The last review I wrote was for William Gibson’s Neuromancer, one of the earliest trailblazers of cyberpunk literature. Well, BUSTED SYNAPSES is the newest addition to the canon and I can confidently say this book gives me so much hope for the future of the genre. Where most cyberpunk takes place in massive conurbations of built-up urban sprawl, with towering skyscrapers bathing the city streets in their neon glow, Erica L. Satifka has imagined a near future where the cities have become the sole domain of the 1%. And so Busted Synapses tells the story of Jess and Dale, two working class friends struggling to make ends meet in the small town of Wheeling, rural West Virginia, who become entangled in a corporate conspiracy after they meet a runaway android that decides to whistleblow on the horrors committed by the powerful Solfind Corporation.
What I loved about this story was its focus on the everyday struggles working class people face. Don’t get me wrong, I love old school, adrenaline-pumping cyberpunk action about down-and-out computer hackers and underworld crime rings, but they aren’t always all that relatable, ya know. In Jess and Dale though, we have two main characters you can really understand. They work precarious jobs always under immanent threat of automation, with precious few labour rights and constantly weighed on by the stress of paying off student debt and the prohibitive cost of health insurance. Dale makes a few extra coins by taking part in a virtual reality battle royale simulation, which is ostensibly a kind of recreational video game, but in reality exists for the entertainment of the rich minority and feels very much like a new kind of futuristic gig economy platform job you can take up if you’re struggling to pay the rent.
It also addresses the problem of imminent climate catastrophe, which is gonna be difficult for any modern cyberpunk author to ignore going forward. In the book most of the coastal cities on the Eastern Seaboard have been destroyed by freak storms that killed most of population and displaced the rest, leading the gutted remnants of an overwhelmed neo-liberal government to hand over rescue and reconstruction efforts to Solfind. Honestly this felt very contemporary and very possible. The idea that developed nations will be the last to experience the consequences of climate change has most definitely been put to rest now, after the horrific wildfires we saw recently in Australia and California. And just as in the book, we don’t have to look very far to see how corporations profit from disaster; the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq was largely contracted out to private companies after we bombed it into the ground and here in the UK private companies with no experience of producing medical equipment have been awarded multi-million pound contracts to produce PPE by exploiting corrupt links with government ministers. This is where modern cyberpunk really has the opportunity to grow, by shining a light on the way capitalist economies already function and showing how things might end up if corporate power continues unchecked, and Erica Satifka does this very well.
I do wish the book had been longer though. There were parts of the plot that felt like they unfolded too quickly and some character relationships that I’d like to have seen developed more, which could have made the story hit harder and could have been resolved by having a longer word count. Truth be told though, deep character studies aren’t usually what I’m after when I read cyberpunk, so this wasn’t much of an issue for me, just something to be aware of for those of you who enjoy deep character dives.
Early cyberpunk had inherent criticisms of the corporate dystopias it portrayed (despite the pessimism that any form of collective struggle could overcome them) but as the genre developed it definitely stagnated, becoming more focussed on aesthetics than it was about critiquing the end point of late stage monopoly capitalism. Busted Synapses is the shot in the arm the genre needs. It has that gritty techno-pessimism that’s at the heart of cyberpunk, and it doesn’t offer a rosy picture of the future or indeed offer any solutions, but it has done what modern cyberpunk needs to do in order to have a future, and that’s start critiquing the corporatism of our own society which, in many ways, is manifesting the very dystopia the progenitors of the genre warned us about decades ago. Busted Synapses does that and it makes me very excited that writers like Erica L. Satifka are pulling cyberpunk out of the stagnant ditch it got stuck in for too long. Solidly recommend this book.
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