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Ramiro Sanchiz: Trashpunk

Cyberpunk started, to all intents and purposes in the late 1970 in the US, with the release of William Gibson‘s Neuromancer. The movement had been very much influenced by a variety of precursors, in particular Philip K. Dick and J G Ballard. Though the linked Wikipedia article barely mentions it, it did spread to other countries, particularly the UK and Japan but also in Latin America, particularly Cuba. It also produced various derivatives. One derivative not mentioned in the linked article is trashpunk. This is defined as the developing countries’ version of cyberpunk.

Ramiro Sanchiz initially published a novella calledTrashpunk in 2012. It was first serialised in four parts online and then published in book form. This version is what the introduction calls a remasterised version, with the addition of some other stories.

The story of the main work – Trashpunk – features as always in Sanchiz’s work, Federico Stahl, who is both the narrator and hero. Stahl is a writer but he has not written for two years, primarily because of Agustina. She was his girlfriend but she died though it seems that they may have separated before her death. He now gets his jollies from porn but also by spying oh the two young women in the flat opposite, who have the habit of walking around while only scantily dressed. For his non-sexual thrills, he has drink and drugs, with his friends Rex and Jon. Rex has a friend who designs drugs and he gets plenty from him, which he shares with Jon and Federico.

One day Rex recounts a story in his pursuit of designer drugs. He had been sent to a flat in the Palacio Salvo (literally: Safe Palace) to pick up some drugs. Rex had been before to this building and it had frightened him somewhat as it has long mysterious corridors and apparently subterranean tunnels, which Rex had found by accident and nearly got completely lost.

Rex is surprised when the door to the flat is opened by an elderly man and even more surprised when he finds it is filled with a variety of out-of-date computer equipment, some of which seems to be functioning. The old man asks Rex if he knows anything about artificial intelligence. He refers to the Turing Test, which impresses the old man, even though Rex thinks it is called the Tunisia Test.

They get into a discussion – which we learn of by Rex telling Federico about his visit – about the problem of distinguishing something that is intelligent from something that only appears intelligent. If you listen to Ziggy Stardust on a CD, are you hearing David Bowie or only a simulacrum of Bowie? If you you listen to the song on vinyl, surely that is more authentic? He then gets on to the issue of communicating with an intelligent machine which, as we shall see, is key to the story. More particularly, the old man – Enrique Wollfig – has developed an artificial intelligence which has a mind of its own and which he feels, wants to communicate with him, Wollfig, who is reluctant to take drugs, needed for the communication experiment – wants Rex to carry out an experiment which will enable the machine to communicate with him. Federico is somewhat sceptical but nevertheless interested.

Rex readily consents and, indeed, carries out the experiment under Wollfig’s supervision. For Federico it was the journey of a lifetime but the old man pronounced it a failure. Rex suggests Federico as the next guinea pig and Federico accepts. He visits the old man. He notices, next to Wollfig’s flat, another flat with some young men who seem to be running a sort of brothel. The old man chases them off.

Wollfig does not have a high opinion of writers. However, they get into a discussion about language and about how there are some things that cannot be expressed in conventional language. They also talk about the legendary but presumably fictitious Emilio Scarone, a writer whom Federico has read and who has been an influence on Wolffig. Scarlone is also a character in other works by Sanchiz.

More importantly they discuss the issue of whether a machine can hack our perception of reality. However, Federico wonders whether Wollfig is mad and perhaps Rex is mad and even he himself is mad. But there still remains the issue of whether the machine can communicate, wants to communicate with humans. And does the machine exist in its own right or is it no longer tied to a specific piece of hardware but has spread itself throughout the network and is, in short, everywhere?

While all this is going on Federico has in mind the novel he will be writing about these events and, inevitably, what he writes and what he experiences may not be identical. However, he goes off, an appointment made to carry out the experiment, an experiment which will not work.

The second story – Trees in the Night – also features Federico Stahl but a different Federico. The narrator is Uruguayan and makes documentaries. He and two colleagues, are in Chile to make a documentary about Cybersin. Cybersin is a project set up by the late Chilean president Salvador Allende. It was a massive complex in a remote part of Chile and was a giant artificial intelligence project. Allende got distracted by his political problems and eventually the project imploded, destroying the complex. However, the ruins are still there and the documentalists were visiting to make a film of it, guided by Federico Stahl, a Uruguayan who had lived for some time in Chile.

We get several references to The Stalkers (the English term is used) who seem to be a group of people who take an interest in places like Cybersin and Chernobyl.

Stahl warns them that the place that the place is dangerous and that hey must not open any of the many doors, though they do, to reveal rooms full of antiquated computer equipment.

This seems to have been a place not unlike the artificial intelligence in Wollfig’s flat. Indeed, we learn that Wollfig was involved in the project. Cybersin seemed to have a mind of its own and may have opened a portal to another world. Whatever the case, the visit affected the three Uruguayans, not least because they had differing memories of their visit and did not work together again.

I will briefly mention one of the other stories – Continuity of Cats – which mirrors the first story to some degree. We are back to Federico Stahl, the writer, in Montevideo (dirty realism and Bukowskian poetry) but with the Palacio Salvo and its underground tunnels and Wollfig with his artificial intelligence, though this time it seem to be a form of the Internet or an Internet parasite or a macrovirus… Wollfig sells Federico a TK90X, an early Brazilian ZX Spectrum clone.

Artificial intelligence can take two basic forms. The first is the one we are becoming familiar with, namely individual AI devices which can clean your house, make cars and act as guides or hosts. However, Sanchiz is clearly interested in the second form, whereby a giant artificial intelligence is created which very much has a mind of its own, a mind not necessarily created by humans and which is not dependent on an individual device or body, but spreads throughout the network, whatever that network may be. These stories start to explore that idea.

Sadly, his work is not (yet) available in English. if you read Spanish, you can find fellow writers at his publisher Mig-21.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Ediciones del CEC
No English translation