Crash Code, ed. Quinn Parker (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

CrashCodePrepare to receive two punk-suffixes in one with the Splatterpunk Award-nominated Crash Code: An Anthology of Cyberpunk Horror; as the title suggests, the volume is given over to exploring the grisly

and macabre corners of the cyberpunk genre. Hannah Trusty’s “A.U.T.O.” takes us on a ride in an automated car that goes horribly wrong. “The God Finger” by Dean H. Wild is set in the world of surgical technology, depicting a gauntlet that takes away pain – but turns out to have a serious side-effect. In Addison Smith’s “Hard Memory” a cop with a cybernetic brain implant is forced to kill a similarly-enhanced fellow officer in self-defence – leaving him with both the mystery of who hacked his friend, and the emotional fallout of his act. “Nervana” by David F. Shultz follows a band of glamorous pill-popping rebels as they go up against “copyright cops” and a weird cyber-cult in a neon city, the protagonist’s girlfriend having her mind transferred to a computer chip after she is killed in action.

By its nature, cyberpunk explores the low-society ramifications of high technology; this tends to require a good chunk of worldbuilding which, in turn, needs space. Crash Code has its share of mini-epics such as “Fight to Fight” by Sebastian Netman: this story is long enough to be less a sting in the tail narrative, more a potted thriller. It depicts a world where genetically engineered children are the norm, but are fought against by members of older generations; the protagonist is a cyborg who fights “geneticals” to avenge the death of his mother – but has a conflict of a different sort with his father.

Another of the anthology’s longer stories is “The Children’s Crusade” by T. Fox Dunham. In an America on the brink of nuclear war with China while a digital pandemic hits people’s neural implants, a father – who has lost his wife to cancer and risks losing his daughter to the virus – begins having weird hallucinations. “The Blue Schnooklybob” by KJ Moore imagines a setting where humans have harnessed a race of sapient creatures called schnooklybobs to work as pets and assistants; while it sounds like a quick, spoof, this second-person narrative turns out to be a long tale of a breakdown in relations between the two species. “Bleed Over” by Rachel Nussbaum, meanwhile, is one of the lengthiest entries in the entire book. Its plot deals with a virtual reality horror game that has a lingering psychological effect on the users; the cyberpunk aspects are used to convey a very conventional set of horror elements (blood, decay and so forth) and on the whole the story feels as though it could have been written in the early nineties, which should doubtless please traditionalists.

For a change of pace, the book also includes a few briefer entries. “A Silent Auction” by Aaron Thomas Milstead is a humorous story set in a future where the ability to use certain words is put up for auction (a representative of Pepsi Co successfully bids on the names of the seven deadly sins, while another bidder obtains a racial slur). “Grinder” by Christopher Wilson, about flesh-eating cyborg soldiers, is built largely around atmosphere and premise: the actual plot comprises one revelation after another of just how hideous the Grinders are. “Little Neon” by Morgan Chalfant, about pit-fighting cyborgs, is so short as to constitute flash fiction.

Although any cyberpunk-horror hybrid runs the risk of sacrificing the former genre’s potential for social commentary in favour of mere violence, Crash Code finds room to be thoughtful and provocative. “Cold Calculation” by Eric Lewis is set on a spaceship where a computer component – a synthetic brain – has burnt out. The crew’s only hope for survival is for one of their number to sacrifice their own brain; they choose a donor by drawing lots, but ethical quandaries remain. Neil James Hudson’s media satire “One Survivor” introduces the concept of “ghoulbots”, video-recording drones designed to home in on impending disasters and atrocities. At first used mainly for crime prevention and news reporting, these find a less savoury purpose as a means of capturing footage for the benefit of macabre voyeurs. The protagonist, a woman who survived a bomb on a train, tries to track down the perpetrator of the attack while also dealing with having become the star of a viral ghoulbot film.

This is not to say that the book lacks visceral gore– far from it. “A Leg Up” by Patrick Meegan depicts a society where advances in prosthetic limbs and organs have widened the gap between haves and have-nots, in the process setting the stage for gruesome new methods of robbing from the rich. John McNee’s “Thank Fuck it’s Friday” has a heavy emphasis on the pain and discomfort that comes with cybernetic alteration, starting with an itch and building to a bloody battle against a backdrop of rampant consumerism.

In “Mechanisms”, Daniel I. Russell deftly mixes the splatter with the cyber. A convict on death row has his dreams projected onto a screen, to be watched by observers; the technology that projects the images also interferes with his mind. The story melds a character study with some engaging notions about the concept of rehabilitation.

The more gruesome stories still carry an element of social commentary. In the world of Kristopher Triana’s “The Deepest Fake” it has become possible for deepfake technology to be screened via a person’s face, and a company offers its clients the opportunity to have their likenesses changed to that of a celebrity without surgery. The protagonist, Donna, has self-esteem issues regarding her appearance; her goal is not to impersonate a celebrity, however, bur rather, to get back at her ex-husband and his new wife. Gore and brutality come to dominate the story, but it is the central science fiction concept that sticks in the mind.

Sex, as well as violence, is on the menu with stories such as “Recursion by Nashville Moonlight”, Nathan Batchelor’s saga of a transgender woman who lives in a world of mass suicide, industrial-scale cloning and cybernetic sex work. The dominant sexual theme in the anthology is sexbots, as represented by Matt Thompson’s “Purity” (the story of an apocalyptic sexbot revolution, the action beginning at the British Museum and ending in a deep pit of cynicism) and Luciano Marano’s “The Fate You Are” (which imagines a brave new world where incarcerated sex offenders are locked up with androids modelled upon their victims).

“Mr. Companion” by Alex Robert Franco is another sexbot narrative; unusually for stories on this topic, the central relationship is between a gay man and his male robot, with various other combinations depicted throughout. The twist comes when the CEO of the manufacturing company is murdered by his sexbot lover, leaving the protagonist in a state of unease.

Some of the stories stay within the conventional boundaries of cyberpunk. “The Weight of the Locus” by Odin V. Oxthorn, a tactile tale of fluid and implants that follows a cyborg bounty hunter as they follow a trail of mutants and intrigue, is very traditional – although the decision to make the protagonist a gender non-binary “they” is perhaps up-to-date. Also in the traditionalist corner is “Attrition of the Soul”, a melancholy story by Melanie Rees set in a society where “immortality costs a mere thousand terabytes on the Circuit”; here, a man arranges to have his mind digitised, only to stumble upon a dark secret of the company responsible.

At the same time, the anthology features a number of more experimental stories. John Pedersen’s “Control Vipectus” switches between two narratives: in one the main character engages in repetitive beer-and-cigarettes conversations with a friend about God and the afterlife; in the other his marriage falls apart. The science fictional element is not revealed until the twist ending. In “Timeshare” by Damascus Mincemeyer the central concept is a drug that enables time travel. The story actually manages to make this seem credible, charting the history of the drug from its medical (rather than recreational) origins, to its dire side-effects as peoples’ exploits in the past lead to their deaths in the present, and finally into an exploration of the grim implications of time travel so often ignored by escapist sci-fi – all framed as a murder mystery.

Straddling the gap are stories that put new spins on old favourits. “Respawn, Inc.” by K. Trap Jones takes the classic Metropolis image of the affluent elite living in skyscrapers while an underclass is downtrodden below, and throws in some gaming influence. “Eunuch’s Code” by Sean Eads and Joshua Viola is about a man who, tired of his wife’s infidelity, decides to get technologically enhanced testicles; along the way he imagines his life story being narrated by Rod Serling, which allows the story to convey its worldbuilding – certainly an inventive literary technique.

All of this makes for an anthology brimming with invention, intrigue and ingeniously-rendered violence. Some commentators have said that cyberpunk is a dead genre – if so, Crash Code demonstrates that it at least has the potential to become undead.

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