Book Review: Cyberpunk Malaysia

cyberpunk

First published on 24th July, 2015 in The Star

CYBERPUNK MALAYSIA

Edited by Zen Cho

Publisher: Fixi NOVO

CYBERPUNK? What’s that?” That’s the question that usually follows once customers at the bookstore I work at stops oohing and ahhing over this collection’s silver foil cover. Not many Malaysians I know can define “cyberpunk”. Of those who can, a number probably have stories in this collection.

Cyberpunk, in case you’re wondering, is a subgenre of science fiction. With science fiction one tends to think “Robots! Spaceships! Star Trek!” – you get the idea. But cyberpunk?

My understanding of the genre is that the stories are set in a future, technologically-advanced Earth that’s experiencing social upheaval. In any case, the cyberpunk characters should be anti-establishment rebels (with our without causes), ever-ready to pull the wool over the eyes of authority.

Also, a cyberpunk story, in my opinion, must deal with problems that have arisen as a result of the society’s use/misuse of technology, whether on a large or personal scale. It’s not about taking the same old issues and simply adding a few cyborgs and an ocular implant or two. That’s just window dressing.

For example, in the story Kakak, by William Tham Wai Liang, there is nothing cyberpunk about the sexual abuse of an android maid. The problem here – a horny employer – is as old as time.

Also, what’s with the maid supposedly having a limited vocabulary and yet coming out with a line like, “This is why humans write letters, because they represent an approximation if their unexpressed thoughts and emotions”. Yes. Quite.

I get the feeling that editor Zen Cho was on a tight deadline, or she would have surely caught such a glaring inconsistency in characterisation. Also, most of the stories read like the authors had run out of ideas, stamina, desire or time to develop them fully. Cho could have probably helped improve on these tales, but I’m guessing that, once again, there wasn’t time.

Sharmilla Ganesan’s Personal, for instance, leaves too many questions unanswered. I like the author’s examination of a hyperconnected society and the personal isolation it cultivates. Sure, it’s already happening now, but Sharmilla does a good job of envisioning current technology and trends taken to logical extremes. However, the story lacks direction, its focus shifting too abruptly in the final scene, the end coming too suddenly. Somehow, I don’t think this one worked out as planned. In fact, there was probably no plan involved.

The opening story, Underneath Her Tudung, is another exercise in aimless writing. I do like the characters though, but you can’t build a story on cute banter.

What the Andromaid Reads at Night by Ted Mahsun is less pointless, but not as interesting as I think it could be. Scientific extremism by another name might be something quite familiar, but the idea of AI being captivated by religious text is intriguing. Alas, it is not explored and instead, the author goes all sentimental on us. This is most certainly a case of missed opportunity.

Don’t you hate it when the science distracts from the fiction? White Mask’s brilliantly simple premise avoids that common pitfall, yet, with its smartpaint-wielding rebel graffiti artists, satisfies even the most pedantic cyberpunk reader. This one, by Zedeck Siew, is one of my favourite stories in the collection. The others are The Twins by Adiwijaya Iskandar and Extracts from DMZINE # 13 by Foo Sek Han.

The Twins is just superbly written. The blend of futuristic elements and human sentiment is perfect; the world building is subtle and convincing; and I love the ideas – the politics, the social structure, the cultural clues. The pace of the whole thing is breathtaking – sharp and smart, this is a shot-in-the-arm kind of story that should really have been chosen to kick off the collection.

DMZINE # 13, however, is the right story to close Cyberpunk. Structured like a zine, its various entries serve as pieces that need to be clicked in place to reveal the world they each hint at. This one requires work and you want to take your time with it. Like all the best stories, the reader gets to make what he will of the information the writer provides. Fiction is, after all, the best kind of interactive technology.

One last shout out: Science fiction tends to take itself a little too seriously, and so, Terence Toh’s Attack of the Spambots is a welcome bit of fluff in this collection. Aside from its wonderfully cheesy, sexy silliness, it’s also tightly plotted and the swiftly paced. And, come on, one of its main characters is a leather-clad, gun-toting, kick-ass female vigilante. What’s not to love, right? Well, it kept me entertained at very least, which was not the case for stories like The Wall That Wasn’t a Wall, October 11 and Undercover in Tanah Firdaus, all of which I struggled to finish. They all dragged – in some cases weighed down by over-exposition; in others, by colourless characters that made no impression whatsoever. (Even a derisive snort is a better reaction than no reaction at all.)

So, not the best short story collection I’ve read, but still my favourite mixed-collection by Fixi NOVO. Let’s just say the good stories make up for the not so good ones, and I’m excited to see what the authors come up with next, especially Adiwijaya Iskandar and Zedeck Siew.

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