Some thoughts on Cyberpunk

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: 1,439

I worked a little more on Artifice today. About the most I can get done in a sitting is roughly a page, because I’m trying to think things through as a type. I’m suspecting that there will be much rewriting of these earlier bits, as well, on account of the world I’m playing in is sort of developing as I go.

I think that each genre presents its own difficulties as the author plows through. I was talking with Cirellio about some of the dangers inherent in fantasy (particularely: the need to overcome cliché). The central concern of the cyberpunk writer isn’t, however, cliché. Well, that’s only true to a certain extent: all writers must always fight cliché, but if you manage to lose that fight while writing cyberpunk, you are, de facto, not writing cyberpunk. In it’s very crux, it isn’t cliché. At least, not the Pollyanna sort of cliché we normally think when we hear the word.

(For those who have no idea what cyberpunk is, I have no desire to offer an explanation it when perfectly good ones already exist).

The central struggle I’m dealing with in writing cyberpunk is to have the knowledge I need to do it well. My central writing professor, Jack Leax, always says that the poets are lucky because they can just write about what they feel. Novelists actually need to know things. I didn’t agree with him when he first said it, but now I do.

Cyberpunk requires knowledge in much the same way that baking requires flour. It doesn’t work without it. Cyberpunk is almost always deeply economic, with hints of politics and other social sciences built in, and that’s just when it comes to the world setting. You also have to know about basic computer technology and infology (I’m not sure if that’s a word, but I’m using it to mean the study of how data flows and functions) in order to write the genre effectively.

One of the best examples of cyberpunk I can think of is Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, and just by virtue of reading that book you are given a basic understanding of information technology, economic theory, and computer architecture. The sequel, The Diamond Age, refers constantly to Confusion philosophy, Victorian sociology, and theoretical nano-technology. And the information it references isn’t just made up willy-nilly, either, but firmly based in science fact or theory, depending on the particular science.

And all this is merged so seamlessly with an excellent sense of character and story crafting that you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. The intelligence of a cyberpunk story is an essential part of the recipe, not just icing on the top.

Have you ever heard of William Gibson? How about the word “Cyberspace?” “Cyberspace,” wasn’t coined by a computer scientist, not did it just fall into vogue by chance. It was coined by Gibson in his cyberpunk work, Neuromancer. Same for the online term “Avatar,” in reference to the little picture people are allowed to assign to their posts in a forum. That was originally from Snow Crash, by Stephenson.

These authors are at the same time both creative and brilliant enough to create terms and scenarios that work not only in the story, but invade our own lives in a real day-to-day sense as well. The computer tech of the future stems, partially, at least, from cyberpunk. Those are big shoes to fill.

My central struggle is to come up with a system that works. I’m reworking America’s political system (we’re up to four presidents at any given time, and an extra representative house in addition to the Senate and the House of Reps, called the house of Lobbyists, designed specifically for the rich). The economic system is still capitalistic, but takes place almost exclusively online—physical shopping is nearly a thing of the past, for everything but groceries. And the entire concept of an i-pod is gone, replaced by the Rig, an entire computer system people can wear on their bodies at all times: monitors built into glasses lenses, keyboards built into big metal gauntlets.

And along with it, I’m having to come up with a whole new slew of social problems and pariahs to make up for the ones that have become outdated. I have to change things enough so that they’re different, but provides some sort of social access point to give the readership a lead in. The trick is to, to paraphrase a review of Snow Crash, to make a future world so twisted and shocking that people recognize it immediately.

I’m still working on it. I hope I get it right.

~DK

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1 Comment

  1. cirellio said,

    March 25, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    Wow… I had no clue the word ‘cyberspace’ came from a novel. That’s really inspiring for writers that get in a rut by feeling like everything has already been done.
    It really does take a lot of knowledge to write. As a network technician, it’s painfully obvious when an author attempts to write about hacking but doesn’t know very much about how it actually works. You can’t really write about things like horse-behavior, the way a specific gun recoils, or surviving in the jungle without either researching it heavily, or experiencing it first-hand.


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