Bruce Bethke : The Etymology of "Cyberpunk"

1997, 2000 Bruce Bethke - All Rights Reserved In the early spring of 1980, I wrote a little story about a gang of teenaged hackers. From the very first draft this story had a name, and lo, the name was- -- (And you can bet any body part you'd care to wager that, had I had even the slightest least inkling of a clue I would be still answering questions about this word more than twenty years later, I would have bloody well trademarked it!) Before the Beginning... 1977: Disco was dead but the record companies didn't know it yet, and the first wild sprouts of punk were just beginning to thrust through the suffocating humus of radio playlists. I was living on a mattress in Santa Monica and shopping my demo tape all over Hollywood, trying to break into studio work. My specialty was -- still is, I guess -- synthesizer. Analog synthesizer. Big piles of rack -mounted gear, cabled together like telephone switchboards, have soldering gun, will travel. You remember that enormous synth in the final scene of Close Encounters? That was an ARP 2500, and that as we musicians say, was my axe. My synth rig circa 1977 At the time there was a fair amount of cross-pollination going on between the synthesizer circuit hackers (that is, we totally cool musician types) and the homebrew computer hackers (a.k.a., those terminally unhip nerds). One day I popped in to visit one of my borderline buddies; he'd been showing the early warning signs of nerdism lately and my fears were confirmed when he trotted out his latest gizmo. "Listen to this!" he crowed. "It plays a 16-note sequence over and over!" And over. And over. "Neat," I said, but I was really thinking, It's just a gated, unfiltered square wave. No amplitude modulation. No dynamic filtering. For chrissakes, he can't even tune it accurately. I thanked him for the demo and left, secure in my belief that the future was analog. There may have been a time when I was more mistaken, but offhand, I really can't remember when. Telepresent at the Creation 1980: I was living in River Falls, Wisconsin (population 7,000), selling Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1's, taking courses at the local college, and hanging out on the very distant periphery of the Minneapolis music scene. I thought I was doing okay; after all, I'd gotten the sales job by a dazzling display of computer prowess (I'd shown the Radio Shack store manager how to load and run the BASIC demo program for his display model), and I was making as much money each month as I'd made in the previous year as a musician. (Which mostly speaks to how badly the music business sucks if you're not doing Top 40 covers.) Then one day a trio of kids, the oldest maybe 14, came into the store and started puttering with the demo computer. I turned my back on them for about two minutes. When I looked again the kids were gone, the demo program was trashed, and in its place they'd left me with something that had the Model 1 jumping through hoops. I took a few minutes to admire their ingenuity, then broke out of the program and looked over the code. Damned if I could figure out what it was doing. Okay, no problem. The Model 1 had this big orange RESET button on the front panel. I hit the button, reloaded my only copy of the demo program (can you tell where this is leading?), keyed in RUN -- And that's when I discovered their other little surprise. Cyberpunk for Dummies My stories rarely spring from a single idea. Rather, I'll have a whole stew of ideas floating around in the back of my head, then something will happen to catalyze the mix and precipitate out the story seed. In this case, I took a dash of Linguistics -- Children have some undefined wiring which enables them to learn multiple languages far more easily than adults do, and this ability is not restricted to "organic" languages. A pinch of Educational Psych -- Teenagers live in an 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. A snort of Political Theory -- Just as command of a communication medium is power, technological skill is enfranchisement, and in 1980 we were some 20 to 30 years away from an explosive proliferation in technology that would radically change the distribution of power in society. (Okay, so I was wrong about the timeline. Get in line behind my ex-wife and sue me.) A double-shot of A Clockwork Orange -- Colloquial English evolves in response to technology. What will it be like in twenty or thirty years? --and I ended up with this core idea: 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." THEREFORE, if you thought that punks on motorcycles were a problem, just wait until you meet the -- the -- You know, there isn't a good word to describe them? So I set out to create and define that word. From Concept to Cold Type The story itself is, by contemporary standards, unremarkable. A gang of unruly teenagers cut school and go joy-riding around "the Net" on their hopped-up portable computers, committing casual acts of vandalism and just generally being a$holes. Our hero is a good kid who's fallen in with a bad crowd; his parents eventually realize something is wrong and try to suppress the relationship. This results in the kid finally using his technical skills for deliberate purpose, to rebel against his parents -- and to win, because the paradigm shift is completely in his favor. In June of 1980 I shopped the story to Asimov's, where then-editor George Scithers liked it, but said his readers would never go for a story that ended with the punk winning. So I slapped on a coda in which Mikey gets his comeuppance, and Scithers rejected it on the grounds that in the meantime he'd consulted a real mainframe computer expert, and the whole idea was just too far -fetched to be credible. Punk kids with cheap, powerful, portable, personal computers the size of notebooks? Ridiculous! Y'know, ol' George could have saved us all a lot of trouble if he'd just bought the damned thing right then and there. There's a chronology we could go into; I'll be happy to do so some time when you're having trouble sleeping. The gist is: Between June of 1980 and July of 1982 I shopped the story around to all the magazines in the field. It probably wouldn't have taken so long to sell, but it spent over a year lost in the editorial offices of Amazing Stories. After TSR bought Amazing, the new editor -- George Scithers again, just hired away from Asimov's -- loved the story, had to have it, and wanted to know, where had I been hiding all these years? He bought it in July of '82. I didn't tell him the truth until after his check cleared the bank. The story was first published in the November 1983 issue of Amazing Stories, which per the publisher's standard practices was actually released in September of that year. Worldwide fame, riches, movie deals, and dates with all the blonde cheerleaders followed immediately, of course. But I heard that [insert name here]... IMPORTANT POINT! I never claimed to have invented the cyberpunk trope! That honor belongs primarily to William Gibson, whose 1984 novel, Neuromancer, remains the defining work of "The Movement." (At the time, Norman Spinrad argued that the movement writers should properly be termed neuromantics, since so much of what they were doing was merely Imitation Neuromancer.) Then again, Gibson shouldn't get sole credit, either. Pat Cadigan ("Pretty Boy Crossover"), Rudy Rucker (Software), W.T. Quick (Dreams of Flesh and Sand), Greg Bear (Blood Music), Walter Jon Williams (Hardwired), Michael Swanwick (Vacuum Flowers) ... the list of early '80s writers who made important contributions towards defining the trope defies my ability to remember their names. Fortunately, Michael Swanwick has remembered them for me, in his excellent monograph, A User's Guide to the Post-Moderns. (See the links, below.) Nor was it an immaculate conception: John Brunner (Shockwave Rider), Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), and even Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination) all were important antecedents of the thing that became known as cyberpunk fiction. Me? I've been told that -- aside from naming the beast -- my main contribution was inventing the stereotype of the punk hacker with a purple mohawk. Which is odd, because Rayno's mohawk was white. So how about that Billy Idol, huh? This really needs to be said. While working on the story, I was having trouble visualizing one character: Rayno. I mean, I had a basic take on him; he was stylish and flashy, with hair peroxided to within an Angstrom unit of its life. But the essence of his character was that he was a fraud. Rayno was a parasite, living off the skills of other people: a creature composed entirely of style, attitude, and image, with no actual talent to back it up. As I said, I was having trouble visualizing him -- up until the moment I chanced to catch some early music video footage of Billy Idol. Then I jumped up, pointed at the TV, and shouted out, "That's him!" Which makes it, to me, absolutely hysterical that in the 1990's the "real" Billy Idol went to great lengths to adopt the cyberpunk identity, even going so far as to title an album that. If he only knew the real story.... You think we should tell him? A Final Despatch from the Front The revolution is over. The cyberpunks have won. Not in the sense of our world being overrun with implanted, jacked-in, drug -blasted sociopaths. (Although anyone who's been whacked by a VBS virus lately might disagree. Honestly, I never envisioned that we might actually do something so stupid as to create and widely distribute a script engine that makes it easier to propagate hostile software.) Rather, the revolution has achieved both of its original goals: "Gonad the Barbarian" and his many imitators and spinoffs have pretty much vanished from the bookshelves (which, if you were not reading new sf releases in the late 1970's, is without question a good thing). It is no longer possible to write contemporary science fiction that does not address the way we interact with, and are in turn transformed, by our technologies. On the downside, it's also become impossible to film a contemporary thriller that does not include the obligatory "race against time to crack into the computer" scene. ["Good golly, Miss Cutebutt, how ever did you manage to penetrate OmniCorp's network security and save the world?" "Well, actually all I did was type in this password I found on a Post-It note stuck to the side of the monitor..."] Sorry, I digress. Where was I? Ah yes, the stirring conclusion. More importantly, just as a generation ago it was impossible to discuss real space flight without mentioning Wells, Verne, and Heinlein, it is now impossible to discuss the future of real computing and the Internet without taking the Gibson/Rucker/Vinge collective vision -- the cyberpunk trope, if you will - - into account. Which brings us to the last question I get asked with surprising frequency. How does the reality of cyberpunk in the year 2000 differ from my vision of 1980? My answer: "Not at all." Remember, what I set out to do was to name a character type. And the primary definition of cyberpunk -- the one that gets used in every news story about computer crime -- is my definition: a young, technologically facile, ethically vacuous, computer-adept vandal or criminal. Offhand, I'd call that pretty good work. For a musician.