Rebuilding West Virginia For Rural Cyberpunk [Trenchant Edges]
*waves from the burned-out husk of a bed*
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter I can’t decide what the fuck I’m doing with. lol.
Editor’s note: After writing this my back relapsed so I’m pretty committed to the bed.
Last fall I toyed with the idea of “killing off” my persona here and replacing it and… I’ve tried a bunch of stuff to make it really work and nothing feels right so I’m throwing that idea away.
Just going on as myself warts and all.
Best to abandon bad ideas.
I’ve been talking with my producer about the audio version and we’ve decided on a bit more sustainable release schedule of 2x/month of scripted episodes with interviews in between. This will give me a chance to build up a backlog of content and her the time to really polish the audio we do.
Today’s going to be a bit of a chill newsletter.
Of the 745 people who saw last week’s email, 9 got to the poll and voted they wanted updates on the novel.
Since if we round up a smidge that’s almost 100%, I’m gonna talk about worldbuilding today.
But first, I wanna talk a bit about ChatGPT and how I’ve been using it for this novel project.
We Have The Technology…
So, ChatGPT is a large language model chat program created by OpenAI. It uses a complicated set of math to guess what words should be strung together to respond to a prompt.
It’s a bullshiting machine, basically.
(Oh, and it can code pretty well)
But sometimes a handy one.
I’m not going to go into the ethics of data collection or its likely effects on society here. The short answers are “bad” and “lots” respectively. But it’s bad on the level of intellectual property theft which… I don’t really care about compared to other issues. And environmental waste which is more of a concern.
I’ll write more about it elsewhere.
Lots of people try to use it for research or acquiring facts and quickly find it doesn’t work very well. And for sure it’s got real limitations.
But since my main skills (digital marketing and increasingly data analysis) are things directly being disrupted by it, I’ve felt somewhat obligated to try it out.
And one of the things I’ve had a lot of interesting results with is using it to generate criticisms of my writing and to interrogate how I’m structuring points and the like.
A big reason this Saturday morning email is happening is that I spaced on writing until Thursday and as I was finishing an essay earlier on Friday I got the idea of pasting the essay into ChatGPT and asking it what loops I’d left open.
It handed me a really useful list and I went back and edited those and I think the result is going to be an immensely stronger piece.
But it’s also going to take a lot more polishing than I have time for this week and I haven’t even thought about recording.
This isn’t without downsides of course. CGPT has a strong preference for what I’d consider bad structure: Telling people what you’re going to tell them, telling them, and telling them what you told them.
But unlike asking it to write prose directly I can use it to quickly get an external opinion on something I’ve written and that’s really handy.
The more of my writing I go back to the less happy I am with it and I think merging this into my process will help prevent that in the future.
The hardest thing about editing a piece of writing is spotting the things that don’t strike you as needing tweaking because you’re too close.
It’s really good doing that.
I think it’s important I work with this technology because it completely broke my assumed tech curve.
Almost Heaven and Wiping Out The Tech Curve
My original plan for this novel was to basically push the Internet of Things as far as I could imagine.
But when ChatGPT came out last fall I quickly realized that my protagonist’s core skillset no longer makes any sense.
I’d originally imagined her as a kind of grey market IT consultant quietly helping smaller organizations circumvent copy protection, right-to-repair restrictions, and the like. I need to imagine how different that role will be far on the other side of several tech adoption curves.
Inspired, of course, by the very real fight farms had to acquire the right to repair their own equipment. The legal situation is very different in the future.
The story and I really need a better working title than “Mothman Noir”, is about living under the devastation of capitalist ruin, in the United States after both the end of the American empire and the rise and fall of a theocratic fascism that tried to restore it.
I’m still not sure what to do with the tech curve. I think I’m going to dig into a bunch of the World Economy Forum’s goofy tech predictions and extract some dystopia from that, shouldn’t be hard.
Interestingly, I asked ChatGPT for some predictions for the 2080s:
Tech that might exist: Advanced AI, Neural Interfaces & cybernetics, Advanced Augmented, and Virtual Reality, Quantum Computing, advanced Biotechnology, advanced renewable energy technologies, space tech, advanced nanotechnology, advanced manufacturing, next-gen internet
Tech that probably won’t exist: Faster Than Light Travel, Time Travel, Teleportation of complex objects or Humans, complete understanding or simulation of the human brain, perpetual motion machines, invisibility Cloaks, Full Immortality, alien contact
Of course, this doesn’t help the real meat and grinding issues of power, business models, and politics.
But I guess that’s my job :-D
Giving The Robot The Final Word
I asked CGPT to give me a thematic analysis of our conversation. Here’s what it said.
Certainly, the themes and ideas you've discussed so far cover a broad and intriguing mix of topics. Here's a thematic analysis:
1. **Rural Cyberpunk**: This is a unique combination of themes. Cyberpunk typically involves high-tech, low-life societies, often set in urban environments. By setting your novel in rural West Virginia, you're exploring a less common, but potentially richly rewarding, setting. Key themes might include the juxtaposition of advanced technology with traditional rural life, the societal changes brought about by technology in such an environment, and how the rural landscape influences the evolution and use of technology.
2. **True Crime**: You're interested in the role of a true crime podcast host, which suggests themes of investigation, justice, and the exploration of human nature. The dark side of true crime podcasting could include exploitation of victims' stories, sensationalism, and the psychological toll on the hosts and listeners.
3. **Nature and Ecology**: Your story seems to heavily involve the natural environment, with questions about the relationship between technology and nature, the idea of the Ohio River as a character, and the impact of practices like strip mining. There are themes of ecological crisis, the resilience and wisdom of natural systems, and the potential for a more harmonious relationship between humanity and the environment.
4. **History and Lore**: You're drawing on real places and history, such as West Virginia and the Mount Builders, and incorporating elements of folklore and possibly mythology (e.g., "Old gods of Appalachia"). This suggests themes of memory, legacy, the power of the past to shape the present, and the tension between historical truth and myth.
5. **Social Justice**: Your notes hint at themes of power, exploitation, and resistance. There are references to the powerful _______ family, the impact of capitalism and efficiency, and the potential for alternative visions and structures. This suggests a critical examination of social structures and the possibility of change or revolution.
6. **Technology and Human Existence**: Your story appears to grapple with questions about the nature of reality, the role and impact of AI, and the value and meaning of human life in a technologically advanced society. This suggests philosophical and existential themes.
7. **Magic and Mysticism**: You've mentioned exploring non-European histories and magic, which could bring in themes of mysticism, spirituality, and the unseen. This could provide a counterpoint to the technology-focused aspects of your story.
In summary, your story seems to blend cyberpunk, true crime, ecological literature, and historical and social commentary. It promises to be a rich exploration of humanity's place in the world and the possibilities for our future.
This is probably too much to actually fit into a novel, but hell, might as well shoot for the moon.
I’ll leave you with one last thought on the book.
The same place where the Hatfield-McCoy feud happened…
…Is also where residents spent about several decades waging a fight to get Massey Energy to take even a slight bit of responsibility for poisoning their water supply.
Devil Anse Hatfield’s main business was logging alongside making moonshine.
West Virginia bears the wounds of centuries of extraction. Even before the logging there was the fur trade that killed much of the regions’s large mammals.
Where To Next
I don’t plan on doing a ton of these, so don’t expect them.
My plan is to do my actual drafting in November for National Novel Writing Month. So I’ve got the better part of six months to finish researching and building the structure.
This is the most ambitious and complex story I’ve tried to do and I’m really stoked to build it out.
As for Trenchant Edges, look, I’m not going to pretend I know how this is going to play out. I’ve finally made some real progress with format, structure, etc this week.
We’ll be back when we’ll be back.
The Trenchant Edges lurks in the future wake of your time tunnel thing from Donnie Darko, you’re predestined to subscribe or you’ll get harassed by a bunnyman.