Proto-Cyberpunk: John Shirley’s “City Come A-Walkin'” #cyberpunk

Of the original Fab Four of c-punk (William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley), the author who seems the least recognized and celebrated is John Shirley. In the introduction to the 1996 re-issue of his 1980 proto-cyberpunk novel, City Come A-Walkin’, Gibson finally gave Shirley his propers, acknowledging his influence on Gibson and the genre as a whole and naming Shirley “Cyberpunk Patient Zero.”

Shirley really is, in many ways, cyberpunk OG, as well as being the granddaddy of splatterpunk, the horror spin-off of c-punk. And, being an actual punk rocker, fronting such bands as Sado-Nation, Obsession, and Panther Moderns, John put the punk in cyberpunk before anyone else.

There are a number of recognized proto-cyberpunk books, such as PK Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider, James Tiptree, Jr.’s (Alice Sheldon) The Girl Who Was Plugged In, and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. Shirley’s City Come A-Walkin’ deserves a prominent spot on that same shelf.

The novel, published in 1980, two years before Blade Runner and four years before Neuromancer, concerns a near-future San Francisco that is broken, horribly corrupt, mob-controlled, policed by right-wing vigilantes, and alive with countless vibrant ethnic groups, subcultures, and underground scenes that thrive despite the dystopian madness. City Come A-Walkin’ is, in many ways, a love letter to the urban diversity and fringe cultures of San Francisco.

Then the city literally comes alive. The sum total of the psyches of the city’s restless inhabitants and its complex and increasingly electronic infrastructure become emergent. The city rises up to create its own anti-superheroes to save itself. This might be more Jungian than Gibsonian, but in many ways, even this aspect of City… prefigures the global “consensual hallucination” of Gibson’s cyberspace, the Network 23 of Max Headroom, and our world brain-like Internet of today.

As with so much cyberpunk, there is a lot of prescient stuff in here. And if you want to understand where cyberpunk came from and how some of its tropes came into being (such an obsession with urbanism, tribalism, “high-tech low-life,” surrealist influences, cocky narrative style, and punk rock), you need to read City Come A-Walkin’.

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