I wasn’t on the cyberpunk train when it left the station, but I thought I caught up with it pretty quickly.
When Omni magazine printed William Gibson’s short story, “Burning Chrome,” I bought the issue. Not because it had Gibson’s story, though. I just happened to be buying Omni on a regular basis. As a kid, the content blew my mind (“a little more K with your tea, Dr. Lilly?”).
Lucky for me, I stumbled on to Gibson’s story.
I didn’t fully understand it, but I knew I liked it.
I learned that kind of story had a name: cyberpunk. I saw it spread through genre fiction, crop up in my favorite table-top gaming companies’ offerings, and eventually hit the big screen. I thought I was on the inside, part of the movement, hip to the whole scene.
After attending the recent Cyberpunk: Past and Future conference produced by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, however, I realized I had caught merely a blurry glimpse of that train racing by while I sat stuck in front of the flashing lights of a road crossing.
In addition to hearing from cyberpunk legends like Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling reflect on their contributions, the Annenberg Innovation Lab invited other media luminaries like Nalo Hopkinson to discuss the impact cyberpunk had on their creative endeavors. The introduction and the two panels were chock full of great quotes, observations, and first-hand accounts of how it all started.
Introduction: Dr. Henry Jenkins
Panel: The Origins of Cyberpunk Culture
Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, Roger Trilling, Mark Pauline
Moderated by Henry Jenkins
Panel: The Legacy of Cyberpunk Culture
Nalo Hopkinson, Jordan Mechner, John Jennings, Claire L. Evans, Alex Rivera
Moderated by Howard Rodman
Closing Remarks: Bruce Sterling
Breakout Session: World Building and Storytelling with Story Sparks
Following the panels, Jeff Watson and Geoffrey Long led a breakout group through a world building exercise which had the goal of generating a story set within a cyberpunk world. They used a framework for the exercise which can easily be used to create any kind of world or story.
First, we contributed ideas to fill in a table consisting of five different kinds of generic content: a protagonist, a technology, an antagonist/oppression, a location, and a desire/goal. The ideas we contributed to each column were called “story sparks.”
Our goal was to craft a cyberpunk kind of story, so we purposefully went for story sparks that evoked that aesthetic or would naturally fit within that kind of story.
Once we had crowdsourced five “strings” of sparks, we broke into groups. Each group then used a random number generator (a die, an app, or an online tool available from Jeff Watson’s website) to create as many random story strings as possible using the values we crowdsourced for the story spark grid.
We rolled once for each column to get a random selection of story spark values. Then we put them together to create a story string. A typical roll using the values in the picture above might turn out like this:
“A cage fighter uses DIY Bio tech to fight a Super Prison in a skating rink in order to unlock [something]”
Here are some of the ones we rolled that day:
If we rolled a number for a column that exceeded the number of story sparks for that column, we had to come up with a new one on the spot and add it to the column. This happened a lot, since we only started with five story sparks in each column.
So we were given five strings to work with, but we ended up making a bunch more by the time we were done. We rolled as many combinations as we could within the time allotted, then we narrowed down our favorite story strings and tried writing a more detailed story. My group played around with three different story strings before selecting one to use for our story.
The story spark framework is simple, easy, and flexible, and I can imagine it being used in a variety of ways. As a writer always looking for inspiration, I could see this being a useful tool.
Sadly, I had to leave right after my group finished our story, so I missed the group presentations. Happily, the Annenberg Innovation Lab captured that video, too!
Worldbuilding Breakout Presentations
While I was busy world building in my breakout session, in another room, Steve Anderson was presenting an interpretive chronology of cyberpunk technology and exploring Hollywood’s vision of human-machine convergence before, during and after the cyberpunk era.
Technologies of Cyberpunk: Steve Anderson
It was a fantastic day, and kudos to USC’s Annenberg Lab of Innovation for putting together an amazing lineup (best of all, it was free!).
If you want to learn about more events like this, head over to the Annenberg Innovation Lab website and sign up for their newsletter (top right corner).