It may seem a little odd to publish a cyberpunk anthology a quarter century after American cyberpunk devolved into an aggregation of simplistic conventions 1. But sub-genres may die in some cultural environments and thrive in others. American 2 cyberpunk may be a shambling zombie (even post-cyberpunk is pretty wheezy), but as 2015’s Cyberpunk: Malaysia proves, in Malaysian hands cyberpunk is alive and well.
This is an anthology of Malaysian Cyberpunk in two senses: the stories were written by Malaysians and they are set in Malaysia. Actually, it’s Malaysian in a third sense, but I will get into that in comments.
Intro by Zen Cho
Cho explains why a cyberpunk anthology before launching into a discussion of the themes of the various stories.
A lot of the themes in this collection are universal, but they are shaped by their Malaysian context.
“Underneath Her Tudung” by Angeline Woon
A medical worker of the future struggles both against the perception that she is a robot (she’s a cyborg) and the misapprehension that because she was created in wartime, her true purpose is violence. On her way to an urgent case, she encounters two losers who believe that, as a woman, she is there for their pleasure and that, as a robot, she’s there to provide …salvage.
You’d think that people convinced all robots are heavily armed kill-bots would think twice about trying to mug one, but oh, well. On the upside, if they are going to convince just one semi-mechanized person that it is worth her time to tear their arms off, it is best to pick one who can stitch the arms back on.
(No arms are actually removed in the course of this story.)
Remember how I said “Actually, it’s Malaysian in a third sense but I will get into that in comments”? The title of this story provides a nice example of the third sense. It is clear that this is a story for Malaysians or at least people with some knowledge of the region, not Westerners who want their overseas SF to come with training wheels. Terms from Bahasa Malaysia and Malaysian English are not explained in the story, any more than a Canadian writing a story for other Canadians would bother to explain what a tuque, a chesterfield, or a donair are. Poorly traveled, insular North Americans must consult Google.
“Codes” by Anna Tan
A teenager’s use of illicit identity switching codes brings her to the attention of a particularly diligent artificial intelligence. Charged with enforcing the state’s laws, the AI perseveres despite the sloth of its human associates and the baffling nature of the evidence it has gathered. It does not reckon with the cunning of a teenage girl.
I think people who have been involved in team projects where they were the only ones doing the heavy lifting will feel sorry for the AI here, even if they don’t agree with the laws the AI is enforcing.
I didn’t see the ending coming.
“Personal” by Sharmilla Ganesan
All Malaysia is paralyzed by the revelation of an unthinkable crime: the theft of a Personal Device, the device that Malaysians use to store their information and document their life. Why, the crime borders on kidnapping! One woman may have a closer connection to the criminal than she consciously suspects.
We learn a little about how the crime looks from the perpetrator’s point of view. The viewpoint is pretty darn creepy: there’s avarice and voyeurism, and … worse.
Personal Devices are essentially souped-up smartphones, used in the monomaniacal fashion with which we are already familiar, but dialed up to eleven. This story is a nice example of the “garbageman world” sub-genre, in which a current social trend is extrapolated to extremes.
One unexpected detail was this timeline’s crime rate:
The most recent criminal case she could recall was that rape in Jerantut a year ago, which had brought the law down in full force onto KL.
KL is Kuala Lumpur and its current population is approaching two million people.
“Attack of the Spambots” by Terence Toh
Assisted by a gung-ho detective/activist, a husband raids the headquarters of a malevolent corporation in hopes of rescuing his wife from a fate worse than death: conversion into a living spambot.
WOW! ENHANCED VIRILITY AND FINANCIAL SUCCESS CAN BE YOURS BY READING ATTACK OF THE SPAMBOTS! RUSSIAN BRIDES ARE STANDING BY!
I had a terrible suspicion reading this that even if the company explained up front what that medical clause in their contracts really meant, they would still get people desperate enough for a paycheque to sign up for the procedure.
“ONE HUNDRED YEARS: Machine” by Rafil Elyas
A fictional non-fiction article explaining how technology married to cutting edge neuroscience brought religious purity to a once debauched nation, by liberating the people from the ravages of free will.
“What The Andromaid Reads at Night” by Ted Mahsun
In a Malaysia where the Secular Police enforce anti-religious laws, one robot’s unexpected exposure to the Qur’an puts itself and its owners in jeopardy. With the Secular Police bearing down on the household, the robot and its owner are forced to chose between avoiding prison and preserving the robot’s damning memories (and with them its unique personality).
I found the juxtaposition of this text with the previous story interesting. Both writers expect the state to engage in severe repression to enforce one belief system. What that belief system IS doesn’t matter so much as conformity.
“KAKAK” by William Tham Wai Liang
What would inspire a robot to abandon its owners and attempt a desperate flight to a dubious haven overseas?
Basically, rich Malaysians treat their servants like crap. Replacing living people (who can be abused with impunity) with thinking machines (who can be destroyed out of spite) does not appear to have improved the character of their employers.
“The Wall That Wasn’t A Wall” by Kris Williamson
Desperate to escape the increasingly oppressive treatment of foreign workers within Malaysia, a maid makes a desperate bid to escape. She must breach the plasma-walls surrounding the nation if she is to reach the comparative safety of Thailand.
The hi-tech defenses in this are there mainly to imprison a population of poorly compensated, rightless workers. If politicians like the USA’s notorious racebaiting Trump were to consider this notion, they would see that a similar system for the US could be very advantageous. At least for employers. All it would take is building the billion-dollar wall to keep migrants OUT, then using it to keep them IN.
I could see how this story had to play out very early on. Unfortunately, the maid couldn’t.
“The Twins” by Adiwijaya Iskandar
A bold commercial venture runs into a roadblock when the two children who are the experimental subjects inexplicably decline to be salvaged for their valuable genetic potential.
“October 11” by Chin Ai-May
A partially mind-wiped man struggles to recover his stolen memories in time to save his family from the literal deadline bearing down on them.
One of the recurring themes in this anthology is that that great and powerful will offhandedly resort to lethal measures without much provocation and will get really pissy when the little people object. It’s nice to know that some things are universal.
“Undercover in Tanah Firdaus” by Tina Isaacs
A bold ploy to plant an undercover operative within a radical political group runs aground on the shoals of “the main reason loyal officers are loyal is that the State goes to great lengths to limit the information to which the officers have access.” It gets worse from there. Well, worse for the state.
On the whole I liked this story of political awakening and gradual radicalization. However, the story would have been much stronger without the superfluous final paragraph.
“Unusual Suspects” by Tariq Kamal
A bold long term plan to circumvent certain limitations to brain-mapping encounters unforeseen difficulties. One of the few survivors of the experiment inexplicably objects to being used as a component in a really lucrative enterprise.
Several of the stories in this collection are thematically grouped. Both this story and the previous one explore the consequences of imbuing people with superhuman powers while simultaneously treating them like shit. Apparently that’s a bad idea.
“The White Mask” by Zedeck Siew
How to get justice for a slain artist when the state is determined to brand the dead person a pariah … and when the artists who have sold out to the state are willing to help.
This could as easily have been titled “how to deal with socially conscious artists by co-opting them into the system.”
“Extracts from DMZINE #13 (January 2115)” by Foo Sek Han
Another fictional non-fiction article about the wonders of life in a city suspended between two factions warring for control of the nation. The city has a certain freedom, but overall, its situation is … not all that great.
I don’t know if this was a deliberate choice on the part of the collection’s editor, but the stories become grimmer towards the end of the anthology.
While these stories are clearly aimed at people familiar with Asia in general and Malaysia in particular (not only is this book sprinkled with Malaysian terms, but it drops casual allusions to such things as China’s Kowloon Walled City) ,the themes of many of the stories, little guys struggling against the Man, are universal. I would not have thought that there was much left to be squeezed out of cyberpunk themes, but these talented writers have proved me wrong.
1: It is often true that the appearance of a roleplaying game based on a particular genre is a sign that that genre has stultified, crystallized down into conventions that can be easily turned into a ruleset. If R. Talsorian’s 1988 Cyberpunk (set in the futurist year 2013) didn’t signal American cyberpunk’s demise, then FASA’s 1989 Shadowrun certainly did.
2: Is there Canadian cyberpunk? I would say NO—and not just because “Canadian SF” is mostly an oxymoron .
3: Most Canadian SF is sold to Americans and consequently must appeal to American tastes and sensibilities if it is to sell. IMHO, there’s no real point to distinguishing between US and Canadian SF, or at least not the Canadian SF published and sold primarily in the US.