Wednesday 24 June 2020

The Death And Life Of Cyberpunk

Few science fiction subgenres have been proclaimed dead as often as cyberpunk. If you need any
Christine Foltzer's cover
for the novel Repo Virtual.
(Image via Amazon)
proof that these claims are exaggerated, look no further than Corey White’s 2020 debut novel Repo Virtual, which shows that cyberpunk is still vital and evolving.

Set in the fictional Korean city of Neo Songdo, Repo Virtual is both an action-based heist and an exploration of how corporate hegemony subverts human freedom.

Protagonist Julius Dax is a person with a disability who repairs robots as his day job and has a side gig conducting repossessions in various augmented-reality online games. The skills he has from working his repo work come into play when his step-sibling Soo-hyun drags him into a risky heist involving the theft of an artificial intelligence from the hands of a reclusive billionaire named Zero Lee.

The novel gets a bit more complicated when Dax (who is being hunted by the corporation that made the AI) decides to try and extort the person who organized the heist — a charismatic cult leader named Kali who may have nefarious plans for the artificial intelligence.

We’ve long observed that members of marginalized groups are often the first to face the adverse impacts of technological change. Which is why it is baffling that cyberpunk (a subgenre that explores the freedom-destroying aspects of new information technologies) is often focused on able-bodied white male characters as protagonists. White’s inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters, a prominent enby character, and other minority characters hints at some of the reasons why a revival of cyberpunk could be vibrant. We might have appreciated a bit more development for these characters, but their presence was natural and inclusive without seeming tokenistic or heavy-handed.

Despite a brisk pace and approachable prose, Repo Virtual was occasionally baffling. Transitions between chapters were sometimes jarring, and there were points at which the narrative became a bit arcane and labyrinthine. That being said, these minor flaws actually made the book feel more authentic and raw; this is a book whose unpolished edges contribute to the ‘punk’ aspect of ‘cyberpunk.’ There is a crackling anti-authoritanian energy to the novel, and it’s this punk element that makes the novel truly shine.

When it comes to tackling issues of authority and capitalist overreach, this novel is quite quotable: “Corporate capitalism is built on a foundation of infinite growth despite our very finite resources. We’re on track to consume our way to an unlivable planet, and no one seems to care.”

Although it’s pretty clear from the novel’s ending that this is a stand-alone book, Neo Songdo is a
Corey J. White's debut novel
is often quotably Marxist.
(Image via Twitter)
setting that we could have happily spent more time in. One of the major challenges for cyberpunk writers is to imagine exactly what uses the street will find for new technologies; Corey White is particularly good at this. White’s thoughtful worldbuilding shows why cyberpunk continues to be a relevant subgenre; gamified economies, precarious employment, augmented reality, and globalization have all accelerated since cyberpunk’s heyday in the 1980s. We kept being drawn into the story by details like the autonomous police security robot dogs, the quasi-veneration of the ultrawealthy, and the wealthy kids who conspicuously smoke cigarettes as a status symbol to show that they have the resources to be cured of cancer.

These bits of worldbuilding help reinforce the anti-capitalist themes of the story. Privatized health care helps trap Dax in disability. The need to eke out a living has corrupted Dax’s family relationships. This is a sadly believable future, and one that White depicts well.

Repo Virtual is cyberpunk for those who are attracted to cyberpunk for its anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian vibes. The world needs more proletarian science fiction that tackles issues of class and economy and recognizes the struggles of marginalized populations. Corey White has just made a solid argument as to why cyberpunk might be the subgenre most well-suited to doing so.

Tuesday 9 June 2020

The Last Emperox - Review

The Last Emperox is a disappointing final volume of an otherwise superb trilogy.
Image via

Set in an interstellar empire connected by a network of conduits that allow faster-than-light travel, the Interdependency Trilogy centres around Emperox Grayland II. Shortly after her coronation, the Emperox learns that the network is about to collapse, leaving each imperial node cut off and isolated from each other.

The first two books dealt with the initial response to this discovery and the subsequent political machinations and attempted coups as various factions tried to turn the crisis to their advantage.

But as the third book opens, the underlying problem of an impending collapse of all interstellar trade remains unresolved. Grayland has five years before the worlds of her empire are split apart, and each system is left to fend for itself. It was made abundantly clear in the first two novels that there was no way to avoid this tragedy, and that each system would be unable to survive without their existing and symbiotic relationships with other worlds.

Resolving this point of tension in a satisfying and internally consistent way presents a major storytelling challenge. With 20 billion lives in the empire, the logistics of getting them all to the safety of a habitable planet (as opposed to orbital space stations) within five years would strain any story. Conversely, the prospect of ending a relatively light-hearted set of space adventure novels with the demise of 20 billion people would present major tonal challenges.

Unfortunately, Scalzi does not manage to resolve this conundrum. Instead of untangling the gordian knot created in the first two books, The Last Emperox offers readers another round of scheming nobility and coup attempts, with several of the most intriguing characters sidelined on personal quests and errands.

One of John Scalzi’s biggest strengths as a writer is his breezy, approachable prose that conveys meaning, personality, and emotion. For the first third of The Last Emperox, this remains true. But significant portions of the novel, particularly in the middle third, are told in the form of a rushed exposition of events.

The pace slows down suddenly during one character’s side-quest, but only to talk about the nature of the interstellar network. For the better part of a chapter, the author explains through metaphor and technobabble exactly why what was established as canonical fact about interstellar travel is no longer true.

Worse yet is the section in which we follow the plot as if it were a historical essay. Pages upon pages, paragraphs upon paragraphs without dialogue, character development, or human warmth. It feels like reading the text off a TV news anchor’s teleprompter. The writing comes across as rushed and lifeless.

During one of these expository sections, a major character is killed off so abruptly that some of us wondered whether it was a fake-out, and that it would be revealed later to be a ruse.

Most of all, the end of the novel is mostly a cop out. There’s plans to save the whole population of the Empire through a new property of the interstellar hyperspace network, though implementing this plan, and the possible demise of entire planets worth of people are left hanging. This cop-out ending seriously undermines the central climate change metaphor of the trilogy.

The first two novels of the Interdependency Trilogy are possibly the most enjoyable novels John Scalzi has ever written, in large part because of a diverse and interesting cast of characters. The first book introduced an interesting setting and a significant challenge. The second book explored some of the history and backdrop of this setting, while revealing new facets to the society. But the third adds very little.

Despite significant reservations about the third volume, we’d still recommend the series. The trilogy had the potential to be a definitive classic of science fiction, but is instead just OK.