The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Cyberfiction: A word coined in the late twentieth century that is used interchangeably with cyberpunk and hypertext fiction but that may also refer more broadly to any fictional text, whether classic or contemporary, published (in some cases exclusively) on the Internet. The term cyberfiction acknowledges the increasing influence of computer technology on literature, whether manifested in terms of plot (e.g., science fiction narratives involving computer technology), medium of publication (e.g., works of fiction now available on the World Wide Web), reader participation (e.g., interactive digital texts requiring the reader’s creative involvement), or in some other way.

Cyberpunk refers to a type of science fiction that emerged in the mid-1970s and that gained popularity in the 1980s with the publication of American-Canadian writer William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984). The prefix “cyber” is taken from cybernetics, the study of the control systems of the human brain and nervous system and of analogous mechanical and electronic technology, and invokes the idea of the cyborg, a hybrid of human and machine. The “punk” component of the term refers to a counterculture movement that began in the 1970s and that is especially associated with a form of rock music characterized by extreme and even offensive expressions of anger and alienation.

Cyberpunk authors such as Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and Neal Stephenson write novels and short stories about near-future societies populated by characters who are totally immersed in a “cyborg world” in which the distinction between human and machine has been blurred, if not erased. Life is experienced only through the virtual reality of cyberspace, a term coined by Gibson in 1984 to describe a linked network called the “matrix.” Characters are usually technologically proficient, self-serving loners, computer “console cowboys” who have no loyalty to governments, nations, or politics and who may also be violent and unethical. Human bodies are routinely injected with drugs, hormones, and serums, as well as surgically implanted with advanced microprocessors, prostheses, and memory-enhancing components such as silicon-based storage. In Gibson’s novels, these hybrids, or cyborgs, see “life in the flesh” as dull and are satisfied only when freed from bondage to “the meat,” their term for the human body. Cyberpunk fiction, which has inspired movies such as the Matrix trilogy (1999—2003) and the Universal Soldier series (1992—2012), typically appears in traditional print media but may also be published online and even written as hypertext fiction.

Hypertext fiction generally refers to interactive, electronic novels, short stories, and poems that often include sound and graphic art. Unlike traditional print fiction, which compels readers to follow a linear route through a single text, hypertext fiction enables them to navigate the text(s) — to choose which paths to follow, and when — by clicking on links. Hypertext fiction is thus fragmented and nonlinear, and it greatly expands the boundaries of both the narrative and the reader’s role. As Jay Bolter stated in Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (1991), “the fluidity of the electronic medium allows the texts to be in a perpetual state of reorganization.” Readers may even become authors if asked to solve a problem or mystery they encounter or to contribute to the plot by submitting their own writings.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Cyberpunk writing includes Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga Akira (1982—90), K. W. Jeter’s The Glass Hammer (1985), Sterling’s Islands in the Net (1988), Masamune Shirow’s manga The Ghost in the Shell (1989—91), Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991), Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), Greg Egan’s Diaspora (1997), Melissa Scott’s Night Sky Mine (1997), Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005), and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009). Cyberpunk movies include Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton’s Max Headroom (1986), Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990; remake 2012), Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy (2010), and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015).

Examples of hypertext fiction include Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story (1989), about a writer who suspects that the accident he saw earlier in the day involved his ex-wife; Shelley Jackson’s interactive novel The Patchwork Girl (1995), a postfeminist revision of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) that considers the possibility that Mary Shelley, rather than Dr. Frankenstein, could have created a female monster; and Caitlin Fisher’s novella These Waves of Girls (2001). In 1997, Internet retailer sponsored an interactive writing contest in which it invited visitors to contribute to a collaborative hypertext story, “Murder Makes the Magazine,” for which novelist John Updike wrote the first and last paragraphs.

Examples of cyberfiction broadly defined include Stephen King’s Web novel Riding the Bullet (2000), initially available only as an e-book, and Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia (2013), in which the narrative is constantly punctuated by emails and text messages and chapters are often introduced via simulated Facebook pages.