Lesson 9: Modern Voices: 1978 - 2006

Lesson 9: Modern Voices: 1978 - 2006

Created by James Gunn and Thomas Seay

This course is available for online enrollment as ENGL 506 through the Continuing Education department of the University of Kansas. To take this course for academic credit, click here.

Lesson Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify recent movements in science fiction, such as cyberpunk, humanism, and the New Weird; and
  • Explain how these recent movements served as reactions to earlier kinds of science fiction.


"Bears Discover Fire," by Terry Bisson
Visions of Wonder, pp. 222-29

"The Mountain to Mohammed," by Nancy Kress
Visions of Wonder, pp. 585-97

"Burning Chrome," by William Gibson
Visions of Wonder, pp. 540-54


The writers of the new wave aimed to eliminate constraints on science fiction by opening the genre to new voices and types of stories. In so doing, the movement destroyed the philosophical consensus that had characterized science fiction throughout the early twentieth century, especially in Campbell's Astounding. No longer could the views of one editor or one magazine dominate the field, and the result was an unprecedented expansion and splintering of science fiction that continues to this day.

In the early 1980s, two distinct—and, at times, consciously opposing—subgenres of science fiction rose to prominence. One was cyberpunk, a self-styled revolution against what its practitioners perceived as the stodgy old clichés of traditional science fiction and the new-wave obsession with style over substance. Leading the charge was Bruce Sterling, who announced his revolution—under the pseudonym Vincent Omniaveritas—in a series of newsletters called Cheap Truth.

In Cheap Truth's second issue, Sterling criticized the selections made by the editors of two 1983 "year's best science fiction" anthologies as representative of all that ailed science fiction:

Until SF does reform itself, re-think itself, and re-establish itself as a moving cultural force instead of a backwater anachronism, even the cleverest editors will find their efforts useless. They cannot produce meritorious fiction after the fact; nor can they stitch silk purses from the ears of sows, no matter how fat the sows are or how long they have been munching the same acorns under the same tree. SF must stop recycling the same half-baked traditions about the nature of the human future. And its most formally gifted authors must escape their servant's mentality and learn to stop aping their former masters in the literary mainstream. Until that happens, SF will continue sliding through obsolescence toward outright necrophilia. (Sterling, Cheap Truth #2. 1983.)


Sterling's solution was a new brand of science fiction that was informed by the new computer technologies of the 1980s, freshly innovative, highly stylized and yet maintained a strong emphasis on story. Such stories frequently speculated on invasions of technology into areas of the body and mind once considered sacrosanct, explored the lawless spaces of societies where centralized authority fell apart, and examined themes of loneliness and marginalization.

Sterling gathered representatives of this kind of science fiction—William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, and others—into a collection Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. In the introduction, Sterling characterized the cyberpunk movement as a continuation of long-running currents in science fiction:

The cyberpunks as a group are steeped in the lore and tradition of the SF field. Their precursors are legion. Individual cyberpunk writers differ in their literary debts; but some older writers, ancestral cyberpunks perhaps, show a clear and striking influence.

From the New Wave: the streetwise edginess of Harlan Ellison. The visionary shimmer of Samuel Delany. The free-wheeling zaniness of Norman Spinrad and the rock esthetic of Michael Moorcock; the intellectual daring of Brian Aldiss; and, always, J.G. Ballard.

From the harder tradition: the cosmic outlook of Olaf Stapledon; the science/politics of H.G. Wells; the steely extrapolation of Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, and Robert Heinlein.

And the cyberpunks treasure a special fondness for SF's native visionaries: the bubbling inventiveness of Philip Jose Farmer; the brio of John Varley; the reality games of Philip K. Dick; the soaring, skipping beatnik tech of Alfred Bester. With a special admiration for a writer whose integration of technology and literate stands unsurpassed: Thomas Pynchon. . . .

Science fiction—at least according to its official dogma—has always been about the impact of technology. But times have changed since the comfortable era of Hugo Gernsback, when Science was carefully enshrined—and confined—in an ivory tower. The careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control.

For the cyberpunks, by stark contrast, technology is visceral. It is not the bottle genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds. (Sterling. "Preface." Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. New York: Ace Books. 1986.)

In declaring war on modern science fiction, Sterling named his own adversaries: writers, he declared in one issue of Cheap Truth, such as Michael Swanwick, Kim Stanley Robinson, John Kessel, James Patrick Kelly, and Connie Willis. Although these writers never formed as self-aware a movement as the cyberpunks, their work created a coherent subgenre of stories, called "humanism," that emphasized relationships between humans rather than between humans and machines; human dominance of technology instead of subordination to computers; and the centralization of authority as opposed to the decentralized, lawless aesthetic of cyberpunk.

If traditional science fiction had found its outlet in Campbell's Astounding (which, by this time, had been renamed Analog), literary science fiction its champion in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the new wave its home in Moorcock's New Worlds, then humanist science fiction took root in a new magazine that would soon come to dominate the science-fiction field. Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, founded in 1977 with the blessing of Asimov himself, consistently published character-oriented fiction with less emphasis on science than Analog demanded and less focus on style or other literary qualities than stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Recent years have seen other new subgenres develop that may, perhaps, be viewed as reactions against cyberpunk and humanism, which were, in turn, reactions against the new wave. Several movements vied for the title of "postcyberpunk," including fiction that postulates about a world after the so-called Singularity, the time when machine intelligence exceeds human intelligence and the rate of technological change increases so fast that humans can no longer even understand the world around them. Meanwhile, humanist science fiction was challenged by successors who pressed against the limitations of science fiction, introducing elements of mainstream, fantasy, and terror to form hybridized subgenres called by such labels as "slipstream," "interstitial fiction," and "the New Weird."

Through these movements, the unity of science fiction has begun to disintegrate. The philosophical consensus has fallen apart as science fiction has splintered into a thousand disparate, individual visions. The future grows blurred, and the long journey, the odyssey of science fiction, from Homer to Hamilton, Heinlein, Herbert, and Harlan, has reached if not an end at least a pause, a place to sit for a moment and contemplate the future. Tomorrow the endless voyage begins again. . . .

Writing Assignment

The readings assigned for this lesson cover several subgenres of modern science fiction: "cyberpunk" (in the story by William Gibson), "slipstream" (in the story by Terry Bisson), and "humanism" (in the story by Nancy Kress). Discuss how these subgenres evolved from classic science fiction. What precursors to these modern stories do you see in earlier works that you have read for this course?