Thursday, August 30, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 9.2)

All these years later, I still don't know how to talk about "Cyberpunk." Do I talk about the original short story, which you can find online in one of my all-time favorite Internet destinations, the Infinity Plus story archives, with all of its original glaring technical stupidities intact? Do I talk about the novel that resulted from my association with Baen, which you can click on this link to download in PDF format if you're so inclined? (If you do download it, though, I'd appreciate it if you'd also take a peek at the Notes on this web page sometime.) Or better yet, should I talk about the novel I intended to write, back in the mid-1980s, when I first started work on the story cycle?

When the 1990s Internet explosion first hit, and sophomore literature students all over the English-speaking world discovered it was possible to actually find my web site and email me the same six questions they all wanted answered for their term papers on "cyberpunk," I wrote The Etymology of "Cyberpunk," and for a long time tried to let that be my last word on the subject. But alas, it seems that was not to be.

One of these days I will have to write the full, complete, and tragic story of the book I meant to write, including the original outline and pitch proposal and as much of the original manuscript as it's still possible to salvage. But not tonight. No, tonight, I just want to take a moment to think about some of the things that were in the story cycle that I'm still proud of. For example, grid computing. This was in Mikey's world from the very first draft in 1980; the idea of achieving the power of a supercomputer by using a wide-area network to link together hundreds of processors over a distributed geography. Mind you, I visioneered this two years before Cray released the X-MP, the first real multiprocessor supercomputer; thirteen years before the release of the Cray T3D, the first successful MPP (massively parallel processing) machine; and a good twenty years before grid computing became something of a limping and hobbled reality, if you are feeling generous and want to call it that.

Likewise, the idea of bot-nets was in there from the start; of using large networks of subverted computers to apply enormous processing power for illicit purposes. Of course, I didn't call them bot-nets in my story, and right at the moment I would probably rather not be known as "the guy who invented the bot-net." But the idea is there.

There were other things in Mikey's landscape that I really wanted to explore, too. For example, The Breakup Wars: sometime in the early 1980s I came to the conclusion that the Soviet Union could not possibly survive the information revolution that was about to happen and I visioneered the end of the Soviet empire, not in a nuclear holocaust, but in a social and economic implosion, to be followed immediately by the eruption of long-suppressed ethnic hatreds throughout the former empire. This logically led me to project a civil war in what was then Yugoslavia, and then a chainfire of low-level guerilla wars that spread throughout all the 'stans.

The corollary to this, of course, was that without the Soviet Union to act as a foil, and absent a new enemy (I considered Islamism a possibility, but a long-shot), the United States had at best another forty years before it too collapsed into a patchwork of squabbling regional powers. For a time I entertained myself by drawing elaborate maps working out the details of what Vox now calls the North American Union, and I called the Federacion de la Americana Norte, but while this thing I called post-American history is hinted at lightly in Cyberpunk and shows up in the backstory of Rebel Moon, I've only succeeded in selling one story explicitly set in this milieu: Mark Dreizig, which is another of those obscure stories that is now impossible to find and too good to leave mouldering in the archives, so I suppose I should post it online one of these days.

The third idea that shows up in all the fragments and false starts is the idea of "the Net" as a software ecology, replete with autonomous and not always benign synthetic life. This idea was most fully developed in my short story, "Worms!" — and the story of why this story is now so hard to find chains into another Baen anecdote, so I'd best let it drop for now. Maybe I'll put it in the comments.

There were other ideas that ran throughout as well; for example, what I called "ruxpoids," which ranged from being simple robotic pets to full fledged A.I. familiars that sat on your shoulder and whispered advice into your ear. One of them makes a token appearance in the novel as it exists now, but there were meant to be a lot more of them, and I meant to take them to a whole new level when Mikey returned to the world.

And that is my biggest gripe with the novel as it finally came to be: Mikey never returns to the world. My original intent was to take this technically facile, ethically vacuous kid, extract him from his comfort zone, disconnect him real good and shake him up a bit, and then throw him back into his world with a whole new perspective. The last third of the book, as originally sketched out, was to be the story of Mikey's finally recognizing Rayno for the parasite he was, and then engaging in a sprawling battle through cyberspace and VR for what amounted to control of the city, in a sort of high-tech civilization vs barbarians way. (Some of these battle scenes later reappear, in highly modified form, in Headcrash.) And that, in a highly compressed and somewhat distorted nutshell, is the book I originally set out to write.

Baen wasn't interested in any of that nonsense, of course.

Remember way back in Part 4, when I talked about how Scithers said Asimov's readers would never accept a story that ended with the punk winning, so I slapped on a coda in which Mikey gets his comeuppance and gets packed off to a military boarding school?

That is what Baen wanted: a 21st century military boarding school novel. The cyber stuff, the social stuff, the political stuff? He wasn't interested. He'd given up on me as an editor, but apparently thought I still had some promise as a writer, so he kept coaching me on how to turn Cyberpunk into the book he wanted to see. And throughout all those phone calls, the two touchstones that he kept coming back to were Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels. He wanted a sci-fi military boarding school novel. Better yet, a funny military boarding school novel.

Better still, a funny military boarding school novel that ended with Mikey killing someone.

Baen was a genuine fountain of ideas, always calling to suggest ways to improve the book. In my later years, I came to realize that what he kept steering me towards was I've come to call the Frazetta cover ending: you know, the Hero, center-stage, with a mighty weapon in his hands, a half-naked babe cowering at his feet, and the blood-smeared corpse of his greatest enemy at his feet. Real 14-year-old boy empowerment fantasy stuff.

I kept sending him chunks of the work in progress; he kept sending it back and telling me to put in more about the military academy. Mikey was 15 years old at the start of the original short story, but eventually I had to regress him to 13 years old in order to fit in everything Baen wanted to see take place at the Academy. In the end, I agreed to give up on my idea of taking Mikey back to the world and completing the rondo, and we got down to the job of settling out just how the book should end. Baen suggested that it might be okay for me to take Mikey back to the world at the very end, provided Mikey then immediately tracked down and killed his father.

I said no way.

Okay, how about if he tracks down and kills Rayno?


All right, how about if Mikey gets recruited for a secret government task force that tracks down and kills cyberpunks?

I didn't like that idea much, either.

In the end, we were in agreement right up through Chapter 19. Baen, in his words, "really liked the way [I] turned the Academy into a real shithole at the end." And then, in a moment of pure inspiration, he gave me my ending.

Mikey goes postal and kills everybody in the Academy who's ever pissed him off.

I figured that was just a momentary lapse of reason and went on to write the ending that you'll find in the manuscript now. With high hopes and a certain amount of expectation that I might have to tweak it some, I turned in what I called the final draft.

When Baen phoned, he was furious. His words, again: "When I read that last line, 'Mission complete, Colonel,' I figured that was your way of saying, 'Fuck you, Jim Baen.'

"I told you how to write the ending. You didn't write it the way I told you to."

And just like that, we were done. Baen wouldn't talk to me again. He wouldn't take my phone calls. I got my agent to call him, but there was nothing to discuss or negotiate. He was done wasting his time on me. The contract was dead. He would never publish Cyberpunk, and he would never work with me again.

Now, the standard operating procedure in situations like this is that the publisher makes the writer sign a promissory note, essentially guaranteeing that any monies advanced by the publisher will be repaid out of the writer's next sale, and then the writer is released from the contract and allowed to seek his fortune elsewhere. In my case, Baen refused to accept a promissory note, refused to issue a waiver or otherwise give me any kind of provisional release from his contract, and insisted that the entire advance be repaid in cash before we could negotiate a release from the contract. I, of course, didn't have the cash, and so we floundered on in this state for a while, with me trying to find some kind of compromise and getting nowhere. Then one day my Oompa-Loompa advised me to do something that was clearly, even to my untrained eye, actionable. (His argument was, "You know how much a New York lawyer costs? Baen will make some threatening noises, but in the end, he won't really sue you.")

That's when I fired my agent.

And then I started asking around with other publishers and other agents, and discovered that my contractual situation with Baen made me untouchable.

And then, on May 15, 1991, my company reorganized, and I and everyone else who worked in new product development got laid off.

And then my wife kicked me out of the house and filed for divorce.

To be continued...