Reading Recommendation: Flatland

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott was originally published in 1884 and is proof that great stories survive the test of time. It's a mind-bending adventure starring a protagonist that lives in a two-dimensional world. The story is filled with humor, romance, and satire. Flatland is a captivating and delightful invitation to free our thinking from the artificial constraints we constantly impose on it.

-----

Enjoy this tip? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.

Cumulus is eligible for a 2016 Hugo Award

"Cumulus is your new favorite surveillance-fueled dystopian novel. It's a future we can all recognize - and one that we should all be genuinely afraid of." -Ars Technica

Cumulus is my first science fiction novel, and this is my first Hugo eligibility post. The book went viral on Reddit when it came out in May 2016 and has earned praise from Popular Scienceio9Businessweek, GeekDad, TechCrunch, and the Verge. Andrew Chamberlain, Chief Economist at Glassdoor, says, "Cumulus is a prophetic Bay Area thriller, a Jason-Bourne-meets-Silicon-Valley story of escalating technology, inequality and a crumbling state. When a former CIA-operative-turned-hired-gun joins forces with tech giant Cumulus, cracks in the digital facade emerge, laid bare by a powerful and simple analog alternative. In today's world where intimate personal details are just another row in someone's 'big data,' Cumulus is a stark reminder that data are power--and absolute data corrupt absolutely."

Led by a diverse cast, Cumulus is a dark, gritty rollercoaster ride through a near-future San Francisco Bay Area ravaged by economic inequality and persistent surveillance. To be perfectly honest, the public response to the book took me entirely by surprise. Cumulus is self-published and it's unusual for indie books to get any attention from the press. This is purely my personal speculation, but one reason the story might be resonating is simply that we seem to be living through many of the themes that the characters wrestle with: accelerating technological change, increasing income inequality, stark gentrification, cyber espionage and doxing, power transitioning from the public to the private sector, a new wave of populism, government and corporate surveillance, and making sense of the human experience in the midst of such a maelstrom.

Twenty-sixteen came a little too close to realizing some of the darker aspects of the future Cumulus portrays and I'm extremely proud to report that last month I donated a total of more than $10,000 of proceeds from the novel to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Chapter 510. EFF fights to protect our civil rights in the digital world and Chapter 510 provides badly-needed literacy programs to underprivileged youth in Oakland. We need real world heroes like the brave staff of these two organizations now more than ever. Hopefully, this will in some small way contribute to the social impact of science fiction.

If you're curious, you can find Cumulus here and information about how to vote in the Hugos here. Google invited me to come give a talk about the book which you can watch here. You can read more about what inspired the book here and what I learned writing it here. If you're a fan, please help spread the word. If you're a WSFS member, I appreciate your consideration!

NPR/BBC blurb on self-driving cars

Cumulus fans know that I spend a lot of time thinking about autonomous vehicles. So it was a fun surprise to be interviewed on NPR/BBC last week about what the future of self-driving cars might look like and how they'll change our lives, cities, and industries. You can listen to the show here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04kxn3z

Life lessons from a CIA operative turned NYT bestselling author

An interview with legendary thriller writer Barry Eisler.

Barry Eisler could be the protagonist of one of his espionage thrillers. With a black belt in Judo and a three-year stint in covert operations at the CIA, I imagine that in between penning novels, he sneaks away from his home in Berkeley to single-handedly take down corrupt governments or trade tidbits of classified intel. Given his articulate and controversial political blog and the deeply-researched real world social issues embedded in his tightly-plotted thrillers, he would be a spy version of Robin Hood, aiding whistle blowers and refugees struggling to survive a rotten system.

Not content to let his backstory end there, Eisler has also worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley. His bestselling books are known for political intrigue, realistic tradecraft and martial arts, exotic settings, and compelling characters. The fast-paced stories often wrestle with topics you’re likely to follow in the news, like human trafficking and government surveillance.
Eisler was generous enough to share some of the most important lessons he’s learned from his various and sundry adventures.

How and why did you start writing novels? What was the first piece of fiction you wrote? How has your creative process evolved over time? What drives you?

I’ve been writing something or other since I was a kid. I used to spend a couple weeks every summer at my grandparents’ house on the Jersey shore. I would bang out short stories about vampires and werewolves on my grandmother’s typewriter. Glad no records have been kept!

As for my first novel, I have a long-standing interest in what I like to think of as “forbidden knowledge:” methods of unarmed killing, lock picking, breaking and entry, spy stuff, and other things the government wants only a few select individuals to know. When I was a kid, I read a biography of Harry Houdini, and in the book a cop was quoted as saying, “It’s fortunate that Houdini never turned to a life of crime, because if he had he would have been difficult to catch and impossible to hold.” I remember thinking how cool it was that this man knew things people weren’t supposed to know, things that gave him special power. Anyway, since then I’ve amassed an unusual library on some of the foregoing and on other esoteric subjects, I spent three years in the CIA, I got pretty into a variety of martial arts…

And then I moved to Tokyo to train in judo. I think all the other stuff must have been building up in my mind like dry tinder, waiting for the spark which life in Tokyo came to provide. Because while I was there commuting to work one morning, a vivid image came to me of two men following another man down Dogenzaka street in Shibuya. I still don’t know where the image came from, but I started thinking about it. Who are these men? Why are they following that other guy? Then answers started to come: They’re assassins. They’re going to kill him. But these answers just let to more questions: why are they going to kill him? What did he do? Who do they work for? It felt like a story, somehow, so I started writing, and that was the birth of John Rain and my first book, A Clean Kill in Tokyo.

I don’t think my creative process has changed that much since that first book, but it has gotten more efficient. A talent for writing is to writing a novel as a talent for tools is to building a house: necessary, but not sufficient. And probably the first time you try to use your talent with tools to build a house, you’ll make a lot of mistakes you’ll then need to correct. But by the time the house is done, you’ve learned the basics of how to do it, and the next one will go up much more smoothly (and maybe it’ll be even more beautiful, too). That’s what novel writing feels like to me.

What drives me…I’m not really sure. Writing a novel is hard work (not like digging a ditch, but still, deep thinking requires effort and it’s amazing how hard the mind will struggle to do something else), and I don’t know what keeps me at it. I certainly enjoy telling stories for a living more than I ever enjoyed being a lawyer. And I like to think that some of the political or social commentary that fuels some of my stories can raise consciousness on important topics. We should all be striving to leave our campsite better than when we found it and I hope my stories are part of how I can do that.

You’ve assembled an actionable set of resources for new writers, what is the single most critical piece of advice you give to people just starting out?

The single? Believe in yourself. If you don’t have that, nothing else will matter.

But of course “believe in yourself,” while necessary, isn’t sufficient, and I offer some related advice for writers in this short talk I did at TEDx Tokyo in 2009.

You’re a master storyteller who is also very savvy about the publishing business. You’ve worked with the Big Five publishers, Amazon publishing, and self publishing. How is the business model of art changing? What variables are staying the same? What should writers/artists/makers who want to make a living with their work focus on?

Now you’ve gone and done it: for the rest of the day I will torture my wife and daughter by randomly telling them, “Did you know I’m a master storyteller…?” :)

Anyway, this is big topic! But I’ll try to boil it down.

It’s always been true that publishers needed authors. If authors stopped selling publishers publishing rights, it’s hard to see how publishers would survive. Maybe they could scrape by selling previously acquired and public domain works, but that would involve radical restructuring.

And it’s also true that authors needed publishers. Because in a paper world, pretty much the only cost-effective way to reach a mass market of readers was with a distribution partner — AKA a publisher.

Digital has altered this equation. Publishers still need authors to the same extent they always have. But authors no longer need publishers at all. That’s not to say that having a publishing partner can’t be potentially useful to an author — even potentially tremendously useful. But even “tremendously useful” isn’t the same as “need.” When you need something from someone, you have no choice. When you have no choice, you have no power. So the shift from “publishers are necessary” to “publishers are potentially useful” strikes me as pretty significant and important to understand. At a minimum, the change seems upsetting enough to various establishment publishing types to induce some strange and petulant behavior.

What hasn’t changed? Certainly the importance of writing the best story you can. And your ultimate responsibility for your own career. But there are a lot more choices for writers today than there were ten years ago, and new tools for reaching readers, as well.

Not long ago, I had a more detailed discussion on this topic with writer Chris Jane on Jane Friedman’s website. For anyone looking to learn more, that wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

What role does fiction play in our culture? Why do we love stories? What makes them powerful? What does that mean for writers and readers?

This is a little like asking, “What role does a hammer play in carpentry?” :) The answer, I guess, is: A big one…

The role fiction plays in culture is related to the question of why we love stories: I think because we’re just wired to. We relate more to people than we do to events or other abstractions, and so framing events in the context of human action automatically resonates in our psyche in a way other means of communicating just don’t. So whatever role fiction plays — entertainment, enlightenment, propaganda — it will always be a prominent one.

Have you ever read a book that changed the course of your life?

I think the ratio of books we’re aware had an impact to books we’re unaware had an impact is probably something like one to a hundred. But for one example of the former, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had a huge impact in how I see the world. I don’t think anyone could understand the way the world works nearly as well without concepts like the memory hole, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Big Brother, the Two-Minutes Hate, and others from the novel. Certainly I couldn’t. And wouldn’t our oligarchical masters prefer that we didn’t have such conceptual and lexical tools at our disposal to analyze their depredations? In fact, the political uses of language is itself a concept straight from the book — the way Ingsoc tried to dumb people down by depriving them of a nuanced vocabulary, replacing words like “abhorrent,” for example, with “double plus ungood,” instead.

As a one-time CIA operative, Silicon Valley executive, and Judo black belt, your own bio resembles one of your protagonists. What are the most important life lessons you’ve learned along the way?

Oh man… so many. Don’t trust the experts. Don’t surrender your own judgment (I guess that’s pretty similar to the first one, but it’s important enough to restate in a slightly different form). Indulge your passions (for more on that one, see the short TEDx Tokyo talk I mentioned above). Try to see others the way you see yourself, and yourself the way others see you. Try to see common patterns more than specific details.

-----

Enjoy this interview? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.

What Minority Report tells us about America in 2016

Minority Report is one of the most prescient science fiction movies ever made. It's the second most cited piece of science fiction in policy-making circles after George Orwell's 1984. Steven Spielberg assembled a team of leading futurists and technologists including Kevin Kelly to inform the world the movie takes place in. It's amazing how much they got right, and what that says about America in 2016.

So when the folks at decipherSciFi asked me to come on the podcast and discuss the movie with them, I was delighted. We dig deep into the future of policing, artificial intelligence, prediction, digital democracy, privacy, and the many, many parallels between Minority Report and the world we live in today. If you want to geek out with us on your commute, give it a listen.

Thanks to Nick Farmer for introducing me to decipherSciFi. Thanks to Kevin Bankston for writing an incredible talk/essay which I pillaged ruthlessly for ideas in this interview. Thanks to Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath who produced an amazing Scout dispatch on the future of policing which nails so many of these issues. Thanks to Brad Feld for his various posts about working with the folks at Oblong Industries who created the incredible user interfaces in the film and now build them for the real world.

Listen to the podcast right here.

-----

Enjoy this interview? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.

Cumulus audiobook now available

The Cumulus audiobook is available now. Give it a listen and let me know what you think.

It’s been been quite a year for audiophiles! The entire Uncommon Series is now available in audio format, the Cumulus audiobook comes out today, and the Neon Fever Dream audiobook is in production and should be available within six weeks or so. Jennifer O’Donnell really brings the characters to life in her narration and the award-winning production team at Brick Shop Audio has been great to work with.

If you haven’t read it yet, Cumulus is a fast-paced science fiction story with a diverse cast set in a near-future San Francisco Bay Area ravaged by economic inequality and persistent surveillance. It’s been praised by folks like Tim O'Reilly, David Brin, Businessweek, Ars Technica, Popular Science, TechCrunch, io9, GeekDad and others. I’ve been shocked and delighted by how the story seems to be resonating and am donating the first six months of proceeds to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Chapter 510 to support a free and open internet and literacy programs for underprivileged youth in Oakland. You can find out more about the inspiration behind the story here and what I learned from the experience of writing it here.

Two weeks ago I visited Park City to speak at the Future in Review conference, a gathering focused on important tech trends and regularly attended by Silicon Valley luminaries. It was a great community to connect with and I met amazing folks working on everything from fighting international human trafficking, to creating software that enables animal communication and hardware to monitor marine life in the deepest oceans. Every year they host a science fiction author to talk about the far future and it was humbling to follow in the footsteps in some of my favorite writers like Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley-Robinson, and Cory Doctorow. Berit Anderson, founder of the new hybrid scifi/tech journalism publication Scout, and I discussed the technologies that will shape the next few decades, Elon Musk’s recent Mars announcement, the intersection of geopolitics and tech, and how we’re rocketing towards an unprecedented artistic Renaissance.

Finally, I’m getting momentum on the rough draft of a new novel. It was a rocky start but the story seems to have grown some legs. I can’t wait to see where the characters take it. Now, time to get back to work…

-----

To get updates on my new books, reading recommendations, and creative process, join my author newsletter. If you love my writing, this is the single best way to get or stay in touch with me. Emails are infrequent, personal, and substantive. I respond to every single note from folks on the mailing list.

Uncommon Stock: Exit Strategy audiobook now available

I'm delighted to share that the audiobook of Uncommon Stock: Exit Strategy is now available, you can check it out and start listening right here.

Exit Strategy is the third and final installment in The Uncommon Series, the #1 highest rated financial thriller on Amazon (you can find the audio version of book one here and book two here). The trilogy follows Mara Winkel as she leads her tech startup from garage to IPO and gets caught up in an international conspiracy along the way. I did a ton of research to inform the story, which you can read about here.

Audiobooks can be difficult and expensive to produce, especially for indie writers like me. But it's a format I've adored since I was a child. There's something special about listening to a story that sets my imagination on fire. Just this morning, I finished the audio version of Malka Older's excellent debut novel Infomocracy, a cyberpunk tale about the future of geopolitics that crackles with energy and big ideas (highly recommended). That's why I'm not surprised that the popularity of audiobooks has skyrocketed in recent years, and also why I take production so seriously. I worked with award-winning house Brick Shop Audio on Exit Strategy and Jennifer O'Donnell did a fabulous job narrating the book.

Last week, the first review of the audiobook came out and made all that work and investment feel worth it (you can read the full review here). "Exit Strategy leaves nothing in the tank. Action-packed from the beginning as Mozaik fights to stay afloat and tries to bring down the biggest money laundering schemes in the world. Every page bleeds with realism and authenticity. The production quality was perfect and you couldn’t ask for a better narrator."

I hope you agree with Brian's assessment, and would love to here what you think if you give it a listen. We're now working on producing audiobooks for both Cumulus and Neon Fever Dream.

It's been a busy month since my last missive. GeekDad ran a glowing review of Cumulus that includes an in-depth interview with me on how to dissect technology trends, what companies need to do in order to succeed with innovation, and the real world issues that inspired the story. Cumulus also reached 100 reviews on Amazon, which got me unreasonably excited. I really love hearing what you think of the stories, and reader reviews make a surprisingly large impact.

In late August, we hosted a party to celebrate the release of both Cumulus and Neon Fever Dream. As always, it was a delight to chat with friends and fans about the books. Novels might be penned by authors, but they only come alive in readers' imaginations.

Shortly after the party, we madly packed our gear and set out to spend a week in the desert at Burning Man. This was our third Burn, and it was as profoundly fun and transformative an experience as ever. One special treat this time around was hearing from Burners who'd read Neon Fever Dream, including one who gave copies to everyone who attended their playa wedding. Black Rock City is a temporary city humming with creativity and adventure and if you haven't visited, you might want to consider adding it to your bucket list.

Finally, next week I head out to give a talk at this year's Future in Review conference in Park City, Utah. Future in Review is a conference focused on the next 5-10 years of tech and regularly attended by Elon Musk, Vinod Khosla, Craig Venter, Paul & Irwin Jacobs, Larry Brilliant, Paul Allen, and Michael Dell. David Brin, Cory Doctorow, Ramez Naam, Kim Stanley-Robinson, and Neal Stephenson have all been featured science fiction authors in the past few years and I'm honored to participate this time around. I love telling stories live as well as on the printed page, and between this and my Talk at Google a few months ago, it's been a fun summer for speaking.


This is an update from my author newsletter, which you can sign up for here.