As a registered student organization, Sci-Fi Club was entitled to an annual disbursement of cash to buy “essential supplies.” The amount of the allotment was never particularly large. By the time of my second term as club president, it amounted to the grand sum of fifty bucks which could only be spent at “Boston-based” vendors.
It wasn’t much, but it was “free” money and we were entitled to it, so the club officers called a meeting to decide how to make the most of it. A few of us lobbied in favor of practicality, picking up some things that would see regular usage by members — dry-erase hex maps, the AD&D second edition core rulebooks, and maybe a casual board/card game or two. The lone dissenter was a kid who demanded we blow the entire sum on the hardback edition of the Shadowrun rulebook.
Personally, I thought Shadowrun was a steaming pile of nonsense aimed at sad souls who couldn’t accept the notion of “cyberpunk” unless it involved elves, orcs, and other comforting trappings of medieval fantasy wank. Its very existence irked me, but I would’ve supported buying a copy of the club if there had been a genuine demand for it by the members.
There wasn’t. The only person who wanted it was the dude who insisted upon buying a copy, a self-proclaimed “cyberpunk” fanboy who wrote find-and-replace fiction inspired by the last geek product he consumed (and would loudly protest “IT’S NOTHING LIKE IT” when someone pointed out his work’s similarities to, say, Highlander or Robot Jox). His demand was overruled by the other officers, who agreed that we should take a more pragmatic approach.
We settled on the Compleat Strategist as the vendor of choice (because Excalibur was in Malden, despite offering better deals) and sent off small contingent of the club with the money and a shopping list to complete the deal.
I should’ve been suspicious when the cyberpunk fanboy volunteered for the job, but figured that the other folks who went with him would prevent any funny business from occuring. I discovered how naive my assumptions were when they came back with a copy of Shadowrun and fuck all else.
Not only did the incident disabuse me of any illusions about leadership role in the club, but it also soured me on the whole concept of “cyberpunk” for years.
Yes, I loved Blade Runner and Max Headroom and Alien, but I never saw them as a distinct subgenre. They were simply “sci-fi,” doing what sci-fi has historically done — incorporating themes and aesthetics extrapolated from contemporary culture. I didn’t see the need to define that stuff through some goofy buzzword, especially one that pitted my defensive punkitude against a bunch of fanboys with feathered hair, patchy ‘staches, and threadbare Rush raglans. Those fires of contempt were further fuelled by the emergence of a “cyberpunk” splinter scene within Boston’s goth/industrial contingent, one helmed by targets of my irrationally tribal disgust.
I was irritated with the club and anything bearing the cyberpunk label. And then Cool Dude showed up.
Cool Dude was another example of the process where some quiet, unassuming social outcast uses a new social circle to build a larger than life persona. I’m familiar with it because I also followed that path, burying the pathetically tragic Andy Weiss beneath the colorful and intimidating punk persona of Otto Erotic. I never got completely over my introspective tendencies, though, preferring instead to mask them with a costume and posture which discouraged socialization from a distance. I was far more interested in cultivating a few close friendships than being a charismatic leadership figure.
Cool Dude, however, lived for the adulation of the crowd, even one as dubious as the Sci-Fi Club’s membership. He was full of epic tales of facing off against five — no TEN big dudes and martial arts classes and all the hot chicks he banged when he was an exchange student in Europe. As far as I could tell, he was a former Catholic school student from Medford and somehow managed to lose one of his front teeth, but he managed to project a blinding “alpha geek” aura. He gave the vicarious-living rank-and-file the personal access and line of bullshit I had refused to offer up. They adored him for it and he reveled in the adoration.
I was more wary of him than envious of the attention he received. The wariness was mutual to some degree, the kind that comes when two charlatans wander onto the community of marks. He scaled back the hyperbolic stories about his “psycho special forces dad” when I mentioned that I, too, had a special forces vet dad who’d spent a stretch in the bughouse. It found it a little creepy when he started dating my ex for a short stretch. It wasn’t possessiveness on my part, because I was in a (superior) relationship with Maura and put that debacle behind me, but it did make me wonder if the Cool Dude’s ultimate plan was to eat my liver and wear my skin.
The thing that really bugged me was the whole cult of personality thing, from both the worshipper and worshipped sides of the relationship. It was so utterly alien to me, pegging one’s self-worth to a grandstander or desiring that kind of needy attention from others. Ironically, my poorly disguised and inarticulately expressed disgust ended up only reinforcing the dynamic by adding a “fuck that hater” foil to the mix.
If that wasn’t enough, the Cool Dude filled the void left by my Warhammer campaign with a flamboyant and much-hyped Cyberpunk 2020 run. The Shadowrun fanboy was one of the first to sign on, naturally, followed by a good portion of the club’s core membership. I even sat in for a session, playing an amnesiac mercenary who woke up one morning in a burned out city bus. It wasn’t really my thing, but I could see why folks flocked to it. As befitting a grandstanding bullshit artist, the Cool Dude knew how to work a crowd and pander to the base.
The campaign was a bigger cauldron of “borrowed” ideas and unchained adolescent male Id (every character except mine had a cyber-peener) than a thirteen year old’s first Rifts run, but the Cool Dude sold it like a pro. It was the type of run where the players would stop the gamesmaster in the hall between sessions to beg for hints about their characters chances to seduce a balloon-bosomed vat grown ninja, and the Cool Dude was happy to lean into that with a few cryptic teasers. (I probably would’ve said “what the fuck is wrong with you” and trotted off to catch up with Maura, which is how things reached this point in the first place.)
In a moment of morbid curiosity (combined with the urge for a little intelligence gathering), I picked up a copy of the Cyberpunk 2020 rules at Pandemonium Books shortly after the Cool Dude’s campaign began. The game shared the same “Interlock System” as R.Talsorian Games’ Mekton RPGs, with a more detailed combat system and the same emphasis on pre-fab melodrama via its “Lifepath” tables.
What really struck me about it, though, was the emphasis — through campaign suggestions and associated bits of fluff — on trying to make a thing out of something that was fairly nebulous and scattershot to begin with. It makes a concerted effort to pin down what “cyberpunk” is, but only really succeeds in reducing it to a handful of cliches punctuated with painful-to-read slang and industrial grade archetypes. Its heart is in the right place, but it suffers from the fannish need to codify while proselytizing. That might be necessary in the context of establishing a workable RPG system, but the end result is a whole lot of thematic panel beating posing as canon.
The absurdity of such a task was highlighted in the rulebook’s list of suggested “cyberpunk” books and movies, which threw everything from John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider to Max Max into the mix. The only real throughline to the selections came from the shitty pot-boilers which were equally guilty of trying to hothouse a subgenre by working the lowest common denominators.
It did convince me to borrow Maura’s first edition Neuromancer paperback (complete with a faded receipt from the Waldenbooks in the Meadow Glen Mall) and give it a shot, so not a total loss.