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a serialized ethno-cyber-punk novel

Sci-Fi in Kosovo: Dystopias as a Utopian Project

Sci-Fi in Kosovo: Dystopias as a Utopian Project 

By Artrit Bytyci

why (waste time to) write sci-fi in kosovo

When I wrote my first “big” work of science fiction during my high school years, it coincided with a time of great changes, all of which revolved around the Kosovo war. From starting high school in Prizren at an illegal “home-school” (because lectures in Albanian were forbidden by the Serbian regime), protests, peaceful resistance, their eventual escalation into war, escaping as refugees to Albania, NATOs air campaign against Serbia, and all the way to witnessing freedom, chaos, and the euphoria of post-war Kosovo. Among those tumultuous events, in 1999 I got to see The Phantom Menace. Even though this Star Wars movie got some pretty harsh reviews, for me it was not only an inspiration but also energized me to express my ideas through writing.

All that creative energy resulted in “The Clew,” my modest attempt to simulate Star Wars in a Kosovar context. It was a story of New Illyria — composed of four planets — which recently ended a space war with S-Colony. Its main storylines would intertwine to form a ball of yarn, a clew (hence the title): a detective investigating a mysterious murder, an admiral in the midsts of a space border incident, a young hacker who is on the run after gaining access to files she was not supposed to see, an idealistic politician navigating corruption and intrigue, and an antihero spy-assassin at the center of a great conspiracy who suddenly decides to reevaluate his allegiance to his masters. (Yeah, I know!)

Sometime around 2000–2001, I gave my newly finished “novel,” to some of my father’s academician friends for evaluation. My esteemed reviewers were baffled — it was beyond them. During their academic careers they had been preoccupied with other, more pressing problems essential to the nation’s survival. Science fiction was obviously not their forte. And so, the best they could do was to encourage me to keep writing. Although, praises from one of my reviewers came with a caveat: “science fiction might not be viewed as a serious genre and it might distract your readers.”

But, at that time, as well as now, my science fiction did one thing — it was a reflection of the current state of affairs. As Ursula K. Le Guin writes in her introduction to “The Left Hand of Darkness”: even though science fiction might often be described as, and defined as, extrapolative, it is more like a thought experiment. “Science fiction is not predictive, it is descriptive,” she writes.

My sci-fi has always been preoccupied with Utopias. That is probably because I grew up during the 1990s in Kosovo, and the one and only thing in all our minds — child and grownup alike — was the struggle for the creation of “Kosova Republikë”. In a sense, it too, was a utopian project.

In my latest story “The Arbiter,” I also set myself the task of imagining different political systems. I imagined Kosovo as a Hyper-Deregulated, Libertarian, Mercantile Info-Port, and I imagined Albania as a Techno-Dictatorship. I tried to use the cyberpunk-inspired setting to explore topics such as power, surveillance, artificial intelligence, capitalism, the future of nation-states, geopolitical isolation (especially as it relates to Kosovo). 

Cyberpunk, as you may know, is a genre of science fiction that is influenced by cybernetics, information technology, hacker culture, as well as punk subculture marked by sentiments of anti-establishment, personal freedom, and self-sufficiency. It is often featured through images of urban environments with sophisticated technology, but contrasted with social decay. Its worlds are dominated by tech corporations and conglomerates (the cyber), but nonetheless, there is some (punk) individual that rebels against this social order. These are places where, from above, you see flying cars and giant bright billboards advertising the latest technological products claiming to be able to improve your life, contrasted by the streets below that are walked by the poor, the homeless, the miserables.

It was not necessarily my intention to create grim worlds — it was as much a matter of extrapolation as it was of description. But we should not forget that every dystopia — imagined, or situated in the real world — is often founded on utopian ideals. 

a theory of games for balkans utopias/dystopias

That summer of 1999, as soon as the war was over, my family returned from Albania to the newly free Kosovo. Amidst the chaos, euphoria, and a tremendous energy charging the air, that summer in Prizren seemed like no other till then. Statues from the old regime were toppled and blown up, parties were at full swing, narrow Prizren streets were overflowing with ecstatic people, and NATO soldiers tried to make sense of it all.

And so, one of those chaotic days, a friend of mine asked if I was interested in buying some CDs, compact discs. Amidst the mayhem, some local thief had looted one of the abandoned homes. And after having sold off all the physical tech he had stolen, he was left with a bunch of shiny CDs he desperately wanted to get rid of as fast as possible.

This was my first and only purchase in the black market, but one doesn’t think all that much when sixteen, especially with all the other distractions of total freedom animating the air. So I agreed, and had my friend play the intermediary. I did not know exactly what I was getting. It was a blind purchase. But I knew one thing for sure: whatever was in those CDs was worth a lot more than the price I was paying. 

What the thief didn’t realize was that in times of cybernetics it is the information that had value, and physical things were barely containers to hold it in. 

Author Lawrence Person defined cyberpunk in simple words as “high tech, low life”. When I think about that episode from my life, its whole atmosphere was very cyberpunk: A seamless mixture of “high tech” (CDs for a Pentium PC were the last word of technology for those times) and “low life” (as exemplified by the legally blurry nature of the transaction). My friend, who played a middle-man, and I, felt like we were in one of those action movies where undercover agents bought drugs. (But isn’t information and data their own kind of an addictive drug?)

All this was happening along a background of Prizren sky, emblazoned with occasional smoke trails from some random burning house. It was as if the creation of this newborn utopia had already begun on the wrong foot. But then perhaps every creation is accompanied by destruction. 

And that’s how I got hold of a copy of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. In this videogame, after bringing Planet Earth to the brink of destruction, humanity sent a spaceship to colonize a new world. But upon arrival, the ship exploded and the survivors were scattered throughout the planet, each group creating a separate ideological faction, each trying to bring their own version of paradise. In the game, you play as one of the factions as you try to build a perfect society on a new planet. 

You start with one city and slowly expand, as you decide on your new set of values which will guide your discovery of new technology and the direction your civilization will take. From economics, to war, and diplomacy, it was an almost-perfect simulation for building utopias and dystopias, alike.

This felt awfully similar to what was happening outside, in real life Kosovo at the time — amidst all that post-war anarchy, we too were trying to build our own utopian project. 

Of course, as a sixteen-year-old, I was not aware of all these pieces of the puzzle and how they were influencing me, directly or indirectly. But be it by writing, encouraged by The Phantom Menace, or by playing Alpha Centauri, I was already engaged in word building of my imaginary societies.

the cybernetics of free speech 

The event that sparked my inspiration to begin writing “The Arbiter” as cyberpunk was when in October–November 2019, the Albanian parliament proposed a new set of laws to limit the free speech of web-based newspapers and media under the pretext of anti-defamation. In doing so it created the framework that would censor, remove content, and fine websites without the usual legal procedures or without going through independent non-governmental bodies, as would be common in functioning democracies.

So, how does this fit into science fiction, you might ask? And even more so, what do events in Albania have to do with Kosovo? They seem more like problems and concerns intended for free speech activists in emerging democracies.

But, a more apt question would be how free speech is a concern of cybernetics?

We generally associate cybernetics with information technology and digital communication, as from its early beginnings — when computers barely even existed — it was conceived as the science dealing with the transmission of messages and their feedback. (See Norbert Wiener’s 1948 seminal book “Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine”.) 

But in fact, cybernetics studies all kinds of communication: human-machine, machine-machine, human-human, and even different kinds of interactions which could be found in biological, cultural, and/or societal systems.

Therefore, free speech and censorship are, in essence, cybernetic problems since they both concern themselves with the flow of information. For example, if you cut certain parts of the signal from a message, under the pretext that it is noise (or in this case fake news), you could ultimately change the meaning of the said message.

That is why it seemed apt to set “The Arbiter” in the cyberpunk genre of science fiction. It was as much a matter of inspiration, a homage towards the previous great works, but also because the style of cyberpunk — “high tech, low life” as author Lawrence Person called it — fit perfectly with the content I wanted to explore and discuss.

While writing “The Arbiter,” I used these cybernetic ideas about signals and messages to create different kinds of societies. I portrayed a version of Kosovo as a society which believed that noise is an essential part of the system. On the other hand, I portrayed Albania as a society which believed that undesired content is noise that is polluting its signals, and that it should be “cleansed” in order to best achieve their ideological goals.

In a sense, both of these imagined cyberpunk societies wanted to achieve their own visions of utopia.

Also, discussing another country’s media laws through science fiction is not only a matter of relevance but also of necessity. Balkans is no longer just some powderkeg from the good old days. Now it is an interlinked powderkeg. Any political scientist who’s worth their two cents will tell you that countries — not just in the Balkans, but anywhere in the World — exist in interrelation to each other, and what happens in one, affects the others, directly or indirectly. Hence they too exist in a cybernetic relationship, like cells in some greater organism. And that is why events in Albania, such as the proposal of new media-censoring laws, should concern Kosovo.

And so, being a great fan of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, I could not help myself but be inspired by it when I imagined the arbiters as cybernetically enhanced hitmen tasked with eliminating the journalists and their allies. By taking this premise, and extrapolating Albania’s proposed media laws, let’s say, 40 or 50 years into the future, resulted in the cyberpunk-flavored world we see in the beginning scenes of “The Arbiter.” Its premise — the hunt for exiled journalists on Kosovo soil — is as much an imagining of new worlds, as it is a reflection and commentary on the current state of affairs.

the future of kosovar sci-fi

There are good reasons to write science fiction in Kosovo, despite it not being traditionally a widely written genre in Albanian. We can make a case that science fiction is quintessential for Kosovo’s survival as a young state. Through it, we can crystalize our desires and aspirations, but more importantly, it can be a tool for self-criticism and improvement. The only way to truly grow as a society and as a young country is if we truly question our motivations, goals, and actions. And science fiction could be a tool in our quest to chisel out our real-life utopias. 

Imagining geopolitical landscapes and utopias/dystopias that emerge thereof could be said to be a “professional hazard” inherent in being a citizen of one of the youngest countries in the world. But even though world-building might be its first necessary step, like setting up the equipment for an experiment, science fiction should go beyond it. 

In my early science fiction experiment “The Clew,” back in 1999–2000, I attempted to write a space opera and, instead, ended up with a science fiction story that reflected Kosovo’s early days of state-building, containing all of its insecurities, paranoias, and conspiracy theories experienced by a young recently free region temporarily administered by the UN. 

In my latest experiment, “The Arbiter,” in trying to set it in a cyberpunk universe, I created something else, which I call EthnoCyberPunk.

So goes the role of an artist as an accidental inventor. Just as is the case with science, even mistakes and failed experiments are as valuable as positive results. As these imperfect attempts evolve, they result in something else entirely; we often refer to this by another word — innovation. And this innovation through experimentation should be the main tenet driving not only science fiction but all literature in Kosovo. 

Hence I am happy to announce the creation of the Kosovo Science Fiction Society: KSci-Fi. I wish it will be a place where we could conduct those thought experiments mentioned by Ursula K. Le Guin. A place where we could “run the simulations”, and in doing so, explore new dimensions of our current states of being. Sometimes, it is easier to see the obvious through a filter of fiction, than it is to admit what our desensitized eyes keep seeing each day. 

Therefore, in cooperation with StoryLab and Artro Books, we are proud to present KSci-Fi also as a publishing imprint for all things science fiction, with this book as its inaugural publication. I hope that future Kosovar science fiction will not only cover all the usual tropes we are accustomed to seeing, but will go beyond and invent new and original ideas and concepts. 

Through these initiatives, we hope to inspire a new generation of writers, storytellers, researchers, filmmakers, artists, to use science fiction as a medium to explore topics of their interest. We also hope to inspire a new generation of readers and audiences, and present them not only with the latest discussions on sci-fi, but to also serve as a forum where they can express their own ideas.

Beside art and literature projects we also plan to engage in academic research. Earlier generations of science fiction writers in the Balkans deserve proper recognition and respect. Some we know, but others might have been lost through the cracks of history. We hope to learn from the dreams as well as mistakes and disillusions of our forebears. By studying these authors and their works will give us a new understanding not only of where we are going but also of whence we came from. And very rightfully so. Building a utopia while ignoring the past (knowingly or unknowingly) often proves to turn out dystopian. 


Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. 1969.

Person, Lawrence. “Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto.” Mirrorshades. 1986.

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. 1948.

Wiener, Norbert. Human Uses for Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. 1954.

Categorized as: nonfiction

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