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?