Events April 2021

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.

I’ve got two panels:

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

Full details here.

Some recent odds and ends

Happy 2021, wherein we’ll have to continue to fight for a better future because our governments and the corporations have no interest in working for it unless we make them.

Anyway, I’ve got a few bits and pieces to share.

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.

Some great contemporary cyberpunk books – including Repo Virtual, Infomocracy by Malka Older, and Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor – to check out if CP2077 left you feeling disappointed.

Recent Repo Virtual Reviews

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.

Jonothan Pickering at Parsecs and Parchment

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.

Paul Weimar at Nerds of a Feather

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.

Andrew Mather at Quill to Live


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.