Monday, June 14, 2021

Notes towards a manifesto • 4

In another of my recent web chats, I was asked once again to recount the saga of how “Cyberpunk” went from being a new story, fresh and young and full of hope and promise, to at last becoming a published story, a bit jaded, weary, and battle-worn by the time it got there. 

In somewhat compressed form, the tale goes like this: in the early spring of 1980 I wrote the original version of the story, which ended with the paradigm shift and the words, “Dad, there’s going to be some changes around here.” I immediately sent it off to George Scithers at Asimov’s, who hung onto it for a bit longer than usual, then sent it back with a letter detailing everything that was wrong with my story but inviting me to rewrite it and resubmit. In particular he wanted me to fix the ending, on the grounds that Asimov’s readers would never go for an ending in which the tech-savvy teenage punk was able to win because he understood the emerging new technology far better than his father did.

I thought about that for a bit, then slapped on a coda in which Mikey gets his comeuppance and gets packed off to a military boarding school. I resubmitted the story to Asimov’s, and this time it stayed there for quite a bit longer than usual, then came back with a note from Scithers saying that while the story was improved, he’d run it by a real mainframe computer expert, and the whole idea of punk kids running around causing serious trouble using cheap computers the size of notebooks was just too far-fetched to be credible.

After Scithers at Asimov’s rejected the story a second time, I shrugged, then sent it to the next magazine on my target list: either Analog or OMNI, I can’t remember which and don’t feel like looking it up right now. The point is, between the summer of 1980 and the summer of 1981, every editor at every major magazine then in the science fiction publishing business got the chance to read this story.

And every one of them rejected it, usually with some variation on the “Real close, nice try kid,” brush-off.

In the summer of 1981 I sent the story to Amazing Stories. Founded in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback—the Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo Awards are named—by 1981 Amazing was the Nora Desmond of science fiction publishing; a once-grand old lady lately fallen on hard times, and no longer considered even close to being an “A-list” market. What I didn’t know then was that there was also a lot of turmoil going on behind the scenes, as the magazine was in the process of being acquired by TSR (the makers of Dungeons & Dragons), and the editorial staff was struggling with continuing to put out a magazine while also wondering whether they’d still have jobs once the acquisition was complete. (It turned out the answer was no, they didn’t.) 

My story sat gathering dust at Amazing for about a year. In response to my ever-more-frantic queries I received a series of ever-more-promising replies from a soon to be unemployed assistant editor, until finally my last shit-or-get-off-the-pot query produced a reply from none other than George Scithers, just hired away from Asimov’s. Scithers informed me that the outgoing editorial staff had thrown out every manuscript they’d been holding for further consideration and I should consider my submission lost. However, if I wanted to resubmit the story…

I shrugged, thought ‘why not?’, and sent a fresh printout of the manuscript to Scithers, who loved it, had to have it, and in July of 1982 finally bought it. It was published in the November 1983 issue of Amazing—strictly speaking, AMAZINGTM Science Fiction Stories combined with FANTASTICTM Stories; the magazine by that point was quite a conglomeration of merged trademarks—which was on the newsstands in September of 1983. 

And the rest, as they say, is history.

¤     ¤     ¤

Looking back from the vantage point of now, the lesson here is simple: everything changes. Writers change and grow. (At least, I hope you do.) Readers change. Publishers change. Markets change. Magazines change.

Even editors change.

In 1980, George Scithers was the four-time Hugo Award-winning editor of Asimov’s, the top magazine in the field. (Although Ellen Datlow over at OMNI probably would have argued with that.) In that role George’s job was to keep Asimov’s the best-selling monthly magazine in the industry, and between the magazine’s reputation and Davis Publications’ generous budget he had first pick of the best stories being produced by the best short-story writers then working. The 1980 George Scithers had no trouble filling every issue with first-rate stories by “big name” authors.

In 1982, George Scithers was the new editor at Amazing, and his job was to use TSR’s enormous budget and marketing power to dethrone Asimov’s. The problem was that because of Amazing’s dodgy reputation and faltering circulation, a lot of “his” writers chose to stay with Asimov’s rather than follow him to Amazing. He would have to start over and develop a new talent pool.

In short, the 1980 Scithers didn’t need to take risks, he just needed to keep doing what he’d been doing all along. The 1982 Scithers absolutely had to take risks and be open to finding new talent, because that was the only way he would be able to grow his magazine’s circulation.

That, in a nutshell, is what turned a story that was unacceptable in 1980, and rejected by every major editor then working in the business, into the legend that was born in 1983. Not one word of the story changed.

The only thing that changed was the relative career situation of the editor who had rejected it twice, and then on the third try bought and published it.

Submitted for your consideration,

—Bruce Bethke


~brb said...

> he had first pick of the best stories

Well, more honestly, second pick. Because Alice Turner at Playboy paid as much for a short story as Ace or DAW paid for an entire novel and she sometimes bought science fiction, everyone submitted to her first. But given how few stories she bought and published every year, the odds of selling a short story to Playboy were on par with the odds of winning the lottery.

GuyStewart said...

Ya know, I've read the story several times -- I STILL like reading it!