought I was doing okay; after all, I’d gotten the sales job by a dazzling display of computer prowess (I’d shown the Radio Shack store manager how to load and run the BASIC demo program for his display model), and I was making as much money each month as I’d made in the previous year as a musician. (Which mostly speaks to how badly the music business sucks if you’re not doing Top 40 covers.) Then one day a trio of kids, the oldest maybe 14, came into the store and started puttering with the demo computer. I turned my back on them for about two minutes.
When I looked again the kids were gone, the demo program was trashed, and in its place they’d left me with something that had the Model 1 jumping through hoops. I took a few minutes to admire their ingenuity, then broke out of the program and looked over the code. Damned if I could figure out what it was doing.
Okay, no problem. The Model 1 had this big orange RESET button on the front panel. I hit the button, reloaded my only copy of the demo program (can you tell where this is leading?), keyed in RUN —
And that’s when I discovered their other little surprise.


After this event he played with ideas which lead him to the creation of the word cyberpunk:

My stories rarely spring from a single idea. Rather, I’ll have a whole stew of ideas floating around in the back of my head, then something will happen to catalyze the mix and precipitate out the story seed. In this case, I took a dash of Linguistics —
Children have some undefined wiring which enables them to learn
multiple languages far more easily than adults do, and this ability is not restricted to “organic” languages.
A pinch of Educational Psych —
Teenagers live in an ethically neutral state. They haven’t got the hang of empathy yet, nor have they really grasped the linkage between their causative actions and the resulting effects.
A snort of Political Theory —
Just as command of a communication medium is power, technological skill is enfranchisement, and in 1980 we were some 20 to 30 years away from an explosive proliferation in technology that would radically change the distribution of power in society. (Okay, so I was wrong about the timeline. Get in line behind my ex-wife and sue me.)
A double-shot of A Clockwork Orange —
Colloquial English evolves in response to technology. What will it be like in twenty or thirty years?
–and I ended up with this core idea:
The kids who trashed my computer; their kids were going to be Holy Terrors, combining the ethical vacuity of teenagers with a technical fluency we adults could only guess at. Further, the parents and other adult authority figures of the early 21st Century were going to be terribly ill-equipped to deal with the first generation of teenagers who grew up truly “speaking computer.”
THEREFORE, if you thought that punks on motorcycles were a problem, just wait until you meet the — the — You know, there isn’t a good word to describe them?
So I set out to create and define that word.

What about the story itself? Bethke is not that proud of this story and says it is “by contemporary standards, unremarkable.” The full story can be found online with a remark by Bethke that he wishes that “people were paying attention to what I’m writing now — e.g., my Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Headcrash.”

That’s the first part of the story, but there is more. In 1984 Gardner Dozois – best known as editor of the The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies – wrote an article for the Washington Post about Science Fiction in the 80s. Dozois knew Bethke’s story and applied the term to the aesthetics of writers of a different kind. In the article he writes that “a self-willed [a]esthetic “school” would be the purveyors of bizarre hard-edged, high-tech stuff, who have on occasion been refereed to as “cyberpunks” — Sterling, Gibson, Shiner, Cadigan, Bear.” (I haven’t found an earlier reference. According to a German monography about cyberpunk, Dozois was the first to apply it to the group. I can only guess, but think that this happened in a talk at convention or something similar.)

This group of writers didn’t use the term themselves at the time. They called themselves Mirrorshades or The Movement (more on them in another post soon). So cyberpunk as an aesthetic or genre was in the first instance an external ascription.

Dozois stands on the one side of trying to define a new aesthetics and style in science fiction. On the other side are the writers who are well aware of a tradition and what bother them about it. They found influences outside science fiction that the SF-community ignored. They saw themselves as rebels breaking with a Status Quo of Science Fiction and delivered something new. So that’s where I continue the story in the next post.


The Cyberpunk-Project

As an undergraduate I tried to write a bachelor thesis about Cyberpunk and philosophy. Because the project was too big for a thesis (even after I constrained it to the Mirrorshades, Burroughs, Toffler and Baudrillard) I abandoned it as an academic study. Sometimes I still write on the paper for fun (it is now more than 200 pages long). Reading Elizabeth Sandifers TARDIS Eruditorum Volumes I came to the idea and start something similar on my blog but with Cyberpunk instead of Doctor Who as a subject. My unfinished thesis is structured by a long introduction (which I had rewritten for a shorter paper in a seminar); a presentation of the most important books by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley and Lewis Shiner (which I argued are the core of the writer group called Mirrorshades) and in the last part a presentation of the formal revolution of writing via William Burroughs, the theories of Alvin Toffler and Jean Baudrillard which are followed by concrete examples how they are implemented in the works of the Mirrorshades.

A blog has the possibility to post small parts of this work instead of the despair of finishing a monolith. I’m still not sure how to structure it. I think about applying a similar method to Elizabeth Sandifer’s Psychochronography. Psychochronography alludes to the situationist concept of psychogeography and the dérive. The dérive was developed by the radical French group called Situationist International (the different versions of a text about it can easily be found online; e.g. here: “One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.” A great, more contemporary application of this theory is Laura Grace Ford’s Savage Messiah, a series of walks through a gentrified London and the residues of counter and protest culture. In a certain sense even this famous video can be seen as a kind of dérive:

Psychochronography walks through time instead of space. Objects, theories and ideas can be used to make this journey – as Sandifer does with Doctor Who.

So one idea is to start at the beginning: the coinage of cyberpunk and the formation of the Mirrorshades. From this point on one can move forward in time and analyze the works of Mirrorshades and other products associated with cyberpunk. The theories can be discussed when they appear in different works.

In the next week I publish the first post about Bruce Bethke, Gardner Dozois and the Mirrorshades – the origin of cyberpunk as a genre. From this point on I will start moving forwards. Maybe I have to by anachronistic sometimes or write the posts as they come to me and order them later.