Presentations will be released here on this website during the week of the conference. Please click the timetable for an overview of when each presentation is going to have its q&a via Discord. Registered participants will be informed via mail and announcements made on twitter. For the Thursday program, please click here. For your convenience, here are the abstracts of the announced presentations:
§18: Esko Suoranta – Pants Scientists and Bona Fide Cyber Ninjas: Tracing the Poetics of Cyberpunk Menswear
Fashion has always been an instrumental part of the cyberpunk aesthetic. From the shades on the cover of “Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology” to the “style over substance” maxim of the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG, and the leather-clad heroes of The Matrix, the archetypal cyberpunk character has a distinct look that is by and large shared in the collective imagination. However, another vein of cyberpunk fashion emerges when influences are traced beyond this archetypal image. In the twenty-first century, certain technical menswear is characterized by a cyberpunk poetics of functionality, high-tech materials, and alternate lifestyles such clothing implies. That discourse has, in turn, found its way back into cyberpunk culture objects like games and literature. In my presentation for the 2020 Cyberpunk Culture conference, I argue that the influences of fashion on fiction and vice versa have exceeded the leather-chrome-neon paradigm originating from the 1980s. Drawing from sources as diverse as the Deus Ex video game franchise, Tim Maughan’s and William Gibson’s contemporary fiction and tweets, the Estonian computer-RPG Disco Elysium, and the brand discourses of select purveyors of menswear, I showcase some of the less obvious ways in which cyberpunk continues to inform fashion-design and counter-cultural performativity today. In so doing, both actual and fictional cyberpunk fashions can be seen to participate in a defamiliarization of our moment of contemporary capitalism.
Published in 2012, Chen Qiufan’s near-future science fiction story “The Flower of Shazui” focuses on a former engineer living as a fugitive in a fictional village in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, a place where people turn to various literal and metaphorical “placebos” in order to feel in control of their lives. Feeling drawn to a high-class sex worker called Snow Lotus, who is being abused by her husband, the protagonist tries to protect her with a scheme based on technological subterfuge and psychological manipulation; however, the plan does not succeed as hoped, but rather ends in tragedy. In my paper, I will analyze how characters in “The Flower of Shazui” utilize strategies of surveillance and deception while attempting to further their goals, and how these attempts are ultimately thwarted by forces beyond their control. Based on this, I argue that “The Flower of Shazui” offers a cynical interpretation of the cyberpunk hacker-hero, questioning the individual’s ability to maintain their agency in a capitalist and patriarchal system. Drawing from Cara Healey’s concept of generic hybridity, I also argue that the story combines cyberpunk with elements of Chinese critical realism (such as the figure of the enlightened loner and the use of women’s oppression as a commentary on the state of the nation) in order to present a critical evaluation of Chinese society in the age of globalization, while simultaneously remaining ambiguous on potential strategies for enacting change.
Joanna Kavenna’s latest novel, Zed (2019)—exploring our digitally entangled lives—, is a good example of how the literary subgenre of cyberpunk has successfully reinvented itself into the twenty-first century and into what some authors have called ‘Transmodernity’ (Rodríguez Magda 1989). Transmodernity has been said to be “the realm of simulation, of the simulation that knows itself real” (2017). Along the same lines, Sherryl Vint defines the contemporary cultural moment as “one in which the material and the simulated are intertwined” (2010: 229). Therefore, it is my hypothesis that a Transmodern approach to a contemporary cyberpunk novel is especially suitable to analyze the representations of a fictional world in which virtual interactions have shaped reality.
Zed offers a satirical and dark-humorous look at determinism in the age of digital age and mega-corporations. However, and in tune with the Transmodern literature of the last decades, ethics and personal accountability have special relevance in the text. As the analysis will show, in the near-future and dystopic Britain presented in Zed, state-controlling technological devices and algorithms are not represented as sterile and dehumanised apparatus, but rather as ideologically charged, or perhaps we should say ‘humanly biased’. Technology has become ‘visceral’ in the sense that it is sometimes too human(esque) to tolerate or to function correcly. In this human-technological symbiosis, new things are emerging, as suggested by perhaps the most innovative element in Kavenna’s narrative: the author manages to convey the content of virtual technology onto the form of her writing, by introducing the Bespoke Beetlespeak language. This artificial robot-like language might seem contradictory at first, but, from a Transmodern perspective, this paradoxical coding becomes a tool to transcend the constrains of Cartesian thinking; it proclaims a change of paradigm in the realm of thought.
- Rodríguez Magda, Rosa María. 1989. La sonrisa de Saturno: Hacia una teoría transmoderna. Barcelona: Anthropos.
- Rodríguez Magda, Rosa María. 2017. “Transmodernity: A New Paradigm”. Transl. Jessica Aliaga-Lavrijsen. http://transmodern-theory.blogspot.com
- Kavenna, Joanna. 2019. Zed. London: Faber& Faber.
- Murphy, Graham J. and Sherryl Vint. 2010. Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives. New York: Routledge.
§21: Carmen Mendez Garcia – “The (Cyber) Center Cannot Hold”: Futures, Bodies and Minds in William Gibson’s The Peripheral
Unlike most post-apocalyptic texts, William Gibson’s latest novel The Peripheral (2014) ultimately offers a surprisingly optimistic view of the relation of future to past and employer to worker. Set in two different future times, the first of which part of is the second’s past, a so-called “singularity” temporarily allows both time-lines to interact, but not reciprocally. The future can talk and listen to, but not physically manipulate, their past, while inhabitants of their past, projecting their minds into the peripherals and inhabiting them, can physically interact with their future. The control of the bodies of the future by the minds of the past promises to be of benefit to both. The former can benefit from mental capabilities (knowledge, information and skills) of the characters in the past, while the use of the peripherals allows the latter both the exhilarating opportunity of escaping their own limited bodies and a hefty financial reward. The novel questions two binary sets. Firstly, it addresses the mind/body duality, forcing us to reconsider the Cartesian cogito, and questions of dependence and/or equilibrium in the relation of mind and body. Secondly, in its use of the term “peripheral,” the novel questions traditional representations of political and economic centers and margins. If, privileging wealth and technological development, we define the 2100s future as center and the 2030s future as periphery, we can argue that the dwellers in the periphery are invited to inhabit/embody the center but their bodies are not at significant risk, and hence are not exploited to the extent usually found in representations of postcolonial subjects. Also, due to the non-reciprocal interaction of the two spaces, the periphery in the novel is given notable agency, and ends up being empowered by the center, with the technology and knowledge that it will need to avoid the apocalypse.
In the 1980ies Cyberpunk authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan were drafting future worlds in order to reflect the merging of humankind and technology. By doing so they also raised questions about what this progressing symbiosis might implicate for society, identity, culture and politics. In my contribution I would like to draw a connection between the worlds portrayed by the Cyberpunk authors and the central thoughts of media theorists which were concerned with the same questions from an academic perspective. The focus will be set on the concepts of simulation and hyperreality by Jean Baudrillard and the extension of men through technology by Marshall McLuhan. In Cyberpunk literature the ultimate expression of the unification of technology and human beings is the virtual world of the cyberspace which is entered through an interface connection between the human brain and computer. The so entered matrix of data does not only offer a new realm of pace and information that is freed from the boundaries of the human body but also a “medium for the meeting of our minds” (Pat Cadigan, Mindplayers). By reading Cyberpunk with Baudrillard and McLuhan it becomes possible to show that Cyberpunk can be understood as a fictionalization of media theoretical concepts. But it also becomes clear that Cyberpunk authors did not only fictionalize existing concepts but extended them. By doing so they not only introduced media theoretical concepts to a broader audience but also influenced the academic and public discourses regarding the changing relationship of body, technology and mind through the impact of new technologies. Therefore I suggest that Cyberpunk Science Fiction literature can also be read as a form of theory.
§23: Anna Oleszczuk – The Art of Queerness: Visual Encodings of Non-normative Gender in Cyberpunk Comics
Similar to other media, for the majority of the last century comics relied on the perpetuation of unrealistic and stereotypical portrayals of gender, underrepresentation of women and minorities, and distorted representations of cultural and social lives. However, the 21st century saw an increase in the utilization of the potential of comics to conceptualize and introduce the quality of being different from the heterosexist cultural standard with a significant and ever-growing number of characters disrupting the patriarchy or even existing outside the gender binary altogether. This paper discusses the visual encodings of non-normative gender identities within the selected comics and seeks to establish them within the aesthetic of gendered desirability that deviates from what is considered a social norm in Western cultures. First, it introduces gender as a social construct that involves an intricate web of performative acts which are partially dependent on and shaped by other relevant categories such as sex, race, class, ethnicity, and dimensions of life existing in the various social contexts. It focuses especially on the concept of queerness understood as a non-normativity and its relation to the medium of comics as well as a cultural formation of cyberpunk. This is accomplished by illustrating the diversity of non-normative genders and contextualizing them using selected examples from comics history focusing especially on these which go beyond the traditional view of gender roles and intersect with cyberpunk futures. The final part of the paper relates the theories and practices of queerness to the visualities from post-2000 cyberpunk comics.
The criticism of the early cyberpunk texts mirrores that currently often directed at mainstream video games both of which tend to be accused of being misogynist and classist, representing the perspective of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, and cisgender man (Lavigne 2013, Todd 2015). The feminist cyberpunk turn starting in the 1990s allowed for the shift in the popular themes and broadened the borders of the genre to encompass the marginalized identities and draw attention to, among others, queer rights. Even though “[r]umor has it that cyberpunk is dead” (Cadora 1995, 257), currently the genre enjoys a new popularity in video game medium: with the steady appearances of the new independent titles and the ambitious project by CD Project, Cyberpunk 2077, being scheduled for September 2020. It can be argued that the technological development of the recent decade allowed video games, a medium which no longer can be describe as new, to mature and begin to experiment with genres that in other media have already passed their peak popularity. The paper will consider how video games utilize cyberpunk to explore the otherwise marginalized identities through the principles of the inclusive design and programing. The analysis will concentrate on two independent games: 2064: Read Only Memories (MidBoss 2015) and The Red Strings Club (Deconstructeam 2018), both of which reject notion that there is little room for queer explorations in hard-boiled noir cyberpunk stories.
Present day cyberliterature has inherited the aesthetics of cyberpunk fiction, the experimentations of avant-garde poetry -visual, concrete and Oulipo-and the philosophies of posthumanism, transhumanism, hacktivism, cyberfeminism and xenofeminism. Cyber authors express the cyborgization of our bodies and language, and how our emotions are affected by the experience of hyperreality in online communication. In this conference electronic literature works will be analyzed paying attention to how artists use metaphors and code to reproduce the posthuman condition in which machines make literature like in the generative Oulipoems by Millie Niss and Martha Deed and in Nanette Wylde’s Storyland. Also, there will be a study on those works in which, on the contrary, humans become machines like in Machine Libertine’s Memory (2012) in which a female robot –a Clock runner- tries to connect present with past emotions and Dora García’s The Sphynx in which another female robot asks questions to the readers about gender issues.
Cyberpunk is conventionally considered a dystopian genre. But, as Tom Moylan has argued, there is a sharp difference between dystopias of resignation—which capitulate to the logics of neoliberalism—and critical dystopias, which “adopt a militant stance that is informed and empowered by a utopian horizon that appears in the text”. Such texts seek to overcome dystopia, find a way beyond it, and transform the present moment towards utopia. Furthermore, cyberpunk is a genre deeply rooted in urban experience, recalling both the dense neon-soaked streets of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and the hyperreal, fragmented urban spectacle that appears in the works of Jean Baudrillard and Frederic Jameson. Yet, such spectacle is not necessarily synonymous with dystopia. As feminist geographer Elizabeth Wilson writes, “the excitement of city life cannot be preserved if all conflict is eliminated […] life in the great city offers the potential for greater freedom and diversity than life in small communities. This is particularly important for women.” Wilson’s vision of the city calls for a radical embrace of “the freedom and autonomy they offer”, while making such freedom “available to all classes and groups.” This paper will read Emma Bull’s Bone Dance (1991) and Naolo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), both texts that work within the genre of cyberpunk, through the critical lens of Moylan and Wilson. Both authors recognise the contradictions of the city, a space often built upon exclusion and inequality that can simultaneously incubate surprising political alliances and glimpses of utopia. My analysis will focus specifically on two passages, the opening of Hopkinson’s text and the ending of Bull’s, which take the conventions of the cyberpunk city and locate within it the potential for a non-hierarchical, diverse and utopian vision of the city that “shimmers just beyond” their pages.
  Tom Moylan, Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000), 196.
  Elizabeth Wilson, The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women (London: Virago Press, 1991), 156.
§27: Adam Edwards – “So, you wanna be a Cyberpunk?” How Tabletop RPGs Provoke Storytelling in Their Players
Within the past five years, Tabletop Role Playing Games (TTRPGs) have returned to the public eye from their previous late-80s heyday (e.g. TSR, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Second Edition, 1989), in no small part due to the successes of streamed and recorded ‘actual play’ shows like Critical Role. These broadcasts thrive on the popularity of their storytelling techniques, and represent an incredible variety of genres, tones, and techniques. The freedom in storytelling of TTRPGs remains their greatest strength, and the collective creation and play they encourage is a commonly analysed aspect in critical responses, such as those by Jennifer Grouling and Nathan Shank. The rising popularity of these shows is further matched by the frequency with which TTRPGs cross design paths with videogames, with the Shadowrunand Cyberpunk 2077 franchises being long running and high profile examples respectively; this has led to an increasingly coherent understanding of how player creativity might be fostered as these genres’ similarities can then be analysed through a variety of perspectives. With a focus on Cyberpunk works due to Cyberpunk 2077 and the Altered Carbon RPG’s upcoming releases, this paper will analyse the types of story-telling Cyberpunk TTRPGs encourage in their player-base, looking at the techniques used in system rulebooks and campaign supplements to direct free-play. In so doing, it also assesses what aspects of the near future players are encouraged to explore and on what terms; this builds upon Joseph Laycock’s discussion of what broad experience TTRPGs can provide players in their personal lives by considering how TTRPG creators lay the foundations for play. In this light, the proposed paper establishes the importance of sharing storytelling responsibility with an active audience.
Pat Cadigan belongs to the first generation of cyberpunk writers from the 1980s. She was the only woman to have a story included in Bruce Sterling’s 1986 Mirrorshades anthology, which initially defined the cyberpunk movement. Cadigan’s work, like that of her male peers, is concerned with questions of boundaries between the physical and the virtual, and between human and machine intelligence, under conditions of advanced technology developed by governments and large corporations. She is especially concerned with how physical embodiment plays out in virtual environments; her feminist approach to this issue is perhaps what differentiates her most sharply from her male colleagues. In any case, Cadigan’s recent short story “AI and the Trolley Problem” approaches all these questions from a new angle. This title refers, of course, to an (in)famous thought experiment in analytic philosophy. A trolley is running down a track, out of control. It will hit and kill three people who are stuck on the track. The only way to stop this is to pull a switch sending the trolley to another track: the three people will be saved, but another innocent person will be killed instead. What is the ethical thing to do in this situation? Philosophers have argued about this dilemma for years; the problem has also been attacked, on grounds that it is reductive and artificial. Cadigan’s story gives a new perspective to this dispute, by intertwining it with questions about both artificial intelligence and military strategy. In this talk, I will discuss how Cadigan shifts the very ground of the philosophical dispute. And I will use this example to approach the larger question of how science fictional thought experiments differ from philosophical ones.
“The Machine Stops,” E. M. Forster’s masterful science fiction novella from 1909, has long been lauded for its prescient descriptions of electronic communication technology. The story takes on new significance in the context of a scholarly examination of cyberpunk culture and of the contemporary world’s fitful journey out of pandemic-imposed lockdown. Forster’s narrative hinges on a future humanity’s radically changed relationship to the body. He imagines a world where technological advancement and environmental necessity have caused people to isolate themselves in underground cells, communicating with each other via videotelephony and relying on a giant machine to fulfill their every need. Vashti, the story’s protagonist, is a “swaddled lump of flesh” who busily keeps up with thousands of friends from the comfort of her room while nursing a concomitant terror of direct experience. Vashti’s body is a forward echo of the cyberpunk body. Cyberpunk heroes find freedom and fulfillment in the virtual realm. They view their flesh as a prison, their bodies mere meat. Meanwhile, in the real world of 2020, as pandemic sweeps the globe, those with privilege have donned cyberpunk bodies, abandoning the hazards of meatspace in favor of cyberspace. This prospective paper is organized into three sections: an exploration of the status of the body in “The Machine Stops,” a comparative analysis with characterizations of the body in Neuromancer and other major works of cyberpunk literature, and a discussion of the consequences for our unprecedented current moment.
The arrival of Cyberpunk 2077 this year has many gamers –– young and old –– anticipating the full-fledged digital realization of Mike Pondsmith’s influential tabletop role-playing game (TRPG) Cyberpunk 2020 (1988/1990). It is not an overstatement to say this TRPG mechanically and aesthetically framed all subsequent game adaptations of the cyberpunk subgenre, including the Shadowrun and Deus Ex franchises. Lesser known, however, is the highly specific genealogy of Cyberpunk 2020 outside of its obvious filmic and literary foundations. Pondsmith has given much credit for his original game-mechanical ideas to Marc Miller and his space-faring hard sci-fi TRPG Traveller (1977), with the Cyberpunk Interlock™ system owing much to iterations of Pondsmith’s early anime mecha fighting TRPG Mekton (1984). Just as cyberpunk emerged from a faction in New Wave sci-fi, so too did the breadth of cyberpunk game patterns emerge from a curious confluence of space exploration and mecha combat, coupled with Pondsmith’s own background as an African American steeped in child psychology, the US military, and the American West Coast tech sector.
James Conway’s Game of Life (GoL) is a mathematical and digital procedure for generating complex patterns out of simple rules iterated over time. Its remarkable influence in fields from the complexity sciences to game design over the last half century gives us insight into the role of digital spatio-temporality as a kind of empty game board for computational processes. Prefiguring the visions of “cyberspace” typified by William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the GoL’s construction offers insights from the early cyberculture of the 1960s and 1970s. In this video presentation, we will demonstrate both analog and digital versions of the Game of Life for the viewers. Using the tools of science and technology studies (STS) and game studies, we ask what the GoL is and how to trace its influence on key concepts in cyberculture. To what extent is the GoL actually a game, and to what extent has it been treated as (or does it operate as) a model or simulation? We argue that the distinction between the GoL as a model and as a game has more to do with the ways that the algorithms for generating and populating cyberspace are deployed, and where agency is placed with respect to the algorithm. We also look at primary source material to trace the ways that playfulness, metaphoricity, and the rhetorical positioning of the GoL’s moves contribute to its perceived ‘liveliness.’ Cyberpunk expresses the experience of late capital as an inescapable system that nevertheless must somehow be escaped. The “punk” in cyberpunk attempts to imagine forms of life under the continual threat of containment and foreclosure. In this sense, it is perhaps the absence of agency in the GoL that makes it an early cyberpunk narrative. Where can life flourish within Conway’s Game of Life, and who or what is being gamed?
Fashion is important to the genre of cyberpunk, as a genre concerned with clothing, commodity, and personal style. As a subset of science fiction fashion, clothing in cyberpunk situates the posthuman in clothing, accessories, and wearable technologies. In this presentation, I will outline the influences between cyberpunk texts and textiles in street fashion and club fashion as well as the ways fashion designers take up cyberpunk themes in the highly commoditized world of haute couture. The texts I’m considering are not costumes designed for cyberpunk movies or descriptions of clothing in cyberpunk novels and stories, but rather the ways this genre has influenced and been influenced by actual clothing design and punk bricolage practice. This tension between street style and commercial fashion reflects the narrative tension between corporate control and marginalized subcultures central to many cyberpunk stories. Looking at fashions which reflect or create cyberpunk worldbuilding, I argue that fashion itself is a speculative practice: a future-oriented, constantly shifting set of speculative assumptions about the future of social expression and posthuman embodiment. This emphasis on futurity allows fashion to serve as a science-fictional space for exploring the contradictions inherent in commodity-driven hyper-modernity.