Someone Is Always Watching
An Interview with Monitor Author Leigh Alexander
Monitor is the first of our new Android novellas, and it follows the lives (oh so very closely) of three wannabe activists who discover an NBN executive's PAD during a protest in Broadcast Square. But their efforts to use the PAD's contents to expose the truth behind NBN's saccharine children's program, Sunshine Junction, leads them squarely into the corporation's all-seeing eye. As camdrones begin to follow them and broadcast their every move, the friends have to ask themselves just how much they’re willing to sacrifice to fight the corps…
Set in the not-too-distant future of the Android setting, Monitor is a gripping tale about the changes that the loss of privacy forces upon its three young protagonists, and it offers fans of the Android universe a unique, deeper look inside the machinery of the information megacorp, NBN. You will witness the machinations of Victoria Jenkins and Jackson Howard and the ways the corp uses its information to influence public perception. And you will find a good number of questions about surveillance, activism, privacy, and the contrivance of intimacy that concern us even now.
“Hi, my friend,” Howard began warmly, tenting his fingers on the projection table as Bex sat down across from him. His grin was like the taste of synthetic sugar.
Of course, this is little surprise to anyone familiar with the writing of author Leigh Alexander whose previous work has appeared in Variety, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Vice, and Time. Her columns regularly explore the intersections of culture and technology, and she has mined the Android universe for such themes during guest appearances on the Terminal 7 podcast.
So how does a veteran journalist like Leigh get interested in the Android universe in the first place? And what aspects of it did she find the most exciting to pursue within her fiction? We ask her these questions and more in today's interview about Monitor and NBN and what happens when there are camdrones following your every move.
//Interview with Leigh Alexander
FFG: What made you want to contribute to the Android universe?
LA: I really worked hard to learn how to play Android: Netrunner. My partner taught me, and it's not the kind of thing I'm naturally good at (some fans of the game might have read our article about learning)—but one of the big things that helped me push past my comfort zone was how engaging the world and the characters are. I'd never seen a take on cyberpunk that had so many diverse, nontraditional elements.
Moreover I was really attracted to the way that everything I did when I played had a narrative analogue that I could imagine. The art is so evocative that I'd get really excited about imagining what the story was behind the moves I was making, and before long I was imagining my own narratives behind the people and places on the cards.
FFG: Monitor offers readers a much more personalized look at NBN's culture and role. What about NBN was most exciting to you?
…Bex saw a girl in a green cotton jacket, probably just about college age, pinned between the transplas and the asphalt as the Sunshine Junction presenters fled for the security vehicle. She paused the frame, summoned it closer to her. There was something vulnerable about the girl’s face, the costume jewelry of earrings and lip rings, the awful, short hairstyle with its bleached ends. Performative coolness; the fear in the girl’s eyes was very real. It was a familiar kind of humanity.
LA: As a writer and journalist I work on the internet—right now I'm writing a regular column in The Guardian about some of the great ethical and social conundrums created by social media—and to me, it always seemed like there was little question of NBN being the most frightening, most powerful corporation.
Of the four big corps, NBN does the best job of smoothly masquerading as something that every person wants, needs, and loves. And that masquerade really manifests itself in the corp's sunny, friendly entertainment-industry aesthetics. I wanted to explore that in particular—the subtle evil of a company that makes kids' toys that know everything about you.
We usually associate cyberpunk settings with a technological "dystopia," full of sinister machine overlords, but I find the hearts, the stars, and the overly-personal "human" tones that some software platforms attempt to take to be a lot creepier. This is happening in our world already; one of my most successful articles from last year was about this!
FFG: You got to put your own spin on some of the major characters inside of NBN. What was that like?
LA: Well, it was totally amazing.
I've been really crazy about Jackson Howard for some time, so the opportunity to build on the lore around him was one of the huge draws of this project for me. Like, who is the smiling guy in the bright suit with the big toy collection who loves to do "Child Programming?" I saw the opportunity to explore some ambiguity there, maybe help the readers and players love the character and wonder about him as much as I do, given how crucial he still is to a lot of decks in Android: Netrunner. I don't really know how to play without him, honestly.
"To me, it always seemed like there was little question of NBN being the most frightening, most powerful corporation."
I'm even more excited about one of the original characters I've created for Monitor. Bex Gleeson is a complicated, ruthless broadcaster, and she's the direct antagonist of the story.
FFG: If you view NBN and Bex Gleeson as antogonists, then who are the protagonists?
LA: Well, of course I came to this from Android: Netrunner, where we think about games as squaring hackers off against corporations, but because I was doing a book about the media and the corporation that controls it, I was more interested in looking at the kinds of people who would be influenced by hacker culture rather than the elite hero-types we'd expect to find at the center.
The main character of the story, Lana, isn't a hacker—she aspires, but she doesn't have the skill. I thought that might create an interesting opportunity to explore what it really takes to go against a corp, what it really costs, and why people are drawn to these types of risks. And I thought it might be more relatable for people. Maybe it's just because I'm not very good at actually playing the game...!
FFG: Was there any aspect of the story that most excited you?
LA: I liked that I had two main characters who were women—yet who were not necessarily heroic, universally admirable women.
I'm really passionate about the conversations we have about bringing more women, people of color, et cetera into game and fantasy spaces, but I sometimes worry about the pressure on characters (or creators) to be a "good representation" of their entire gender or race. People mostly want to write women who are "strong" or "inspiring" or "in charge," but honestly very few people regardless of gender get to feel that way in their lives.
"Of course surveillance is an issue, given that it's an NBN book."
I'm really attracted to the idea that women in fiction should get a chance to be kind of selfish, complicated, and occasionally crummy people. I wrote characters that people might not necessarily "admire," who have some of the same kinds of flaws that I do.
FFG: What can you tell us about the novella's themes?
LA: I think the big one is activism in the media age. There's a difference between being passionate and personal about things (like I often am) and actually being equipped to advance the causes of people in need.
…Don’t leave this room. You can watch the PAD but don’t touch it, don’t touch anything else, for any fragging reason. And stay away from the windows. There are camdrones that come here sometimes.
Somehow, I found that a lot of the economic anxiety faced by the present generation of young adults crept in as well.
Of course surveillance is an issue, given that it's an NBN book. But the way this manifests in Monitor isn't just "being watched by a massive network of cameras," but also in seeing the way other users online can steal your privacy and sense of safety. I think a lot of what is billed as "engagement" online takes the terms of how we interact with others away from us. A lot of public figures and women writers I know would agree with the idea that it can be maybe more scary to be targeted by a mass of random users than by a faceless corporate entity.
But Wait!… There's More!
Act now and you can find an even greater wealth of NBN information in the limited edition hardbound version of Monitor!
Although Monitor will be made available as a digital download, Android fans who order the hardbound copy will not only receive their copies before the download becomes available, but they will also find sixteen pages of bonus, full-color setting details and backstory.
Want to learn more about anarchy and consumerism in New Angeles? Want a more detailed exploration of Jackson Howard's Child Programming? Do you need to know the Android setting's Top 5 Children's Content Streams by Ratings? This information—and more—becomes available to you only when you pick up your hardbound copy of Monitor.
And supplies are limited so you'll want to be sure to mark your calendars. Your can tap NBN's network at Gen Con Indy. Just stop by our booth to pick up your copy. Or if you can't make it to Gen Con, you can order your copy from our webstore, starting on Monday, August 8th!