Thursday, January 26, 2023

Book Release: NEO CYBERPUNK • Volume 3

Good grief, has it really been 43 years?

Hi, I’m Bruce Bethke. If you don’t know me, I’m the guy who in the early spring of 1980 wrote a little story about a gang of teenage hackers, which I titled, “Cyberpunk.” In calling my story this I was actively trying to come up with a new word that grokked  the interface between the then-emerging high tech scene and teenage “punk” attitudes.

Perhaps I overdid it. I never meant to spark a revolution. Mea culpa.

My original story sprang from three pretty simple ideas:

  1. That what makes a new technology disruptive is not using it in the way the people who invented it intended it should be used. Those people can only think of the right way to use a thing. The disruption comes later, when people who grew up living with that tech start thinking of all the wrong ways to use it.

  2. That that clean, bright, shiny and beautiful Star Trek® future everyone else who was writing science fiction at the time was writing about? Nope. Not gonna happen. The interesting stories of the future belong to the punks; those people living at the bottom of the economic food chain, who are going to be busy busting their asses trying to come up with new “wrong” ways to use new tech just to survive, while the eloi living above them scarcely noticed their existence.

  3. That human languages are constantly evolving in response to technology. New technologies require new ideas and new vocabularies, and when you change the way a people speak, you change the way they think.

So I asked myself: how were these people living in the distant future—which at the time I wrote the story I put at about 40 years after the “now” of 1980—going to be living and thinking?

Then I wrote a story to try to explore one possible answer to that question.

After I finished writing the story I immediately sent it off to Asimov’s, where they liked it enough to ask me to rewrite the ending (“because Asimov’s readers will never go for a story that ends with the punk winning”), then rejected the rewrite on the grounds that in the meantime they’d consulted a real mainframe computer expert, and the whole idea of punk kids running around causing serious trouble using cheap, powerful, portable computers the size of notebooks was just too far-fetched to be credible. Thereafter I shopped the story around to all the SF publishing markets then in business—between the summer of 1980 and the spring of 1982 every editor then working in the SF publishing business got a look at it, and most sent it back with some variation on the “nice try kid, real close” personal rejection—before it finally ended up at Amazing Stories, where it was accepted in the summer of 1982 and published in the fall of 1983. 

And that, I thought, was the end of it.

There may have been a time when I was more mistaken, but offhand, I can’t remember when.


I’m really pleased, albeit slightly chagrined, that the editors have asked me to be a part of this book. When people ask me to talk about cyberpunk, the little DJ who lives in the back of my head drops the needle on Quadrophenia, Side 1, Track 5: “The Punk Meets The Godfather,” and the first line blasts out in my mind’s ear: “You declared you would be three inches taller…”

How can I possibly live up to your expectations? I am The Real Bruce Bethke®, for God’s sake! I’ve seen myself described as “famous,” “legendary,” “reclusive” — no, I am not reclusive, but after about a ten-year run of writing science fiction I went back to working in supercomputer software R&D, which frankly pays a Hell of a lot better than being a famous and award-winning science fiction writer. I spent most of my real-world career doing work for — some three-letter agencies whose names I’m not at liberty to disclose even now. It’s probably safe for me to mention DARPA, the U.S. government’s official Department of Mad Science. I could talk about my work for DARPA — but then you’d have to be conversant with massively parallel processor architectures and computational fluid dynamics in order to understand what I was saying.

So let’s talk about cyberpunk, then, then and now. The reason why cyberpunk as a fictional form blossomed brilliantly and then died miserably in the late 1980s to early 1990s is because the same thing happened to cyberpunk as happens to every other successful new thing in any branch of pop culture. In a few very short years it went from being something unexpected, fresh, and wildly original—to being a trendy fashion statement—to being the flavor of the month—to being a hoary trope, complete with a set of stylistic markers and time-honored forms to which obeisance must be paid if one is to write True Cyberpunk. It became a commercial formula, easily replicated, and the market was soon flooded with an enormous amount of “me too” work that aped the style of the genre’s pioneers but added nothing new to the vocabulary.

“They say true talent
will always emerge in time.
When lightning strikes small wonder
it’s fast rough factory time.”

—The Clash, “Hitsville U.K.”

Cyberpunk fiction became a commercial formula. That’s wrong, just all wrong. Anything that claims to be “punk” should be fast loud, raw, anarchic, and in your face. It should be challenging. It should have plenty of jagged edges to make you uncomfortable. It should have moments of scintillating brilliance, intermixed with moments that leave you scratching your head and wondering, “What the f*** was that?” It should make you, at the very least, slightly nonplussed. Above all, it should embrace the quintessential punk attitude:

“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”

—Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name”

But, no. Once the big dinosaur publishers discovered cyberpunk, its doom was sealed. They sanded off all the rough edges, slapped on a few coats of urethane, polished it to high gloss, and produced tons—literally, actual pulp-paper tons—of cozy, comfortable, cyberpunk-flavored commercial product, and the genre choked on its own vomit, suffocated, and died.


Only to be reborn now, thanks to the wonder of indie, small-press, and direct-to-ebook publishing. (Bethke checks his chronometer and nods sagely. “Forty years later? Yes, we’re right on schedule.”)

I like indie publishers. I’m a huge fan of people who have the chutzpah and energy to put work out there because they believe in the work, not because Larry in Marketing says this book is going to hit some particular sales demographic right on the nose and make a kajillion dollars. I—

I have an analogy. I have an older friend who lived in Haight-Ashbury during The Summer of Love. (“They should have called it ‘The Summer of Crab Lice,’ he grumbles.) I have another older friend who was at Woodstock. (“Three days of peace, love, and music? No, it was three days of rain, mud, and no toilets.”) My generationally defining music festival was M-80, the legendary (there’s that word again) 1979 New-No-Now Wave punk rock music festival that was Lollapalooza twelve years before Lollapalooza came to exist. In getting ready to write this foreword I looked at the program from M-80 again, trying to remember all the bands who were there and how different they all were from each other. Yet they shared a common thread: they were all edgy, a little out there, a little dangerous, definitely unpolished; most were signed to small indie record labels; and yet they were all making music in that nebulously defined space known as “punk.” Some of them were going to have very short careers. Others were destined for enduring greatness. But at the time of the festival, all you could do was listen to them play their set, then decide which ones you thought it was worth your time to follow.

That is what you have here in your hands, my friends: an indie punk rock music festival in a book.

Forty-three years later, I remain astonished by the literary cladogenesis my little story spawned. You’re a huge fan of Cyberpunk 2077? You’ll find stories here that scratch that itch. You really loved Ghost in the Shell? Yes, we have stories here that will slake that thirst. You say you like your cyberpunk with a little eldritch Lovecraftian edge? Check out “The Hum,” by Jon Richter. You’re a totally deep-dyed MMRPG fan? Try “The Dragon’s Tooth,” by M.D. Cooper.

Do you, like me, really like a good Philip K. Dick-style recursive paranoid nightmare? Read “The Larry Project,” by Nik Whittaker. Do you from time to time crave a story that will leave you feeling, “I don’t know what the f*** that was, but I liked it?” Then take a look at “Fiery the cyberwitches fall,” by Matt Adcock. Do you want me to just skip ahead and tell you who the headliners are? They would be Anna Mocikat, James L. Graetz, C. T. Phipps, and S. C. Jensen.

Do you want me to tell you which of these stories I feel are custodians of the flame of True Cyberpunk? Do you want to know whose careers I will be following with great interest in the years to come?

Nope. Not gonna do it. That would spoil the fun. You’re just going to have to read them all and make up your own mind. 

And now, never mind the bollocks, here’s Neo Cyberpunk 3!

Bruce Bethke  


In science fiction circles Bruce Bethke is best known either for his 1980 short story, “Cyberpunk,” his Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Headcrash, or as the editor and publisher of Stupefying Stories. What very few people inside the SF/F fiction bubble have known until recently is that he spent most of his career in software R&D, doing things that were fascinating to do but are almost impossible to explain. What even fewer people have known is that he actually got his start in the music industry, as a composer, performer, and a member of the design team that developed MIDI, among other things, and he has an enormous repertoire of stories that begin, “This one time, this band I was in…” all of which are far too raunchy to tell in any medium his children might someday read.

Yes, he still has his 50-year-old cherry red Gibson SG with P-90 pickups, as well as his original “Gray Meanie” ARP 2600, and he fully intends to get back to doing music, one of these days…


allandavisjr said...

Bought, no questions asked.

I wish I had known about this--might have submitted something along the lines of Recursive Stack Overflow.