The Outlaw Bodies anthology, co-edited by Lori Selke and the Djibril al-Ayad (of The Future Fire), is now out and available for purchase (available at Lulu.com, Amazon.com, and Amazon.ca [kindle version only]). Please check it out and buy a copy!
I had the honour of writing the “Afterword” for the book, and I can assure you that every story in the collection is engaging, thoughtful, and a pleasure to read. I recently connected with writer Fabio Fernandes and asked him some questions about his short story,"The Remaker," as well as about his thoughts on the future of outlaw bodies.
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K: What does it mean to you to be an “outlaw body?” What is the future of the “outlaw body?”
F: I see an outlaw body as a body free of labels and/or judgments of society. An outlaw body can be something as radical as a modified body (from implants/piercings/tattoos to gender change) or a body that chooses its own way of living (from drug use to abortion - mind you, these examples do not entail anything necessarily extreme or bad). Basically, an outlaw body is a free body.
The future of an outlaw body is its assimilation into the main body of the society as a "normal" (in the Foucaultian sense of the word, for really there is no such things as “normal” and “abnormal,” those being labels used by the society/system/régime in order to exert control on the individuals), even mainstream thing. Among young people today (between 20-30 years old), tattoos and piercing have become quite common, and I wonder what will be an outlaw body twenty years from now.
K: Do you perceive a difference in the way North American SF approaches “outlaw bodies” from South American SF? Is the “centre” the same? Do those on the margins have commonality with one another?
F: Yes, I do perceive a difference. Regarding abortion, for instance, there is a plethora of cases in the US where legalized abortion clinics are attacked and its doctors harmed or even killed (ironically, by religious fanatics who call these doctors babykillers, but THEY can shoot and kill doctors). I never heard of such a thing happening in Latin America, at least in Brazil and Lat Am countries near us, like Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia. There are protests, and abortion is criminalized, fully or partially, in some of these countries. But the outlawing boundaries seem to be more pliant, flexible, even tolerant.
The center seems to be almost the same, perhaps due to globalization, but even before (we should never underestimate the power of "normalization" – mediocrity thrives in the center, and there are mediocre people all over the world. Mediocrity abhors anything that is not deemed normal by the system.
K: Speaking of “the centre” and the “margin,” how do you feel about the term “non-Western SF”" As a commonly used phrase among North American SF reviewers, it clearly keeps authority, or the origin, of SF in the Western world. How do you approach such definitional genre terms? What are your preferences for describing your own writing/your position as a writer?
F: It's really curious, because I am a writer living in the Western world. As I wrote once in a guest post for Jeff VanderMeer, I even qualify as an American - though a South American citizen. But there seems to be a whole lot of issues regarding Latinos. I was recently at a Literature conference here in São Paulo and the keynote speaker was a Professor of Latin American Studies at an university in the USA Midwest. He was speaking of how we see ourselves when living in the US – we accept our position of immigrants and Latinos, but with a grain of salt, because we speak Portuguese, not Spanish, and this is still causes estrangement, both to Brazilians and also to Spanish Latinos. Most of the time Americans don't even know what to make of it. Living as we do in globalization times, I find it really curious that we still must have these labels. Of course there are lots of cultural differences between the SF made in the US and the SF made in the rest of the world, but, as you said (and I agree entirely), currently the Anglo-American sphere, represented by the UK and the US, sets the rules for science fiction. That’s okay to me, because pretty much the same happened to rock'n'roll decades ago...
...but since its inception in the 50s, Brazil also started to present a strong contribution to the scene, which slowly thrived and finally florished in the early 1980s, with a particular rhythm that can be recognized as rock, but has characteristics of Brazilian folk and the Jamaican ska, among others. The same thing can be said about Brazilian SF. During decades we emulated Anglo-American SF, but during the last 20 years or so we slowly emerged as a country that can produce good SF, using the same tropes SF in every corner of the world uses, but giving it a special flavor. I have a sort of schizophrenic approach regarding this: usually I write SF that takes place in Brazil in Portuguese, and when I write in English I use to write about more global themes and scenarios, or even off-Earth. I still find it hard to write in English things that are very Brazilian in essence; I don't want to be labeled as an “exotic” writer, so that's still a thing I must come to terms with.
K: When it comes to keeping up with the pace of technological change – as “The Remaker” partly addresses – how do you see privilege (class/nationality/gender/etc.) come into play?
F: I tried to portray a near future society which everything is subdued a bit – that is, the presence of IAs is as normal a thing as the use of iPhones, because these so-called artificial intelligences are mostly glorified errand boys with voices, so nobody gives a damn if they are really aware or not, as long as they do what their masters paid the corporations that created them to do. A similar thing happens with trans- and metagenders in this story. In fact, São Paulo is one of the most GLBT-friendly cities in the world (our Gay Pride parade is one of the biggest of all, if not the biggest), and there is more acceptance of trans individuals right now than ever in our history, so it’s not a far-fetched thing to extrapolate that a bit to 2026 and think our society will be really accepting and proud of diversity, in class, nationality (we're also receiving a lot of immigrants from Bolivia, Portugal, Haiti and a few from France, Spain and the USA, by the way) and gender.
K: Cyberpunk is clearly one of your generic inspirations in “The Remaker” – what draws/drew you to the subgenre? Many argue that cyberpunk is long-dead, but your story, in my opinion is an example of a current take on the subgenre. How would you classify (post)cyberpunk today?
F: I’ve been considered a steampunk author of late (see The Steampunk Bible, for instance, and a small participation in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Steampunk II), but I was a cyberpunk writer in Brazil since I first read Neuromancer in 1989. So, even though I'm writing in a lot of different subgenres now (I'm just finishing a space opera novella, and I edited a New Weird anthology in Brazil, which has also a story of mine in it), I was always a punk by heart, and a cyberpunk by gut and gusto. I believe we can’t afford not to be post-cyberpunks today, given the current economic situation in the world. Social unrest continues, economic crises abound, and even countries like Brazil, which are far better now than when the Cyberpunk Movement was active, still suffer from a series of maladies (problems in healthcare, education, and drug dealing, to name a few) which should give us enough reasons to think twice before abandoning cyberpunk scenarios and motifs.
K: Lastly, “The Remaker” deals with issues of ownership and authority over creative works. What kind of future do your foresee for copyrights over creative works? Is this an area where science fiction writers can lead the way (I'm thinking of writers like Cory Doctorow)? By opening up creative works for further engagement by others, do we also open up a more inclusive space for marginalized/outlaw bodies to make their own mark? What is your take on the future of copyright?
F: I fervently hope that copyright as we know it today will be dead sometime in the next two or three decades. I don't think Cory Doctorow is making any less money that he would make if he had chosen the traditional copyright path. Besides, a very important thing writers should not forget is that writing is just part of the process. I recommend the beautiful documentary José e Pilar, about the last years of José Saramago. The documentary was as much focused on his relationship with his wife, journalist and translator Pilar del Río, as it is in all his travels to participate in conventions, literary fairs and lectures. This is an important part of the writer’s work, and it probably (I'm thinking now in the lesser known writers, who don't make much money with the royalties of their books) is her/his main source of income. Writers are like musicians: first you create, then you go meet your audience, not only to do book signings, but also to talk to them, about literature, about your work, about whatever the writer feels comfortable to talk about. And earn money with it. I believe this process should be honed so the writer can make more money with this post-writing work, in the very least.
K: Thank you for considering these questions Fabio. Your answers are enlightening and show a hope for the future of outlaw bodies – wherever they may reside. I appreciate your time and effort!
F: Thank you, Kathryn! I loved the questions!
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!]