The Early Life of the Word “Cyberpunk”

When Neuromancer came out in 1984 the word “cyberpunk” had not yet come to be associated with a new literary movement. The gears of the cyberpunk movement began to turn with early cyberpunk novels like Transmanicon (1979) and City Come A-Walkin’ (1980) from John Shirley, The Artificial Kid (1980) by Bruce Sterling, and a slew of short fiction from the likes of Gibson, Shirley, Sterling, Pat Cadigan, and many more. And it wasn’t just a literary movement; movies like Escape from New York (1981), Alien (1979), and Blade Runner (1982) began to solidify the visual aesthetic. Neuromancer, though, was the moment everyone noticed that this was a pattern. The tropes had all come together. In 1986, well after cyberpunk was the accepted word to describe this new science fiction movement, Norman Spinrad suggested that the real word we should be using to describe cyberpunk was “Neuromantics” because people were mostly copying Neuromancer. This is a short sighted diagnosis, but there is a modicum of validity; so why did we choose cyberpunk? In spring of 1980, Bruce Bethke was trying to coin a term to describe the next generation of “motorcycle punks.” There wasn’t a good word to describe this coming archetype and so he “set out to create and define that word.” The core idea that inspired the term was: The kids who trashed my computer; their kids were going to be Holy Terrors, combining the ethical vacuity of teenagers with a technical fluency we adults could only guess at. Further, the parents and other adult authority figures of the early 21st Century were going to be terribly ill-equipped to deal with the first generation of teenagers who grew up truly “speaking computer.” The word then became the very intentional title for his short story, Cyberpunk, about a group of hacker teens bucking the system, exploiting systems for personal gain, and rebelling against their parents. This is a common trope now, but when Bethke wrote about it, it was a new idea. It wasn’t until July 1982, though, that Bethke finally sold the story to the magazine Amazing Stories and it was November 1983 before the story was published. The story also popularized the vision of the teenage hacker with a mohawk, which was inspired by the visage of Billy Idol; who ironically would go on to adopt the cyberpunk identity with his 1993 Cyberpunk album. The word was popularized by Gardner Dozois in his 1984 article for the Washington Post, called Science Fiction in the Eighties, to describe the new wave of science fiction writers. About the closest thing here to a self-willed esthetic “school” would be the purveyors of bizarre hard-edged, high-tech stuff, who have on occasion been refereed to as “cyberpunks” — Sterling, Gibson, Shiner, Cadigan, Bear. The name was thereafter sealed in the ink of the science fiction authors of the ’80s. Bruce Sterling then owned the term in the essential 1986 anthology: Mirrorshades – The Cyberpunk Anthology. Although at this point the cyberpunk aesthetic had been well established, Mirrorshades was the first collection of cyberpunk works and was edited by one of the original cyberpunks, giving it additional credibility. If Dozois sealed “cyberpunk” in ink, Sterling etched it in stone. Since the invention of the word in 1980, it has “gone on to have quite an interesting career of its own,” as Bethke has said. The term Cyberpunk is in the public domain, and that matters. The term cyberpunk is in the public domain, and NO ONE has the right to trademark Cyberpunk™ the comic book, or Cyberpunk™ the card game, or Cyberpunk™ the crappy derivative franchised YA novel series. — Bruce Bethke This allows the term cyberpunk to maintain its “punkness.” Billy Idol pushed it with his album Cyberpunk, the roleplaying game Cyberpunk 2013/2020 added the year so R. Talisorian Inc. could trademark the name, but we all get to use the term. This has allowed for a culture to rise around the word. Literature, movies, television, comics, music, these are all things that define a culture. Because Bethke didn’t trademark the word, it is our word. An open source term that can continue to evolve as the culture evolves. Cyberpunk will never die, because it can change. As long as humanity isn’t perfect, as long as there are haves and have-nots, and as long technology is integral part of who we are, cyberpunk will persist. The cyberpunks are here, and we aren’t going anywhere. In 1989, Bethke sold a completed novel based on the original short story, but it was never published due to conflict over the ending. Bethke has made the novel available for free on his website. Or you can read the original short story here. You can read Bethke’s full essay on “The Etymology of “Cyberpunk,” on his website. You can find Bethke’s published cyberpunk novel, Headcrash, here. Some of the links included in this article are Amazon Affiliate links. If you would like to purchase these items, consider using the links provided and help support Neon Dystopia.