This personal essay was originally published in Creeper Magazine Issue 1.

I don’t remember the first model kit I built.

I remember the small metal tins of Humbrol enamel paint. I remember levering the lids off with a flathead screwdriver, and struggling to fit them back into place when paint clung thick to the edges of the metal. I remember the X-Acto knife I would use to cut kit pieces from their plastic frames (years later I would use this same knife to cut myself in search of answers to my teenage angst), I remember the chemical smell of the paint and the glue, and the sticky consistency of the white paint compared to any other colour.

I don’t remember building the 1:72 scale model of the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, but I must have been proud of it, because I remember showing it to my dad. I remember him joking that Saddam Hussein was sitting in his office, building the same models. I assume the joke was at Iraq’s expense—the country too backward to gather intelligence in any traditional way, relying instead on a child’s toy to know what it was that they faced in an adversary like America. The joke surely wasn’t at the expense of America’s arrogance in attempting to police the entire world, or the cultural saturation of this idea of righteous American war against, first, Communism, then Middle Eastern dictators, and later (and still), the vaguer notion of “terrorism”.

(Christmas 1989, and I receive my first GI Joe figures and vehicles. I had seen my father buy these toys at Kmart, but had believed him when he said they were for a cousin, rather than myself. I would become obsessed with GI Joe, but it all began because I asked for a My Little Pony. I can only assume my father feared I’d grow up gay if I were to receive a bright purple horse, so instead it was GI Joe. But this is a story about model kits, not action figures. Though they are both stories of the cultural acceptance of war.)

I don’t remember if I laughed at dad’s joke, but I remember thinking I understood it. Saddam Hussein was the villain from the television. He deserved ridicule. He deserved it in the form of jokes from middle-class white men all across the Western world. He deserved it in the form of racist cartoons in major newspapers.

My father didn’t serve in Vietnam, but his father served as a gunner and radio operator in a Beaufort bomber in the Pacific theatre during World War II. His father’s father served in the Scottish army during World War I—one of the many who returned from the war and would not, or could not, speak of it, a man broken by what he’d seen and/or done. I don’t know if this weighed on my father, if he felt that he was somehow breaking the line of White warriors. But when the television tells us that we’re at war with Communism, then isn’t consumerism a sort of combat? Isn’t each swipe of the credit card the same as pulling the trigger?

(The CIA backed The Baath party in Iraq—which counted Saddam Hussein among its numbers—in a coup against the Communist-aligned General Qassim. At this stage it should be a given: Of course America would have been instrumental in bringing its future enemy to power. How many times has America built its own bogeymen from pre-existing kits they barely understood, gluing the pieces together with American money and American weaponry? How many more times can they manage it before their empire crumbles?)

My dad might not have first-hand experience of war, but he was a veteran of Capitalism’s trenches. My parents had lost their business and our family home in the “Recession we had to have”. Still, he could not lose faith, the lifelong salesman a zealous soldier in Capitalism’s army even now. By the time I was building my SR-71 Blackbird model, Communism had been defeated. (I remember where I was when the Berlin Wall came down: playing with GI Joes on the floor of a family friend’s living room. But that is still a different story.) No longer would the armies (or operatives) of America and its allies be dispatched to far-flung corners of the globe to take a stand against an ideology. But the hunger for war remained.

The first Gulf War is contained within a reticle—a rectangular crosshair laid over grainy aerial footage. If reporters on the ground in Vietnam helped turn public consciousness against that War, video footage direct from the nose of state-of-the-art missiles had the opposite effect. How could America ever lose another war with this kind of technology? (The same way they lost Vietnam. The same way they’ll lose the War on Terror.)

Propaganda in its purest form. No rhetoric, no words, just pixelated images, just explosions flaring green and black in night-vision. It was a war fought via CNN as much as any traditional weapon. The war was a demonstration for all the world—for America’s enemies and its allies—that not only could they target you with pin-point accuracy, they could watch the missile hit you in real-time. It made explicit the relationship between missile and target, connecting them via the thread of video, the missile’s visual feed and the target’s life ending in the exact same moment, a life reduced to static on a TV screen.

(It was the precursor to drone strike footage, with the added bonus that the speed of a missile’s journey meant civilian viewers would never see the targeted weddings, the dead journalists, the dying children.)

If aerial and missile footage is the Gulf War image that looms largest in our collective memory, it’s only because the rest of it has become normalised by the endless acceleration of late capitalism. But there are countless other artifacts of this war, gathered beneath the consumerist banner. Flashy newscast graphics like something you would see in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers a few years later, unashamedly bringing the war into living rooms with an air of excitement. Desert Storm trading cards, released by Topps and other companies, sadly missing the bubble gum that would come with your NBA, NFL, or TMNT cards (the smell of the gum lingering on the cards years after the gum itself was chewed into a tough, flavourless pink blob).

That there have been Gulf War video games should surprise no one, but the variety of titles that were released during or soon after the war is demonstrative of the saturation of the conflict in popular culture. 1991 saw the Macintosh game Operation Desert Storm, released by Bungie (yes, that Bungie), the coin-op Desert Assault, and a Gulf War mission disk for the flight simulator F-15 Strike Eagle II. In 1992 we saw Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, Operation Secret Storm (starring a secret agent named George B), and Super Battletank: War in the Gulf. In the years since, many other games have been released, all commemorating America’s swift, vicious victory.

(Do not forget the children of Iraq and Kuwait—children of globalisation as much as any of us in the West—who lived through the war, experienced first-hand the sound and fury of military might, then had the war sold back to them in video game form. This disconnect is precisely what Fatima Al Qadiri captured in her Desert Strike EP: the experience of sitting on her rooftop, watching green lasers and anti-aircraft fire streak through the wide black sky, living through the invasion and then liberation of Kuwait, and returning to the war again a year later with the video game Desert Strike. “Playing that game really screwed with me, it really messed me up in the head, because I was just like ‘how does this exist in a format that I can play?’ I couldn’t even describe how disturbing the feeling was. […] It’s really cruel and disgusting when video games are made out of real war. It’s just a disturbing thing, and anybody who’s survived any war conflict and played a video game about it afterwards can tell you how disturbing that is. It’s making something really profound and deep and disturbing into something trivial and fake.” [Source])

And then there were the model kits.

The best war propaganda is that which you don’t have to force onto people—they eagerly buy it from you in myriad forms.

I remember the AH-64A Apache, the AH-F1 Cobra, the UH-1 Iroquois, and the UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters. I remember the jets and bombers, the F-4 Phantom, the F-15 Eagle, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the AV-8B Harrier II, the F-14A Tomcat, and the F117-Nighthawk. I remember the names like I remember the names of my childhood friends. I remember sitting at my small desk, carefully painting these miniature war machines in camouflage patterns, or the flat grey of naval jets, or the matte black of stealth bombers. I remember the missiles, the sticky white paint I would use for their bodies, and the small flourishes of colour on their tips and their fins. I remember gluing the model pieces together, the superglue tacky on the skin between my fingers. I remember tying lengths of fishing line around the helicopters and planes so they could hang in the air above my bed.

Were these models—like the Gulf War video games—also for sale in Iraq and Kuwait? The same vehicles that filled the skies overhead also filling the shelves of stores, each one a brute force injection of plastic and ideology, each one a talisman of American superiority. How many Kuwaiti and Iraqi children would—like me—while away an afternoon building model kits? Cutting model pieces from their frames, carefully painting each model to match the ones dropping bombs on their countries. Would they have wanted these war machines to hang from the ceiling of their bedrooms? Would they have wanted these war machines to hang in their air above their heads?

When your toys are weapons of war, does war itself become a game? Do bombings on the nightly news become like explosions in an action movie? (Imagine that disconnect. For Russians, for North Koreans, for Chinese, for Iraqis, for Nigerians, and all the other people demonised by Hollywood. To have yourself-as-villain on the silver screen, as large as god and twice as loud.)

I remember the Sopwith Camel model kit I never built. It was larger than my other models, made in a different scale. I can’t remember if I never built it because it was given to me just as my interest in model building had begun to wane, or if I never built it because it was too disconnected from modern life. The World War I biplane wasn’t made with stealth technology. It couldn’t drop a nuclear bomb. It wasn’t on the nightly news, or on trading cards. It wasn’t in combat in the skies over the Middle East. People weren’t dying in Sopwith Camel bombardments.

My bedroom ceiling was a microcosm. Jet fighters, bombers, and attack i hanging from lengths of fishing line that I could imagine were invisible. In macro, they hung in the air over Kuwait and Iraq, destroying military targets and killing civilians. This is why I was so enamoured. They were real. They were deadly. They were righteous.

My parents bought the model kits for me, but I bought the war.

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.

Simulation Theory and Practice

This piece was originally published as a bonus issue of the Nothing Here newsletter.

Simulating even a single posthuman civilization might be prohibitively expensive. If so, then we should expect our simulation to be terminated when we are about to become posthuman.

For a while I kept hearing that physicists or philosophers – or some other type of expert that starts with ph – were certain that we were living in a simulation, and for a time I kind of accepted that. These people are smarter than me, I thought, so they should know. What I didn’t realise was that so much of this belief in simulation theory was exactly that – belief. Faith isn’t just for Christians and Bitcoin evangelists, and it’s becoming more and more apparent just how strong a grip it has on Silicon Valley and the cult of Kurzweil’s singularity.

I assume there have been many books written on the topic of simulation theory, and indeed – as pointed out in this episode of Philosophize This! (libsyn, youtube) – it can be seen as a very cybernetic take on Descartes Evil Demon, however, my understanding of simulation theory is coming from this paper by Nick Bostrom. The paper is dense, but it’s short, and well worth the time required to read it. There is a lot of interesting detail to it, but I’ll attempt to break it down as simply as I’m able.

Basically, Bostrom lays out three options, one of which must be true. (1) Humanity will go extinct before reaching a post-human state. (2) Humanity will reach a post-human state, but for some reason there will be a consensus that simulating realities isn’t something to be done (perhaps they’ve all read Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race and agree that creating life means creating suffering. Or maybe it’s just gauche, like a gold toilet. Or maybe they are so unlike us that they would simply see no appeal in running an ancestor simulation). Or (3) We’re living in a simulation.

Now, at first glance, (3) might seem like a pretty extreme conclusion-jump, but a good chunk of the paper is laying out why this would be the case. In short, it’s based on extrapolations of the computing power available to post-human civilisations that would be able to manipulate matter on a massive scale, creating planet-sized computers and the like, versus that amount of “computing power” used by the human brain to process the world around us. Basically, the amount of computing power available to post-humans would make simulating a reality like ours simple to the point of it being child’s play (perhaps literally – we could be living inside some post-human child’s Tamagotchi). Now, if it’s that simple to simulate a reality like ours, and computing power is so readily available to post-humans, then if they do make one simulation, they could make billions, or even trillions of simulations. And if the civilisations within those simulated realities reach a post-human state, then they themselves might create simulated realities within their simulated reality, meaning there could potentially be a near-infinite number of recursive simulated realities built upon the base of the one prime reality.

I said before that the widespread acceptance of the simulation theory comes down to faith – well, here is the second pillar: statistics. And we all know there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Now, I’ve got no problem with Bostrom’s paper – the arguments are interesting and well-made. He even suggests that one should weight options 1, 2, and 3 evenly – but it’s still the statistical basis laid out in his paper that provides the “hard numbers” to the faith of all these wannabe post-humans; the foundation they’re using to build this house of hope and assumption.

If you assume/hope/have faith that one day we will be able to simulate reality, then you must believe that we are currently living within a simulation. Because out of the trillions of possible simulations outlined above, there can be only one base layer of reality – and what is statistically more likely, that we are one of the (relatively) few people living in the base reality that one day theoretically spawns all the simulated realities, or that we’re part of the exponentially larger group of simulated beings?

Even with statistics on the table, it’s still the assumption that irks me more. This belief in Silicon Valley’s constant, inexorable progress (as though the whole place hasn’t been co-opted by the military industrial complex and the whims of VC finance), that of course they would be able to simulate an entire universe if only they had enough computing power and funds, and did away with unnecessary regulation…

They have completely bought into the Californian Ideology and its odd mix of libertarianism, right-wing conservatism, and liberal values. It’s the idea that technology will set us free, but only the “us” that is privileged enough to live in areas with some of the highest cost of living, and devote all of their time, energy, and focus to the goals of their newest start-up. It is an ideology of exceptionalism, and of course those deemed exceptional are white men – those who have been given all the tools and opportunities to be “resourceful entrepeneurs”:

[…] each member of the ‘virtual class’ is promised the opportunity to become a successful hi-tech entrepreneur. Information technologies, so the argument goes, empower the individual, enhance personal freedom, and radically reduce the power of the nation-state. Existing social, political and legal power structures will wither away to be replaced by unfettered interactions between autonomous individuals and their software. These restyled McLuhanites vigorously argue that big government should stay off the backs of resourceful entrepreneurs who are the only people cool and courageous enough to take risks. Indeed, attempts to interfere with the emergent properties of technological and economic forces, particularly by the government, merely rebound on those who are foolish enough to defy the primary laws of nature. The free market is the sole mechanism capable of building the future and ensuring a full flowering of individual liberty within the electronic circuits of Jeffersonian cyberspace. As in Heinlein’s and Asimov’s sci-fi novels, the path forwards to the future seems to lead backwards to the past.

Ultimately it is regressive and traditionalist, even as it claims to be the ideology of futurity and progress. It is no wonder then that we have stalled out, both technologically and culturally (in the mainstream, the fringes of culture are as exciting as ever), never reaching the level of technological progress promised to us by the science-fiction of the mid-to-late 20th Century. That truly innovative drive has been co-opted by Capital.

Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”

That last word—simulate—is key. The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco called the “hyper-real,” the ability to make imitations that are more realistic than originals. The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche—all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would. Surely, if we were vacationing in geodesic domes on Mars or toting about pocket-size nuclear fusion plants or telekinetic mind-reading devices no one would ever have been talking like this. The postmodern moment was a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and to dress it up as something epochal, exciting, and new.

David Graeber

Back to Bostrom… If you believe in the ability of humanity to become post-human and (/or) create an entirely realistic simulated universe, then we must be living in a simulation. It’s almost tempting to believe, isn’t it, with the seeming utter chaos of recent years? And it’s a belief that could gain wider traction – especially as there is already an online contingent espousing the gospel of the Large Hadron Collider. This is the belief/suggestion that the LHC accidentally destroyed our reality in 2012 and so we’ve been shunted over to an unstable or corrupted simulation (whether we were real or in a stable simulation prior to 2012 is unclear). We long for simple answers, for order amongst the chaos, even if that ‘simple’ answer is one that calls into question the nature of our reality itself.

[There’s a tangent here about predetermination. I read an Alan Moore interview at some point last year in which he laid out his belief that we’re all living entirely pre-defined lives, that free will is a myth. I think that must be easy to believe when you’re respected as one of the greatest writers of recent times, but personally it made me angry. I think it was a shadow of the rage I once had for God, before I was mostly able to scrub the Christian meme from my mind. If someone else (or some great plan) had already set me on this path and I was powerless to alter it, then what the fuck is the point? I considered writing something about predetermination versus free will, but all I had was anger – besides, people much smarter than I have already written tomes on the topic.

If everything is predetermined, then are we really alive, or are we simply characters in a movie that is playing on someone else’s screen? Is everything we do predetermined but able to be altered by someone else? Either a god figure (the ‘player’) or a ‘player character’ who’s inside the simulation with us?]

But the simulation theory doesn’t sit right with me – not because it means our lives are less meaningful (because even if it is a simulation, it’s real to us), and not because it would mean I didn’t have free will, but because of the hubristic wank constantly spewing out of the mouths of the tech bros who are so enamoured with the idea.

Last year I read N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, which looks at cybernetics, focusing on the cybernetic conferences that ran from 1946-1953, other cybernetic theory and advancements of the 20th Century, and some relevant examples from science-fiction/pop-culture.

The focus on those cybernetic conferences can make large swathes of the book quite dry, but the literary touchstones Hayles uses include some of my favourite authors, like Burroughs and Dick, so on balance I found it enjoyable and enlightening.

In it, Hayles talks about one of those early cyberneticists who designed a system that mimicked the behaviour of a biological system. Being that this was a cyberneticist presenting this project to a clique of other cyberneticists, it was greeted with acclaim, but all I saw was the black box problem that is plaguing current instances of machine learning neural networks. In short: engineers rarely understand how a neural network comes to the conclusions it comes to. So, just because the cybernetic system outputs something analogous to a biological system, that doesn’t mean you have recreated said biological system – all you have done is created a cybernetic system that can output something analogous to a chosen biological system.

Without an understanding of what happens inside the biological system, how can you recreate it? How can you simulate it? Without an understanding of the many and varied complexities of plant life, fungal life (seriously, there are stunning discoveries about plants and fungi being made right now, particular the interconnectedness of plant systems), microbial life, quantum physics, or the human brain (we aren’t even entirely sure why people need sleep), then how are we meant to be able to simulate anything, let alone an entire reality?

Not to mention the fact that knowledge seems fractal, with each new discovery opening up new paths of exploration. Perhaps it is literally impossible to understand our universe well enough to simulate it.

[But this is interesting because what if we are living in a simulation? And what if knowledge appears to be fractal because the computer we’re all caught within only begins to simulate those areas of knowledge as we begin to discover them. What if the moon was only simulated at a higher resolution when we flew to it? What if we haven’t returned since because our operator has decided the computational cost of simulating the moon at high resolution is too much?

Simulation-evangelists might be taking everything on faith, but I’m staunchly opposed to it out of some sense of simulation-atheism. Which is correct? And does it matter?]

But I shouldn’t be surprised that simulation-believing tech bros care only about the output – the final result rather than the internal workings it took to get there. Silicon Valley has entirely succumbed to VC finance and has become a land of slick demos, high fidelity mock-ups, razor-honed design sensibility, and – let’s be honest – grifters. Funding doesn’t come from a detailed breakdown of a system’s internal workings, it comes from the hard sell, the presentation, the surface. Thaneros is, of course, the prime example here. The proposed technological breakthrough was scientifically impossible, but it didn’t stop them from collecting hundreds of millions of dollars of seed money.

We live in a mundane world (or simulation) forever waiting for the world that has been promised to us by PR and advertising.

Another area that’s relevant to this discussion is video games. If you want a precise encapsulation of both PR bullshit and simulation, go no further than Peter Molyneux. Molyneux made a name for himself as the head of Bullfrog, the company responsible for many classic games, including Syndicate, Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper, Populous, and others. They were systems-driven games – simulations, but of a lighter mode than the likes of SimCity.

While that looks like a pretty impressive CV, Molyneux’s real gift was bullshit. I can still remember the promises he made concerning the RPG Fable, convincing myself, many other gamers, and members of the gaming press that the game would feature reactivity and simulation of the sort not seen in RPGs ever before. It was claimed that the NPCs would have their own lives – that they would be fully simulated people, if you will – but in the end all this boiled down to was a set schedule the NPCs would follow. Just because the blacksmith left his house at 7am, walked to his workplace, and stood around repeating an anvil-beating animation for 8 hours before returning home, that doesn’t mean there was anything deep or interesting happening beneath the surface (or indeed, on the surface, as Fable turned out to be a fun but ultimately hollow experience). Like the cyberneticists before them, the developers thought (or at least claimed) that the output – a NPC going “to work” at a pre-defined schedule – was the same as simulating that NPC’s “real” life. But did that NPC have other concerns or a rich internal life? No. He was a digital shade that you could ignore or murder as you saw fit.

Interestingly, Bostrom’s paper also mentions individual simulations – where ‘you’ are the only real person being fully simulated and everyone else is an NPC. I say it’s interesting because it seems that this deluded solipsism is also becoming more common, to the point where it has become a meme. I worry about the implications if this gets more widespread – how easy will it be for someone to kill people who they only see as NPCs? Or without taking it to extremes – how difficult would it be to get someone to act toward the common good when they literally see everyone else as backdrop to their story?

But could your role in the simulation of your life be pre-determined, even if you were the only ‘player character’? And if so, how are you different from the NPCs?

It’s the central question, isn’t it: what does it really matter? If you’re in a simulation, you can’t break free of that simulation, despite what the Matrix told you. We are here. We are living in this universe, whatever form it holds, and all we can do is live our lives to the best of our abilities. Whether we do that for some god, some post-human child, or for ourselves, all that matters is that we live well. Or that we at least try.

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,, 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

Tom COVID’s The Division

This piece was originally published as a bonus issue of the Nothing Here newsletter.

It’s easy to see things through the lens of the pandemic. It’s especially easy when you’re talking about a video game set in America, after the nation collapsed following the release of a weaponised flu virus. So here’s me, talking about the Division, and drawing some parallels to the real world. I just hope it makes sense if you’ve not played the game (and haven’t been paying attention to twitter)…

You’ve been wandering these streets for months now, lugging around your assault rifle and marksman rifle, your high-tech gadgets, and your micro-missile launcher, with only the monotone ISAC for company. The streets are mostly empty. Dogs, racoons, foxes, and deer have staked their claim on the urban environment. They seem startled to see you; surprised by the incursion of humanity on their reclaimed space.

The civilians at the Theatre Settlement need help, so you go and see their leader for the details. They have solar generators, food crops growing on the roof, and guards at each entrance – they’re as self-sufficient as one could expect. It all seems like a waste to you. Things will be back to normal soon – with power coming from far-off coal and nuclear generators, food delivered on diesel-engine trucks from distant states, or ferried overseas from distant lands. So much wasted energy; they should be like the rest. They should hole up, scared, and wait for things to return to the way they were.

They’re having trouble with the Hyenas. The Hyenas have taken over the nearby Grand Washington Hotel, and kidnapped someone important to the Settlement. The official SHD documentation calls them “a loosely organized gang of opportunistic raiders,” but you know the truth. They represent organised crime. They are the gangs who emerge in places and times when the official state fails or has no interest in governing. They become a new state, a more honest one in some ways. They demand money and fealty, and they are not shy about the violence they will enact if you do not fall in line. They are the state at its most revealed, its least obscured. They are at least honest in their violence, completely lacking in political subtlety because they don’t have an army, they are the army.

You don’t know what their plan is for the hotel – a new home base, chemical weapon lab, a prison, a brothel, or something else – but you also don’t care. You sneak in through the service entrance and with your finger on the trigger you solve the situation the way you’ve solved countless others before. You save the hostage, you put down the burgeoning criminal state, and you receive your reward for a job well done.

There’s no recourse for dialogue, only the trigger. To understand the motives of these disparate groups you have to take to the internet after a long day of single-handedly policing the entire city. You scroll through politigram, fall down far-right youtube rabbit holes, rapidly flick through mainstream news channels to cut-up the feeds and piece together the truth behind the propaganda, made easier when the proponents of the pre-virus order say the quiet part loud. The economy is all powerful, but every now and then its wheels of progress must be greased with the blood of the poor, the elderly, the precarious, and the immunocompromised. We must return to business as usual so the economy can grow strong again. A hundred thousand people might die, but what is a life worth, truly, when compared to our GDP?

You thought you were on the streets fighting because the deaths had already happened, but they’re still coming. The virus is still spreading. You’re on the streets fighting because it’s only by flattening these minor insurrections that we can get back to business as usual, let the people out of their homes and back to work.

You wonder if you should actually be aligned with the True Sons. They also know that it’s only through bloodshed that the status quo can return. America was built on bloodshed, and with further bloodshed, a new, mightier society will flourish. They listen to the President and the right-wing pundits, and they know they’re on the right side of the government and the right side of history. You’re not politically aligned one way or the other, you’re a tool for the status quo and nothing more.

You go to ViewPoint Museum to put them down, though you feel conflicted about it. Surely they’re just doing what the President wants? The True Sons are simply doing their part, aren’t they? The militia is closing borders into the city, and I imagine it’s only a matter of days until they start scouring the apartment blocks for refugees to deport, criminals to imprison, and poor people to be punished for the most minor of infractions. The weak have to be sacrificed if we want the new American phoenix to be a stronger beast than the one that died at the hands of this pandemic.

Politically aligned or no, the flat robotic voice of ISAC guides you through the museum, and as the True Sons (and daughters, though they don’t receive top billing) die by the dozens. It feels a little like déjà vu: you lift the rifle to your shoulders, you aim down the sight, and you squeeze the trigger. Again and again. How much blood is needed to drown this fledgling moment in its crib so we can return to the time before – return to normalcy?

You leave the museum, spattered with the blood of supposed patriots, but your work isn’t done – it’s never done. You need to squeeze the trigger like you need to breathe. Thankfully the Outcasts have been acting up again.

On your way to the Potomac Events Center, you take a shortcut through an apartment building, and the corridors are abandoned and oddly quiet. For months you thought the population had been evacuated, or otherwise died –denizens of the body bags you occasionally find piled up on the road or in the backs of trucks. You know the truth now though – they aren’t dead, and they haven’t left. They’re indoors, isolating, streaming true crime documentaries on Netflix and broadcasting their cabin fever on Twitter and TikTok. Delivery drivers are ghosts. Keeping the isolated masses supplied, without ever being seen.

You make your way through the Events Center, fighting off the angry horde of yellow-clad leftists, tossing their Molotov cocktails and charging ahead in suicidal rage. A well-placed shot causes a suicide bomber to explode, killing three of his comrades – more leftist infighting. No wonder they’re constantly losing ground. These radicals want to use the pandemic to forge a new, fairer sort of society, but they don’t realise that market capitalism was already perfect. They’re just angry because they’re losers, because they’ll never be the ones with the private jets, luxury yachts, and fancy cars. Sure, the whole system collapsed within weeks of a pandemic striking, but we never could have seen that coming. And all the money we saved cutting funding from pandemic research and preparation went to important parts of the economy – to bailing out banks so they can pay bonuses to their CEOs.

Your rampage through the Events Center comes to an end, but there are still more uprisings to quash. Any minor upset could keep the status quo from returning. This is delicate, surgical work you’re doing down the barrel of your guns.

The Black Tusk show up in the city – Silicon Valley type technocrats, but with heavy firepower and dog drone weapon platforms. They also want to end the lockdown, but they don’t think we should simply re-open the economy. They see the importance in tagging and tracking every citizen – follow the spread of the virus in real-time, gather data, crunch the numbers. There is no job too big or too small for Big Data – just as long as we don’t let anything silly like privacy concerns get in the way.

You aren’t so different from the Black Tusk. They have their robots, their milspec tech, and all their guns; you have your high-tech gadgets, your own guns, but a better fashion sense. They might be on to something, you think. Maybe ISAC would work even better with access to the locations of every single citizen in the entire country. It would be so much easier to police them all by adding another layer to the surveillance state apparatus. But you can’t trust that information to the government. It should be in private hands, where it can do the most good. Private companies are good. Data is good. So masses of data in the hands of private companies must be good.

But still, ISAC tells you to shoot the Black Tusk soldiers in the face, and you’re compelled to listen. No dialogue, only the trigger. You ask ISAC if he’s planning to take the Black Tusk’s plan for himself, but he doesn’t respond. He never does, no matter how many times you try and speak to him. You’ve taken to referring to your turret, your flying drone, and your seeker mines as your children. It’s lonely out there on the streets, but your children are always there, strapped to your back, ready to help.

The mercenaries rush forward in an attempt to flank you. You take aim, you fire. You collect your rewards. Rinse and repeat. Grinding for the status quo.

The Ones Who Stay

I think I first heard about Ursula Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas on an episode of Chapo Traphouse, which is probably an odd place for a sci-fi writer to discover a seminal short story in the genre, but here we are. If you’ve not read the story you should, it’s short and important, and available to read here.

It’s less a short story and more a thought experiment in fiction form. You may have noticed that the above link comes from a website on utilitarianism, which is a philosophy wherein the most morally good choice is the one that causes the most good for the highest number of people. Omelas, then, is a utilitarian paradise – a perfect society paid for by the suffering of just one citizen. I can imagine a slightly different take on the city, where to be chosen is a blessing, rather than a curse, where people want to sacrifice themselves for the city. Maybe that’s my Christian upbringing speaking – the idea that sacrifice is always good and noble. But perhaps that wouldn’t be enough. Perhaps the city of Omelas can only feed on unwilling victims. For a Christian, if you take yourself to a place where you can fully imagine the pain and suffering that Jesus must have experienced when he was being crucified, then you have to convince yourself that his sacrifice meant something. You have to convince yourself that heaven is real, and your entry was paid for his blood. Otherwise the suffering was all for naught. The same is true for the citizens of Omelas. They know the child is there, and they know that it is suffering just so that they might live in such a perfect society. They probably tell themselves, “I have to live my best life, because otherwise that child suffered for nothing.” It’s utterly selfish logic, but it might free most people of their guilt.

Most, but not all. The story is, after all, called The Ones Who Walk Away…

[Still from Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World.]

Perhaps because of the way I was introduced to the story (and also because of Ursula K. Le Guin’s views on the subject), I assume that Omelas is a metaphor for our society under capitalism. If Omelas is the West, then perhaps the child in the cellar is the Global South – the parts of the world that we will ravage, destroy, and pollute, and whose people we will deny and discard, forcing and coercing them into labour as though they were automatons made of meat and not real people with souls and internal lives as rich as our own. The child in the cellar is the literal slave children of our world farming cocoa beans for our chocolate, coca leaves for our cocaine, coltan for our mobile phones, and granite for our headstones.

But if our society is Omelas, how does one walk away? To be truly severed from capitalism’s logistical networks requires wilderness that capitalism is quickly devouring, and skills that many of us simply do not have. We rely too much on wikihow and youtube when we need to fix, build, or work something, and without the phones in our hands, many of us are just very smart but practically useless primates. Ours is a world of connection now, and that is beautiful, but it also makes it even harder to walk away from Omelas. One cannot stay in Omelas and protest, because it could not be a perfect society if there was protest, and Omelas is perfect (and in the real world we see all too often the ways capitalism co-opts the anti-capitalist, selling our protests back to us, because nothing is stronger than the Almighty Dollar).

If protest is impossible and/or pointless, and we are unable to walk away, then could the solution then be death? The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by way of Thomas Ligotti’s A Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Our society has evolved to the point where opting out of capitalism is nigh on impossible, but opting out of life is there, always on the cards. For some of us more so than others.

The other week I tweeted:

Gonna write a gritty reboot of/sequel to The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas: SHE WHO RETURNS. On her sixteenth birthday she was taken from her cell beneath the city and dumped outside the city limits; left to die, with no clothes and not even a name she could remember.

After being saved by one of those who walked away, she must process a decade of trauma and learn the sacred arts of assassination if she might ever have a hope of bringing this “perfect city” to justice for it’s cruelty and decadence.

Now, this was a joke, I promise. It was a joke precisely because writing a gritty, violent femsploitation thriller based on Omelas would be ridiculous and would completely miss the point.

My tweets didn’t get much traction (they never do, so that’s ok), but I did have one person respond saying they hoped it meant that she’d obliterate the city and all the selfish bastards that live within it. Now, I’m not sure if this tweeter (twitterer?) was joining me in my ridiculous fantasy where this was not a terribly misguided idea for a story, or if they’d perhaps missed the point of the original. I mean, isn’t hoping my fictional heroine kills all the “selfish bastards” the same thing as hoping that a person, broken and traumatised by mining coltan as a slave, would one day come to your house and murder you for the smart phone you clutch in your hands? Yes, the citizens of Omelas are selfish bastards, but let he who is without ties to the oppressive systems of capitalism cast the first stone. Remember: there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, so be careful what you wish for. We are Omelas, and to be able to function in this society we either pretend we don’t know any better, or we cultivate ignorance so we don’t need to pretend.

Or perhaps we don’t all live in Omelas. If you don’t live a carefree life of plenty and peace, then maybe you are the child. Maybe 99% of us are. Maybe the billionaire elite are the only true residents of Omelas. Our toiling contributes to a global economy that is more and more geared to giving them more money, power, and control. We are building their Omelas on the backs of our own suffering. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? It absolves a lot of us of any guilt. GUILLOTINE GUILLOTINE GUILLOTINE, etc. But we aren’t blameless. We understand about the immense suffering of animals in factory farms, and yet we still eat meat. We know that child slaves pick cocoa beans, and we still eat chocolate, we know that our consumption is slowly destroying the planet, but we keep on consuming. We still choose, or maybe we don’t choose, because carrying on is simpler than considering our actions.

If Omelas is a utilitarian heaven, then our world is a utilitarian hell. Our global imperialist systems of commerce are designed with the suffering of hundreds of millions of people baked in. It’s a feature, not a bug. To paraphrase a popular saying, maybe the true Omelas is the poor, brown people we devoured along the way.

So, Omelas. We want to tell ourselves we’re the child, or we’re one of the ones who walk away, but chances are, we’re not. We are the ones who stay.

I saw someone die tonight

This piece was originally published as a bonus issue of the Nothing Here newsletter.

I was meant to see MY DISCO again tonight. I thought I would have a chance to write another hyperbolic review like last time, but instead I saw someone die.

I didn’t see him fall, I just saw the commotion on the stairs. People stepping over what they assumed was a drunk, until someone paused for long enough to realise something was wrong. I saw the two drunks I’d been getting irritated by swoop down and do their best to help before I even realised what had happened.

I looked down from my spot over the stairs, looked down right into the man’s face. I saw the blood spattered around his head and the sick, rolling tilt of his eyes, unmoored. That image struck me, and it strikes me still. I must have seen something the others didn’t, because they continued to watch as staff called Emergency, and punters administered CPR. Because they leered over the ledge watching as the paramedics tried to asses the situation – a man dying on the stairs, with an audience, with phones and flashlight, and fucking photos.

I saw someone die. It was the simplest accident, a stumble down the steps. Could have happened to anyone (by which I of course mean it could have happened to me. We are, after all driven by thoughts of our own mortality). A tumble down a short flight of stairs, at a small gig, for an obscure band. And now a man is dead.

I didn’t watch him die. We were ushered out the fire escape to stand on the street; hopeful that the man would be whisked away for treatment, that he would be fine and our show would go on. But no. The night was cancelled, the staff told us solemnly. I heard another say “He passed away,” as I walked from the venue, hearing snippets of mistruths and bullshit from the assembled gawkers. How quickly it spreads. “Someone pulled a fire alarm.” “Someone had a heart attack.” Maybe he fell down the stairs because of a heart issue, but that was blood on the floor around his head. I believe the staff member because of the euphemism. Because you can drunkenly half-joke about someone dying inside, but if they’ve “passed away,” that’s serious.

One guy jokingly asked if he’d get a refund, and was almost beaten for the question. It’s not his fault; he was in the “fire alarm” clique of late arrivals. They stood talking loudly about classic guitars and other strands of unfiltered music nerd bullshit while a long line of us stood against the wall, too stunned to do much but wait, hug, and eventually peel away slowly for other venues, other vibes.

And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is more misinformation. Maybe that guy I saw dying on the stairs is lying in hospital, unaware that a couple of hundred strangers think he died. Dying is so easy. You just have to fall backward down some stairs. Living is the hard part. Living well, hardest of all.

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.

Nothing Here Newsletter

If the updates here on the website are too infrequent for your tastes, then your best bet is to sign up for the Nothing Here newsletter, which I run with some friends of mine. I think of it as something like a podcast in text form – we share a bunch of interesting links and recommendations, with room for a little conversational back and forth.

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