Friday, December 3, 2021

Files found while looking for something else

Well, golly. While looking for the original source for the shareware beta version of Cyberpunk—which I still haven’t found—I found the files for the 2011 version, which was being developed under the working title of Cyberpunk 1989 for a book deal that fell through. I have some affection for the proposed cover art: →

Ten years ago it probably would have been considered very edgy, although it looks kind of silly and amateurish now.

Of more interest to me is that the folder contains the prelude and postlude that I wrote specifically to go with that version of the novel, and it contains some things I’d forgotten I’d written. Without further ado, then…


“Cyberpunk” as originally written was very short, and ended at the point where Mikey took control of the situation, with the line, “Dad? There’s going to be some changes around here.” George Scithers, then the editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, liked the story in general but disliked the ending in particular, because it ended with the punk winning. At his request I tacked on a coda, in which Mikey gets his comeuppance and ends up packed off to a military boarding school, and the name of the school came to me in a moment of inspired improvisation: The Von Schlager Military Academy. From the German verb  schlagen: schlagen, schlägt, schlug

The past participle form is left as a challenge to your linguistic skills.

In the summer of 1980 Scithers decided he didn’t like the rewritten version of “Cyberpunk” after all, and definitively rejected it. Two years later, after he’d jumped magazines to become the editor of Amazing Stories, he changed his mind and decided he now liked it again. In July of 1982 he bought it, and the story was published in the November 1983 issue of Amazing Stories, which per the publisher’s practices of the time was actually released in September. And that was the end of it.

Or so I thought…

In the nearly three and a half years that had elapsed between the time I wrote the original story and the time it finally showed up in print, I was not idle. I’d gotten married; become a father; composed two full theatrical scores and a bevy of lesser pieces; and joined the software development team that among other things produced the 1.0 version of MIDI (the eventually industry-standard Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and the music notation engine that is still on the market today under the name of Finale. I’d also continued to write and sell short stories, and some of these stories were derived from the same basic set of ideas that fueled “Cyberpunk,” but most, to be honest, were not.

You see, you meet a lot of one-trick ponies in this business: writers who basically have just one idea, but milk it for all it’s worth.

I am not one of those writers.

One story from this time period that really stands out, though, was a sort of a sequel. While I was puttering around with all kinds of techie-type ideas and giving some serious thought to writing a novel, George Scithers made it clear that what he really wanted to see from me were more stories about Mikey’s further adventures at the Academy. In June of 1986 I finally gave in and wrote a novella, “Elimination Round,” which in the fullness of time ended up being published in the July 1989 issue of Amazing Stories.

[One thing to always bear in mind, as you try to reconstruct publishing chronologies, is that in the good old days of dead-tree print media there was rarely less than a one-year lag between the time a story was accepted for publication and the time it was published, and lags of up to two or even three years were not uncommon. In some cases stories were sold to magazines and novels sold to publishers who subsequently went out of business without ever publishing the story or novel in question, which tended to make an unholy tangle of the publication rights.

[The question of just who owns exactly which rights will shortly become very important to this narrative.]

In 1988 I pretty much backed into my first novel deal, to write an Isaac Asimov’s Robot City™ novel that went through a handful of different titles before finally being released in 1990 under the name of Maverick. In 1989 Jim Baen, having heard that I was working on a novel and having read “Elimination Round,” accepted Maverick as proof that I knew how to write a book and signed me to a contract for a novel, to be named, Cyberpunk.

Actually, I signed two contracts with Baen. One was for Cyberpunk and the other was to develop a three-book shared-world anthology series based on the works of a certain elderly and much-beloved “hard” science fiction writer.

And that is when all the trouble began.

Of the shared-world fiasco there is much that could be said, but perhaps it is best to leave it with these simple words from Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, chapter 11, page 74:

“Once a chieftain has delegated responsibilities, he should never interfere, lest his subordinates come to believe that the duties are not truly theirs. Such superficial delegation yields fury in the hearts of subordinates.”

With the three-book shared-world deal thus reduced to a smoking hole in the ground, Jim then turned his full attention on Cyberpunk. In hindsight, I should have appreciated all the thought he clearly poured into this book. He didn’t have to keep calling me up at any time, day or night, at home or at work, to tell me what was wrong with what I was writing and what I needed to do to fix it. No reasonable editor ever needs to do that. Clearly, he must have thought he saw something really promising in me, and in this book.

But all the same, what I wound up having to do was to write this book. And then rewrite this book. And then re-rewrite this book. I wound up having to tear out and completely rewrite almost everything that was in the original short story, in order to set up for and make it fit in with the continuity of everything that was changed or inserted later at Baen’s direction. The ideas I was most interested in pursuing—all having to do with what happened to Mikey after he finally came home from the Academy—kept getting pushed further and further into the background, until eventually they were pushed completely out of this book and into a hypothetical sequel. The only parts of any of my original stories that Baen did not have me completely rewrite from scratch were the chapters derived from “Elimination Round.”

In hindsight, I should have realized that while Jim Baen wanted to publish a book with the title of “Cyberpunk,” given the way he kept drawing comparisons to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (which had recently won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel), the story he wanted behind that title was the extended version of “Elimination Round,” only with more and bloodier violence.

[Which, I will admit, would have anticipated Battle Royale by more than ten years and The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner by nearly twenty. Who knows? Perhaps if I’d listened to Jim Baen then, I would now be the fabulously rich author of a series of books that were made into a series of movies that everyone now reviles for promoting the “teens killing other teens for the entertainment of adults” trope. I guess we’ll never know.] 

I also should have realized things were going terribly awry when Baen became obsessed with the ending of this book—and specifically, with setting it up so that Mikey would need to kill someone in a final showdown. He first proposed that I end the book with Mikey returning to his hometown, to hunt down and kill his father. 

I said no.

He then suggested that I end the book with Mikey tracking down and killing Rayno. 

I said no.

Okay, I’ve got it, Baen said. How about if Mikey gets recruited to join a secret government agency that tracks down and kills cyberpunks? 

[Which I must again admit would have neatly anticipated Tom Clancy’s Net Force by a decade.]

I said no again.

Jim called me at work one day, to tell me he’d not only figured out how I needed to end it, he could even visualize the cover art. I needed to end the novel with Mikey going on a rampage and killing everyone at the Academy who had ever pissed him off. It would make a great cover: the hero, center-stage, with a mighty weapon in his hands, a cowering half-naked babe at his feet (There is a half-naked babe somewhere in this story, right? No? Well, then put one in, okay?), and the blood-smeared corpses of his many enemies piled high all around. It’s the kind of cover Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo made famous.

I said I’d think about it. Then I went and wrote the ending I wanted Mikey to have. One that let Mikey solve his plot-climax problem using his intelligence, not a knife or a gun. 

¤     ¤     ¤

When Jim Baen read the last line of my manuscript, “Mission complete, Colonel,” he went apoplectic. Canceled the book on the spot. Threatened to sue me to recover the contract on-signing advance. Refused to either release the book, send it back to me for yet another rewrite, definitively reject it in writing as being hopelessly unpublishable (which action on his part would have had specific contract-breaking ramifications that would have benefited me), or grant me a temporary waiver so I could at least try to sell the book to someone else. My then-agent then advised me to do something that even I could tell was actionable, so I fired him and tried to clean up the mess myself.

And that’s when I discovered that my contract contained a clause that prevented my selling any novel-length fiction to anyone, until either this book was released or Baen released me from my contract. Which is where things sat, for five long years, while I went through a layoff, a bitter divorce, and a forced career change, until one day I was finally able to come up with enough cash to buy the publication rights to this book back from Jim Baen, and thus be released from my contract.

¤     ¤     ¤

Twenty-some years later [n.b., 30 now], I still don’t know quite what to think of this one. As a 21st Century bildungsroman, it works fairly well, and there are many things in this book with which I am still quite pleased.

All the same, it’s not the novel that I set out to write, nor is it by any stretch of the imagination a “cyberpunk” novel, in the sense that the term came to be redefined by the flood of Imitation Neuromancer novels that hit the market in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In the final analysis, it simply is what it is. In my less charitable moments I sometimes call this my Baen-damaged novel, but in my more honest moments I must admit that it’s largely my own fault. I wanted to do whatever it took to get an original novel into print, and willingly went along with every change Jim Baen asked me to make, right up until the moment he told me to end the book with Mikey going on a shooting rampage inside his high school. Even ten years before “Columbine” became a synonym for insane atrocity, I found the idea of writing that ending—and of turning my hero into a mass-murderer—to be abhorrent.

But it was my refusal to bend over and grab my ankles one more time, and to excrete the ending Jim Baen specifically told me to write, that killed this book.

¤     ¤     ¤

With surprising regularity, people still ask, “Well, why not release the novel you meant to write?” The answer to that question is complex.

First off, the original book no longer exists, in any meaningful form. It never really was completed; at the time I signed the contract it was still only the skeletal framework of a novel, with stories and scenes hanging off it here and there. Many critical parts of the story were sketched-out but never developed beyond the annotated outline stage. I probably still have a copy of my last pre-contract rough draft around here—somewhere—but honestly, I have no idea where it might be, and in any case it would be something that resembles a novel in the same sense that an NTSB crash reconstruction resembles an airplane.

Secondly, releasing that book really is not necessary. Almost everything that originally was meant to be in Cyberpunk but didn’t make it in reemerged later and in altered form somewhere else. In particular, large parts of my Cyberpunk world-building became elements in the backstory for Rebel Moon and Mark Dreizig, and many bits of business originally planned to be Mikey’s further adventures in Cyberpunk returned in mutated and evolved form as Jack Burroughs’ adventures in Headcrash. If you want a pretty good guess at what my original cyberpunk novel might have looked like, had it ever been completed, go read Headcrash, and then subtract half the sense of humor and lard on a thick layer of jejeune self-importance.

For that is the third and perhaps most important of the reasons why I don’t try to revisit Mikey’s story now. I wrote “Cyberpunk” when I was 24 years old, and when the memories of having the feelings and so-called thought processes of a 15-year-old boy were still accessible to me. I wrote this novel literally a lifetime ago, when I was in my late 20s and early 30s.

Along with the one-trick ponies, you also meet a lot of Peter Pans in this business: boys who never grow up, and who never lose the ability to think and act like 15-year-olds.

I am not one of them, either.

I’m afraid that I grew up a very long time ago. My youngest children are now far older than Mikey was at the start of the original short story. Teenage boys have become alien creatures to me, and I now find that I have more in common with—and a far better understanding of—Mikey’s father, than of Mikey himself.

So you see, it is no longer possible for me to squeeze myself into Mikey’s spatterzag jumpsuit and high-top tennies one more time, to pick up telling the story where I left off telling it twenty-some years ago. Instead, I now find it much easier to slip into the mindset and feelings of Mikey’s father.

The Von Schlager Military Academy?

It’s too good for the little s.o.b.!


GuyStewart said...

It's good to see this in a coherent whole after getting it piecemeal for the past few years. thanks for being so honest.


Mr. Naron said...

It's interesting Baen wanted you to write a school massacre given how Vox ended his second War in Heaven novel, then brought one of the killers back as a converted hero in the third. I still can't decide if that worked or not.

Mark Keigley said...

thanks for filling in the gaps. I've followed this over the years and now understand a good bit more...

Anonymous said...

re: "I now find that I have more in common with—and a far better understanding of—Mikey’s father, than of Mikey himself."

So, write it from the father's point of view and call it CYBERPHART.

Badda-bing (and hi, Bruce, long time no interact, from Denny Lien).

~brb said...

@Denny Lien! Now there's a name I have not heard in a long, long time. How are you doing?

As for CYBERPHART: I think that's already an Alan Dean Foster novel. Or was that CODGERSPACE?

Arisia said...

I have a 226 page pdf of Cyberpunk that says shareware license at the beginning, if that would help.