Paintwork (2011) By Tim Maughan – Cyberpunk without the Iron Lady
Given its nominal association with the music of Crass, the Sex Pistols and Refused, it is only natural to expect the literature of cyberpunk to be both politically engaged and radically opposed to the status quo. However, the term ‘cyberpunk’ is actually something of a misnomer as the values of the subgenre have always been decidedly more bourgeois than the values of the bands that inspired the genre’s name. Far from a leftist clarion call, cyberpunk is and continues to be the literature of Thatcherism.
Early cyberpunk texts such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net (1989) articulate a deep sense of distrust and frustration with existing institutions. The archetypal cyberpunk protagonist is a supremely competent individual who has somehow managed to fall through the cracks of middle-class life and supports himself by occupying economic niches ignored by larger economic interests. Early cyberpunk is imbued with the rhetoric of class alienation, for while cyberpunk protagonists seldom have a place in the crystalline spires of the corporations they serve, it never occurs to them to either question or combat the status quo. Many critics assumed early cyberpunk to be a leftist dystopia because the corporations that dominate the cyberpunk skyline also overshadow our own. A more accurate interpretation would be to see these corporations as metaphorical stand-ins for the family-owned industries and old-fashioned financial institutions that were ripped apart by the first wave of Thatcherite deregulation. The early cyberpunk protagonists should not be seen as angry rebels but as aspiring corporate raiders similar to the aggressive young Turks who made millions in the City while entire regions were put to the economic sword. By emphasising Thatcherism’s economic conservatism while glossing over the social conservatism that sold it to both the British and American publics, cyberpunk was able to position itself as a literature of social alienation. It is only when we consider the wider history of the sub-genre that we realise the self-serving nature of cyberpunk’s radicalism.
The first warning signs were evident in the genre’s rapid cultural stagnation. For example, despite cyberpunk having been a product of the American cultural malaise of the late 1970s, traditional cyberpunk novels such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) continued to be published well into the 1990s. The reason for this stagnation is that the ambitious middle class people who were on the outside in the early 1980s continued to think of themselves as outsiders despite their cultural and economic triumph over the institutions of the post-War period. Indeed, it is only when Neal Stephenson published Cryptonomicon (1999) that cyberpunk finally began to recognise the true extent of its cultural impact.
Cryptonomicon took the values and formulae of traditional cyberpunk and merged them with those of the airport thriller to produce a story involving the staff of a high tech start-up company who finds themselves being sucked into a world of espionage and corporate intrigue. Cryptonomicon is very much a work of cyberpunk except that it replaces cyborgs with white-collar office workers and futuristic dystopias with modern-day America. This groundbreaking spin on the traditional cyberpunk novel formed the template for what we should think of as the Phase 2 cyberpunk novel.
As in Phase 1 novels, the protagonists of Phase 2 novels such as Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008), William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007) are middle class outsiders with a deep distrust of established institutions. However, while the protagonists of early cyberpunk novels had fallen through the cracks of middle class society, the protagonists of Phase 2 cyberpunk novels intentionally position themselves outside of the ‘mainstream’ of their culture. The recognition that middle class alienation and cheerfully commoditised rebellion were suddenly integral parts of American corporate culture lends Phase 2 cyberpunk novels a celebratory smugness that can be nothing short of nauseating. Like characters in the films of Sofia Coppola, the protagonists of Phase 2 cyberpunk novels breathe a rarefied cultural atmosphere of fashionable nightclubs, swanky hotels and cutting edge cultural events thanks to their ability to stay one step ahead of the technological curve. The celebratory nature of Phase 2 cyberpunk is also evident in the decidedly neoliberal tendency of science fiction writers to globalise cyberpunk narratives by exporting them from America to the developing world (as in Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy and works of Ian McDonald including River of Gods (2004), Brasyl (2007) and The Dervish House (2010)). Looking back on Phase 2 cyberpunk novels, one is struck by both the complacency and the sense of entitlement of a wealthy middle class that was utterly incapable of predicting its own eventual downfall. After all, if the long boom of Thatcherism had enriched the Western middle class why should it not do the same for the entire world? It was not until Phase 3 that cyberpunk finally began to question its affiliation with neoliberalism.
Thus far, the defining text of Phase 3 cyberpunk is Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland (2008). Set in a South Africa so corporate and gentrified that it could just as easily be America or Britain, Moxyland brutally deconstructs the smugness that formed the cornerstone of the Phase 2 novel. The difference between Phase 2 and Phase 3 cyberpunk is that while Phase 2 authors such as Gibson and Doctorow present their protagonists as aspirational figures, Beukes presents the same type of character as spoiled, deluded and morally compromised imbeciles. It is far from accidental that Moxyland appeared at a time of economic crisis as Beukes’ decision to question the underlying ethics of the cyberpunk movement reflects a wider cultural sense of buyer’s remorse. The West swallowed the teachings of Thatcherism and clung to them right up until the moment when the entire global economy seemed about to implode. The anger of Phase 3 cyberpunk is an anger of profound disenchantment not only with established institutions but also the aspects of human nature that created such institutions in the first place. This same rage surges through the veins of Tim Maughan’s debut short story collection Paintwork resulting in a story cycle imbued with a profound sense of sadness and disappointment with how the future has turned out.
Paintwork’s eponymous opening story is set in Maughan’s hometown of Bristol. The story tells of a ‘writer’ named 3Cube who spends his time sabotaging QR codes so that, rather than displaying adverts, they display idealistic and uplifting works of digital art. However, as soon as 3Cube and his friendly neighbourhood hacker vandalise one billboard, someone comes along and replaces 3Cube’s art with a work of 2D art that both mocks his idealism and uses his imagery to sell product. Furious at what he assumes to be a calculated act of disrespect, 3Cube tries to work out who it is that is sabotaging his artwork.
Paintwork’s second story “Paparazzi” tells the story of John Smith, a man who made his name as a documentary filmmaker by chronicling the online restaging of a key battle in the War on Terror, a battle that was fought and refought in digital space until the desired outcome was eventually achieved. Based on his reputation for both honest reporting and infiltrating online cliques, Smith is hired by an MMORPG clan to capture footage proving that a rival clan’s general is actually controlled by more than one person. By proving the general is nothing more than a media construct, Smith’s adoptive clan hope to undermine their rival’s popularity and thereby attract more skilled players to their banner. In order to gain incriminating footage, Smith is handed an MMORPG character and trained in how to play the game well enough to pass muster amidst expert players. Initially approaching the task as a simple infiltration mission, Smith is rapidly enchanted by the sense of community and shared adversity that forms the core of online play. The more time he invests in this community, the more he values its achievements and the more he values the interests of his clan, the more his clan come to consider him as one of their assets.
The book’s final story “Havana Augmented” takes place on the island of Cuba where local gamers have organised a demonstration fight between one of their home grown clans and the generals of the internationally renowned video game clan that features in “Paparazzi”. Given that Cuba is still the subject of a US trade embargo, this fight should not be able to take place as the citizens of Cuba are not officially allowed to access the kind of games where clans do battle. However, because Cuba is legally off the net, a group of Cuban gamers have hacked some gaming software and transformed it into a piece of Augmented Reality software that allows them to stage giant robot fights all over their city. Intrigued by the software and always mindful of a PR opportunity, the clan’s leadership travels to Cuba where the Cuban gamers are forced to choose between protecting their country and becoming international superstars.
Despite being self-published, Paintwork’s writing is elegantly effective. Like many cyberpunk authors, Maughan favours both short sentences and unadorned syntax which, though clearly intended to keep out of the way of Maughan’s ideas, actually lend proceedings an edge of brittle hardness… as though everyone is walking around with gritted teeth, hoping to make it home in relative safety.
Maughan presents his ideas using the old cyberpunk trick of blending new technology with old brand names. This produces a heady mixture of today and tomorrow that is sometimes familiar, sometimes disorienting but forever tantalisingly out of reach. For example, Maughan’s story “Paintwork” re-uses Cory Doctorow’s idea of someone faking out gait-recognition software by intentionally hobbling themselves. However, rather than simply ripping off an existing idea, Maughan makes it clear that his character does this by wearing a pair of Nike trainers that are too small and because they are too small their seams have cracked meaning that they are no longer even remotely waterproof. Key to cyberpunk’s reputation for grit and realism is a willingness to present futuristic technology as not only old but also broken and there is something both intensely cyberpunky and very British about someone who is clever enough to mess with CCTV and yet vain and short-sighted enough that he winds up sacrificing a pair of over-priced trainers to the gods of British weather.
As a storyteller, Maughan is somewhat frustrating. Each of Paintwork’s stories carefully introduces us to its characters and setting before making the tensions between these two elements abundantly clear. The over-riding message of Paintwork is that no matter how clever you believe yourself to be, you will eventually be used, exploited and cast aside by the people who are actually in charge. Though Maughan takes his time explaining the trap and why his characters might choose to enter it, he never lingers once that trap is sprung. For example, “Paintwork” is 33 pages long but only a page or so is devoted to explaining the true nature of what has transpired. When used in a cinematic context, this technique can be very effective as it produces endings that are both shocking and ambiguous. Unfortunately, though Maughan’s endings are certainly surprising, they are not particularly ambiguous as it is always obvious precisely what it is that happens to each of the characters at the end of the story. Given that ambiguity was never part of the game plan to begin with, Maughan’s stories might have benefitted from a little more time sent unpacking the impact and implications of their endings. Maughan’s fondness for the scratch ending is frustrating as all his endings (short though they may be) allude to a world that produces intelligent and promising young people only to break them in order to make a quick buck. This sense of utter disappointment is not only timely but also central to the aesthetics of Phase 3 cyberpunk, an aesthetic that Maughan seems to perfectly understand.
Each of Paintwork’s stories articulates a profound sense of disappointment with the institutions of the modern world. In “Paintwork” Maughan explores an underground art scene and in both “Paparazzi” and “Havana Augmented” he explores the idea of an online gaming clan that have become so wealthy and powerful they now resemble a multinational corporation. Each of Maughan’s stories involves a character who becomes sucked into these new forms of institution because all of the old institutions have failed them. For example, 3Cube is a talented artist and programmer and yet he pins his hopes and dreams on online celebrity rather than the day job that the story alludes to. Similarly, Smith is a gifted filmmaker and yet no production company seems interested in hiring him let alone paying him money to make his own films. Paintwork’s protagonists are not the capable outsiders of Phase 1 cyberpunk or the smug middle class success stories of Phase 2 novels, they are something different… they are people who have lived by the book and acquired all the skills only to find that there was no job waiting for them at the end of the process. The closest thing to a Phase 1 or Phase 2 protagonist to appear in Paintwork are the hateful gaming celebs of “Havana Augmented” and the preposterous corporate artist of “Paintwork”. William Gibson would have turned such monsters into aspirational figures but Tim Maughan reveals them for what they really are: a cavalcade of smug and self-serving wankers who care more about the tailoring on their designer suits than they do about the plight of their fellow man. The world of Paintwork is not the world of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson; it is not a playground for elite hackers and it is not a place where anyone with a computer and an attitude can change the world. It is a world where the wealthy abuse the poor and where the poor get sucked into institutions that promise community but deliver only oppression.
Though clearly the work of a relatively inexperienced author, Paintwork remains a work full of both power and promise whose political vision strikes a resounding chord of disgust, alienation and profound disappointment. This is a cyberpunk novel that is a long way from the iPads and smugness of Phase 2 cyberpunk and I for one am delighted to have read it.