Frequently Asked Questions on alt.cyberpunk

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Assembled by Erich Schneider (

Version of: June 10, 1994

This is a FAQ list for alt.cyberpunk. It is inspired by, but is not a direct descendant of, the previous unofficial FAQ, originally compiled by Andy Hawks (who has left FAQ-building behind), and later edited by Tim Oerting (who has graduated from UW and can no longer be editor).

I have been an alt.cyberpunk reader since 1988, and have seen many a FAQ get asked in my time. I am dedicated to answering your questions and keeping this document up to date and available. If you have comments, criticisms, additions, questions, or just general invective, send to Send to that address as well if you would like the latest version of this document which is also available via anonymous ftp as "". The latest archived version is available as "". There is also a version that has been marked up with the HTML markup language, and is suitable for viewing with World Wide Web browsers like NCSA Mosaic; the URL of the latest version is "".

A vast number of the "answers" here should be prefixed with an "in my opinion". It would be ridiculous for me to claim to be an ultimate cyberpunk authority.

(A note on filenames: files or directories listed as being available by anonymous FTP are in the format "hostname:filename". Thus, the filename above (for this FAQ list itself) indicates the host is "" and the filename is "/pub/usenet/news.answers/cyberpunk-faq". Filenames of this type will always be given in quotes, to avoid problems with trailing periods.)


1. What is cyberpunk, the literary movement?

The first use of "cyberpunk" to designate a body of literature is credited to Gardner Dozois, who, at the time (the early '80s), was editor of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. He cribbed it from the title of a short story by Bruce Bethke, "Cyberpunk". (Bethke has since proclaimed himself to be an "anti-cyberpunk".)

Before its christening, the "cyberpunk movement", known to its members as "The Movement", had existed for quite some time, centered around Bruce Sterling's samizdat, Cheap Truth. Authors like Sterling, Rucker, and Shirley submitted articles pseudonymously to this newsletter, hyping the works of people in the group and vigorously attacking the "SF mainstream". This helped form the core "movement consciousness". (The run of Cheap Truth is available by anonymous FTP in the directory "".)

Cyberpunk literature, in general, deals with marginalized people in technologically-enhanced cultural "systems". In cyberpunk stories' settings, there is usually a "system" which dominates the lives of most "ordinary" people, be it an oppresive government, a group of large, paternalistic corporations, or a fundamentalist religion. These systems are enhanced by certain technologies (today advancing at a rate that is bewildering to most people), particularly "information technology" (computers, the mass media), making the system better at keeping those within it inside it. Often this technological system extends into its human "components" as well, via brain implants, prosthetic limbs, cloned or genetically engineered organs, etc. Humans themselves become part of "the Machine". This is the "cyber" aspect of cyberpunk.

However, in any cultural system, there are always those who live on its margins, on "the Edge": criminals, outcasts, visionaries, or those who simply want freedom for its own sake. Cyberpunk literature focuses on these people, and often on how they turn the system's technological tools to their own ends. This is the "punk" aspect of cyberpunk.

The best cyberpunk works are distinguished from previous work with similar themes by a certain style. The setting is urban, the mood is dark and pessimistic. Concepts are thrown at the reader without explanation, much like new developments are thrown at us in our everyday lives. There is often a sense of moral ambiguity; simply fighting "the system" (to topple it, or just to stay alive) does not make the main characters "heroes" or "good" in the traditional sense.

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2. What is cyberpunk, the subculture?

Spurred on by cyberpunk literature, in the mid-1980's certain groups of people started referring to themselves as cyberpunk, because they correctly noticed the seeds of the fictional "techno-system" in Western society today, and because they identified with the marginalized characters in cyberpunk stories. Within the last few years, the mass media has caught on to this, spontaneously dubbing certain people and groups "cyberpunk". Specific subgroups which are identified with cyberpunk are:

Hackers, Crackers, and Phreaks:
"Hackers" are the "wizards" of the computer community; people with a deep understanding of how their computers work, and can do things with them that seem "magical". "Crackers" are the real-world analogues of the "console cowboys" of cyberpunk fiction; they break in to other people's computer systems, without their permission, for illicit gain or simply for the pleasure of exercising their skill. "Phreaks" are those who do a similar thing with the telephone system, coming up with ways to circumvent phone companies' calling charges and doing clever things with the phone network. All three groups are using emerging computer and telecommunications technology to satisfy their individualist goals.

These people think a good way to bollix "The System" is through cryptography and cryptosystems. They believe widespread use of extremely hard-to-break coding schemes will create "regions of privacy" that "The System" cannot invade.

These are the folks who use synthesized and sampled music, computer-generated psychedelic ("cyberdelic") art, and designer drugs to create massive all-night dance parties and love-fests in empty warehouses.

However, one person's "cyberpunk" is another's everyday obnoxious teenager with some technical skill thrown in, or just someone looking for the latest trend to identify with. This has led many people to look at self-designated "cyberpunks" in a negative light. Also, there are those who claim that "cyberpunk" is undefinable (which in some sense it is, being concerned with outsiders and rebels), and resent the mass media's use of the label, seeing it as a cynical marketing ploy.

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3. What is cyberspace? How does it relate to today's "net" and "virtual reality"?

To my knowledge, the term "cyberspace" was first used by William Gibson in his story "Burning Chrome". That work first describes users using devices called "cyberdecks" to override their normal sensory organs, presenting them with a full-sensory interface to the world computer network; when doing so, said users are "in cyberspace". (The concept had appeared prior to Gibson, most notably in Vernor Vinge's story "True Names".) "Cyberspace" is thus the metaphorical "place" where one "is" when accessing the world computer net.

Even though Gibson's vision of how cyberspace operates is in some senses absurd, it has stimulated many in the computing community. The word "cyberspace" is beginning to filter into common use, referring to the emergent world-wide computer network (especially the Internet). Also, some researchers in the "virtual reality" area of computer science are trying to implement something like Gibson's information space. However, "cyberspace" is also used to refer to any computer-generated VR environment, even if its purpose is not "accessing the net".

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4. Cyberpunk books

The following is intended to be a short list of the best in-print cyberpunk works. Note that quite a few works written before 1980 have been retroactively labelled "cyberpunk", because of stylistic similarities (like Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow), or similar themes (Brunner's The Shockwave Rider, Delany's Nova).

Some other good cyberpunk works include:

(Some good out-of-print works to look for are Sterling's Schismatrix, Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers and Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers.)

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5. Magazines about cyberpunk and related topics

Some magazines which are popular among cyberpunk fans are:

Mondo 2000
P O Box 10171
Berkeley, CA 94709-0171
Voice (510)845-9018
Fax (510)649-9630

Mondo's reputation has been declining among cyberpunk fans lately, as the articles have become less and less technically-oriented.

544 Second St.
San Francisco, CA, 94107
Voice (415)974-1172
Fax (415)974-1216

A less "slick" magazine than Mondo or Wired, but with plenty of attitude and plenty of good writers.

P.O. Box 191826
San Francisco, CA 94119
Voice (415)904-0660
Fax (415)904-0669
Credcard subscriptions: 1-800-SO-WIRED (1-800-769-4733)
for information, mail to
for subscription requests, mail to
Gopher site at "", port 70; HTTP site at "".

A magazine that is very popular right now. It's aimed more at technically-oriented professionals with disposable income, but many cyberpunk fans like the articles on network- and future-related topics.

603 W. 13th #1A-278
Austin, TX, 78701

2600 Magazine
Subscription correspondence: 2600 Subscription Dept., P.O. Box 752, Middle Island, NY, 11953-0752
Letters/Article Submissions: 2600 Editorial Dept., P.O. Box 99, Middle Island, NY, 11953-0099

Two mainstays of the computer underground. Phrack deals more with people and goings-on in the community, while 2600 focuses on techinical information.

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6. Cyberpunk in visual media (movies and TV). What about movies based on Gibson's stories? Gibson's Alien 3 script?

TV gave us the late, lamented Max Headroom, which featured oodles of cyberpunk concepts. The Bravo cable network is rerunning the few episodes that were made. TV also gave us the somewhat bloated Wild Palms, with a "cyberspace", evil corporations, and a cameo by William Gibson.

Recently, TV-movies based on William Shatner's "Tek" novels have been released. While possessing some tranditionally cyberpunk elements and extended "cyberspace runs", they tend to boil down to good guys vs. bad guys cop stories. So far, TekWar, TekLords, and TekLab have been made. (TekLords features a central plot element that those who have read Snow Crash will recognize.)

Blade Runner is considered the archetypical cyberpunk movie. (Gibson has said that the visuals in Blade Runner match his vision of the urban future in Neuromancer.) Few other movies have matched it; some that are considered cyberpunk or marginally so are Alien and its sequels, Freejack, The Lawnmower Man, Until The End Of The World, the "Terminator" movies, Total Recall, the somewhat goofy Circuitry Man, and Brainstorm.

There is an hourlong documentary called "Cyberpunk" available on video from Mystic Fire Video. It features some interview-style conversation with Gibson, is generally low-budget, and the consensus opinion on the net is that it isn't really worth anyone's time. Gibson is apparently embarrassed by it.

Regarding films based on Gibson stories: At one point a fly-by-night operation called "Cabana Boys Productions" had the rights to Neuromancer; this is why the front of the Neuromancer computer game's box claims it is "soon to be a motion picture from Cabana Boys". The rights have since reverted to Gibson, who is sitting on them at the moment.

A film version of Gibson's short story "Johnny Mnemonic" is being produced at this time, scheduled for release in early 1995; Gibson wrote the screenplay, and is a close consultant to the director, Robert Longo. Keanu Reeves has the title role, Dolph Lundgren and Takeshi Kitano are his enemies, and Dina Meyer is playing the "Molly-equivalent" character (since the character of Molly cannot appear due to her possible use in a Neuromancer production). Ice-T and Henry Rollins also have roles. There are rumors that "New Rose Hotel" will soon be made into a film, and Gibson recently claimed that a short (15 minute) film was made in Britain based on his short story "The Gernsback Continuum".

William Gibson wrote one of the many scripts for Alien 3. According to him, only one detail from his script made its way to the actual film: the bar codes visible on the backs of the prisoners' shaved heads. A synopsis of Gibson's script, including instructions on how to get the whole thing, can be found in part 3 of the Alien Movies FAQ list, available as " alien-faq/part3".

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7. Blade Runner

There is a Blade Runner FAQ which is available via anonymous FTP as "". It answers many of the more common questions. Here are short answers to the most common.

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8. Cyberpunk music. What about Billy Idol's album?

There is a bit of confusion as to what "cyberpunk music" really is. Is it "music that deals with cyberpunk themes", or "music that people in a cyberpunk future would listen to"?

Those who claim there is cyberpunk music usually say the fast, synthesized, and sample-oriented forms such as techno, rave, and industrial music are "cyberpunk".

In late 1993 Billy Idol released an album called "Cyberpunk", which garnered some media attention. The album seems to have been a commercial and critical flop, but based on his statements (two of them) on the net, Billy seems sincere about learning about the "cyberpunk scene". However, scorn and charges of commercialization have been heaped upon him in this and other forums.

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9. What is [famous person]'s email address?

William Gibson has no public e-mail address. In fact, he doesn't really care about computers all that much; he didn't use one until he wrote Mona Lisa Overdrive, and was thinking of kids playing videogames when he developed his "cyberspace".

Other authors are on the net, however. Tom Maddox (author of Halo, "Snake Eyes", and many critical articles) is good buddies with Gibson, and occasionally posts to alt.cyberpunk from his address at Bruce Sterling maintains an e-mail address at Rudy Rucker, author of Software, Wetware, the story collection Transreal!, and many others, is Vernor Vinge, author of "True Names", is

Billy Idol can be reached at

For courtesy's sake, please don't abuse these addresses; most people have better things to do with their time than answer floods of fan mail.

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10. What is this "PGP" everyone is talking about?

"PGP" is short for "Pretty Good Privacy", a public-key cryptosystem that is the mainstay of the cypherpunk movement. "OK, so what's a public-key cryptosystem?", you now ask.

A public-key cryptosystem allows one to send secret messages with the assurance that the receiver will know who the sender was. (This is important if, say, you are sending your credit-card number to buy an expensive item; ordinary e-mail is somewhat easy to fake.) The message is said to be "signed" by a "digital signature". Consider two people, Alice and Bob. Each has two mathematical functions, constructed via two "keys", A and B. A message encrypted with key A can be decrypted only by key B, and a message encrypted with key B can be decrypted only by key A. Key A is kept secret, known only to its owner, and is called the "private" key; key B is given to anyone who wants it, and is called the "public" key.

Suppose Alice is sending a message to Bob. She first encrypts it with her private key, and then encrypts the result with Bob's public key. This is then sent to Bob. Bob decrypts the message using his private key, and decrypts the result with Alice's public key. The fact that he was able to decrypt using his private key means Alice inteded the message for him, and that only he can read it; the fact that Alice's public key decrypted the result means that Alice was the true author of the message (since only Alice has the required private key to encrypt).

Thus, when you see a "PGP public key block" at the end of someone's Usenet posts, that's the "public key" that you can use to encrypt secret messages to them.

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11. What is "Agrippa" and where can I get it?

"Agrippa: A Book of the Dead", the textual component of an art project, was written by William Gibson in 1992. Gibson wrote a semi-autobiographical poem, which was placed onto a computer disk. This disk was part of a limited release of special "reader" screens; the reader units themselves had etchings by Dennis Ashbaugh which were light-sensitive, and slowly changed from one form to another, final, form, when exposed to light. Also, the "text" of the poem, when read, was erased from the disk - it could only be read once.

On the net, opinion on the Agrippa project ranged from "what an interesting concept; it challenges what we think 'art' should be" to "Gibson has sold out to the artsy-fartsy crowd" to "Gibson is right to make a quick buck off these art people".

Naturally (some would say according to Gibson's plan), someone got hold of the text of "Agrippa" and uploaded it to the Usenet. The compiler of this FAQ has a copy which is available to all who ask for it; a public copy can be found in the file " Server/Fiction/Gibson-Agrippa". The author of this FAQ has a copy at "", as well as a copy of a parody, "agr1ppa", in the same directory.

12. More, more, I must have more!

A larger list, with more resource listings (of books, music, etc.) is the Cyberpoet's Guide to Virtual Culture, located at "". Its immediate ancestor, the Future Culture FAQ , is available in various versions which are stored on many sites. (An old version can be found in "".)

The Rutgers SF archive , at "", contains many general SF-related items, including a directory of John Wenn's "author lists" , which are very good bibligraphies for many popular authors.

The Network 23 server at URL "" contains a great deal of information about Max Headroom.

The UWP Music Archives , at "", has subdirectories of musical interest, such as discographies and lyrics of many bands, some of them "cyberpunk".

"" contains the two-part industrial music FAQ list from "".

"" has items of interest to ravers and about the rave scene in general.

"" has many cryptography items , including a directory containing the latest version of PGP for several platforms. RSA Data Security's ftp site at "" also contains cryptography materials. in the "" and "" subdirectories. FAQ lists covering cryptographic topics can be found in the directory "".

The WELL's gopher site (at "", port 70) has a subdirectory on "Cyberpunk and Postmodern Culture" , which contains, among other things, some stuff by Bruce Sterling , including Bruce's recommended cyberpunk reading list and the complete text of his book The Hacker Crackdown, a nonfiction account of the attempts in 1990 to bloody the nose of the "computer underground". The Hacker Crackdown is also available by anonymous FTP in the directory "". The WELL gopher also has a copy of "Agrippa"

Wired magazine's gopher site (at "", port 70) has, among other things, complete contents of many back issues available online. They also have an HTTP site at the same address.

Many files of relevance to the real-life "computer undergrond" and the hacking/phreaking communities can be found in one of the "Computer Underground Digest" sites. One of these is at "", and includes a complete set of issues of Phrack magazine.

Happy exploring!

(Back to contents) -- Erich Schneider "Even the AI hated [my book]?" "The AI _loved_ it. That's when we knew for sure that _people_ were going to hate it." -Dan Simmons, _Hyperion_