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What is Cyberpunk


A comment from Thomas Eicher, about defining cyberpunk:

"Gibson said it in a short story somewhere. Cyberpunk is the stuff that has EDGE written all over it. You know, not edge, it's written EDGE. All capital letters. Now ask me how I'd define EDGE. Well, EDGE is not about definitions. To the contrary, things so well known that they provide an exact definition can't be EDGE. They probably once were but now they ain't. SO DON'T TRY TO DEFINE IT!!!"

Taken from the ALT.CYBERPUNK FAQ:

Gardner Dozois, one of the editors of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine during the early '80s, is generally acknowledged as the first person to popularize the term 'cyberpunk', when describing a body of literature. Dozois doesn't claim to have coined the term; he says he picked it up "on the street somewhere".

It is probably no coincidence that Bruce Bethke wrote a short story titled 'Cyberpunk'in 1980 and submitted it Asimov's magazine, while Dozois may have been doing first readings, and got it published in Amazing in 1983, when Dozois was editor of 1983 Year's Best SF and would be expected to be reading the major SF magazines. But as Bethke says, "who gives a rat's ass, anyway?!". Bethke is not really a cyberpunk author, in mid-1995 he published 'Headcrash' which he calls "a cybernetically-aware comedy". Thanks to Bruce for his help on this issue.

Before its christening the cyberpunk movement, known to its members as "The Movement", had existed for quite some time, centred around Bruce Sterling's samizdat, 'Cheap Truth'. Authors like Sterling, Rucker and Shirley submitted articles pseudonymously to this newsletter, hyping the works of people in the group and vigorously attacking the SF mainstream. This helped form the core movement consciousness.

Cyberpunk literature, in general, deals with marginalized people in technologically advanced hierarchical societies. In cyberpunk milieux, there are usually powerful elites, be they oppressive governments, paternalistic multinational corporations or fundamentalist religions, who dominate the lives of the mass population. These regimes are aided and distorted by artificial intelligence, electronic media and information technology, resulting in an unusually subdued and compliant citizenry. Often this technological reliance extends to the very bodies of citizens themselves, via brain implants, prosthetic limbs, cloned or genetically engineered organs, etc. In this way human beings literally become part of ‘The Machine’. This is the 'cyber' aspect of cyberpunk.

However, as in any society, there are those either unable or unwilling to conform to cultural norms. Living out on the edge at the margins of an alienating system, are the criminals, outcasts, visionaries, dissenters and misfits. Cyberpunk literature focuses on these people, and often on how they turn the system's technological tools to their own ends. This is the 'punk' aspect of cyberpunk.

The best cyberpunk works are distinguished from earlier works with similar themes, by a certain style. The setting is urban, the mood is dark and pessimistic. Concepts are thrown at the reader without explanation, much as new developments are thrown at us in our everyday lives. There is often a sense of moral ambiguity; simply fighting the system, whether to topple it or merely for survival, does not mark the protagonists as heroes or worthy in the traditional sense.

Cyber + Punk = Cyberpunk (Taken from Cyberpunk Project)

The Coining

The word 'cyberpunk' first appeared as the title of a short story "Cyberpunk" by Bruce Bethke, published in "AMAZING" science fiction stories magazine volume 57, number 4, in November 1983. The word was coined in the early spring of 1980, and applied to the "bizarre, hard-edged, high-tech" SF emerging in the eighties. The story itself is about a bunch of teenage hackers/crackers.

Bethke himself tells, that the coining of the word "cyberpunk" was a conscious and deliberate act of creation on his part. The story was titled "Cyberpunk" from the very first draft. In calling it that, Bethke was actively trying to invent a new term that grokked the juxtaposition of punk attitudes and high technology. His reasons for doing so were purely selfish and market-driven: He wanted to give his story a snappy, one-word title that people would remember. And he really did succeed.

So, William Gibson didn't invent the word 'cyberpunk'. But he invented the cyberspace and the cyberpunk science fiction.

Originally the term 'cyberpunk' was meant to be a only character type name, meaning "a young, technologically facile, ethically vacuous, computer-assisted vandal or criminal". Nowadays the term means much more, it's the name for whole subculture and movement.

Bethke wanted to include these notions in the term:

  1. That children have some undefined wiring which enables them to learn languages far easier than adults do, and this ability is not limited to "organic" languages.
  2. That teenagers can be dangerous because they live in a sort of ethically neutral state. They haven't got the hang of empathy yet, nor have they really grasped the linkage between their causative actions and the resulting effects.
  3. That, just as command of a language is power, technological skill is enfranchisement, and in 1980 we were 20 to 30 years away from an explosion of technology that would radically change the distribution of power in society.
  4. That parents and other adult authority figures were going to be terribly ill-equipped to deal with the first generation of teenagers who grew up "speaking computer."
  5. THEREFORE, if you thought punks on motorcycles were a problem, just wait until you meet the--- the--- Y'know, there isn't a good word to describe them?

The Fusion

The term, in and of itself, is a fusion of two other and very different words, 'cyber' and 'punk', and this fusion is the key to understanding cyberpunk.


comes from 'cybernetics', which is a science studying control and communication in the animal and the machine, as defined by Norbert Wiener, coiner of the term. The term originates in the Greek language word 'kubernetes' which means 'pilot' or 'steersman'. Originally, cybernetic system, or any system, was a feedback loop that gives a controller information on the results of its actions. As computers were adapted for use in many control systems throughout the 1960's and 70's, the term which helped create the computer became associated with it. Wiener would have become dyspeptic at some of the uses of his word in the last forty years, but surely not with 'cyberpunk' and 'cyberspace'. It isn't cyber-anything without interaction, information, and communication. Nowadays, and in 'cyberpunk', the prefix 'cyber' means a synonym for that kind of cybernetic machine, something machinic, or something which exists or is produced via a cybernetic machine. Cybernetics also refers to machines that imitate human behaviour.


was a an anarchistic, dense, and fast youth movement which terrorized the world in the 1970's and early 1980's. The mess was caused by the loud hard-core rock music that groups such as the Sex Pistols made popular. The word means originally 'rotten' or 'junk'. A 'punk' is a troublemaker, an 'antisocial rebel or hoodlum'. In terms of literature and social movements, 'punk' refers to a 'counterculture' and a sort of 'street-level anarchy', and tends to focus more on attitude and outlook than on music and criminal activity. In 'cyberpunk', 'punk' means the anarchistic and anti-authoritarian part of it.

So, words 'cyber' and 'punk' emphasize the two basic aspects of cyberpunk: technology and individualism. Meaning of the word 'cyberpunk' could be something like 'anarchy via machines' or 'machine/computer rebel movement'.

The technology of cyberpunk is ultratechnology, which mixes genetic material from animal to animal, from animal to man, or from man to animal. This technology raises human embryos for organ transplants, creates machines that think like humans and humans that think like machines. This is a technology designed to keep people within the 'system' that dominates the lives of most 'ordinary' people. This is the science of controlling human functions and of electronic, mechanical and biological control systems designed to replace them.

This technology is visceral. It extends itself into people via brain implants, prosthetic limbs, cloned organs. It is not outside us but under our skin, inside our minds. Technology pervades the human self; the goal is the merging of man and machine.

Cyberpunk is a combination of high tech and low life. In this world of the future cities have become 'sprawls' where only the strong survive. There is bleakness and dread and 'extacy'. In this world, as in any world, there are those who live on its margins: criminals, outcasts... and those who live in the world of the 'sinless', who are not necesserily registered in the world database. Cyberpunk focuses on these people, these 'lovers of freedom' who often use the ultratechnology designed to control them to fight back. The story lines usually bend toward the world of the illegal and there is often a sense of moral ambiguity; simply fighting the 'system' does not make these characters 'heroes' or 'good' in the traditional sense.


The Etymology of Cyberpunk,
Bruce Bethke himself tells how, when, and why he invented the term cyberpunk, in the first story where the word Cyberpunk appeared.

In the March 1, 1993 issue of Time Magazine, their definition was this:
"With virtual sex, smart drugs and synthetic rock'n'roll, a new counterculture is surfing the dark edges of the computer age."
"They call it cyberpunk, a late-20th century term derived from CYBERNETICS, the science of communication and control theory, and punk, an antisocial rebel or hoodlum. Whithin this odd pairing lurks the essence of cyberpunk's international culture - a way of looking at the world that combines infatuation with high-tech tools and disdain for conventional ways of using them. Origionaly applied to a school of hard-boiled science-fiction writers and then to certain semitough computer hackers, the word cyberpunk now covers a broad range of music, art, psycadelics, smart drugs and cutting-edge technology."


© 2011