All Politics is Local

All Politics is Local
by
Andrija Popovic

(c) 2017 Andrija Popovic

“Ms. Deveroux, give us a straight answer.” Duane Jefferson, seventy years old and elder statesman of the Groveton city council, crossed all four of his arms. “Is the waste water disposal system for the oil wells causing our inter-dimensional issues?”

Thea Deveroux, an occult seismologist with Oklahoma Geological Survey, tucked one of her antennae back against her pointed ear and replied:  “Yes.”

A storm of growls and keening laments rattled the town hall. Duane just shook his head. His membranous wings, black as his bald head, flapped irritably.

“Order! Dammit, order!” Alicia Sears, new mayor of Groveton, banged the gavel with a cilia-covered hand. Her six eyes were heavy and dark with exhaustion.

Chad Michael Rimer – representative from Halithon Pandimensional Petroleum and the only baseline human in the room- spoke: “Please. Everyone, settle down. Look, we all knew there may be minor environmental issues with this new fracturing and disposal process…”

“What?” Duane clacked his talons. “Look, we know the drilling boosted the economy. And we knew there would be risks. But when y’all came here, you didn’t mention gates to chaos realms on Henderson Drive!”

“The damn hounds mauled my cattle!” John Murphy stood, frills red and agitated. “Protective runes cost money and blood. How the Hell am I supposed to keep out seven dimensional predators without bankruptcy?!”

“I appreciate your concern. But, we don’t know enough about what’s really going on in the dimensional subsurface to know how to mitigate some of this risk,” said Rimer. The pandimensional wards sewn into his Alexander Amosu Bespoke suit gave it an oily sheen. “HPP is continuing its studies. We feel there is no direct correlation between our processes and the regrettable phenomenon–.”

Mayor Sears interrupted.”And the report?”

“Our in-house teams will be releasing a full rebuttal. We disagree with the hasty and ill-evidenced conclusions–”

Howls from the audience overwhelmed Rimer. Deveroux looked moments away from bludgeoning the HPP representative with the six hundred page report.

Duane slapped his wings. “Madame Mayor, I motion that, based on Ms. Deveroux’s testimony and the report submitted, we consider Ordinance 193 and halt this method of waste water dumping.”

Citizens and town council-members alike growled, snarled and slapped their shells in approval. Rimer glanced at the runes dancing on his tablet. “Point of order!”

Silence, and then Rimer said: “The council cannot take up this ordinance.”

“Mr. Rimer, it is well within our jurisdiction to regulate how business is conducted in our town. Especially if it impacts the well being, and pan-dimensional stability of its residents.” The Mayor rattled her spines, annoyed.

“Not anymore.” Rimer placed his tablet into his briefcase. “As of twenty minutes ago the State Legislature voted on, and the Governor signed, HR 193. This blocks local governments from regulating energy operations in the state. If you want to shut us down, take it up with the legislature and the Governor.”

Everyone dove for their tablets as Rimer made his exit. “Thank you for your time,” he said. “Our legal team will be in touch.”

Order was abandoned. People swarmed the council members. Others mobbed Thea Deveroux, demanding answers. Alice had to stand on her chair and let loose an unearthly howl before order resumed.

But no one was in the mood for further business. Motions were tabled, and everyone filtered out. Only Duane and Alice remained in the meeting hall.

“We can’t let this go on, Alice.” Duane stood up, one set of arms folded behind him. “I mean, look at this. We’re barely human anymore. Haystacks of tentacles roam Memorial Park like it’s their back yard. And what do we get out of it? The blood magic expenses eating away at the money HPP brings in. We’ve got to do something.”

“You know my grandfather was from West Virginia?” Duane shook his head. The Mayor clicked her secondary mandibles in thought. “Yep. Coal country. When I was young, he told me how the mining company cut safety gear costs by using outdated masks. Or how botched coal ash storage contaminated the aquifer with heavy metals. Then, he lost his best friend to methane explosion. The mine could have prevented it if they weren’t in such a hurry to open up new seams.”

“Every now and again, someone talked about suing or getting the government involved.” Alice stared at the text of the bill scrolling down her tablet. “No one ever did, though.”

“Why’s that?” Duane tilted his head and antennae.

“I asked my granddad. ‘Why they put up with it?’ He always told me to stand up to bullies when I grew up.” She packed away her tablet, notes, and documents into a messenger bag. “He said, ‘What else are we going to do? That’s just the price you pay for having a job.'”

“Do you believe that?”

Alice laughed. “Fuck no, Duane. I love my Grandad, but he spent his off hours crawled into a bottle of cheap beer.” The Mayor picked up her bag. “I’ve got to get to work, start making a plan to overturn this bill. Maybe go to court. I’ll be in early tomorrow. Should I expect you there?”

Duane smiled. He tucked his wings along his back. “Yep. I’ll be here. See you tomorrow, madam Mayor.”

“See you tomorrow, Duane.” She haded out. Duane turned off the lights, closed the door and locked the town hall behind him.

In the distance, green and purple flares jetted from the drilling wells dotted landscape. The tentacled mounds in the park stood in a circle, undulating around the statue of the town founder. A pair of hounds, lean and barely in this dimension, howled at the moon. They serenaded him all the way home.

Duane hoped they’d hush up, or find a rabbit to chase. Tomorrow would be another long day in local politics.

This Was Not the Corporate Dystopia I Was Promised

The other title for this post is “We Need The Punk In Cyberpunk Now.”

Recent events has me thinking on a big influence on my formative years: the literature and the aesthetic of cyberpunk. While many grew up with images of the space age, with (white, western) humanity cementing its manifest destiny among the stars, I grew up when a certain generation of authors looked at the great space wheel of 2001: A Space Odyssey and wondered how many of the components were built by globalized companies using third world labor.

This was a world were the buds of the modern internet first took root when we started connecting home computers into telephone lines, then immediately used it to trade porn and complain about movies. Cell phones first hinted at the idea we wouldn’t be tied to cables and trunk-lines forever. And corporations grew, adopting a “Shareholder Profits Shall Be the Whole of the Law” attitude which still rules today. Conversations like the one ceased to be dialog out of Alan J. Pakula thrillers:

“We can make tones of money using these quick-term stock scams and hiding the results overseas. Now it’ll crash the economy-”
“What about the quarterly profits?”
“Oh, we’ll see a massive spike before total devastation.”
“We can blame the immigrants. Do it, and we’ll be rich enough to not care.”

And instead became standard operating procedure for every global company out there.

Take all of the above, mingle onto it the visual aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the paintings of Patrick Nagel, and Michael Mann’s visual palette from Miami Vice, and you have the birth of a neon-drenched corporate dystopia where the wealthy live in technological splendor, while the same technology alternately imprisons and liberates those scrambling to survive day in, day out. The tools of the oppressors became ways we could give them a massive “Fuck You.”

But while we have cyberpunk’s technology for the most part (No wicked cybernetics, but re-read Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net. The book opens with someone killed by a drone strike, folks), and we certainly have the ever-present corporate domination (Get and watch the Max Headroom collection from Shout Factory. Check “Grossberg’s Return” for the shocking idea of the media creating news, not reporting it –  *cough*InfoWars*cough* – while “Lessons” talks explicitly about education treated as a commodity to keep it out of the hands of the poor), we are missing some things.

The aesthetics for one. I think Starcadian best expresses this longing for a familiar vibe in the video for “Chinatown”

The other part we’ve lost – and some would argue never really had – was the punk part. That rebellious growl at seeing our future stolen, at dehumanization, and at the abuse of power. The part of the aesthetic born from folks like Stiff Little Fingers. Listen to “Suspect Device

They take away our freedom
In the name of liberty
Why can’t they all just clear off
Why can’t they let us be
They make us feel indebted
For saving us from hell
And then they put us through it
It’s time the bastards fell

Don’t believe them
Don’t believe them
Don’t be bitten twice
You gotta suss, suss, suss, suss, suss, suss
Suss, suspect device

Tell me that’s not the punk part of the equation in a song?

This is what we need in the world right now. We need the punk side of cyberpunk. We need our Suspect Devices. We need our Edison Carters, though these days he’d be working for ProPublica, not Network 23.  It’s out there, but right now it’s controlled by people who think swatting a lady for not appreciating the dick picks you sent her after seeing her Steam profile. We need to take it back. We need to use what we learned from our CyberPunk forefathers to take this world and cast it into ugly, sharp relief. We need to channel the growling anger of punk and it’s children, and focus it on the folks who’d take away our freedoms in the name of liberty.

When I see an article posted about how our new administration is taking pages out of Totalitarianism 101 (Say, by de-legitimizing a free press or picking targets for ‘true patriots’ to rail against), I don’t react with a sad face. I use the angry one. And I tell them exactly how they can fight – Maybe not with their fists, but with dollars, votes, and showing up at a town hall meeting with a ZIP code on your chest while getting into a legislator’s grill.

I think anyone writing contemporary SF who felt something shiver inside when they watched the opening minutes of Blade Runner, saw Synners spelled in a unique way, or heard the sky described as television tuned to a dead channel, should do the same.  Or as Henry Rollins put it:

henryrollinsjoestrummer

So, borrowing from Joe’s bandmate, Paul – when they kick down your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head? Or on the record button of your cell phone, streaming live and direct to the world?

It’s cyberpunk time.

The Most Hated Creature in Known Space

The Most Hated Creature in Known Space
by
Andrija Popovic

(c) 2017 Andrija Popovic

On our first day the instructor shot our valedictorian, William Robert “Billy-Bob” Rossmount, in the crotch with a burner bolt. Billy-Bob convulsed, wet himself, and fell onto the faux linoleum floor. The woman beside me murmured, “Holy fuck.” Meanwhile, the best of us shit his pants and quivered on the floor.

“Listen up, all of you!” The instructor holstered the burner under his jacket. “You’ve signed up for the toughest training course in known space. I have a waiver for every one of you which says that all you bastards are mine now! You will refer to me by one name only: Chief Instructor. Or, Sir, if you are out of breath.”

He pulled a kerchief from his back pocket, expanded it to the size of a towel, and draped it across Billy-Bob like a shroud.

“You will be pushed to your physical, emotional and psychological limits. We will trigger the worst in you. We will show you the worst in everyone else. And none of this will be exaggerated.” The Chief paced, back and forth, like a guard dog eying prisoners. “Everything we will send you through is real, tested, and true.”

The Chief pointed to the door. “The exit will always be open. But once you walk out, that’s it. There is no coming back.” He checked the time. “You have fifteen minutes to decide. That should be enough for Billy-Bob to change his shorts.”

***

Three people left right away, including “Billy-Bob” Rossmount. I stayed. I thought I knew what I was in for. We all did. But we were wrong.

We didn’t expect the physical exertion. Not just the training for high, low and null gravity environments but dodge-ball, of all things. The Chief Instructor, when he was feeling generous, would randomly throw cricket balls at us, cursing the whole time. “My first day, I had a five-star general throw an ExoArmor gauntlet at my head!  You’re getting off easy!”

Then there was the abuse. Not physical, but verbal. We would try to work the day’s exercise while he flayed us with words read from a stack of transcripts he kept on his tablet.

“Samantha Tien, are you a complete fucking retard? Do you understand what the fuck I’m saying, you stupid slut!?” The Chief’s face grew darker when he yelled. The veins around his eyes popped up, and his pupils shrank into needle-sharp pin-holes. “If I wanted your so-called expert fucking advice, I’d fucking rip it out of your fucking ass! Give me a plan for bombing the fuck out of these shit-suckers and then I’ll listen to your fucking advice, you miserable cunt!”

Lastly, there was the actual training: PsyOps and PsiOps warfare, social engineering, micro-expression interpretation, psycholinguistic manipulation, marketing – the dirtiest of dirty warfare became our bread and butter.

By the end of the first week, exhaustion claimed two more. The rest of us learned to lose ourselves in the moment – think about the mission, focus on the objective, and cover your team-mates. I stopped seeing rivals around me, and instead saw other survivors. We learned to support each other, cover for each other, and conspire with the best of them. Damitra Williams, who stood beside me and gaped as “Billy-Bob” Rossmount voided his bladder that first day, kept standing by me.

But we were still human inside, and vulnerable. On the second week, I had a breakdown. Damitra knew I needed room, space outside the dorms just to let go. She got me into the gym one night after lights-out. I found a quiet spot by the null-G pool. In the dark, I watched the clear sphere of water hover above the full-G pool like an errant planet. I didn’t swim. I just sat and saw the water bounce and ripple.

“Guess I’m not the only one who finds this relaxing.” I jumped to my feet. The Chief Instructor walked out of the shadows. Light, reflected and refracted through the hovering pool, danced over his dark skin like smoke. “Now, sit yourself down. I’m not here and neither are you.”

“Yes, Sir.” I sat back in one of the poolside chairs, re-shaping it so I could lean back. The Chief just stood and watched the water sphere ripple.

“You know, it’s only going to get worse from here.” He kept his eyes on the pool. “You’ve got two more days of prep, followed by intensive simulations. First person, face to face.  You’ll be as close to the front lines as we can make it. And when it’s all over – you’ll have to deal with the exact same nightmare for the rest of your career.” He turned to me, almost sad. “You sure you want to go on?”

“You don’t think I can make it, Sir?”

The Chief shook his head. “It’s not a question of making it. It’s why you’re trying. Stubbornness? Insanity? Bone to pick with someone?”

“Because it means something,” I said.

“How’s that?”

I looked the Chief dead in the eyes; something I’d never do if we were on the clock. “I know this is not going to be pretty. I’ll be walking straight into Hell wearing jelly gasoline and a smile. But this means I can help one person, save one life, keep one world from turning into living nightmare, it’s worth it.”

“We’re not doing this for the money. Or the education. Or the travel.” I stood up and compacted the chair back into a cube. “We do it because we believe. Goodnight, Chief.”

“Goodnight, Ms. Tien.”

***

The Chief did not lie. It got worse from there on out. The simulations held nothing back.  Staffed by veterans, they started in the middle of the night, with Klaxon calls and cursing and half-dressed students trying to function. We found ourselves bellowed at by a room full of trainers with over a century of combined field experience.

Three people dropped out that night. Over the next two weeks, seven more filtered away. From an original starting class of forty, only fourteen remained. I survived. Damitra survived. We became tighter than sisters through the fight. Everyone in the class did. Before the end, we exchanged personal contact information. No matter where we were deployed, we would stay close.

You don’t forget folks who stood beside you in the Inferno.

Finally, Graduation Day.  We dressed in our best –  clothes cleaned and pressed until the creases could slice throats. We walked onto the stage, received our diplomas, shook Chief’s hand, and sat as we listened to his final words. I still remember them. I carried those words with me with me in the days that followed, and they helped keep me sane:

“Don’t expect a long speech here. I’ve got to get this placed cleaned up for the next set of inductees. But I will say this:  you entered into this course naked as babes. Since then, you have learned to arm and armor yourselves. Now, shields and swords in hand, your truest test awaits you. Out there, all this is meaningless. Out there, you are the most hated creature in all of known space. And you must own this, for it will protect you more than any training we can provide.”

“Welcome, everyone, to the Federated Systems’ Diplomatic Corps. Now, go out there and save humanity from itself. Good luck.”