Nothing Here Newsletter

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Wandering the Icelandic States of America

Note: This post was originally a bonus issue for the Nothing Here newsletter. They usually stay locked for a year, but I decide to unlock this one early for the 1-year anniversary of Death Stranding‘s release.


Life imitates art

Death Stranding was originally released for PlayStation 4 on November 8th, 2019. In the world of Death Stranding, a near-Extinction level event (called “the Death Stranding”) has forced survivors to live confined indoors, relying on porters to deliver most of what they need to survive and thrive. What was meant as a weird and unique sort of post-apocalypse ended up paralleling the way many of us have spent large chunks of 2020.

Playing as Sam Porter Bridges (yes, the character names in Death Stranding are consistently terrible), I have delivered food, booze, books, medicine, and even fresh hot pizza to lonely survivors…all of which I have also had delivered to my house during lockdown, by invariably underpaid delivery drivers wearing masks. (While Death Stranding has a number of hat and glasses options, they missed out on including face masks. This inclusion would have surely cemented Kojima’s status as an actual prophet*.)

And while the porters in Death Stranding couldn’t exactly be called “gig economy workers” they are literally paid in Likes, further cementing the link between the game world and the lives of app-based delivery workers who run the risk of losing income if their rating (or, how well liked they are) drops too low. Not only that, but after moving into the game’s second area you become a contractor for a second courier company, which is reminiscent of the way precarious app workers need to sign up for multiple competing apps just to ensure they have enough work coming in. In Death Stranding though, Bridges is happy for you to work with and for Fragile Express, but in the dystopian (possibly apocalyptic) setting that we call “the real world,” workers are forced to run competing apps on separate phones, thanks to Silicon Valley arrogance and its anti-competitive nature, leading to dashboards that slowly look more like something from the cyberpunk oeuvre. (And don’t get me started on the waste of rare minerals, energy, etc.)

But while Death Stranding might seem a little close to home in some ways, there’s another way that the developers entirely missed the mark.

http://www.kojimaproductions.jp/uploads/works/406c15773522db206a8ecda30f1d5e9fd6409868.jpg

Hindsight is…

I began playing Death Stranding on its PC release, on the 15th of July, 2020. By the middle of July we’d watched America war with itself for close to 2 months following the murder of George Floyd. We saw police continue to murder and brutalise people (especially people of colour) even while under the heaviest scrutiny they have possibly ever experienced, demonstrating exactly how far beyond reformation these gangs in blue really are. We saw the National Guard deployed, and we saw the President threaten to deploy the US military in cities across the country. We saw faceless, nameless, identification-less agents from a variety of federal agencies black bag US citizens and threaten others at gunpoint. (We also saw a mass protest movement, and we saw people willing to stand against a corrupt state in numbers never before witnessed in the USA.) We saw far-right militias on the streets and police ignoring (or fraternising with) them, we saw police committing and allowing violence, just as long as it was wielded against the people standing up for the rights of Black people not to be killed in their homes and on the streets.

I don’t need to remind you about all this (if you were keeping up with the news and/or the newsletter during that time, you know exactly what I’m talking about), but I mention it to provide some context. Because it was against this real-life backdrop that the characters of Death Stranding begged Sam Porter Bridges to help rebuild America by trudging across the continent on foot and reconnecting a series of bunkers and underground towns to the chiral network (think sci-fi internet). As I’m sure you can imagine it’s an incongruous message for 2020. These people – the President, her daughter, and her advisors – begged Sam (ie me) to help rebuild America, but all I could think was “Why would I ever want to do that? It’s a failed experiment.” That introduction to the game, at that point in time, was almost enough to make me stop playing. And indeed, it’s odd that after finishing with Metal Gear Solid, a series that was often critical of American militarism and particularly the corporatisation thereof, Hideo Kojima opens his next game with what can only be read as pro-America propaganda.

So while delivering goods to people, ahem, stranded in their homes made Death Stranding feel very of the moment, in other ways it feels like a relic of 2007 – a time when America was bolstered by war and post-9/11 nationalism, and when American people, the government, military, and Hollywood could all believe in the idea of America as an unqualified force for good. It was a time when it was easy to buy into this rebooted form of the American Dream (powered by a housing market racing toward collapse); before the wars in the Middle East revealed themselves to be quagmires, and before the Global Financial Crisis tore a veil from our eyes. The veils have continued to fall, with the acceleration of mass shootings, far-right violence, police violence, racism, ur-fascism, and a continued degradation of conditions for your average American while the elite continue to gain wealth and power, even as their truly disgusting predilections (Epstein, etc) and corruptions (the Panama Papers) are revealed. All told, in 2020 Death Stranding feels both timely in the context of our global pandemic and completely anachronistic in its view of America**.

I guess one of the reasons why I was able to look past the American Exceptionalism on display in the game’s opening hours is because Death Stranding is obviously a global product, despite its story. Hideo Kojima is Japanese, as are most of the people who worked on the game, the cast includes the French Léa Seydoux and the Danish Mads Mikkelsen among others, much of the game’s music is provided by the Icelandic dream pop band Low Roar, and the geography of the game is obviously (and painstakingly) modelled on Iceland, even if the writing wants to convince us it’s the landscape of the former United States of America.

It’s almost like Kojima et al felt they needed to set the game in America because the mass cultural export of the idea of America has made it into a sort of de facto setting, even if (or perhaps especially if) the story is about a global event. Besides Norman Reedus’ accent, very little in Death Stranding feels American at all.

Fully automated lockdown communism

It seems pointless to offer a spoiler warning for a game that is so singularly odd and fragmented and that really needs to be experienced, but here it is anyway:

SPOILER WARNING

Toward the end of the game it’s revealed that the President of the United States is herself an Extinction Event. It seems like I could make a pretty lazy joke here (something that rhymes with Ronald Grump spook-clear footfall), but that’s baby-brain centrist bullshit, and we can do better than that. Instead I’m going to suggest that POTUS = EE is a comment on the onrushing/unfolding climate change apocalypse. The POTUS is, after all, the head of state and the embodiment of the United States, so with such a sparsely-populated game it makes sense for the President to stand in for the nation as a whole. And the USA is the epitome of the Western world with all the consumerism, waste, and environmental damage that entails (not to mention the massive and massively environmentally damaging US military, which refuses to let itself be in any way curtailed by international climate change agreements). The President brings about the Death Stranding in the same way that the brand of consumerism America has been exporting to the rest of the world since the end of WW2 is bringing about our own slow apocalypse.

SPOILER WANING

So, the titular Death Stranding is a metaphor for climate change apocalypse (making this piece part 2 in the ongoing series Corey Sees Climate Change Everywhere). What’s interesting then is that the game offers up socialism as our only way to face this threat.

(Now I’m realising the Iceland-America displacement was entirely deliberate: suggesting that America’s only chance of rebuilding after its inevitable collapse is to model itself after Scandinavian countries with healthy social welfare systems. [I’m being facetious.])

Now we get to the multiplayer portion of the game. Beginning with Demon Souls (if not before), we’ve seen a sort of asynchronous, parallel, or ambient multiplayer movement coming out of Japan (the Souls games, Journey, Nier: Automata, and Death Stranding are just some examples I’ve played – I’m sure there are plenty more). In the Souls games you can call other players into your game world for jolly cooperation or brutal combat, but you can also leave messages on the landscape that might bleed through into other player’s worlds. Taken from a predefined selection of messages, players found ways to be helpful or funny, or even lure unsuspecting players to their deaths. A similar message system is in place in Death Stranding, and while it might be possible to trick another porter into jumping or driving off a cliff to their death, it’s quite unlikely. Instead you’re far more likely to find earnest suggestions, requests, hints, and even tiny buffs, with some of these messages imparting Likes, BB happiness, stamina, and speed. Help in the form of structures and vehicles constructed by other players can also seep into your world (and vice versa), and you could spend hours delivering packages lost or deposited by other players, earning you both more of those precious Likes. These systems change what is a deliberately slow and solitary game into something that feels subtly communal. Your progression is never significantly helped or hindered by these other players, but seeing the strands of them reach into your game reminds you that there are other people out there, experiencing what you’re experiencing, and sharing your struggles and victories.

(In this way the multiplayer aspect also reminds me of the religion of Mercerism from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? With Mercerism, a person uses an empathy box to connect to a figure known as William Mercer as he struggles up a hill while being accosted and assaulted by unseen assailants. These attacks can even manifest real-world wounds. But while a person is connected to Mercer going through his cycle of pain, death, rebirth and more pain, they are also connected to everyone else who is using an empathy box at that same moment, sharing the pain, but also encouragement, love, joy, and all the rest. It could even be read as the platonic ideal of what the internet could have been…)

So the multiplayer elements of the game encourage cooperation and mutual aid through these ambient connections between players, but these connections are also literally the point of the game and the foundation of its story and themes.

I came across a long review of/essay about Death Stranding*** in which the author complained at length about the economics of the game not making sense. On the contrary, I’d suggest the game’s economics are best summed up by Karl Marx: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Earlier I mentioned that the game’s porters are paid in Likes – this isn’t because they’re a downtrodden class in some sort of dystopia, but rather because Likes are the only form of payment available to a person. You deliver a massive variety of different items and materials all over the Icelandic States of America, but there is never talk of any payment made or received – not even bartering. The couple growing wheat send bread and beer to other settlements because they have the resources, equipment, and experience necessary to do so. The doctor provides medical equipment, the staff at the weather station provides data to help porters navigate the dangers of timefall, the engineer provides schematics for his latest creations, and the spiritualist provides magic rocks and homeopathic medicines (okay, okay, it’s not a perfect system). The chiral network that Sam Porter Bridges (ugh) is rebuilding helps everyone across the continent remain in contact so that they might share pooled resources, and also lets them share knowledge, including designs that can be 3D printed at every connected bunker or settlement. It could be seen as a partially automated lockdown communism facilitated by 3D printing crossed with a sort of library socialism built on the (muscular and no doubt extremely sore) backs of the portertariat.

Don’t be so serious

In those opening hours of Death Stranding I was certain I would be able to write about the game. It turns out this piece is a little disjointed and fragmented, much like the game it’s about.

I’m almost certain it’s not really a game about socialism, but it earnestly believes that connecting with other people in a spirit of love and generosity may be the highest human calling and might just help us survive the disaster we find ourselves in. For all the games terrible character names, dumps of exposition, and other assorted weirdnesses and minor failures, it still feels like something special because of its utter dedication to this message of connection and the genuine moments of contact and love shared between delightful characters.

There’s another Philip K. Dick story that comes to mind, called War Game. The story is about a couple of customs inspectors charged with ensuring nothing dangerous crosses the border from the nefarious Ganymedians. The inspectors are suspicious of a citadel game that they fear could be a bomb, and while by the end of the story they’re pretty sure it’s just a therapeutic toy, they still don’t let it through just to be on the safe side. What they do let pass is a Monopoly-style board game, but its revealed that the true purpose of the game is to teach Earthling children the value not of accumulating resources, but of surrendering your holdings (say, to an invading alien force). The vast majority of multiplayer games are competitive, usually violently so (both in terms of the games requiring players to interact with one another through the language of violence, and with the violence spilling over into the real world with swatting), but we can’t compete our way out of the coming troubles. Our best hope is cooperation and connection, and we need a culture that recognises and reinforces that. Kojima has talked about Death Stranding possibly being the first of a new subgenre of Strand-likes, and I would really like to see what else Kojima and others could do in the space… I’d especially like to see a deliberately socialist and leftist game, instead of a massive corporate product that seemed to get there much by accident.


*Already, throughout the Metal Gear Solid series, Hideo Kojima has proven his prophetic gift. The most obvious example comes at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2 where Kojima had predicted the current state of social media, and the way it has inundated our lives… even though the game came out back in 2001. That was two years before even Myspace was founded. He extrapolated everything about our social media lives from looking at LiveJournal and similarly small blogging sites.

**To be a more accurate simulation of the current American experience, there would need to be people leaving their bunkers in order to protest the lockdown measures, carrying placards that read “Timefall is a hoax” and “Have you ever even seen a BT?”, and threatening the clouds with their AR-15s while wearing sweaters stained with pasketti sauce.

***It’s only because of this same reviessay that I know Diehardman (yes, you read that right) is named (ugh) Diehardman, because his real name was John McClane.

Repo Virtual’s JD, by Ganzeer

If you’re not already familiar with the work of Ganzeer, this is as good a time as any for me to point you in his direction. He’s an artist working in an area that he coined: Concept Pop. It fuses a bold and graphic style reminiscent of pop art with serious conceptual frameworks, looking at issues including (but not limited to) the Egyptian revolution (and revolution as a broader topic), dissent in Russia, the killing and subjugation of Native American peoples, the racist history and present of the US, and more. He also has been working on the kickstartered graphic novel, The Solar Grid, which I’m super excited about.

Recently Ganzeer was open to commissions, and I thought it was a good opportunity to support an artist who’s work I think is incredibly culturally valuable (and just generally kick-arse), and also celebrate the release of Repo Virtual and kind of reward myself for a book that I’m really proud of. So I asked Ganzeer to draw JD, one of the heroes of RV, along with a hacked police dog (the significance of which will be obvious to anyone who’s read it). I’ve got the original art here, waiting to be framed when I’ve got the money, but I also wanted to share a scan of it with you all.

Illustration of JD from Repo Virtual

Thanks again, Ganzeer. I love it.

Do The Work

In case you missed it somehow, Warren Ellis has been accused of sexual misconduct. That article is the best summary of the situation that I’ve come across, and Damien Williams’ comments on the topic were (unsurprisingly) well-thought-out and broad in scope – if you haven’t already, you should read it. Ganzeer also posted his thoughts, and had plenty of interesting things to say, particularly on the topic of careerist reactions to the situation, and something else that had also struck me – the kindness and generosity of Katie West and Meredith Yayanos in their initial twitter threads (detailed in that first link). They don’t want to crucify Warren – they want him to do the work, to do better, and they want the systems in place to change so this can’t happen again (more on this below).

There is a lot more I could say, but I could easily end up echoing Damien and Ganzeer above or Sean Kelley McKeever in this piece. Instead, at the moment I’d rather centre the voices of the women coming forward.

I believe them, of course. I was actually surprised that everyone feels the need to say that because it seems obvious. But in case it isn’t: I believe them. However you personally feel about the creators and their works (creators plural, because Warren Ellis is only one of the people who’s been named in recent days for different forms of abusive behaviour), or however much those works might mean to you, don’t let yourself get defensive. Don’t lash out against the people who have already suffered, just because you don’t want their allegations to be true. Believe them, and process your own feelings however you need to without further adding to the burden these people (mostly women) are carrying.

But there’s a related topic that I do want to talk about, and that is the “boy’s club” nature of so many areas of our society, and the way that lets predatory, abusive, and/or manipulative men get away with behaving in these awful ways.

I began thinking about this after I saw this tweet from Stacey King:

Guys: you know that dude who said something creepy about women to you once or twice, but seemed fine after that? That dude was testing you. Pushing your boundaries to see how you’d react, the same way they push the girls they prey on.

Now, here she’s specifically talking about predatory men, so I can’t think of any specific examples of this from memory, but it tracks with so much typical (but toxic) masculine behaviour. Men, when in the company of other men, are allowed to talk shit, to be gross, to be offensive, to demean women and people in minorities, etc, and there’s a social contract that says not only is this not a bad thing, but it’s actively a good thing. It means he’s “one of the guys” – he’s a “top bloke” as we might say in Australia. And because we’ve been socialised for decades to behave like that and to accept that behaviour, it’s incredibly difficult to distance yourself from it.

Eons ago, at the pub a few weeks before lockdown, a friend of mine said something offensive, and while I was offended and disgusted, I didn’t speak up. I didn’t want to ruin the good time we were having by taking him to task for that sort of bullshit. And I still think about that, and still wish I’d done better.

So, men (and cis men in particular), instead of defending your abusive heroes, or trying to justify a continued appreciation of their work, or even instead of starting a bonfire of all their books you used to love – instead of all that, try and recognise that you were raised and socialised in a toxic patriarchy, and that however mild your particular case of toxic masculinity is, it’s the same culture that allows the predators to hunt their prey and remain safe from consequences. Start to pay attention to the way the men around you talk, and the way they act, and be prepared to speak up when that shit gets out of line – and it will, because we were raised to believe that it’s natural, that boys will be boys. You’ve got to think about this, and you’ve got to stand up and speak up to make a change in the groups that you’re involved with. Maybe you can’t single-handedly change comics or genre fiction or Hollywood, but you can do something to ensure that your scene, industry, or culture is safe(r) for those who could be vulnerable. This isn’t about being a white knight, it’s about doing something to limit the influence of those abusers who will only hurt people and damage the communities that you want to see thrive.

In short, I’m suggesting you do the work. Being vocal on twitter (even in a supportive capacity) isn’t doing the work if you aren’t internalising any of these discussions and considering what you need to do, and what you can do to address these issues in your own life and the spaces you frequent.

I know I can do better in speaking out against the shit I see and hear. And I will do better. It won’t be easy because anxiety fucking sucks and I’ve never been good with confrontation, but I’ll do it because it’s important. If you know you could also do better, now’s the time to start.

And if this recent spate of allegations makes you feel uncomfortable about some of your own behaviour, now is the time to recognise that. Sit with it, no matter how awful it feels, and begin to consider how you can address these failings. Nothing worth doing is easy, and perhaps you’ll need some form of therapy to help process the issues that lead to your harmful behaviour, but you need to do it. The people around you deserve better. The people who look up to you deserve better. None of us are perfect, and all of us have hurt someone, but we can work on ourselves to ensure we do better in the future.

This is the Sound of My Voice

It’s been a weird few weeks hasn’t it? Things are going well here on this end (relatively speaking, and all things considered), I finished the first draft of my next book, and have mostly been able to stay level.

I’ve been lucky enough to chat to some folk about Repo Virtual in the past few weeks, and wanted to share that with you.

First off, I was interviewed for the Nerd Feuilleton podcast – it’s a German language podcast, but the section with me (in English, sadly I’m not bilingual) starts at around the 54 minute mark.

I was also interviewed by Andrea Johnson over at Nerds of a Feather. This one is all text, so you don’t have to stuff about with podcast apps, hear my voice, or hear me sniffling.

And finally, Jonathan Strahan interviewed me for the Coode St podcast – they’re doing a series of short 10(ish) minute episodes with authors during this lockdown time. It was a great chat.

I’ll have a couple more links to share with you soon. Thanks for spending a little time with me here, and I hope you’re doing well with the situation we all find ourselves in, and I hope you’re keeping healthy and safe.

Repo Virtual is out now!

Repo Virtual is out now! Unless you’re in the UK, in which case you have to wait a few more days… Sorry!

I’ve got high hopes for this novel, but it’s hard to know how it might go with a global pandemic leaving thousands dead and millions unemployed. Whether or not my book does well seems a very minor concern right now, but I hope if nothing else it might give people a break from ubiquitous Coronavirus news for a few hours.

Repo Virtual was name one of Amazon’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books for April 2020, and made the same list on Kobo Canada.

It’s available in hardcover (Bookshop, Powells, IndieBoundBarnes & Noble, Overstock, WalmartBooksaMillionAmazon), ebook (Kindle, B&N NOOK, iBooks, eBooks.com, Google Play, Kobo), and audiobook formats. These are some obvious links, but with any luck you can get it from your local independent book store.

Here is an audiobook excerpt here I can share with you.

Here’s what some people have been saying about Repo Virtual:

“Repo Virtual constructs a stunningly vivid cyberpunk world that blurs the line between illusion and reality, dripping with the neon panache of a technological juggernaut in an action packed heist that’ll steal your heart with ideas that are as revealing as they are powerful.” —Peter Tieryas

“A richly imagined, futuristic stand-alone with appeal to gamers, SF fans, and armchair futurists alike.” —Kirkus Reviews

“What follows is an action-driven plot that, perhaps not surprisingly, bears some resemblance to William Gibson’s latest novel, Agency. It seems as though cyberpunk is not only back but may have come full circle.” —Toronto Star

“If I had to list four cyberpunkish books you had to read, I’d probably give you Neuromancer, Snowcrash, Equations of Life (Simon Morden), and now…Repo Virtual by Corey J. White.” —Amazing Stories

Hyper-individualism

I read John Higg’s Stranger Than We Can Imagine at the end of last year, and I highly recommend it. It’s a cultural history of the 20th Century, looking at different paradigm-shifting ideas that completely changed the way we think, and uses that as a basis to try and grapple with the past century and see what we can carry forward into this new one.

A lot of the ideas, discoveries, movements, etc that Higgs discusses will likely be familiar to anyone with a decent understanding of modern history, but it’s the context that it’s offered in that makes it such an interesting read. By the end of the book he reveals a sort of thesis that he’s been building toward the whole way: that the politics, culture, and economics of the late 20th Century have caused us to shift away from communal concerns to an extreme of individualism. You don’t have to exist online for too long to realise how right Higgs is – see people arguing with artists about the intended meaning of their own art, see people unflinchingly arguing a scientific topic against a person who holds a PhD in that very thing, or even watch the way people try and turn themselves into brands, as though they’re such an important figure they should be a youtube star/instagram influencer/viral sensation. Authorship, expert knowledge, and reality itself mean nothing compared to our individual entitlement. (A lot of people, especially Gen X and Boomers try and say this is a Millennial trait, but if they looked in the mirror they’d see it’s a broadly Western pathology that crosses generational divides.)

Watching the coronavirus situation unfold, I can’t help but come back to Higgs’ thesis. The panic buying, the hoarding, the racketeering – it’s the behaviour of frightened individualists with no concern for the wider community. It’s also exactly the sort of behaviour we should expect from people when the neoliberal hegemony has spent decades decaying social welfare systems and public infrastructure, privatising everything, atomising society, and pushing us into precarious work and predatory financing so that we’re too broke, over-worked, anxious, and stressed out to even be able to think about anything other than our own needs.

So I understand how we got here, I understand people are scared and uncertain. I realise that the worst case scenarios here are genuinely awful and terrifying (and even the medium case scenarios don’t look great). But there’s a very good chance that this situation could last for a long time. We’ve had a few weeks of panic buying and food hoarding, but now it’s time to stop and realise that there is a society – a community – out there, and our best bet at getting through this pandemic is working together and looking after each other.

The age of individualism needs to end. We need to realise that we each aren’t the single most important thing in the universe. And I’m not just talking about the current situation now with the unfolding pandemic – I’m also talking about climate change going forward. Maybe we’re going to have to get used to a little individual discomfort if it means a better chance for a livable planet. Maybe we’re going to have to sweat a little instead of running the aircon, maybe we’re going to have to give up meat, maybe we’re going to have to get a bus instead of driving a car, maybe we’re going to have to take a second to really question whether we really need that random object that our lizard brain is demanding we buy. Maybe all of our selfish actions, however minor they are on their own, are having a massive collective impact, and maybe we already know this, but we’re so caught up in our comfortable lives that we’d simply prefer not to make any changes until we absolutely have to. Maybe that will be too late.

The best thing that could come out of the coronavirus pandemic is the realisation that things can and should change. We can’t continue on the way we’ve been going, not unless we want to irreparably damage our biosphere. We can’t allow medicine to be tied in any way to profit. We need governments that actually work for the people instead of slowly strip-mining the state for parts to sell to private industry (that is, if we need government at all). And more than anything we need to look out for each other. Whether that’s your family, your neighbourhood, your suburb, your state, your country, or our entire world. We need to do better, we need to be better.

Those are just some things that have been on my mind lately. I’m trying not to let the pandemic get the better of me, I’m trying to find some hope in amongst it all, but our only real hope is for a complete overhaul of the status quo toward a society geared towards helping people, rather than increasing GDP…

I’ll stop there. I could keep going, but I won’t. I don’t even know if this all makes sense…

Anyway, while I’m here, I thought I would share a little something for everyone stuck in self-quarantine: the CREEPER ISSUE 1 PDF FREE FOR DOWNLOAD. It contains a personal essay from me, and a whole slew of great fiction, non-fiction, and art from some fantastic contributors.

That’s it for now. Stay well, keep safe, and think about what you can do to make this situation a little better for someone else.

Kentucky Route Zero

‘Kentucky Route Zero’ Pays Off on Nine Years of Hope and Doubt


I bought Kentucky Route Zero years ago, played through the first act and loved it, but never went back to it. I always told myself I would, and the release of the fifth and final act last week was a good excuse to return. The above, by Austin Walker, is as good an essay/review on the game as you’re likely to find, but you’ll want to play at least until the end of Act IV before you read it. (And yes, I do recommend you play it if the aesthetic appeals. It is a weird and compelling story told in fascinating fashion.)

On twitter I saw someone say about Kentucky Route Zero, “What if the next great American novel wasn’t a novel?” And whilst I understand what they meant and even agree as so far as it goes, I also think it diminishes the role of the language of video games in helping craft the story of KR0. The final moment at the end of The Entertainment is so shocking because you’re the one turning your head to look. For all the reams of text contained within KR0, this isn’t a novel masquerading as a game, this is one of the best arguments yet made for video games as art (assuming that debate is still ongoing).

Which is a funny thing to say when I would also describe KR0 as less of a game, and more of an experience. Usually only RPGs have this much text, and this many dialogue choices, but as you play through KR0 you get the feeling that the choices you make don’t really matter. You can perhaps control the tone at times, and decide which character’s story you want to explore further, but ultimately the developers have a story to tell, and you are simply along for the ride. You become the mechanism by which the story can be told.

It’s at times melancholic, at times hopeful, obtuse, beautiful, Lynchian, touching, and on at least one occasion, tedious. It’s about people, and the ways we are used as fuel for the capitalist systems that dominate our society. But for every tragedy touched on in the story, there are also connections being forged, friends being made, family being found. The final act centres around the potential of a new community separate to the capitalist structures, and for that reason it feels important. Looking forward, more and more it seems like collective action and community engagement will be our best hope, and that’s where the game will guide you, if you let it. Also, in the last act you play as a cat and you get to meow at people. What’s not to love?

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

There’s a refrain repeated throughout the book, aimed at its main character: You care about more about animals than people. That resonated with me, partly because of how I’ve felt my entire life (I’m unable to watch nature documentaries because I can’t stand to watch animals suffer), and partly because of where my current fiction is going as I try and use it to grapple with climate change and our culpability in mass extinction and destruction of habitats.

The narrator doesn’t really see animals as something different to or lesser than people, something demonstrated by the way she will give names to animals and people, ignoring a person’s given name because she feels they rarely match the person. She even rails against her own name. By denying these human identities it’s as though she diminishes the sacred aspect that we hold for ourselves and our own. None of these people is more important than these animals, and every animal killed in the forest near her house deserves a proper burial in her cemetary yard.

So what we see through her eyes is a community of humans and non-human animals who are simply neighbours. And thus she sees people hunting and poaching in the area as murderers, and bothers the local authorities endlessly to try and get them to do something about even the legal hunting activities. The book does a great job of showing how her fellow villagers might see her as “just” a crazy old lady – constantly writing letters and working out people’s astrological charts – whilst also convincingly arguing her point of view.

It’s a slow burn of a book, but worthy of your time.

Beautiful and Dangerous

I came across a post via Peter M. BallDying on the Mountain: How Goals will Kill You and How to Focus on the Process, written by Fred Venturini and published at litreactor. In it, Venturini references a couple of different books about positive thinking and goal setting to argue against some common wisdom.

The Power of Positive Thinking is supposedly able to literally change your life, but:

In studies performed by Gabriele Oettigen, visualizing how well things could go actually reduces your motivation, and at a subconscious level, we can confuse visualizing success with having already achieved it. […] Fantasizing about your greatest successes can slow you down, reduce your motivation, and make you feel like you’ve already achieved them.

He also warns against tying your goals into your identity, which is something I’m sure many writers struggle with. For the longest time your goal is to become a published writer, but if (and hopefully when) that happens, you’ve suddenly undermined a part of your identity by achieving your goal and realising that little has changed. You don’t immediately become happy/successful/famous/rich/whatever overnight – not only does publishing move slow, but there’s little chance of riches and fame unless you’re extremely lucky.

And he ends the piece by suggesting that goals can be broken down into processes anyway, and it’s these processes that will help you to achieve whatever it is you’re hoping to achieve with your writing career. Chop wood, carry water, which is something I’ve talked about before.

And these are all great points. I definitely get where Venturini is coming from, and mostly agree with him, but in my mind it’s bumping up against something else.

In an interview with Pagan Dawn Magazine, Alan Moore said:

Your art is as big, as powerful, as beautiful and dangerous as you yourself are able to conceive of it as being.

This is one of the quotes I’ve written onto a post-it note and stuck up in my writing area because it resonates with me. It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are, if you’re only able to conceive of your own work at a shallow level, then all you’ll be able to write is shallow work. Repo Virtual is a cyberpunk AI heist, but I don’t know that I ever would have written it if that’s all I was able to conceive of it as. More important than that basic plot is the philosophical core of the book focusing on the personhood of non-biological intelligences, and the way those intelligences could become our heirs if we ever let them. Yes, there are still multiple heists and shoot-outs, and a car chase through flooded streets, but I wrote the book because there were philosophical concepts I wanted to explore. (One day I hope to write a book that can explore deep ideas without guns, chases, mayhem, and explosions, but I’m not there yet.)

I’ve talked previously about the struggles I’m having with my next book. Frankly, I’m frightened. And the reason I’m frightened is because my conception of what this book could be is huge. In it I want to explore eco-fascism, eco-terrorism, and the various possible (horrifying) outcomes of the stresses that climate change will place on our civilisation, and I want to do that through the lens of truly disturbing sci-fi horror, which is not a genre I’ve written in at great length. The book has the potential to be serious and important, and also successful, and I desperately want it to be all those things. I desperately want it to be big, powerful, beautiful, and dangerous.

But Venturini is right. That’s not a goal I can work towards; you can’t write a book that is all those things, you can only write a book and hope. But Moore is right, because I need to still hold onto my hopes if I want to make this book the best thing I can write here and now.

I need to have my hopes and my dreams for this book so I can strive to do something more and greater than my previous work, but I also need to say “Fuck the results,” and focus on the process so I can actually get it done. I need to find that balance. And I’m almost there. The further along I get with my new and improved outline, the more confident I feel – not that it’ll be everything I want, but that I’ll be able to write it. That I’ll be able to put one word down after another until I have a novel.

The rest will come, I hope. With all the research and planning I’ve done, and with all the writing and editing I will do, I just have to hope it comes together. Maybe it won’t be important, or successful, but it’ll be the best thing I can write right now, and that’s enough. It has to be.

No Friend But the Mountains, by Behrouz Boochani

I recently finished reading No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani. I previously mentioned Behrouz last year in the nothing here newsletter when he won one of the most prestigious literary awards in Australia. He’s a refugee who was trapped in Australia’s offshore refugee prison for years, and is still stranded on Manus Island even now. He wrote reportage about Manus and this entire novel via text message on a phone he wasn’t even supposed to have in the prison. The logistics behind the writing, translating, and editing of this book alone demonstrate Boochani’s drive to get this story out into the world, and we should be thankful for that, because it’s a story that needs to be told.

The story starts with his first attempt at crossing the ocean and continues on from there (ironically/sadly if this first boat hadn’t sunk he might have been able to settle in Australia because with his second attempt he arrived just a few days after the fucked up “no one coming by boat will ever be allowed to set foot on Australian soil, regardless of the validity of their status as refugees” law was passed). It’s poetic while remaining grounded in the systematic horrors of the prison and the situation all the refugees find themselves in. It’s an important read for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that governments all over the world are taking inspiration from Australia’s offshore detention regime, and as time goes on, and climate and ecological pressures cause more people to need to flee their homes and homelands, we will see more countries establishing similarly barbaric prisons – sorry, “processing centres” – cropping up all over the world. These refugees will find themselves locked up in prisons like the one at Manus Island for the simple “crime” of seeking asylum.

I want to see every politician who has served since the (fabricated) child overboard “scandal”, and hasn’t publicly condemned Australia’s refugee policies, be locked up in Manus Prison, indefinitely. I want their wealth taken from them, I want their exorbitant fucking pensions stripped from them and used to provide all our tortured refugees the kinds of lives they deserve here (and the therapy they will no doubt need after all that we have inflicted on them).

The book opens with a long introduction from the translator, and one of the (unrelated) things from it that really caught my eye was this:

His use of metaphors related to wolves is exceptional and haunting … I once heard that in Iran when a sheepdog fights off a wolf to defend its flock it aims for the jugular. In most cases the wolves are too strong and ferocious for the dogs. But there are times when the sheepdog manages to lock its jaws around the wolf’s throat and remains clamped onto it until the wolf can’t withstand the pressure anymore; the dog persists until the wolf submits. The sheepdog emerges from the victory with an extraordinary self-realisation – the experience transforms the dog, the encounter empowers it. The sheepdog develops a new sense of self beyond self-confidence – it re-identifies as a wolf. The shepherds know the dangers of this phenomenon; they know that when a dog’s identity morphs in this way it is no longer controllable. They put it down.