“Star Bright, Star Byte” (1994) by Marella Sands

Marella Sands warns of new gates through new technologies […]
—Thomas M. K. Stratman, introduction to Cthulhu’s Heirs (1994) 9

Cthulhu is older than digital computers, and neither Lovecraft nor his contemporaries dreamed of the internet. By 1994, the world wide web was three years old, the first full text web search engines online to help navigate the new conglomeration of web sites and networks. Four years before Google, a year before Nintendo released the Virtual Boy. Virtual reality—the immersive experience of a simulation, created and maintained by a computer program, that allowed you to interact with people and programs—was the promise of cyberpunk, had been since William Gibson described the globe-spanning Matrix in his 1984 novel Neuromancer.

Marella Sands’ “Star Bright, Star Byte” might be called Cthulhupunk. The setting is low-key cyberpunk: 20 minutes into the future, virtual reality systems are run like 1990s bulletin boards, hosting hundreds of users that jack in through implants in the back of the head. Immersed in virtual reality, they can ignore the cultists murdering people on hilltops—at least, until someone called Narla hacks the system. To gain control of a virtual world where anything can be programmed to be just right…even the stars.

“Star Bright, Star Byte” is an artifact of its time. Competent, uncomplicated, and fairly straightforward, Sands sets up and resolves this essential conflict with a minimal cast of characters (Kent Taylor, sysop; his friend Joe, and Narla). Even with the near-future setting of immersive virtual reality, the social mechanics are the same as cybersex in the 1990s: Narla presents as a good-looking woman, the better to entice and distract Kent while the system is hacked, but the sysop knows:

Of course, she could be a balding corporate executive in real life. Or another all-American male computer jock like me. Not all people program constructs to match their gender on the Outside.

The juxtaposition of still-unrealized technology and decades old internet culture is exacerbated by the combination of cyberpunk and the Cthulhu Mythos, both in a rather uncomplicated form—we get little sense of who the cultists are or why they’re trying to accomplish what they’re doing, except to hurry the Great Old Ones back. This is not atypical of Mythos fiction of the period; the tropes had already been established. Sands’ chooses not to dwell too deeply on either the logistics or the mechanics of how the world works: it’s the idea that is the thing. That with new technology comes new risks, and old horrors might appear under new masks to take advantage of the possibilities offered.

This is not exactly a new premise; Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953) is somewhat comparable in basic concept, but not execution: there is a tinge of grittiness to “Star Bright, Star Byte” in the reality of Kent Taylor’s bachelor pad, the terrible smell from the long-neglected cups of coffee by the computer terminal, the way the “all-American male computer jock” feels blistering if he gets any sun, and admits he’d probably find the real Bahamas disappointing compared to his computer simulation—not exactly high tech and low life, but details that define the more personal stakes involved.  Where Clarke could end his story with the suggestion of a terrible finality, Sands prefers in Mythos fashion to leave readers with the terrible potentiality—that while the cultists were vexed this time, they might still try again.

“Star Bright, Star Byte” is not the only work of the period to try and combine the disparate cyberpunk/Mythos aesthetic; which include Lawrence Watt-Evans’ “Pickman’s Modem” (1992), Michael D. Winkle’s “Typo” (1994), Scott David Aniolowski’s “I Dream of Wires” (1995), GURPS CthulhuPunk (1995), and Alan Dean Foster’s “A fatal exception has occurred at…” (2002), to name only a few examples, and showcase the syntax of an era in which people were still exploring the conceptual limits of the shiny new internet. In a more general sense the effort to marry or address the advance of technology with the Mythos continues right up to the current day: Nick Mamatas explored virtual reality and the Mythos in “Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Nyarlathotep” (2011)—the latest participant in a nascent literary tradition.

“Star Bright, Star Byte” was published in Cthulhu’s Heirs: New Cthulhu Mythos Fiction (1994) by Chaosium.