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Friday, April 16, 2021

Ask Dr. Cyberpunk • with your host, Bruce Bethke

So how exactly did “Cyberpunk,” the—well, rather cyberpunkish short story—go from being an urban high-tech lowlife tale to being Cyberpunk, the weapons-laden deep words military boarding school novel?

The trouble began in the Spring of 1980, when I sent the first version of the story to George Scithers at Asimov’s. The original-original version of the manuscript, which very few people outside of my 1979~1980 writing group and Scithers’ staff at Asimov’s have ever seen, was considerably shorter. What I was most interested in at the time was the dramatic inter-generational power shift that this new technology was about to make possible, and so the original manuscript ended with these lines: 

I threw some pillows around 'til I didn't feel like breaking anything anymore, then I hauled the Starfire out of the closet. I'd watched over Dad’s shoulders enough to know his account numbers and access codes, so I got on line and got down to business. I was finished in half an hour.

I tied into Dad's terminal. He was using it, like I figured he would be, scanning school records. Fine. He wouldn't find out anything; we'd figured out how to fix school records months ago. I crashed in and gave him a new message on his vid display.

"Dad," it said, "there's going to be some changes around here."

Scithers apparently liked the story, up to that point. He held onto it much longer than usual, and then sent it back (this was in the days of actual paper manuscripts and self-addressed stamped return envelopes) with a fairly detailed letter telling me what was wrong with my story. It’s a pity I lost that rejection letter years ago. Some library or museum would probably love to have it now. 

The gist of it was a mash-up of the classic old John W. Campbell rejection: “You’ve stated a problem. Now solve it!” along with the observation that Asimov’s readers would never go for a story that ended with the punk kid winning. (Asimov’s readers were very different people in those days.) Further, he added that he’d run the story by a Real Computer Banking Expert, who assured him that everything that happened with computer banking had to be backed up with a paper trail, so no matter what mischief Mikey was able to do by hacking into his dad’s bank accounts, it would all be undone automatically within 24 hours.

[“Oh really?” said the Time Traveler From The 21st Century, as he looked up from checking his bank account’s web page to confirm that his payroll direct deposit had gone through, and then checked his mortgage escrow balance and queued up a few credit card payments.]

However (and this is the moment when the trouble began), Scithers added that if I could find a way to rewrite the ending and fix all the problems he’d found in my story, he’d love to see it again.

Hmm. Fix the problems. Fix the problems… Hmm again. Now just exactly what kind of ending would Lt. Col. George Scithers, US Army Reserve (retired), really get off on seeing grafted onto the end of this story? 

Then I bashed out a coda in which Mikey gets his comeuppance and gets packed off to a military boarding school out in the middle of absolutely frickin’ nowhere. The name of the school, the “Von Schlager Military Academy,” came to me in a moment of inspiration. It’s from the German verb schlagen, usually translated as to hit, strike, or beat. Ich schlage, du schlägst, wir schlagen—the imperfect subjunctive form is left as a challenge to your liguistic acuity. 

I resubmitted the revised story to Asimov’s, and this time Scithers held onto it even longer, then sent it back with a rejection letter stating that while he liked the story, he’s run it by a Real Mainframe Computer Expert, who assured him that the whole idea of punk kids running around causing trouble with cheap, powerful, portable personal computers the size of notebooks was just too far-fetched to be credible.

Y’know, old George could have saved us all a lot of time and trouble if he’d just ignored his computer expert and bought the damned story then and there. 

—Bruce Bethke

NEXT WEEK: How “Cyberpunk” evolved into “Elimination Round,” and how I completely missed my big chance to be known as the guy who invented the “battle royale” teens-fighting-other-teens-for-the-entertainment-of-adults cliche! 

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