Thursday, August 09, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 5)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

(Hmm, nice opening. I wonder if anyone else has used it?)

It was the 1980s, and we were doing some enormously cool and exciting work at Passport Designs — right up until we went broke doing it, because we were at least ten years ahead of both the supporting technologies and the market demand. It was not a total waste, though. I got to spend a few years working alongside the brilliant John Borowicz, who thus far is turning out to be a lifelong friend; the amazing Phil Farrand, who is one of those rare authentic geniuses I have had the good fortune to meet from time to time; and the disturbing "Chuck P.", who later became the living prototype for the character Gunnar LeMat in Headcrash.

I do this often. I absorb something; I internalize an experience which may not necessarily be my own; I let it gestate, grow, and mutate; and in the fullness of time it bursts out of my chest, in the form of new fiction. My life in Los Angeles eventually re-emerged as the short story, "Buck Turner and The Spud From Space," which is really too good to leave mouldering in the archives so I suppose I should post it somewhere. All those long hours of talking over coffee and cigarettes with Thomas R. Smith, listening to his tales of adventures in Amsterdam and London, eventually coalesced into the Nebula-nominated story, "The Skanky Soul of Jimmy Twist," which you can find online in the absolutely marvelous Infinity Plus story archive. The Passport Designs experience is what ultimately shaped "Jimi Plays Dead," which remains one of my personal favorites. Perhaps the reason for this is that twenty-some years ago, when I wrote it, the idea of a heavily modified Fender Strat that was more insane A.I. than guitar was really wigged-out science fiction.

Today, if you have a few grand to spare, you can buy the real thing at Guitar Centerwithout the suicidal insanity, of course. (I am strangely pleased, though, to see that just like my fictional one, the real one has an insatiable addiction to batteries.)

By the time Passport finished twitching, I was pretty much done with the music business. I now had two young daughters, and the idea of staying out 'til three in the morning to play rock & roll for drunks had somehow lost its glamor. I'd quit doing theater work; I was tired of being the token straight guy at the cast party, and besides, AIDS was hacking a terrible swath through that community. My brilliantly witty gay friends were no longer quite so gay, witty, or brilliant; in point of fact, some of them were dying, which is a hell of a thing to cope with when you're only in your 30's.

I'd quit chasing after grants and commissions; I'd gotten fed up with all the penny-ante backstabbing politics of the arts "community," and besides, my unindicted co-conspirator for much of this work, D.J. Olsen, had decided to move out to Los Angeles, to take his shot at the quest for the One Ring. Deej did have some success out there — his work can be heard on the soundtracks of Demolition Man and Batman Forever, as well as a few others — but in time he got fed up, too, and the last time I heard from him he was still living in Hollywood, but now happily employed as a master chef.

My next company after Passport was a Harley-Davidson aftermarket parts manufacturer and distributor, where my job was to attend, patch, debug, and periodically resuscitate a dying Honeywell mainframe and its enormous stack of spaghetti-code COBOL. Up to this point I must have really led a sheltered life, because I had never worked with tattooed women before, and had never even imagined there was such a thing as jewelry to wear in your nipple and genital piercings. This experience was regurgitated as a couple of stories for Easyriders magazine, which if God is truly merciful will never see the light of day again, and contributed to the creation of the character Max Kool, who also appears in Headcrash.

As a short story writer, then, the '80s were very good to me. While "Cyberpunk" was not an immediate hit — in fact, Kiel Stuart, who sometimes posts here, sent George Scithers a letter telling him how much she hated the story, and that letter was published in a later issue of Amazing — Hi, Kiel!

But by '86 I was selling stories pretty consistently, and I had changed jobs again and was now working for a software development company that was not run by a bunch of aging meth-crazed bikers, and most importantly, I'd found I was starting to get the same buzz from having a story published as I'd previously gotten from writing or playing music. Unlike music, though, you did not need to book a hall, do rehearsals, or perform a story, and after it was out there, the fans could actually give you intelligent and articulate reasons for why they liked it!

[The Downside: as the '80s wore on, I also discovered there were such things as cons and sci-fi groupies, and the groupies could also give you articulate and seemingly intelligent reasons for why you should go to bed with them. I was often tempted, and I'm sorry to say that I did flirt outrageously, which took a considerable toll on my marriage. But when one of the groupies got quite adamant about my following through and delivering on what she felt I'd promised, I asked her if she really thought it was a such good idea to have unprotected sex with near-total strangers. She replied, "Oh, fandom is very clean. Only gay men get AIDS." Which kind of shoots the theory that sci-fi fans are any smarter than anyone else.]

By the end of the '80s I was selling every short story I finished, usually on the first submission. I like to think this was proof of my growing maturity, but the evidence suggests I was mistaken. Gardner Dozois had succeeded Scithers as editor of Asimov's (just as Patrick Price and then Kim Mohan had succeeded Scithers as editor of Amazing), and I used my growing success as an opportunity to start a really stupid feud with Dozois. It seemed Gardner was taking enormous pride in billing himself as "the man who created cyberpunk" — and in all fairness, he had published most of the stories that defined the post-Neuromancer cyberpunk movement — but I was getting a little testy about seeing my work credited variously to Gardner, Bruce Sterling, Bill Gibson, John Shirley, or any of a number of other people. So I started to get pretty noisy and obnoxious about it, calling attention to the fact that Gardner was working as a first-reader for Asimov's when I first submitted the c-word story to that magazine back in 1980.

Mmm, yeah. Pissing off the editor of the most influential magazine in the field. This, my friends, is what is known as a C.L.M.: a career-limiting move. And it wasn't my biggest one, but it sure was a doozy.

To be continued...