Originally published in Aurealis #111 (June, 2018).
“It’s really kinda fucked up when you write a book where the main character explodes people’s heads and then you have to tone down the torture techniques the US Government was using, because it’s too much and you don’t want your readers to have to experience that through the eyes of your main character.”
Corey J. White sits at a table in his backyard, explaining why he dedicated Void Black Shadow – the sequel to his debut novella, Killing Gravity; known collectively as the VoidWitch Saga – to Chelsea. “It’s because a big chunk in the middle of the book is based on the torture techniques used at Guantanamo Bay and that is part of the documentation that Chelsea Manning leaked.”
Corey is taking a break from the edits to the third novella in the series chronicling the adventures of the space witch, Mariam “Mars” Xi, to make time for this interview. He says the first novella was catalysed by reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. “That book had a very political focus to it and I wasn’t at all interested in the political part of it, I was interested in the characters. I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I should write a space opera that doesn’t do the traditional space opera political thing.’ So instead of being about a giant rebellion, or galactic warfare, it’s about a woman on the edges of the galaxy and what she’ll do to survive.”
The interview began with a quick photoshoot. Corey’s workspace; a standing desk, though he does just as much work spread out on the couch. His shelves; filled with literature, science fiction, graphic novels and reference books. But the key moment to capture is Corey cradling his cat, Ella. Ella appears in Killing Gravity as the genetically engineered space witch familiar, Seven.
Standing with her in a t-shirt, it’s clear that Corey J. White wears his influences on his sleeves. Tattoos referencing the work of Philip K. Dick, Hunter S. Thompson and Grant Morrison are just some of the permanently inked tributes he’s made to his literary heroes.
Asked what motivated the creation of Mars Xi, Corey says having a female lead was partly to counter their rarity in this genre – “It’s too easy to pick up a book in the last seventy years of science fiction and find a male protagonist” – as well being an acknowledgement of the many strong women in his life.
Marlee Jane Ward steps into the backyard. The other half of this novella power couple, she’s been inside working on her apocalyptic podcast, Catastropod. Discussing the politically-infused podcasts he listens to – such as Chapo Trap House and Street Fight Radio –Corey jokingly confesses he’s now “a card-carrying Communist.” A cloud of steam forms above the table. Minutes earlier, Corey had been raving about other local writers; Marlee chief amongst them. It is noted that Marlee Jane Ward wants you to know that she vapes.
Corey continues, unimpeded, “I think Capitalism is what’s got us into our current climate problems, and all of our other problems stem from the promise of Capitalism. We need to completely dismantle it, and start with something different. All the efforts that corporations and governments are making to try and slow the utter destruction of our way of life… they really are just delaying the inevitable.”
Asked if there’s a country he thinks is championing the cause of a better tomorrow his immediate response is to shout “WAKANDA FOREVER!” before pausing to reflect on the changing demographics in the global south. “Obviously China and India have huge populations and are slowly figuring out how they’re gonna emulate Western middle class consumerism.”
He quickly zeroes in on the key issue to be addressed. “In the West we set up an example of how people are meant to live if they are successful, or to prove that they’re wealthy, and so, of course, through Hollywood… through books and magazines and advertising and everything else we tell these people in China [and India] who are starting to live a middle class sort of lifestyle… They want that and there are a lot of them. If they have what we have, then… We’re setting a very bad example and if the rest of the world wants to follow us it’s gonna make things worse.” Adding, “That’s not to say the amorphous They need to be content with the poverty we’ve left them with, but rather that we in the West need to admit to our faults and do something – fucking anything, really – to change our current trajectory.”
The discussion weaves its way through the well-trod territory of science fiction’s role as a predictor of the future. Corey’s response names two more writers whose work he’s drawn on. “I think it was William Gibson or Bruce Sterling who said that science fiction is always writing about the present through the lens of the future.” He continues, “I think we’re at sort of a jonbar hinge. A time travel term for a period of time where things could go one of two ways. We’re on the verge of either complete collapse or finding solutions.” Later elaborating that we’re risking “a darker timeline with resource scarcity.”
Talk of a brighter future moves the conversation to topics hot in liberal and libertarian circles. Corey notes that, “Universal Basic Income won’t do shit unless it’s universal. As in: all these people working in sweatshops in the Third World are given the same wage as an American. If we can’t lift up everyone then it’s just another hangover from colonialism.”
Nor does he adhere to the idea that billionaire technocrats can fix Earth’s problems – “I think people like Elon Musk are all about, ya know, sound and fury… signifying nothing” – and questions the faith in Artificial Intelligences arising, capable of addressing them; especially if birthed under the current socio-economic climate. “If we let extremely intelligent and efficient machines do Capitalism as intelligently and efficiently as possible then it’s gonna accelerate the destruction of a habitable world for humans, and non-human animals and plants and everything else.”
With work on the VoidWitch Saga almost complete, the conversation naturally progresses to what Corey will be exploring next. He says he’s particularly fascinated by the genome editing technology, CRISPR. “I think if we really are gonna continue to destroy the world at the rate we have been, we’re gonna have to change what it means to be human. And if that does mean literally altering our genetics so that we can survive in whatever toxic environment we create… It might be a question of what does it means to be human and how much of ourselves can we change without losing ourselves.”
The third novella will be released late this year. Killing Gravity and Void Black Shadow are both available right now through Tor.com Publishing. In the meantime, expect to find Corey J. White standing in his study, or splayed out on the couch, bouncing ideas back-and-forth with Marlee Jane Ward, forging another futuristic vision of a better world… or characters fighting for one.
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