My Mechsuit is an Anti-Capitalist Machine: An Interview with Scrapyard Smackdown 2068 Champion, Nez Nebula
‘Nebula’s shielding for a long time. Are they damaged? Having power problems? I DON’T BELIEVE IT, WHERE DID THAT DRILL COME FROM?’
If you didn't see it live, you've almost certainly seen a clip online. The astonishing moment when Nez Nebula's wearable robot armour transformed live in the arena has gone interstellar, racking up millions of views in its first day.
Although highlights circulate every year, the community behind Smackdown, known as scrappers, remains largely anonymous, communicating only via the underweb. Born out of a counterculture that rebelled against high house prices, industrial waste, and hyper-commercialism, its participants live on the wrong side of the law but arguably the right side of history. Smackdown is a highpoint in public opinion of scrappers, but when the hype dies down, it is followed by a brutal backlash from the corporations whose yards they occupy.
With Nebula’s viewing numbers reaching unprecedented levels, maybe this time scrappers can ride the wave of public support all the way to full legalisation of their chosen lifestyle. Our in-house reporter, G-Qi Ren, scored an exclusive interview with Nebula, along with access to their yard, to find out what legalising scrapping could mean for them and the wider community.
Nebula greets me outside the towering stainless steel gate of their yard, wearing cargo pants, and a crop top with rechargeable cooling cables which create a geometric blue pattern. A quick swipe of their hand over the security panel, and the gate begins to grind back. The fact that the monitor crackles and goes black for a second is the only sign that we're technically breaking and entering.
'Home sweet home.' Nebula grins as we step inside.
Like many occupied yards, it's a major dumping ground for several corporations on the outskirts of a big city—'in Northern England' is as specific as I'm allowed to get. However, even though the city's skyscrapers loom on the horizon, its identity feels inconsequential; in the community, yards are known by nicknames, not locations. 'We're FAFO. It sums up our attitude to Smackdown and discovering your gender identity,' Nebula says.
This yard is small, about the size of two football pitches. It's surprisingly well organised, the tech grouped into neat stacks which look safe and navigable. Each section is under a tarp, with handmade signs like 'beauty,' or 'spare parts.’
'We did that,' Nebula comments. 'The corps just dump stuff. If it wasn't for us, this place would be a gigantic, teetering trash heap, corroding into the earth.'
Nebula isn’t wrong. A 2066 study by grassroots organisation Community Water found a strong correlation between sites of scrapper occupation and improved water quality, both in groundwater and nearby sources like rivers.
Nebula nods when I quote the study back to them. ‘It’s not safe for us if we don’t manage the environment carefully. That has knock-on benefits.’
The living accommodation consists of various pop-up structures. The most popular is the Shockwave Instapod. Originally a temporary earthquake relief structure, its bamboo poles and woven smartfabric walls are repeated dozens of times, seeming to breathe as they ripple in the light wind. 'We hacked them a bit, just for fun,' Nebula admits, as the tents pulse their way through the rainbow.
As we make our way through the yard, I'm greeted with friendly smiles. I suspect it's because I'm with Nebula. Normally, scrappers are wary of outsiders, and with good reason. 'People from other yards aren't as big of a deal as the press makes out. I was in one yard that was kind of combative, but most scrappers want to co-operate. The police are a bigger problem.'
Whilst there are several petitions to legalise scrapping, the lifestyle is still illegal, and scrappers are regularly harassed or moved on. Community projects are often lost in raids, and the communities themselves can fall apart. All in the name of 'protecting' piles of discarded trash.
'I'm lucky in that I've only been moved on once,' Nebula says. 'But it was real nasty, middle of the night, smoke canisters and get-the-fuck-out stuff.' The raid left Nebula, at the time just nineteen, either on the streets or trying to break into a new yard.
‘People might ask what the difference is, but no scrapper sees themselves as homeless. It’s a route out of that for some people, but for many of us it’s a choice. When your yard gets broken up by police though, then you’re homeless, or at risk of it.’
I ask Nebula what nefarious activities had warranted that raid. 'Growing vegetables. It was this sweet little agric commune that co-built everything and donated its surplus veg.'
Criminalising scrapping disproportionately targets yards who are making progress in their communities, both because their facilities are more noticeable, and because they are more likely to engender positive public opinion.
'People think the laws protect them from the small number of scrappers who are violent or anti-social. But the corps tend to leave those types alone. Why target someone who’s providing you with free PR against the community? The second yard I wound up in was more like that. There was a survival of the fittest culture. I was told what parts I could use, and had to fight people there for resources. I only stayed three months, just until I found a yard that felt more me.
‘The first time I walked in here, it felt right. People were stripping down beauty tech. There was a system, people calling parts or matching them to people without having to ask. Everyone knew what everyone else was working on, and there was a desire to get the most benefit for everyone. I like that much more than alphas who strip the good parts then throw out scraps. This place reminded me of my first yard, only the projects are all gender fuckery and robotics, which is much more me.'
The centre of the yard is a riot of colour, sparks, and noise. The whine of laser grinders mixes with hip-hop from towering speakers, the eerie wails of homemade synthesisers layered into the periphery, before it segues into a cheesy pop hit from half a century ago. People cluster, chatting as they pick apart circuit boards, or cleave open huge industrial machines. Almost everyone sports brightly coloured hair, and though their clothes are functional, protecting against the sun's relentless rays and the sparks that fly from their work, they match Nebula's, with jagged neon patterns of visible wiring.
'That's an FAFO original. It's getting widespread, but we were the first to do the neon cooling wire thing.'
They take me a little closer to the current work. A body sculpting pod lies like a surgery patient on a huge stainless steel bench, wires trailing from its gutted insides. Someone wields a handheld laser, extracting parts with precision care. They add them to a bench, and I recognise the microprinters which produce temporary body parts, along with a hairstyling helmet, its growth serum being syphoned into a vial held by a tiny robot arm.
'Dani gets claustrophobic, so we're breaking the pod down into its constituent parts,' Nebula explains. 'Individualisation is a huge part of scrapper culture. Mass markets cater to trends and demographics, so even though they're catering well to queer people, it's queer people as a concept, not as individuals. This way, we get to make exactly what each person wants or needs.
'There's also the fact that we get it for free.' Nebula grins. It’s also all a generation or more out of date, but that doesn't seem to faze them. 'It works just fine. Each “cutting edge” only lasts five minutes. Trying to keep up is what creates all this waste.'
It's evident from looking at Nebula and their cohort that talent isn't in short supply. Whilst there’s an element of scavenging, there’s also an element of innovation. Items are not just reused, but pried open, fused together, reinvented. The abilities of those in the yard would be enough to pass any robotics degree, or push to the top of a career ladder. So, why don’t they?
'It's not down to pure ability. Firstly, none of those fields ever has been either; they're a combination of ability and opportunity. The costs of university are astronomical. Maybe I'm bright or lucky enough to get a scholarship, but it's still about being eloquent enough to beg for it. And if I'm one of the ten percent they give it to, there's no doubt in my mind that there's plenty of talented people who didn't get the break. Same with getting into a tech company. I don't want to be thrown a bone to lure me into being part of a broken system. I'd rather stay on the outside.'
It's not just the opportunities to get in, which have been significantly levelled over the years, that drive people like Nebula to the scrapper lifestyle.
'Corps don't teach people to be curious. All the tech comes in sealed plastic units. Most people don't know how any of the products they use work. They absolutely can't repair them themselves—they can't even get into them. If it breaks, buy a new one. If you wanna know anything about it, run yourself into debt studying, then compete for a place in a corporation that thinks you're as disposable as all the plastic crap they make.'
Support for scrapping is inconsistent. There is increasing criticism of companies who violently evict peaceful communities like Nebula's from their yards, but boycotts trend online for a day or two, without making long term impact. 'Overall, I do feel like public sympathy is shifting. People used to call us lazy and selfish.
I think they’re waking up to the fact that scrapping means we're not monetising our abilities, or contributing ourselves as a resource to apocalyptic capitalism. Instead of tightly controlled hypotheticals with a billion hoops to jump through for permission and funding, we make the things that would improve our own lives right now, and all with recycled and repurposed goods. Or we do things for the sheer joy of it—not all tech has to be profitable, it can be for fun or curiosity, like Smackdown. My mechsuit is an anti-capitalist machine.’
Smackdown is a major contributor to public support. Still a scrappers-only event that shies away from mainstream broadcast or corporate sponsorship, the event has a solid cult following among urban youth and robotics innovators, and every year a few impressive highlights go viral. It's impossible to deny the creativity and talent that goes into producing the armour, or the drive of those who make it.
'Plus everyone loves watching big-ass robots smash the shit out of each other,' Nebula says with a laugh.
By now, we’ve reached the back of the yard, where there’s a small stage. The lighting rig is a Frankensteinian thing, held together with gaffer tape and willpower. 'You still feel like absolute magic standing up there,' Nebula comments. FAFO frequently puts its assets to use in the form of tech-bending drag shows, though no one batted an eyelid when Nebula opted for Smackdown instead. 'Smackdown is an art form too, and the community is supportive of what anyone wants to do. There's a group of us that are like…why have a gender, or genders, when you can have a mechsuit? Resculpting your physical body is fun, but so is having chainsaw hands. In this yard, the point of tech is liberation from the limitations of your natural body. You'd be surprised how well Smackdown goes with drag shows and gender-chaos.'
There's certainly a parallel between the transformative tech favoured by FAFO and the stunts Nebula's mechsuit pulled in the Smackdown final, seemingly crafting new weapons at the touch of a few buttons. But the stunts went beyond what most people would imagine from looking at the resources on offer.
'Amazing what you can do with no restrictions.' Nebula smirks. 'But if you want to know more, you'll have to get onto the underweb. That’s where I'll be releasing the details.' They laugh at the shocked look on my face. 'That's what scrappers do. Smackdown is a competition, sure, but we're about open-source innovation. I look forward to everyone taking advantage of this, and having to come up with something even more outrageous for next year.'
It's hard to imagine how much further Nebula could push the boundaries. One thing's certain, though: they don't need the money and infrastructure of a major corporation behind them to achieve their best—as they intimated, that may act as a hindrance to creativity and potential.
But corporate and capitalist structures still manage to loom large over Nebula’s existence, with the constant threat of violent eviction. And for what? Creating for pleasure not profit? Contributing to their community, and helping the environment?
In a vibrant society that has done so much to promote inclusion, why has that tolerance not extended to people living outside traditional economic structures?
Perhaps it's time for another revolution.
Petitions to decriminalise scrapyard occupation and foraging, along with further information about supporting the scrapper community can be found at scrapally.org.uk
About the Author
P.S.C. Willis (they/them) is a queer British writer, currently living in Shanghai. They are a graduate of both Newcastle and Reading University in the UK. They are an avid text-based role-player and an active member of the Shanghai Writing Workshop. They have been published in the anthology And Lately, the Sun and in DreamForge Magazine. Current projects include polishing several short stories and finding them homes, and editing a YA novel. P likes to write stories that allow others to believe in good people, in magic, or both, and aims to make the world a better place through stories. Twitter: @psc_willis
The following is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, events and incidents are the products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events is purely coincidental.