• S.C. Jensen

SF Themes and Ideas: Where does the word “Cyberpunk” come from?

You’ve heard the word. You might even think you know what it means.

The definition of cyberpunk, however, is an ephemeral and ever-changing thing which refuses to be pinned down. It is generally accepted that cyberpunk is a genre which explores dystopian futures, warning of the downsides of humanity’s unmitigated embrace of technology. Stylistically, there is a kind of neo-noir flare to the bleak high-tech cityscapes with their rainy nights and neon lights and the inherent dichotomies presented by the high-tech, low-life. Decades after its inception, fans still love to argue about what constitutes “true cyberpunk” and what is simply dystopian “science fiction.”

Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that gained traction in the 1980s and exploded in popularity with the dual literary and film blockbusters Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson and Blade Runner (1982) directed by Ridley Scott, but earlier proto-cyberpunk works exist such as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)–the novel that inspired Blade Runner–and the Judge Dredd comics which were first released in 1977.

But where does the word “cyberpunk” actuall come from?

Before Gibson penned his now-famous novel, and before Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner bombed at the box office (it has since become a critically acclaimed hit and a cult classic, but initial reactions were lukewarm at best), a writer by the name of Bruce Bethke penned a series of short-stories which he titled “Cyberpunk” in 1980.

How did he come up with the word? Bethke answers this question on his website, in a forward to the orignial story:

The invention of the c-word was a conscious and deliberate act of creation on my part. I wrote the story in the early spring of 1980, and from the very first draft, it was titled “Cyberpunk.” In calling it that, 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. Offhand, I’d say I succeeded. 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. Forward: Cyberpunk! by Bruce Bethke website: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/cpunk.htm

Ironically, the man who invented the term “cyberpunk” has largely been forgotten by fans of the genre, not because his story was forgettable–It’s actually wonderful, and I encourage you to read it here!–but because of the unethical action of his publisher who refused to let the rest of the stories see the light of day.

The original “Cyberpunk” story was first published in Amazing Stories in 1983. Bethke sold the collected stories as a novel to a publisher in 1989. Unfortunately, that novel was never published. Why? Because Bethke stood up for himself against the demands of his publisher to change the ending of the story.

The Controversy

In an interview with Strange Horizons in 2005, Bethke was asked about this missing novel and why it was never published after it had been sold in 1989.

“Ah, well, hindsight is 20/20,” Bethke replied. “The book was never released because the publisher hated the ending and I refused to rewrite it. What the publisher wanted me to write was a “Frazetta cover” ending; you know, the hero, center stage, with a mighty weapon in his hands, a cowering half-naked babe at his feet, and the blood-smeared corpses of his many enemies piled high all around. To get to this ending I would have had to end the book with the lead character committing a massacre inside a school—which is what the publisher specifically asked me to write—but even 10 years before Columbine, I found that idea utterly revolting. So I refused to write it. Perhaps the publisher was right. Perhaps the book would have sold well with a blood-soaked adolescent revenge fantasy ending. But sales aren’t everything.”

Bethke’s experience with this unnamed publisher is thematically aligned with the very thing cyberpunk has come to rage against: corporate control of the creative individual.

This type of behaviour from bullying traditional publishers is one of the reasons many writers today have turned to independent publishing, but in the 1980s Bethke didn’t have the same kind of options.

Ensnared in legal battles for years, Cyberpunk the novel lingered in limbo as the genre surged in popularity and Bethke lost his opportunity to participate in The Movement that had taken its name from his work. Had his Cyberpunk novel been published, the evolution of the genre might have been quite different.

Bethke went on to write Headcrash, a cyberpunk parody novel that won the Philip K. Dick award in 1995, and is currently serving as the the editor of Stupifying Stories magazine.

I will be reviewing Headcrash on Friday this week, as it is an absolute delight of a novel that I think every cyberpunk fan should read. Given Bethke’s experience with his Cyberpunk novel, the acerbically satirical tone of the novel packs an extra punch.

About Bruce Bethke

In science fiction circles, Bruce Bethke is best known either for his 1980 short story, “Cyberpunk,” his 1995 Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, HEADCRASH, or lately, as the editor of the STUPEFYING STORIES anthology series and driving force behind RAMPANT LOON PRESS. What very few people in the SF world have known about him until recently is that he actually began his career in the music industry, as a member of the design team that developed the MIDI interface and Finale music notation engine (among other things), but now works in supercomputer software R&D, doing work that is absolutely fascinating to do but almost impossible to explain to anyone not already fluent in Old High Unix and well-grounded in massively parallel processor architectures, Fourier transformations, and computational fluid dynamics. In his copious spare time he runs Rampant Loon Press, just for the sheer love of genre fiction and the short story form. from Amazon
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