The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

Rudy Rucker was the first author to win the Philip K. Dick Award, right after Dick's death in 1982. Around that time, Rucker was becoming aware of the new "Cyberpunk" movement and meeting the rebellious authors who were reimagining the union of humans and computers. In this exclusive excerpt from Rucker's new autobiography, Nested Scrolls, he talks about how both events influenced his writing, and what it was like to be a science fiction writer in those strange days.

In the early 1980s I'd lost my job as a math professor in the conservative southern town where I'd temporarily been working-this was Lynchburg, Virginia. Rather than looking for another academic position, I dropped out to be a freelance writer. At this point I'd published two novels, White Light and Spacetime Donuts, with Software soon to appear. And I'd published a couple of nonfiction popular science books as well.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

I started hearing about a new writer called William Gibson. I saw a copy of Omni with his story, "Johnny Mnemonic." I was awed by the writing. Gibson, too, was out to change SF. And we weren't the only ones.

I started getting mail from a younger writer in Texas called Bruce Sterling. He'd written glowing reviews of Spacetime Donuts and White Light in a weekly free newspaper in Austin-he was one of the very first critics to appreciate these books. Soon after this, maybe in 1982, Bruce began publishing a zine called Cheap Truth.

Bruce loved all things Soviet-it wasn't that he was a Communist, it was more that he dug the parallel world aspect of a superpower totally different from America. He spoke of Cheap Truth as a samizdat publication, meaning that, rather than printing a lot of copies, he encouraged people to Xerox their copies and pass them from hand to hand.

Reading Bruce's sporadic mailings of Cheap Truth, I learned there were a number of other disgruntled and radicalized new SF writers like me. At first Bruce Sterling's zine didn't have any particular name for the emerging new SF movement-it wouldn't be until 1983 that the cyberpunk label would take hold.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

The Cheap Truth rants were authored by people with pseudonyms like Sue Denim and Vincent Omniaveritas. I was too out of the loop to try and figure out who was who, but I took note of the authors being hyped: Bruce Sterling, Lew Shiner, William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, John Shirley, Greg Bear and me.

I couldn't actually find books by many of these people in Lynchburg, Virginia, but Bruce did mail me a couple of his own novels, which I greatly enjoyed. I was thrilled to be joining forces with some other writers, it felt like being an early Beat.

***

Philip K. Dick had died of a stroke in the spring of 1982, during my last semester at R-MWC. By then he'd become one of my favorite authors, and I was thinking about him a lot.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

Some writers and editors were organizing an annual literary award honoring the memory of Philip K. Dick-and in the fall of 1982, my Ace editor Susan Allison told me that my novel Software had been nominated. I felt like I had a good shot at the award, given that my SF has something of the same off-kilter, subversive quality as Phil's. I began dreaming that my writing income might rise to a sustainable level.

In March of 1983, I got the Philip K. Dick award for Software. My wife and I flew up to New York City for the awards ceremony. Earlier that evening we had dinner with my editor Susan Allison, Phil's editor David Hartwell, a writer friend of Phil's called Ray Faraday Nelson, and the well-known author Tom Disch-who was the one who'd initially proposed starting the award. Disch was a good guy, immensely hip and cultured.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

Our whole party walked over to Times Square, where we saw Bladerunner, the brand-new movie based on Phil's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. On the way over, I talked to Ray Nelson-he was such an in-the-moment guy that later in the evening when he had to make a speech, he just went over the things we'd talked about.

I liked the Bladerunner movie a lot, particularly the first part, with the blimps bearing electronic billboards, and the cop smoking pot while he interviewed the android, and the dark futuristic city with the neon lights glinting off pavements slick with rain. The last part of the movie struck me as overly violent. But that's Hollywood.

"Phil would have loved it," Ray Nelson reassured me after we saw the movie.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

The award ceremony was in an artist's loft, with the hallways covered in reflective silver paint. One of the first people I ran into was my raffish artist friend Barry Feldman from college-whom I'd invited. Incredibly, he was wearing a suit, and, as always, he looked like Chico Marx. He seemed a bit envious of me getting an award-although Barry was a great painter, working all day long in his studio, he wasn't breaking into the gallery scene. On a sudden whim, I told Barry he could pose as me and enjoy the fame.

As I was such an outsider to the SF scene, nobody knew what I looked like, and the substitution worked for about half an hour. Barry stood by the door shaking hands and signing books, twinkling with delight. I stood across the room, drinking and hanging out with some friends. In the end it all got sorted out, and I met the people I needed to meet-among them was Susan Protter, who'd end up being my literary agent for the years to come.

Finally I stood on the bar at one end of the silvery room and delivered a short acceptance speech that I'd composed on the plane.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

"If I say that Phil Dick is not really dead, then this is what I mean: He was such a powerful writer that his works exercise a sort of hypnotic force. Many of us have been Phil Dick for brief flashes, and these flashes will continue as long as there are readers. ... I'd like to think that, on some level, Phil and I are just different instances of the same Platonic form-call it the gonzo-philosopher-SF-writer form, if you like. ... If it is at all possible for a spirit to return from the dead, I would imagine that Phil would be the one to do it. Let's keep our eyes open tonight, he may show up."

***

I first met my fellow cyberpunks Sterling, Gibson, and Shiner in September of 1983 at a world science fiction convention in Baltimore. They'd all read my new novel The Sex Sphere, which had just been published by Ace. They were impressed by how out-there my book was-Sterling compared it J. G. Ballard's Crash.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

Gibson was a remarkable guy, and I liked him immediately. He was tall, with an unusually thin and somewhat flexible-looking head. At one of the con parties, he told me he was high on some SF-sounding drug I'd never heard of. Perfect. He was bright, funny, intense, and with a comfortable Virginia accent.

Back home in Lynchburg after the convention, I spent a day at my downtown office as usual and drove home in my wife's 1956 Buick, feeling resplendent in a Hawaiian shirt that she'd had sewn for me. And there were Gibson, Sterling and Shiner on our front porch, along with Bruce's wife, Nancy, and Lew's friend, Edie. They'd decided to drive down from Baltimore after the convention.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

These guys were all a bit younger than me — I was thirty-seven by now. To some extent they looked up to me. And I admired their writing in equal measure. It felt wonderful to hang around together.

I met the other canonical cyberpunk, John Shirley, two years later, in 1985, when he and I were both staying with Bruce and Nancy Sterling in Austin, Texas, in town for the North American science fiction convention, which was featuring a panel on cyberpunk. John was a trip. When I woke up on Sterling's couch in the morning, he'd be leaning over me, staring at my face.

"I'm trying to analyze the master's vibes," he told me.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

As we walked around Austin together talking, John Shirley had a habit of picking up some random large stone from a lawn, lugging it over to me, and putting it into my hands. Sometimes I'd be so into the conversation that I'd just carry the rock along for a few steps before noticing it.

Naturally we'd get high in the evenings. I recall driving a rented Lincoln around town with John. He was riffing off my book Software, leaning out of our car window to scream at the Texas drivers, "Y'all ever ate any live brains?"

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

The writers on that 1985 cyberpunk panel were me, Shirley, Sterling, Lew Shiner, Pat Cadigan, and Greg Bear. Gibson couldn't make it. The moderator - an SF fan whose name I've forgotten or never knew - hadn't read any of my work, and was bursting with venom against all of us. He represented the population of SF fans who are looking for a security blanket rather than for higher consciousness. For his ilk, cyberpunk was an annoyance or even a threat. He'd slid through the 1970s thinking of himself as with-it, and cyberpunk was yanking his covers. And he wasn't the only one who resented us.

To my eyes, the audience began taking on the look of a lynch mob. Here I'm finally asked to join a literary movement, and everyone hates me before I can even open my mouth? Enraged by the moderator's ongoing barrage of insults, John Shirley got up and walked out, followed by Sterling and Shiner. But I stayed up there. I'd traveled a long distance for my moment in the sun.

"So I guess cyberpunk is dead now?" said Shiner afterwards.

I didn't think do. Surely, if we could make plastic people that uptight, we were on the right track. That's what the punk part was all about.

***

I kept on writing in Lynchburg, selling some some nonfiction work as well as the SF. But no matter how fast and well I wrote, the money wasn't coming in fast enough. Professional writers have to spend all too much time worrying about how to sell their work. It's draining.

After four years of freelancing, by 1986 I was ready to come in from the cold. And so I started thinking about finding a teaching job again. This time I lucked into very nice teaching job at San Jose State University in California-thanks to a math friend who was working there.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

At the tail end of our time in Lynchburg, I set aside my nonfiction work and got back into science fiction. I always start missing SF before too long-the funky old-school grooves, the wild thought experiments, the idiosyncratic characters with their warped argot, the eternal pursuit of transcendent truth.

Ace had let Software go out of print, so now Susan Protter got me a deal with John Douglas at Avon Books to reissue Software along with a projected sequel to be called Wetware. Both would appear as mass-market paperbacks. John Douglas proved to be a supportive, companionable editor, and I'd end up selling him several more novels over the coming years.

Odd as it now seems, it was only with Wetware-my thirteenth book-that I started writing on a computer. The previous dozen manuscripts were all typed, with much physical cutting and pasting. Sometimes, if I couldn't face typing up a fair copy of the marked-up and glued-together final draft, I'd hire a typist.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

But with Wetware I was ready to change. I visited the only computer store in central Virginia-this was in Charlottesville-and I ended up with what was known as a CP/M machine, made by Epson, with Peachtext word-processing software, and a daisy wheel printer.

Although I knew a lot about the abstract computers discussed in mathematical logic, it would be several more years before I grasped how my kludgy, real-world computer worked. For the moment, all I knew was that I had to run two or three big floppy disks through the machine to start it up.

While I was gearing up for Wetware, I'd started what I thought was going to be a short story called "People That Melt," and I sent the story fragment to William Gibson, hoping that he'd help me finish it and, not so incidentally, lend the growing luster of his name.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

He said he was too busy to complete such a project, but he did write a couple of pages for me, and said I was free to fold them into my mix in any fashion I pleased. As I continued work on my "People That Melt" story, it got good to me, and it ended up as the first chapter of Wetware. As a tip of the hat, I put in a character named Max Yukawa who resembled my notion of Bill Gibson-a reclusive mastermind with a thin, strangely flexible head.

Once I got rolling, I wrote Wetware at white heat. I wrote the bulk of the first draft during a six-week period from February to March of 1986, although the full process took about five months. I made a special effort to give the boppers' speech the bizarre Beat rhythms of Kerouac's writing - indeed, I'd sometimes look into his great Visions of Cody for inspiration. Wetware was insane, mind-boggling, and, in my opinion, a cyberpunk masterpiece.

I dedicated it to Philip K. Dick, placing my dedication above a quote from Albert Camus's essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. The quote: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

A couple of years later, in 1989, Wetware would win me a second Philip K. Dick award.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

This award ceremony would be at the smallish NorwesCon SF convention in Tacoma, Washington. It wasn't like the artists' loft in New York at all. It was in a windowless hotel ballroom with a dinner of rubber ham and mashed potatoes.

By then I'd be working a day job as a professor again, and not having time to write as much as before, which put me into a somewhat depressed state of mind. Winning the award, I felt like some ruined Fitzgerald character lolling on a luxury liner in the rain-his inheritance has finally come through, but it's too late. He's a broken man.

In my acceptance speech, I talked about why, when I'd dedicated Wetware to Phil Dick, I'd used Camus's quote about imagining Sisyphus to be happy about his fate of repeatedly pushing his rock to the top of a mountain and watching it roll back down.

The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk

The idea is that I see Sisyphus as the god of writers or, for that matter, artists in general. You labor for months and years, massing your thoughts and emotions into a great ball, inching it up to the mountain top. You let it go and-wheee! It's gone. Nobody notices. And then Sisyphus walks down the mountain to start again. Here's a beautiful passage about this from Camus.

"Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn."

As so often happens to me, nobody knew what the fuck I was talking about. None of my friends were at the ceremony and, despite the award, I had the impression that nobody who was actually at the con had read any of my books. One of the fans invited me to come to his room and shoot up with ketamine, an offer which I declined. Outside the weather was pearly gray, with uniformed high-school marching bands practicing for something in the empty streets.

Nested Scrolls: The Autobiography of Rudolph von Bitter Rucker is available today.