Cyberpunk: Why Does Amazon Still Use This Term?

I published my first science fiction book one month ago and, since then, it’s been a fascinating (sometimes frustrating) introduction to the world of indie authoring. My book, Presence, reached the top 20 in the Cyberpunk subgenre on for a few days early in October. Which was pleasing. But, wait a minute… cyberpunk? I had thought that word went out of style in the 1990s. But no, apparently it’s alive and kicking as an subgenre of Science Fiction on Amazon. In fact, to my surprise Cyberpunk is one of only two subcategories that Presence fits comfortably in. The other is “Technothriller,” which isn’t even a subgenre of science fiction (it’s listed under Thrillers).

My novel is about the future of virtual reality, so broadly speaking it’s about technology. However, there is no ‘Technology’ subgenre in the Science Fiction (SF) category on Amazon. Which is disappointing, because I can’t think of a better topic for SF right now than extrapolating technology trends into the future. Think about it. There’s so much groundbreaking innovation in the technology landscape today: VR, Artificial Intelligence, Wearables, Automation, Augmented Reality, and so on. Many of those topics I’ve written about in my nonfiction articles this year. And I purposely chose VR as the subject of my debut science fiction novel, because I was fascinated by its future potential. So why is there no sub-category for technology-driven science fiction in Amazon? Instead, my book and others like it have been categorized with a term that belongs to the 1980s.

The main reason seems to be that Amazon choses its subgenres according to market demand. Here are some of the other Amazon subgenres under SF: Alien Invasion, Alternative History, Dystopian, Galactic Empire, Military, Time Travel. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the science fiction book market, you’ll recognize all those subgenres as types of movies or TV series you often see. Alien Invasion = War of the Worlds, Alternative History = Back to the Future, Dystopian = The Hunger Games, Galactic Empire = Star Wars, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong, some amazing books, movies and tv shows are produced that cater to those tropes. The Man in the High Castle is classic ‘Alternative History’ and was written by one of my favorite authors, Philip K. Dick. It was also recently turned into a tv show. So there’s no doubt there are large, hungry audiences for all the types of subgenres Amazon lists under SF. Which is precisely why Amazon uses terms like “Alternative History” and “Dystopian” in its subgenres. Amazon is in the e-commerce game, so it’s primarily concerned with matching supply to demand.

The popular SF book turned TV series.

The flip side, of course, is that it becomes a cycle of cliches after a while. How many Dystopian books do you really need to read? They mostly follow a similar pattern (the world’s going to hell, but one or more brave souls – typically a group of teenagers with no acne – will save us all and overcome the oppressive regime). But that’s beside the point, at least as far as Amazon is concerned. There is a massive market for dystopian SF books, so traditional and indie authors alike will gladly step up and supply that market.

Which brings me back to cyberpunk. That term gained popularity in the 1980s, thanks to SF authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson and Pat Cadigan. The stories from that era are typically streetwise, edgy and anti-authoritarian. As Wikipedia put it, “cyberpunk writers tend to use elements from hardboiled detective fiction, film noir, and postmodernist prose to describe the often nihilistic underground side of an electronic society.” Personally, I love a lot of the books and writers from that era. Indeed the four writers I mentioned are still producing excellent work. But it’s no longer cyberpunk. Even William Gibson, often credited with ushering in the cyberpunk era with his 1984 novel Neuromancer, dismissed the term in his 2011 interview with The Paris Review:

That label enabled mainstream science fiction to safely assimilate our dissident influence, such as it was. Cyberpunk could then be embraced and given prizes and patted on the head, and genre science fiction could continue unchanged.

So why then does Amazon continue to ’embrace’ the term cyberpunk, when it’s clearly well past its use-by date? Put another way, what are the cyberpunk tropes and patterns that readers in this subgenre are looking for?

Well, let’s look at some of the books listed as Cyberpunk now. They include Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (another VR novel, but vastly more popular than mine), Post-Human Omnibus by David Simpson, Big Data: A Startup Thriller Novel by Lucas Carlson, and Daemon by Daniel Suarez. Those books are all about technology, or at least the action is set against a background of technology. But they have little in common with 1980s or 90s cyberpunk books. There’s not much cynicism about technology (how could there be, when Silicon Valley has achieved so much over the past two decades), the style isn’t noir or postmodern, and the characters are not particularly streetwise. Those four books are certainly technology-focused, but frankly a couple of them have more in common with John Grisham than William Gibson.

There’s another type of book that is very prevalent in Amazon’s Cyberpunk charts: something called LitRPG. It stands for Literature Role Playing Game and is kind of a half-game, half-book hybrid. A recent article by Paul Miller on The Verge described LitRPG as “when MMOs [Massively Multiplayer Online games] become fantasy novels, stats and all.” I haven’t read any LitRPG, but Paul Miller described the book he consumed as “a terrible novel,” with “unlikable characters, casual sexism, and a plot completely bent to the main character’s progression.” But being badly written hasn’t stopped LitRPG from dominating the Cyberpunk charts. By my count, a staggering 12 of the top 20 Kindle books in Cyberpunk are LitRPG. Yet, clearly, LitRPG is nothing like William Gibson or Neal Stephenson.

Numbers 1 and 3 here are LitRPG books.

I have to conclude that cyberpunk is one of those catch-all terms that Amazon is using for… well, any SF novel that mentions computers. It would make sense, though, for Amazon to at least carve out the LitRPG books into a more suitable subgenre (perhaps one in the Fantasy section?). But more to the point, I’d love it if Amazon came up with a better name for the Cyberpunk subgenre. I’d suggest simply using the word Technology.

Instead of this: Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Cyberpunk

Why not change it to: Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Technology

Alas, it’s more likely that the term cyberpunk will continue to be used and abused for another thirty years by Amazon. Or perhaps I’m being too cynical.

Image credits: Neon Dystopia; Amazon

Presence, my science fiction novel about the future of VR, is now available on Amazon.