BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL Ghost Species, James Bradley (Penguin Random House) Aurora Burning, Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin) Fauna, Donna Mazza (Allen & Unwin) The Animals in That Country, Laura Jean McKay (Scribe Publications) The Mother Fault, Kate Mildenhall (Simon & Schuster Australia) Repo Virtual, Corey J. White (Tor.com Publishing)
I’ve got a couple of great (virtual) events coming up.
Flights of Foundry
Flights of Foundry is running another all-timezones virtual convention – this is exactly the sort of thing I love to see flourishing after our pandemic year. As an Australian it can be easy to feel left out of various US-centric elements of the industry and fandom, so a chance to chat with people from all across the global SFF community is fantastic.
Times are at the above links (and you can set your own timezone to see the full program at your local times), as well as details about the other panelists and all the rest.
The convention is free to attend, but you will need to register and also have the option of donating if you’re able.
Read the Room
I’m really excited to be doing this event – Read The Room – The Future is Now: The Intersections of AI, Technology, and Power in Science Fiction, Moderated by Charlie Jane Anders, with Naomi Kritzer, J.S. Dewes, and Nnedi Okorafor. It’s a killer line-up, and I’m sure it’ll be a fantastic conversation.
April 28th at 6:00pm EST / 3:00pm PST
No link yet (I went searching and couldn’t find anything), so I’ll post again when you can sign up for the event!
Quick note to say I’ll be participating in this web seminar on the 20th of February:
Sign up for the FREE event here. It’s being organised by Kat Clay, who is doing such great things in the Melbourne/Australian/International genre community, and she’s done a killer job putting this together.
Australian science fiction author Corey J White proves that cyberpunk is not dead in his first full length novel Repo Virtual. Set in a slightly in-the-future Korea Repo Virtual is a fast moving tale that features evil megacorporations, plucky gamers, AI and robot dogs.
One of the good things about taking a break from twitter (apart from the removal of a deep sense of sadness and constant outrage) is that when you return you might find a few people with nice things to say about your book.
As a rule I don’t read reviews of my own work. The book is done, or at least I’m done with it, so the review isn’t for me, it’s there to help give readers an idea of whether or not the book is for them.
(While the above is true and what I think about reviews, the real reason I don’t read them is because even thinking about reviews gives me anxiety. So it’s a good thing that I’ve got an amazing and supportive partner who can read reviews for me.)
So below are some pull quotes from, and links to, some recent reviews. Thanks to Marlee for the quotes. I like knowing that people out there both get and enjoy what I was trying to do with Repo Virtual.
I really enjoyed the focus on loving character relationships in Repo Virtual. It shows how cyberpunk is actually evolving. What was great about, say, Case and Molly’s relationship in Neuromancer was they clearly had an attachment to each other that went beyond just physical, but they were so alienated from the world and from each other that ultimately it could never work; I liked that and thought it made a powerful statement about how capitalism ultimately alienates us from our fellow humans. Corey J. White is saying something different, that despite that alienation we are still human and woe betide any CEO whose profits supersede our humanity.
If this book is anything to go by, I feel like the tone of modern cyberpunk may be shifting too? I hope I’m not misplaced in glimpsing a tiny shred, if but a kernel, of hope in the modern genre.
For a genre awash with such advanced biotechnology it really shouldn’t have taken this long for it to start exploring ideas around gender identity. Thankfully Corey J. White has dragged cyberpunk kicking and screaming into the year 2020 and with it he’s also consigned a bunch of the shittier stereotypes of the genre to the dustbin of history.
Readers of White’s Voidwitch series (starting with Killing Gravity) know that White hits the action beats and rings those changes well, and he takes those skills and puts them into his mid 21st century story with conflicts and set pieces both small and large. From a tense gun standoff, to a pulse pounding chase across the city, when the author turns on the action, the words just flow off of the page.
what really sets this novel apart from most Cyberpunk is its strongly philosophical bent. It sounds more than a little strange to talk about ontology and philosophy in the context of an often pulse pounding SF novel, but White’s novel and its thesis, for lack of a better word, is encapsulated in the sections when the AI starts to swim toward the surface of consciousness, and the debate, and the issues of a new sentient intelligence, and what that means. It is a far less toxic meditation on artificial intelligence, their rights and nature, than in say, the movie Ex Machina, which I kept thinking of as the AI moves from being a pure MacGuffin to being an entity in their own right, with slowly developing hopes and goals of their own. What rights does an AI have? What is the social contract, here? I was not expecting this level of deep thought, as JD and Troy and the AI come to slow understanding, JD and Troy from without, and the AI from within.
Does Cyberpunk still have something to say and to present itself as a viable subgenre for the early 21st century for writers and readers? Repo Virtual by Corey J White proves that the answer is, that eye of the needle can be threaded. It’s difficult to write near-future SF, but White not only manages it but succeeds excellently at it.
The book really shines when it uses the heist plot to facilitate some fantastic social commentary as well as advance its pretty heavy themes… In many ways, the book reads like a well written political paper more than a story – which weirdly works for me.
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.
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 PanamaPapers) 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! 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.
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