Editors: Jason Heller and Joshua Viola/ Hex Publishers
Writing future-themed science fiction is hard. You are, after all, predicting the future, which no one can do with any certainty. It is an even larger, and weirder, challenge the closer to “now” that future will be. Early Cyberpunk novels can seem hopelessly incorrect now, too dark in some spots (San Francisco hasn’t fallen into the Bay; multinational corporations haven’t taken over governments…exactly), not dark enough in others (wasn’t police brutality supposed to be equally applied across all racial groups by now? And where are my prosthetic limbs and organs?).
Into this field of not enough/too much comes a new Cyberpunk anthology: Cyber World: Tales of Humanity’s Tomorrow. By and large, the authors face this problem with a combination of throwback references (there are the usual assortment of hard-bitten, take-no-shit detectives fighting street gangs and the bottle) and updated technologies. But even those are problematized as those technologies are no longer fool proof or universal. The cyber-future these authors imagine is more fractured, more prone to disruption either purposeful or accidental. This is also a more diverse and inclusive near-future, with stories set all over the globe, with protagonists of all varieties. Gone are the days of the White Male Hero fighting The Man with his keyboard and designer drugs. In its place is a vision that is more realistic, just as deadly, and utterly fascinating.
Nisi Shawl ( Everfair ) contributes the mind-bending “The Mighty Phin”, about a group of people who have all been downloaded into an AI and are just starting to see the edges and limitations of their new consciousness. Key questions of what is real and what isn’t flow through the story, until by the end, I wasn’t sure if the main character existed at all in the way she was presented.
The Faithful Soldier, Prompted by Saladin Ahmed ( Throne of the Crescent Moon ) is a great short story. It is exactly what I expect from Ahmed, funny but heartbreaking, grounded in a satirical Muslim-American worldview. In the tale, a retired soldier continues to receive directives on his in-eye heads-up-display, sending him from Free Beirut to Old Cairo on a chase that may or may not be after a wild goose. The question is one of faith, in the messages, in Allah, in himself, and how far he’ll go for one more chance.
Alyssa Wong (“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers”, a Nebula and World Fantasy award winner) is a stand out, with a short that is classic cyberpunk: taunt, brutal, bloody, with a gang war raging and secrets downloaded onto a hidden hard drive. This one is full of surprises and twists. Know that this heroine could fill a series of books, and a hundred body bags, and I’d be there for all of it. On the flip side of this story is Serenade by Isabel Yap. It is again classic cyberpunk, starting with an encrypted hard drive and a pile of money, but where it goes is different. What starts as “one quick job” extends into a conversation about family, about connections, and about letting go. This is the heart of a cyberpunk story, one that on the surface is about the tech but quickly comes to be about us.
Two of the stories I read were set on the African continent, a place that older cyberpunk writers seem to forget even exist except as settings for destruction. “Other People’s Thoughts” by Chinelo Onwualu (editor and co-founder of Omenana a quarterly speculative fiction literary magazine specializing in writers from Africa and the Diaspora) is delightfully adult, crossing gender norms fluidly and cultural expectations carefully. Minister Faust (author of all kinds of books and the host of the MF Galaxy podcast) turns in a horror story of environmental repair, in “The Ibex on the Day of Extinction.” As with his other works, drop your expectations when you start reading and enjoy the trip he takes you on.
Lastly is my favorite, “Darkout” by E. Lily Yu. Set in a United States, and indeed a world, that has accepted universal, constant surveillance as if it were simply an extension of Facebook, this one felt the most biting, and landed the closest to home in its commentary on how we use technology and what we give up to go on using it. The characterizations and details were so good I had to fight the urge to make sure my tablet wasn’t taking reality TV footage of me right there.
I blew through these short stories in a sitting. They were great visits from some of my favorite authors and introductions to new ones. I’ve only tagged half of the stories in the anthology here, there’s more from Cat Rambo, Sarah Pinsker, Warren Hammond, and many others. There’s plenty here to keep you entertained, and enough trails to send you off looking for more books and stories from these authors. If cyberpunk is your genre, or if you’re interested in getting the pulse of the genre today, this is a good read.
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