Who invented the Cyberpunk genre?

With new sciences come new kinds of science-fiction stories. Because with new possibilities come new ideas about the present and the future, and new types of stories. In the second half of the 20th century, the idea of High Tech led to the emergence of cyberpunk literature.

The Origin of the Word Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk is a science-fiction subgenre. The name was coined by the American writer Bruce Bethke who used it as the title for a short story he wrote in 1980 (published in November 1983 in Amazing Stories magazine). In it, the character uses his talent with computers to cause trouble. He was a “hacker,” even if the term was not used in the story.

Bethke didn’t think at that time “cyberpunk” would become the word used to define a whole subgenre.

“I was actively trying to invent a new term that grokked the juxtaposition of punk attitudes and high technology. My reasons for doing so were purely selfish and market-driven: I wanted to give my story a snappy, one-word title that editors would remember. […]How did I actually create the word? The way any new word comes into being, I guess: through synthesis. I took a handful of roots—cyber, techno, et al—mixed them up with a bunch of terms for socially misdirected youth, and tried out the various combinations until one just plain sounded right.”—Bruce Bethke.

Who created the Cyberpunk genre?

Bethke takes credit for the word, but certainly not for defining the genre. For him, that honor belongs to William Gibson with his 1984 novel “Neuromancer.”

A lot of people give credit to Gibson because he is the one whose work was the most genre-defining, in that case. He clearly deserved the recognition, even if the origins of cyberpunk are more complicated than that.

Also, we can credit Gibson for coining the term “cyberspace” in his novelette “Burning Chrome,” published in 1982 by Omni magazine.

But what is cyberpunk?

You often find that cyberpunk stories focus on “high tech and low life.” They feature advanced technological and scientific achievements—like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, cybernetics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology—and mostly follow countercultural antiheroes (the punk part) trapped in a dehumanized future. Those protagonists (hackers mostly) tend to subvert authority with their use of technology.

Cyberpunk is also about the atmosphere. Those stories often have a film noir feel and use techniques from detective fiction—with a preference for the hard-boiled—to explore the nihilistic underground side of society. A tendency that helps connect cyberpunk with dystopian fiction.

Blade runner (1982) – Real. Ridley Scott
Harrison Ford. Collection Christophel / RnB © The ladd company / Warner Bros

What influenced Cyberpunk

If Neuromancer is the definitive Cyberpunk novel, a lot of ’80s writers contributed to elaborating the tropes of the genre, like Rudy Rucker with Software, John Shirley with City Come A-Walkin, Lewis Shiner with Frontera, Walter Jon Williams with Hardwired, W.T. Quick with Dreams of Flesh and Sand, Bruce Sterling with Schismatrix, Michael Swanwick with Vacuum Flowers, Pat Cadigan with Pretty Boy Crossover, Greg Bear with Blood Music, and a lot more.

But before them, before cyberpunk was used to define the genre, other works of science-fiction explored the basic ideas or concepts of what would become cyberpunk. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, Stand on Zanzibar and Shockwave Rider by John Brunner, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick for example introduced or simply explore some of the tropes that became part of the ADN of cyberpunk.

In fact, the movie adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, became the other defining work of the cyberpunk genre, especially for its aesthetics. That part was, like Neuromancer (as Gibson told it), clearly influenced by the comic book magazine Heavy Metal and, more precisely, by the 1976 story “The Long Tomorrow” written by Dan O’Bannon and illustrated by Moebius. The 1982 manga Akira—and its 1988 anime film adaptation—and Frank Miller’s 1983 six-issue miniseries Rōnin also became real influences on the genre.

Beyond Cyberpunk

Even if Cyberpunk is already a subgenre, it gave birth to its own subgenres like Biopunk which focuses on the potential dangers to genetic engineering and enhancement; or Nanopunk which focuses on worlds in which the theoretical possibilities of nanotechnology are a reality. Also, there is the “anti”-Cyberpunk, the Solarpunk.

Postcyberpunk is not a subgenre, but an evolution, a different approach to the genre that uses the main futuristic elements, but not in a dystopic setting—see Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age and Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire.

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