Author Interview: Erica L. Satifka


Hi Erica, thanks so much for doing the interview! First of all, congrats on the release of your new book, Busted Synapses. How has it been writing a new book in the hellscape that is 2020?

Despite the book’s similarity to current events, I actually wrote this book a few years before the pandemic. However, it’s definitely affected the book’s release. I had all these plans of readings I could go to and local-ish cons I could attend when the book (which had been in the works for a while) came out, and of course none of it happened. I’m still planning to maybe do a reading or two if/when the pandemic runs its course. Maybe I’ll even have something new out then. Here’s hoping, anyway.

So I’m actually doing a month long celebration of all things cyberpunk at Parsecs & Parchment at the mo. Can you give your own take on what cyberpunk is and why it interests you?

Near-future science fiction that’s concerned with how technological advances sharpen the division between social classes, which tends to focus on outsiders, hackers, and other people who don’t fit into the overarching culture. As someone who’s a bit of an outsider who’s also very pessimistic about the ability of science to improve our lives, it definitely struck a chord. I didn’t really get into science fiction until high school, and cyberpunk (and other modern stuff in general) until even later so I’ve never had the idea that SF/F needed to have uncomplicated, heroic protagonists. That’s pretty boring, actually.

I just finished reading Busted Synapses and thoroughly enjoyed it. What can readers expect going into the story? Give us the elevator pitch every author dreads.

Like the kingdoms of old, cities and the elites inside them have walled themselves off from the peasants, regular people like you and me. Jess Nowicki tried to stay but was kicked out of paradise and into a dead-end job at a call center in her hometown of Wheeling, WV. Resentful, she watches as her friends and family use maladaptive coping devices, including her childhood friend Dale Carter, who makes his living by running drug-fueled gaming competition for the amusement of the neo-aristocracy. When one of the androids who helped reduce the working class to poverty shows up, Jess is even more resentful, worried what little she has will be taken away. But the New Woman’s arrival opens up a small doorway to breaking down the current society, if only Jess, Dale, and the others can figure out how to do it.

What I really liked about the book was how grounded it felt. It’s a world of androids, virtual reality and omnipotent corporations, but the characters struggle with a lot of the same things people struggle with today, like working precarious jobs and worrying about paying the bills. Was that something you consciously set out to write?

Almost all of my characters are working class, because I find normal people much more interesting to write about. The protagonist of my last book, Stay Crazy, worked as a stocker at a Walmart-type store (a job I’ve also done), and the fragile nature of her employment added a stake to the book that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Not only did she have to save the world, she had to do it without getting fired. In Busted Synapses, I focused on the gig economy, because it’s where we’re heading as a society, which is even more true now than when I wrote the first draft in 2017. Basically, a shitty job both provides inherent conflict and lets me inject a lot of politics into my work in a very direct way. (Plus, most of my own jobs have been entry-level or otherwise “menial,” and we write what we know.)

Climate catastrophe also plays a big role in the book, with large parts of the Eastern Seaboard being destroyed by freak storms. Do you think the immanent settings of cyberpunk stories mean that modern writers in the genre are gonna have to pay more attention to climate change? 

Absolutely. Climate change is here, it’s happening, and any book set in a vaguely realistic near future that doesn’t include it as part of the background is as anachronistic as old-timey planetary romances where people could breathe on Mars without spacesuits. We’re not remotely prepared for what’s going to happen as the result of climate change. There could be tens of millions of climate refugees, food shortages, the end of long-distance travel. I’m an anti-alarmist and generally think people freak out too much about things, but when it comes to climate change we’re not freaking out enough.

You have a very unapologetically left wing Twitter presence, which I appreciate a lot. You’ve also said elsewhere you’re a bit of a pessimist (also very cyberpunk). How do you think ‘The Left’ needs to organise irl to prevent the out-of-control capitalist dystopias that cyberpunk depicts. Or do you think we’re already too late to win?

I’d like to believe it isn’t too late, but most signs point to that. California just passed a law ensuring gig workers have no rights going forward. The United States has an incoming president who says he’ll return things to normal, as if millions living on the street, tens of millions without healthcare, and lead-lined water pipes are peachy keen. I think the Left can only win if we start advocating for real economic policies in terms everyone can understand, and then we actually have to go outside the bubble – show people equality isn’t an elitist concept. The end result of hyper-polarization isn’t a world anyone wants to live in, yet refusing to talk to your family members who voted for Trump is treated as a virtue. That absolutely needs to stop if the Left is going to win any real material gains. 

Do you have any favourite cyberpunk books and recommendations for people looking to explore the genre?

Of course there’s the classics: William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Jeff Noon, Pat Cadigan, etc. Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy” that begins with Virtual Light is my favorite of his work that I’ve read, which focuses (especially the first one) on a diverse cast of street-dwellers squatting on the Bay Bridge. Philip K. Dick, whose work is kind of a cyberpunk precursor, has been my favorite author since I discovered him right after college, and had his own kind-of rural cyberpunk novel in Dr. Bloodmoney, one of his most underrated works. And I’m not sure if it qualifies as cyberpunk, but I read a highly unique dystopian novel last year called A Short Film About Disappointment (by Joshua Mattson). It’s told via a series of film reviews, through which you learn how the Internet was reduced to bare bones after a hacker takes down the world economy.

And finally, do you have any other story ideas you’re working on right now? Plans for future books or juicy teasers you can give to readers?

I think of Busted Synapses as the first in a series, and I’d like to write a lot more in this world, short stories and longer pieces both, if enough people show interest in my plucky workers of 2020s Appalachia. I’m also finishing up edits on a short novel set in the world of my story “The Big So-So” (originally published in Interzone), a sort-of comedy about a terrible band who fights global ennui caused by aliens. It’s probably a good thing these two worlds are so different from each other, since it keeps me from mixing them up! I’m also working on some stories for unannounced anthology projects.

Thanks so much Erica, and good luck with the book 🙂

Thank you for having me on!

You can follow Erica on Twitter at @ericasatifka. Her novella, Busted Synapses, is available now from Broken Eye Books. If you enjoyed this post why not follow the blog for more interviews, reviews and bookish chat?

Review: BUSTED SYNAPSES by Erica L. Satifka

Book Reviews

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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Cyberpunk SciFi Month is ready for lift off!


Yesss, I’ve been looking forward to SciFi Month for weeks! As much as I love Halloween and all things spooky season, science fiction is my one true love and I’m strapped in and ready for lift off. Though in all likelihood most of my reading won’t involve much interstellar travel or interaction with alien species, and that’s because I’ll be exclusively reading books set in the near future corporate dystopias of cyberpunk!

What is cyberpunk, you may ask? Well, I’ll be doing a full introduction post before any reviews or discussion posts appear, so if you’re unfamiliar with the genre then don’t fear, I’ve got you covered! But for a very quick and dirty overview, cyberpunk stories are generally set in the very near future where corporations have become more powerful than governments and tend to have settings featuring high levels of economic and cultural displacement, inequality and social unrest. Artificial intelligence, transhumanism and virtual reality feature quite heavily. Think Bladerunner or Ghost in the Shell as some of the most famous representations of cyberpunk in film and you’ll have a good idea of what the genre entails.

I don’t really do plans or set-in-stone TBRs, but I do have a well of potential books I’ll be drawing from, as well as a bunch of short stories, comics and films I might watch and talk about. As far as books go, a non-exhaustive list of some of what I might be reading includes:

So these are a mixture of classic and newer cyberpunk. Neuromancer is actually one of my fave books of all time and I reread it every few years, while Repo Virtual and Busted Synapses are very new. There’s an interesting dichotomy between classic and newer stuff in the genre because a lot of the stuff being written in the 80s was still very much science fiction, whereas now, the internet, biohacking and cyber crime are very real and inequality, social unrest and corporate power have reached fever pitch. In many ways we already live in a warped version of the society the progenitors of cyberpunk were imagining back in the 1980s.

In any case, this is just a small selection of some of the cyberpunk books I’ll be perusing this SciFi Month and please, if you have any fave cyberpunk books I haven’t mentioned here or recommendations you think I should look at, do let me know. In the meantime console cowboys, let’s lay back, relax and jack into cyberspace, we’re in for a wild ride.

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