Writing Excuses 6.6: Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk: What is it? Why is it? We’ve mentioned it before, but we’ve never attempted to tackle it.

We begin with an attempt to define cyberpunk (the literary genre), which is typically near-future SF, anti-establishment, early dystopian fiction featuring connectivity, body modification, and culture shifts. We argue a bit over the finer points, which fits the topic perfectly.

We move on to discuss how you might set about writing cyberpunk, which is, as Dan points out, the SF genre we’re catching up to. We almost live in that world already. You’re going to need to do some research, reading up on the genre and looking closely at where current technology is taking us.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson, narrated by Jennifer Wiltsie.

Writing Prompt: A cyberpunk setting in which tattoos are the equivalent of implanted tech… and somebody has hacked your tattoo.

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44 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.6: Cyberpunk”

  1. Cyberpunk! Great one of most loved sci-fi subgenre. Although I written post-cyberpunk. Then again my first brush with cyberpunk came with the RPG of the same name in the 80s.

  2. Also my current project (called Sturm und Drang, SuD for short) does have cyberpunk elements (5 years in the future, one guess where it comes from…hit talking head ;) ) Urban Fantasy.

    So it has Samurais.

    Mercenary companies.

    High Tech military tech.

    And so on.

    Maybe a bit of augmented reality? My thrown that in in the latest rewrite.

  3. I really wish I had the inclination to write in this genre. I’ve been hardcore in the tech/programming scene basically my entire life (30+ years) so I’ve lived and breathed every inch of the news stories… but it just isn’t where my heart is as a writer.

    Which actually brings up an interesting question. How many of the big name cyberpunk writers ARE heavily technical by nature? Or is it the outsiders looking in, the ones who still have a sense of wonder about it, who are capable of writing the deepest material in this scene?

    I know Stephenson wrote In the Beginning There was the Command Line but he’s into EVERYTHING to some degree or other.

  4. But isn’t that true to all science fiction Patrick?

    I mean you probably know a heck of a lot more about how computers analyze, store and process information that I do, which means you are well aware of the limitations of any given system and/or language to do a given task. You live in the “now” of computers.

    I, on the other hand, whose coding experience doesn’t extend beyond copying program code from the back of old Home Computing magazines into my old C-64 (in BASIC) don’t have that restriction and therefore can make the leaps of imagination to fit my stories. Nine times out of ten I’ll get it wrong (because technology doesn’t work in a linear fashion or I may predict a need that won’t be served) but I may be inspired by current tech and if (extremely) lucky, will inspire real engineers in the future to make my visions a reality.

    Talking of technology, cyberpunk does show not only a window into the near future but also (like all sci-fi) into the period it was written. Virtual Technology seemed liked the way to go in the 80s (and a lot of companies tried to bring it about) but now we are talking about Augmented Reality. And for a long time we dreamed of the video-phone but the cellphone (which now has video transmission tech) seemed to have surprised all of us. Also, vid phones are ubiquitous today, but not in the way we expected, instead through the magic of a little camera attached to our computer and a service like Skype we can turn any current PC/Laptop into a videophone.

    And so on and so forth.

  5. Hmmm, just listening to this reminds me of a book I heard about a few years ago, Jennifer Government. The setting was a sort of near future where corporations ran everything, the government was effectively powerless outside of its budget, and everybody is named for the company they work for (Jennifer Government, John Nike, Kate Mattel). No body augmentation or cyberspace, as far as I can tell from looking at the wikipedia page, but it might count as an adaptation of the genre, in terms of the corporate fear, and the main character has a barcode tattoo (although I’ve no idea how relevant that is in-story).

    There’s Shadowrun, which is apparently still around? It’s as much urban fantasy as it is cyberpunk, I guess.

    Oh, and the thing about implants? It’s not as farfetched as it seems, as there are some moves towards that kind of technology, but it’s still pretty crude. A few years ago, there’s a guy who was almost blind, and they restored sight to one eye by implanting a tiny camera. Cool in concept, but a little disturbing as a visual, as he has an actual camera lens, like from a tiny SLR camera, sticking out, with the eyelid sealed around it. It’s not a bionic eye like, oh… Psylocke/Revanche or G’Kar or Six Million Dollar Man.

    But the technology is a little bit closer than we might think.

  6. Rafael: Eh to some degree, though I track where things are trying to go as well (God if IBM can pull off quantum computing…)

    However IMO most of the great Sci-Fi writers of the past (Asimov and Clarke and their like) DID have deep understanding of science, which is probably why I prefer them to a lot of what I run into for modern sci-fi. Hell Clarke did the math for geosynchronous orbit! That doesn’t sound like not being in the field to me ;)

  7. True for the hard scifi of the 50’s and early 60’s but most sci-fi, from the 19th century inception (which we would call steamppunk today, ironically enough) and the pulp sci-fi of the 20-40s, not to mention TV sci-fi, movies and comic books were (and are) more based on a passing knowledge of the science/tech going with whatever is “hot” at the moment. Steam in the 19th century, electricity in the turn of the century to WW2 (as well as mechanical power), atomic/nuclear power in the 50-60s, the integrated circuit in the 70s-80s and genetic mapping in the 90s.

    Even people like Clarke got as much right as they go wrong and some of their stuff (like manned flight beyond the Moon) is still in the future (even as his most famous book was titled 2001!)

  8. When I saw the title of the new episode show up in iTunes I actually said “Nice” out loud. Luckily I’m in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere so people can’t make fun of me for my reaction.

    Would you guys (thread readers, as well as gals, included) classify Daemon and FreedomTM as cyberpunk, or is that universe just near future?

  9. I’d call Daemon cyberpunk. I still need to read Freedom(tm) but being the sequel…

    Amazing writing, that.

  10. Patrick, while some sci-fi authors do/did have knowledge in scientific areas I think it’s more a matter of the style of the story than of the author. Asimov’s Robot series has barely anything that would qualify as capital-S Science, but it’s still science fiction in its own way. Asimov didn’t need a deep understanding of science to make those books, even though he had one. Similarly George Alec Effinger wrote some wonderful cyberpunk and I don’t believe he had any sort of scientific or computer background.

    …though looking back at your comments I think I may have missed your point. Either way the point I’m trying to make is that, as Writing Excuses has said before, most genre fiction tries to get away with as little research as possible. I think people within the area of expertise (Asimov and Clarke as you said, for example) can have their imaginations captured as easily as those outside the area, but I think the amount of that expertise put into the story is a measure of the author’s judgement regardless. An example of doing it “badly,” Michael Crichton seemed to have an uncanny ability to do *just* enough research to piss off anyone who actually knew about the topic, even if his books were varying levels of enjoyable in spite of that.

  11. I can see how there’s a lot of discussion about the flexibility of the label “cyberpunk.”

    Of course Shadowrun was the first thing that came to mind, but honestly the second thing that came to my mind during the podcast was Minority Report.

    Am I way off there?

    Personally, I tend to classify stories a little more by feel than content.

  12. Hey guys,

    I usually love your show but I have a real bone to pick with this one. Brandon mentioned “Neuromancer” by William Gibson then seemed to imply that the visual representation of Gibson’s work was “Blade Runner.” “Blade Runner” is an adaptation of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” written by Philip K. Dick, but that’s just a pedantic detail. What I found most lacking in this discussion was any mention of the New Wave authors (like Dick) who were such profound influences on the early Cyberpunk movement.

    Much of what authors like Gibson were doing was merely and extension of the ideas that came from books and stories written by Alfred Bester, Harlan Elison, Dick, and others. Take a look at Martian Time Slip or The Stars My Destination. Change a few superficial technological details and those books could easily be considered Cyberpunk.

    I’m not saying that the Cyberpunk authors didn’t have anything new or valuable to contribute, but I really think that your discussion was incomplete without any mention of those earlier authors.

  13. I think you all missed a major element, which is the definition of the self. Not only is the future dystopian and corporate-owned, but the characters are all burnout deckers, Razor Girls, and other interchangeable parts who are forced to move beyond greed and comfortable stereotype and stake out a position.

    Also, as for whether the genre still lives, we now live in a world where the U.S. can’t fight its wars without mercenaries, is no longer spacefaring, and is getting ready to throw the elderly under the bus while cutting corporate welfare gets nary a mention — the trouble is, we’re living the dystopian future. (Yeah, guess my politics, but I’m not trying to start *that* argument, just express the viewpoint.)

  14. If it weren’t for the “eye surgery” and “underground VR” scenes in the movie, I don’t know if it has the gritty feel that I like to associate with cyberpunk. I do not know how the book feels, as I’ve only seen the movie. Time for me to read Dick. Take that out of context.

    The funny thing, though, is that I can’t point to a book that “feels” like cyberpunk to me. They all feel wrong. Daemon is almost completely plausible – right now. It’s weird that Angels and Demons stretches reality and technology more than it, while not being cyberpunk at all. No, they’re not stockpiling antimatter at the LHC.

    For some reason, this “grit” is what I associate with cyberpunk. It’s almost as if grit lends legitimacy and reality to whatever it’s a part of. I find that interesting, and at the same time admit that I may have internalized the whole idea of cyberpunk incorrectly.

  15. My first paragraph in the previous post is referring to Minority Report, in case that wasn’t clear from the post above mine and my utter lack of a tag.

  16. @Nat: We’re not trying to podcast the history of science fiction sub-genres. We’ve got fifteen minutes, and we’re trying to help our listeners put their fingers on what a genre is NOW so they can start writing.

    Thanks for the history lesson, though. Should the literate author be familiar with Dick and Ellison? Certainly. But that level of detail is beyond the scope of the discussion. We can’t talk about H.G. Wells or Edgar Rice Burroughs every time we podcast about genre, either.

  17. In Nat’s defense, I also thought you guys implied Bladerunner was based on William Gibson’s work and was going to point out it’s actually based on Philip K. Dick’s, “Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?” I’d also say knowing who Philip Dick is and something about his work is as important as knowing who William Gibson or Neal Stephenson are. So many of PKD’s stories have been turned into movies (Total recall, Minority report, Paycheck, The Adjustment Bureau, and a bunch of others), and so many of his concepts borrowed in other works, that I think it is valid to point him out as an author to know.

    Really enjoyed the podcast and looking forward to the next one.

  18. I think Tad Williams’ Otherland series is an interesting example of cyberpunk. Of course, it’s not a “pure” example — it’s more like taking the structure and flow of epic fantasy and fusing it with the world and tropes of cyberpunk. That leads to both some great moments and, frankly, some boring sections.

    The number one lesson from that series for writers, imo, is that cyberspace is only interesting when the visual world and characters in that world are interesting. You can no longer rely on the conceptual coolness of a virtual reality to carry most of the aesthetics of your version of cyberspace. Otherland seriously drags when the main characters enter in to one of the virtual worlds that is kind of boring or silly.

    The other lesson, and this is done mainly well but also has a few hiccups, is that the embodiment of the characters matters. Yes, one of the attractive things about cyberspace is that your characters can be people/things in cyberspace that they aren’t in real life. But even though many of us readers spend hours on the internet, we still feel more invested in our embodied selves when it comes to forming relationships and experiencing danger and solving problems. Avatars are an extension and negotiating the interplay between cyberspace and embodied existence is key to a successful cyberpunk story. Or at least that’s been my experience as a reader of the genre.

  19. Good podcast But.
    You forgot that most Cyberpunk is not written by western authors.
    Sum of the biggest and most influential cyberpunk story’s come from Japan. Like Akira , Appleseed ,Ghost in the Shell and .hack//SIGN just to hit the big ones.
    Anime mixes more genres to together then then most western authors.
    Akira is a horror, psychological, supernatural ,cyberpunk and Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell are action, drama, mystery ,cyberpunk and .hack//SIGN action, adventure, drama, fantasy, mystery, cyberpunk.
    If you are trying to write cyberpunk you need to watch Akira (made in 1988) because your readers already have. It’s is widely considered to be a landmark in Japanese animation and film making in general.
    When you watch thees anime do yourself a favor and DO NOT watch the dubbed versions, the writer and director (most of the time the same guy) spent a a lot of time casting the voice actors and then spends time in the recording studio to get the performance that he wanted and in the dubbed a guy who has a small budget finds cheep actors hands them their script records it as fast as he can, and destroys half the story.
    The emotional cues are the same in Japanese and English . By listening to the Japanese audio and reading the English subtitles you will get more of the story like the writer/ director wanted.

  20. Sorry to everyone who thinks we gave Philip K. Dick the short shrift in this episode. He’s one of my favorite authors, and we’ve promoed his books many times on the podcast; A SCANNER DARKLY is one of my favorite books of all time. I don’t really consider him a cyberpunk author, though: for example, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP doesn’t really feel all that cyberpunky to me, even though BLADE RUNNER has a visual aesthetic that really, really does. And yes, I know that Dick complimented the movie’s visual design as being exactly what he was thinking. And yes, most of Dick’s work is about the definition of humanity, which we mentioned as a key aspect of cyberpunk, and yet…I just never think of him as part of the genre. You guys have convinced me that he’s definitely a precursor to it, though, so I’ll be sure to mention him the next time I talk about cyberpunk.

    And tam, I’m pretty sure we’ve already promoed Neuromancer recently as well, sometime in season five.

  21. @Gym Naziun: I fear I must term-quibble with you. “Most cyberpunk is not written by Western authors” may indeed be true, but we were devoting this episode to the literary genre, and lifting a few cinematic examples for visual flavor.

    The animés you cite as examples are all wonderful (yes, I’ve seen them) but in terms of genre they’re all blenders, and they blend to the point that there’s probably an animé genre that encompasses what they’re doing.

    Are there cyberpunk elements there? Absolutely. And they point up one of the elements Brandon described, the culture-shifting from West to East that many cyberpunk novels depict. But animé is not definitive of the literary genre precisely because of the blending that makes them so delightfully interesting. Also: they’re not books.

    And yes, SUB > DUB for almost all values of DUB.

  22. Question… Are Portal and Portal 2 Cyberpunk games? I think they certainly tick several boxes…

  23. I’m going to have to disagree a little on anime/cyberpunk.

    Yes, the dubbing might be as good as the original written script and such examples as Bladerunner are good examples of cyberpunk. But others, specifically Ghost in the Shell and Akira namely were originally written as books (well, manga technically, but that is neither here nor there). The important things to realize about these particular examples is that they are perhaps two works that are the fundamentals of understanding cyberpunk, namely its themes and settings.

    Cyberpunk as a genre is fundamentally post-modern in nature, existing in a post-modern world with a post-modern theme to boot. What makes it a genre of its own is that it has been able to blend elements of thrillers, horrors, science fiction and fantasy into something that is new and stand alone by itself. In my opinion, the truly exceptional pieces of cyberpunk have been able to achieve this blending so successfully that to characterize them into one category of genre other than cyberpunk itself would not do them justice, i.e. cyberpunk can be defined as a collection of these elements, not one singular element, but a new and different genre nevertheless.

    I think this probably cause I’ve seen too much Ghost in the Shell.

  24. I have to disagree. DUB > SUB, if only because I don’t think the creators wanted big letters covering the bottom of the frame in every scene. Subs are still good though, and are the best gateway to understanding the story as a whole.

    One of the best cases for either side comes from the various Ghost in the Shell anime. The original movie tries so hard to be thought-provoking in its dub, there is a sequence I can’t watch in English. The boat conversation between Batou and the Major is a solid character moment, but in English, it stinks.

    The English dub does work for Stand Alone Complex. The Ghost in the Shell TV show has a fantastic dub, with a great ADR cast, doing solid work to capture the emotion and tone of the original Japanese voice actors. In Stand Alone Complex, there are a lot of scenes explaining conspiracies and machinations. These scenes are complex and switching the dub off and using subtitles does nothing to help the situation. The story is simply complex.

    As far as the impact Japanese anime/manga have over cyberpunk, I think it’s profound. This isn’t only because of the use of Japanese culture in cyberpunk stories, but also from the growth of technology in Japan compared to the rest of the world. We always hear about robots, phones, and computers, but have you heard about vocaloids? Vocaloids are virtual holographic pop idols, like Macross Plus’ Sharon Apple or the idols in William Gibson’s Idoru (which is just idol in Japanese).

    This episode was a joy to listen to. There was a general consensus, but disagreement on a few things, as promised. Cyberpunk is an interesting and evolving genre and I’m looking forward to next week’s episode.

    What would be the chances of having a BIOPUNK episode in the future? I write biopunk a lot and I’m curious to see what everyone has to think about it.

  25. Nat, Krizzaro? Since I’m transcribing that section… what Brandon says is “If you want to see it in cinema, you can watch Blade Runner…” “It” could refer to Neuromancer, but I think “it” just meant cyberpunk — he was talking about places that you could go to read/see cyberpunk. Yes, he started with Neuromancer, but I think pretty clearly he meant to talk next about where you could find cyberpunk (“it”) in cinema… with Blade Runner as the example. Of course, dangling references are ambiguous, but…

  26. Ooh, now I want to write cyberpunk. It’s a genre I’ve strayed from, as a reader, but I have very fond memories of it. When I was younger I wanted to have Razorgirl Molly’s mirrorshade implants over my eyes – until I remembered that one moment where she had to spit because she couldn’t cry. To me, that willing dehumanization is a vital element to cyberpunk. Either for financial or social or business reasons, eliminating parts of your humanity is darkly tempting, but at the same time horrible.

    My one point of contention is your Book of the Week. I know everybody loves Stephenson, but I find he has a huge problem ending his books. Diamond Age is a glorious, beautiful, captivating study of a society that’s trying to back out of the Devil’s bargain it’s made with technology, and then 3/4 of the way through it’s like he remembered he was writing a story and the whole thing spun out of control like DUI Night at a demolition derby. I thought Snow Crash was somewhat more coherent, and Cryptonomicon less so. If he wanted to write future histories, without the pressure of wedging a narrative into it, I’d be thrilled.

  27. I started listening to this postcast because I am in fact writing a cyberpunk story right now. But you podcast was interesting to listen to, especially since I have read Neuromancer, The Diamond Age, and Snow Crash.

    But I do think that one incredible cyperpunk story should be included in this conversation: Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan. Basically, all the themes you talked about can be found in Transmetropolitan – what being human means, the dangers of certain technology, the fear of the government and corporations. But this is mixed with a very high dose of humor and you get Spider Jerusalem, a gonzo journalist armed with a Bowel Distrupter and his filthy assistants, ready to take on a corrupt president. Transmetropolitan is possibly what you get when you distill cyberpunk into a comic book.

    Anyway, just thought I would share that. Thanks for doing the podcast!

  28. There are some scary implant technology things already. Just look up Jose Delgado. And I don’t think it would be voluntary… I can see it now. They will start with criminals who are dangerous to others, then people who are dangerous to themselves. Next will be people who have anxiety, chronic pain, and depression, physical limitations (or maybe they will be first). It will then branch off to the punks who want to be cool like criminals. And then we’ll just get all sorts of cools apps for it and everyone will want one. At some point, it will be mandatory for certain jobs (doctors with instant access to medical texts or the military with the ability to transmit messages to the troops instantaneously, or turn off fear altogether). And thank you for pointing out that the sci-fi novel that I’m working on is actually cyberpunk.

  29. There is a great RPG I’m surprised no one mentioned that deals with urban fantasy/cyberpunk… Shadowrun. It deals with mega-corps hiring runners to attack each other in dystopian Seattle. The game mechanics were weird when it came to combat, but the setting is amazing.

  30. @Nathan

    Uh, I mentioned Shadowrun Or did you mean just in the podcast?

  31. I agree with the comments ref. Bladerunner and the strange omission of Philip K Dick , but Dan managed to claw his way out of that one.

    David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas features a cool (see also frighteningly believable) cyberpunky thread for anyone interested in how it crops up in literary fiction.

    Where does cyberpunk go, now that we live in an age of smartphones that can make a cup of tea and people have their eyes lasered to see better? ;)

    I’m not so sure that people won’t have implants – at least for medical reasons. But maybe stem cell research will mean we don’t need implants, we just grow a new heart etc…

    Great show, looking forward to the brainstorm.

  32. Hmm, my quibble (and it really was meant as a minor comment, not a complaint) is that the transition from talking about Neuromancer to Blade Runner made it sound like Blade Runner was based on William Gibson’s work. I recognize the podcast is a conversation, so it’s unsurprising such ambiguities crop up–my comment was intended mostly to clarify, though I did also want to plug Philip K. Dick as well since he’s a great writer and he did, as Nat pointed out, influence a lot of later work. Dan’s right that Dick’s stories probably don’t really qualify as cyberpunk per se, though most of the movie adaptations definitely have that aesthetic.

    Like I said, I really enjoyed the podcast and I’m enjoying the comments. Fun discussion.

  33. @Chella – so instead of implants, we just get brazilian vat-cloned muscle? I can’t remember whether that was Stephenson or Gibson, but someone said it first… :o I do think we should make medical researchers read cyberpunk – so they can steal the ideas! I want Molly-goggles damnit!

  34. @Jace: My fault… I just saw your mentioning Shadowrun, right there on a line of it’s own. I don’t know how I missed it…

  35. Was looking through the latest Pop Sci e-mail (because yes I am too cheep to buy a subscription) when one of the topics reminded me of this episode.
    Towards the end of this episode you discussed how hard it was to stay cutting edge. You then gave us a writing prompt that involved cybernetic tattoos.
    The title of the article is “‘Epidermal Electronics’ Paste Peelable Circuitry On Your Skin, Just Like A Temporary Tattoo”.
    Talk about difficulty staying on the cutting edge!

    Btw if anyone wants a link to the article it can be found here:

  36. Orson Scott Card didn’t anticipate the Internet.
    He copied exactly the format Usenet had when he wrote the book (most esp. the second book).
    It was a big suspension of disbelief problem for me, because it was saying “Far in the distant future, the internet will still have exactly the same user interface that it has today in 1986.”

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