Not-So-Cyberpunk 2020

The end of the year. Normally a time for reflection on the year. Honestly, though, my accomplishments can be boiled down to the following:

  • Published in two anthologies this year.
  • Completed draft of a full-length novel
  • Attended two (smaller scale) workshops
  • Kept my job for a full year
  • Kept my personal life relatively intact
  • Continued to appreciate how damn lucky I am to have found my wife

Things I did not get to do and wanted to included:

  • Drop a test podcast/video
  • Take more photographs
  • Promote myself more on social media

What is in store for 2020? Normally, I’d talk about our down-market, low-budget Cyberpunk future here but I’ve done a lot of that this year. Let’s just say any timeline which forces William Gibson to go back and rewrite a novel-in-progress because the current ‘fucked up’ factor in the real world outstrips his fictional one fairly gritty one.

I can only plan for myself. In addition to the three missed items above, I have the following on my list:

  • Read and revise novel
  • Find and attend more writing workshops, hopefully local.
  • Contacts, submissions, and other outreach attempts.

And the big one:

  • Revise that short story.

I wrote a draft last year for an on-line class. It drew from personal experience. Bad personal experience. After sending it about, and getting an editor to take a look at it (Birthday present thoughts for writers: hire an editor to read their short story), I knew I had to revise it.

The protagonist needed to take the lead, go to the forefront. They needed to be front and center. And the story had to be told from first person. Not the comfortable, distant third of the current draft. Which means walking down ugly roads in my head all over again.

I wasn’t ready, until PAX Unplugged. I was at the convention center, 8:15am to sign up for a miniature painting class. Turns out – they’d already gone to waitlist. Which was odd, as registration wasn’t supposed to begin for another 45 minutes. But that left me alone in the con, waiting for my wife to wake up and the expo hall to open.

I had my backpack. My notebook. My pen. And I had a short story to revise from word one.

The word count was unimportant; I wrote. I wrote and stepped back into an ugly, ugly memory. The rest of the story will probably be just as rough. But that’s how you know it’ll impact someone, yes? If it bleeds, it leads.

Or, to put it in true 2020 terms –

Got a bunch of small jobs, mostly routine, but there’s a big op staring me down right now. Wetwork, with legions of CyberPsychos and Black ICE between me and the prize. But there’s no room for winging, sabe? Got my rippers sharpened, smart-link tuned, and enough combat medication in my system for a tour in the last corp war. I’m chipping in…

Nostalgia for Dystopia

One of my ongoing gags with friends is saying, “This wasn’t the cyberpunk dystopia I was promised. There’s supposed to be more neon and cyberwear.” A recent video takes on Cyberpunk and its reliance on visuals essentially created in the 80’s and, if I had to give it a tagline, it would be my cyberpunk gag. But here’s my critique of the critique:

He’s not talking about writing cyberpunk, or the themes of cyberpunk, but the visuals of cyberpunk. The aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic which is honestly now in its second and third generation, as people are being inspired by Blade Runner to create their own versions of the film. Altered Carbon is taken to task in this way, but I bet every one of the artists and designers there thought, “Oh, cool. Now I get to make my version of the city from Blade Runner.”

They are trying to capture a nostalgic feeling when the fears of cyberpunk (Invasive technology being used by unfettered capitalism to manipulate, and sustain, class differences or to create new phenomenon we are not yet mature enough to deal with) were easy to see and externalized. They weren’t here, and part of our lives.

Check out one of my favorite videos of recent years, Starcadian’s “Chinatown.” It is set in the ‘future’ of 1995 and talks about a cyberpunk world, but because it couldn’t afford to re-create Los Angeles as “Ridleyville” you see the current LA with a few buildings added in, some flying cars, and some drones. It’s nostagic, but I think it also points to a type of cyberpunk we need: one grounded in the world, stripped of the ‘aesthetic’ to just deal with the themes.

Mr. Robot is pointed out as one example, but I had another as well: The one season series Almost Human with Karl Urban and Michael Healy. The restraints of TV kept them away from the grand soaring metropoli of cinematic cyberpunk, but we saw other things in use: ubiquitous advertisement and surveillance (in one episode, used to target guided bullets via personalized advertising), home drug printing, masks designed to foil facial recognition.

One of my favorite scenes involved Karl Urban placing sticky notes all over his kitchen. Virtual sticky notes. It’s something I could actually see people buying into 30 years from now, not realizing that the folks making the ‘smart cabinets’ are also gleaning statistical data about your every habit. Oh, they can’t see what you are writing, but hey can compare when you’re using the product against data they purchased from your smart fridge about eating stress, maybe start profiling you for the design of the new smart stove…

Look at the Ghost in the Shell TV series, Stand Alone Complex. While Oshi’s film adaptation is groundbreaking in many ways, for me SAC is brilliant in it lets us have it both ways. Yes, we’ve got massive skyscrapers and Asian urban planning on display, but we also see homes in the suburbs and the countryside. Everything isn’t one giant city. For all the advanced cybernetics, they still have Starbucks. People live here, and it’s not bad for most folks.

In some ways, the granddady of this less soaring, more grounded style of cyberpunk is Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days. Set in what was then the near future, it actually looks a lot more like the present than most would admit. The constant police presence reminds me of actual neighborhood blockades where folks were asked to show ID’s and prove they lived in the area. Imagine Stop and Frisk taken to a new level. The TV’s are wide screen. And the new tech introduced, the sense wire which lets you record a person’s experiences, is used to talk about real racial divisions. This is just after Rodney King, but prescient of what we saw in Baton Rouge after police shootings.

People confuse thematic with the aesthetic. Which is what a lot of folks have always done with cyberpunk. And it’s easy to do when the aesthetic is so powerful and dominating. It resonates. People look at Max Headroom’s Blank Reg and see the mowhawk, and not the fact he’s someone who asked to be completely erased from every possible database so he could live the way he wanted to, without interference. Blank Reg would be an empty line in Cambridge Analytica’s data.

So, what do we do? If we’re fans of the genre, and still think it actually has more to say, what can we do?

  1. Accept the Nostalgia – Yes, I said it. We have to realize that there will always be a hungering for the innocent days of pink mowhawks and low-life high-tech outlaws. And if we’re just creating an extension of that nostalgia, let’s talk about why and what makes is still resonant.
  1. Create an Updated (and Expanded) Aesthetic – For all its CyberNostalgia, the Cyberpunk 2077 demo had things I liked a bit. Namely, all the folks on the west coast looking and speaking Spanish. Ethnic diversity. Now, imagine what Cyberpunk would look like if the aesthetic was embraced by the Latinx community? What does Phillipino cyberpunk look like? Did you know there’s a CyberFunk movement out there?
  1. Remember the Now – Black Mirror is as much about creating a funhouse mirror on our behaviors as anything else. So, too, should the genre. Cyberpunk, like all good science fiction, is about confronting the now by looking at what could happen if things keep going the way they are. Gibson’s kept up to date. Why can’t the rest of us?

Will I still be entranced by the aesthetic? Yes. I still re-watch Max Headroom. But we have to learn to separate a nostalgia for the aesthetic, and what cyberpunk was actually discussing.

As for Max Headroom, want to know my favorite episode? The election night one, where a channel was manufacturing news in order to get an endorsed candidate to win elected office…

Walls, Drones, and Dreams – Sleep Dealer

Recent events, involving our government’s horrific treatment of families seeking asylum from terror and death in Central America and the placement of children in privately run detention facilities, have made it difficult to do anything but post angry faces on social media, donate to folks willing to help, protest,  and circulate articles about how our borders have become a proxy for the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Running right against this reality was the unreality of the E3 conference, and the release of the Cyberpunk 2077 trailer. When I saw that, my first thought was “Wow. This was the corporate run cyberpunk dystopia we were promised when I was growing up.” The retro-ness of the game had an appeal. I can understand, though, why folk didn’t like it. It’s the way we thought things would be.

Here’s the thing: we are nostalgic for a more obvious, flashy, and stylistic world like that of Night City 2077 because it’s easier for us to get a grip on than the current cyberpunk dystopia we live in. Today, we can’t blame our lack of empathy on too many mods. It’s a constant drumbeat from the administration and their corporate backers, talking about the folks who lived south of the boarder as if they are parasites coming to infest America. As if they are not human.

What happens if it advances, though? If we do get the ‘Murica so many want?

Well, director and writer Alex Rivera crafted a vision of that future back in 2008. A while back, I wrote that we need the punk in cyberpunk now more than ever. We need the questioning of authority. We need cyberpunk’s storytelling to show how this path we’ve chosen can lead us down a very dark road.

Rivera showed the way in his story about life on the other side of a fortified, militarized US-Mexico border. Not only does it ask questions about technology – how it can liberate and enslave us – but also about how we’ve created an illusion about what goes into making America great again, and who does the actual building.

It’s a film called Sleep Dealer.

Memo Cruz lives on a family subsistence farm in Santa Ana Del Rio. During the day, he and his family try and keep the crops growing. He walks with his father to the fortified dam blocking the river water from flowing from the US to Mexico, where they have to pay for every drop they get for their farm. Cash goes into a scanner slot. Water comes out. Everything is commoditized.

When not working, Memo dreams of reaching out to the wider world. He taps into communications systems and listens in from far off places, including the land where dreams come true: The US. Unfortunately, his attempts at outreach get mistaken for hijacking attempts by ecoterrorists. When he, his brother, and his mother are out shopping they see a live edition of “DRONES” – a US program where ‘node pilots’ jack into drones and “blow the Hell out of the bad guys.”

In this case, the drone pilot destroys memo’s house, and kills his father.

Now lacking their dad’s income, Memo heads to Tijuana for work. There he meets Luz, who’s using her cybernetic implants (nodes) to try to sell stories and experiences on the web. She acts as a guide to the node worker community, gets Memo his first set of jacks, and tells him about the sleep dealers.

Sleep dealers are node work factories. There, hundreds of workers jack in and pilot remote construction drones in the US. The node workers provide cheap labor, building the American dream while being forever blockaded from it. In the US, all everyone sees are machines building new skyscrapers or laying new roads. But behind those machines working night and day, there’s a node worker in a Tijuana factory, pumping his nervous system dry.

They work until they collapse. That’s why the factories are called Sleep Dealers.

Meanwhile, in the US, someone is looking into the person whose father was killed by the drone strike – buying his stories via Luz…

I don’t want to give more away. I want folks to experience this film. It’s available on DVD and BluRay. You can also rent it on iTunes and Amazon. Then, tell two other people about the movie, and encourage them to get it as well. It does what good cyberpunk should do – question the status quo. It forces us to think about the people we ask to build our American dream, but refuse to give a part of it. It makes us think about the promises of the US, and who gets to redeem those promises, and at what cost.

And it’s not glossy. There are no pink mohawks. No combat cabs. No Blade Runner cityscapes. It’s all on the ground, and very close to home. If you want to see the cyberpunk dystopia we were promised, and fondly remember, watch the CP 2077 trailer again.

If you want to see the cyberpunk dystopia we’re getting, watch Sleep Dealer.

It Was A Day

It Was A Day

by

Andrija Popovic
(c) 2017 Andrija Popovic

I’d just returned home and downloaded into my standard body when Theta pinged my personal network. “Hey? You centered yet?”

“Gimme a bit. I’m still synching.” My work body, designed for zero-G work, rested comfortably in the wall transfer closet. I shook the pins & needles from my normal form. No prehensile feet and tail on this one. Just a baseline model crafted to match against my original body’s DNA.  I watched the counter on my iris-HUD click over to green. All experiences from work were now synced, and backed-up in off-line memory. “Still feeling a little post-sync crud. Heading to the shower. Join me there?”

“Already have it warm for you.” Thea v.7 was one fork of a SyntheticIntelligence I met at work. She (preferred pronoun) ran predictive micrometeorite tracking and helped keep the orbital free of debris. Most nights, she was syncing with her sisters, matching version numbers and trading the day’s news around this time. I’d come home, we’d talk – she liked low-level processing. Said it felt more thoughtful.

When she dropped by early, she was usually interested in syncing with my nervous system, and playing hologram in my tiny apartment. Stepping into the shower, I felt her request for connectivity. Granting it, I closed my eyes. Water ran down my back, pushing aside the transfer closet’s preservative sludge.  Opening my eyes, I saw her in the shower with me. She manifested as a curvy lady in her mid-40’s with curly dark hair and shimmering koi tattoos running along her back.  We complimented each other well. I leaned in and kissed her, the system pairing tricking my nerves into thinking the projection was real.

“Hey. How’s the family?”

“Well. They’re doing well.” She wrapped her arms around my waist. The shower was barely big enough for myself and her hologram. She glitched slightly against the walls. One day, we’d be able to add another sector to our habitat module. Get a full-sized shower with double the projectors. But, I supposed those are the dreams young transhuman couples have: move in together, get more cloud and physical storage, maybe settle down into something permanent. “The sisters did ask me about something, though. And it lead me to think. I took a work cycle of personal time to help sort this through.”

“Oh? What’s that?” I let the shower hit me with soap and hair jell.

Thea reached up and showed me the palm of her hand. The koi tattoo along her back drifted, swimming up to her palm. When it surfaced, it blew a bubble with a compacted optical scan code embedded in the surface. I decoded it in a blink. It was her root address – the one she shared with all the other instances of herself. But it was too long. It had–

“Is this…oh, Thea, are you sure?”

“Yes.” She took my hand. “Maxi, I’d like to single-instance myself with you. I’d like to be a unique Thea. One that lives with you. If you’ll have me.”

By way of an answer, I reached out and took the code from her hand. My personal network read the address information, and instantly gave it a unique presence in my systems. Thea no longer shared a root system with her systems. She shared it with me.”

“I’d be honored.” I held her against me, enjoying the illusion of her actually being in the shower with me. “Welcome home, Thea v.7.m.” And then I laughed. “So, what next? Furniture shopping together.”

“Maybe. Did I tell you I was looking for datalife friendly bodies? Found a few I liked, but wanted to get your thoughts…” Thea smiled. I closed my eyes, picked through a memory of a particularly interesting kiss from my past, and dubbed her into it. She almost purred.

“Thea, hon, you are always in my thoughts. Now, let me get dried off. We can hop the mesh into one of the monitoring satellites and watch the sun hit the orbital as we talk.” Thea returned the kiss, edited and enhanced, and stepped out of the shower. I had a moment to myself.

Shared networks. It was time. And I’d been thinking of asking her. Now the body, that’s a different commitment. We’d need to slow down a bit, but we had time. As I shut off the shower, and walked over to the wall screens where Thea’s preferred bodies were displayed. Most were starter kits – simple, but a good place for any SI to begin feeling the new world. A year from now, maybe we could afford a more advanced model for her.

What is the one-year anniversary gift for a mixed SI/transhuman relationship? I didn’t know. but I wanted to find out.

(Inspired by a recent viewing of Blade Runner 2049.)

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.