Ren Warom on Virology and putting the punk in cyberpunk

We talk to Escapology and Virology author Ren Warom

Ren Warom’s SF debut no Escapology was one of the most gripping and inventive cyberpunk novels in recent memory. The world she created, with Slip Haunt Shock Pao being forced into a deadly and potentially catastrophic heist and coming up against mob bosses, assassins and insane AIs, was both grounded and blisteringly creative, showing a multi-layered society that is advanced in so many ways while still being unfair, bigoted and cruel in so many others.

Now, she’s returned with the sequel: Virology. It’s four weeks later, and the consequences of Shock’s actions are catching up with him, fast.

We talk to Warom about what readers can expect, why technology won’t make automatically make life better for everyone, and why readers who loved Shark haven’t seen anything yet…

Where does Virology find Shock Pao and the survivors of Escapology?

Thanks to Shock’s minor oversight in timing the cover-up of their Escapology escapades in Slip, they’re hiding away on a paddy-rise (a farming high rise with paddy fields terraces) located in Shandong, the mountainous arse-end of Foon Gung. They’re also out hunting. They have the Grey Cartel on their tails and want to effectively eliminate the threat, so they’re working in hit-teams across the Gung, camouflaged by VR skins. Shock’s helping them hunt from the safety of their mountain hideaway whilst also hiding some new Emblem-related skills he’s pretty sure will alienate his new friend considering he finds them a little freakish himself.

How easy was it to find your way back into this universe?

It wasn’t hard to reconnect with character voices and re-situate in the Gung, but finding the right way to tell the larger story was tough. I had to take it to the hubs, lots of hubs, and broaden the story out whilst trying to keep it intimate and focused on character. That’s a lot to juggle without losing momentum and I’ve learnt a tonne writing Virology. It’s been a blast.

Had you always planned to write more than one book in this world and with these characters?

No. Escapology was a distraction, a way to find fun in writing again, because I’d had to abandon a sequel to a book that wasn’t going to sell and, not gonna lie, it was a painful blow. The sequel idea came when I was chatting with a friend after Escapology had gone out on sub. I was explaining what Escapology was all about and the plot for Virology sort of fell into my head pretty much fully formed. It was strange, because I’ve never had that happen before. I scribbled it down and that synopsis, almost verbatim, was what I ended up sending to Titan when they asked if Escapology was a standalone or a series.

Were you at all worried about how you were going to top Shark?

Not even a little bit. There’s zero point worrying about stuff like that, besides, a Shark-less Shock presents interesting problems, which you’ll see in Virology. I think all the avis are pretty damn cool to be honest, and we meet several more in Virology than we ever had opportunity to meet in Escapology, which was lovely to be able to do. Is there perhaps a particular avi in Virology who might have the same impact as Shark? Maybe. Maybe it’s the cover star, Polar Bear. You’ll have to read and find out.

I love that, even when the action gets incredibly hectic, there are still moments that illuminate the characters and their history. Was that difficult to pull off, to have that escalation without losing the personal element?

I find it much easier to write character than I do action. I could write endless chapters of inner world and backstory, of characters bantering and snarking at each other, all those little interactions that speak so much of how a character communes with the world, and those moments alone with themselves when we really get to see illuminated the sort of internal battles that form the basis of their interactions.

As for balance, I think that, even when you’re into that breakneck race at the end, marrying moments of quieter character discovery between and around scenes of chaos and violence gives the reader a chance to breathe as well as deepening the story, and that’s very important. Especially in a book as fast moving as Escapology.

It’s interesting that it’s a world with a lot of technological advances but still a great class disparity and some out-dated attitudes, particularly towards Shock. Was it important to address those issues in this story?

Absolutely. It’s a fallacy to assume that technology will create a level playing field—there will always be those who can’t afford it, the human cogs in the machine, who make sure it all works but don’t necessarily reap the rewards. Those communities often look after one another, but shared misery plus various other contributing factors such as cultural history and religious and societal pressure can lead to that closed group mindset, and woe betide you if you don’t fit in or conform to it—which is what happened with Shock, his being a trans man was too far outside of the understanding of his community to be tolerated.

Fundamentally though, Escapology is about the Fails, the J-hacks—kids who are not part of society but can exploit the technology and build their own. I had to address the societal mess they struggle within, as that’s an integral part of why they live the way they do, and why they fight so hard for their autonomy. Essentially, they’ve been cheated out of their futures. They’re the punks in my cyberpunks. The angry outsiders fighting for a better, fairer world.

What is the biggest challenge when creating a world as detailed, bustling and layered as this one?

Remembering everything! It’s a lot of information to keep in your head and, typical me, I never stop to write new developments down, so I’m often found flipping back and forth to check I have details correct. I’m my own worst enemy.

What was the process for designing the world of the Slip?

I had a very clear idea for it, I wanted it to reflect the physical world, so it had to be an ocean. Then naturally the places people would go to chat, connect and play in that virtual space had to be corals, because coral reefs are basically fish cities. Then once you have an ocean, it’s a small step to having sea creatures as avatars. Besides, the ocean is vast and contains parts unmapped or unknown, making it a perfect visual representation of the virtual spaces we inhabit. To my mind anyway.

As for the Queens (the AIs, giant ants who oversee and administrate Slip), being ants was a whole nod to that human/ant dynamic and how creepy it would be reversed, and the idea of AI as dangerous, which is not something I necessarily subscribe to but wanted to explore thematically. I may also have been channelling Phase VI and Them!.

What was your first encounter with SF?

My very first? Blimey. The first Star Trek movie I think, and the original series. I recall watching them very young, definitely before I’d read any SF, and I fell in love with Star Trek. I’ve watched every series up to and including Voyager and all the movies (my favourite is still The Voyage Home). It’s great SF to begin with: diverse, character driven, forward looking and full of real science and ideas.

Which authors are you particularly excited about at the moment?

Michael Cisco (always), Karin Tidbeck, Jeff Vandermeer, Rene Denfeld, Tricia Sullivan, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Jeff Noon, Santino Hassell, Rhys Ford—I read everything going, and this is a drop in the bucket for who I’m devouring at the moment. They’re not brand new authors, but my limited free time has died a death during my masters degree, and my to-read pile could now reach the edge of known space, so I’m kind of sticking to old and new works by established favourites at the moment.

What’s next?

Hybridity. Some self publishing in the Summer if all goes to plan, and I’m writing a couple of books for subbing trad—an industrial fantasy locked city magical mystery with a bit of a Suicide Squad meets City And The City vibe, and a magical realism urban fantasy set in the punk/art scene of 60s/70s London that is entirely its own thing, and absolutely nuts. Both great fun to write! I also have a high concept literary SF boiling away in the back of my head, begging to be written—that’s quite topical, sort of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest meets Girl, Interrupted with AI cyborg clones. I want to get to it ASAP, so I’m writing the others as fast as I can. Spoiler alert: I am not the fastest of writers, and it is the bane of my life.

Virology and Escapology are available now from Titan Books. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.