After months of planning and preparation, I am totally stoked to announce my next project: co-editing (with the amazing Djibril al-Ayad) a volume of dis/ability themed speculative fiction, Accessing the Future. I've been dreaming of this project for years now, so it's quite exciting to see it come to reality...well almost. We are fundraising on Indiegogo, so please visit our page and snap up one of the many great perks. We've already received a promising first reaction from our campaign supporters and allies, so we're confident that this campaign will be a success. Please help us cross the finish line and make Accessing the Future the next hit SF anthology! Visit our Indiegogo campaign to donate & get cool stuff, and help boost the signal over Twitter, and like our Facebook page. Awesome!
We are raising funds to publish a special anthology of dis/ability-themed speculative fiction, Accessing the Future, co-edited by Kathryn Allan (me!) and Djibril al-Ayad, to be published by Futurefire.net Publishing. Futurefire.net Publishing is the publisher of both The Future Fire magazine of social-political speculative fiction, and of two previous anthologies, Outlaw Bodies (2012, co-edited by Lori Selke) and We See a Different Frontier (2013, co-edited by Fabio Fernandes). Djibril al-Ayad, a historian and futurist, co-edited both volumes and has edited TFF since 2005.
This anthology will call for and publish speculative fiction stories that interrogate issues of dis/ability—along with the intersecting nodes of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class—in both the imagined physical and virtual spaces of the future. We want people of all abilities to see themselves, as they are now and as they want to be, in our collective human future.
The Anthology Details
Inspired by the cyberpunk and feminist science fiction of yesterday and the DIY, open access, and hacktivist culture of today, Accessing the Future will be an anthology that explores the future potentials of technology to augment and challenge the physical environment and the human form—in all of its wonderful and complex diversity.
We are particularly interested in stories that interrogate issues of dis/ability—and the intersecting nodes of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class—in both physical and virtual spaces. Dis/ability is a social construct, and all bodies do not fit into or navigate the material environment in the same way(s). Personal and institutional bias against disability marginalizes and makes “deviant” people with certain differences, but it doesn't have to be that way.
We want to ask:
- How will humanity modify the future world?
- What kinds of new spaces will there be to explore and inhabit? Who will have access to these spaces and in what ways?
- Given that we all already rely on (technological) tools to make our lives easier, what kinds of assistive and adaptive technologies will we use in the future?
- How will augmentations (from the prosthetic to the genetic) erase or exacerbate existing differences in ability, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and race?
- What does an accessible future look like?
Accessing the Future will be a collection of speculative fiction that places emphasis on the social, political, and material realms of being. We aren’t looking for stories of “cure,” that depict people with disabilities (or with other in/visible differences) as “extra special,” as inspirations for the able bodied, or that generally reproduce today’s dominant reductionist viewpoints of dis/ability as a fixed identity and a problem to be solved. We want stories that place emphasis on intersectional narratives (rejection of, undoing, and speaking against ableist, heteronormative, racist, cissexist, and classist constructions) and that are informed by an understanding of dis/ability issues and politics at individual and institutional levels. We want to hear from writers that think critically about how prosthetic technologies, new virtual and physical environments, and genetic modifications will impact human bodies, our communities, and the planet.
As a way to follow up my earlier post, “On the Margins, Cyberpunk Lives!” I want to write a series of posts that highlight the recent/current novels that I read as recuperating cyberpunk (and feminist) tropes. For the first in this series, I will turn to one of the texts that I studied for my doctoral thesis: Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000). For this particular post, I have borrowed some bits from my thesis, while adding new critical comments and examples. I have been careful to avoid spoilers – and this is not a book review per se – so if what I write about the novel intrigues you, I highly recommend reading it for yourself. So, without further preamble, let’s proceed:
Nalo Hopkinson’s literary oeuvre to date crosses the genres of SF, fantasy, and horror. Hopkinson has written the multiple award-winning Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), Skin Folk (2001), The Salt Roads (2003), and The New Moon's Arms (2007). She is also an editor of the excellent literary collections, Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (2000), Mojo: Conjure Stories (2003) and So Long Been Dreaming (2004). Of all her works, Midnight Robber is the novel that most fully embodies the feminist post-cyberpunk sensibility that I believe is alive and well today. At first glance, the casual reader may question the categorization of Midnight Robber as an inheritor of cyberpunk SF, as a good half of the novel (or more) is set in the landscape of New Half-Way Tree, a wild place more reminiscent of Tolkien than Sterling. However, when I first read Midnight Robber, William Gibson’s iconic Neuromancer (1984) was still fresh in my mind. Hopkinson’s depiction of an all black-world (in fact, an all black consortium of worlds, established and protected by the Marryshow Corporation) echoed, to me, a new and improved version of the cliché filled Rastafarian Babylon of Gibson’s universe. While the Jamaican Rastafarians in Neuromancer are characterized as poor, marginalized hacker outlaws, the black society in Midnight Robber is fully technological, organized, moneyed, and in control.
Midnight Robber’s internal narrative of the alien world New Half-Way Tree, which appears to recall earlier feminist utopias and fantasy motifs, amplifies the surrounding section of the story that takes place on the fully-wired Toussaint. Through the voice of an AI (Granny Nanny) and the world of Toussaint, Hopkinson provides a pronounced cyberpunk exploration of technology, artificial intelligence, and human ingenuity. Through nanomites in their blood streams, people in Midnight Robber literally embody the technology that both protects and restrains them. Everyone on Toussaint (and in the other worlds controlled by the Marryshow Corporation) is connected to Granny Nanny and continuously monitored for their health and safety (as such, privacy becomes the most sought after commodity). I read the disjuncture between Toussaint and New Half-Way Tree as Hopkinson’s reimagining of the way in which conventional cyberpunk fragments space. Similar to traditional cyberpunk, where the unaltered body is forced to exist in “meatspace,” Hopkinson uses New Half-Way Tree as a site where the altered posthuman returns to the human (people are forced to survive using only their physical bodies as they are no longer connected to Granny Nanny). Throughout the text, Hopkinson is ultimately concerned with the impact of technology – in particular those that transform human labour practices such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and nano-technology – in daily life.
The key element, in my assessment, that distinguishes Midnight Robber as a feminist post-cyberpunk text is Hopkinson’s attention to issues of race and colonization in terms of the reproduction of bodies and subjectivities in technologically (dis)located spaces (whether in cyberspace or across a transdimensional veil). In addition to addressing the relationship between technology and the body, Hopkinson goes further in wondering what those future bodies may look like and how they will be treated. Through the character of Tan-Tan, Hopkinson exposes the reader to the best and worst of Toussaint and New Half-Way Tree. Straddling the worlds of technology (Toussaint) and unadulterated nature (New Half-Way Tree), Tan-Tan becomes a contested site of the posthuman. In a genre traditionally inhabited by mostly white bodies, Midnight Robber rejects normative images of racialized others and proposes new diasporic communities of belonging. Hopkinson plays with the image of the cyberspace cowboy, exchanging the lone white male hacker of Gibson’s cyberpunk for a black female child displaced in the wilds of an alien planet. Like the cyberspace cowboy, however, this young girl becomes a physical node between technology and humanity. People of colour are not on the side-lines of the narrative, nor are they fetishized (like the Voudon figures throughout Gibson’s Sprawl series), in Hopkinson’s narrative. Instead, Hopkinson creates three-dimensional characters that both contradict and support one another – there are no easy stereotypes to fall back on Midnight Robber.
Like the cyberpunk (and feminist) writers that came before, Hopkinson boldly explores the depths of societal attachment to technology and the ways in which technology continues to redefine human society and its interaction with the natural world. As a feminist post-cyberpunk novel, Midnight Robber exemplifies the search for a balance between the technological and the natural, the corporation and the private citizen, the automated and the human. Cyberpunk is not dead here; it just lives in different bodies.
I know that genre categorization pieces can be annoying, but I think that the argument about cyberpunk and its (dis)continued existence as an identifiable SF subgenre reflects feminist fandom concern around “gender in genre.” Time and again, I come across people, mostly male writers, reducing cyberpunk to a specific aesthetic that passed out of fashion with the rest of the 1990s. At the most recent WorldCon in Reno this past August, I attended a panel where one of the panelists repeatedly declared that cyberpunk = noir. This simple reduction does not categorize the cyberpunk subgenre adequately in any context. By relying on one aesthetic element to define cyberpunk, the genre is robbed of its rich and engaging thematic components: the relationship between technology and the body, the globalization of the marketplace, and the DIY attitude to urban survival, to name a few. By putting aesthetic at the forefront (as exemplified by a handful of mostly straight, white North American male writers), the past and continuing contributions of women and people of colour to cyberpunk are either elided or denigrated as passé. While the original progenitors of cyberpunk are done with the genre, there are a good many writers – particularly women, people of colour, and non-Western world writers – still addressing and regenerating core cyberpunk themes.
In the iconic preface to the Mirrorshades Anthology, Bruce Sterling ventured that cyberpunk captures the moment in time where the institutions in power are losing their control over technology and that the cyberpunks were the first generation to live in a “truly science-fictional world” (344). While Sterling may have overstated the radical elements of cyberpunk, he was right in suggesting that cyberpunk creatively tapped into the cultural moment when the world was becoming “wired” – through advanced telecommunications networks, globalization, and international corporate conglomerates – for the first time. For fans of the subgenre, cyberpunk navigates cyberspace (and other advanced technologies that impact the body and spatial relationships to embodiment) with a postmodern aesthetic (non-linear and multiple narratives, fractured constructions of time and space) that embraces a punk, anarchist, DIY attitude towards technology and power. By tapping into the anxieties over the pace of technological change, cyberpunk combined the technophilia of conventional SF with a sense of postmodern global malaise and a growing concern over what constitutes identity (as a citizen and as a human being).
While it seems that the majority of voices in fandom lean towards the “cyberpunk is dead” angle, there is also the popular position that cyberpunk has not disappeared, but has merely been transmuted into further generations of the subgenre and dispersed among SF as yet another trope. I argue that both the aesthetic and thematic elements of cyberpunk, along with some of its material aspects – in terms of fashion, music, and drugs – while no longer depicted in mainstream SF, continue to exist in rave and hacker subcultures in the US, in former Eastern block countries and developing nations in South America, Africa and Asia [Japan is a notable exception here, as its cyberpunk movement grew up alongside the American one and still continues on today – this is a whole topic for another discussion]. For example, buzz has building around a young aspiring SF writer from Ghana, Jonathan Dotse, who has unabashedly seized cyberpunk as his SF subgenre of choice. While cyberpunk-like anxieties about the body, technology, capitalism, and power may not be at the forefront of the North American cultural imagination right now, people living in non-Western countries currently experiencing wide-spread internet access and increased pressures to compete – or just survive – in the global marketplace are feeling the same dislocations and challenges to their national and personal identities.
In addition to non-Western writers taking up the themes and aesthetics of cyberpunk in their work, feminist SF writers in North America and the UK have been playing with and re-writing cyberpunk narratives. Since the 1970s, feminist SF has posed difficult questions about what it means “to be human” and sketched out the cultural limitations of gendered bodies. In today’s feminist SF, there is a deepened focus on racialized characters (and writers), as the body’s relationship to technology continues to be a central concern. Women have taken centre stage in writing and representing themselves in (post-)cyberpunk. Novels like Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, Tricia Sullivan’s Maul, and Laura J. Mixon’s Proxies emerge out of and extend the subgenres of both feminist SF and cyberpunk. The new cyberpunk-inspired narratives advance progressive political projects – such as inclusive human rights for all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and class. Specifically, issues of race and gender are at the forefront, as writers turn a critical eye to the role of technology in evolving our relationships to our racialized and gendered bodies.
As feminist SF developed into the 1980s and the 1990s, more and more of its writers began incorporating substantial technological themes and tropes from cyberpunk, developing into what I like to call “feminist post-cyberpunk.” I do believe that both subgenres contribute to this latest generation of SF, as it explores the relationship between technology and the body in a globalized world. Perhaps one of the reasons that the term feminist post-cyberpunk SF has not been coined by anyone else (aside from it being unfashionably long), is that cyberpunk is often critiqued as deeply heteronormative, masculine, and seemingly incompatible with feminism. Several academic SF critics, most notably Jenny Wolmark and Nicola Nixon, have pointed out the hesitancy of cyberpunk’s progenitors to acknowledge the contributions of women and early feminist SF to the development of the subgenre. Apparently, an acknowledgement of feminist SF might take away some of the acclaimed “cyberspace cowboy” bravado and supposed radicalness of cyberpunk. In most discussions of cyberpunk, Pat Cadigan is the only woman mentioned, despite a number of other women, such as Misha and Marge Piercy, writing in the subgenre. In current conversations about (post-)cyberpunk, the same absence of women still persists.
Given the general unpopularity of feminist politics – in both fandom and society at large – it is not really a surprise that few novels are marketed as both feminist and cyberpunk (Tricia Sullivan’s Maul is one of the few books I’ve seen openly marketed as “feminist cyberpunk”). Other non-Western writers, regardless of gender, take a risk in branding themselves as cyberpunk practitioners: in a subgenre decried dead and buried by many, they might inadvertently find their novels dismissed as imitative and “quaint,” rather than as progressive political and cultural reflections of current reality. Just once would I like to enter into a discussion about cyberpunk and hear about the variety of writers – feminist and otherwise – working within the subgenre today (and not only those who did twenty plus years ago). The argument that cyberpunk is merely an aesthetic or an out-dated trope keeps the subgenre closed in and protected for a select group of people (who are generally straight, white, and male). The refusal to acknowledge the continuation of cyberpunk past the time of its original writers is a way of excluding those people who have been and are overlooked in SF. On the margins, amongst feminists, and in the areas of the world undergoing their own technological revolutions, cyberpunk is alive and well.
[Do to time and mental energy constraints, I have only mentioned a few current writers who are still working within the realm of cyberpunk today, but there are certainly many more out there (especially in languages that I cannot personally read). Please leave recommendations in the comments!]
If there was a novel that I regretted not taking up during my time in graduate school, it is Misha's Red Spider White Web. It is a book that has haunted me since I read it two summers ago. Not only is the cover art amazing, the narrative itself is just chock-full of thought-provoking material. I was really happy to come across the new SF Mistressworks blog that aims to gather together reviews of feminist SF in order to better advertise the fact that, yes, women write awesome SF. Seeing an open call for submissions, I finally had my chance to write about Red Spider White Web. My review follows:
There is something profoundly disturbing – and, as equally, compelling – about Misha’s post-apocalyptic vision of the world in Red Spider White Web (1990). The novel is unrelenting in its bleak characterization of future humanity, but fascinating in its direct interrogation of race, technology, and the value of art. Whereas non-white characters are often assigned the supporting roles in conventional cyberpunk, Misha places her Aboriginal-others at the centre of the narrative. Red Spider White Web is a tale of the future told from the point of view of people whose history lives only in museums and on genetically-engineered farming colonies.
In his “Pseudo-Introduction” to the 1999 reprint of Red Spider White Web, John Shirley argues that Misha’s name should appear next to his on any list of seminal cyberpunk writers. He writes: “Misha’s particular interfacing of the artist-character with the streetscene with the cyborgian meat-transcendence revelation, her operatic evocation, her bold juxtapositions, her strangely feminine toughness, her barbed-wire poetic content, and most of the all the sense of an underlying metaphysical reality in Red Spider White Web – well shit, it was just plain ahead of its time.” The novel draws on the sub-genres of horror, cyberpunk, and feminist SF, but it is more frenetic, more darkly prophetic, and stranger than any clear-cut genre designation allows.
Two intertwining narratives in Red Spider White Web tell a story of desperate survival in a world fallen apart and the longing for beauty and real human contact. The primary character in the novel is Kumo, a holo-artist who scrapes out a living working in the artists’ market, waiting among the other discarded people for a “rich suit” to buy her work. The other narrative is that of Tommy, a mad ex-agent/preacher/junk collector, whose disjointed musings open the book and set up its dark visual imagery: “His circuit is a skull juggler. He’s a factory guard who stalks the silent chemical night. Eye guard transluscent aquariums of red agar. This. This is rehabrehabrehab ilit tation. Watch out!” From the book’s first sentences, Misha’s writing warns the reader that this is no breezy Sunday reading. While the prose verges on being poetically unintelligible at times – a reflection of the disarray and insanity of the world it describes – the majority of Red Spider White Web is captivating slang-thrown dialogue and keen images of a rotting city and its disenfranchised citizens.
The plot revolves around Kumo, as she navigates a cityscape full of gangs, cannibals, “zombies,” and groups of well-armed rich kids who prey on the poor and vulnerable for fun. Someone is killing the artists in her community, but with dogged determination, Kumo survives her surroundings and keeps making her holo-art. Misha’s world-building does not leave much room for hope: people must shield themselves from UV radiation, they eat synthetic food, contract 15-minute viruses, slap on drug patches, and wallow in perversion. Misha does not give into transhumanist nostalgia or the typical cyberpunk trope of transcendence. Kumo and Tommy are ultimately alone and all too human beneath their masks of metal and cloned-leather.
While Red Spider White Web might not make for ideal bedtime-reading, it is a novel worth attention from anyone who reads SF and understands the inherently critical nature of the genre. Misha’s savage world speaks to fears of those already left behind – the rich get richer and the poor get eaten. It is a vision of a world that must not come to be. I’ve wanted to write about Red Spider White Web for a long time. It has taken two years for me to revisit it. A good story stays with you and Misha’s Red Spider White Web refuses to leave easily.