Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — Sidebar: Cyberpunk

As a quick sidebar for the uninitiated, cyberpunk started out in the 1980s as a very specific kind of science-fiction. The easiest way to get your head around it is to think about the movie Blade Runner. That’s the cyberpunk aesthetic: high-tech low life, impossibly tall buildings with terribly poor people struggling to scrape together an existence from what the rich have cast off, hacking what they can and risking everything to forge a newer tomorrow, or even just to survive. It’s anti-corporate crime fiction fueled with paranoia and desperation.

Cyberpunk spoke to hackers for a number of reasons that I’ll come back to in a little bit, not the least of which was that the protagonist in the seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, was in fact a young hacker of networked computers, straddling the boundary between being a kid and growing into adulthood. He’s presented with a great many ethical challenges before the story’s end. It gets ugly and bloody but it stays very clever, and while there are terrific tragedies, things basically turn out okay in the end. Okay-ish.

The author of Neuromancer, William Gibson, went to see Blade Runner while working on his book, and he grieved that someone had discovered the exact aesthetic he’d been targeting before he was able to get his book out, though thankfully he pushed on through and shared it with the world. I strongly identified as “cyberpunk” in high school, when you’re supposed to identify with some group or other, though I had no one else to really bond with as a fellow cyberpunk. Even a lot of the hackers I knew at the time weren’t reading science-fiction, which may sound odd today since you’d practically get laughed out of many Bay Area social circles if you’d never heard of Neuromancer. Even if you’ve never heard of cyberpunk, my spell-checker isn’t trying to correct the word so I’ll say that today it’s reasonably well known. Still, it didn’t seem to me as though cyberpunk had a chance of going mainstream until Rolling Stone Magazine did a piece on it — it was practically a movement in some circles, by that point — in early 1987. I remember feeling very validated at the time.

Nearly a year later, a company out of the California Bay Area made the first cyberpunk role-playing game, Cyberpunk 2020, and my local game stores could not keep it in stock. The second cyberpunk game was called Shadowrun, which evolved the concept beyond its roots by combining the sort of “high-tech low life” style with the basic trappings of fantasy fiction: magic and elves and dragons and the like. Not two weeks ago from the time of this writing, a bunch of the people who worked on the original Shadowrun made a version of the game that runs on PCs and the iPad; check it out.

You might have unwittingly been exposed to cyberpunk through its degenerate clone, steampunk, which is essentially Victorian cyberpunk. In one of those involuted, “couldn’t make it up” kind of congruencies, William Gibson, who wrote Neuromancer and coined the word “cyberspace,” and Bruce Sterling, who wrote The Hacker Crackdown, co-wrote a novel called The Difference Engine, speculating about what the world might have been like in the late Nineteenth Century had Charles Babbage actually gotten the money he needed to prototype the ideas he had — actual, true-history ideas — to build what we would have recognized as the first computer, back in the 1830s. That’s the book that started steampunk, which is hugely popular today.

Now back to the story.

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