Reading A.E. Osworth’s debut novel We Are Watching Eliza Bright is like entering an uncanny valley. There is only the narrow, fictive distance between today’s sociopolitical climate and the world of Eliza, and a narrower distance still between what is online and off—a boundary so tenuous that it all but collapses by the book’s end. The book opens in an imaginary city that resembles both Chicago and New York, in a world that resembles both the Marvel universe and our own, whose super-suited and Homerically named characters are, and are not, the protagonists. They are their in-game avatars.
A collective voice narrates: “We are watching Circuit Breaker get the punch to the back of her head that she deserves,” and in the same breath: “We are watching Eliza Bright, who is controlling this avatar from her apartment in New York City. Both are true.” This in-game sequence is simply “a skin on top of our reality,” the narrator explains, “just as real as meatspace.”
The book’s fictional world evokes our own immediate past: the political and cultural milieu of the US on the cusp of the 2016 election. Online (and, as now we understand, off), a loose collection of individuals—young and cis and straight and white and male and angry—was building an empire of exclusivity, one meme at a time. They scoffed at the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters and photoshopped feminist games critic Anita Sarkeesian’s face onto pornographic images. Eventually, they coalesced—gamers, rightist Redditors, MRAs, the alt-right and their ideologies—in shared opposition to the phantoms of the “cultural left.”
A.E. Osworth calls them “the weaponized nerd population” or “the Reddit manosphere,” and they are primary narrators in this novel, which begins, in earnest, in “meatspace” (physical reality), with Eliza exhausted after a Red Bull-and-heavy-metal-fueled weekend of coding. Recently promoted at the game startup Fancy Dog, she is tasked with developing code that enables sexual activity for the VR upgrade to their massively multiplayer online role-playing game, Guilds of the Protectorate. After a 72-hour crunch inputting the new feature—“an update we’ll all later call the sex patch”—she signs onto the server and notices a unique comment scattered throughout her section of code: “//80085.” It’s her first assignment, and she assumes she has borked it. She later learns that, indeed, the men on her dev team wrote “boobs” across her code. Eliza issues complaint after complaint, all of which are as effective in this novel’s reality as we have seen them to be in our own. What follows is a dark, vicious ride, in which Eliza is targeted and harassed using the pile-on tactics of Gamergate, receiving threats that ratchet up from rhetorical to enacted violence.
However familiar a tale of workplace sexual harassment, doxxing, or assault may seem, this book’s narration and formal invention are fresh. A second plural narrator—a queer artist collective called “the Sixsterhood”—disrupts the manosphere’s monologuing with their own version of events as told from their vantage point, a warehouse in Queens where Eliza stays to escape further targeting. But even though we’re given multiple narrative strands, they reflect only a sliver of reality. The reader can only know what the narrators speculate and interpret, which contributes to the distinctly destabilizing feeling of reading this thriller, while implicating us in “watching” Eliza Bright. It isn’t so much a book about Gamergate, as one that enacts it—and in doing so, offers its antidote. The sinister implications of surveillance, the white-supremacist misogynist anger that lurks online, and the material harm that anger enacts are made all the more sinister by their real-life and contemporary analogues. But in giving voice to this counterpoint community of the Sixsterhood, we see a viable alternative to the toxic vagaries of groupthink. Osworth and I spoke over Zoom about how to navigate such an Internet, their resistance to taking up the mantle of “gamer,” and the pitfalls and possibilities of online community.
—Sarah Madges for Guernica
Guernica: What inspired you to write a book narrated largely by, basically, the manosphere?
Osworth: I got mad.
I was Geekery editor at Autostraddle when Gamergate happened, and my memory is that I covered it more than I actually did. I looked back at my filings from that time and I was like, “Man, I remember this taking up a lot more of my life.” The only thing that I can figure from that is that I never stopped thinking about it. I am a person who can, in fact, write 419 pages out of spite. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing! I think getting mad and writing against something is a perfectly reasonable way to make art.
When I was writing this novel, I was reading all of the Gamergate stuff and I was on Reddit, and I noticed that I’d started to port these little phraseologies, and I went, “Who’s talking here?” As soon as I realized that the narrator doesn’t like the person that we’re following, that’s when I understood: Oh, the manosphere is narrating.
Guernica: In an interview with Jeanna Kadlec you explained that originally it was just this Reddit manosphere narrative voice, and that it was your editor’s suggestion to put in a kind of counterpoint voice?
Osworth: And thank God, because I felt like I was accidentally saying something about community that I did not agree with.
Guernica: What do you feel like you were saying before?
Osworth: I felt that the book was making the argument that community is harmful because groupthink is harmful, and that community is inherently toxic because you wind up in an echo chamber. [The narrators] had been running pretty unchecked, and suffering no real consequences. Also, even though they were thinking and narrating together, they were constantly squabbling and didn’t have the sort of grounding, healing, wonderful parts of community, which is my experience of community.
Of course, I’m queer; queers are fairly practiced at creating those kinds of communities with each other, for all sorts of reasons. I worried, what if I never break out of that weirdly myopic (even though it’s multiple people) worldview and never problematize what the idea of collective means? So thank God she made this suggestion. It resolved some challenges to the internal logic of the story, but it also offers reprieve from such a toxic voice. Sometimes we need a fucking rest…because otherwise we’re spending a lot of time, essentially, on the butthole of the Internet.
Osworth: My editor got on the Zoom with me and we analyzed the prose of the Reddit narrators. Then I took my notebook and I drew a line from each of those choices and said [the Sixsterhood] was the opposite. The exercise was meaningful for two different reasons: it gave me the really queer, really fun Sixsterhood voice. Whereas the Reddit narrators speak in short sentences, in the Sixsterhood chapters there’s not a single period—
Guernica: And a lot of capitalization!
Osworth: The creative capitalization? They capitalize anything that they find meaningful and therefore—this is part of what I’m saying about community—they always capitalize “We” and “Us” because they treat their entity with such care. So a) it gave me that really fun thing, and b) it also let me articulate what I was actually doing with the Reddit voice, so with that subsequent edit, I was sharper on both.
Guernica: What I love about that voice is that there’s some loving poking-fun happening. It makes sense that you created it via opposition because it presents another extreme. It reminds me of what that angry white male on Reddit or 4chan would think the identity politics-driven tumblr aesthetic is like in person. Suzanne is described as “Our Perfect Thoughtful Unicorn”—it gets a little silly! I appreciate that you wrote the voice in a way that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Osworth: My experience of queer community is one of camping itself—the Perfect Thoughtful Unicorn, or taking things that we are stereotyped for and turning the dial up on them in a really playful way. So yes, I am doing a little elbow-ribbing about the queer community.
Guernica: In a “this is so us, haha,” kind of way.
Osworth: Exactly. I podded with an entirely queer pod. There are six of us: five of us are trans, and one of them was the first person to hold the book in his hands and read it. After he finished he said the line that made him laugh was the “Solstice Tree” line. It’s for my people; the jokes in there are for us.
Guernica: Do you think there is a risk, though, of creating another kind of echo chamber with these intentional community situations?
Osworth: Of course. Communities aren’t perfect—the Sixsterhood is not—because they’re made up of people, and there is no way to completely sidestep our imperfections. But I think how we can mitigate the risk is actually in the word you said, which is “intentional.” That’s what community in meatspace, or communities where you live together, has that a community of happenstance, like the manosphere, doesn’t. It has intentionality.
As I say it, though, I know that is not entirely true; there are intentionalities to the manosphere as well. For instance, going into spaces that are predominantly white and male, like video game spaces, and recruiting for white nationalists is extremely intentional. But it’s intentionally bad, whereas we can apply that intentionality differently when creating our own communities. We’re all doing our best, and when you put us all together, sometimes all the brains working on something makes it better, and sometimes we just magnify the flaw. It happens, and we become aware of it, and then we make a different choice.
Guernica: I do have to ask…are you a gamer?
Osworth: I have a complicated relationship with the word “gamer.” I’m always afraid that if I say “yes” then I am claiming an association with my Reddit narrator that I don’t feel. I do think the majority of gamers and game developers are interested in something that’s inclusive, and not the very vocal minority that have made this space into something politicized. Of course, I’m laughing as I say that because I think that the people I’m talking about would look at me and say I’ve done that by simply existing with my body in those spaces.
There is also a particular skill level that I feel that I would be claiming—I’m not a dexterity gamer, I’m not a video game gamer, I lose at Mario Kart every time—and even me saying that, that’s not the kind of Triple-A title that gamers would use to benchmark whether or not I am a real gamer. My heart is in tabletop—in particular, Dungeons & Dragons.
Guernica: The book deals a lot with the question of what’s “real.” There’s a lot of online/offline bleeding together, especially with the in-game sequences. It questions what level of identification is possible with an avatar, or a character, as you were saying. What is the relationship between your self and an online self? Can the online self, the in-game self, be considered “real?”
Osworth: I will die on this hill, the hill that says, “Everything that happens online is real.” Online is reality, as much as meatspace. I know that there are people who react to my saying “meatspace” by making vomiting noises because it sounds yucky, so we can call it physical space if you want, but digital space is just as real as physical space. However, the relationship between a digital self and a self-self depends on where you are putting that digital self. For instance, if you and I talk on video chat, that is a digital space, right? You are not in the room with me. I know you, I’ve been in a room with you, and so the space between myself and the self that you are getting is pretty collapsed. It is not a good idea to do that if you are broadcasting to a lot of people, because it will two-dimensionalize yourself. I teach digital storytelling, and that’s what I told my students—that a projection of yourself develops the farther from you that you get. That’s not new; we do that all the time. If I get up on a stage in front of 100 people, I will behave differently than if I sit down with three and have a coffee. So we just see that on a larger scale, with distance not mattering nearly as much, but that doesn’t make it less real.
Guernica: Eliza Bright goes to some dark places. There’s the virtual gang rape scene. When we’re thinking that anything online is real, then that is a real—well, you play with that a bit. You wrote: “Some among us say it’s not the same thing because it’s fiction, fake, digital; the consequences are imaginary.” I can tell that you don’t think that the consequences are imaginary, but I was wondering what the consequences are.
Osworth: That scene is made up of questions and no answers. What I will say is that it is absolutely not the fucking same. To have that happen to a digital avatar of oneself, a projection where there is a good deal of distance—in fact, a good deal of fictive distance, because it is a construct explicitly built to be farther from you—and to have that happen to one’s body in physical space is not the fucking same. But it is still a real thing that occurred, and it is still a violation. The consequences of that, when I think about it, when I project myself into Eliza’s shoes, are that it makes places that felt good and fun and generative, inaccessible. It shuts down those things, and it makes a space that you once felt okay in no longer a place that you can go.
Guernica: I do wonder why it was important for you to include that on top of your—not to be flippant about it—but your more run-of-the-mill doxxing, threats, etc. That scene takes it one step further.
Osworth: One of the reasons that I’m so upset at Gamergaters (there are many) is that they fucked with the human notion of play. That’s a notion that is really important to me. Humans learn through play. I am a really joyful person and I prefer to spend most of my time on this earth playing. They made spaces of play into spaces of violence. I hate that. And that scene was a portrayal of a playspace morphing into something violent, where the consequences—while not the same as if it happened in meatspace—are still real. And this was a thing Eliza was so excited to do; she made all the tools that went into that happening. So the other thing about it is that this set of tools is an objectively terrible idea. Also, it might happen.
Guernica: I was going to ask if you think virtual-reality sex is even a possibility.
Osworth: I would need to cite my sources on this, but it is my understanding that the growth of the Internet, and in fact the growth of server power, is driven primarily by the porn industry. I have no issue with the porn industry—love me a good pornography. And the Internet itself was a DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] project, which means the Internet was originally conceptualized as an instrument of war.
So what we have here is not just a rollicking good time; we have the intersection of sex and violence as a driving factor of how the Internet was conceived and has grown and how it functions. It does not strike me as out of the realm of possibility that this is something on the horizon. And without that intentionality that we were talking about, and without deeply considering what these things mean, we will once again just replicate the flaws of meatspace in digital space. Because that is human, and that is what we do. But most of the things that I talk about in the game are not currently possible in VR development. You would get wildly ill, for instance, if you took on flying.
Guernica: I want to talk about race in We Are Watching Eliza Bright, and how certain events affect the characters differently because of it. Characters who are coded as not white contrast with Eliza, who, at times, seems a little naive. Was this naivete on purpose, to indicate that white people have the privilege to be that naive?
Osworth: Eliza’s friend group (sneeringly called “The Diversity Squad” by their antagonists) is composed as it is for a few reasons. One is, that kind of tokenism is rampant inside corporate America—when they’re like, “Cool, we need a token one of these and a token one of these on staff,” and all those people sit together in a cafeteria. I’ve seen that a million times. Another reason is that Eliza is ostensibly the safest. The idea behind Eliza being a white woman—a white, cis, straight woman—is that she represents the safest of the oppressed, but her safety is still conditional on whether or not she makes the men angry. She is still unsafe unless she complies. The other people around her, who are not white, have no such sense of safety.
Guernica: As you said, the Reddit voice is a collective one; many voices are contained in one, focalizing Eliza through this perspective. I was wondering if the variations—“or, it happened like this,” “or, it happened like this”—were meant to show members among the Reddit ranks who have a different idea of how something happened, or if it was about ratcheting up the unreliability of this narrator, or some combination. How did you decide to do the “or?”
Osworth: I’m so glad you asked; if you let me, I could talk about this for the next twenty-four hours. How the narrators know things was a concern for me as soon as I realized who they were, because they are largely not in the room with the protagonist and cannot see what is going on, except for the parts where the protagonist is hyper-public. How do they know what [the characters] are doing in their apartments? How do they know what they’re doing inside the company? Originally, I played with surveillance, the idea that they’re watching through the cameras on computers or voice recordings on phones. I did a lot of research into the practical ways to track someone. (I don’t recommend doing that; it’s not good for one’s brain.)
And then what happened was, I was watching Critical Role, a weekly Dungeons & Dragons game played by video game voice actors. There used to be another cast member on it, and there was a schism between that cast member and the rest of them. When they announced that that cast member was leaving, the people associated with Critical Role looked directly into the camera and told the Internet not to speculate.
That’s not a thing you tell the Internet; it’s an invitation to do exactly that. So I popped my popcorn, went to Reddit, and I watched people who have a strong parasocial relationship with those cast members speak about those people as though they knew them, and as though they were sure of their decision-making processes, their emotional lives, the practical things that led to such a thing. That community, by the way, is very lovely; it’s not Gamergate-y at all. But I noticed how they spoke, and then I started clocking it everywhere. This is how the Internet operates, this creation of an imagined construct of someone that the Internet then puts into the public domain.
Turning the dial up on that came from the narrator analysis I did with my editor. The thing about a lot of coding languages is that computers are entirely based on binary, which is 0 or 1; it means open circuit or closed circuit. You’ve got two options: is there electricity flowing through this, or is there not? Coding languages built on top of that still have to filter down to 0 or 1. So there are two logical operators: the “and” operator and the “or” operator. With the “or” operator, the code fires if any one of the operands are true; with the “and” operator, the code fires if and only if all of the operands are true.
So there we have two unreliable narrators—essentially I was using the language of computer programming, as I understand it, to create their unreliability. To me that increases the tension, but it also underscores that the Reddit narrator, that “or” operator, operates from a place of scarcity: one of these things must be true. Whereas the queer Sixsterhood operates from a place of abundance: all of these things must be true, all of these things can be true.