If you regularly don a VR headset to party in virtual reality, you can probably find yourself somewhere in Kathe Koja's Dark Factory. I did through Koja's depiction of journalist Marfa Carpenter, unnerved by the fictional character doggedly tracking things down at the cost of emotional evasiveness in personal relationships. Marfa even describes herself as a culture writer, as I do. Did Koja stalk around VRChat clubs while overhearing conversation, or has she simply seen music movements like this come and go before?
Dark Factory isn't quite a perfect depiction of how people party in VR now. It's actually the story of several clubs vying for attention and success--and the staff that make them up--against the backdrop of a world that seems intent on pouring everything they've got into their version of augmented reality clubbing. Dubbed Y, the book's version of reality-altering tech lets people add overlays of lights and visuals on top of brick-and-mortar club establishments. Each club has a concept, and what really makes them pop are the worldbuilders. Each worldbuilder, as a result, has their own theory and concept for what design makes a club the ultimate draw for visitors.
Sound familiar yet? There's petty fighting, long talks about map design philosophy, the nature of reality, DJs desperately trying to send tracks to curators so they can get booked, hanger-ons trying to sleep with worldbuilders and club owners so they can be part of the in-crowd, staff division over who really runs a club and who's just keeping the lights on, hiring and firing, sudden club shutdowns, accusations of "you ripped off my concept", unsanctioned pop-ups, and social media snark. The spirit of the current virtual rave scene--both the pretty and the ugly--can be seen in Dark Factory's pages. There's even a fictional version of ERP (virtual-based erotic roleplay); it's called Y-sex. Y-sex uses haptics between club visitors to work. We've got similar interactive tech like this in VR already, too.
There's also looming corporate interest breathing down the necks of partiers, just like with the real VR rave scene. There's talk of gentrification and buy-outs, concerns of sanitized, corporate-run clubs swooping in to wash the "dirty" indie establishments away. With Dark Factory, this is heaped on top of issues of real estate and physical manifestations of hyper-capitalism. VR floats around in the book somewhere, but it's mostly relegated to the realm of gaming.
Where Dark Factory misses by a few inches in accuracy points, is the absence of a gender spectrum. In our current implementation of virtual reality, gender means almost nothing because we slip into the skin of avatars so easily. I couldn't remember any characters who used they/them pronouns in the book; I myself use she/they pronouns and can name several friends who go by they/them. There are also significantly less furries in the book, though there's shoutouts to avatars of the like here and there. It's my personal view that if a society exists where augmented reality is established and accepted, people are going to use it to be who they actually are. Sometimes, that means a nanachi head poking out of a business suit while someone talks to you.
A few pages of notes about the concept of reality and our curation of it lingers at the end of the book, and its something XR aficionados should pay attention to. The XR industry currently has far too many men pontificating on stages about reality; we need Koja to join the ranks and start giving TED talks.
Whether you party or work in XR, Dark Factory is an absolute must to pick up. Ready Player One was what the industry originally looked to for inspiration for building virtual platforms, but Dark Factory is a closer look at how things actually are.
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