Friday, March 26, 2021

Ask Dr. Cyberpunk • with your host, Bruce Bethke

And now, as threatened promised:


I’ve been doing a lot of digging in the deep archives lately, as I work on—well, this. The book I’ve been talking about writing for years. The one that ties together the original short story, how it mutated to become the aborted Baen-damaged novel, and what it’s meant to me personally to have spent the past 35-plus years being known all over the world as, “The Guy Who Wrote Cyberpunk.”

It’s finally become apparent to me that this book will never really be finished. Just last week, more than twenty new questions came in from people wanting to know this or that thing about the inception, creation, propagation, etc., etc., etc. of cyberpunk. 

Hence this feature on the Stupefying Stories web site. I’ve come to the conclusion that Cyberpunk and Cyberpunk Revisited needs to become both a book and an interactive web feature. The book will contain the definitive version of the original story (Thank you, Leen!), my notes about the writing of the original story and what it took to take the thing from original concept to published work, my description of the novel I was in the process of writing when Jim Baen called, and the complete text of the resulting novel that Baen then refused to release because he hated the ending and I refused to write the ending he wanted. Cap it off with a suitable postlude containing information culled from decades of interviews, and then include a link to Ask Dr. Cyberpunk for them’s as has further questions, because invariably, someone will.

To deal with one of those questions right now: “Why don’t you just release your original novel?”

Because unfortunately, it doesn’t exist—or rather, something exists, but it resembles a complete and functional novel in the same way that a crash reconstruction resembles a complete and functional airplane.

This is because of the way I work, and almost always have worked. I rarely start at the beginning and write straight through to The End. I develop my major projects in a non-linear way, writing bits, pieces, descriptions, and above all key scenes first, and then figuring out what needs to be written to bridge the scenes. Hence my one piece of enduring advice to aspiring novelists: write the ending first. Then figure out what you need to write to set up that ending, and write it. In the process you may wind up throwing out your original ending as the characters hijack the story and demand that it head off in a different direction, but at least you will have some idea of where you intended to go. 

Most of the time when I hear writers complain about being stuck or having writer’s block, the real problem isn’t a lack of inspiration or imagination; it’s that they had no clue where they wanted the story to go or how they wanted it to end in the first place, and therefore have no sense of whether they’re making progress towards getting there.

End of sermon.

To get back to my original cyberpunk novel, then: there is no point in trying to release it now, because it isn’t even an interesting corpse. It’s a collection of dismembered specimens laid out on a coroner’s table, with major pieces missing. All we could do with it now is measure the bite radius and try to determine what killed it…but we know that already.

So as I said at the start, I’ve been taking some deep dives into the archives lately, trying to get back to what was in my mind when I began to write “Cyberpunk.” The good news is that at the time I kept detailed journals—and no, don’t even think about asking to see them or asking me to donate them to some university library. One of these days I’m going to take them all out to the back yard and have a hell of a big bonfire. Those things are painfully embarrassing to read now. I was such a self-absorbed and arrogant dick back then.

(And those of you who knew me back then: there is no need for you to chime in now and support me on this assertion, thank you.) 

In doing this spelunking into my own past, though, I made a surprising discovery. I’d always thought that I’d started writing “Cyberpunk” in February of 1980. Actually, I’d begun writing the bits, pieces, fragments, and key scenes of the thing that eventually became “Cyberpunk” in the fall of 1978. Only I didn’t call it that or start out to write a short story at all. I’d started out to write a stage musical, and that musical had a name:


Oy vey…


To reiterate something I have said many times before and will probably be saying for the rest of my life: I did not set out to become a science fiction writer. I intended to be a musician and composer. Sure, I puttered around with writing short stories, and even wrote most of a novel, It’s Okay, I’m With The Band, that’s better left forgotten now. But I never took writing fiction seriously. It was just something I did to burn off the excess creativity that couldn’t be turned into a score, a libretto, a tape track, or a synthesizer program.

The plot of Invasion of the Discodroids, then, such as it is, should seem familiar, as it’s Standard Paranoid Science Fiction Setup Number 6. An ordinary everyday every-man office worker, vaguely dissatisfied with the shallowness of his life and yearning for something more, discovers a terrible secret: that the Earth has been invaded and conquered by alien robots, who control the masses by controlling pop culture. To keep the people off-kilter and vaguely uneasy, and thus easily manipulated, they keep fashions and trends shifting constantly; to give the people something to adore and aspire to being they have a factory somewhere in Southern California, probably on Disney’s back lot in Anaheim, where an automated assembly line cranks out a never-ending line of perfect singing and dancing robot pop stars.

(And every time I hear someone singing through an auto-tuner, I think: “Yep, got that one right.”)

As our hero gets deeper into the conspiracy and deeper into danger, he finds a last desperate ray of hope: a sort of Galt’s Gulch in reverse somewhere in New Mexico, where all the free thinkers—the radical musicians, writers, artists, poets and the like—have been rounded up and are being confined, either for the rest of their lives or until they can be brainwashed into becoming enthusiastic supporters of our new robot overlords. Breaking into the Musician Reservation, he raises a revolutionary army and leads them back out into society, to shatter the shackles of conformity with the raw anarchic power of punk rock and save the world.

Yeah. Right.

There were things I really liked about Invasion of the Discodroids. Some of the music tracks were pretty good. I almost made it to what would in a few more years become techno and EDM. I should have pushed further in that direction. And I particularly liked one plot gimmick: that every “morning” when our hero woke up to the blaring of his bedside clock radio, the first thing out of the DJ’s mouth was the daily forecast. “Today the National Fashion Center is calling for Gritty Working Class Realism in the morning, changing over to candy-coated Fifties Nostalgia by late afternoon!” I don’t remember whether I got that bit into the “Cyberpunk” short story, but I did manage to work something like it into the novel.

On the other hand, the full show would have been hopelessly impossible and insanely expensive to stage. It only got one partial performance, once, in 1979; more of a demo reel of the work in progress, really, consisting of four songs from the show. The girls complained that there weren’t enough dance numbers to let them really show off their moves, and they were right. I failed to write a full-blown showstopper diva number for the female lead (not that I had one for the demo show); I failed to write any schlocky sappy ballads of the sort that men who like to do musical theater like to sing; and in an incredibly stupid oversight, I failed to write a big happy the-whole-cast-up-on-stage-singing-and-dancing finale number. Loathe it or hate it, Mamma Mia! really is the model for the perfect stage musical. Would you like more schmaltz with your schmaltz?

The finale that I did write, in which the MULA (Musician’s Union Liberation Army) punk rock commandos storm the theater with machine guns and electric guitars and hold the audience at gun-point while they perform their final number, was in hindsight probably a very bad idea.

The true killer, though, is that we never would have been able to clear the rights to “Funkytown,” especially as I planned to use it as the recurring motif for the evil robot overlords. Every time the fashion forecast changed, “Funkytown” came back with a different title, different lyrics, a different mix, and different instrumentation, but always just as slick and soulless as ever and always with the UDB—the Universal Disco Beat—throbbing away underneath. There is no way Steven Greenberg would have let me do that.

All the same, I would have dearly loved to have seen the entire cast up on stage in blue jeans, cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and plaid yoke shirts with patch pockets and pearlized snaps, line-dancing together, on the day the fashion forecast said Country & Western was in style and the hit song of the day was “Honkytown.” The costuming for that number alone would have blown the budget.

Man, I hated “Funkytown.” 


But aside from that one partial performance in 1979, and aside from my continuing to work on it well into 1980, Invasion of the Discodroids didn’t happen, “Cyberpunk” did, and my life turned in a completely different direction. It’s probably just as well. Quite a few of my friends from the 1970s didn’t make it through the 1980s. AIDS cut a hell of a swath through the music and theater communities.

I moved on, and went on to become the person you think I am now. Music and theater dropped completely out of my life…

Until about 15 or 20 years ago, when someone I’d never heard from before tracked me down, wanting to talk about the performance rights to “Cyberpunk.” I get these kinds of inquiries all the time, usually from aspiring film students or would-be television producers. I refer them all to my agent, and once they find out that I actually have an agent in L.A. and have some experience with the film and TV industry, the conversation usually stops dead in its tracks and I never hear from them again.

This query, though, got my attention. The guy represented a theater company in a city that has a major live theater scene, and they were looking to get the rights to develop “Cyberpunk” as an original live stage musical. When he found out about my music background, the conversation got even more interesting. We went back and forth for a few weeks, with me getting more interested with every exchange, until finally he ‘fessed up that even though we hadn’t reached a deal, they’d already started working on music for the show, would I like to listen to their demo reel?

Would I? Oh boy, I couldn’t wait to listen to their demo reel—until about ten seconds after I popped the tape he’d sent me into the tape player in my car and started listening.

Fast forward. Listen. Fast forward again. No, this track is rotten all the way through. Okay, maybe the second track is better. Listen…nope. Third track? Nope. Fourth track? My God, it just keeps getting worse. 

You would think, if you wanted to do a musical named “Cyberpunk,” that you’d want to have some—oh, punk rock in it? Or maybe something electronic and techno-ish? Or maybe—well, anything but track after track of lame, sappy, schlocky, schmaltzy, off-off-off-off Broadway show tunes?

The deal fell apart. The musical never happened. I suppose I could have just shut up, taken their money, given them my blessing, and let that misbegotten mess happen. But if I had, I would have hated myself in the morning. 

—Bruce Bethke



GuyStewart said...


The naked, raw power of this "confessional" offers a fascinating look into some of the forces that created the "you" you are today. I don't believe I know you WELL, but this really does make clear what I DO know of you. It also gives insight into why you started first THE RANTING ROOM, then STUPEFYING STORIES, and finally RAMPLANT LOON PRESS...I find it illuminating that RLP is "a space opera" publisher. Obviously it sells well and is incredibly fun to read, but it's a far cry from where "Cyberpunk" began (as a MUSICAL!?!?!), where it skidded into a short story, sidelined into HEADCRASH, rebounded off of MAVERICK, REBEL MOON, and, well, the OTHER one...and came to rest...well, here.

The first sentence isn't even intended as ironic. It IS fascinating...