Using storytelling to fight oppression

I'm giving a talk at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today about using storytelling to fight oppression. Like an ACLU for the digital world, EFF defends our civil rights online. Their work is more important now than ever.

In December, I donated more than $10k of proceeds from Cumulus to EFF and Chapter 510 to help head off some of the darkest aspects of the future the book portrays. As readers and champions of Cumulus, you are the people who made this possible and gave a science fiction adventure some real social impact. Thank you and kudos.

If you're wondering how you can make a difference, donating to EFF is a great start.

Neon Fever Dream audiobook comes out today

I'm excited to share that the audiobook of my latest novel, Neon Fever Dream, is now available. Narrated by the estimable Jennifer O'Donnell and produced at Brick Shop Audio in Brooklyn, I couldn't be more delighted with the results. Led by a diverse cast, Neon Fever Dream is a fast-paced, deeply-researched thriller about a dark secret hidden at Burning Man. It's earned praise from Popular Science, TechCrunch, NYT bestselling author DJ Molles, and Hugo/Nebula award winner David Brin. You can start listening right here.

The area of craft I'm currently focused on improving is character development, creating compelling casts that feel like real people. So I was moved when a reviewer wrote, "Neon Fever Dream gave me everything I wanted in a thriller—surprises, quick pacing, great characters, and a colorful setting—while opening my eyes to a larger world. I also deeply appreciated how Asha was more than the sum of her parts. She had incredible agency and bravery. If I had daughters, I’d want them to turn out exactly like her."

If you've read it, don't forget to let me know what you think and leave a review. It makes a big difference.

Central Station is a glimpse of the messy, diverse, heartbreaking, beautiful future

An interview with award-winning science fiction author Lavie Tidhar.

Reading Central Station by Lavie Tidhar feels like falling into someone else’s dream. Using a far future Tel Aviv as his canvas, Tidhar weaves an emotionally driven tale that interrogates the human impact of digital technology. The story is complicated, touching, and multifaceted. It left me with a not unpleasant sense of melancholy, as if I were leaving behind close friends who I wouldn’t be seeing for a long time.

Fans of science fiction and fantasy will relish the many hidden references to genre tropes and classics. Tidhar won the British Science Fiction Award, World Fantasy Award, and Central Station has been praised by heavy hitters like Alastair Reynolds, Ken Liu, and NPR. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new book.

Science fiction is a reflection of the present as well as a vision of the future. It’s easy to draw parallels from elements in Central Station, like the Conversation, to some of the social and technological issues we all wrestle with today. What inspired the story? What ideas, questions, or themes did you explore with it?

Gosh, so many. It’s a bit of an optimistic future, really, isn’t it? I wanted to just write about ordinary people against this big science fictional background. To kind of have all those cool things but as scenery, almost. The book comes from a very contemporary place and time (specifically, the central bus station area of Tel Aviv, which is now home to both economic migrants and refugees) and I was inspired to write about it when I was living back in Israel for a while. Also, I do come from an Internet background, so the progression of communication and the way it affects our lives have been on my mind from an early age. It’s a novel about religion, communication, family — I wanted to explore the idea of the big extended family, which you don’t see in Western SF much but is very natural to me. Ultimately, I’d like to think it’s about love.

The story is full of lovingly rendered references to the larger body of SF/F. Who are some of the lesser-known writers that have influenced you? What’s the latest book you fell in love with?

I’d say Cordwainer Smith, most obviously. To me he’s probably one of the three most significant American science fiction writers of the 20th century, but he’s virtually unknown. Simak, too, with his pastoral SF. C.L. Moore. I don’t read that many genre books anymore — the last one I read was Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets, which I liked a lot. The other thing you might notice in Central Station is also a lot of throwaway references to Israeli SF/F and pulps, which, I suspect, is as obscure as it gets! I just write these weird little jokes in to amuse myself, but it’s nice when someone picks up on them from time to time.

Central Station is relatively short as novels go, but it feels sprawling and inclusive, almost like a magic house that’s larger inside than without. What was your creative process like for the book? Did you outline or just start writing?

I worked on it, on and off, for about 6 years! It was my crazy little side project, basically. I’m still amazed it got published! It’s interesting working on it in chunks, because you’re plotting individual stories and then fitting them into the overall narrative — but I wasn’t going for plot much with this, I was taking a very different tack to my more commercial novels, and just exploring people, relationships. I was very much exploring as I went along. And it’s set in a wider universe I’ve been writing about, on and off, for over a decade, so it was easy to fit in a lot of material that, if you follow the thread, will lead to another story entirely.

Many of the chapters of the book were previously released as individual short stories, and were later modified and included in the novel. What structural considerations did you have in mind as you pulled them together? How did you go about weaving them into a narrative whole?

Central Station was always meant to be a single creation, but I was always fascinated by the old science fiction novels that were done as mosaics, that were sold as stories first — mostly it’s a way of getting a bit more money, really! But it’s quite a challenge to do, as I found out. What really happened was that, when I was finished with the sequence, it didn’t quite work, and I couldn’t quite pinpoint why. It took Tachyon’s support, and great editorial feedback, to help me find it, which I was incredibly grateful for — as I was getting pretty frustrated at that point! It was mostly technical — reordering the stories, I think we dropped one, cut one in half, and then smoothed the transitions, removed redundancies… it really was just normal drafting work, you know. 95% of it is the same. It was actually very soothing, once I knew what I had to do!

Intricate personal and social politics permeate Central Station. Reading it made me reflect on many recurrent news items. Did you have any goals for the story besides crafting a compelling tale? What role does speculative fiction play in our culture?

Well, it’s not for me to say! Obviously one aspires to Say Something, but it’s up to each reader to take from the book what they will (if anything). It occurs to me, as I move away from Central Station, that’s it’s quite a hopeful book in many ways. It’s what happens if humanity doesn’t destroy the planet and each other. One can only hope!

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

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.

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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.

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