The Queen of Cyberpunk
An interview with Pat Cadigan

Before cyberpunk spilled into popular culture via Billy Idol and the Wachowskis, early fans of the techno-fictions were consigned to limited-run sci-fi fanzines like Cheap Truth and Mondo 2000. The germ of the genre was William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer. In Gibson’s book, delinquent “data cowboys” interface with an immersive, monolithic cyberspace where their amphetamine-fueled nervous systems are overtaken by artificial data landscapes. Characterized by “a combination of lowlife and high tech,”1 the loose network of early cyberpunk writers crystallized as a proper milieu following publication of Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology in 1986, edited by Bruce Sterling.

After her story “Rock On” appeared in Mirrorshades, Pat Cadigan became, according to Marianne Brace in the Guardian, the “Queen of Cyberpunk.” Her story is peppered with idiosyncratic digital slang and contains all the staples of the genre’s universe: AR, VR, nanotechnology, neural implants, lethal viruses, and inklings of our superconnected world to come. Her landmark novel Synners, published in 1991, further solidified the genre’s vibe, winning her the first of her two Arthur C. Clarke Awards. The only woman included in the collection, Cadigan later became entangled with other cyberfeminist thinkers working far afield, presenting talks at the ICA London, the Whitney Museum, MIT, and the University of Warwick’s Virtual Futures conferences. 

A few years ago, Cadigan was diagnosed with terminal uterine cancer. Since then, she has frequently tweeted and blogged about her experiences at @Cadigan and After following her online activity for some time, I spoke with Cadigan over email in September 2018. She had just returned home to North London after appearing at the 76th World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, CA.

Michael Eby: So, you just got back from Worldcon 76. How was it? 

Pat Cadigan: It was pretty good. I deliberately asked for only a kaffeeklatsche and a signing, and I ended up doing one more item—the Gardner Dozois Appreciation [Dozois was an American sci-fi author who passed in May of last year] with George R.R. Martin and John Kessell. I’ve done every panel in the world twice, I thought someone else should have a chance. 

ME: How did you become involved with Bruce Sterling and the Mirrorshades anthology? How did you view your short story “Rock On” in relation to the other stories in the collection? 

PC: I had already known Bruce Sterling, his friend author Lew Shiner, and some of the other guys but I wasn’t really involved, except as a writer. I didn’t know about Cheap Truth or much of anything else, although I did know everyone’s pseudonyms. One day I got a big envelope full of copies of Cheap Truth in the mail from Bruce. He had read “Rock On” in an anthology called Light Years and Dark, edited by Michael Bishop, and really liked it. Me, I was busy—I had to find time to write while taking care of a new baby and working a full-time job. I finished the novella that became the center section of my novel Fools while I was in labor, and I signed the Asimov’s Magazine contract for my short story “Pretty Boy Crossover” the day after I had the baby. By then, I’d heard I was a cyberpunk, so I made a joke in my bio for Asimov’s about being the first “cybermom.” Anyway, like I said, I was busy. 

ME: You studied science-fiction writing with author James Gunn, who founded of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. Was your fiction at this time specifically addressing new technology, or did your interest in that come later?

PC: I was always interested in new technology, from the time I was a kid. Of course, back in those days, we didn’t have the wealth of information we have now. You saw things on the news or you read about it in the newspaper or in magazines. There was so much information that wasn’t available then that we just take for granted now. Most of the new technology I wrote about was stuff I dreamed up myself. The world of science and technology was far removed from the average person’s daily life. For example, you heard about advances in medicine only if something very good or very bad happened, like polio vaccine (very good) or thalidomide (very bad). I was actually more clued-up on science than the average kid because I read a lot of science fiction.

 ME: Who were you reading and who influenced that work?

PC: I read a lot of Isaac Asimov’s science books. He could write about any subject and whenever I wanted to know more about something, I would start with his work and go from there.

As for influences on my work: I’d say my biggest influences were Cordwainer Smith and Philip K. Dick, as well as those writers who were described as New Wave and anyone published in Judith Merrill’s Best of the Year anthologies. They were the greatest influences on my creative process. 

ME: You took part in a some of the Virtual Futures conferences at the University of Warwick in the 1990s, which featured a number cyberfeminist artists and thinkers of that time such as Sadie Plant, Linda Dement, and VNS Matrix. What was special about these conferences and how did they affect your thinking?

PC: The VF conferences were a big treat for me because I was still living in the Kansas City area—in the suburbs on the Kansas side, actually—and I had no idea there was so much going on. No one I knew was talking about technology and culture in the same ways. The Internet and the World Wide Web were just coming into being then; Sadie and Linda and other people weren’t just spinning ethereal notions for residents of some ivory tower.

VNS Matrix was, to me, the new feminist artistic expression. There have always been women artists of all kinds, of course, but for centuries, women had more often been subjects—or maybe objects—for artists, who in delineating their bodies also delineated their sexuality. VNS Matrix were women delineating themselves, taking hold of the technology, in a sense grabbing it out of men’s hands to “paint” new pictures of women who weren’t as pretty and docile as the traditional subjects, including nudes, rendered by men.

ME: “Rock On,” as well as your landmark 1992 novel Synners, concerns a near-future in which direct-to-brain interfaces are used in the production of virtual reality. “Synners” are able to produce VR environments by merely imagining them, and these environments are then sold to the public as rock videos by megacorporations. Do you see a relationship between this scenario and contemporary Silicon Valley “data extractivism,” in which internet users produce surplus data for Google and Facebook in the form of searches and likes?

PC: “Data extractivism.” I’ve actually never heard that term before and I’m not sure what to make of it. “Likes” as a concept is nothing new. If you went into a particularly good record store back in the day (yes, little one, there used to be whole stores dedicated to selling only records), you would see recommendations based on what listeners liked—i.e., “If you like ________, try ________.” It was the same with bookstores, art, and just about anything else. So “data extractivism” sounds a bit like an over-dressed term for something we’ve always done.

Of course, in an age of copious information, searches and likes become serious business—being listed on the first page of search results is a big deal. Back in the days when we got a lot of news from newspapers, this was called “above the fold.” It’s pretty much the same thing, except it’s not just news and there’s a lot more content now.

Anyway, consumers have always provided data for companies and there have always been organizations that studied and analyzed buying habits, trends, fads, etc., and then used that data to try to predict what was going to happen next. There’s just more data these days.

ME: You announced on your blog in 2013 that you were diagnosed with uterine cancer, which has since become terminal, and you have been discussing your situation online since then. One positive thing that social networking has helped facilitate is the ability to deal with mortality in a more open way. How has your current blogging and tweeting helped you with this process?

PC: In 2013, I had uterine cancer very briefly. They caught it so early, there was no need for further treatment other than surgery. Unfortunately, that has nothing to do with whether or not uterine cancer will recur. In a small but substantial percentage of women, it will recur, and when it does, it’s inoperable, incurable, and terminal. However, it is treatable, although it was emphasized to me that all treatment was palliative, not curative—it was to make me as comfortable as possible. My oncologist told me I might have two years, or it could be less. But that was in December 2014. The palliative chemo ended up working better than anyone expected. They also discovered the cancer cells have hormone receptors, so hormones might suppress them, and that has also worked pretty well.

I guess when something like that happens, for some people, there’s an impulse to talk about it. I had no reason to keep quiet—I didn’t have to worry about an employer or family or whatever. There were people I called first before I talked about it on Facebook, where I just said I’d had a bad day and I wanted to see jokes and cat photos and anything else upbeat.

When I finally did announce it, the outpouring of support was breathtaking. People posted anything they thought would make me smile as well as messages of encouragement. I was amazed at the way so many people would take a few moments to do something nice for me. And as it turns out, it’s not just for me. People are still leaving funny photos and cartoons and videos, many involving cats but not all. This has been going on for three years and people come to my Facebook page because they know there will be something there that will make them smile or laugh or feel better.

At first, I wasn’t going to keep a blog and just post things on Facebook but then I changed my mind. Things were scrolling pretty quickly because of all the neat, funny things people were posting. Keeping a blog made it easier to find a previous entry.

I hear from a lot of people who either have cancer themselves or are taking care of a loved one who has it. A number of them aren’t talking about it publicly, and they have their reasons. Everyone has to deal with their circumstances in the way that’s best for them. They tell me the blog has helped them to understand that they don’t have to define themselves solely in terms of cancer—they’re not just cancer patients, they are the people they’ve always been, and being ill doesn’t mean feeling bad about it all the time.

The support a person can get online can be crucial. For many of us with cancer, our mobility isn’t always what it used to be. We tire easily or, if we’re in chemo, our immune systems are compromised and going out with friends isn’t an option, no matter how much we might want to party. This is how illness can be isolating. But if you have support from friends online, you don’t have to feel alone. I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve never felt isolated or alone.

And the truth is, most people will take the opportunity to do something good. Most of us can’t be philanthropists, but sites like Kickstarter, Indie-Go-Go, and GoFundMe have helped a lot of people do things they never would have been able to do otherwise—launch a product or keep from losing their home. Crowdfunding is one more example of social networking at its best. There are also formal support groups online that offer encouragement and advice to people who may be struggling with a problem or who just need to know they aren’t alone but can’t get to actual meetings in real life.



[1] Sterling, Bruce. “Preface.” In Burning Chrome, by William Gibson. Harpercollins, 1986: xiv.