Recognize Fascism, edited by Crystal M. Huff

Book Cover for The Death of All Things

The Death of All Things, edited by Laura Anne Gilman and Kat Richardson


Climbing Lightly Through Forests: A Poetry Anthology Honoring Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by R. B. Lemberg and Lisa M. Bradley

Rory’s Cyberpunk Dystopia

“The Company Store” is not the first one of Rory’s stories I wrote, even though it is first chronologically. The first one I wrote begins with a bouncer at a speakeasy.

I love that bouncer. I don’t know her story. I know that her “wheelchair” has robot legs because the speakeasy where she works isn’t ramp-accessible, but her four-legged chair can make it up and down the stairs just fine. She has the security cameras patched into cybernetic lenses that make her look like she has multiple eyes, and she has an extra pair of cybernetic arms – and just to nail down the image of the spider, as she sits in her lair in the entry to the speakeasy, those robot arms are quite occupied with her knitting.

I adore that terrifying Madam Defarge of a woman. I love what she says about that world, about that underworld. She is powerful, she is respected, and she is, by standards common to the overworld, monstrous.

A lot of cyberpunk explores what it is to be human, one way or another, and I don’t think Rory’s world is any different. But instead of this sense that the machines make one less human, that I’ve seen done a lot, I wanted to dig in, more fully, into the idea that this technology can make people more themselves, bring themselves into line with what and who they want to be. My spider lady bouncer doesn’t think she’s less of a person because of her augmentations any more than she thinks she’s less of a person because she’s not ambulatory.

The problem is, the world above thinks both things. If there’s a reasonable extrapolation that would let the spider lady exist, there’s also a reasonable extrapolation that would lead to the overworld, the corporate-controlled world, being horrified that she exists.

She’s not a good “culture fit”, right?

When I started writing Rory’s world, I spent a lot of time thinking about plausible futures. I thought about the trend towards corporate consolidation, about the big tech companies who say things like “Oh, here’s a cafeteria so you don’t need to leave work” and “Here’s a ping-pong table so you can take a break and have fun without leaving your office” and “Here’s an apartment so you don’t have to have a home.” And I thought about cybernetics and genetic engineering and how would corporations that are already large enough to be more or less extralegal get their hands on those things.

Who gets to be human – who’s considered real people – is one of those questions that cyberpunk worlds often consider. Blade Runner‘s replicants: real people or no? In the Shadowrun game and some other fictional worlds, adding cybernetics to a body is considered to make those bodies less human in some ineffable way, to cost some sort of essence or soul, because deviation from the template of an abled, unmodified body is becoming less than fully human.

And that, right there, is a fascist model. There is a perfected body, and it is abled, it is cis, it conforms to the standard. It does not have aftermarket addons. It’s not a huge leap to get from there to that perfected body being white, or male; those are common additional steps, after all. Perfected bodies perform heterosexually, attend approved activities, eschew disapproved ones. Perfected bodies have Good Culture Fit, and can advance in the Company. The ethos of cybernetics as degrading to human essence meshes so perfectly with corporatist fascism.

The imperfectable body, defined as less than human, is at risk. It must adhere more closely to establishing Good Culture Fit, lest it become unemployable, or worse. Once there is an established, secure underclass to which one fears descending – or which one fears, like the replicants – it is possible to tighten that grip and make the standards of purity more and more stringent.

I am talking about Rory’s world, and I am talking about my own.

Who counts as human? Who is inescapably, overtly marked?

Who only counts as human as long as the mask stays on?

All of these questions were already in my mind, and in my sense of the world, when I started writing “The Company Store”.

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