It's All a Mating Dance: An Interview with Mark Everglade

Science Fiction encapsulates far more than hard science applied to storytelling. The genre considers history and futurity, gender and sexuality, war and the dynamics of civilizations, the human mind and body, technological progress and regress, life and death. Science fiction is at once about possibility and the hard limitations that humans face, whether of their own strength and lifespan or of the secrets of the near infinite expanse of our universe. And the inner space of the mind and body, grey matter and genetics, are just as fascinating as the vast reaches of outer space.

When setting out to explore the interconnectivity of the many worlds of science fiction with human thought and human history, Mark Everglade is the bodhisattva of choice, a sociologist by training with a Master’s of Science in Conflict Theory. As well as a scholar, Mark writes visceral and intelligent cyberpunk fiction as evinced in his recent novel Hemispheres. He took some time out to talk to us about capitalism, the hyperreal, Emile Durkheim, mirrorshades, evolution, and sociobiology, among other things.

RT: 2o2o has been a divisive year politically. It's an election year and the presidential race has been framed as a battle for the continuation of democracy. What is a science fiction writer supposed to do with that? Is it career suicide to engage politics or will readers appreciate a voice that takes on hard topics of the day?

ME: As a cyberpunk author, I find many cyberpunks either very liberal feminists, like Melissa Scott and Ren Warom, or extremely conservative anarchists. Cyberpunks aren’t tame people willing to take compromised middle ground approaches. Yet cyberpunk as a sub-genre is not inherently liberal or conservative. By writing dystopian literature we are always being political. The definition of dystopia is based on a set of values. Those values can’t help but intersect with the political environment. When we write of corporate exploitation of employees, for instance, we are writing from a position to critique industrial society, which William Gibson himself said was one of the purposes of his work. While that doesn’t necessarily mean we are against capitalism or industrialization, the masses typically synonymize anyone who offers a critique of the system as being a dissident who wants to destroy it, a cognitive error on their part. So, I think all dystopian authors can find themselves easily drawn into politics. When one is working within a large sub-genre of science fiction like space-faring novels, then being political is okay, as the audience is large enough that it can sustain being divided. But working within the much smaller cyberpunk niche – one has to be careful to avoid alienation.

The safe thing to do is to focus on human freedom, something both liberals and conservatives appreciate. We all oppose totalitarianism deep down, even if on the surface we're being trained to herald it.

RT: Yeah, it's tricky to openly oppose human freedom and still have the masses behind you. Though a good application of Machiavelli's fear-based leadership strategies can go a long way. When people have to choose between awful and worse, they generally try to stay away from worse. On Twitter, I see a lot of popular science fiction authors very openly against England's Boris Johnson and our despot hopeful, Donald Trump. My feeling is that many of the older science fiction readership is just as likely to have conservative values as they are to have liberal leanings, but that younger science fiction readers are more often progressive or liberal. But I'm only thinking in terms of readers. I think that the more generalized Star Wars/Trek fan is less inclined toward a specific political leaning. Science fiction movies have become a universally accepted popular form of entertainment. The draw is different there than to the science fiction's readership. Do you have any ideas why that might be?

ME: Human freedoms can be stripped away with celebration if it’s in the name of a false sense of security. What’s sad is that this security in our current state of affairs in the U.S. is based on the exaggeration that our nation is under attack from within, when over 99% percent of protestors are peaceful. As philosopher Robert Wright states, the media centralizes on that 1% of radicals on each side, which makes the nation seem less stable than it is. This perception of instability is enough to destabilize it, as the Russians know. Even our currency is worth nothing but the perception of its value. When Baudrillard and Hegel talk about the end of history, what they mean is the end of determined history. That is, history manipulated by physical facts. Our current history will be made based on narratives and social facts, to use a Durkheimian term. These facts will become more and more separated from physical reality over time, and thus more flexible and less stable in their interpretation, what postmodern scholars call simulacra creating a hyperreal reality. Of course, people come to sci-fi for escapism and entertainment; they’re not looking for a revolution or even political commentary, and they may not understand the latent commentary within each book either. One can read Animal Farm and enjoy it on the surface, for instance. So, the political themes in a book aren’t always apparent to the average reader unless the author chooses to make polarizing social media posts to draw attention to those aspects. A good author can take the perspective of someone on either political spectrum convincingly without labeling them good or bad.

Those drawn to harder forms of sci-fi like Star Trek may be a different audience than the Star Wars audience (and certainly both sides will vehemently proclaim such). Many sci-fi readers have very systematic minds that want order. On a separate note, in cyberpunk the audience is generally male, focused on the world building of the books they read according to research while ignoring the characters. Most science fiction readers are younger, not because they’re more gung-ho on the genre necessarily, but that reading fiction in general declines as one ages according to research, despite stereotypes to the contrary.

RT: The prototypical cyberpunk hero is almost laughable. The mirrorshades they almost always wear keep the hero jacked into multiple realities, but they also act as an emotive screen, distancing their personality, ensuring that the action and world(s) of the story take precedent. Is this move away from personality and sociality mostly benign? Is it, perhaps, a gesture toward video gaming, where action and the video game world is primarily in focus? Beyond what we've already highlighted, why is the subject overshadowed? Is it all a result of technology? And even then, are there negative consequences toward minimizing the subject?

ME: The analogue in modern society to this emotive screen is social media, where we can see our words on the screen and reflect upon the way they sound before pressing send. I can select a smile emoticon on a message intended to be bitingly sarcastic while grimacing in the real world. There’s no backspacing in offline conversation though. I asked my social media followers how honestly they portrayed themselves on social media and most people said about 75%. Yet whether in the real world or the virtual, most people live inauthentic lives, simply inheriting the mindset of their parents (95% of people follow the religion of their parents, for instance). Of course, this is stated within the bias of a transcendentalist individualism typical of the US.

Cyberpunk captures the gaming audience and definitely reads like a game, from the lack of exposition, to the one-man revolution, to the focus on fast-paced action at the expense of story and characterization. I mean, who really hacked every computer in Deus Ex Human Evolution to follow the email chain of the backstory (well, I did, but…). In a recent interview, Elias Hurst discussed how such games inspired the imagery of his books, for instance. Though, I also thought he wrote a great story that avoided many common pitfalls. The overshadowing of the subject or character arc by action in cyberpunk could be connected to this disconnection between self and reality, this intermediary virtual world, but I don’t think so. From a Lacanian perspective, we’re always disconnected from reality, and we only form a connection through fantasy. The virtual does serve as this fantasy though (and often times VR sections read more like fantasy than science fiction; my own such VR section in Hemispheres was based on Alice in Wonderland). I connect the lack of connecting to the subject in cyberpunk with strong characterization to the sub-genre mostly being penned by men for men. Sociologists discuss how men are more instrumental in their relationships than women. When men get together, they don’t just get together to talk, they get together to do something, to create a project. (On a personal note, you can see this in our own communication – whereby we often interact within the terms of accomplishing something, some end result. Within that throng of productivity, I find human relations more comfortable, but I often reflect on that). Women are equally productive and equally capable project managers, but they’re also capable of getting together to just talk without an end product in mind, something that men find uncomfortable unless they use alcohol, which produces virtually no psychological effect but is socially constructed to do so in a way that mediates our social anxiety. So, we would think then that female cyberpunk authors would create deeper characters by virtue of their gender. But they don’t. Because they write to fit a male audience.

Some have even had to take on male pennames in the past to sell their books.

RT: So, are males afraid of their own psychological complexity or is it more utilitarian? Perhaps capitalistic societies have caused men to value pursuits that more readily transfer to capital? Or perhaps there's a simpler answer--is everything men do a result of evolutionary pressures? Are we either completing projects to increase our chance to mate or to ensure that our offspring have the best shot at surviving until they can produce offspring? And where does the desire to map the world and virtual worlds fit into male personality?

ME: Psychological Complexity: I don’t think men are afraid of their own psychological complexity; they’re just terrified to express it, so they suppress and repress it as part of basic ego defense mechanisms against the shaming superego, which is the internalized institutional patriarchy. Many men have a conscious or unconscious fear that if they allow themselves to be sensitive, they’ll be labeled as homosexual, which they’ve been taught is bad. They’re taught it’s bad because it’s bad for population growth; of course, homophobes don’t realize that’s the function they’re serving. Foucault showed that sexual laws are based on regulating the population needs of society and its military and adjusted based on this need. Men are taught to be emotionally castrated. When people are taught how to be professional in a workplace, that basically means be emotionally castrated, be male. But men are no less emotional from birth than women, it’s just less socially acceptable to express emotions as a man. This isn’t true in all cultures, however; anthropologists speak of how Iranian male poets reflect their sensitivity for instance, but in the West it’s often the case. Many male authors have told me its cathartic to write, but I think they’re writing characters’ emotions while being disconnected from their own. You can always tell when a male writer is writing a female character for instance, as it’s never as convincing as when a female writer writes a female character. When we look at sexuality on the Kinsey scale, most people are not 100% homosexual nor heterosexual. Psychological research has proven that those who believe they’re 100% heterosexual are more likely to be repressed homosexuals. Yet neither our gender constructions, nor our language, expresses this fullness of the human experience in a non-essentialist (spectrum) manner. Males are alienated from their sexuality, which is an expression of their power of creation in the universe that feeds into all other self-expression including their art. Cyberpunk reflects this emotional castration. As we move higher in socio-economic standing, androgyny becomes more accepted and pronounced, perhaps because of the inverse relationship between testosterone and intelligence, though that’s tentative. The lower classes despise the upper classes lack of masculinity to maintain their own egos as a defense against the shame of having less. The Democrat versus Republican narrative is really feminine versus male, caring for others versus take it like a man and stand on your own, when viewed psychologically. That’s not to say that Republicans are less compassionate than Liberals, as I don’t believe that’s true, but that they view self-reliance as a more important trait.

Value of labor in capitalism: While I’m not anti-capitalistic per se, it does erode trust according to Durkheim, and more recent rather conservative scholars Tooby and Cosmides, the father and mother of evolutionary psychology, a rebranding of sociobiology. In bartering societies, you often barter goods that aren’t yet produced. “If you give me a barrel of wine, I’ll give you 1,000 shucks of corn when harvest comes.” This creates trust and a relationship between vendors that are individual agents. Scanning a credit card is based on this promise of harvest as well, but it’s socially perceived as different when major corporations are the actors. No longer building trust through our economic transactions, they become just rote calculations. I’m not sure whether capitalism has made us value economic-minded product-based pursuits more, though our work week has increased from 14-22 hours in ancient times to 55-65 hours, I would really tie this back to the agricultural revolution. People speak of technology impacting human civs – nothing impacted us as much as the plow. The internet is nothing to the plow in terms of impact.

Evolutionary Psychology: I must preface I’m strongly biased towards a sociobiological explanation that many sociologists would have my head over stating. Yes, it’s all a mating dance, all of it.

Regarding the mapping of worlds, mobility is associated with being male. From foot binding in the East to keeping a woman “barefoot and pregnant” as the Southern expression goes, to even wearing high heels and skirts that lack pockets, women are forced to be immobile. This revolves around the fear of cuckolding, as raising another man’s child while you think you’re raising your own is genetically the equivalent of suicide, which is why stepchildren are killed by their parents 1,000 times more often than biological children according to Daly and Wilson.

RT: Perhaps one day internet-based AI will virtually oversee the plowing of all our fields. And one last question, Mark. What current projects are taking your focus? What book do we all need to go read this week?

ME: A technocracy run by A.I. We’ll see how that turns out. I may work on a sequel to my cyberpunk / space opera novel Hemispheres. As far as books to read, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. The book counteracts the pessimism of academic conversations like this by reminding us of how much progress we’ve made as a species.

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