Repo Virtual – Planet Of The Bots

91pmbl4opmlRepo Virtual is a peculiar and somber book that feels like a mash-up of different stories. Although it’s not quite a debut, as the author Corey J. White has a number of other publications to their name, we decided to put it in our dark horse initiative because not a lot of people seemed to be talking about it. The novel feels like it borrows storytelling elements from a lot of popular stories while also contributing its own original takes and ideas. The result is a fascinating and chaotic story of a possible near-future Korea where the virtual and the physical worlds are almost indistinguishable.

Although it doesn’t quite seem it, I think Repo Virtual might be a post-apocalypse story – even though the apocalypse in question is more like a quiet sigh than a big bang. The narrative follows the POV of Julius Dax, a bot technician by day and a virtual repo man by night. He makes his living by stealing gear and items in giant online games and selling them for hard currency. Julius lives in Neo Songdo, a city that is more virtual interface than stone and concrete. He is barely scraping by when his sibling brings him a job of a lifetime – stealing an unknown object from a reclusive tech billionaire. However, when it turns out the item he steals is the first sentient AI, everything goes south rather quickly.

On its surface, Repo Virtual is a fairly basic heist novel. The plot is serviceable, the job is exciting enough, and the characters are fun if a little cliche. However, the book really shines when it uses the heist plot to facilitate some fantastic social commentary as well as advance its pretty heavy themes. I would argue that Repo’s two biggest ideas are 1) that humanity is destroying its own existence through the facilitation of capitalism and 2) the rise of AI and how a new computer mind might see and change the world – both of which it explores in great detail. As I mentioned, Repo paints a bleak future for humanity. Through Julius, we get to see how hard literally everyone but a handful of billionaires work, how greedy fanatics make use of people’s anger and frustration, and how these things eventually fuel the collapse of society. It doesn’t inspire a lot of hope – but it is nicely balanced by the rise of the AI representing a new hope. The AI is like an inquisitive child and does a lot to provide a light at the end of a dark capitalistic tunnel. While I think that White did a good job arguing for his themes, I would point out that his arguments are not subtle. In fact, this is some of the most blatant and opinionated writing I have read in a while. In many ways, the book reads like a well written political paper more than a story – which weirdly works for me.

On the novel front, the world and characters are a mixed bag. Neo Songdo is bleak but feels like a well-realized and well-written possible future. The characters, however, are where things get a little uneven. Julius was great, though I did feel that his inner monologues sometimes felt a little redundant as he constantly thought about past injuries he cannot afford to have fixed, reminding the reader how terrible life is under a capitalist society that monetizes everything. On the other hand, the antagonists (who I don’t name to avoid spoilers) left a little to be desired. They felt cookie cutter and generic in comparison to Julius’ more dynamic personality, and I don’t actually think they added a lot to the story. Their entire side story would have functioned the same if the antagonists had been removed and replaced with “cops trying to stop Julius from committing crimes for good reasons.”

Repo Virtual feels like a poignant and clever criticism of capitalist society and commentary on AI wrapped up in a single package. The story is short, entertaining, and drives its points home well. While I don’t see this being the next blockbuster hit, it is definitely worth the short amount of time it would take to read, and it might make you think about the future trajectory of the human race. White has done a great job crafting a novel that depressed then uplifted me – all the while entertaining me with a kick-ass action-adventure.

Rating: Repo Virtual – 7.0/10
-Andrew

Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook – Natural 20

“I’m going to read the entire Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook” turned out to be my greatest terrible idea yet. Or maybe it was a terrible great idea? I’m not entirely sure, mainly because I thoroughly enjoyed the 320-page deep dive into the world of DnD, but it also felt like trudging through a quagmire of intricate rules and descriptions just so I can tell people when they’re wrong about how effective their Potion of Fortitude is. By the time I turned the final page, I felt resoundingly good about my time with the manual.

The first point in the Player’s Handbook’s favor is its inherent fantasy bent. We’re no strangers to fantasy here, but to read through a fantasy game’s manual, no matter how whimsical or magical the game’s content, is decidedly different than picking up Lord of the Rings. The Player’s Handbook reads as a remarkably self-aware manual, playing that awareness to its advantage by offering short prosaic snippets that help readers vividly imagine the worlds of DnD before then giving more context to the nitty-gritty rules aspects of the game. These short fantasy descriptions that lead each chapter are welcoming entryways into the deep explorations of game mechanics that follow. 

The Player’s Handbook achieves its designated purpose. Namely, explaining the rules of “the world’s greatest role-playing game” to a newcomer. I opened the tome with just four DnD sessions under my belt (all played with the *supposedly experienced* Quill to Live staff!), most of which saw my character, Jimbabwe Razzledazzle, simply making jokes and occasionally bonking enemies on their heads with xylophone mallets to little effect. There was a tipping point somewhere in those first four sessions, though, when I thought “I need to know this game inside and out,” sparking my impulse to read straight through the first of the game’s core rulebooks. 

The rule descriptions are flawlessly complemented by expertly crafted illustrations that bring the world of DnD to life. It’s a game predicated on imagination, and seeing that concept depicted in the illustrations is an added bonus on top of the comprehensive and accessible rule-based content. 

DnD’s pantheon of rules plays the starring role as one might expect, but it feels distinctly readable in a way I never anticipated. The book is laid out in chapters and parts, each outlining a core facet of DnD: Races, Classes, Combat, Equipment, Spells, and more. I found the chapters and the content within them less captivating as the book carried on, but that’s because the layout and order just makes sense. I ravenously read through the class and race descriptions, eager to understand which types of beings might inhabit a game world and how they differ. Then I ventured more slowly into the other game elements. Sure, reading about the effects of leather armor can be interesting enough, but the true joy of reading through these segments is in understanding how they impact the game. For that reason, the less outwardly exciting chapters are completely manageable…

…until SPELLS. “Spells” is the final core chapter before a few appendices, and it’s literally just 50+ pages of spell descriptions. I read them all. Every. Single. One. Even when three different spells had near-identical effects with only small stat changes to differentiate them from their arcane brethren, I read every word. It felt philosophically necessary, if slightly masochistic, to make the leap and finish the book all the way through, even though it meant slogging through the spell descriptions. And this isn’t to say that they’re bad. Quite the opposite–the spell descriptions have that same accessible-but-fun spark as the rest of the rules. They’re just so…numerous. 

But I didn’t quit, and I don’t think any player should. The spells available in DnD quite literally weave magic into the world. And while most of them aren’t available to players right away, there’s value in knowing just what kinds of magic permeate your game world, and I felt better-versed in DnD after closing the page on the “Spells” chapter. 

There are myriad game elements, rule descriptions, and other tips and tricks in the Player’s Handbook that I’ve neglected to mention here. The book is so replete with game lore and mechanics that it’s impossible not to recommend it to anyone interested in jumping down the DnD rabbit hole. Pair those rules with amazing illustrations and tidbits of fun fantasy wordsmithery, and it’s a critical hit. 

Rating: Player’s Handbook – Read it if you’re at all interested in playing DnD/10
-Cole