Saturday, August 15, 2015

Cyberpunk: Malaysia edited by Zen Cho

Cyberpunk: Malaysia
Edited by Zen Cho
2015, published by Fixi Novo
330 pages, science fiction, short stories, speculative

 Many thanks to Fixi Novo/ Buku Fixi for providing a review copy of this book. 

I must admit that before picking up this book I hadn't read anything marketed as "cyberpunk." I requested this book because I wanted to read some Malaysian science fiction. From this collection, I got the feeling that "cyberpunk" isn't my favorite sub-genre of SFF. That being said, I did enjoy this collection of short stories set in Malaysia of the future (or alternative present?). A majority made me think, like good speculative fiction should.

There were two (related) things that made this collection difficult for me. First was that the authors tended to assume that the reader knew certain things about Kuala Lumpur or about Malaysian society. My knowledge of Malaysian society is scanty at best, so sometimes I had trouble understanding the references. A bit more description would have been helpful to smooth this out. (Since SFF usually creates an alternative reality, this is an important part of genre storytelling that sometimes felt missing in this anthology. When reading speculative fiction, I shouldn't have to know any background except what the author gives me - which wasn't the case for several of these stories.)

Second, and related to the first, is that in several stories some of the most important lines are spoken in what I assume is Malay. At least, I guess that they're the most important lines. Having no background in the language, I was again left at a loss trying to figure out what they could possibly be saying. I think that this is partially because of Fixi Novo's publishing manifesto:
1. We believe that omputih/gwailoh-speak is a Malaysian language.
5. We will not use italics for non-American/ non-English terms. This is because those words are not foreign to a Malaysian audience.... italics are a form of apology.
While I understand these sentiments (and I applaud the publisher for saying in no uncertain terms that Malaysian words are not inferior to English ones!), it makes it difficult for a non-Malaysian reader to understand.  Perhaps footnotes or endnotes explaining what the words mean would help? Or, since this is a speculative fiction book, the authors could have used the genre's techniques for introducing words from completely new languages. In other words, I totally understand why these Malaysian terms were used, but as a non-Malaysian reader I want to understand the stories too!

That being said, on to the reviews! I'm going to do things a little differently this time and give a short review of each story after the summary, finishing with some statements about the anthology as a whole.

The Stories

A mobile medical unit (MMU), a cybernetic doctor tasked with handling emergencies, finds herself navigating one of the most crowded areas in Genting Jaya, the capital of the Federation of Malaysia. While she mostly appears to be human, her superhuman abilities come out when faced with potential rapists in a dark alley - and when attempting to do her (fiberoptic) hair in the morning. 

My thoughts: This author had an interesting idea, but needed a bit of focus in the storytelling. I would have liked to find out more about this futuristic city, or about this cyborg, or about the political situation... but not just a little bit about each of those. 

In a futuristic Malaysia, young people are given implants to connect them to the internet. But what they have access to is strictly regulated based on an individual's identity. Muslims, for example, cannot buy alcohol or access certain recipes, or see anything relating to sex. Nadia, the muslim daughter of a police inspector, has discovered a way to circumvent these restrictions - by using an identity-changing computer program invented by her cousin's chinese boyfriend. 

My thoughts: This one was interesting from a dystopian, religious censorship angle. Because of the characters' ages and concerns, it seemed to be aimed at a younger audience than the rest of the collection. 

The theft of a personal device (PD) in a place and time where everything is contained in one's PD terrorizes the public of Malaysia. 

My thoughts: Don't get too dependent on your smart phone! Other than that, I didn't get much out of this one. 

  • "Attack of the Spambots" by Terence Toh

When his wife begins acting strangely, Jamal turns to an obscure detective agency for help.

How is his wife acting strangely? Since she began a new job, she has begun saying random phrases in promotion of her company's products, such as: 
Pen sparkling missives and write glorious letters with Kelabu Stationary! We are having a sale where everything is sold at the lowest prices! CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE!
Xing, the woman at the detective agency, tells Jamal the bad news: a corporation has started the process of turning his wife into a spambot! Now they race against time to save her before it becomes permanent.

My thoughts: While some people might find this story silly, I was highly amused by the idea. This is a classic case of an author proposing a scenario and saying what if...? I'm not sure how effective actual human spambots would be, but in the realm of science fiction this is another dystopian option for the end of humanity, which I always appreciate.

  • "One Hundred Years: Machine" by Rafil Elyas

This piece, a conference address by the "Dean of The Religio-Medicine's Faculty" in the year 1539 Hijrah (2076 CE), explores the history of "The Machine," an invention designed to prevent "deviant," i.e. heretical behavior. 

My thoughts: An interesting, terror-inducing description of the ways that a society has "treated" religious disagreement as a mental disorder, by changing the biology of the heretic's brains. Scary, dystopian, and all-too-possible.

  • "What the Andromaid Reads at Night" by Ted Mahsun

Rahimah's trusty andromaid seems to have gotten into trouble - it is joining the increasingly large number of robots that are converting to Islam, something that is forbidden in secular Malaysian society. How can Rahimah protect her servant? 

My thoughts: Good to see the flip side, in which it is secularism that poses a threat to people's (and robot's) freedom! Also a good meditation on the role of religion in the lives of people (or robots) who don't have much freedom of movement. 

The Kakak series of robots were programmed as maids, housekeepers, and nannies for children. One, known as Lakshi, ends up in a warehouse, waiting for illegal transport out of Malaysia to somewhere else. Why? Because her boss at home wants to kill her. So she sought out the organization that is illegally helping robots run away from bad situations in Malaysia. 

My thoughts: Again with the robot maids! I guess this is a fictionalized version of illegal transports trying to return migrants to their homes. Of all the stories about robot maids in this collection, this is probably the most interesting. How does illegal immigration work with robots, and what is the story behind the robot that is running the operation?

Mary Joy, a (human) maid working for a family in Malaysia, wants to run away and return to her home outside of the country. After hearing that there may be a way to escape, she sets off in hope of finding it. 

My thoughts: I'm not sure why this story is in this anthology. Using tablets and skype does not make science fiction. Nor does a creepy president hunting in the jungle.

  • "The Twins" by Adiwijaya Iskandar

Crmiel, one of the Children, has to flee from the forces trying to catch him and help his sister escape the creature that ate her - which is actually a drone sent to capture her. 

My thoughts: This is the sort of science fiction I like! A completely new society, where you have to figure out what's happening and what the relationships between people and groups are. The only thing I could ask for is a bit more information; I want to know more about why these people want to capture the Children and what they think they can do for them. 

A man washes up on the shore of a mosque in Old Kuala Lampur with his credit chips cut out of his wrists, a pounding headache, and no memory of how he got there - except for a date, October 11th. 

My thoughts: Dystopian society, in which the environment has been destroyed by pollution! A man mysteriously appears with evidence that he was thrown out of society for political reasons, and may have worked for the government. What happens next?!

  • "Undercover in Tanah Firdaus" by Tina Isaacs

An emergency meeting is called with CP Badrul and his police cadres after the disappearance of a man who has been doing undercover work in the poor part of the city. Going through the agent's reports, they attempt to figure out what's going on. 

My thoughts: Dystopian vision of class-based segregation, with a secret agent who is swayed by the plight of the poor people. Not an entirely new concept, but very well written and thought provoking in the current political and economic context. 

After years out of service after a neurological injury, Garrett Bryn is back to being his old private investigator self - complete with the ability to run sub-personalities to assist him with his investigations. His first task is to determine the cause of a country-wide computer shutdown, which has not only wiped out three hours of data but has also left the most important corporate officials in the hospital with scrambled brains.

My thoughts: This story is the most like my layman's conception of "cyberpunk." It is also undoubtedly the best story in this anthology. Highly recommended. 

The White Mask, legendary graffiti artist, is dead. This recounts the story from his partner's perspective. 

My thoughts: Brilliant. Not only deals with questions of authority and resistance, but also gender and grief. A must read. Oh, and the technology part was extremely creative too. 

  • "Extracts from DMZine #13 (January 2115)" by Foo Sek Han

In the aftermath of a Malaysian civil war, the people living in the DMZ in the middle of the former Kuala Lumpur begin a magazine to highlight the good parts about the art and culture renaissance that is taking place there.

My thoughts: Extremely creative, and good to point out that even in the midst of war and chaos not everything changes. People will always want to know where to find the best food, or who's making the best new music - even in a destroyed, postapocalyptic city.

Overall Thoughts

As always, this collection of speculative fiction deals with current social and political issues, placed in an ostensibly different context. Before I read this anthology, I knew very little about Malaysian society. Now I think I can make a list of the current hot-topic issues in the country: 
  1. Treatment of servants and concerns about illegal immigration and migrants - hence all of the stories about robot maids
  2. Religion vs. Secularism - hence the varied dystopian versions in which the authorities are either religious fanatics or secular fanatics
  3. Class issues, with fear of corporations that make the rich richer and the poor poorer
You, my readers, will have to tell me if I'm right. 

As you may have guessed, I thought that a majority of these stories were excellent or at least worth reading. It makes me happy to find so many talented speculative fiction writers from Malaysia. I will keep my eyes open for more writing from them, and I hope that we will be seeing more anthologies like this in the near future. Kudos to Zen Cho and Buku Fixi for publishing this anthology. 

Cyberpunk: Malaysia can be purchased from Amazon US, Amazon IN, or from the Publisher's website

Follow Zen Cho on Twitter: @zenaldehyde 

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1 comment:

  1. I would say your summary of hot topic issues in Malaysia is pretty fair.

    Thanks for the review! :)