Hi Corey, thanks so much for doing the interview! I’ve just finished your newest book, Repo Virtual, and absolutely loved it. How have you found the experience of releasing a book this year?
It’s been tough, to be honest. When you spend so much time planning, researching, writing and editing a book, you really hope that it’s going to find its audience – and that can be tough even at the best of times. Obviously 2020 has not been the best of times. The book has still managed to pick up some good reviews, and I’ve had some great responses from readers, but it’s impossible to know how much better things might have gone under different circumstances.
Still, I have my health, and I haven’t lost anyone to COVID-19, so if having a new release book lost in the churn of 2020 is the worst thing that happens to me this year, I’m still luckier than a lot of other people.
I’m celebrating all things cyberpunk this month at Parsecs & Parchment, so could you maybe give us your take on what cyberpunk is, the themes it explores and why you wanted to write a cyberpunk story?
So, a nice easy question, huh?
This is a tough one because what cyberpunk is has changed a lot across the decades. At first I think it was pure future shock and bleeding edge speculation about a fast-approaching digital status quo, but I see it also as a response to neoliberal economic policy – the notion that the state should take a step back and let private companies run things; to leave society and the lives of everyone living in it to the whims of the market.
It’s hard to tell if cyberpunk is to blame for providing such a flashy neon-hued road map to lead us to where we are today, or if it’s our fault for not properly heeding its warnings, but it’s obvious to me that we’re living in a very mundane sort of cyberpunk dystopia (though unevenly distributed, of course). Despite that, so much of the modern cyberpunk you see in films, video games, online art, etc, has been reduced to a pure aesthetic divorced from current issues.
So right from the start, my plan with Repo Virtual was to write a book that could be seen as a continuation of the cyberpunk canon, and which would also recontextualise everything people love about the genre with what’s happening right now technologically, politically, and culturally. I don’t know if I pulled it off, but hopefully I came close.
How would you pitch Repo Virtual to potential readers?
It’s the story of a repoman/thief, his delinquent hacker friend and spiritually adrift sibling, getting deep in the shit after they unknowingly steal the world’s first strong AI. But if heists, shoot-outs, car chases, and reckless arson aren’t enough for you, it’s also a story about the personhood of non-biological intelligences, and our responsibilities to any AI children we might one day create.
It’s about family, found family, love and its struggles, guilt, climate change, and corporate control.
It was great to see a Black, gay protagonist in J.D., the main character of the book. Centering people who aren’t straight white guys isn’t something cyberpunk (or genre fiction in general) has done well in the past. Was this something you consciously wanted to rectify?
I don’t know that it was conscious, it’s more that I’ve read enough science fiction over the years to have become kind of sick of the straight white male default that has plagued the genre for decades. It’s not just sci-fi, and it’s not even just books – all across culture the white male protagonist is everywhere. This means that when I’m sitting down to write a story, the idea of putting yet another straight white guy front and centre feels incredibly boring. So at this point I think it’s entirely subconscious.
But more generally, I’m really excited with the direction of science-fiction and fantasy right now, and the diverse voices that are finally getting better recognised (they’ve always been here, as much as certain editors, writers, and readers would have liked to pretend otherwise). I think my publisher (Tor.com Publishing) is really at the forefront of this movement in terms of long-form genre publishing, but there are also a number of genre fiction magazines doing really great work too – FIYAH Magazine and Anathema being just two examples that come immediately to mind.
Personally I think Repo Virtual would make a great SciFi action film, there are quite a few adrenaline-fueled moments! If it ever got adapted for a movie who would you like to see bring your characters to life on the big screen?
The name at the top of my list would be Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Parasite, Okja, Memories of Murder, etc). I consider him an anti-capitalist comrade, he does brilliant work in and out of sci-fi, he does great action and great comedy, and I think a Repo Virtual film could really benefit from having a Korean director bring Neo Songdo to life.
Speaking of action scenes, you do a great job of having your action scenes propel the book forward by advancing the plot or developing aspects of character. How do you make sure your action scenes are adding something to the story when drafting your books?
I think the easiest ‘trick’ is to try and make sure that your action scenes are always doing at least two things. There’ll be the action itself – what’s happening, who’s shooting who – but there also needs to be a second layer beneath that, something that grounds it to the characters as people. Maybe the person doing the shooting is struggling with guilt related to their past acts of violence. Maybe the two characters trying to outrun the police are having a talk about their relationship, something like that.
If you read enough (and write enough) you’ll start to get a feel for it. Maybe you won’t realise right away why the action feels disconnected from the story, but you’ll know that the scene isn’t landing and with any luck, eventually you’ll figure out why.
One of my favourite bits from Repo Virtual never even made it to the third draft. I loved the action that was taking place, but when I took a step back the scene didn’t add anything to the story. Sometimes when that happens, you just need to hit delete and keep moving forward.
Another thing that’s important with action pacing – that again you’ll get a better instinct for the more you read and write – is to remember that you need to let your characters (and your readers) breathe. Sometimes they need to just sit down and eat and talk, or they need to hide out and lick their wounds. Those quiet moments will help the action stand out better than if it was going non-stop.
Do you have any favourite cyberpunk books and recommendations for people looking to explore the genre?
Neuromancer might be considered the primary cyberpunk text, but I think the best introduction to the early days of cyberpunk is William Gibson’s Burning Chrome collection of short stories.
Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon could be considered a very literary take on cyberpunk – the framing narrative could be straight out of Black Mirror, but it’s the stories embedded within it that make the book something really special. Each of the stories is beautifully rendered with a totally unique voice.
Malka Older’s Infomocracy is a perfect cyberpunk book for the present politics-obsessed moment in time (though if that sounds too dry, there’s also plenty of espionage and intrigue too).
And Steve Aylett’s Beerlight books are hilarious and weird, and still filled with great SFnal concepts. Read Slaughtermatic and go on from there if it tickles your fancy.
You’ve also got another science fiction series out called The Voidwitch Saga. What’s this series about for readers who want to check out your back catalogue?
The Voidwitch Saga of novellas (Killing Gravity, Void Black Shadow, and Static Ruin) follows Mars Xi, an experimental telekinetic supersoldier who’s spent her whole life on the run from the people who created her. When these forces finally catch up to her, she’s forced to reckon with her past, her creation, and all the violence she’s enacted in the name of her freedom. And there is a lot of violence.
It’s ultra-violent, but also heart-felt, oddly personal, and still somewhat political.
Lastly, what can readers expect from you in the future? Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I’ve got a couple of irons in the fire at the moment. Still waiting on beta reader feedback on the latest novel manuscript, which is cli-fi body-horror about our guilt and responsibilities in the face of anthropocentric climate change and mass extinction. I’ve got ideas for a sequel too, but still need to wait and see how the next draft comes together.
I’m also working on a collaborative space horror novella, and I’m slowly putting aside ideas for a Repo Virtual follow-up. Not a direct sequel, because I’ve told the story of this particular group of characters, but something in the same world, looking at more/different parts of our dystopian now through that cyberpunk lens.
Sounds awesome, I’m looking forward to it! Thanks so much for your time Corey.
No, thank you! I really appreciate it.
You can see more from Corey on his website coreyjwhite.com, where you can also sign up to the Nothing Here Newsletter. Repo Virtual and the Voidwitch Saga novellas are out now from Tor.com. If you enjoyed this post why not follow the blog for more interviews, reviews and bookish chat?