Sean Nolan is the author of a short story collection called Shades of Grey. It was released in 2011 as Occupy Wall Street was rising to its heights. Shades of Grey’s themes were inspired by the anxieties that led to Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street taken into a cyberpunk future. Nolan has also been published in the cyberpunk magazine Machete Girl and on his blog Born Out of Binary. He took a moment to discuss his influences and the future.
Your writing is heavily influenced by cyberpunk. What was your first experience with cyberpunk?
I’m inclined to say seeing my older cousin’s Shadowrun novel collection when I was very little but the idea of elves running around with semiautomatics didn’t make much sense to me even then.
I think the Akira manga takes the cake for me. I was in a book store with my dad and I was blown away by the detail of the art that was in the urban decay. All the graffiti, the fact the protagonists were only a few years older than me and popping pills and fucking shit up because they had been forgotten by the world, all of that.
Akira was what made me love Cyberpunk and anime for that matter. I still remember watching Ghost In The Shell for the first time and when The Matrix came out on DVD and the Wachowskis said my two favorite anime were influences on the movie I felt like I was one of the cool kids.
Your writing also tends to be very politically charged. This comes from your involvement in activist circles, tell us about your activism.
Well, when I finished the first draft of my novel my ex wife told me that it had a lot to say about the world and deserved to be published. That was draft one and it was 2008 and I was an 19 year old American expat in Australia who had only been against the war in Iraq and against the military industrial complex for two years. I hoped that I could get published in time to create enough momentum to cause great change.
Fast forward two years and I had been getting my short stories published in a local paper’s youth fiction (I don’t think they knew what to do with me there). I went to the World Science Fiction convention that was in Melbourne Victoria that year and got a chance to pitch my novel to a literary agent from the UK. He loved it at first but it didn’t work out. The guy wasn’t even sure why he was on the cyberpunk panel.
What ended up happening was a few friends from the forums I met my ex wife on got together with me and we decided to put out an anthology of my short stories and do this guerrilla marketing campaign to gain us some interest. It was largely based off of District 9’s marketing campaign with the blog by a resistance member. So we came up with a group called Anti-E (E standing for Elysium, that being an in-universe gov’t run program) and began marketing heavily to Anonymous. We started that in September 2010, back when the closest thing Anonymous had done politically was IRL troll the Church of Scientology. So when WikiLeaks got the rug pulled out from under them we were like “THIS IS IT” and shared one of the short stories from the book about a hacker who finds a horrible secret that he kills himself over rather than being caught. We posted that in every Operation PayBack and subsequently Operation Leakspin thread that we could while also pushing people to actually take action.
This spilled over into Anonymous support for the Arab Spring and a lot our initial support at that point was relegated to sharing tweets from people in Egypt and any blog we could write about what was happening. Anti-E was a real political organization by then and my marriage was done. I was booked to go back Stateside and was burnt out and very depressed.
After Mubarak fled Egypt a bunch of Anons were talking about how we needed a Tahrir Square in the States and then someone from Adbusters (They had been courting Anonymous since WikiLeaks) posted about Occupy Wall Street. This was Feb/March 2011 and it was the only thing that made me hopeful about a return to the US. When I got back and the crackdown began I was extremely nervous because I thought the Feds might have noticed us posting under an Anti-E tag and not an Anonymous tag but when OWS started it was go time again.
I got involved in my local encampment from Day One as did several of the Anit-E members on the East Coast. We had people in RI and Boston at the start and when I wasn’t doing security at the camp I was doing media at home. That was terrifying. Every night at around ten pm Eastern the police raids would start and I would do as much as I could to get the Livestreams, pictures, etc. out so we could NOT be blacked out. Oakland was the worst, especially with Scott Olsen. I saw way too many people bloodied hurt and gassed. It was around this time Anti-E had people sent to Occupy Portland and Occupy DC.
Occupy DC was key for us as it turned out. By March everyone was planning on going to Chicago to protest the G8 and then the NATO conference which were set to be held a week apart from each other. When Obama moved the G8 to Camp David that month I was pissed. I had been planning on going to Chicago with my person from DC and then traveling. Then I wrote a blog saying we should march on Camp David in a furious fifteen minutes, posted it and didn’t think much of it. The next morning one of my friends from Occupy Cincinnati texted and told me the blog went viral. When I logged that day Adbusters had picked up the blog and Occupy Camp David became a thing.
Our people in DC got the ball rolling but we handed the reigns off because I started getting followed home on the bus and other things. This precipitated me getting help from Black Panthers (super nice people by the way) and me taking a while away from politics before I continued organizing for another year or so before quitting. I still share articles and go to marches but I’m kinda permafried. [Update 10/24/16 – I later learned that the Black Panthers were New Black Panthers and they’re led by antisemites and I don’t want any public affiliation with them. I do not support hier stances.]
You spent time in Australia before moving to the US, what differences do you see in the cyberpunk subculture of Australia compared to that of US?
I remember there was a greater acceptance of pirating culture and general PC tech kind of stuff. I know several of the people I became close with there are in a much better place to go to Japan which is always going to be a major influence on Cyberpunk culture. Maybe these were the reasons why a regional paper felt okay with publishing my stories.
You have had ample experience with both the high tech and the low life aspects of cyberpunk. How do you define cyberpunk based on your experience and how do you see it manifesting today?
We’re at the cusp of reaching a cyberpunk society. I know a lot of the old guys say we’re there, but to me cyberpunk is always like, “Well the corps won, let’s snort synthetic coke and be numb so we can hack them and eke out a living.” I don’t think that’s where we are now. Since 2010 we have seen major levels of global revolt. As long as that continues and is aided by high tech, then we’ll be proto-cyberpunk.
Also, it is key to remember that Cyberpunk is not a goal. It is a warning.
What do you think the most important issues of our time are? And how does this inform your writing?
Income inequality, net neutrality, corporate limitations, and endless war in the Middle East.
Income inequality is easy to touch on in Cyberpunk writing when your protagonist is living in a slum. No protagonist in my writing would live in a three bedroom chic apartment (for long). Corporate limitations ties into this when in my universe PMC’s and corps are waging war and testing their stuff on the populations of the war zones and no one cares because the population is poor and the government pushes it under the rug.
Net neutrality is needed to allow for free flow of information. I try and touch on that by showing that hackers in my universe are specialists. They’re digital hitmen. I wanted to say something about cyber-warfare in here but I find that just pushes the Cold War II narrative for old CIA analysts who cut their teeth under Reagan.
Endless warfare in the Middle East is something I touch on by, to quote the old 60’s adage, bringing the war home. The proxy country in the Reaververse for the USA is rife with sectarian violence and roving militias. At the same time it’s familiar for all the wrong reasons. I want to put the reader in the shoes of a kid who grew up in Iraq or Syria but to make them realize that this is here, this is now.
Do you have advice for other writers on writing politically charged fiction?
Do your fucking research. Don’t stick to the tread path when doing this. Learn the history they don’t teach you in school. Be prepared to see the ugly side of the world and understand that there may still be beauty in it.
Don’t be afraid to make people uncomfortable. Revel in it. Light a fire under their ass. Make them do something after reading your work. This isn’t a piss show for you to show your knowledge off. The moment you write what you write you have a responsibility to change your environment and yourself.
Sean Nolan continues to maintain his blog, Born Out of Binary.