Anna Mocikat's cyborgs are no heavenly hosts, but reveal humanity in a cyberpunk dystopia
Anna Mocikat's Behind Blue Eyes
nna Mocikat has already been many things—a television and film writer, video game writer, and now, finally, an author. She has also lived many places—she was born in Warsaw, Poland, lived in Germany for many years and then moved to the US in 2016. A self-professed geek, she has now found her home both in the US and in science fiction and cyberpunk writing. We were honored to sit down and chat about her cyberpunk series Behind Blue Eyes, her life, the dangers of artificial intelligence, and more for this month’s Penumbric. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.
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How did you end up getting into cyberpunk in the first place?
Basically because of Ghost in the Shell
. So when I saw the movie (I think I saw it in 1999 the first time), for me, this was like a revelation. I only understood half of it, because it is a very complex story and a very unusual story ... the Asian storytelling, it was quite complicated. It was much later that I really understood the whole philosophy behind it and everything when I got more into the Asian mindset, storytelling, so that was when I really understood Ghost in the Shell
, but I was absolutely blown away. I had the poster, the iconic poster where she sits there and has all the tubes coming out of her back. This poster, I had it in my bedroom for years, almost 20 years. So I’m a huge huge fan of Ghost in the Shell
and I always wanted to create something like that, but it took me, unfortunately, 20 years until I finally got to it. I got distracted by other stuff, other genres, but now I’m finally there and I don’t think I will leave anytime soon.
I listened to the podcast interview that you’d done with Céline Terranova (theparttimeartist.com/podcast/), so I know that you were a scriptwriter and you worked in the German videogames industry and did other writing as well. So what other genres did you work in?
The first main genre I got into was horror, because I wanted to do science fiction, but if you were a screenwriter, and you go to film school like I did when I was 22 and totally motivated, the first thing they will tell you is, it’s way too expensive, nobody will ever produce your scifi movie, so you need to scale down a little bit. So you go into drama or romcom or something like that, which is cheaper to make, which I hate, or you go into horror, because horror is relatively cheap to produce but it’s still fun. So that’s what I did. I did a couple of screenplays and short films and that kind of stuff.
It’s really funny. I worked in the writer’s room for one of the biggest German TV stations, and we developed a horror series. From the beginning I was very skeptical—when do you want to screen that? I mean, you can’t do it prime time. Back in the time when there wasn’t streaming, you had your program at 8pm or something. 8pm is the time when you screen the most expensive stuff because most people are watching. So I was convinced that can’t work, because you can’t do a horror series, a real horror series which should be horrifying, at that time. But I still was working in the writer’s room to develop the whole series and we got paid and they never produced it (laughs). Because they realized, yeah, it might not fit for our audience.
Japanese movie poster for Oshii's Ghost in the Shell
But yeah, that was my work in the movie and TV industry, and later I worked in the videogame industry, but that was completely different; I can’t really say that there is a certain genre you work on. It’s like, you work on the game, and that’s it. Then when I started publishing books, which was back in Germany, I got a book deal from one of the top five publishers in Germany. They gave me a three-book deal, and it was more like dystopian stuff, because they wouldn’t let me do science fiction because ... as a female author you can’t do science fiction, you need to do YA dystopia.
So that’s what I did, I have this trilogy in German that is completely not like me. I wrote a trilogy I wouldn’t even read myself.
I mean, it’s not bad, it’s good ... otherwise a big publisher wouldn’t have brought it out, but it’s just nothing I enjoy. So I was at the point where I need to start over and go away from traditional publishing.
When was this that they were not happy with a female author doing science fiction?
That was 2013.
Wow, that seems so recent.
It is. I’ll tell you something ... now I understand. I was at first completely outraged about it. “Oh my, that’s sexism!” And then they wanted me to write under a male pen name when I would write real science fiction, and I had a story about artificial intelligence that was really hard scifi, so they wanted to give me a male pen name and I said I don’t want that, and meanwhile I have to admit that they weren’t so wrong, because when I look at myself now, I am an established cyberpunk author, but it’s still difficult for me to convince the audience to read my books because readers have a massive prejudgment against female authors of science fiction, and especially in cyberpunk. That has several reasons. I don’t want to blame the evil male sexist readers on that at all. I think it also has to do with that a lot of female authors write young adult or science fiction romance, so you know, all those books with the shirtless guys abducted by an alien and stuff sell like crazy. But that’s a point where readers who want to read serious science fiction are skeptical when they see a female author, and I only half can blame them for that.
So anyway, it is not easy. It is definitely much easier for my male colleagues to sell their books than for me.
Do you think it’s getting better? Or is it still a struggle to get that recognition?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s getting better. I get the recognition because once people decide to give my books a chance, they will love them. Behind Blue Eyes has only good reviews and I get a lot of feedback from readers, emails or on social media, and they are all telling me how much they love the books. But it takes effort to convince them to give the books a chance. I’m not sure if this is going to change anytime soon. Most female authors are smarter than me, because I have my female pride and I will publish under my real name. Other authors publish under a gender-neutral name, like initials or something like that, and that instantly makes it much easier.
Wow. For whatever reason that just doesn’t even occur to me, to think that a female author wouldn’t be writing science fiction.
It wouldn’t for me, either, but you have to imagine the typical reader, the person sitting out there who knows nothing about the book industry and so on, they are just the consumers, and they see what Amazon is showing them and see what is coming from what direction and that’s just the image we get, you know.
Shifting gears, would you say that we’re kind of entering a cyberpunk world today?
Yes (laughs). Absolutely. I think we are really on the brink of a cyberpunk world. Very much so. A lot of stuff that was written about 50 years ago is already here. ... What is absolutely concerning in my opinion is the incredible power the tech corporations are gaining. They have gained a momentum which is really scary. And that is an aspect of cyberpunk ... people say cyberpunk is political, but it’s not necessarily political. What is an important aspect is basically the power grab of the corporations over individual life. So that’s a very very important trope of cyberpunk, which almost all cyberpunk work shows. This is something we can already see happening. The thing is, it doesn’t happen from one day to another; it is like the frog in the boiling water.
Another thing that [shows me] we’re already there is, last week, I don’t know if you saw it, Elon Musk presented his robot. Have you seen that?
Yeah, where he didn’t really present the robot?
I’m not sure. There were rumors that there wasn’t actually a robot but a person in a suit, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is he says he wants to bring those robots into production very very soon, like next year or within the next five years. People say, yeah, Terminator and so on, they will all kill us, but not necessarily. What they will kill is our way of life, because they will destroy probably 50% of the jobs. So this is the first step into another very important aspect of cyberpunk, which is “high tech, low life.” You get the low life when everything is automated and everything is done by robots, and you have a massive amount of the population who have nothing, or only a little, or only what they will give us.
Yeah, you already see massive changes in society where the gulf between rich and poor becomes greater and greater, and the corporations become not only international but megacorporations ...
Yes. And that’s cyberpunk.
Yeah. And corporations now, they don’t even need you to jack into something or whatever ... In reality, they just ask for your data, and you give it to them.
Oh, we will jack in. There is the neural implant also coming from Elon Musk. So, yeah, this technology is coming. We will all be connected by our brains. And that’s another point—in my books, everybody has those implants in their heads, and what people don’t understand, is people only see the positive things because they will sell us “Hey that’s awesome!” [But] you will have a tracking device in your head.
Right. I mean, we walk around with our phones right now and get tracked already.
Yes, but in your head. You can leave your phone at home. I mean, they have conditioned us so we never do that, we take our phones in the bathroom, that’s how we have been conditioned already. But still, if we decide we’ve had enough of Facebook or whatever, I’m leaving my phone at home, then they can’t find me, but if I have it in my head, there is absolutely no escape. They have you tracked all the time. They know what you’re doing, where you are, who you’re talking to, who’s close to you, and so on and so on.
Because today is so close to being cyberpunk anyway, is there a difference trying to write cyberpunk now as opposed to when Gibson was writing
Absolutely. I think one of the big problems cyberpunk has, why people often say that cyberpunk is dead, is that it’s basically stuck in the 80s. It’s still stuck in the time of Gibson and of Blade Runner
and of cyberpunk the game, the tabletop game, which was Cyberpunk 2020
originally ... that was all in the 80s, so it has this 80s touch. It’s also called punk, because punk back then was like a term for counterculture. It’s not necessarily what we’d see as punk now, it was different. I recently spoke to Bruce Bethke, who was one of the big names back then, and he said when he wrote about it, punk had a completely different meaning than now. So the problem is cyberpunk is a little stuck in there, with the neon and the clothes and everything, and the way of jacking yourself in, and I think it is very important for the genre to evolve from that and to adjust to what we have now and spin that into the future. This was a very important aspect for me when I wrote Behind Blue Eyes
. I was always more inspired by Ghost in the Shell
and the Japanese cyberpunk culture than by Gibson and so on. For me, it was always this direction. And I think that back then they were already more progressive in their storytelling, and are now. I took Ghost in the Shell
as an example, but I combined it with more dystopian stuff, and I wrote a 1984
feeling into it. But the technology and the way of life, urban society, I oriented myself more on Ghost in the Shell
and Japan itself than what we know from here. So people say it is different than most cyberpunk stuff because I deliberately wanted to spin it further, starting at our point where we are now and then going 50 years into the future and developing this future, but based on what we have now, based on today, not on the 80s.
I really enjoyed that about your book! In the last issue of our magazine, we did an article on trying to build worlds. So how did you go about creating all these well-developed characters and well-developed world? Did you just sort of jump right in or did it take a lot of planning?
Yes, it took a lot of planning. So I had the idea for the story for many years actually, and I always had more ideas coming in, and once I sat down and decided to write it, I usually put a lot of time and effort into world-building before I start writing the actual book. And in this case it was really important because it has all the aspects of the society, how it works politically and economically and so on. I gave a lot of thought to it so it’s logical why they have those cyborgs, why they hunt people down, why they can’t allow people living outside ... because that was the first premise of the book, that’s how the book starts, they are going out and killing those people, and it needed to make sense why they’re doing it.
What I put the most time into was developing the cyborgs, because I wanted them to be realistic, I wanted everything to be, OK, it could work that way, so that’s why I put so much effort into designing them—how many artificial parts they have, and what parts are artificial. They’re designed for combat, so they have their lungs, for example, sealed, so they cannot be attacked with any form of biological weapons or gas or something like that. And so on. They don’t sweat. A lot of little stuff ... if you read the book you will see that information spread all over the book. Most people don’t even notice it, but it is very important that everything could work like that.
Right. I feel like, especially if you’re developing the world over the course of not one book, but two or three, the reader is going to be able to tell if you skipped part of your world-building ...
Yeah, it’s the plotter and pantser problem. (laughs)
Yes, exactly! So, what are your plans for that series in the future? You’ve written the second book.
Anna Mocikat's Cyber Squad
Yes. The next book will be out in March, because I am also writing another series [Cyber Squad] where I have now published the first book and the second book will be out this year in November, so the next Behind Blue Eyes book will be out in March. I see the first book as the first chapter of a much bigger story; it’s like the prologue. I look at it as seasons, because I come from TV, so the first season will probably be six books. And there will be a point of no return, and everything will be turned around—nobody can imagine what will happen because this is going to be a big shock. And then there will be another season. And I’m also planning origin stories for different characters. So there’s a universe. I’m hoping people keep enjoying it, because this is a universe I can keep writing books in until the end of my life.
Wow. I know that you helped to put together an anthology,
Neo Cyberpunk, and I think in there you have a story that takes place in the Behind Blue Eyes world. Does that have the same characters, or is it just in the world as a whole?
There’s a technique I used in the book itself where I switched to the victim’s [point of view], so suddenly you jump into the perspective of this random person, this random hacker guy and how he runs away and [the Angels] chase him. I did that because I wanted to show how scary they really are, because if you tell it through their perspective all the time you start thinking, “Well, they’re not so bad.” So when you shift into the perspective of a normal person, then you see that they are actually monsters. The short story is also something like that. Like a young guy who is unlucky and gets into a financial crisis and gets involved with the wrong people who are the spies who are also in the main book, but it’s only if you have read the book that you will know, OK OK, he is falling into that trap. So he is used like a data mule, and that is how [some groups] communicate, so they stay hidden—people actually carry data devices from place to place because they can’t just use the internet. So they use this guy as a data mule. But eventually he gets caught, and he is waiting for a contact person and Nephilim and Ariel show up. So it’s completely from his perspective, the whole story, and they are the boogeyman, they show up and then chase him.
Neo Cyberpunk anthology
There is a second anthology, I am just putting it together, it will be out in January, another 15 stories, and so I am very excited about that. It will be again of high quality. I have a story in there again from the Behind Blue Eyes universe and again from the perspective of a random person, but it is something that is taken from the second book, so I won’t tell you what it is, because maybe you want to read the second book ...
I do have the second book already, so ...
So I won’t tell you what the short story’s about because you should read the second book first. (laughs)
I know a lot of other cyberpunk authors, so we are kind of a community, and that’s where I get the people to contribute to the anthology.
So where do you find a cyberpunk community? Is it on Facebook, or ...
Yeah, social media. Facebook, Twitter. A lot of my connections actually come over Twitter. I think Twitter is great for connecting with other creatives and artists. It’s much better than Facebook in my opinion.
Yeah, I stopped using FB because of some of its ... data problems.
I realize Twitter isn’t perfect, either, but you gotta use something
As an author, that’s a funny thing. For me, as a cyberpunk author, I am aware of what they are doing, because that is what I am thinking about all day when I create my stories, but I still have to use Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Amazon, right? So that’s just how it is—I work with the enemy, basically.
Do you have any favorite cyberpunk authors?
I really really like the books of Richard Morgan. I think Altered Carbon
, the first book—the second and third books aren’t as good—but the first book is one of the best cyberpunk books ever written. I really really absolutely love that book. I’m not such a big fan of Gibson, I have to admit; it’s just too 80s for me (laughs).
Yeah ... I was sort of there in the 80s, so I really enjoyed
Neuromancer, I really enjoyed
Idoru, but I can totally see what you’re saying about it.
I also really really like Philip K. Dick. Many people say he is not really cyberpunk, but in my opinion he is totally cyberpunk, he’s just there before the term cyberpunk has been created. But he definitely wrote cyberpunk—what else is Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
If this is not cyberpunk, I don’t know what is.
It totally is, yeah.
And even before that, maybe not so much cyberpunk, more science fiction but also with the artificial intelligence that goes in a cyberpunk direction, was the stuff by Isaac Asimov. I’m a big big fan of him. I think how I came to be in love with science fiction was because of his work. ... Do you think it would be possible to make a program, a machine feel emotions?
I think if nothing else you can get really really close.
Because I don’t believe it. I have to say this is a part of science fiction where I am strictly on the side of those people [who believe AI] cannot feel as we do. They can mimic it.
Yeah. I think you can get to the point where they can probably mimic it just about perfectly. And I don’t know what that extra ... thing is that would actually bridge that gap. Like, how could you define really actually feeling something?
I think it’s because a machine—and I’m not an AI specialist, but I do a lot of research about that because it’s something I’m interested in—I think that the problem is that they would think logically. They have this one-zero thing, and that’s something humans don’t have. Humans are not logical.
I think if you can get your AI system away from binary thinking ... well, if you can get it to be thinking, that’s something, but if you can get it away from the binary stuff, and I think once you get into quantum computing and things like that, there will be weird directions that programmers can go with all of it. I don’t know if that will actually be how people will create real living thinking ...
... sentient beings. And having done this for several years now, I’m now suddenly in that position where I’m not sure it’s a good idea.
I absolutely think that it’s not a good idea. I think that even if they won’t be able to feel the way we do, when they learn thinking, then we have the “Terminator problem” on our hands because what we are developing with AI and especially robots is a race of slaves. And they are created for slave work. And once they discover that, then the shit hits the fan.
I think artificial intelligence becomes really dangerous—yes, let’s say dangerous—when it has a body. The body experience is actually ... the interaction with the world out of one entity, which is you, I think that this makes the difference. You can have a strong computer that is just in a box, it will never have the same ability to feel as if you put this computer into a body that can actually walk around and actually interact with the world and feel the world.
What about the other series you’re working on, Cyber Squad?
It is roughly LitRPG, but it is also cyberpunk, and it is not only set in a game world, it’s set in a game developer world. I think this is a book you would really enjoy because it is very much from the perspective of the game developers. It’s about a game QA that is hunting bugs in VR ... the idea behind it is that you look into VR like in the Matrix, connecting your neurochip into the VR. The idea of the story is that once you do that, when you have glitches in the game, the glitches can be dangerous, can lead to brain damage, because you connect your brain to it. So imagine ... I don’t know if you’ve ever played SkyRim
The game was so buggy. People say Cyberpunk 2077
was bad, but they never played SkyRim
. They fixed a lot over the years, but I got it right when it came out, and it was almost unplayable. So that was the idea I had—imagine you play such a game, if you stumble into a really bad glitch, it can become dangerous for you, and that’s the whole idea of the game QA, they go in and save the people who would otherwise die a horrible brain death.
That’s a cool idea. I mean, not cool to have happen to somebody, but I mean it’s a cool book idea.
I think you would enjoy that for various reasons, because of AI and because of game development, and so on. ... This is under my pen name, it’s A.K. Mocikat, because for LitRPG I really have to do that because LitRPG is even more male than science fiction and cyberpunk; I would say LitRPG is for boys what romance is for girls. But yeah, I think you would enjoy that very much. It’s more a fun book. It’s not as serious as Behind Blue Eyes, which is very serious. This is more fun, this is like nerds saving the world. (laughs)
So the idea I also had with Cyber Squad
is like, with the AI, often in LitRPGs they write about the NPCs as if they are more or less alive and sentient and AI and so on, and I took a different approach. In my case, it is really still scripted, because you want a game to be a certain way, you want a player to experience a certain storyline and so on, so you can’t, even if it were possible, you can’t have “people” walking around there, you want them to play a certain part. So the NPCs ... when they jump into the editor, they see them in T-pose and so on, they are really not alive.
How many hours a day do you work on writing? I mean, that’s a hard question because there’s research, etc. ...
Yeah, but pure writing ... I think my writing time is between two and six, which is four hours, every day is for writing, Every day. I don’t answer phone calls, I put my phone away ... I read emails, because they come on my computer, but otherwise I really focus on writing. I wish I could take more time for writing, but I have to do the marketing and everything else. So that’s what I usually do in the mornings, and then I have lunch, and then after lunch I spend the rest of the day writing, basically. The absolute minimum I have to write every day is a thousand words, but that’s the absolute minimum, that’s mandatory. I try to do 2000, and the average day is about 1500.
And it has to be for a book, it can’t just be random diary entries?
Oh no no no, it is the book. I always work on one book at a time. Often people wonder how an author can do it, but I think that comes with practice, that you really can write every day. And when you’re a plotter, you won’t run out of ideas, because you always know where you’re going with the story, so it’s just about writing it down. When you’re a pantser, that’s different.
Right, because you’re trying to do all the jobs at once in your head and write it down.
Mmm hmmm, and then you get into the famous writer’s block.
Do you have a separate time for editing?
I always edit on the run. So when I start my writing time, I edit what I wrote the day before, so it’s a rough edit. I’m relatively slow, I’m a slow writer, but usually what I write won’t be changed much, it will end up in the book like that. I think about it so intensely, about every sentence, so once it’s there, it will stay there. I will only change little cosmetic stuff, you know. That’s what I do in the first editing round, which is right the next day. Once the full book is done, I will go through the whole book in one edit. And then it goes to an editor, because everybody needs an editor. You can’t do it alone.
Yeah, especially if it’s a book, it’s just too long to try to do it all yourself.
In my case, I need a good proofreader because I’m not a native speaker, so I make mistakes, you know, sometimes I use the wrong words or something like that.
So when you’re doing your writing in English, do you think in English, do the whole process in English, or ...?
Mm hmm. I think in English most of the time. I also think in German, and my original mother tongue is Polish, so occasionally I think in Polish, but that’s really rare. I really like the English language, I love the English language. I think it’s the best language, actually.
Yes, because it doesn’t have as many words as German. In German, there is a word for everything. We have a word for literally everything; that’s why there are so many German words in English—zeitgeist or schadenfreude or kindergarten, because Germans have a word for everything. English is not like that, but you still can, with the smaller amount of words, you still can express yourself more precisely than in German, when writing prose especially. It’s really fascinating. I can express myself much better in English than in German. In writing dialogue ... the English language is made to be spoken. So maybe writing poetry, German is good for that, but spoken, people talking to each other, dialogue, English is the best language. I’m convinced of that.
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Anna Mocikat’s books are available on Amazon in both hardcopy and Kindle editions—you can find
Behind Blue Eyes at amazon.com/Behind-Blue-Eyes-Cyberpunk-Thriller-ebook/dp/B088GSXB88, and
Cyber Squad at amazon.com/Cyber-Squad-Gamelit-LitRPG-Adventure-ebook/dp/B0994WDCS1. She can be found on many social media platforms, including Twitter (@anna_mocikat) and Instagram (@annamocikat).