Review: REPO VIRTUAL by Corey J. White

Book Reviews

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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Review: AMBERLOUGH by Lara Elena Donnelly

Book Reviews

AMBERLOUGH is a fantasy political spy thriller described as John Le Carré meets Cabaret. I was sold instantly. Put this book in my face, as I’m fond of saying. I came to it pretty soon after reading Jade City and Jade War by Fonda Lee and I’ve come to realise I’m so here for these more modern era, low-magic fantasy settings. Especially when they’re so richly populated with the kinds of complicated, true-to-life characters Lara Elena Donnelly has written in this book. Set in an alternative early 20th century secondary world with no magic, some people might quibble about whether this book is really ‘fantasy’ or not, but Amberlough represents everything I love about what speculative fiction can be in the 21st century.

Meet Cyril DePaul. A covert agent pulled off his desk job and put back in the field to collect intel on the major players of a rising nationalist political movement in the loose federation of states called Gedda. Meet his lover and sometimes assignment, Aristide Makricosta, the star performer at The Bumble Bee Cabaret, moonlighting as a smuggler of both illicit drugs and refugees hoping to escape the rising tide of political violence. And streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a burlesque dancer at The Bumble Bee just trying to get by when she’s caught up in the intrigue, espionage and politics of a city on the brink of civil upheaval.

Recently I’ve realised that, more often than not, what really makes me fall in love with a story is great characters. I love complex world building and an exciting plot as much as anyone, but without great characters to truly bring it to life, a book can easily fall flat. Given the backdrop of ascendant far right nationalism that forms the political backdrop of this book, it would have been all too simple for Donnelly to present us with caricatures of the virtuous, morally faultless ‘good guys’, fighting the good fight against the rising tide of fascism, but what she delivers is something much more nuanced, complex and altogether more human. As always, no spoilers, but some characters end up doing some pretty shitty things, and while we can sit and admonish them from the comfort of our reading chair, their motives are entirely understandable and compel you to ask yourself what you would give up for the people you love. They also do some pretty brave, selfless things and I really got the sense that these characters were real people making tough decisions in pretty trying circumstances. Do they make mistakes? Absolutely. Did I understand why they made those mistakes? Abso-frickin-lutely.

Cyril and Aristide’s relationship in this book is some of the finest writing I’ve ever seen to be honest. Cyril is stubborn and secretive, Aristide is egotistical and jealous. They’re like flint and steel striking against each other and shooting sparks onto a pile of dry hay. They’re both disasters in their own way and their relationship, while far from conventional, is a beautiful thing and my heart breaks for them both. Cordelia is my favourite character in this book though. She grew up on the wrong side of the tracks; she’s brash and a bit rough around the edges, but she’s street smart and unapologetic and I really admired her a lot for that. Her character development is incredibly well-done too. There are so many ways I can think of for a working class burlesque dancer to be badly-written, but Donnelly gives every aspect of Cordelia’s life, history and personality the true attention it deserves and she really thrives and stands out for me.

I can understand why some of you might not feel inclined to read a book about the ascendance of right wing nationalism right now, given the state of the world, but there’s also so much hope in this book. It highlights the bonds that hold people together in all their messiness and complexity and how the bravery of ordinary people to resist oppression will never go away so long as it exists.

This is a story about its characters and it wraps up their story well, if not necessarily happily for everyone involved, but I honestly don’t think you could read this book and not want to find out what happens next, both for the world and the characters we get so close to along the way. AMBERLOUGH is a fantastic book and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

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