Thursday, July 17, 2014

Ill-conceived Cyberpunk

Writing about freezer poetry last week jogged loose a few memories. Granted, I burned all those things years ago, in a last-ditch effort to save humanity from the awfulness of my 20's-era writing. I didn't save very much from that time at all. Certainly not my poetry--I am to poetry as a chimpanzee is to fine calligraphic instruments.

I do remember some of the ideas I had for fiction, though.

It's hard to define exactly what your worst idea ever was. The selection criteria has to be precise. Sure, all those stories you wrote when you were a teenager ("WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF I WAS THOR AND I COULD CONVINCE SUZY TO PAY ATTENTION TO ME") might qualify, but everybody has those, all the time. Stupid Suzy.

There are also those not-quite-there ideas. That's probably a blog entry in and of itself. Those ideas which, on the surface, seem entirely workable. They're always in the back of your head, waiting to eat your brain and waste your time. You THINK a series of novels set in a world where elephants have rocket trunks and chainsaw feet might work pretty damn well, but every time you sit down it leads you down a path of twisting logic and plot impossibilities ("BUT HOW WILL ARTEMIS PACHYDERM TIE HIS SHOELACES WITH BUZZSAW FINGERS?!").

But, no. At least those have enough of an intriguing seed to them that you keep coming back to chew your way through the logic.

I think the key element to a Worst Idea Of All Time has to be the ratio between how awful the idea is years later and how enthusiastic you were about it at the time.

My worst idea ever is one I came up with while I was in college. At the time, I had a job manning the security desk at the library. It was pretty great: 20 hours per week, $4.35 per hour. All I had to do was wear a rather smelly red sweater with the university logo on it and stay awake through a four hour shift. Occasionally, an alarm would go off and I'd have to recover a book from a sheepish patron. More often than not, it was a videocassette. The local video store off campus used similar technology to us and would trigger some false alarms.

Mostly, though, I just sat and read. Did a lot of homework. Talked to some interesting people. Daydreamed.

And I came up with lousy ideas for stories.

Near the end of my duration as a student, after I started taking writing classes, I developed an interest in writing short fiction instead of bad novels or role-playing games. It happens to us all, I guess. I also wrote a lot of poetry at the time, some of it bad, some of it all right. The peak of my freezer poetry phase wouldn't take place until a couple of years later when I graduated and got a terrible summer job.

I decided I wanted to write a story, maybe something I could blow up into a novel later on.

Now, remember, I was into gaming and this was the early 90's, when cyberpunk was still slightly big. The future was just around the bend and there was this palpable sense that all of this computer technology would blow up in a big way, but the future, as it is wont to do, was impenetrable and impossible to predict. Could be good, could be bad, who knows.

My idea was a story about the "blood chip." It was a virtual reality thing where people would get murdered while a computer recorded the sensory inputs of the participants' brains: killers, victims, bystanders, whatever. Then you'd sell the recording and some chip-junkie would get massive thrills from the adrenaline rush or, uh, the vividness of the something-or-other. Faces of Death for real but IN YOUR FACE, MAN. The ultimate thrill, right?

It's about as 90's an idea as you can get. At the time, I was like "hell, yeah!" Fist-pumping enthusiasm.

If you've watched any sort of television and straight-to-video sci-fi movies or whatever from the 90's, you probably rolled your eyes so hard at the idea you're now looking at the back of your head from the inside.

It's that awful thing that any 90's TV show did when they ran out of steam. X-Files had one, I think. I know Stargate (not actually a 90's TV show, I know, bear with me) and maybe Star Trek: TNG did it. There were an absolute shit-ton of straight-to-video movies about it, if you're willing to dig into the ass-end of crap cinema. I think half of them had Don Wilson in a starring role.

If I ever got super nostalgic and did a fake 90's sci-fi show, this would be episode numero uno.

I mean, think about it. It's an incredible amount of infrastructure just to produce something that would get you instantly nailed by law enforcement. A brain tape recording would be evidence so solid a prosecutor would get a wet dream just thinking about it.

And that's just the crap-tip of the shit-iceberg of reasons why it's a lousy idea for a story. It's a lurid idea, yes, like any of the plot seeds for classic pulp are, but not in any sort of appealing way.

And that's really the true reason why it was a crap idea. Like a lot of young science fiction fans, I'd blown it up into a huge thing, but with absolutely no character or thematic work. It was a fetishistic excursion into setting, like a young George Lucas writing up a five-hundred page treatment of how lightsabers looked and worked without actually mentioning any of the characters in his movie or sort of conflict.

I put a huge amount of work into that idea and the REST of the story wasn't anything more than "BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, TRENCH COATS AND GUNS AND MAYBE A GIRL SOMEWHERE."

So there you go. My worst story idea ever. And the thing is, there's still an inner 19 year old Mike who just high-fived an even-more-inner 18 year old Mike and is pestering me to use it somewhere as an "homage" or something.

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