Bacigalupi: cyberpunk saved sf

Paolo Bacigalupi (whose books have been reviewed here in the past) writes in Wired about the way that cyberpunk saved science fiction:

For me as a kid, reading cyberpunk was like seeing the world for the first time. Gibson’s Neuromancer wasn’t just stylistically stunning; it felt like the template for a future that we were actively building. I remember reading Sterling’s Islands in the Net and suddenly understanding the disruptive potential of technology once it got out into the street.

Cyberpunk felt urgent. It wasn’t the future 15 minutes out—it was the future sideswiping you and leaving you in a full-body cast as it passed by.

And what's coming next:

I work in a literary genre that thrives at uncertainty points, when questions about our future are unanswered. Even though post-9/11 America is as corporate-dominated as any cyberpunk could have anticipated, it’s also national-security-obsessed. We seem to be building toward a sort of public-private partnership of free-market totalitarianism that never felt like it was on the road map.

How Cyberpunk Saved Sci-Fi


  1. Worked for me.  When I discovered Sterling and Gibson and their ilk, suddenly Asimov’s vision seemed two-dimensional and bland.  Big, but bland.

  2. I was feeling very disenchanted by most SF in the mid eighties. It was like having a friend who, at age 30, was still really cranked on getting merit badges, who only went to the city to see the natural history museum.

    Cyberpunk a new crowd to hang with that seemed to know a hell of a lot more about what was going on.

  3. I’m a big a fan of Gibson as anybody, but he basically did what any science fiction author in any era does — extrapolate the current situation into an extreme. All this “new tech changes everything” and “Japan sure is cool and futuristic” vibes of cyberpunk were really nothing other than exaggerations of 1980s Western culture faced with the wonders of personal computers and gaming consoles on one side and fears of Japanese domination on the other. Asimov seemed dated by then because his views were based on 1940s/1950s Western culture.

    1. Yep, Japan and computers were big, and were appearing in film, pop music, TV and so on. Gibson’s novel was trailing all that, though not by too much. (Tron went into production in the late 70s.) I think it was the dystopian vision that made cyberpunk relevant, and that relevance led to its increasing popularity. The mystical vision of someone like Herbert tasted like poop pie with Tammy Faye and James running around making bank on AIDS. And Asimov and the other Old Farts’ vision of vast, centralized empires didn’t sound so good with all the revelations about how about how the Cold War had spawned neocolonialism.

      Speaking of dystopianism, Brunner’s Shockwave Rider beat Gibson to press by almost a decade, didn’t it?

      And really, really, what’s left out of this is sales numbers and marketability. Working in a bookstore in the early 90s, it was easy to see that publishers tried to create taste rather than following consumer demand. Gibson’s novels were short and catchy. Stuff like Brunner’s was longer, more intellectual (and had troublesome UK copyrights). You could make a lot more bank on Gibson, and he was to imitate. Until Gibson came along, the publishers hadn’t recognized the possible rewards in helping create a cyberpunk sub-genre.

    1. That essay is a bit weird to say the least. I’m not sure who she’s arguing against, but it sure isn’t Sterling, who’s only fault seems to have been that he used the cliche “self-absorbed” to describe the 1970s. Maybe there are some male chauvinists who use that term to criticize feminists who no longer selflessly devoted themselves to their husbands and children, but in general the cliche refers to the death of 1960s radicalism and the resurgence of consumerism in the decade.

    2. That essay is spot-on; thanks for the link.  Anyone who hauls out the “nothing was happening in SF in the ’70s, and then came cyberpunk” line has immediately announced that they know nothing about the history of the genre — or do know it but have no problem making obviously empirically false claims.  Not surprising to find such an essay in “Wired,” which (if my one-year subscription proved anything) provides pretty much the level-zero consumerist view of pop/tech culture.

    3. Notice that Bacigalupi didn’t say “70s.” He said “early 80s,” and my memories of those times lines up with his. I can think of a lot of really exciting science fiction in the 1970s; for example I was a huge Tiptree fan, and waited every year with bated breath for Brunner’s annual disaster novel. I can also remember a lot of 1970s science fiction that excited other people but that I couldn’t stand because of my rule of thumb about anything that’s nothing but unpleasant people being unpleasant to each other, which is how I remember most of New Wave science fiction. Mid to late 1970s science fiction rocked.

      But, just to refresh my memory before writing this, I just went back over the list of Hugo novel nominees from 1979 to 1984, and oh, my ghod, what a steaming pile of crap. And it almost all matches exactly what Bacigalupi said in his essay: lots of sequels to and pastiches of and reimaginings of 1960s and early 1970s sci-fi, one big sloppy wave of Campbell nostalgia, as if the previous decade of literary innovation hadn’t even happened.

      I think it’s possibly an exaggeration for effect to say that the Mirrorshades Group “saved” science fiction. But it was a years’ overdue breath of fresh air, in the exact same way that the relatively recent wave of YA science fiction saved current science fiction from the same problems.

  4. Re: “We seem to be building toward a sort of public-private partnership of free-market totalitarianism that never felt like it was on the road map.”

    What about he Eclipse Series by John Shirely?

    1. I remember circling in bookstores looking for Gibson, Shiner, Shirley, and Sterling.  That was about the time I discovered Boing Boing, Mondo 2000, The Principia Discordia, The Book of the SubGenius, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, WordJazz at 5AM, Robert Anton Wilson, and damn I feel old now.  :-)

  5. I started reading cyberpunk in the first few years of the 1990s, and it was really the first genre of sci-fi lit I really got into. I got into rave culture a couple years later, which very much seemed like it fit into the cyberpunk mentality, with techno music, mind hacking, etc. It changed my life dramatically and permanently, and has given me the ability to always be looking right over the horizon, in terms of technology and culture, in a way that I use to my advantage professionally every single day. And yes, exposure to Boing Boing the zine, Mondo 2000, and their ilk in the same early 90s timeframe sure helped!

  6. Yeah, but the two recent great SF books which really rock,

    Iain Banks’ The Player of Games,


    Sterling’s Drakon,

    should continue interest in the future fiction genre.

    And if you really yearn for greatness:

    Donald Gibson’s Battling Wall Street, the Kennedy Presidency

    David Talbot’s Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years

    Shane O’Sullivan’s Who Killed Bobby?

    HP Albarelli’s A Terrible Mistake

    Russ Baker’s Family of Secrets

    James Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable

    1. Games and Drakon were published in 1988 and 1995 respectively – so calling them recent is a stretch, though I do think the Culture series has probably created a lot of new readers. I eat up most everything Banks does, with and without the “M”.

  7. It’s the only book I’ve ever read that made me feel like I was high.  Of course reading Mona Lisa Overdrive in the French Quarter in an aparment off Esplanade was pretty good too.

  8. I read that, but Wired isn’t taking comments today.

    Bacigalupi is mistaking the cutting edge fiction when he came of age for having invented the cutting edge. He depicts a world in which nothing at all existed between Campbell and Gibson except more Campbell, conveniently eliding from history people like Moorcock, Ballard, Russ, Le Guin and Delaney. Cyberpunk was good and I enjoyed it, but Bacigalupi’s history is pure fantasy.

    1. It’s a very “teenager” point of view.  All teens seem to think that their generation invented _____________ (fill in cool cultural meme here).  He (like myself) was a teen in the early 80s.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t learned to see past it, at least in regards to speculative fiction.

      Like him, in the early 80s I was all about cyberpunk as being the end-all be-all of speculative fiction.  As I grew up I realized that Sterling, Gibson, et al. weren’t actually doing anything that speculative fictions writers hadn’t been doing for generations – they simply did it in terms that resonated with “their” generation.

  9. I came of age in the 70’s (being born in ’61) – and while I read everything I could get my hands on, the Big Three caught my eye, as well as others (Tiptree, Wolfe, LeGuin, Leinster, Niven, etc.) – it seems every ten years or so comes a revolution in styles, and the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s were no different.
    Gibson was simply one of the first big names of that style that caught my eye, maybe he was the leader of the pack.
    Neuromancer is a fine book, nonetheless, as well as others of his (I really liked ‘Spook Country’).

  10. ”We seem to be building toward a sort of public-private partnership of free-market totalitarianism that never felt like it was on the road map.”

    Um, it’s called fascism. It’s been on the map for a long time; it’s just a little late getting here. 

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