Close this window to return to BookThink

Collecting Science Fiction

Cracking the Ice
Cyberpunk SF for Collectors and Sellers

by Tim Doyle

#37, 28 February 2005

Cyberpunk is by any measure one of Science Fiction's most successful neologisms. The word was invented (you might say stitched together like Frankenstein's monster) by Bruce Bethke for use as the title of his SF short story "Cyberpunk," which first appeared in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, Volume 57, Number 4, November 1983.

In detailing the etymology of the word "cyberpunk", Bethke tells the story of some teen punks who hacked the demo TRS-80 Model 1 at the Radio Shack where he worked in 1980. As a writer of SF, it inevitably occurred to him that:

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."

SF is often misunderstood to be purely a literature of prognostication, and older SF is often unfairly judged in a harsh light because we didn't really have flying cars or robot butlers by some arbitrary date. But the real value of SF is to function as a mirror for observers (to hijack an Edgar Pangborn title); that is, SF really speaks more to the present than to the future. At times the mirror magnifies some aspect of society, and sometimes it is a funhouse mirror that distorts or exaggerates. Jack Finney's classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) was not a story of alien invasion; it was a cautionary tale about the Communist threat and the rise of McCarthyism.

And so it was with the cyberpunk movement. The elements of cyberpunk were firmly rooted in cultural trends of the time, notably in the punk music scene that started in the 1970's with bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Clash. In fact, the punk movement has been described as a counter-culture movement akin to the Beat Generation of the 1940/50's, which has in turn been likened to the Lost Generation of post-WWI Europe and America. Given the periodic nature of counter-culture resurgence, it was eminently logical for SF writers of the early 1980's to describe a future counter-culture movement set against a post-Information Revolution backdrop but mirroring the philosophy and style of the then-current punk scene.

Of course, Bethke himself is quick to point out that he did not invent the cyberpunk movement in SF:

... 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.

The defining moment in the creation of cyberpunk as a literary subgenre is usually credited to William Gibson, with the publication of Neuromancer (New York: Ace, 1984; ISBN 0441569560).

Issued as a paperback original in Terry Carr's legendary Ace Science Fiction Specials (series 3), Neuromancer was an instant classic and the first novel to win the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards combined.

I was shocked to find upon researching this title that asking prices for first printings of this Ace paperback original (in Very Good or better condition) have skyrocketed since I last checked: there are currently only six copies listed through ABE, ranging from $250 to $635! The first hardback appearance of Neuromancer is the UK edition (London: Gollancz, 1984), which appeared after the Ace paperback edition. Asking prices currently range from $830 to $1367 for three unsigned copies, and signed copies are consistently priced above $2000. It should be noted that a signed Gollancz first in Fine/Fine condition on eBay recently failed to attract any bids with an opening price of $1700. The first US hardback publication was a signed, limited edition (West Bloomfield: Phantasia Press, 1986).

1575 copies were printed, the first 375 copies numbered and signed by the author in a specially bound and boxed edition. A copy of the signed slipcased edition recently failed to sell on eBay with a BIN of $700, stalling out at $385 with 11 bids. A signed copy of one of the 1200 trade edition copies did recently sell on eBay for $256 with 16 bids. There is additionally an Easton Press edition (Norwalk, Connecticut: Easton Press, 1990) that reliably sells in the $50 to $75 range. Finally, there are book club anniversary hardback editions - (Ace), 10th (Ace, 1994) and 20th (Berkley, 2004)- that should sell for $15+ in Fine/Fine condition.

That Gibson won the Philip K. Dick award for Neuromancer is particularly appropriate since Dick is recognized as one of the literary predecessors to the cyberpunk movement. His Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (New York: Doubleday, 1968; hardback, $5000+) was filmed by Ridley Scott as Blade Runner in 1982, two years before the publication of Neuromancer. Both the book and the film embody many of the themes and stylistic elements of the cyberpunk aesthetic. The dark and gritty scenes of urban sprawl and decay juxtaposed with the highest of technology; conflict between organic and artificial intelligence, leading to a blurring of distinction between the two and uncertainty as to just what it means to be human; the "Japanification" of Western culture; the rise of the "megacorporations" as the true global power brokers; the fear of the loss of individuality - all quintessentially cyberpunk. Other commonly cited literary precursors to the cyberpunk subgenre include K. W. Jeter's Dr. Adder (New York: Bluejay Books, 1984; ISBN 0312940998, illustrated trade paperback $5; also ISBN 0312941005, signed limited edition of 350, hardback with dustjacket in slipcase, $50 to $75); Greg Bear's Blood Music (New York: Arbor House, 1985; ISBN 0877957207, $35 - $50; also Norwalk, Easton Press, 1990; $50); and Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination. Stylistic predecessors include Raymond Chandler, William Burroughs, and film noir.

Other notable Gibson titles include:

Count Zero (London: Gollancz 1986; ISBN 0575036966; hardback $100; also, New York: Arbor House, 1986; ISBN 087795769X, hardback $50 - $75)

Burning Chrome (London,Gollancz,1986, ISBN 0575038462, hardback $150; also, New York: Arbor House, 1986, ISBN 0877957800, hardback $30)

Mona Lisa Overdrive (London,Gollancz,1986, ISBN 0575040203, hardback $30; also, New York: Bantam Books, 1988, ISBN 0553052500, hardback, <$5).

An interesting variation on cyberpunk is the sub-sub-genre called steampunk. K. W. Jeter's Morlock Night (New York: DAW Books, 1979, ISBN 0586204385, paperback original $7), in which the Morlocks have stolen Wells' time machine to invade 1892 London, is credited as the first of the steampunk novels. The Difference Engine (London: Gollancz, 1990, ISBN 0575047623, hardback $10; also, New York: Bantam, 1991, ISBN 0553070282, hardback $5), co-authored by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, is set in Victorian England, the Information Age arriving 100 years early and technocrats ruling with the aid of huge gear-driven mechanical computers (Charles Babbage's difference engine writ large). James Blaylock has written two related steampunk novels, Homunculus (Bath: Morrigan Publications, 1988; another Philip K Dick Award winner, limited/trade $50/$25), and Lord Kelvin's Machine (Sauk City,WI: Arkham House, 1992; $15). The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a comic book series written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Kevin O'Neill, is set in a technologically advanced Victorian London where literary figures (both great and minor) are real - for example, characters such as Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, and Allan Quartermain are recruited by the British government to fight evil and alien invasion. Two volumes of The League have been released in book form:

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Book 1, collects vol 1 #1-6
Paperback: ISBN 1563898586 (DC Comics, 2000) $10 - $15
Hardcover: ISBN 1563896656 (DC Comics, 2001) $50
The Absolute Edition: ISBN 1401200524 (DC Comics, 2003) $50
The Absolute Edition: ISBN 1840236884 (Titan, 2003) $75

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Book 2, collects vol 2 #1-6
Paperback: ISBN 1401201180 (DC Comics, 2004) $10
Hardcover: ISBN 1401201172 (DC Comics, 2003) $20

See also The Time Machine (1960 film), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985 film), and The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne (1999 TV series).

Bruce Sterling, an important figure in cyberpunk, has numerous novels and short story collections to his credit. He is also the editor of Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (New York: Arbor House: 1986; ISBN 0877958688 $50 -$75).

As influential as Sterling has been in the genre, very few of his books seem to have generated very much collector demand. As of this writing, signed first printings of nearly all of Sterling's books are readily available online for less than $30. Two exceptions include Mirrorshades (see above) and Schismatrix (New York: Arbor House, 1985; ISBN 0877956456 $25 to $35 unsigned).

After Gibson and Sterling, the last of the Big Three cyberpunk authors is Neal Stephenson. Snow Crash (New York: Bantam, 1992, ISBN 055308853X, hardback $750 to $1000; the book club edition is also collectible, with prices in the $50 to $75 range) represents a more developed take on the cyberpunk novel. It has all the style and flash of Neuromancer, but it draws the reader into a deeper, richer, funnier and, ultimately, scarier world as well. It also performs a neat inversion of the classic cyberpunk trope of increasingly human-like robots/androids by positing a means of accessing a hard-wired human meta-language that allows the bad guys to reprogram the brain, in effect turning people into robots.

Other Neal Stephenson titles to watch for:

The Big U (New York: Vintage, 1984; ISBN 0394723627, trade paperback original, $50). This book used to be nearly impossible to find, and prices ranged beyond $150. For many years, Stephenson adamantly refused to approve a re-issue of his first book, but apparently he gave in as a reprint was issued in 2001 (New York: Harper, 2001; ISBN 0380816032, trade paperback, $5). Since then the price on the original edition has dropped.

Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988; ISBN 0871131811, trade paperback, $5 to $10). Stephenson's second book.

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (New York: Bantam, 1995; ISBN 0553096095; hardback, $5 to $10). A fascinating fusion of cyberpunk and steampunk (cybersteam?), The Diamond Age is set in the oppressively restrictive neo-Victorian age that grew out of the chaos brought about by the introduction of nanotechnology. Nano-engineer John Percival Hackworth illegally duplicates the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, a custom commissioned nanotech supercomputer in the shape of a book designed to educate a young woman to think for herself in spite of the neo-Victorian norms. But Hackworth loses his copy, and the consequences will shake the very foundations of his society.

Related links:

The Cyberpunk Project

The Post-Modern Culture Ezine

Post-Modern Science Fiction, hosted at Georgetown University

The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier by Bruce Sterling

A list of William Gibson links

Online resource for cyberpunk writers

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC