The Unthology

Cyberpunk stories from The Big Book of Cyberpunk's cutting room floor

To find material for The Big Book of Cyberpunk, I read tons of works: novels, websites, magazines, archives, collections and anthologies. As I went, I noted over a thousand of these into a loose bibliography of items of interest.

From there, I found stories that, based on thematic heft, significance, quality and personal taste, I wanted to include. There were 138.

The final anthology contains 108.

I knew that 138 would be too many, and expected that some of them would not come about. And, to be clear, I love the final result. There are some fish that got away, but the tank that is The Big Book is bloody lovely, and I can (and do) vouch for every story swimming it. The result could’ve been different, but it couldn’t have been better.

What’s the story with those 30?

For starters, about a quarter of them had unreachable authors. No contact information, no identifiable agent; nothing I could find through Google, the SFWA (who are mega helpful!), or personal contacts. I had no way of reaching them. I’ll spare everyone another round of the EVERY AUTHOR NEEDS A BASIC WEBSITE WITH AN EMAIL ADDRESS speech. But, c’mon. That’s frustrating.

For another quarter of the stories, I was able to make contact with the responsible party, but no deal was worked out. Some were folks that weren’t interested and said ‘no thanks’. Some had really complicated rights situations that I couldn’t resolve. Some wanted more money than I could afford. It happens! Pretty much everyone was friendly and courteous, and I tried to be the same.

For the rest (about half, for those following the math), I found some means of contacting the author or the agent, but never heard back. I am conscious that random emails from strangers saying ‘I WANT YER STORY’ are dubious, so I’m not totally surprised. I did what I could to (politely) chase, but, alas. Either my messages went to spam folders or they just weren’t that into me. That also happens! My kvetch, I suppose, is that a fast ‘no’ would’ve saved me time.

Time is the most important resource when editing an anthology.

Given more time, I would’ve resolved some of the challenges above. I could’ve tracked down a missing author through a friend of a friend of a friend, chased an agent more often, indulged in further rounds of negotiation, or had more chances to strike gold. I didn’t have the time to pursue every story relentlessly until it succumbed to my editorial charms.

That seems silly: I had about 18 months from contract to delivery! I could’ve carried two human children fully to term! Or nine litters of kittens! Alas, instead of kittens, I had contract negotiations instead. And every single of them was a unique undertaking.

For reference, the fastest story signed for The Big Book of Cyberpunk took a week to nail down from first contact to signed contract. (It actually appeared immediately after I had submitted the Table of Contents to Vintage. I fell in love with it, shot my shot, and the author was delightfully responsive to my frantic outreach. I was able to get the whole thing done in time to update the Table of Contents before anyone even spotted the change. Sam J. Miller is clearly terminally online.)

“Feral Arcade Children of the American Northeast” was a massive outlier. Most stories took months to pin down, some took over a year, and a couple took even longer. Assume an average of 12 weeks to nail down a story, multiply by 100, and that’s 23 years of rights negotiation. Served staggered-sort-of-concurrently, not consecutively, but a hefty sentence nonetheless.

In short: sometimes a fast'‘no’ really is the best outcome.

I still worried that I was setting a precedent for futility. Imagine my relief when, upon revisiting The Big Book of Science Fiction, I saw that the illustrious VanderMeers had encountered similar difficulties. If it can happen to them, well… that made me feel a lot better.

In their introduction, the VanderMeers do a bit of a ‘shout out’ to a few of the stories that they were interested in, but, because of various complications, couldn’t land. I wanted to continue that tradition, informally, by mentioning a few here.

Again, I am so pleased by The Big Book of Cyberpunk, and hope you are too. But if, after, 1,100-odd pages, you’re like what else? here are six stories that you can think of as a spiritual extension to the main text.

Vernor Vinge’s True Names (1981)

This novella is a fantastic, prescient view of how we relate to technology - specifically personal, online computers, and, as such, an important precursor to the cyberpunk genre. The premise is a somewhat pointed metaphor: the idea that technology and magic have become symbolically and literally intertwined, with coder/hackers behaving like ‘warlocks’. It reads like an epic fantasy; a demonstrable proof of Clarke’s Law.

True Names is currently published in a (rather amazing) standalone edition, with some great bonus content. I highly recommend it: they’ve bundled the story together with some fascinating essays that help demonstrate how the story’s conceptual approach to cyberspace had an influence on those that went on to build it.

Richard Paul Russo’s “Celebrate the Bullet” (1991)

Russo’s Destroying Angel (1992) is an absolutely amazing cyberpunk novel, and should be on everyone’s shelves. It is the perfect fusion of The Silence of the Lambs and Neuromancer - featuring a cast of morally ambiguous characters in a spectacularly rendered near-future San Francisco. It is hard to explain how Russo casually integrates the unsettlingness of cyberpunk technology into the setting, but it is everywhere, and beautifully rendered.

The ‘serial killer’ (as this is, in many ways, a police procedural) is as disturbing a villain as has ever been put to print, but still pales in comparison to the sheer, Weird offputting nature of the grubby future. It is a novel about vibes, but also captures the sense of a corrupt, crushing system, and the people that find a way to survive it.

ANYWAY… Russo’s not written a ton of short fiction, but “Celebrate the Bullet” (1991) is very much in the same morally-awkward, fiercely provocative, searching vibe (although not the same setting), and has been collected in The Mammoth Book of Future Cops.

Larissa Lai’s “Rachel” (2004)

A poetic, almost lyrical, retelling of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?/Blade Runner from Rachel’s point of view. In the original book/film, Rachel is an object. That is, in many ways, the point of the film. But it doesn’t make it less (pun intended) objectionable.

Lai’s story - a modern mythic retelling - belongs up there with Circe when it comes to reclaiming the agency and voice of marginalised characters in stories previously centered around the male experience. Cyberpunk is a genre that is, rightfully, in conversation with itself, and challenges its own flaws. Lai does so with ferocity and grace, and “Rachel” adds a much-needed perspective.

“Rachel” is a terrific, and, sadly, hard to find story; first published in a (very impressive) small press anthology.

Reza Negarestani’s “incognitum hactenus” (from Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, 2008)

Cyclonopedia is genuinely one of the weirdest books ever written: half fiction, half manifesto, half fever dream. It is about sentient oil, but also - very much not. The subject matter (and medium) are wildly different, but it is not unlike Grant Morrison’s stand-alone graphic novel, The Mystery Play. A murder mystery about a murder mystery which spirals into complexity and only really makes sense when you hear Morrison’s explanation that the entire thing was written as a single magickal sigil. Cyclonopedia is not a book, it is an incantation. It is also cyberpunk af: techno-esoteric political commentary, and an attempt to hack the reader, if not the world.

Read Cyclonopedia. And, for that matter, The Weird, which contained an extract from this amazing book.

Douglas Coupland’s “George Washington’s Extreme Makeover” (2016)

I think Coupland is a really interesting figure in terms of cyberpunk as a genre. In the book, I pose the argument that, if cyberpunk is ‘dead’, like its critics say, one of the bullets that killed it was fired by Coupland’s Microserfs.

“George Washington’s Extreme Makeover” is a time travel / reality TV show mash-up, written in the form of a TV script about a TV show. It is a great example of cyberpunk’s gonzo satire mode, as well as the genre’s obsession with storytelling about and through popular culture. It is very odd and quite funny.

The story behind why this story isn’t in The Big Book is fairly gonzo in and of itself. It turns out that, from an administrative perspective, “George Washington’s Extreme Makeover” and an article that Coupland wrote for the Financial Times called “George Washington’s Extreme Makeover” can be very easily confused. After six months of intense negotiation, I had purchased the wrong rights. Rather than go through it all again, his agent and I agreed to let bygones be bygones, and go our separate ways. My apologies to Mr Coupland. You can read it in Bit Rot.

Sweet Harmony by Claire North | Hachette UK

Claire North’s “Sweet Harmony” (2020)

North’s novella is an absolute ‘go to’ when people ask for cyberpunk about the now. “Sweet Harmony” is about a world run on micro-transactions. Anything is possible; clear skin, weight loss, glossy hair, hayfever cures… just click the button and, no matter what, keep up with the payments. North explores the obvious trends and brings to life the deeply disheartening, and all-too-probable, possibility of life based on the subscription model.

Where North goes the extra mile is in showing the why. The addictive tech, the sinister behavioural nudges, and, most importantly, a society that demands certain standards of physical perfection, and conflates it with capability. In crueller hands, this would be a smug story, with contempt for its protagonist and her plight. In North’s, it is deeply empathetic. There but for the grace of God. For now, at least.

On that cheery note: buy my book.

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