“The Transition of Osoosi” by Ozzie M. Gartrell (2021 Ignyte Awards)


Published in Fiyah #13, “The Transition of Osoosi” takes place in an apartheid United States of America where the population is divided into the elite True Americans and the second-class Citizen Americans. Being in the latter category is dangerous indeed, as CAs are not even protected by laws against murder. The protagonist, Mal, is a CA with the gadgets to help him get by – although, as his augments are not officially registered, they raise the stakes should he get caught:

Despite the dark, the officer wears mirror shades. I narrow my eyes a fraction and specs flood my interface. Recording sunglasses. Standard law enforcement issue. Filters sunlight, but enhances night vision. Adds to the loom factor and faux badassery. My reflection, distorted by his mirror lenses, sneers at me. Coily hair, streaked with purple and emerald, sweeps back from an unremarkable face with narrow black eyes and a broad nose. My dark skin looks mottled in the lengthening evening shadows.
The officer is careful to keep his patrol car between us. Smart. He’ll later claim it was because he’d “feared” for his life.

In this society, virtual reality is a popular form of escapism – and it is permitted to exist so long as its content is sanctioned by the True Americans. However, Mal’s closest friend Machine develops a new media technology, augmented immersion, that offers broader potential – including the capability to tell the stories of the underclass. Machine sees the opportunity for disseminating peaceful protest, but Mal is unconvinced by his ambitions:

Machine eyes the simdisc as if I cradle pure magic between my fingers. “I needed to mark that moment, y’know? As i coded it, I wanted to fuse virtual reality with art and history–our history. I want it so they know, so they feel what our people felt. To be unable to turn away.
Unable to turn away. I like the sound of that. I toll Machine’s peaceful protest between my index finger and thumb. It’s a quaint ideal, but peaceful protests didn’t stop the water hoses, it doesn’t stop the beatings and homicides.

And so Mal turns to a notorious hacktivist group that is working to bring about social reform –no matter high the price — and who might have a use for this new technology…

“The Transition of Osoosi” is a story oozing in unadulterated cyberpunk chic. It creates the kind of world where being a rebel inevitably involves looking cool, a fact signified here by the hacktivist group == members of which base themselves upon figures from African myth, each one with an eye-catching avatar. The story aims for rather more than just superhero-costume escapism, however, and provides the necessary bite of social commentary,

The story is well-paced and works a good degree of tension into its short length. Like any successful thriller, the stakes are not confined to immediate material concerns – in this case, whether or not Mal will be apprehended by the police – and instead reach into something less tangible. Mal’s very ethical principles are at stake: will he follow the agenda of the hackers to its conclusion, even though doing so will irreparably damage his present relationships? It is surely no coincidence that the hacker he admires the most, Ogun, is named after a deity associated with sacrifice.

Quieter moments are used to articulate the everyday cruelties and inequalities that are part of this dystopia. When Mal’s twin sister Mar, who is transgender, uses the ladies’ restroom, she is surrounded by hostile whispers – like trans woman today, albeit exacerbated by a biochip that amplifies every murmur:

I killed the feed and elbowed past gawking TAs. Mar didn’t protest when I lowered her shades to hide her tears, tucked her against me and headed for the dining area. The crowd parted like sticky-sweet soy sauce. I tugged on Mar’s right earlobe so that her biochip would filter out their hateful whispers. Their susurrations – freak, pervert, he shoulda called the cops – rolled off Mar and stuck to me.

Elsewhere, an intimate encounter between Mal and his lover Vee is undercut by the fact that Vee’s very body is being used as advertising space – an example of the story’s social commentary manifesting in the strikingly visual manner of political cartoon:

The advertisement swells over Vee’s brown breast, plunges into her cleavage, and swoons over the other. Problems with your most important Member? Use Viagrix to set the Mood! I’d wondered what it felt like, having advertising scripts crawling over your skin eight hours each day, but Vee only shrugged and said the money was good and she rarely noticed anymore.

All too easily reduced to a commodified aesthetic, cyberpunk is a genre that has seen something of an identity crisis in recent decades. “The Transition of Osoosi” is simultaneously a story about rebellion, a meditation on the uses of media in the face of oppression, and a ripping story; and on top of this, it is a plea for the continued vitality and relevance of cits genre.

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