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How Philip K. Dick invented Cyberpunk

Posted on 30/4/14 by Pete

In the literature world, Philip K. Dick did not invent cyberpunk. Sure, he was writing it first, but the codifier for the genre of cyberpunk is considered to be William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Well, when Blade Runner came out in theaters, he was reportedly very shaken, for there were his ideas wrought in glorious detail on the screen - before he finished writing Neuromancer, in fact driving him to re-write the opening of the book for fear that critics would call him a copycat.

That's Blade Runner, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, published in 1968. One year before the Unix operating system was written. So there.

In the film world, Philip K. Dick invented cyberpunk, whole and complete, amen and hallelujah.

How is it that one author, working from the 1960s pulp skiffy genre, ended up turning out so many stories that adapt into such brilliant science fiction films? Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, The Adjustment Bureau, and Minority Report, just to name a few of the outstanding adaptations. How did one author manage to peg our modern times so well? Because whether or not we got our flying cars and sexy androids, we sure as hell have our fears of dystopian governments, surveillance, privacy violations, chemical addictions, widespread mental defects, and confusion over identity and the nature of reality borne on the blurring of the virtual and the real. There was something more going on with Dick than just a skiffy hack who could think cute and write a twist ending. Something that inspires producers to act out of what love their stony hearts can muster.

And if you think Dick was a prophet before, just wait 'til you see how the 21st century pans out. Genetic engineering will revolutionize the 21st century to the same degree that computer science did the 20th, mark my words. Philip K. Dick isn't done with you yet. We're already debating how far to let genetically modified crops take over our food supply. There are replicants in your future.

Back up a bit, while we codify the cyberpunk genre:

"Cyberpunk" is widely understood to be the blending of the Noir genre and science fiction. Noir, itself codified with the birth of film, tells the brutal, pragmatic stories of humanity, showing us all for the crafty apes we are. Science Fiction deals a great deal with the future or at least speculative pasts. Put them both together, and you have the human side of the future. If you're talking about space operas where we colonize planets or action-packed alien battles, that's not cyberpunk. You have to look at how human nature pans out, and how society alters and changes, in response to continuous technology advances. Write a Star Wars, and generations may pass before the times catch up with your fiction. Write A Scanner Darkly, and the present is likely to catch up with you before the ink dries on your first print.

Classic science fiction is optimistic for the most part: "In the future, we will experience wonders!" Cyberpunk reigns us right back in with it's pessimism: "Yeah, but we'll still be the same bunch of jerks!"

Dick was a complex guy, and wrestled with heavy philosophical problems normally under the radar for a guy hacking out pulp novels from a manual typewriter in the 1960s. So much so that his work is debated in scholarly circles. Dick asked over and over again, what defines a human, what defines reality, how can we know we know the truth, and how much can we trust our perception? Questions all the more relevant in this age of this shared hallucination we call "The Internet."

We dump our lives onto the web now. We live glaring at glowing rectangles. We give so much of ourselves to electronic media that it's difficult to know anymore where our own minds end and the Internet begins. And all our tweets, all our Facebook likes, all our blog posts, will someday be lost.

Like tears in rain.


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