During one of our recent Shadowrun Missions nights, I was surprised to find that a lot of the players weren’t familiar with a lot of the classic works of the genre. Now, tropes and conventions are things that should be played with and can evolve over time. But the echoing waves of the first pebbles cast into the cyberpunk pond more than 40 years ago still influence the work going on today.
Defining the Genre
Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and is usually a “near-future” form of SF. Cyberpunk worlds are generally dystopias featuring high-tech low-lives, cybernetic human enhancement, and the ascendency of corporate power. The protagonists ofcyberpunk stories are usually the underdogs, and usually work in opposition to the established power structure – that’s where the punk comes in. Cyberpunk stories often have a lot of elements from noir fiction. Many of the characters have dubious or hidden motives, and they often have secrets which are revealed over the course of the story.
One could argue that certain aspects of cyberpunk have done a much better job of predicting the times we live in now (30-40 years after first publication) than SF of the 50s and 60s did. I think there’s a lot of merit to that argument.
From the Days Before “-punk”
If you ask most science fiction fans for the name of the first book in the cyberpunk genre, they’ll probably point to William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”. Pfui. The core features of what became cyberpunk were around long before Gibson came on the scene. (He’s arguably one of the people who made it cool, though.) For example, Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (1968) – better known by it’s cinematic adaptation, “Blade Runner” (1982) – packs many of the classic features of cyberpunk almost two decades before Gibson. (And so does the Alan E. Nourse novel “The Bladerunner” (1974), about a man who deals in black market medical supplies.)
While it lacks some of the darkness, noir atmosphere and stylistic features of classic cyberpunk, John Brunner’s “The Shockwave Rider” (1975) gets a lot of things right in a truly scary fashion. Brunner coined the term “worm” for self-replicating computer viruses, for one thing. “The Shockwave Rider” includes e-mail (and spam), ubiquitous surveillance society, and a ton of other things not seen in SF at that time. It’s a relatively short book (by today’s standards) that makes wonder if a time traveller from 2014 popped into Brunner’s place for tea one day, and this book is the result of their conversation.
The Classic Core
I mentioned it before, but “Neuromancer” (1984) is one of the defining works of the genre, despite not being first. What many people don’t realize is that while he was creating a vision of a high tech-low life hacker future, William Gibson knew nothing about computers. Diddly. He didn’t even own a personal computer of any kind at the time (not all that unusual for the early 80s). But here we get in one package a lot of the things we recognize today as cyberpunk. Throw in the anthologies “Burning Chrome” (Gibson, 1986) and “Mirrorshades” (edited by Bruce Sterling, 1986) for maximum immersion into these particular thematic currents.
Less well known but still one of the core works of the genre is Walter Jon Williams’ “Hardwired” (1986), and you can have my battered early-printing paperback when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. Williams wasn’t the first to introduce the concept of hardwiring human brains to control vehicles, but in Cowboy he really explores this idea in a way rarely seen before or since. We also get to see a sundered United States, enhancements that would become skill wires in Shadowrun, and everybody’s favorite mode of transport, the ground effect armored vehicle known as a “panzer”.
Bruce Sterling, along with Gibson, is one of the founding members of the cyberpunk movement in science ficiton. Sterling produced some great though under-rated work. The one I’ll usually point folks to is “Islands in the Net” (1988) which features corporate citizenship, data havens, drones, and asymmetric warfare during a globe-trotting ride through a near-future world.
The last of the big core works is Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” (1992), the book that made him a star of the writing world. Stephenson takes the sundering of the United States (and other countries) a lot further than Williams does. He also creates something called “The Metaverse” which heavily influenced the development of MMOs, and does it all with almost adolescent irreverence.
Lots of people wrote works in the cyberpunk school during the big wave of the 1980s and early 1990s. And while Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is crap”) might apply, there’s some really cool and influential stuff from that period that isn’t as well-known. One I mention to my Shadowrun players all the time is Joe Clifford Faust’s “The Company Man” (1988). This book was – no nice way to say it – plundered at length by some of the Shadowrun authors (as was “Hardwired”) due to the wonderful ideas within. Chief among those is the eponymous archetype, The Company Man, a corporate employee who tackles illegal or questionable jobs for his employer. The term “dogbrain” comes from this book too. So does the “pizza run”, a type of mission designed to cause a moderate level of mayhem with an absolute minimum of violence. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Somewhat more literary, and with definitely a different spin on things, George Alec Effinger’s “Marid Audran” novels are set in a fictionalized Middle East. Effinger’s “Budayeen” neighborhood is actually a pretty thinly-veiled version of the old New Orleans French Quarter, but several Muslim writers affirm Effinger got their culture right better than most Western literature. Start with the first book, “When Gravity Fails” (1987), which introduces Audran and his friends.
My favorite lesser known-works from this period though are Daniel Keys Moran’s stories of Trent Castanaveras, aka “Trent the Uncatchable”. You could start with “Emerald Eyes” (1988) with Trent as a boy and introduce a lot of characters seen later. But for my money the best of the lot is “The Long Run” (1989), in which Trent earns his nickname. “The Long Run” can be If you want a better idea about what life as a cybernetically enhanced combat soldier/policeman might be like, look at Moran’s PKF Elite troopers. Also, flying cars! The climactic heist at the end (on the moon, no less) is a thrilling, page-turning sequence that keeps you guessing up until the last moment.
Branching Out & Newer Works
While it straddles the line of transhumanism, Richard K. Morgan’s “Altered Carbon” is in many ways a cyberpunk book, updated smartly for the early 21st century. Morgan’s books are Very, very violent. (Trigger warnings for torture, sexual assault and violence against women.)
Elizabeth Bear’s “Worldwired” books (start with “Hammered”, 2005) open with a broken-down former Canadian warrant officer who’s living through the breakdown of her cybernetics in a broken down 21st-century Connecticut.
On it’s way to becoming a movie, Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” is both a cyberpunk book and a loving paen to 1980s pop culture all in one.
Wrapping it Up
This is, as the title says, just a level 101 introduction to cyberpunk. Hopefully it gives you some starting points to begin your own exploration of this branch of SF, and adds to the enjoyment of your games.
John Appel is a veteran RPG gamer and captain of the Shadowrun Missions here at the store. He has been GMing Shadowrun and similar games for many years and knows the genre inside and out!