Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Repo Virtual by Corey J. White

I don’t know much about Corey J. White. Based on the back covers of his books, I can tell he lives in Australia and has good taste in hats. I first learned of his writing when he wrote a novella published by tor dot com publishing, Killing Gravity. I borrowed it from the library and thoroughly enjoyed the story of Mariam Xi, Voidwitch. The “space opera starring a mysterious woman with telekinesis” who didn’t know much of her past plot seemed like a 21st century remix stitched together from old comic books and Star Wars. It has a sense of fun an some interesting world building. I enjoyed it so much that I bought the two sequel novellas as ebooks so I could finish reading the tale. The story took a odd left turn in the second book but overall all three novellas were a fun read. 

So when I found out that he has a debut novel, Repo Virtual, coming out, I quickly requested it from NetGalley. The blurb describes as a cyberpunk heist of the first sentient AI by an online repoman. And it certainly does include all of that and so much more, but not in a good way. While I enjoyed this book, I did not enjoy it as much as I enjoyed those three prior novellas. I think the best way to explain it is that Repo Virtual is five pounds of book ideas crammed into a one pound bag. 

The main protagonist is JD, who spends his time doing digital repossessions in a giant online multiplayer space opera video game that is reminiscent of the Oasis in Ready Player One. This idea alone, of a society where online repossession of purely digital assets is a viable career option, could sustain a story by itself. But not this story - White barely spends any time on this aspect of the story. 

Then this book pivots into heist - JD’s sibling hires him for one last job. (One nice thing in this book is the representation - JD is gay, his sibling uses “they” as their pronoun, another minor character is casually noted to be transgender - and it is all treated as normal, commonplace, and entirely unremarkable - as it should be! Well done.) But before we get to the heist, we take a detour into a weird quasi-religious cult that JD’s sibling has fallen into. The cult’s existence and role as villain is a complete unnecessary diversion and detracts from the story. 

Then we finally get to the heist. For a book billed as a heist novel, the heist itself is neither central to the plot or interesting in and of itself. Seriously, if the entire heist had happened off-stage before page one it would not have detracted from the plot. This is supposed to be a near-future with more advanced technology then on the present day, but the characters act like they have never heard of forensic evidence like DNA or fingerprints. JD and his sibling brutally kidnap multiple people during the course of this heist, utterly eviscerating any good feelings I had for the protagonist. Their plan was so foolhardy that I was rooting for them to get caught. 

And then, for reasons left unexplained, JD decides to plug the stolen computer chip (which we learn contains the world’s first real generally smart AI) into his phone to see what happens instead of giving it to his sibling as he promised. Why does he do this? The plot requires it but there is no satisfactory explanation. 

Also unexplained is why JD’s exboyfriend, a philosophy professor, ever dated or respected him in the first place or why he takes him back at times throughout the story. I would expect a philosophy professor who is so concerned about ethics that he can teach an AI to behave well to be more concerned about his romantic partner’s violent felonious activities. 

After the first third of the book, we take a hard pivot to Enda, a private investigator with a mysterious past who is a much more interesting protagonist, even if she is a walking collections of tropes. She is hired by the company JD stole from to retrieve the AI. Of course, she and JD and the AI eventually all meet up and become friends, because although she is a killer, she also has a heart of gold and is willing to sacrifice profit and her own safety for a computer program and a man she just met. 

I know the last several paragraphs may seem snarky and critical. I don’t want you to think I didn’t enjoy this book. I did! The writing style is clever and sophisticated- it is a book clearly in conversation with its cyberpunk predecessors, going all the way back to Neuromancer. But it’s just trying to do too much. Emergence of the first smart general AI could be a book by itself. Enda’s story could fill a book on its own. And, as the title suggests, a virtual repoman is a great concept for a story. This book is just trying to cram too much in and it ends up feeling overstuffed and unbalanced. 

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