I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Dark Souls, or Elden Ring, or any number of terribly immersive RPGs that seem to be made of nerd catnip. I’ve never played one but I’ve certainly seen people talking about them, which I’m certain is very close to the same thing. Don’t worry about me, I play silly little mobile games.
We have also seen, in recent months, the abject failure of the first attempt to create a truly immersive online virtual reality, with the crash and burn of Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta. Yes, we will be making jokes about the avatars not having legs for the rest of eternity. Everything I saw of the project made it seem comprehensively repulsive. A world devoid of imagination, reduced to the barest totems of existence. But well-lit and bathed in corporate blues.
This is the spectrum of experience under dispute in K. Wroten’s new graphic novel, Eden II, from Fantagraphics. A massive brick of a tome, this. The book is named after the central object of its story, an immersive virtual reality game. Of course, I use “game” advisedly, because it doesn’t appear to be a game in the traditional sense, any more than Second Life or, for that matter, Meta was a game. There are feats and foes to be defeated, but going on quests to accomplish such things seems besides the point, if not actually discouraged by the residents of the virtual world. The universe inside Eden II has its own media, its own entertainment and celebrities, its own economy and ecosystem.
But Eden II did not appear ex nihilo - no, it was the brainchild of one person, Ellis Flowers. A game designer with an abiding interest in cognitive science and philosophy, at the outset of the narrative they seem to have been struck with a rather novel idea: a virtual environment that is described herein as “procedurally generated environments with a monadic catalyst.” A world that responds to the essence of the user in real time. If you’re not really sure about what a “monad” is, well, much of the book depends on it, albeit in such a way that the unfolding of the narrative is what brings the idea into focus. What is important to remember is that a monad contains the sum of consciousness not just as it exists, but as it yearns to be realized.
Say for a second that you succeed in creating a virtual environment that responds in real time to the innermost bedrock need of every person, for actualization. Sounds great, right? The one thing you shouldn’t do with such a development, for any reason, is allow it to be stolen out from under you by unscrupulous capitalist types. Because then, oh boy, they’re likely to steal your idea and then try to sue you into oblivion if you try to fight it. Sign over your rights for a pittance or be ground into a fine white powder by lawyers, there’s your Hobson’s choice for 2023.
As soon as the product is manufactured and established, however, the world of Eden II takes on a life of its own separate from both its creator and its owners. Much of the book is spent, in one way or another, on the tug of war between the moneyed interests who control the digital world, and the, shall we say, not so moneyed interests who are left to scramble in the wake of commerce. The real world remains pretty fucked, and the folks with money don’t seem particularly perturbed about the mass dying everywhere around them. What matters for them is that the death of the world outside means the narrowing of choices for those left inside. It makes control that much simpler, and through control, ultimately, destruction.
Those are the stakes. On the one hand, Eden II could be a virtual paradise, a world designed by and for benign sensibilities, a haven from Armageddon. And on the other, what Eden II actually is: a commercial endeavor controlled by a coterie of capitalists who see the creation of an all-encompassing virtual reality as the first step towards getting the huddled masses of humanity to willingly sign up for a trip to the slaughterhouse.
Throughout Eden II, I found reason to reflect on the resemblance of Wroten’s line to that of Dash Shaw, another cartoonist committed both to punishing extended narratives and an occasionally thick-fingered, utilitarian brushline. Is Wroten using felt tip pens here? It looks like some of these spotted blacks have been filled in by a felt tip line, to say nothing of the dry wavering black strokes used to hatch shading throughout. Retaining a sketchy spontaneity with ink is difficult. Shaw managed in part because he never seemed afraid to leave an ugly mark on the page. Wroten seems of similar temperament. Sometimes their character designs veer too close to simple. A few characters resemble each other in passing, and there are more than a few characters to keep track of throughout.
The book is divided into sections following various characters as their stories weave in and out of the main narrative, very much in the spirit of Clowes' or Ware’s polyglot storytelling. We follow Ellis Flowers for a good portion of the book - they’re the lynchpin for the whole thing, the nucleus for the extended household that forms the heart of the book. Half-a-dozen or so people living in a house together, getting high and watching nunsploitation movies that seem like something Katie Skelly might have drawn. Into this garden of Eden (har har) a snake slithers, in the form of Ellis’ game design professor, Dr. Heck, down on his luck and frustrated creatively to the extent that he has no compunctions whatsoever about stealing from a student.
The real star of the book, if any one character can be said to be the center of gravity for such a sprawling piece, is Dr. Heck’s strange daughter Hap. (Truth be told, Ellis is kind of a drip, but I think that’s intentional.) Although initially placed at her father’s right hand, she soon sees through his self-serving nature and places her bet on another horse. Her father, in serving up Eden II to his avaricious friends, has doomed the future of mankind in placing too powerful a virtual inducement in the hands of rank sociopaths actively trying to reduce the population. She ends up being the lynchpin of the whole operation, stepping away from the futile project of redeeming her father’s avarice in favor of simply undoing the consequences of his thoughtless ambition. He stole the most powerful program in the world, the program to unite all of mankind under a glittering starlight of gnostic revelation, and sold it to a company that uses it to sell chicken nuggets. Or, rather, chicken-flavored nuggets, filled with nicotine and designed to instill cravings for alcohol.
Once Eden II is established, the narrative splinters between the real world and the virtual. The real world is black & white, ink dragged across paper. The universe inside the machine is where the color resides - sparse, but all the more powerful when it arrives. Along the cavalcade of new characters we’re introduced to Desdemona Tontoni, a working writer and member of the urban precariat, cash poor despite upmarket cultural signifiers that ensure she receives all the advertisements intended for the idle rich. That cut a bit too close to the bone, truth be told! Anyway, Desdemona has a secret: online, she’s rather famous, if anonymous, as Swear the Cat. Everyone thinks she’s just an AI, which means everyone tells her their secrets, which she then broadcasts over the network like a talk show.
And it’s here we meet Jennifer Easter, a famous actress who sold her likeness to a chicken nugget company, to be promulgated online. Meaning, anyone and everyone can be, look like, or interact with Jennifer Easter. But every Jennifer avatar also thinks—or at least acts as if—they believe they are a real person. Is the Jennifer Easter we meet, who befriends Swear the Cat and undergoes a quest to learn the secret of Eden II, the real Jennifer Easter, or just another in a seemingly infinite panoply of virtual Jennifers clogging up the servers? She’s most likely not the real deal. But the pathos lies in the fact that no one can really tell, and she can’t either. The lines are beginning to blur. If a human being can pretend to be AI in order to gain access to otherwise unavailable secrets, who’s to say an AI can’t do the same thing?
The book’s first section, which offers a brief slice of life as a drone on the factory floor, featuring Ellis’ housemate Spider, brings to mind another classic workplace nightmare: Jeff Nicholson’s Through the Habitrails. Through our work we are permeated with consciousness of the futility of our actions, and that futility infests every aspect of our lives. We see the whole cross-section of this future, from the uselessness of labor through the malevolence of our bosses. It’s a very contemporary story, inasmuch as the exaggerated features of this fictional world are merely the extrapolated trends of our own. Do you think, if your boss could press a button to rid the world of all the poor people in it, he would? I wouldn’t bet against the all-consuming lust for mass death crouched in the soul of every plutocrat, and neither would Wroten. Our system incentivizes such monsters.
Much to take in. As a near-future consumerist dystopia, set against the backdrop of an ecological collapse so stark that the very sky is held in abeyance by carbon filtering technology, Eden II finds ready company in the grand cyberpunk tradition. The question of whether or not a virtual world might not be preferable to the real world is achingly contemporary. The virtual worlds we’ve been offered to date haven’t really been all that appealing; it still seems preferable, at least for most people, to get sucked into a virtual world that exists through the medium of a television screen, rather than an immersive headset. But that’s the dream, still, for some: to leave our world behind. Not just to get sucked into Dark Souls for a hundred hours or two.
There’s frankly more on the plate here than can be discussed in one sitting. The scope of Eden II is larger than one single review. Does it work, though? It clearly has ambition. Wroten’s characters are wont to speak in aphorism, with the occasional infodump on subjects such as Gnosticism or Plato. The parable of the cave comes up, of course. Perhaps you get itchy at books where characters walk around spouting mouthfuls like “When you see yourself as who you are, instead of who you wish you were, you can start to make things right.” Perfectly valid sentiment, but not going to win any hearts and minds among the contingent who believe fiction has been colonized by therapy-speak to deleterious effect. As much as it may grate, however, it is how people talk these days.
A grumpy toad in my soul would like to be able to say, with confident derision, that 450 pages of sprawling near-future cyberpunk about gnostic revelation and incipient genocide is just too much. Is that grumpy toad right? I don’t know. As much as I wish I could say, yeah, the Jennifer Easter passages are strong enough to make you wish she were the focus of her own story, the fact is that’s not the book Wroten gave us. Could they have pared it down a bit, maybe sanded down some of the philosophical confabs, focused on one or two characters instead of half-a-dozen or more protagonists? Sure. Bottomless Belly Button could probably have been shorter, too. But then they wouldn’t be the same books.
Does it bite off more than it can chew? Sure. Nevertheless, in so doing it leaves plenty on the plate for the rest of us.
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PLEASE NOTE: This review has been edited to correct erroneous gendering of the character Ellis. The author sincerely regrets the oversight.