Author Interview: Corey J. White

Interviews

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 (SnowpiercerParasiteOkjaMemories 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 GravityVoid 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.


The Voidwitch Saga by Corey J. White

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?

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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Cyberpunk SciFi Month is ready for lift off!

Updates

Yesss, I’ve been looking forward to SciFi Month for weeks! As much as I love Halloween and all things spooky season, science fiction is my one true love and I’m strapped in and ready for lift off. Though in all likelihood most of my reading won’t involve much interstellar travel or interaction with alien species, and that’s because I’ll be exclusively reading books set in the near future corporate dystopias of cyberpunk!

What is cyberpunk, you may ask? Well, I’ll be doing a full introduction post before any reviews or discussion posts appear, so if you’re unfamiliar with the genre then don’t fear, I’ve got you covered! But for a very quick and dirty overview, cyberpunk stories are generally set in the very near future where corporations have become more powerful than governments and tend to have settings featuring high levels of economic and cultural displacement, inequality and social unrest. Artificial intelligence, transhumanism and virtual reality feature quite heavily. Think Bladerunner or Ghost in the Shell as some of the most famous representations of cyberpunk in film and you’ll have a good idea of what the genre entails.

I don’t really do plans or set-in-stone TBRs, but I do have a well of potential books I’ll be drawing from, as well as a bunch of short stories, comics and films I might watch and talk about. As far as books go, a non-exhaustive list of some of what I might be reading includes:



So these are a mixture of classic and newer cyberpunk. Neuromancer is actually one of my fave books of all time and I reread it every few years, while Repo Virtual and Busted Synapses are very new. There’s an interesting dichotomy between classic and newer stuff in the genre because a lot of the stuff being written in the 80s was still very much science fiction, whereas now, the internet, biohacking and cyber crime are very real and inequality, social unrest and corporate power have reached fever pitch. In many ways we already live in a warped version of the society the progenitors of cyberpunk were imagining back in the 1980s.

In any case, this is just a small selection of some of the cyberpunk books I’ll be perusing this SciFi Month and please, if you have any fave cyberpunk books I haven’t mentioned here or recommendations you think I should look at, do let me know. In the meantime console cowboys, let’s lay back, relax and jack into cyberspace, we’re in for a wild ride.



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Reading Update 31/10/2020

Updates

Hey bookwyrms, it’s been a few weeks since a good reading update cos I’ve been playing through The Last Of Us parts one and two for a good chunk of October and that had me utterly hooked and absorbed for a good week and a half. Very much back into the reading rhythm now though and this update straddles the gap between the end of Halloween and the beginning of SciFi month.



Recently Finished: THE PATIENCE OF A DEAD MAN by Michael Clark
I read most of my horror in September this year, starting off strong with Mexican Gothic and The Year Of The Witching. I really loved those books so was disappointed to end on such a low note with THE PATIENCE OF A DEAD MAN. This messy, ill-conceived and poorly-executed haunted house horror didn’t impress despite a few spooky scenes that weren’t enough to redeem the rest of the book. I reviewed it yesterday, and while it’s def not gonna be a glowing recommendation if you’re looking for your next horror read, it will at least make you appreciate the things we can often take for granted in the books we do enjoy.

Currently Reading: REPO VIRTUAL by Corey J. White
SciFi month is on the horizon and I’m making the transition from horror to my true love of science fiction in REPO VIRTUAL. I’m specifically focussing on reading a lot of cyberpunk this November. Some of you may be aware that Neuromancer is one of my all time favourite books but I’ve never managed to find another cyberpunk novel that managed to hit the same heights. I find a lot of more recent cyberpunk has abandoned the grimy, high-tech-meets-low-life grittiness in favour of empty aesthetics. Corporate skyscrapers and neon-lit back alleys without the class politics which, despite its flaws in 80s cyberpunk, was still present. Sorry, I have a lot of opinions about cyberpunk and the representation of class struggle, but I’ll park them for now. Suffice to say, I’m only three chapters into REPO VIRTUAL at the mo, but I’m glad to say I think this story about a virtual thief and his contract to steal the world’s first sentient AI is gonna be a good ‘un.

Next Read: GLITCH RAIN by Alex Livingston
You guessed it, more cyberpunk! There’s gonna be a theme this month, gang. GLITCH RAIN is a few years old now, published by Apex back in 2016. It’s a novella about Akuba, a low-level hacker for the wealthy elite, making just enough to keep the bills paid and the booze flowing. Her job is to scrub the social feeds for faces who don’t want to be seen, hanging out at parties to guard the elite from errant social media statuses and incriminating photo posts. But when an old debt comes due early, suddenly she’s the one who needs to keep her face out of the omnipresent eyes of the drones. Thrown into the high-stakes world of international cybercrime, Akuba has to outmanoeuvre unlimited surveillance, high-tech con artists, and an international hacker kingpin if she wants to survive. I’ve not read anything by Alex Livingston before and actually only found this because I was specifically looking through Apex’s backlist for cyberpunk titles because I’ve been so consistently impressed with the fiction they put out and think they deserve a lot more recognition as a small press publisher. Plus this story sounds like it kicks ass.


Let me know in the comments what you’re reading at the mo, I love to chat about the books we’re all reading. And hey, if you enjoyed this update why not follow the blog for more reviews and bookish chat.