I’ve been impressed by the new cyberpunk I’ve been reading lately. I didn’t know if modern authors would have moved on from the retro-futurist vibes of their older counterparts, or whether they’d have anything worthwhile to say about 21st century capitalism. Honestly it’s about time cyberpunk moved on and had something worth saying again and REPO VIRTUAL does both of these things, and does them pretty darn well.
The opening chapter introduces Julius Dax, aka J.D., a young robotics repairman by day and, by night, an online ‘repoman’ in an online game called VOIDWAR, a kind of all-consuming futuristic version of EVE Online jacked up on crack. J.D. is doing what he can to get by in his shitty, unfulfilling day job and earn a buck or two in the augmented-reality city state of Neo Songdo, when he gets a call from his sibling offering him a job: steal a powerful piece of software from the reclusive tech billionaire whose company, Zero Corporation, effectively rules the territory of Neo Songdo. Turns out the software isn’t any old data cube though, and J.D. soon finds himself on the run, both from Zero Corporation when they blackmail an ex-covert ops spy out of retirement to hunt him down, and from the transhumanist tech-cult who hired him after he reneges on their deal.
Unlike a lot of older cyberpunk, with its grizzled, neo-noir loner protagonists, J.D. is a genuinely likable main character. He has a family he cares deeply about and a rocky on-and-off relationship with a guy you can tell makes him happy, despite their different outlook on how to live life in a world where rampant capitalism has all but crushed the spirit of the everyday inhabitants of Neo Songdo. This was a refreshing take and even though I love those grizzled neo-noir loner protagonists, 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.
This book also has fantastic, adrenaline-pumping action sequences. From arson-assisted burglaries and apartment shoot-outs to car chases through flooded city streets it stays true to enough of that heisty good stuff cyberpunk does so well, while still feeling very updated. One of the chase sequences also features enhanced and fully-functional versions of those terrifying Boston Dynamics dogs which, surprise surprise in a corporate dystopia, have been sold to the police department (but also get hacked and repurposed by computer nerds, which is also just so cyberpunk I love it).
If this book is anything to go by, I feel like the tone of modern cyberpunk may be shifting too? It’s not a coincidence that cyberpunk originally flourished in the age of Reaganomics, the Washington Consensus and the ascendance of neoliberal capitalism as an uncontested power on the world stage. It’s no wonder that in that context the genre was incredibly pessimistic about the potential for effective opposition to that power, but I hope I’m not misplaced in glimpsing a tiny shred, if but a kernel, of hope in the modern genre. Hope is probably the wrong word, perhaps resistance would be more fitting. And I think that development would be also be fitting for our own age, when resistance does seem possible, even if against overwhelming odds sometimes.
The fact that J.D is a Black gay protagonist is also something rarely seen in cyberpunk, which has a reputation for being a bit of a white dudebro kind of genre, sometimes unfairly perhaps, but definitely not without reason. The fact that there are lesbian characters, a trans police officer and J.D’s sibling Soo-hyun is non-binary, all gives me hope that cyberpunk might finally be starting to reach its own potential. 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. In fact, that dustbin is steadily overflowing with the garbage of the past as Corey cheerily throws more scrunched up paper balls of outdated shit over his shoulder. It was delightful to read.
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