This post is part of the State of Cyberpunk series.
I met Garrett Calcaterra at Fog Con, a writer’s convention he was paneling at and where I was working a table in the vendor’s hall. He’d just gotten out of the panel, but he graciously agreed to do an on-the-spot interview with me. Here’s what he had to say about cyberpunk.
The Human Touch
The dystopian elements of the works of Philip K. Dick and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash were what first drew Garrett into the world of cyberpunk. He liked that they weren’t simply remakes of 1984.
“It’s a world of our own making,” Garrett explained, one that was both descriptive and exploratory.
As a long-time author, Garrett appreciates the laboratory-like nature of writing as a medium.
“Writing is a way to balance the entertainment with the explorative aspect of stories,” he said. “Especially science fiction… It’s fun to explore the what-ifs.”
Garrett also pointed out that such writing is an experiment that takes humanity into account as a variable. Writing science fiction, be it cyberpunk or any of the other subgenres, requires that readers consider the problem of tech on a social level. To tell a story, we must necessarily look through the eyes of a protagonist, usually a human one. It naturally draws the attention to how technology affects interactions between people, and society as a whole.
“It lets us test things out at a very human level,” said Garrett.
Cyberpunk in particular plays with that intersection of tech and human relationship in its digital worlds. Garrett believes this is one of the keys elements of the genre as a whole. It’s not enough to assert that these digital and virtual realities exist in the cyberpunk future – their impact must be felt on a societal level.
It’s that digital impact in particular that makes cyberpunk so highly relevant today, Garrett pointed out. The deep interconnectedness brought about through the internet is bringing us quickly into a cyberworld.
People are looking to the genre because they want to know what the ramifications might be. There are an abundance of questions to explore when it comes to any new piece of technology. What are the dangers? How should we think about and deal with surveillance? Who owns the means of production in a digital age, and how are they using that power? The effects of social conditioning through ads alone is still something researchers are working to understand, and the average person scrolls through more a day than ever before in history.
Society has certainly entered a cyber era but, Garrett added, “Whether the punk is still there is debatable.”
Cyberpunk, Not Dystopia
Garrett sees the present age as an exciting time for cyberpunk because the millennial generation has reached a point where they’re ready to tell their own stories.
“They’re the first native generation to the cyberworld,” said Garrett. “What stories will they tell now that the tech is already available to us?”
Just as science-fiction-past has helped to create the tech of the present, Garrett
predicts the new generation of cyberpunk will be formative to our future. He also thinks that this is an opportunity for a fundamental change in the genre as a whole.
Garrett said he hopes to see cyberpunk move away from its dystopian tendencies. Instead, he hopes new authors will not only work to predict new tech, but also to look at the productive ways that tech could be put to use.
“We want tales of warning, like tales of Asimov and his AI,” he pointed out. “But we also want to see cyberpunk move into a direction where we say, ‘how could we make our lives better?’ How could our tech make the underserved lives’ better? Can we turn this world into something closer to a Utopia?”
Garrett’s vision for the future raises the interesting question of whether or not a story is still cyberpunk if it does away with its classic, dystopian elements. It’s an idea that deserves an article in its own right, possibly several. It is, unfortunately, beyond the purview of this write-up, so instead I’ll simply close with this thought: I find the discussion of who’s in and who’s out of a genre’s clubhouse to be generally unproductive. In this case though, I might make an exception.
If cyberpunk is writing the future, then whether or not that future must be fundamentally dystopian is a question not of genre, but of what we believe about the world, ourselves, and our ability to change, before it’s too late.
Thoughts? Leave ‘em in the comments section below, or catch up with me on Twitter at @rachelthebeck.
If you’d like to learn more about Garrett’s work, or his other writings, visit his website at https://www.garrettcalcaterra.com/home or follow him on Twitter at @GCalcaterra .
Garrett Calcaterra is author of the epic fantasy series The Dreamwielder Chronicles. His other books include Dreamrush, The Roads to Baldairn Motte, and Umbral Visions. His short work has appeared in numerous anthologies, speculative-fiction magazines, and literary journals, including Confrontation, Writers’ Journal, Black Gate, Wet Ink, Membrane SF, Arkham Tales, and Fracas: a collection of short friction.
Garrett works as a freelance copywriter in San Francisco and previously taught creative writing at Chapman University and the Orange County School of the Arts. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in applied science from Pacific University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Chapman University. When not writing, he enjoys playing guitar in his band Wheel House, drinking craft beer, and enjoying life with his wife and daughter.
This post is part of the State of Cyberpunk series.
Matthew Cox was twelve when he first discovered William Gibson’s Neuromancer and immediately fell in love with the genre’s vivid imagery and iconic aesthetic. The integration of biology with technology fascinated him and drew him deeper into cyberpunk with its possibilities. His own works, The Harmony Paradox and Virtual Immortality, reflected this mixed paranormal elements with cyberpunk tech.
Then Is Now
As time passed, however, cyberpunk took on a more sinister meaning for Matthew as the evil corporations of dystopian fiction became the reality he saw around him. He pointed to the lurking sense that large and powerful corporations are up to something dangerous and liable to run over anyone who stands in their way as one of the key elements of cyberpunk. In his view, cyberpunk has become largely a replica of what we have today with an added layer of grime, complete with virtual reality, government surveillance, and a host of conspiracy theories.
Matthew pointed out that conspiracy theories in particular play a role in the modern sense of cyberpunk. In cyberpunk, virtual reality often creates a sense of distortion and uncertainty about reality in its users. It’s hard to tell where the real world begins and ends. Matthew noted that with the increase of misinformation adrift on the internet and among news outlets has created a similar effect. The rise of conspiracy theories under such conditions are inevitable and result in a sense of surrealness where people today find it difficult to parse reality from propaganda.
The presence of cyberpunk elements in modern society also makes it harder for creators in the genre to keep up with the trends, Matthew noted.
“There’s a degree of pressure,” he said. “You almost can’t write fast enough.”
Fiction, Not History
Instead of making it an outdated genre, the immediacy of cyberpunk is what makes Matthew believe it is now more necessary than ever. He thinks it helps alert people to the danger of small groups of people controlling vast power structures or resources. He speculates also that cyberpunk is about to make the jump from niche subgenre into the mainstream consciousness.
“A couple of years ago it happened to fantasy,” Matthew said. “I think cyberpunk is about to do the same…it’s gaining a foothold in larger society.”
He also hopes that cyberpunk will serve as a warning to coming generations and help correct some of the problems it depicts.
“We want to write dystopia,” he concluded. “Not history.”
To learn more about Matthew Cox’s work, visit https://curiosityquills.com/authors/matthew-cox/ or catch up with him on Twitter at @Mscox_Fiction.
This blog post is part of the State of Cyberpunk series.
The striking visuals and digital landscapes of cyberspace were what first drew Brian Woodruff to the genre of cyberpunk, through such works as William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Count Zero, as well as the writings of Philip K. Dick. To a young man living in an era of dial up internet, the idea of being able to upload your mind into a computer was the perfect cocktail of fantastic and plausible to excite the imagination. He loved the genre’s capacity for intelligent storytelling and it’s demand that the readers keep up, rather than be hand-held along for the journey.
Brian’s interest in the digital netscape of cyberpunk stories was a sign of things to come. His list of works includes not only books and a graphic novel – he’s also written stories for Virtual Reality (VR) games.
I’ve been curious about how the particular mediums cyberpunk creators use affects the stories they tell, and when I asked Brian about what it was like to work with multiple mediums, he said that he’d found the crossover helpful to his writing holistically. His work translating a story from the medium of a book into an MMORPG when he worked on City of Steam helped him fully separate from the characters he was working with, allowing him to ultimately tell better stories across all mediums. Writing for VR games like Neurowake and Darkout were also learning experiences. Virtual reality games require, first and foremost, a sense of immersion on the part of the player, requiring programmers to take a hard look at the user experience. That detailed-level of perspective taking helped Brian separate himself completely from the characters to focus on just telling a good story.
A Genre That Wrestles With Itself
Digital landscapes and communication across vast spaces weren’t the only draw of cyberpunk for Brian. He also loved that cyberpunk was a genre that wrestled with itself. He observed that stories set in cyberpunk universes tend to build on conflicting worldviews, often with no clear answer at the end. That complexity is what makes cyberpunk so relevant to our modern world.
Brian pointed out that cyberpunk holds a mirror to society, and that makes it an ideal testing ground for opposing ideas and worldviews.
“I like the idea that [in cyberpunk] we can challenge conventions within our own world and try to offer solutions or consequences of them,” he stated.
Cyberpunk offers an ideal testing ground for these ideas because, as Brian pointed out, “We’re getting closer and closer to [cyberpunk] being a reality, if it isn’t here already.”
Hope in the Shadows
Unlike many other creators I’ve spoken to who have expressed similar sentiments with dismay, Brian is optimistic about cyberpunk being a sign of the times.
“A lot of cyberpunk rightly focuses on the lower levels,” he explained, “the unsung heroes on the bottom of society and those living in the shadows. If we can create people who are so miniscule in the grand scale of society, especially in these societies, you have to believe that somewhere in the subculture of cyberpunk, a lot of good is going on.”
In Brian’s view, the silver lining on the gritty chrome of cyberpunk is that it gives hope to people who feel like they’ve hit rock bottom in their lives. If the underdog-protagonists can always find a way to survive, then maybe we as readers can too.
As he looks to the future, Brian hopes people will use cyberpunk, and every other genre, as a space to exercise and enjoy their creativity.
“I hope people use their imagination,” he said. “Go far with it. I want people to go as far as their minds will take them.”
If you’d like to read about Brian and his work, visit his website at http://www.bcwoodruff.com/.
Brian Woodruff is a writer, artist, and video game designer that likes to imagine preposterous realities and manifest them in our own… possibly even more insane world. He loves cats, comics, reading and exploring. His wife, L, puts up with his madness… for reasons beyond his comprehension. Whatever it may be… he is grateful!
I’m friendly! Reach out to me if you like sci-fi, fantasy, creativity, and a dose of the absurd along the way.
This blog post is part of the State of Cyberpunk series.
Fraser Simons has read more cyberpunk than anyone I have ever met or interviewed to date. His introduction to the genre was Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, which has also been made into a popular Netflix show. Drawn by noir-detective feel of the piece, Simons went on to explore a wide range of works within the genre, and eventually, added his own contribution: The Veil, a tabletop RPG designed to give players the tools to build cyberpunk worlds and stories tailored to their interests.
Behind The Veil
Simons built The Veil partially because he wanted a powered-by-the-apocalypse (PbtA) style cyberpunk game, and also because he wanted to craft a game that was literary-driven in nature, proving that cyberpunk wasn’t just its aesthetic. His goal was to help generate interest in cyberpunk that went beyond the genre’s first wave of stories and hook people on later works and lesser known creators. In effect, he is using his own work to amplify the voices of others – an admirable goal that was a recurring theme throughout our conversation.
Beyond the First Wave
To Simons, an essential element of cyberpunk as a genre is that it asks questions about humanity posed through technology, but also primarily does it under a lens of trying to look at the human condition. Themes of resistance and fighting against oppression are key elements, and highly applicable to today’s world, which is part of what drives Simons’ desire to ensure more voices are heard within the genre. “I take issue with people who think that in order to be punk, you have to conform to this dead era,” said Simons, referencing gatekeeping behavior sometimes found among cyberpunk fans who insist only the first wave of cyberpunk is “true cyberpunk”. Instead, Simons believes firmly that the messages and themes of cyberpunk are highly relevant to modern life.
“I want people to realize that there are people still resisting, now and previously,” he stated. “I think it’s problematic that people decided cyberpunk was dead when women and people of color started making it.” He added that cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk as labels only matter when contrasting them to one another. In any other conversation, the attempt to draw a line between them is a moot point.
The Future of Cyberpunk
As cyberpunk gains more and more popularity with highly-publicity works such as Blade Runner 2049 and the Netflix Altered Carbon series, Simons hopes to see an increasing diversity of works among creators. He wants more anthologies with POCs and women showing how good fiction is with an alternate lens, instead of rehashing old territory.
“All of science fiction has only gotten better with time,” Simons said. “We can’t chain ourselves to the first wave by insisting that cyberpunk is only that.”
And his desire to hear and read a wider diversity of perspectives isn’t just a wish for better stories.
“More awareness of the genre will make us more aware of how we are now,” Simons explained. “If people would stop looking at cyberpunk as a niche sub-genre, it would benefit them to understand the world as it is now.”
Given Simons’ extensive reading across the genre, I would have been remiss not to ask him for recommendations at the end of the interview. Here’s a few recommendations he had for people looking to expand their cyberpunk experience beyond the works of Gibson, and Philip K. Dick:
Storming the Reality Studio
Rewired: Post-Cyberpunk Sensibilities
Cyberworld: Tales of Humanity
Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott
The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter
The Summer Prince by Alaya Johnson
Rosewater by Tad Thompson
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
Red Spider White Web by Misha Nogha
He, She, and It by Marge Piercy
Simons is also running a kickstarter right now for a new cyberpunk/climate tabletop game. You can learn more about it, and order your own copy here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/samjokopublishing/hack-the-planet
This blog post is part of the State of Cyberpunk series.
Hamish is best known for his creation of The Sprawl, a tabletop RPG where high-tech low-lives – through cunning, luck, or sheer brute force – make runs against ruthless, powerful corporations and sometimes even survive to tell about it. The Sprawl has a particularly special place in my heart because it, in conjunction with the Shadowrun Returns video game and the first half of Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, was my introduction to cyberpunk and is probably the single largest influence on The Glitch Logs. In light of that, Hamish seemed like the perfect place to start in my survey of cyberpunk creators and I was thrilled when he agreed to an interview.
Mix It Up
Hamish’s introduction to the genre of cyberpunk was a mashup of Shadowrun and William Gibson’s famed Neuromancer. The draw for Hamish into this world of washed-out neon and chrome veneers was how near-future everything seemed. Unlike the hyperdrives, deflector dishes, and other hand-wavy constructs that mark the science fiction genre, cyberpunk stories played out in a world that seemed almost too true to be good. Hamish built The Sprawl out of a desire to play mission-based stories in that almost-realized world again. Other cyberpunk games like Shadowrun existed, but combat took too long and he wanted a system that could deliver a satisfying story in just a couple of hours.
Power of Play
Cyberpunk, like all the punk genres, has always been an exploration of political and social ideologies, and Hamish found it lent itself particular to the medium of TTRPGs.
“I like that people can bring their own concerns to it,” said Hamish.
He pointed out that when you’re reading, you’re on the rails and if the story isn’t exploring an idea you find meaningful, your only option is to put down the book. The beauty of the collaborative conversation of a tabletop RPG, Hamish observed, is that, “You don’t have to wait for someone to write it. You can deal with whatever’s relevant to you now, politically or technologically.”
I made a promise to myself that I would never, throughout the course of these interviews, ask anyone “What is cyberpunk?”, but I was curious to know what touchstones cyberpunk creators looked to when they think of the genre. For Hamish, it’s the aesthetic: neon, chrome, the oppressive darkness of tall towers, and a strong theme of vast, powerful, and uncaring corporations. He added though, that for every element he considers central to cyberpunk, he can think of a counterexample that he still feels belongs in the genre.
It’s that last element, the corporatization, that Hamish thinks makes cyberpunk particularly relevant today.
“We are living in an increasingly corporatized world with increased cybernetic surveillance,” said Hamish. “[Cyberpunk] helps us think through the implications and the ideas involved.”
He pointed to early playtests of The Sprawl as a prime example. “The players always created at least one corporation that was clearly based on a contemporary cable or cell phone company,” he explained. “We all want cable, but the company is also screwing us.”
Hamish also observed that the politics of the 21st century are increasingly corporate-driven, making cyberpunk both a form of catharsis and a sandbox for us to think about the implications of decisions and laws being made in real-time.
“I think people avoid it for that reason,” he added. “If you’re looking for escapism, [cyberpunk] won’t work.”
Looking to the Future
As he looks into the future, Hamish said he hoped he would continue to see creators develop cyberpunk from their own particular angles. He pointed out Fraser Simon’s The Veil, and Kira Magrann’s Resistor as two examples of creators coming at the genre from completely different angles.
“I’ve done what I wanted, which was to emphasize a particular kind of play, and the political corporate fuckery angle of it,” he said. “But obviously I haven’t “solved” cyberpunk.”
He also pointed out that no genre consists of a single work, and so attempts to recreate the exact trappings of a landmark work within a genre miss the point. I found this to be a helpful insight for creators of any genre, as it gives us a lot of space to explore and expand a genre, rather than feeling confined by it. Developing these stories in new directions also helps us avoid the dangerous or harmful corners of already established genres. Every genre has its “origin sins” – problematic tropes or themes from the era of its invention – and it can be tricky to navigate them as creators or even, sometimes, realize they’re there to begin with. Tricky, but not impossible.
As Hamish noted, “If the only thing that makes a genre that genre is its problematic content, then you should ditch that genre.”
It’s a thought that deserves its own post. I’d already taken up an hour of Hamish’s time, so we didn’t have time to unpack that idea, but I was encouraged by Hamish’s perspective on creators and fresh ideas within the genre.
His advice to other creators is this: “If you have a cool game design idea, then build the game. My bookshelf is full of weird and wonderful things I never would have created.”
It was an encouraging sentiment to hear, and one I hope gets repeated often in the years to come.
Hamish Cameron is a writer, game designer and historian raised and trained for adventure in New Zealand and now venturing deep into the wilds of the infamous “New England”. He is best known for The Sprawl (2016), a PbtA game of mission-based cyberpunk action now translated into several languages, including French. He is currently working on Dinosaur Princesses, a game for young roleplayers focused on cooperative problem-solving, and Kratophagia, a game for older roleplayers focused on cannibalism and protean body transformation. He publishes RPGs as Ardens Ludere and board games as part of Cheeky Mountain Parrot Games. You can find him tweeting merrily at @peregrinekiwi and @thesprawl_rpg.