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.

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