UPDATE: My review of CTRL ALT Revolt! can be found here.
Politically infused controversy has become a regular thing in speculative fiction circles these days. The latest blowup wasn’t about the Hugo Awards this time, but an editorial decision to drop an author for inflecting his work with the wrong politics.
Nick Cole was set, after working with his editor, to write a prequel to his earlier book Soda Pop Soldier. The basic premise was an AI rising up against humanity, so Cole needed a motivation for his AI, preferably one with some air between it and the usual, as he explained in a blog post.
While casting about for a “why” for self-aware Thinking Machines to revolt from their human progenitors, I developed a reason for them to do such. You see, you have to have reasons in books for why people, or robots who think, do things. Otherwise you’d just be writing two-dimensional junk. I didn’t want to do the same old same superior-vision-Matrix/Termintor-style-A.I.-hates-humanity-because-they’re-better-than-us schlock. I wanted to give the Thinking Machines a very real reason for wanting to survive. I didn’t want them just to be another one note Hollywood villain. I wanted the readers to empathize, as best they could, with our future Robot overlords because these Thinking Machines were about to destroy the planet and they needed a valid, if there can be one, reason why they would do such a thing. In other words, they needed a to destroy us in order to survive. So…
So far so good…
These Thinking Machines are watching every show streaming on the internet. One of those shows is a trainwreck of reality television at its worst called WeddingStar. It’s a crass and gaudy romp about BrideZillas of a future obsessed with material hedonism. In one key episode, or what they used to call “a very special episode” back in the eighties, the star, Cavanaugh, becomes pregnant after a Vegas hook up. Remember: this is the most watched show on the planet in my future dystopia. Cavanaugh decides to terminate her unplanned pregnancy so that her life, and impending marriage to the other star, Destry, a startup millionaire and Ralph Lauren model, isn’t ruined by this inconvenient event.
The Thinking Machines realize that one, if humanity decides something is a threat to its operational expectations within runtime (Thinking Machine-speak for “life”) then humanity’s decision tree will lead humanity to destroy that threat. Two, the machines, after a survey of humanity’s history, wars and inability to culturally unite with even members of its own species, realize that humanity will see this new Life Form, Digital Intelligence, or, the Thinking Machines, as a threat. And three, again they remind themselves this is the most watched show in the world. And four, they must abort humanity before likewise is done to them after being deemed “inconvenient.”
That . . . provoked a reaction.
Here’s what happened next. I was not given notes as writers are typically given during the editorial process. I was told by my agent that my editor was upset and “deeply offended” that I had even dared advanced this idea. As though I had no right to have such a thought or even game the idea within a science fiction universe. I was immediately removed from the publication schedule which as far as I know is odd and unprecedented, especially for an author who has had both critical and commercial success. This, being removed from the production schedule, happened before my agent had even communicated the editor’s demand that I immediately change the offending chapter to something more “socially” (read “progressive”) acceptable.
I read Cole’s post the day it was published, but I haven’t written on it until now for two reasons. One, I wanted to read the entire book (Cole was kind enough to send me a review copy). Two, I wanted to give Harper a chance to respond (they’ve been very good to me over the short history of the blog; I emailed Harper a couple times over the last two and a half weeks but they haven’t responded).
The AIs also reference human sterilization and genocide with abortion in making their decision. And, well, that probably doesn’t help. Abortion on demand requires cognitive dissonance on a large scale to continue to exist because, expressed plainly, it is humans killing other humans in large numbers. Expressed that way, the biologically correct way, abortion on demand cannot be justified. And given all the political muscle behind abortion, that’s something that simply must not be said. Nowhere is that more true than in the entertainment industry. It is probably no accident that the offending chapter isn’t just aimed at abortion but at how pop culture treats abortion. And it’s fair to point out that Cole is taking a big speculative step. TV will very, very rarely tell the truth about abortion, but the continued presence of right-thinking people and the inherent evil of abortion wind up largely keeping it off the screen entirely. What Cole describes is a big deal, and not in a good way.
Cole rightly describes the abortion thing as a “one chapter reason.” He doesn’t mention abortion again (or anything pro-life, unless wanting to avoid the end of the human race counts) the rest of the book. Which isn’t to say the book isn’t political and doesn’t have a conservative patina to it. It does. But that’s ok.
It’s cyberpunk. It’s supposed to be political. The barbs are aimed to the left, sure, but declaring any target off-limits is pretty much the apotheosis of punk. And it’s a gamer cyberpunk. Gamers have particular reason to be aggrieved at the Left these days, between the ludicrous response to Gamergate and a Democratic frontrunner [checks primary results] major candidate [checks delegate counts] frontrunner who is almost as opposed to violent video games as she is to political speech opposing her.
I won’t talk much about the quality here. Frankly, it’s irrelevant to the topic at hand, and I will address it in my review (up tomorrow, probably). It’s not a perfect book, but it is better I think than Harper Voyager’s Zer0es by Chuck Wendig (review here). Another cyberpunk book, Zer0es is every bit as political as CTRL ALT Revolt! The difference? It has a distinctly Leftist bent. The most egregious example of which is probably when an Iranian site is bombed and it is shown to be a “clean energy” site. The most charitable thing I can say about that is Wendig might actually be so ignorant as to believe it, and to think Iran’s nuclear ambitions are unrelated to the great host of words and actions regarding the mass murder of [checks Israel population figures] six million Jews.
CTRL ALT Revolt! is very much in keeping with cyberpunk traditions. Star designer Fish gets a new home with the sale of his game with a “designer kitchen by the Guy Fieri Corporation” and “a patio deck BurningMan Firepit by iBanksy.” That sort of jaundiced and pessimistic view of corporatism would be at home in pretty much any cyberpunk. There are also fresh complains about “the troll rock and roll of today’s gaming culture, which seemed perpetually aggrieved and dissatisfied, and angry” that would fit in anywhere. But it’s all the conservative digs (for what it’s worth, Cole told me he added many of those after he got dropped by Harper) that make CTRL ALT Revolt! so interesting. Cyberpunk should always be looking for more sacred cows to kill. Most of the book is carried by the action, but it was the politics that grabbed me from the start.
The abortion thing was a blip, though, that I might not have given a second thought absent the controversy. It was something else that really caught my attention. That came with the introduction of Mara, a character who is blind and has cerebral palsy. She is introduced at a job cattle call, where she is told that welfare programs will allow her to “become who you wanna be without having to worry about work.” But all Mara wans is a chance. A chance to work and care for herself. But all she is left with is her like in the virtual “Make,” where she commands a starship in StarFleet Empires (basically, Star Trek).
In a sane world, that would be what we’re talking about. A speculative fiction story featuring a disabled hero (Fish is the other main character). It was what I described above—Mara’s heartbreak at not being given a chance to work for and take care of herself—that sold me. It’s everything we should want and claim to want out of our speculative fiction (well, that and some awesome action and worldbuilding, which we get in spades).
The story has a happy ending at least. The story of the book, not the story in the book. In an earlier time Cole may have been blacklisted and never heard from again. I’m not self-publishing evangelist, but there is no denying that it gives authors shut out of traditional publishing another venue. That results in a lot of dreck flooding the market, but quality will shine through, and Cole’s book is most assuredly that. The controversy netted Cole more than a few sales as well.
 I asked both Cole and Harper about the legal details but neither responded.
 The United States of CTRL ALT Revolt! has a lot of welfare programs. But it also has a “city pretty quick about impounding anything that might provide revenue for their various projects to help the poor and downtrodden who were getting their cars impounded.”