On the surface, Chris Kluwe’s new novel Otaku (hardcover, Kindle) seems like a cyberpunk sci-fi story. But as he discusses in the following email interview about it, the story has deep roots in geek culture, the social sciences, and our current political climate.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Brace
To begin, what is Otaku about?
So the easiest way to describe Otaku is that it’s about a group of gamers who end up having to save the world from a nefarious scheme. But really the book is about obsession (which is why I chose “Otaku” for the title). One of the interesting (in the Chinese proverb sense of the word) things I’ve noticed about our world is that more and more people are being encouraged to not just be a part of something, but to make that something your entire life. It’s happening in sports (both for fandoms and players / coaches; think of how many NFL analysts gush over players who spend 14 hours a day at the facility), entertainment (you can’t just watch MCU or Star Wars movies, you have to be part of the universe itself, and gaming I think is self-explanatory at this point), and perhaps most worryingly, politics (see the tribalism in the Republican Party of the U.S., the Tories in the UK, and various other fascist tendencies creeping up all over the globe, all of which value being part of the tribe over what’s actually best for society). What I wanted to convey in the story is not just a kick-ass cyberpunkish adventure, but also an examination of all these other things that go into making up the world we live in.
You kind of just answered this, but where did you get the idea for Otaku, and how did the plot evolve as you wrote it?
I originally got the idea for Otaku back when Gamergate was happening (I’m not a fan of those particular harassers, which I think became very obvious when I wrote a piece called “Gamergaters Piss Me The Fuck Off“). My starting premise was that I wanted to write an action / adventure type story that traditionally has been occupied by heterosexual white men, one that the so called “true gamers” would absolutely see themselves as the heroes of, but then flip things around so that the protagonist is actually a half black half Japanese bisexual woman who has to deal with all their bullshit because she’s the best in the world at the particular game they play, and to them there’s nothing worse than someone else who doesn’t look like them enjoying the things that they enjoy. As I worked on it, I realized that the kind of rabid obsession that Gamergaters displayed wasn’t(and had never) been confined to just games, and that there was an opportunity to look at how that might impact our world if left unchecked (as we’re currently seeing with Trump, it’s not great!).
It sounds like Otaku is a cyberpunk sci-fi story. Is that how you see it, or are there other genres that describe this story better or are at work in this story as well?
Otaku definitely has cyberpunk trappings, but I think it also draws heavily from my background as a history / political science major, as well as my experience as a professional athlete. One of the things that really intrigues me about haptic technology and virtual / augmented reality is that as we get closer to one-to-one fidelity with the real world, what you do in non-real environments will start affecting your body in significant ways in the real (and we probably need to come up with better terms than “real” and “non-real,” since it gives the impression that things done online somehow don’t have the same impact as things done in physical space — maybe “digital space” and “analog space”). A lot of Ash’s drive comes from my own personal drive to be the absolute best at what I did, and I’m definitely not alone in possessing that.
Otaku is not your first novel; you previously co-wrote Prime with our mutual pal Andrew Reiner. Do you think you learned anything co-writing Prime that helped when it came to writing Otaku on your own?
Yeah, Prime was a great learning experience…not least of which was that if you’re going to sell something through Amazon, don’t name it Prime, otherwise no one can google your book. I think you can tell that Prime is us trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and we got a lot of great feedback from people who read it that I kept in mind when I was writing Otaku. I’m glad we wrote it, but if I could go back there are definitely things I would change knowing what I know now (and I think Andy would agree).
What about when you wrote the non-fiction book Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, And Assorted Absurdities? Do you think you work on that book had an impact on either what you wrote in Otaku or how you wrote it?
Anyone who’s read Sparkleponies will probably recognize a bit of that leaking through when they get to Ash’s encounter with a preacher near the end of Otaku, but on the whole I think Sparkleponies was more of its own thing because of how diverse the ideas in it were. As a collection of short stories and essays, I could really jump around all over the place without having to worry about how one part related to another, which is waaaaaay different than writing a novel.
That being said, quite a few of the short stories in Sparkleponies have a sci-fi bent, and I’ve been reading sci-fi / fantasy since I was like five or six, so I’m sure there are more similarities between the ideas being explored if people wanted to go digging for them.
And are there any Sparkleponies in Otaku? Seems like they would fit, especially if they’re beautiful and unique.
Sadly, there aren’t any in this one, but there’s a dragon.
So are there any writers, or specific works, that were a big influence on Otaku but not on Prime or Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies?
I’d say Otaku definitely has more of a William Gibson influence than Prime or Sparkleponies, but everyone I’ve read has influenced me in one way or another, so it’s not like I could point to a specific work and say “this is what made it click.”
Stylistically, I deliberately tried to make it feel like those early cyberpunk novels because I wanted to show that you could write a book that traditionally has been cis-het white male centered and make it just as engaging with a different protagonist.
How about non-literary influences; did any movies, TV shows, or games have a big influence on Otaku? Because you’re known for being a big fan of video games, and were the lead designer on the tabletop game Twilight Of The Gods.
Pretty much just being a lifetime video game player and consumer of nerd culture. Again, I couldn’t point to any specific work, but there are tons of little Easter eggs in Otaku for people to find, and all of that comes from me growing up in that world and wanting to share my love of it while also pointing out the flaws that we need to fix.
I want to go back to Prime for a moment. In the interview you, Reiner, and I did for that novel [which you can read here], you said it was the first in a series called Genesis. Where do things stand with that series? Anything new to report?
So Andy and I have actually finished the second book in that series (we’ve had it done for a couple years now, currently titled Splice), but we’re waiting to see how Otaku does — hopefully if it does well then we can go the traditional publishing route for Splice and get a bunch more eyes on it. Prime did decent by self-publishing standards, but we both think (along with the people who’ve read it) that Splice is much better. If we don’t go the traditional publishing route we’ll self-publish it again.
And is Otaku also the first book of a series?
Otaku is written as a stand-alone novel, but I’m contemplating the idea of writing a sequel. One of the underlying themes of Otaku is looking at gaming culture, but it’s looking at that culture through a Western lens. If I do a sequel, the environment would shift towards looking at the idea of gaming culture from an Eastern lens, which is a totally different animal. No promises, though.
I asked earlier if Otaku had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. Has there been any interested in adapting Otaku into a movie, show, or game?
There haven’t been any offers to adapt Otaku yet, but I’m not sure if we’ve sent it to any production studios yet, so this question may be a bit premature. My agent thinks it would make a great movie, and I agree, but it could also be a cool anime or streaming series. When I’m writing scenes, particularly action scenes, I try to imagine how it would play out in a screen-type experience, because I like watching cool shit happen just as much as the next person. Hopefully Hollywood calls at some point.
If Otaku was going to be adapted into a movie, who would you want them to cast in the main roles and why them?
Honestly, the only person I had thoughts of casting was Janelle Monae [Hidden Figures] in the role of Sarah. Maybe [gymnast] Simone Biles as Ash’s stunt double. As far as Ash and the others, I’d just want the casting to remain true to the book in terms of ethnicity and culture (i.e. don’t cast Scarlett Johansson as Ash).
Finally, if someone enjoys Otaku, what similar cyberpunk sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one? And just to keep things interesting, let’s skip such obvious choices as William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.
They’re not really cyberpunk, more like space opera sci-fi, but if you like Otaku, you’ll probably like Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden and Empress Of Forever by Max Gladstone, both of which I reviewed for Lightspeed. As far as cyberpunk, Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller is pretty good.