Saturday, 18 January 2014

Ruralpunk!

Cyberpunk is an urban tradition, concerned with cities in all their cosmopolitan, progressive chaos. Cities have people, giant corporations, fashion. They attract the young characters who dominate mid-1980s science fiction. Cyberpunk exists in a world of identikit airport hotels, clubs and office towers. More than half the world's population lives in the Metroplex, rising far higher than that in the developed world.

All of which makes the rural environment a more compelling as an alternate setting to plunge jaded 'runners into, even if they aren't Cyberpunk 2020 nomads. Based on my mantra of trying to make the familiar strange by adding ten years and a little advancing tech, this series will contain lots of notes towards running a science fiction rural setting.

Sources of Inspiration


There are a few cyberpunk novels that deal with rural settings. Peter Hamilton's Greg Mandel series is hilariously set in Rutland, the last place in the world to resemble Tolkien's Shire in almost every respect. Meanwhile, Walter Jon William's novel Hardwired presents a vision of America under balkanised corporate rule, where smugglers clash with armed privateers to break tariff barriers. This vision of America, complete with Okies fleeing west, is very compelling as a game setting. The "American Taliban" in Neal Stephenson's Reamde and the militant, anti-technology, anti-rational "barb" in Ken Macleod's Fall Revolution series fill in some gaps in the setting. Nicola Griffith's Slow River contains some interesting ideas about bioremediation, providing motivation for good guys and bad guys alike.

Winter's Bone might be one of the best noir films ever made. Set in the Appalachian mountains, it shows a decaying world of meth labs, small time gangsters and high poverty which, when combined with Hardwired, provides much of my inspiration writing this. The picture above portrays Teardrop, one of the most frightening characters I've seen in a movie lately. Films like Fargo, Raising Arizona and even There Will be Blood round out the film side of things. The jerry-rigged crop-dusting drone in the picture above is from Looper, which is a wonderful source of imagery (The word is still out on whether the sugar cane fields shown in Looper are a mistake or a subtle way of showing climate change or genetic engineering in the background of the setting).

I also have a real thing for an old Gamecube game called Smuggler's Run, which put the player in command of bouncing trucks driving hard across wilderness landscapes. Different gangs and outfits competed and raced for supremacy. Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather describes a lightweight "Malaysian attack vehicle" that could probably move like those video game vehicles...

A few years ago I read Harry T. William's acclaimed biography of Huey Long, which arguably sparked my interest in the rural cyberpunk setting. Huey Long was a Louisiana politician who took on and defeated the entrenched "Bourbon" democrats who had dominated the state in an effective junta since the Civil War. Depending on who you ask, he was either a hard-fighting hero who stood tall for the little man against a corrupt system, or a proto-fascist who threatened American democracy. 

Part of William Gibson's vision of the future was shaped by growing up in the US south at a time when you'd see modern cars next to horse-driven carts and farming equipment from the 50s - the 1850s. That, along with Huey Long and what novels by Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor I've read, puts all sorts of ideas in my head. 

Think:

A desolate, obsolete landscape where the environment and the kudzu actively takes back anything you try to carve out of it, where the roads and infrastructure haven't been replaced in decades, where smugglers hide camps in Lovecraftian bayous or in inundated coastal towns, where hi-tech police infantry police ecogee slums...

The Landscape

Whatever happens, the rural world will have changed dramatically.

Farming is enormously vulnerable to shocks in the global economy. Whatever dystopian elements make up a particular setting will have wrought havoc.

Fuel crashes will have drastically increased the difficulty of mechanised agriculture, especially damaging monocultural arable regions dependent on overseas shipping. Insurgencies devastate rural areas. Global warming destroys ecosystems. Survivalist and militant green separatist movements bring chaos and paranoia into the darker places of the world.

Genetic modification of plants can be the basis of any number of dystopian plots - Paolo Bacigalupi dark, dark novel The Windup Girl illustrates a world where all the worst GM mistakes have been made, where ecosystems have been ravaged by out-of control genemod plants and animal populations have been ravaged by a "Cheshire cat" mod, a cat that can become near-invisible, and is now a pest of the highest order. 


Bruce Sterling's novel Islands in the Net posits the creation of a simple, ultra-sharp ceramic blade - in the hands of a clear-cutting, slash-n-burn peasant farmer, the greatest threat to world's ecosystem in history. 

In recent years many architects have posited "farm stacks" (urban, semi-automated greenhouse towers) as a major. These might supplant many forms of agriculture, supplanting older agricultural economies. Alternatively big agri-corps might have turned to farming cash crops for biofuel or biomass.

As a side-note, a contributing factor to the fall of the Roman Republic was a shift in agricultural production from food to cash-crops for military use. The oligarchy used thugs and trickery to seize common land and dispossess families while their menfolk were fighting the long guerrilla insurgency in Spain, contributing to the impoverishment of the middle class. Similar stories - United Fruit versus guerrillas in Latin America, etc - provide more inspiration for that kind of background plot. It's the kinda thing which could inspire the nomad groups in CP2020!

Renewable power is already changing the way rural economies look. Lots of small biomass reactors dot the landscape, along with wind turbines and solar fields. Drones and automated systems work along side poorly paid refugees and pickers.  

The countryside is the place people retreat when the cities turn crazy. Lots of survivalist and separatist communities dot the landscape, especially away from major arable regions. Trailer parks and exurbs house small political groups that turn in on themselves. In isolated, small town conditions, they become stranger and more oppressive. Along with the agricorp PMCs slowly squeezing out the independents and the rebels, these small groups might be the main opposition. If the countryside is descending into chaos, vigilante militias might defend the towns from bandits or even "moochers", gunning down vagrants. Brian Wood's graphic novel Dirtbike Manifesto is an entertaining story about two New York edgerunner types going up against just this sort of group in upstate New York.

The idea of a group of city-slicker 'runners "not from round here" rolling into town and provoking a small local war is very entertaining set up for a session between major adventures!

Coming up next in this series: 10 ruralpunk locations...