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Monday, January 28, 2008

Cyberpunk Isn't Dead

More 'SF is dying' stuff, only this time it's very specific to cyberpunk. For those that don't know what Cyberpunk is the subgenre of SF in which Neuromancer by William Gibson, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, The Matrix (and sequels), and various other technocentric films and books fit into. A recent article over at io9 indicated that Cyberpunk has been slowly declining in the last few years. The problem is that I don't really buy that assertion. While they likely did a fair bit of homework and from what they found they may be somewhat correct, I think they are forgetting a lot of things that should be addressed. Here is a chart they used to show the fluctuations from year to year between movies (blue line) and novels (red line):


    The chart shows a steady decline from the early 90s into the 2000s. Something is missing. There's no way that cyberpunk is falling out of favor here. The article suggests that perhaps the fall occurred because we are living in a highly technological world now and much of what was once considered SF might not be so anymore. I think this is only the crux of the matter, but we'll address that first.
    Our definitions of cyberpunk are changing, unfortunately, and as we become more and more technologically inclined it will continued to change its meaning. However, even if something ceases to be SF doesn't mean it can't be called cyberpunk. Many technothrillers could very well be cyberpunk novels, even if nothing necessarily 'new' is presented. Cyberpunk isn't as restricted by a time frame as space operas. I would say that there is probably a lot more cyberpunk out there than we realize. We just don't know it because it's not labeled as such, and since we live in a society that is constantly advancing, our definition of what makes something cyberpunk is changing and the line between that and normal technothrillers becomes very fuzzy.
    However, another issue with the argument, which is nothing against the io9 folks, as they did do a hell of a lot of homework to have to find all the things they did find, which would have easily taken hours, is that it seems we're paying attention to a primarily English language market. What about China? China is the home of the world's largest circulation SF magazine and their market for SF works is exploding. They eat it up like crazy there and some authors actually make a living having works translated and sold there. There is Russian SF too, which, while focused a lot on the uses of governmental failure and dystopic themes, does deal with cyberpunk elements from time to time. There are dozens of countries out there contributing to the global market of SF. There has to be a myriad of cyberpunk books and movies in such countries. Technothrillers are a big deal, and so are cyberpunk novels, even if you don't think of many of them as cyberpunk. If cyberpunk is, in fact, seeing a significant decline in the U.S., that doesn't mean it's seeing that decline elsewhere. Some countries are significantly behind us as far as SF goes, and so they may just now be exploding with new cyberpunk themes. We should be paying attention and translators should actively seek to bring these works to the American market.
    One more issue with the argument is that so many SF works have cyberpunk elements built into them. This should say something about cyberpunk as a genre. It is unavoidably important! It has built itself into the fabric of SF and as long as SF keeps it around it will never die. This goes along with the notion that just because something isn't labeled cyberpunk doesn't mean it isn't cyberpunk. Cyberpunk isn't really going to go anywhere. It'll probably become full reality and then it won't matter what we all think about it anyway.

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4 comments:

  1. The fools! Cyberpunk will never die! :)

    That being said.. I agree that it's a classification issue and moreso that Cyberpunk is enfolded by the broader sci-fi label. Case in point - Peter Watts' Rifters series that I've mentioned to you before was incredibly Cyberpunk but I really doubt anyone classified it as such... Then again, maybe they did. Actually, now that I think about it.. So was his other novel - Blindsight.

    Granted, now that I think about it.. I really need more Cyberpunk in my life - Can you recommend any?

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  2. Richard Morgan's good - try his "Altered Carbon." Or some older stuff -- the novels that inspired the cyberpunk movement - like Alfred Bester's "Stars My Destination" and "The Demolished Man," or Brunner's "Shockwave Rider."

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  3. Well, I think the question is "what isn't Cyberpunk?" When you think about it so much of the SF these days is cyberpunk, even if it isn't completely 100% cyberpunk.

    I don't know if you would consider Spin State (Chris Moriarty) cyberpunk, but you should give it a shot. I liked that one a lot. Recursion (Ballantyne I think) is good too, and it's slightly cyberpunk-ish too.

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  4. Oh my goodness! I was just brought back to the 90's and RP :P

    Cyberpunk is a genre that continues to live as the broad definition states it all, "focuses on high tech and low life".

    And I just visualized the new Fox drama, "Sara O'Connor Chronicles" about the Terminators. It is not labeled Cyberpunk but definitely falls into the category ...

    Agreed, what isn't?

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