While “high” art is often understood, particularly in the 20th century, in terms of movements, so-called “genre” fiction, supposedly driven by overt market imperatives, is seen as highly individualistic. “High” and “low” art here are broad parodies of the polarity of collectivist and libertarian behavior.
Early manifestations of sci-fi, its putatively “golden age”, closely match the latter characterization. Individual styles and individualist rhetoric are visible in equal quantities.
Cyberpunk, however, expresses a more self-conscious, self-reflexive approach to the sci-fi genre, embracing an ontological imperative that goes well beyond spinning a good yarn into the realm of probing social criticism. It was a mission shared by a distinct group of sci-fi writers who responded to classical aspects of the genre, and more closely resembles the movement objectives seen in high art. While this ambition to distort social realities in order to question them is visible in all sci-fi, it was a more clear and unified phenomena in cyberpunk.
Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986), edited by Bruce Sterling, brings together classic stories of the c-punks. Many are the works challenging the old positivist golden age approach to science. Nowhere is this more apparent than in William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum,” a movement manifesto and parody of the ivory tower conception of a utopian technocratic society. The cyberpunks clearly recognized that there was no utopia associated with science and technology. No matter the problems it might solve, it always created new ones…
Another story in Mirrorshades, Tom Maddox’s “Snake-Eyes,” is a critique of the dehumanizing potential of technology and a challenge to the physicalist, mechanist and reductionist view of mind. The list of pieces that take up similar themes in cyberpunk is a long one.
Demonstrating a radical sympathy for the hacker archetype in his famous non-fiction work The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier, Sterling, the Texas-born libertarian light within the movement, reminds us that ideology aside, an essential and tacit resistance to the status-quo was also part of what the cyberpunks were all about.
And yet, despite this ambition, their cautionary visions have become our realities. I often feel reading Gibson’s Neuromancer and other early works of the movement in the mid-80s was like a prep school for the world I live in now. Today’s headlines in the Middle East seem like the proper unfolding of the future described in, say, George Alec Effinger’s novel, When Gravity Fails.
The origins of cyberpunk lie in the cloudy, murky backwaters of the Cold War world: the deep, dark satire of William S. Burroughs; the paranoid, pink-light-of-God-tinged delusions of Philip K. Dick; the detailed madness of Thomas Pynchon; and even the bizarre post-Orwellian collages of John Brunner all contribute to the inspirational mélange.
The newest wave of the movement is best summarized in the inspired energy and unending creativity of Neal Stephenson. His work is both richly original and a deep homage to his inspirations – here one thinks of the parallels between Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow – and yet he has moved into a realm, particularly with his recent, admittedly highly laudable series of historical novels, that transcends his grittier c-punk roots.
In truth, the cyberpunk movement was really a moment in time, reflective of the last painful transformative phase towards a global, homogenized, hive-mind mass-media megalopolis subtly concealed behind the sad and hackneyed rhetoric of unbridled individuality. For those who like dates, let’s say the decade between 1984 and 1993. In an ironic twist, cyberpunk was one of the last collective attempts at an anarchic, libertarian critique of the emerging techno-hell we all will eventually come to inhabit. It was perhaps the last gasp of doubt, of insistent cynicism, of cleverly camouflaged Luddism; the last real meaningful collective contribution fiction (or even art, “high” or otherwise) had to critically recording the triumphal and unending march of techno-science and its mediated analogues.
Their distopic imaginary vistas are our reality.