Cyberpunk Stories

Cyberpunk is what the future used to look like — at least to me. It was the big SF movement of my long gone youth and preparing these old stories (written almost a quarter of a century ago) for e-pub I recaptured some of the excitement I felt about it then. Cyberpunk was exciting for me. It was hip, it was hot, it was new, it was shiny. It reflected the realities of the strange dark age of the 1980s as I understood them. This was a world where economics was everything, where corporations ruled, where governments were the servants of financial interests. It’s hard to remember that this was all science fiction back then– it’s simply our reality now. Of course, maybe it always was and I just did not know.

There are things that tell you that this is an alternate future when you read these stories now. There are references to Communism and the Soviet Union in Green Troops which seem very dated, but the picture of a war-weary veteran slogging through the jungles on a mission for the CIA has a certain plausibility still. I can remember writing this tale as a bizarre experiment in marketing. Dream Magazine used to run a poll in which readers voted for their favourite story. I noticed that all of the most popular ones were action stories, which rather surprised me, since we were all very much in thrall to the experimentalism of the New Wave back then. I decided to try my hand at one to see if I could do it. When I came to write it, the story took on a life of its own. I really enjoyed writing about Travis and his soldiers and I like to think I did them well. The story got the highest rating of any one run in the magazine at the time so the experiment was obviously a success. It pointed the way to a career.

I don’t really remember a lot about Easy Steps to Post-Humanity. I do know David Pringle at Interzone rejected it on the grounds that he had received too many stories like it already. I remember thinking Interzone is swamped with stories told in the second person singular imperative. Who knew? And here I thought I was being experimental! (Obviously David was just being kind.) Mike Cobley published it in one of his many excellent fanzines and I am grateful to him for it. He was the one who typed up the story. I lost my only copy of it long ago.

Skyrider was a story that changed my life although not in the way you might think.  When it was published in Zenith, an anthology of new British SF edited by David Garnett, I went down to Mexicon in Nottingham for the launch party. In the dealer’s room there, I saw Bryan Ansell, who was then the owner of Games Workshop. I recognised him from his picture in White Dwarf. I had just written the first Gotrek and Felix story for the fledgeling GW Books so, suppressing my nervousness,  I went up and introduced myself as its author. We got to talking and he asked me if I would come in to the office on Monday to discuss taking a job with GW, writing colour text for the games. One thing led to another and in September 1989 or thereabouts, I found myself upping sticks from Glasgow and moving down to Nottingham to work on the Codex Titanicus. It was the real start of a connection with Games Workshop that has continued, with a few hiccups, to the present day.

All of which tells you precisely nothing about Skyrider. I have a confession to make. I wrote this story in 4 hours when David Garnett, rejected the first story I had sent him.  He told me he still had one slot left in the anthology but he needed to fill it by the end of the week. He asked if I had any cyberpunk stories. I told him, somewhat disingenuously, that I would send him one tomorrow then I ran to my Atari ST, sat down and wrote it. That’s how this tale of a boy, two girls and a cybernetically-linked helicopter gunship came into being.

To tell the truth, reading the story today, I am impressed by my younger self’s competence and ambition as well as his deviousness. I could not write anything half so good in twice the time these days. The story got a great review from Charles Shaar Murray in Q, and a terrible review from Bruce Sterling in the New York Review of Science Fiction. It was a pat on the back from one hero of mine and a slap in the face from another, which, looking back on it, was a pretty good introduction to the brutal world of SF criticism.

These stories are a product of their time and the sensibility of one young man trying to figure out how to make his way in the world and in his profession. That’s probably the best way to look at them. They demonstrate many of the core themes of the cyberpunk movement of the time, alienation, mistrust of those in power, the feeling that the future was going to be both dark and glittering. Now that the future has arrived, I find myself nostalgic for the past it sprang out of and the way the future looked back then.

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