An Interview With CT Phipps
by Alante Carter
"Welcome to the moon!"
Neal Gordon screwed up his assignment on Mars and they reassigned him to Antarctica. Now he’s being reassigned some place even Luna City. A crime ridden hellhole with a super-rich ruling class, he almost immediately finds himself targeted by bounty hunters and cyborg terrorists. Thankfully, Neal has an unusual set of partners in robot dog, Barksley, and the snarky but badass Lucy
CT Phipps is the author of a bunch of humorous science fiction and fantasy. He is also an author of modern cyberpunk fiction. Specifically, the Agent G, Cyber Dragons Trilogy, and the upcoming Moon Cops on the Moon.
1. What’s the biggest difference between these two cyberpunk worlds, Agent G, Moon Cops, and Cyber Dragons, do you think? Like is it more the story perspective or is it the fundamental building blocks of each world?
The Futurepunk universe is a shared universe of all my cyberpunk and space opera stories. The “Cyberpunk” portion of the world consists of Agent G, The Cyber Dragons Trilogy, and Moon Cops on the Moon. Cyber Dragons takes place in the early part of the world when corporations are at their strongest, the government is at its weakest, and the world is at its most street level. Moon Cops takes place a century later when things are on the cusp of improving but is set in the place where things are their worst. Agent G shows the transition from “our” world to a cyberpunk one. Cyber Dragons takes place in the Los Angeles (New Angeles) arcology that has been built on the ruins of the old one while Moon Cops takes place on, well, the moon. Both are somewhat funnier takes on the cyberpunk dystopia, more like Snow Crash or Robocop than Neuromancer or Blade Runner.
2. What initially drew you to the cyberpunk genre, and how do you believe it serves as a medium for exploring complex themes?
It largely depends on how you define cyberpunk as a medium as it’s always been something of a nebulous genre with no hard and fast rules. I wrote an essay called, “What is Cyberpunk” (link: https://www.grimdarkmagazine.com/what-is-cyberpunk/) that gives a rough description of it as gritty near-future science fiction where technology has not advanced humanity’s welfare. Or, to make it pithier, “Where technology ****s humanity.” Which is a literal translation of cyberpunk in a way.
Cyberpunk isn’t technophobic, far from it, it is technophilic if anything, but it is something that believes the problems of humanity won’t be solved by advancing technology as far as the larger social issues remain. As we see today, cyberpunk believes that capitalism will find new ways to exploit humanity for every new gizmo we make to solve an existing issue. This cynicism is valuable as it allows us to take a hard look at many institutions that could use some more questioning and, maybe, just maybe, reform.
3. How do you go about building your dystopian worlds, especially in balancing technological advances with social decay?
I generally take the view that there’s nothing new under the sun and if history doesn’t repeat, it certainly rhymes. Which is a way of saying that it’s best to turn to history for ideas on creating cyberpunk dystopias. I grew up in the Appalachian region of America, which was a place where mining corporations used to rule as feudal overlords and still have immense ridiculous amounts of power. Things like company script, lifetime contracts, strike busting mercenaries, and the government dropping bombs on protestors are all things in our past history.
If you go down to the Kentucky Highlands Museum Daycare Center, you’ll find a bunch of tiny preschool toys about driving coal barges, toys with the company’s logos, and a oil refinery playset that seems like something that only a mean-spirited satire of corporate culture could come up with. One thing to note about cyberpunk is that it is about today rather than the future.
4. Cyberpunk often deals with themes of surveillance and control. How do you approach these themes in a way that feels both fresh and unsettling?
I feel a big theme of cyberpunk is the apathy of the citizenry to the totalitarianism. The protagonists can care about how the world has degenerated but most of the people are like lobsters in boiling pots. It’s happened so gradually that they didn’t notice the loss of freedom, economic prosperity, and so on. It’s also something that we can see in the real world. I think it’s part of cyberpunk that people kind of learn to live with the dystopian elements and that just adds to the unsettling nature of the setting.
5. In writing your characters, how do you ensure they embody the contradictions and complexities of a cyberpunk world? What makes them feel like real people vs just character traits or just genre clichés (solo rocker boy etc)
I feel that most people can relate to cyberpunk protagonists better than your typical fantasy or sci-fi if you relate them to our world. They can be anarchists, hackers, rockers, and corporate assassins but very often they have to deal with things like debts, family, and digging themselves out of whatever hole the system has put them in. Defeating the Dark Lord should be less important than staying one step ahead of the cops and bill collectors. Even the rich and powerful of cyberpunk don’t really have it easy because there’s always someone willing to gut you in order to take what you have.
6. How do you integrate elements of race and class into your stories? Are these aspects central to the plot, or more subtly woven into the characters’ interactions?
I feel that when doing cyberpunk, you are stepping into a world that is still our world so ethnicity and class are things that are grounded in our world but also is something that should be mixed up. Prejudices and class are still going to be things that exist but also should be changing in subtle and not so subtle ways.
Typically, cyberpunk futures are a lot more integrated with more mixing of cultures and peoples but the divide between the rich and poor is often much more stark (though hardly unbelievable given many parts of the world). I find that cyberpunk is also a genre you should probably avoid lily white casts because multiculturalism is a thing inherit to the genre. The Expanse is a good example of how this is with modern issues being between Belters, Martians, and Earthers who all have their own origins.
7. Given the often-dystopian setting, how do you navigate the line between critique and perpetuation of social inequalities, particularly relating to race and class?
I find it’s better not to play into too many existing biases when doing your visions of the future. You should leave your readers to draw their own conclusions about applicability. However, the struggle of the rich versus poor, corporate versus worker, and oppressed versus oppressor is universal. I don’t think you necessarily need to erase existing prejudices and this can sometimes come off as disingenuous (“Oh, we solved race problems in the future. Now we only hate on robots”) but coming at it sideways may be better to make your point.
When the original moon settlers hate on the next generation of immigrants, you make your point without hammering it. Even so, the occasional nod is useful. Just remember that while dealing with real-life prejudice is something many readers will deal with, a lot of them don’t want it in their escapist fantasy. They also don’t want it ignored when it’s relevant either.
8. What challenges do you face in ensuring that marginalized voices are authentically represented in your stories, without resorting to stereotypes?
I feel like authors from a privileged position (I’m pretty much all of the categories) should ask themselves, “should a character necessarily be the same?” Then ask themselves, if the answer is “no”, ask themselves, “Then what might they be and how does this inform their character?” G is a biracial man in the spy game and that influences his character to an extent even as he is otherwise still a rich secret agent. Kei is a Japanese American woman who often collides with a criminal underworld that is controlled by people with opinions about both. Neal Gordon is a man who doesn’t know his own heritage and is an outsider to the moon that is a community built from refugees and not necessarily welcoming to newcomers (sort of like the Belt).
But the only thing worse than no representation is really screwing it up. So, three short rules for writers.
1. Whatever group a character belongs to should inform but not define a character.
2. Remember they’re characters first and should be distinct on their own, like any individual.
3. Check in with members of said community where you can.
9. How do you approach the ethics of technology in your writing, especially considering cyberpunk’s focus on hacking, AI, and cybernetics?
I have the general opinion that if something can be misused, it absolutely will be. If you introduce AI then you have to ask how they are treated by the system as slaves, citizens, or people who may be programmed to act a certain way. If you introduce cybernetics, are they affordable by people who need them? Are they marketed as improvements (even when they’re not) to otherwise non-disabled people? Do they have side effects that the companies cover up?
The merits and flaws of technologies can be very interesting set dressing or the source of whole new plot points. My general advice is that any new technology is something that should be: 1. Used by the bad guys as well as the heroes. 2. Probably prohibitively expensive until its ubiquitous. 3. Misused even if it’s illegal if you can think of a “bad” use. 4. Probably used for sex or violence if it can be because that’s what humans do with technology.
10. Your stories, tend to explore the human condition in extreme settings. How do you craft emotional arcs that resonate amid all the high-tech chaos?
I believe in all my fantasy and sci-fi that no matter how weird a situation is, you can write an authentic human reaction to it. It just has to be grounded in it. That’s probably my superhero literature background rather than my sci-fi, though. It may be ridiculous if Jean Grey dies, is cloned, you marry her clone, and then abandon the clone to go back to Jean when she comes back to life but it remains one of the pivotal stories of the X-men because it’s grounded in a very real human emotion: abandonment.
11. Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring writers looking to delve into the cyberpunk genre, especially in addressing themes of societal stratification and systemic oppression?
My primary advice is that you should market it as straight science fiction. Cyberpunk fans will find it on their own and people won’t necessarily be turned off that are fans of a larger genre. A lot of people have very specific ideas about what cyberpunk is/was and you want to cast the largest net possible as that idea gets challenged. But for actually writing it, I suggest that you just keep the focus on the characters first and let their reactions inform the setting.
BLADE RUNNER has a lot to say about the abuses of the police, the exploitation of minorities, slavery, medical ethics, the justification for terrorism [Was Roy Batty justified!], and corporate elites being above the law. However, it does all this by telling a very straight forward and interesting story of a detective being blackmailed back into a job he hates against people much stronger as well as smarter than himself. It’s a sad fact of life that if you want to share your message, make it one that your audience will be entertained by hearing.