Taipei in an alternate near future.
Mei: without; pronounced “may.”
You: to have; pronounced “yo.”
Cyberpunk has roots in horror. The loss of agency is supposed to evoke a sense of terror such that we give pause about the technological advances. Want subverts this. Climate change is arguably too far gone in Taiwan. There’s dense pollution that strips away one of the most heralded benefits of technology: the advancement of the human life span. People in Taiwan in the future now can only hope to live to 60. Hope. They breathe in pollution, their apathy literalized in the fiction. Killing them. The anxiety we should have around climate change is the focus rather than the technophobia of the late 80s and early 90s. Unless you’re rich, of course.
The disparity in the wealth gap has gone rampant. No more middle class. It’s just the haves and the have nots. The super-rich traverse the city in gilded cages. There are galas and events. The biomod trends of the week flaunted by dilettantes at fancy events are confined to indoors, away from the pollution. Outdoors, they navigate life in 20 million dollars suits that feed clean air and create proprietary, insulated, social networks.
“She was pretty in a way I wasn’t used to. Not like most you girls bowing to the latest beauty trends, indulging in temporary body modifications from reshaping their noses to plumping their lips, or hips, or rears, depending on what was in. You boys kept pace with pec implants and by buying new, chiseled jawlines. But fads came and went, and the yous altered their looks as often as the seasons. The meis, lacking the funds for such drastic changes, resorted to painting their faces in bright colors, using semipermanent tattoos, and dyeing their hair.”
This too is a subversion. Where cyberpunk usually has a microworld navigated, invoking the “new world” notion of Westerns, this instead turns the trope on its head, moving past the microworld exploration. Considering that’s a very western perspective that also comes along with colonial aspects you see in cyberpunk, it’s a very important and satisfying subversion.
There is essentially no physical connection for those people living their lives in these suits and this extrapolates out into the fiction to communicate the lens of the super-rich who miss what is happening to the majority of the population in the city. They compartmentalize their lives such that they can be apathetic about the troubles that don’t affect them directly. Their long lives and voluntary isolationism are meant to augment their lives parallels the current anxieties regarding technology and the ways in which people now are using social media networks to isolate ourselves into specific groups. Curating the content we consume so that we can dismiss anything we are not interested in.
“This is what it meant to be a you, to have. To be genetically cultivated as a perfect human specimen before birth—vaccinated and fortified, calibrated and optimized.”
It’s in this world that Zhou and his crew hatch a plan to save their city by way of radical action. He kidnaps a young woman (with the “richest” suit), ransoms her, and uses a “sleep spell” drug to erase this memory. After pulling off this kidnapping he infiltrates high society with their newly garnered 300 million. New apartment in a highly sought-after building. New suit; a new life. Using his purchased social status, he’s to gain the confidence of Jin Corps’ CEO’s daughter: Daiyu.
But…when he discovers that she’s the one he kidnapped and starts to play the part of the rich boy a little too well, things start to get complicated. The more time they spend together the more he finds out she’s not what he expected and begins to fall for her.
Zhou is not an anti-hero and he’s not anti-social. He does have a directly actionable plan against the major problem in Taiwan: Jin Corp. Which is in line with a lot of cyberpunk fiction. They manufacture the suits and without them the super-rich will have to confront the world they live in, ostensibly putting their resources into cleaning up the environment. The city’s economy is very much tied to this megacorporation, but the morality and ideals outweigh the possible economic problems for this group.
“…feathered wings, like swans, or transparent wings, gilded in silver and gold. The love for all things supernatural, fey, and demonic was the current rage among Taiwan’s youth, and the yous took it to the next level, surgically altering their physique, adding horns and tails, scaling their skin, be it mermaid or dragon. They were same-day walk-in alteratios at the physique surgeons, and the changes cast off in a week or two, replaced by some other trend.”
Not to mention, the destruction of the headquarters is more of a call to arms for everyone in the city than something that would actually destroy the company. But there is a tangible sense of hopelessness for the poor in Taiwan. Nothing can really be done, aside from making your life as comfortable as possible in a world where catching the flu could kill you because you can’t afford health care. It’s pretty solidly a group of punks trying to disrupt the status quo.
Interestingly, young adult fiction in itself is a subversion of cyberpunk motifs and tropes. It grounds this story in a different kind of emotion than those found in the genre if we generalize it. There is often anger that is directly implemented to hinder a corporation. But most of the fiction humanizes all of the characters, even the super-rich and this is not typical at all. Often the rich barely resembles humanity, and the anti-hero embodies some of those characteristics in order to have agency and strike back. Here, there is a palpable ignorance attached to the rich… but no sense that they’re evil for being born into privilege.
The thick, stagnant air reeked of perfume, cigarettes, and exhaust. Everyone was barefaced, wanting to flaunt their features instead of hiding beneath blank masks. To be able to flirt with their lips, to be able to kiss. But I wasn’t fooled by the dark—the air was still poisonous. Even if we couldn’t see the brown haze, it smothered our city lit in neon.
The romance weaved into the story also makes for a very different feeling fiction than most cyberpunk; it was very refreshing. There is a certain detachment in cyberpunk fiction that is usually associated with the isolationism we have anxieties about is contrasted well in this fiction with this notion that a young man puts everything on the line to blow up a company doing real evil to the world is conflicted because his socialization with people he has dehumanized his whole life no longer gives him that easy alibi of dehumanizing them. The natural way our own lenses are restricted in reality makes it easy to empathize and invest in Zhou’s experiences. His mission and his heart are at cross-purposes and that’s hitting a trope, sure, but it’s a satisfying one because it doesn’t come loaded with the other tropes you usually find with it. His target is no damsel in distress, for instance.
“Employees who would be out of a job if our plan succeeded. I knew that in order to bring about a revolution, not only would yous be hurt in the process, but many meis as well. It was something else I had to learn to live with.”
The dialogue is also great. The prose, especially surrounding emotional moments, are particularly great and memorable. The heist angle coupled with the YA tropes and subversions put me on my toes, never sure what might happen next as expectations were set only to be discarded. The closest thing I can think of in the sub-genre is The Summer Prince and that just makes me think I’d like to see more YA in cyberpunk.
“It was so easy to be you. And to lack and want were the complete opposite: hard, cold, unrelenting, and hollow.”
What knocks it out of the park is the insertion of climate fiction anxieties. It’s relevant, interesting, emotional and in the news all the time now. It’s an emerging sub-genre. Ecopunk, solarpunk, climate fiction, eco-fiction, etc. There’s neon, stun guns, evil corporations, futuristic technology, pervasive pollution, and a pretty damn fun heist. I also have to imagine that it must have been more than cathartic for Cindy Pon to write characters that look like her in a genre that sometimes uses marginalized identities to telegraph edginess and dehumanization of societal structures. It turns out that life on the edge is just as riveting when the characters are believable and marginalization is handled from a non-white lens.
Granted, I don’t know much about young adult fiction… but I think that cyberpunk isn’t going anywhere. Of that I’m sure. Authors with the ability to connect some of the larger and more intrinsically important aspects of the genre in new ways will end up displaying how far the genre has come and its future. It makes a certain kind of sense that one of the more recent and thoroughly enjoyable additions to the sub-genre stems from this partnership with young adult fiction. Who else is a new kind of cyberpunk for than the younger generation living with old anxieties?
“Truth is, reality always crushes your ideals…Just wait and see.”