Can we view book titles as promises? Let's say yes, or the conceit with which I’ve chosen to frame this review will collapse entirely before the end of the second sentence. Cyberpunk: Malaysia, the latest anthology from Malaysian English-language genre imprint Fixi Novo, makes two pretty unambiguous promises about the fourteen stories it contains. As an Englishman who's never been to Malaysia, however, I’m better able to assess the generic pledge than the geographical one.
This is compounded by Fixi Novo's admirably unapologetic attitude towards linguistic variation, which has been mentioned in these pages before, but as we'll be talking about locality a fair bit is worth reiterating: "We will not use italics for. . . words [that] are not foreign to a Malaysian audience. . . italics are a form of apology" (p. 2). This is a direct and necessary challenge to Anglo-American notions of the ownership of English(es), and while the substantial passages of Manglish dialogue in many of the stories certainly don't pander to readers unfamiliar with the variety, there are fewer more elegantly direct ways of establishing setting and character than by having people talk how they should.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, we should probably also establish what we mean by cyberpunk. I've always seen this as a subgenre that's principally defined by its aesthetic. It's one of contrasts: high tech in the hands of lowlifes; gleaming cranial jacks embedded in scabbed-over flesh; neon and grime; rust and chrome. It's about the juxtaposition of extremes, of the earliest of early adopters at the fringes of society, of characters and situations haunting the long tails of the sociotechnological bell curve.
It was something of a surprise then that the early entries here were so adamantly middle class. The characters with jobs are overwhelmingly white-collar workers—bank clerks, teachers, and university deans—and some are quite explicitly the children of privilege:
"Pushing through the crowd brought back a muscle memory, a flashback of wading in the sea. Had I really done that before? Not recently, and not as MMU-Model DN-01152. It had to be Dian.. . . Idealistic Dian, who signed up for the cyborg fleet just so she could get away from her guilt of being born with a silver spoon in her mouth."
(from "Underneath her Tudung," Angeline Woon, pp. 24-5)
The collection's middle-class apotheosis is its second story, Anna Tan's "Codes". The protagonist is Nadia, the daughter of the local police chief, and wealthy enough to have been fitted with some expensive interface hardware. Her less privileged cousin Sheila persuades Nadia to let her tamper with this so they can buy illegal booze, immodest clothes, and surf the unrestricted internet. On the verge of discovery by a police AI, they turn to Sheila's Chinese hacker associate/wannabe boyfriend for help, despite Nadia's disapproval of their relationship dynamics:
"Whatever," Nadia replied, watching with disgust as Kit eyed Shelia lustfully. . . (p. 56)
Under interrogation by the AI, Nadia displays some unsuspected coding chops, and it's revealed in the final paragraph that she's fixed things to pin all the blame Kit while the girls escape scot-free. End.
So on the one hand: Girl Power, woohoo! Shove it to the scummy fuckboys led solely by their baser urges to prey on the inexperienced and naïve. Ladies have to stick together, amirite?
But on the other: Sheila seems perfectly happy in, and capable of dealing with, her relationship with Kit (it's Nadia's disgust, note); before deciding to stitch him up, that single line quoted above is really all the evidence Nadia has that he's in any way a bad 'un (besides his being poorer than her and a hacker—and Chinese); and who exactly is she to take it upon herself to screw things up for two other people whose only tangible crimes are occasionally wanting nicer things and sometimes thinking about getting laid? Woe betide any uppity social climbers who trespass upon paternalistic bourgeoisie morality, seems to be the take-home message here.
I'm not intending to suggest that a focus on the Rising Asian Middle Class (as any number of Western media think-pieces suggest it must be called) is a negative. It's just not cyberpunk as I recognize it, being less about grungy hackers surfing the information superhighway than the intersection of, and interaction between, Malaysian cultural sensibilities and science fiction in general: "Malayfuturism", if you will. Genre is of less significance than the milieu the stories share: an anthology of alternate Malaysian future histories, with the present day as the jonbar hinge.
Things make more sense in this reading. "The Wall That Wasn't a Wall" (Kris Williamson), for example. It's a near-future, sledge-hammer-subtle commentary on the plight of Malaysia's migrant workers in which the state constructs a barrier with the specific intent of keeping cheap labor in. There's a grimly effective irony invoked here, given how much political discourse in the industrialized world currently obsesses about keeping people out, but as cyberpunk it's pointless. The SF trappings are entirely irrelevant: swap out "plasma towers" for "machine gun turrets" and it could have been set any time in the last century. Likewise, "KAKAK" (William Tham Wai Ling) addresses similar ground in a similarly blunt and SFnally spurious manner, giving us the tale of an abused android housemaid. Masters having their way with their servants is an enduring form of abuse, so swap out "androids" for practically any subaltern group you care to name and it could have been set any time in the last few millennia. These stories gain what significance they possess from being Malaysian, not from being SF—from place, not genre.
This often superficial engagement with the genre doesn't mean that the opening stories are bad, exactly. There’s a fine line between "worn-out" and "tried-and-tested" and it is possible to play with these ideas to good effect. Terence Toh's "Attack of the Spambots" shows how it can be done: its cheesy central gag (actual spambots actually attacking actual people) is propped up by some fairly stale tropes, but Toh pitches the tone in exactly the right spot between sincerity and irony, so while the story makes no claim on profundity it's definitely more than the sum of its parts and provoked a couple of genuine LOLs.
Fortunately the later entries in the collection are much stronger than those they follow. The shift is marked by Adiwijaya Iskander's "Twins," the ninth story and the anthology's undoubted highpoint. It's outstanding by any measure, giving us a healthy dose of horror as a robotic bounty hunter and his rivals pursue a pair of bioengineered siblings through jungle ruins described with just enough detail to suggest we should recognize them for what they were. It even, with a final switch into transcendental metaphysics à la Neuromancer or Ghost in the Shell, manages to tick a key box on the cyberpunk checklist. In fact, the later stories are all much more recognizable as such, and having by then accepted the generic metonymy of the title I found this return to tradition a bit surprising. (Again. I'm a fickle beast, I know.)
I don't necessarily think there's a causal link between the more obvious subgenre elements and the step up in quality. The most stereotypically cyberpunk story of the collection―Tariq Kamal's "Unusual Suspects"―is also the most predictable: a maverick cybersecurity expert gets hired by a megacorp to fix a major breach, only to find himself up against a rough-and-ready local collective. What could possibly happen? Setting once again supersedes genre, however, as it's rescued from the routine by the post-colonial reading it demands (Western "expert" versus indigenous hackers), however brusquely it may demand it.
The collection as a whole is pretty in-your-face with its social commentary. I wasn't expecting that, either, given the wonderful lightness of touch the editor generally brings to her own writing. If more of that had rubbed off on the individual stories here it would have been no bad thing. However, while stories such as "October 11" (Chin Ai-May) and "Undercover in Tanah Firdaus" (Tinah Issacs) leave you no doubt as to where your sympathies should lie in the battle of the underclass versus The Man, this sparks the realization that perhaps things have been more cleverly curated than I initially credited. I mean, who really needs to be told that the 1% are arseholes in this day and age?
Well, Nadia of the coding chops, for one. "[T]here is never only one perspective on anything in Malaysia," writes Cho in her introduction (p. 11), and to view this society as homogenous is as inaccurate as it would be for any other. The organization of the stories acts with understated effectiveness to emphasize this; strongly establishing the middle class at the start serves to muddy things up nicely when we later dive into supposedly more familiar "Haves vs. Have Nots" waters, acting against the imposition of a monolithic other by forcing us to consider the variance within and between sociocultural groups.
This variance is directly addressed by the final two stories, which after "Twins" are for my money the best here. Zedeck Siew's "The White Mask" is another satire, in which animate street art of Mahathir Mohamad (Malaysia's longest serving prime minister, with a not uncontroversial civil liberties record) starts murdering graffiti artists. It's a slinky little piece regarding the gaps that inevitably emerge in the process of "development" (economic, societal, individual, take your pick), and those who fall into them. The SF elements are core to both concept and story, and a key character is transgender. It would have been easy, and predictable, to make this person a cyborg or suchlike, in SF’s dubious tradition of further othering already marginalized groups through allegory. Siew, however, avoids lazy metaphor by choosing to spend his generic currency elsewhere, and in doing so he creates a more complex and involving exploration of cultural and personal interstitiality.
"Extracts from DMZINE #13 (January 2115)" by Foo Sek Han rounds the collection out by further exploring the interstitial, though not through character but setting and structure. Presented in the format of a community magazine—replete with feature articles, restaurant listings, and vox pops—based in the demilitarized zone of a divided Kuala Lumpur, its fragmentary nature forces the reader to construct their own narrative from various hints and suggestions that almost but never quite coalesce into a single graspable thread.
You can probably guess where I'm going with this: as the final story, so the entire collection. There are multiple strands for the grasping here, depending on your predilections as a reader. I have, for example, entirely elided in this review the religious aspects overtly addressed by several stories, viewing them as part and parcel of the superordinate themes of power and resistance: you may well disagree. You might also disagree with me when I claim that the quality of the individual stories is less important in a thematic anthology such as this than how they function as a unified, self-contextualizing whole. Maybe half the stories here would be fairly run of the mill if taken in isolation, and while the rest are good (and one is excellent), they all benefit from the conversations that are encouraged between them. I much prefer this approach to anthologizing than the throwing together of a rag-tag collection of parts with a spurious "Best" slapped in the title.
So what of those titular promises? Cyberpunk: Malaysia falls short of the first, but more than fulfills the second. While it doesn't push the boundaries of English language Science Fiction, let alone cyberpunk, forward in any meaningful sense, it does make a significant contribution to pushing them outwards. Or, as the collection itself successfully argues, pulling them in closer to home.
K. Kamo has a master's degree in globalization and teaches in Japan, facts that are more related in theory than in practice. He blogs at this is how she fight start and occasionally tweets. He also regrets not choosing a less abstruse pseudonym.
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