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Writing Excuses 6.6: Cyberpunk

Writing Excuses 6.6: Cyberpunk


Key points: near-future, Earth-based, internet connectivity, human augmentation, human identity. What does it mean to be human? Independent cobblers, gritty, antiestablishment. Hackers fighting corporations. Street culture of the future. East vs. West culture clash. Is popular cyberpunk an oxymoron? Cyber wonder, but also cautionary tales. World weariness. Dystopia. "We got our wish and now we're all monsters."  Fear of corporations, government, runaway technology. The Singularity.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode Six, Cyberpunk.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I have metal plugged into my head.

[Brandon] Oh, boy. So we decided we would tackle the tricky topic of cyberpunk this episode. We talk about it a lot. It's kind of foundational in what's happened in science fiction over the last 30 years. So we really need to talk about it. The thing is, there's probably going to be a lot of disagreement, even among us, about what cyberpunk means and what it is. So, let's just throw it out. Who wants to start us off? Dan, what's cyberpunk by your definition?
[Dan] By defining cyberpunk?
[Howard] Cyberpunk, the literary genre?
[Dan] Cyberpunk, the literary genre. Um. Cyberpunk is a genre that is typically near future, Earth-based. A lot of... It's very heavily concerned with Internet connectivity, human augmentation, and... As far as that goes, actual human identity and changing what it means to be human altogether.
[Brandon] Okay. Where does the punk part come from?
[Dan] The punk part comes from... I have no idea.
[Mary] It usually...
[Howard] The punk part comes from... Indy. The independents... The idea that I'm going to make this myself. I'm going to cobble things together from parts. I'm going to stick them where they need to go. That's kind of the fashion element of it, is... It's... It's Borg-like but not corporate. Does that make sense?
[Mary] Well, I actually think it's more from the gritty aspect of it.
[Brandon] Yeah, I would go a little with Mary here. It was gritty. It was antiestablishment though, was one of the big deals.
[Dan] It was very much the fringes of society.
[Howard] Well, and that's what I'm driving at, is that it's antiestablishment to the point that you're not wearing or using...

[Brandon] Well, see, but that's... You're talking about the culture. We're not talking about the culture. The actual literature of cyberpunk was about hackers fighting corporations in the near future.
[Mary] It's the street culture of the future.
[Howard] Right. But the things that they are using are usually tools that they have made themselves.
[Dan] In a lot of cases, that's true. You look at something like Neuromancer, even when it was... They spent a lot of time collecting the very best equipment from other people, but then they used them to assemble their own computer pretty much everywhere they went.
[Howard] That's the hacker culture. I'm going to cobble together what works.
[Brandon] Okay. I'm disagreeing with you that that's a foundational element. But I said, there's going to be lots of disagreement.
[Mary] Yeah. Because, I mean... Certainly every quest story involves we have to gather all of these elements to make...
[Brandon] Now, granted, there's a big maker culture among the same group. But I think that's grown out of something that started back in the 80s. Which I've had explained to me as this. People worried about the big corporations taking over and writing about the little guy in the near future fighting them and usually losing.

[Dan] Privatization and all those things. Also, another huge theme in cyberpunk that I neglected to mention is kind of the culture clash between East and West. Whether or not that was there in the beginning, that has become such a part of it, that everyone speaks Japanese and all these kinds of things.
[Brandon] Yep. Yup. That's a really good point. I think it's the kind of worry about the East taking over a little bit... Or the reaction against the worry about the East taking over. Or just kind of a melding of society. I mean... It's hard to define cyberpunk. We're going to get lots of comments I'm sure by cyberpunk purists, because a lot of people think cyberpunk died in the mid-80s. Because cyberpunk was a punk genre written by a bunch of people who were not part of the corporate structure. Once they actually started selling and getting published and people began to know about cyberpunk, they said, "Okay, cyberpunk is now dead." There cannot be cyberpunk.
[Dan] See... While I can kind of see where those people are coming from, to me that makes it a useless definition. Because then we're defining a fossil, and that doesn't help us. If we want to write books that are similar to that, we have to define it more broadly.
[Brandon] Well, I react against that myself, also, even in the punk music genre. People who get annoyed by the punk music genre when they get popular. It's this idea that something popular can't also be good. I dislike that.
[Howard] I have been told that I'm not making a webcomic anymore.
[Brandon] Right. Because you're now making too much.
[Dan] Because you're successful.

[Mary] Somewhere I heard that William Gibson did not own a computer, and had never seen one.
[Brandon] Wow. Really? Okay... I...
[Dan] I don't know. I wouldn't be surprised by that. Because inherent in Neuromancer and the rest of his early trilogy is this deep-seated fear of technology. I mean, the Sprawl trilogy is about technology taking over and man becoming almost passed up evolutionarily by something we'd created.
[Mary] But the interesting thing is that because he sat down and thought I wonder how they would work and how things would be connected in the future... His vision... Of the visions of computers coming out of that period, his is the one that most closely maps to what actually happened.
[Dan] True. His... And I would also say Scott Card's with Ender's Game... presage the Internet very, very accurately.
[Mary] Yeah. That's true. Yes.
[Dan] But William Gibson... You're right. He got a lot of things... Wetware, and virtual reality... A lot of things that we have now, before anyone thought we'd have them.
[Mary] Well, and we use the words that he coined, as well.

[Brandon] Let's shift this from defining and more into what do writers right now... Say you're writing science fiction right now... What do you need to be aware of as a writer with regard to the cyberpunk movement?
[Mary] One of the things that I think... One of the key elements that a cyberpunk story is clearly the cyber aspect of it. But it's not just a trapping. It is the MacGuffin, it is everything in the story.
[Howard] There needs to be a sense of wonder, and part of what is evoking a sense of wonder is... Yeah, that MacGuffin. If I could broadcast to the insides of my glasses, or later on to the insides of my eyeballs, the blueprints of the building while I'm walking through the building... What does that change? How does that draw the reader into the story?
[Dan] Hey. I'm going to agree with your point, but I'm going to disagree with your word choice, because I don't think sense of wonder is really accurate to the tone of cyberpunk.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Brandon] Yeah. It really...
[Howard] Well, no. I get that because concomitant with the sense of wonder is the cautionary tale and the grittiness and some of that. Because, yeah, part of what's happening is, "Oh, this is really cool, but watch out because the blueprints are wrong and you've just walked off a cliff..." Or your eyeballs are diseased...
[Dan] Well, yeah. There's a lot of world weariness, I think, in cyberpunk.
[Brandon] Yeah. Cyberpunk is weary.
[Dan] It's not exciting new technology. It's cool old technology and frightening new technology.
[Mary] And how is it being misused. I think a lot of cyberpunk is about how this technology is being misused.
[Brandon] In fact, I would say that cyberpunk was the... Our current dystopian sort of fad that's hitting, particularly in YA but all around science fiction, can be traced... Part of its roots back to the cyberpunk movement. Because cyberpunk was a huge dystopian... Kind of you could say on anti-Star Wars, anti-Star Trek, anti-the future is bright and full...
[Dan] Anti-Star Trek, yeah.
[Brandon] Of cool space battles... No, the future is grungy, dim and horrible is what the envisioning of cyberpunk... I think that's kind of grown into the current sense of dystopia.
[Howard] In defense of the sense of wonder, the... What's happening there is you've got the... Yeah, you got the grungy, horrible future that is made out of wonderful things that everybody thought would be cool. As you are looking at these individual technological pieces, you are realizing, "Man, I've always wanted a jet pack," or I've always wanted this, and it comes around to bite you. I mean, that's where the dystopia comes from... We got our wish and now we're all monsters.

[Brandon] Right. Let's go ahead and do our book of the week. Mary, I think you are going to pitch to us a Neal Stephenson book?
[Mary] Yes. The Diamond Age. I think this is a really good entry book in cyberpunk, because it... The basic premise is that in the future, there's a push back to technology. So there's really heavy technology use, full on cyberpunk use, but there's also this neo-Victorian era. That's... The title comes from the Gilded Age. It's got wonderful characters, high use of technology, and at the same time, there's this gentility. Like people wear hats again. Umbrellas.
[Brandon] Okay. All right. Cool.
[Howard] I loved Diamond Age.
[Brandon] Neal Stephenson. Fantastic writer. One of the main cyberpunk writers of the early 90s.
[Howard] So head on out to Kick off a 14 day free trial membership. Download a copy of Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. Have a listen, and there you go.

[Brandon] We should mention a few other places you can look, if you really want to figure out what cyberpunk really is. William Gibson is often lauded as one of the great writers, I believe. Neuromancer is the famous one. It won some... I think it won the Hugo.
[Dan] It won some big, big stuff.
[Mary] It won like everything.
[Brandon] It was foundational.
[Mary] It was groundbreaking when it came out.
[Brandon] If you want to see it in cinema, you can watch Blade Runner, which was a movie that grew out of the cyberpunk feel and things. Which is interesting in that studying that had taught me that cyberpunk doesn't need to have cyberspace. I originally assumed that cyberpunk meant cyberspace. I think a lot of people do think this. Like for instance, they assume that you have to be doing what's going on in the Matrix. Jumping into a matrix and hacking. That's a big part of a lot of cyberpunk. In fact, The Matrix is probably a... The best example of a pop cyberpunk story. It's got all those elements... Dystopian future, technology, what does it mean to be human and all of these things, but done kind of in an action pop way.
[Howard] Well, and there was Keanu Reeves previous cyberpunk role in Johnny Mnemonic.
[Dan] Also by William Gibson.
[Howard] Also by Gibson.
[Dan] Going back to my first definition, a lot of cyberpunk is about human augmentation and human identity, which is exactly what Blade Runner is dealing with.

[Brandon] Yep. If you're out there and you're wanting to write cyberpunk, number one, you probably need to read some of this. In fact, no probably, you need to read some of this and know what's going on. In fact, if you're writing near future science fiction, I think you need to be aware of what cyberpunk was talking about, because if you aren't, you're going to have trouble being part of the dialogue and the discussion.
[Dan] I think that's even more urgent in the case of cyberpunk than in a lot of genres because cyberpunk is the genre we're catching up to. That's part of the reason that it is becoming more popular again, is because that's the future that's turned out to be true. That's the one we're moving into. We almost live in a cyberpunk world today in a lot of ways.
[Howard] Yeah. Between my Bluetooth headset and my iPhone and my iPad, I'm halfway there. The only thing that's missing is projection on the glasses and an actual implant.
[Dan] Well, and last year, the movie The Social Network... That was a movie about millions of people interacting in a virtual space... And it was nonfiction. That says a lot about where we are as a society.

[Brandon] Right. Would you say that the whole fear of corporation and things. I mean, how is that part of cyberpunk today? Are we still worried about privatization? I mean, Snowcrash, a good Neal Stephenson book, postulates that all cities will eventually be owned by corporations, in fact, each little division of a city will be sponsored by a different corporation. They are the ones that own land and run cities.
[Mary] I almost think that now the fear is towards government. I'm thinking of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother as one example of that. Which had it been written in the 80s would totally be cyberpunk, but now it's just near future.
[Dan] I think we still are getting some corporate fear, though.
[Mary] Yeah. It's not gone.
[Dan] I mean, to some degree, we're watching many wars and warlike conflicts being fought by corporations in the world today.
[Brandon] Right. The worry that the government is just run by a corporation who says, "Well, we need to go and fight this war so that we can protect the interests of the corporation."
[Dan] That's one of the main political things going on.
[Howard] If I were an author... Well, okay, so I am sort of an author. Only mostly I draw. But if I were looking to write cyberpunk, I would explore both of those. Fear of the corporation, fear of the government, and I would try to extrapolate some sort of state... state lower case "S"... Some sort of... Not equilibrium, but something in which that's resolved in a weird way. I don't know what I'm looking for yet. Maybe... We could can of worms that and brainstorm it. I don't know.
[Brandon] Right. Well, and next week, what we've decided we're going to do, is we will brainstorm a cyberpunk story to kind of do a show instead of a tell. This is our descriptive podcast, the next one we'll try to actually...
[Howard] Oh, great. Now I'm actually going to have to come up with that setting.
[Dan] Hah hah! Mwah hah!

[Brandon] Yeah. We'll have to show how we would build a story and then put it in the cyberpunk genre. But it's interesting to be... If you're writing cyberpunk, right now, to be looking at this genre because of what's been said. We are catching up to it. So the cyberpunk stories are moving further in the future. They're moving more science fictiony. But there's this whole concept of the Singularity and problems there and what's really going to happen. It's an interesting place to be writing. It's also kind of scary to be writing, honestly. Because there are so many things to take into account. I mean, how the Internet changes science fiction...
[Howard] Oh, the things that you need to research in order to get your computer technology right. You could sit and read... Not the opinion articles, but just the news articles on technology from Wired and Slashdot and wherever else... You could read nothing but that as source material every day for a month and still only be scratching the surface.
[Mary] Now, I will...
[Dan] Yeah. And that... Go ahead, Mary.

[Mary] Well, I will say, speaking of the future and things happening now... I will say that one thing that I think that cyberpunk posits that I don't think will happen are surgical implants of computer stuff. Because as fast as technology is changing right now, I can't imagine a future where people are willing to be...
[Dan] Yeah. Confident enough in launching that long-term.
[Mary] In any technology... I think external patches, absolutely those...
[Dan] One of the things I was going to mention is Lauren Beukes, South African cyberpunk writer who's up for the Campbell this year. Her big books are Moxie Land and Zoo City. In Moxie Land, there's a character who has sold part of her skin as advertising space to a corporation, which was really cutting edge stuff when Lauren wrote it two or three years ago. We're already kind of seeing that again. I mean, it's so...
[Howard] Two or three years ago? I saw that happening in 2001 at ComicCon.
[Dan] Well, there you go. It's so hard to stay cutting edge in this genre, because our own technology is advancing so fast.

[Brandon] All right. Well, let's go and do a writing prompt. Does anyone have one they want to throw at us?
[Howard] I... I've got one. Playing off of the patches stuff, we have a cyberpunk setting in which tattoos are the equivalent of implants, and you've got somebody who gets a tattoo, and for some reason, they now need to have that tattoo removed. Obsolescence, or a hack, or something. But, tattoo removal.
[Brandon] Your tattoo got hacked.
[Howard] Your tattoo got hacked.
[Dan] Nice. I digg it.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: cautionary tales, corporations, cyberpunk, dystopia, earth-based, gritty, hackers, human augmentation, human identity, internet connectivity, near-future, pop, singularity, street culture
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