Books Review

Review – Proxy – A Cyberpunk Anthology

Ever since its first appearance as a subgenre in the 80s, cyberpunk and its “high tech, low life” theme and aesthetics have been in a continuous, decades-long struggle to prove its relevance as a genre. In all fairness, cyberpunk is as 80s as 80s can get: headache-inducing neon lights, roaring flying cars, smog-ridden cities bending under the weight of overpopulation, the dilemma of what it means to be alive when crime runs rampant, turning people feral. Cybernetic worlds rendering the physical, rotten world obsolete and robots proclaiming their humanity when people don’t know how to be human anymore.

Image by Pixabay

Cyberpunk is, in the eyes of its critics, a dated approach of what the future could be – the future seen through the eyes of the 80s, which has no place in the 2010s. It’s merely an aesthetic, so they say, blue-and-lilac lights obscured by smoke, when the “now” needs to see the future through the… well, through the “now”.

And that’s why every single cyberpunk work that comes out nowadays has to speak for something bigger than itself: it’s not just about creating an ornate, intricate world, it’s not just about deep, interesting characters, it’s not just about a good narrative. It’s about proving that the subgenre is still relevant. That its core meaning – to tell the stories of the underdogs, to creating deep socially-critical pieces about what’s wrong with humanity – speaks louder than what people want to give it credit for.

And here’s where Proxy comes in: Proxy proves a plethora of things – all of them bigger than itself.

Proxy – A Cyberpunk Anthology

Proxy is a 2016 anthology organized by Anton Stark and published by Editorial Divergência. It’s composed by six stories by six different authors, all of them familiar faces in the Portuguese speculative fiction sphere and known enthusiasts of the genre.

But Proxy isn’t just a cyberpunk anthology – it’s THE Portuguese cyberpunk anthology. The first and, up until now, the only one. And it’s an exercise on the reaches of cyberpunk: with setups ranging from gang-ruled android metropoles, pristine cities with a dark underside to Black Mirror-like societies ruled by music devices.

No one can argue a “lack of diversity in literary and stylistic voices” as a flaw in Proxy: after reading it, you can not only get the gist of what cyberpunk is, but beyond that – you can see what Portuguese cyberpunk is. And Portuguese cyberpunk, as imagined by the talented Portuguese creative minds, is very damn good.

And because each story is set in its own distinct world or reality, allow me to go through each one very briefly.

Deuses como nós (Gods like us) by Vítor Frazão

Image by Pixabay

This is the story of Cleo Maltez. an antique shop owner in the poor side of a bustling metropole. Gods like us throws us into this world where humanity conquered immortality – or rather, rich people did. Poor people live in the lower levels, fueled by drugs, violence and the vain hope of one day defeating death too.

Until Cleo is called by the CEO of the company that sells immortality to help him investigate the biggest threat that looms over him. And Cleo will do it – for a price.

This is classic cyberpunk, Neuromancer style stuff. The underdog’s story, led by a protagonist without an inclination for the “greater good” – just a nobody from the rough side of town trying to have a better life. And like in Neuromancer’s case, our Cleo doesn’t give a damn about working for a shady rich guy – as long as she’s payed and left alone.

But there’s more to this story than it meets the eye, and we can unveil some of the deeper sides of this world gone wrong. We start with an ode to the classics – and one that does not disappoint.

Modulação Ascendente (Ascendant Modulation) by Júlia Durand

Image by Pixabay

For Ascendant Modulation, we dive into a hyper-corporate world in which work is all that matters. And as such, technology evolved to allow for high-productivity, high-intensity work. One of these new gadgets is an audio device that allows the user to control all the sounds in their lives: from creating a soundtrack according to their moods to muting people they don’t want to hear.

Irissa holds a high office in the company she works at, and is a person who plays by the rules. Until she finds herself in a dire situation, and she has to learn that sometimes, some things are only illegal – if you get caught.

The interesting aspect of this story is not just the grey morality aspect of it – the lawful player being corrupted by an unfair world, yet justifying her transgressions to herself (and the reader) in a very convincing way. There’s also the fact that the story revolves around this audio device – which makes sense given the author is a musicologist, and is by itself a testament to how fiction can be enriched by people with distinct areas of expertise. It’s nuanced, psychological and deeply human.

Pecado da Carne (The Sin of the Flesh ) by Carlos Silva

Image by Pixabay

Do you like disturbing, absolutely disconcerting stuff? Then do I have good news for you.
In The Sin of the Flesh, the world was devastated by a disease that eradicated most of the human species and destroyed society as we know it – so it was rebuilt by the only entities with resources to do so in the wake of such a disaster: the private healthcare companies.

And when in one of the new cities, the management detects anomalies with the population’s health, Kali, a former health delegate, is woken from her cryogenic sleep to investigate – and unveil the unseen side of a seemingly perfect city.

Let’s not dance around the subject: sci-fi is, to its core, deeply political. From the most mainstream to the deepest underground sci-fi stories, you’ll very rarely – if not ever – find a piece that is apolitical, free from some sort of evaluation of ourselves.

And The Sin of  the Flesh is, unapologetically, a piece that forces us to face our sins (get it?). It’s ruthless and spot-on with its critique without being preachy, which is a delicate balance to achieve. If you want to be punched in the gut, this is it – just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Y+T by Marta Silva

Image by Pixabay

Y+T is a stylistic experience – a fragmented story, but not an incoherent one: it’s told by the perspective of t, a factory worker, and it follows her and her friend y’s story. They live in this place under a dome, where every day feels the same – until y joins this cult-like group that wants to know what’s beyond the dome. And that’s when things go wrong.

Reading it is like trying to open a corrupted file. Like trying to listen to a faulty recording of someone who’s desperately trying not to forget the story they’re telling – even though their memory is already failing them. The result is intense, claustrophobic, but leaving us with a bitter taste- like if something’s off.

It’s a fresh new kind of disturbing – but a welcome one.

Alma Mater by José Pedro Castro

Image by Kaique Rocha

In Alma Mater, we’re brought to cyberpunk Lisbon: decadent yet full of life, controlled by gangs of modified humans and androids. And in this world, we follow Sanjay, a gang member, Arvam, a runaway android, and Maria, an elderly bookshop owner – and how their paths cross.

It was a bold choice to include three POVs in a short story – some parts definitely felt a bit rushed for the sake of plot progress, but I can’t say the risk didn’t pay off: the cyberpunk Lisbon was wonderfully achieved, melding Portuguese imagery with the very distinct aspects of the subgenre, and the three main characters were full of potential – I just wish we could’ve spent a little more time with them.

Bastet by Mário de Seabra Coelho

Image by Maurício Mascaro

Beatrice, Klaas, Lope e Kyu are a group of mercenaries in a hyper technological world who, like good old cyberpunk protagonists, will take any job that pays well. This is the story of one of their gigs, in short.

For a cyberpunk story that highlighted numerous interesting tech advancements, the tone was technophobic at times: even when talking about harmless stuff like body mods. The critique wasn’t woven in but crammed into the story, which stopped it in its tracks to give way to the author’s opinions on why that thing is bad.

It’s a story with potential, and an interesting worldbuilding exercise: but the protagonists lack a bit of uniqueness / personality and are merely archetypes, the critique doesn’t tie in with the story, and the whole narrative seems rushed. It definitely has value but, in my opinion, it’s the weakest of the bunch.

Image by Pixabay

All in all, Proxy is an extremely important addition to Portuguese sci-fi: it brings cyberpunk forward, and bringing it some relevance, both in the present and in the public eye. More than a work of undoubted passion, this anthology is a work of literary merit. It’s the first Portuguese cyberpunk anthology, and until now, the only one: but I’m an optimist.

It won’t be the last we’ve seen of Portuguese cyberpunk.

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