Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Interview: Corey J. White author of Repo Virtual

At what point does an AI reach personhood? Once you've defined personhood, and what it takes to get there, what now?  If you suddenly found yourself in possession of a sentient AI, what would you do? Or I guess, the more interesting question is, what wouldn't you do?

If that sounds interesting,  Corey J White's Repo Virtual may be right up your alley.  Online,  Julius Dax is a repoman. But IRL,  he's a thief.   While nearly everyone plays in the online intergalactic war in the stars,  in real life, people are starving and hustling just to make it through another day.   Think Neuromancer meets Ready Player One, but crank the capitalism up to even worse, and bring in a ton more diversity.

Something that caught my eye, when the earliest reviews started coming out,  was the possibilities of being someone else in a Virtual world.  Julius has a physical disability.  Can he leave that behind in the virtual world?  Every time I make an avatar in an online game, I feel like it's my opportunity to  be a more attractive/interesting version of myself - taller, thinner, fewer zits. Now I know Repo Virtual isn't about any of those things, but still, it got my attention and made me want to learn more about the novel and about the author.   A lot of times I get something completely different out of a piece of fiction than what was intended.

Corey J. White was kind enough to answer all my ridiculous questions while offering a view behind the scenes of how this intriguing novel came to be. Other topics we discuss include AI Personhood, what might a teenage AI think about,  sci-fi body-horror novel, Creeper Magazine, and more! And I've got to say, now I'm even more interested in reading the book!  Repo Virtual is making a number of recommended and "best of the month" lists. It could be exactly the escapism we all need right now.

Corey J White is also the author of the space opera Voidwitch Saga series of novellas - Killing Gravity, Void Black Shadow, and Static Ruin.  He lives in Melbourne, Australia. You can learn more about Corey by checking out his website or following him on twitter at @cjwhite.

Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: I've read some early reviews on GoodReads, and what stood out to me first is how much your readers love the characters in Repo Virtual. Introduce us to Julius Dax (JD), Soo-hyun, Troy, and Enda. Who are these folks and what are they all about?

Corey J. White: JD is our window into the world - a precarious worker, online repo man, and real-life thief with scruples. Soo-hyun is JD's step-sibling. He loves them immensely, but is never really sure he can trust them. They've gotten caught up in a streaming cult living in the dilapidated flood ruins on the edge of Songdo, and the cult leader is the one that puts the entire plot into motion: tasking Soo-hyun with recruiting JD to steal a virus she claims to have a hand in creating.
Troy is JD's ex. They both still love each other, but they've been too hurt to admit it. He's also a philosophy professor, which comes in handy when you're trying to talk about the personhood of AI. Enda is the retired operative turned private eye that's blackmailed into retrieving the stolen virus... but she's also not the type of women you should ever even consider blackmailing.

NOAF:  Repo Virtual is being compared to Neuromancer, Ready Player One, and other novels that involve cyberpunk and people working in virtual worlds. What were your inspirations for Repo Virtual? How does it feel to be compared to William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk?

Corey J. White: Neuromancer was less of an inspiration and more of a touchstone for Repo Virtual. I almost didn't want to write an "AI heist" plot because I knew it would be compared to Neuromancer, and any cyberpunk book is going to suffer in comparison to the formative text, but the more I thought about the story and the themes I wanted to address, the more I realised that the heist was the best way to go (for me, at that point in time). Then once I'd made that choice, I couldn't not recognise Neuromancer with the book, but it's more something I reference, rather than anything I was inspired by.

The real inspiration came largely from the way Damien Williams talks about the personhood of non-biological intelligences, and searching for a way to talk about that in a story. All the disparate ideas I had for the story only really started to come together when I realised what I wanted to write about.

Other inspirations include Nexus War, the first MMORPG I ever really lost myself in, and one that I made friends from that I still talk to today; articles and stories about EvE Online (but not the game itself); reportage on some contemporary Silicon Valley adjacent cults; the increasing cyberpunk-ification of our lives; and I took some inspiration for the structure of the story from Nick Harkaway's Gnomon. I don't think I would have written one of the POVs the way I have if I hadn't read his novel.

NOAF:  Something I love about the idea of virtual reality is that I can be anyone I want there. I can be 8 inches taller, I can have my ideal beach body. JD has a physical disability that hampers in him the real world. Do your characters take advantage of virtual reality to present a different version of themselves? Does virtual reality give them other benefits (or disadvantages)?

Corey J. White: For a book with "Virtual" in the title, the Virtual Reality stuff in the book is admittedly pretty slim. If I'd gone too far down that route I would have been stepping on Neal Stephenson's toes too with Snow Crash.

That said, in the book, Augmented and Virtual realities are just another facet of a hyper-connected, digitised life, a deception that sometimes scrapes at JD's psyche like pop-up ads in your browser window. In a virtual world, JD can walk without a limp and without pain, but that just tells him he can't trust it. At least if it hurts, he knows it's real.

NOAF:  I'm a sucker for anything AI related. HAL, Data, the three laws, how does sentience work, hook me up with that positronic thinks-it-understands-people goodness! How did you develop the AI in Repo Virtual?

Corey J. White: Because I'm specifically looking at the personhood of AI, I ended up looking at it in the terms of relationships, both the relationship this AI forges as the story unfolds, and relationships between ideas, concepts, people, history, etc, allowing the AI to gain context and understanding beyond the level of a simple data analysis tool. So it's AI as an agent of connection, in more than one way.

One thought I had early on in the development of the book was that if we created a race of strong AI that could travel out into the universe longer after humankind has gone extinct, they might look back on us the way kids look back at dinosaurs. That when the AI are in their developmental stages, they'd all have a favourite human, whether that's a great figures from history, or just one particular teenager from Osaka in 2019 who created their all-time favourite meme.

So I guess I was thinking of AI as our future children, and what we might owe them, rather than thinking of them as powerful tools of corporate control.

NOAF: What was your writing process like for this novel? Are you a plotter, or a pantser?

Corey J. White: The strangest thing about the process with Repo Virtual was that I signed the contract with just an outline and an introduction, which was a first for me. So every time I was faced with self-doubt or doubts about the book I was writing, I had to push that aside and keep going, because I'd already signed the paperwork and taken the money . . .

But, yes, I'm a plotter. Of course, the plot as planned may not survive contact with the blank page, and that's alright. I think some people push back against the idea of plotting because they think they'll be too constricted by it. The secret though is that it's your plot, and you can change, destroy, or ignore it as you see fit, as and when the story starts to take you to other places. It's not a plan, it's a map, and sometimes you want to set the map aside and let yourself get lost.

NOAF:  What's next for you? Do you see yourself writing more stories about JD and his adventures in Neo Songdo?

Corey J. White: Next for me (because I've almost finished the first draft already) is a sci-fi body-horror novel about our culpability and responsibilities in the face of mass extinction caused by anthropocentric climate change. After that I already have a loose idea of the sequel, but I'm also putting aside notes on a Repo Virtual follow-up. It wouldn't be a proper sequel, because I've told the story of all those characters (well, Mirae could reappear, who knows), but something that uses the world I've set up to delve into some more themes concerning this online reality we've constructed for ourselves. I'd particularly be looking at some of the questions you were asking about virtual reality before, but in regards to augmented reality.

NOAF:  What are some favorite books, comics, movies, TV shows, and other entertainment that you've enjoyed lately?

Corey J. White: This could easily get out of hand, but, recently I've read and enjoyed Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, Octavia Butler's Clay's Ark, Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue Deconnick, Emma Rios, and others, and Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs.

TV-wise, I recently started on Castlevania Season 3, which has more great additions to an already stellar cast, and the dialogue tells me that Warren Ellis was really enjoying himself when he was writing it. I've also been rewatching Schitt's Creek in the lead up to the final season. Catherine O'Hara is a treasure. And I finally saw First Reformed. I should have watched it on release as it definitely shares some DNA with the book I'm currently writing.

NOAF:  On your website, you mention your involvement with Oh Nothing Press, and something about "Weird Cultural Errata". Those being three of my favorite words, what is Oh Nothing Press all about? Where can we learn more?

Corey J. White: I guess the whole point of Oh Nothing Press is that it can be about whatever we want it to be about. So far we've released two capsules - the first was MechaDeath, a story of cosmic black metal mecha warfare told with a meticulously designed zine and some fantastic t-shirt designs.

The second capsule was Creeper Magazine issue 1, and our third capsule will be Creeper issue 2. I sometimes say that Creeper is about the horror of The Now, but that doesn't really say much about the content, so, to quote: Weird crime, conspiracies, paranoia, folklore, the occult, modern myth, bizarre philosophy, fringe tech and genre-exploding fiction. CREEPER is the sort of magazine that could never exist in the mainstream, so we had to make it ourselves!

It's really interesting watching themes and through-lines come through as we're putting together Creeper 2, so I'm keen to see it out in the world later this year.

After that, we've always got ideas for new projects, it just comes down to which of those ideas keep us inspired, and how much time we can spare after day jobs and other creative projects.

NOAF: Thank you so much Corey!

POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery.