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.

Waking up from Neon Fever Dream

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

Whenever a book comes out, I'm always filled with an odd mixture of conflicting emotions. I'm excited to share it and see it widely read, but I know that the work has to speak for itself. I'm thrilled to hear what readers think, but nervous that it might not resonate with them. I'm both anxious and relieved that a creative project I poured my heart into is finally out in the wild.

Neon Fever Dream came out two weeks ago. In addition to a number of blog reviews, Popular Science ran a review, TechCrunch ran an excerpt, La Soga ran an interview, Rocketship.fm ran a podcast, Don Houts ran a review, Talkshow.im hosted a chat, Product Hunt featured it, and Hugo and Nebula award-winner David Brin praised it in his reading roundup. You can even see a funny picture of me at Burning Man in this little photo-essay I wrote about the inspirations behind the book. Right now, we're frantically gearing up to head back to the desert at the end of the month.

But more than anything, I've been delighted to hear from you. You've shared your loves, hates, questions, comments, and detailed accounts of what the story made you think and feel. Even before the book came out, advance readers taught me about everything from the institutional dynamics within the LDS Church to the onset time for rigor mortis. With Cumulus, you refined the story's intelligence tradecraft, gear transmission mechanics, and so many other important factors. For The Uncommon Series, you helped me understand what it actually feels like for a CEO to go through an IPO and how expert money launderers manipulate the financial system. I'm lucky to have readers with sharp eyes and even sharper minds.

Any attention Neon Fever Dream earns is also thanks to you. Grassroots word-of-mouth helps art succeed by including it in our larger communal conversation. It's the cultural equivalent of compound interest. Things that might seem small or unimportant make a surprisingly large impact over the long run. So when you recommend it to a friend or leave a review, you're accomplishing far more than you might imagine.

After releasing a book, my next step is always to dive into a fresh manuscript. Last week, I started drafting a new story. Gene Wolfe once told Neil Gaiman, "You never learn how to write a novel, you just learn how to write the novel that you're writing." Time to see what's at the bottom of this rabbit hole. Wish me luck.

Neon Fever Dream is out today

I'm delighted to share that my new novel, Neon Fever Dream, is now available. You can get it right here in beautifully-designed digital or trade paperback formats.

Neon Fever Dream is about a dark secret hidden in the swirling dust and exultant revelry of Burning Man. It's a fast-paced thriller with a diverse cast that weaves together everything from the ripple effects of the Sri Lankan civil war to the impacts of new technology on international organized crime. The story required substantial research and I'm really excited about how it came together.

In 2013, my wife and I travelled through Asia and East Africa for nine months. We spent 33 days on a trek through Himalayan backcountry in Nepal, scrambled up crags in northern Ethiopia, and dove the colorful reefs off the northern tip of Sumatra. But perhaps the most otherworldly place we visited was Burning Man, where we went immediately after our wheels hit American tarmac.

Burning Man was powerful precisely because it was so hard to define. Rather than a wild narcotic-infused bonanza, we discovered that the atmosphere was far more diverse and creative. Lacking the formal structure of a large music festival with stages and schedules, each participant's experience was shaped by where they wandered when, and whom they happened to meet. It wasn't a party. It was a temporary community populated by artists, technologists, doers, makers, scientists, goofballs, geeks, and freaks united not by their interests, but by a proactive mandate to accept, support, and give.

Much like spending time in a foreign country, Burning Man made us question the things we took for granted in our everyday lives. Friendships formed quickly and spontaneously. We have since returned, and plan to do so regularly.

Burning Man was a wonderful port of reentry into the United States. At the same time, it reminded us of the impossible adversity people face every day in many of the countries we had just returned from. While we were playing on the playa, the Maldives was wracked by political upheaval, our favorite bookshop in Kathmandu went up in flames, and Sri Lankan dissidents disappeared without a trace.

That was the seed of Neon Fever Dream. International intrigue makes for a compelling page-turner, but in the real world such machinations tear people's lives apart. A few of those lives might collide against the incomparable backdrop of Burning Man. Stranger things have happened, particularly in Black Rock City.

From there the story grew and changed, taking on its particular shape. A friend-of-a-friend became involved in a federal investigation of Tongan Crips in Utah. My wife and I took some Krav Maga classes in Oakland. A refugee taxi driver told me about how his loved ones had been persecuted by the Karuna Faction. I met journalists and security experts following the evolving relationship between the expansion of technological surveillance capabilities and the role of international criminal organizations. The pieces fell into place.

We often read nonfiction to learn about the world around us. But fiction offers something else, a chance to explore our own subjective experience of living in that world. It gives us a glimpse into the minds and hearts of other human beings. It empowers us to escape and in escaping, reflect. The most powerful stories compel us, move us, and leave us with more questions than answers.

Give it a read and let me know what you think.

The technological trends that will shape the next 30 years

An interview with Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick at Wired Magazine and author of The Inevitable.

The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly is the most interesting nonfiction book I've read about the future in a long time. I constantly found myself rereading passages and marking pages to come back to later. Kevin has been an enthusiastic observer of both the human condition and the state of technology for decades as a cofounder of Wired, and his insights are deep, provocative, and wide ranging. In his own words, "When answers become cheap, good questions become more difficult and therefore more valuable." The Inevitable raises many important questions that will shape the next few decades.


Kevin was generous enough to answer a few questions I had after finishing the book. Read on to find out why most people fail when they try to make predictions, what the future holds for the creative class, and why The Inevitable will be Kevin's last print book. See these notes by the estimable Derek Sivers for more background.

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If none of the important things of the next 100 years have been invented yet, how do you generate or select the next project or idea to pursue?

It is wide open! Most new ideas -- including my own -- will fail in the long term, but the ones that will succeed in becoming dominant in the next decades are most likely to come from the edge, as they have always. I'm good at working on the edge, so I look for ideas that are NOT popular at first, that seem marginal, niche, barely plausible. I'm looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.

David Pogue points out that what differentiates your work as a futurist is that you have an incredible track record of getting it right. What are the most common mistakes you see people make when they try to make predictions? Why do so many intelligent analysts get it wrong?

The most difficult part about looking at the future is unlearning what we know. There is so much baked into our generally held assumptions that tend to blind us -- all of us. You have to keep questioning the assumptions. But at the same time, most assumptions of what is correct are actually correct! So you have to keep knocking at the door, even though most times it yields nothing: "Is this really true? Who says? Why? Do I really believe it? What if it is wrong? What happens then?" That can be exhausting, frustrating, unproductive, so unless it becomes a habit, it gets old fast. You also have to question without too much stake in the answers.  You want to have strong opinions loosely held, ready to shift rapidly when needed. Most people have trouble changing their minds. I like to have my mind changed.

Most sweeping surveys of what to expect in the coming decades focus on economic and geopolitical implications, but The Inevitable goes far beyond that. What does the future hold for artists, writers, and creatives? What practical steps would you recommend we take to set ourselves up for success over the long term? 

There will be a thousand new creative genres developed in the next two decades. Each of these forms will breed a new crop of stars that did not exist the year before. Cultivate a techno literacy. The tech will constantly change faster than you can master it, so you master life long learning. Aim lower; you don't need a million fans; it's a world of niches. The biggest challenge is to think different while being connected. It's easy to think different while in isolation; it is easy to be connected. It is vastly harder to see different, make different, be different while connected to 7 billion humans all the time.  Taking vacations and sabbaticals from the hive mind become important; cultivating a lateral view, nurturing the orthogonal will be essential. Not living in Silicon Valley will probably be an advantage.

In the ever-propagating multiverse of the cloud, we will rely more and more on filters to deliver us the stuff we want. You discuss some potential ways to escape the filter bubble or overfitting problem. But if relevance is what captures attention and attention is the scarcest resource, isn’t building filter bubbles commercially optimal because that attention drives profits higher?

Social media is less than 2,000 days old. It is unclear to date whether or not overfitting a filter optimizes commercial profits, or whether or not consumers want to optimize relevance. We simply don’t know yet. But we do know that if a service tends not to produce what consumers ultimately want, they will leave and use a different service. So it is very much in the commercial interests of social media to provide its customers with the attention tools they need. Since neither side yet know what those tools are, this will be an ongoing development.

Books are one of the primary examples used in The Inevitable to illustrate the forces shaping our future. How are you applying those insights to your own work as an author?

This will be my last native text book, meaning the last book I write in print. My "books" in the future will either be born as update-able digital e-books, or will be very visual photobooks, or will be bookish videos, or full bore virtual realities. At some point these processes may throw off a printed book, but that will only be a derivative of the more native digital form.

In addition to providing a blueprint of what to expect over the next 30 years, you provide “fly through” subjective glimpses of what our lives might be like that read like science fiction. What role do science and speculative fiction play in our culture? What are some of your favorite science fiction novels that you think “get it right”?

I think the Speilberg film Minority Report got it right, but I am very biased because I was part of the group of futurists hired by Speilberg to create believable world of 2050. He got it right because he kept asking the right questions. In general science fiction is under-appreciated for its vast influence on science itself, and even on culture. Hundreds of thousands of engineers are working on projects today because they saw some product in a science fiction story that they want to make real. With the advent of computer-generated science fiction films, we can witness sci-fi's power. I would expect sci-fi worlds, a la Star Wars and Star Trek, to continue to grow in popularity, particularly as these worlds enter VR. VR may indeed become the greatest platform for science fiction, where the audience can experience the future rather than just watch it.

Watch my Google Talk

Last month, Google invited me to come give a talk about Cumulus. They filmed the entire event and you can watch it right here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1mwp0uk2cQ&feature=youtube

We discussed science fiction, creative process, social impacts of technology, venture capital investing, and predicting the future. I've always been amazed by the busy intersection of speculative fiction, engineering, and policy. There's a lot of background on Cumulus and The Uncommon Series, the big ideas the stories wrestle with, and the inspirations behind them. I fielded questions on how my work as a technology strategist influences my fiction and vice versa, the counterintuitive commonalities between artists and entrepreneurs, and what to expect from my next novel. It was a fascinating conversation and I was honored to talk through these issues with folks that are literally building the future.

Ann Farmer orchestrated the entire event and I am deeply indebted to her for suggesting it. The Talks at Google program has hosted some of my favorite writers, including folks like Neal Stephenson, George R.R. Martin, and Michael Lewis. But one of the coolest things about the experience was the interviewers. David Allison leads teams and builds products inside Google and previously was the CTO of Nulu and Brightscope. Rick Klau is a partner at Google Ventures (now called gv). Both David and Rick have been dedicated early readers since my very first novel, and have generously helped vet the technologies presented in the books. That meant that we could go deep during the interview, tackling the toughest questions buried in the stories.

Watch it and let me know what you think.

Unveiling Neon Fever Dream

I'm delighted to share that my next novel, Neon Fever Dream, is coming out August 4th! The Kindle version is already available for preorder here.

[drumroll]

NEON FEVER DREAM

A dark secret hides in the swirling dust and exultant revelry of Burning Man.

Asha Amarasuriya is bored and struggling to get by as a martial arts instructor in Oakland. When an enigmatic seductress offers her a golden ticket, Asha decides to take a leap of faith and head to Burning Man. But there is more than meets the eye at the infamous desert pilgrimage and Asha gets sucked into a quest to unravel a sinister mystery at the heart of Black Rock City.

Will Asha and her friends survive to expose the shadowy conspiracy? By the time the Man burns, their lives will have changed forever.

"Outstanding. Totally nails it at all levels. Incredibly powerful female characters who are simultaneously introspective and totally kickass heroic leaders. I read the whole book in one evening and loved it."
-Brad Feld, Managing Director at Foundry Group

Brad read an early draft and already published a post about it, which you can check out for a sneak peek under the hood of the book.

Neon Fever Dream is in the last stages of proofing and design. I'm really happy with how how the story came together and can't wait to get it into your hands next month. I'm nervous and excited to hear what you think.

Finally, if you have a column, podcast, mailing list, or blog audience, would you like to do a feature, review, interview, or post an excerpt? I've made very few media commitments so far, so let me know.

A dark vision of the social impacts of social media

An interview with science fiction author William Hertling.

By day, Angie, a twenty-year veteran of the tech industry, is a data analyst at Tomo, the world's largest social networking company; by night, she exploits her database access to profile domestic abusers and kill the worst of them. She can't change her own traumatic past, but she can save other women.

When Tomo introduces a deceptive new product that preys on users' fears to drive up its own revenue, Angie sees Tomo for what it really is--another evil abuser. Using her coding and hacking expertise, she decides to destroy Tomo by building a new social network that is completely distributed, compartmentalized, and unstoppable. If she succeeds, it will be the end of all centralized power in the Internet.

But how can an anti-social, one-armed programmer with too many dark secrets succeed when the world's largest tech company is out to crush her and a no-name government black ops agency sets a psychopath to look into her growing digital footprint?

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That's the pitch for William Hertling's new technothriller, Kill Process, which came out this week. I'm a fan of William's work and we've become friends over the past few years. His bestselling four-book Singularity Series is some of the most sophisticated science fiction out there about the future of artificial intelligence.

In Kill Process, Williams brings the lens of speculative fiction to bear on the present day. The story wrestles with the social impacts of social media, the centralization of power among big internet companies, and the burgeoning movement of independent programmers working to create new options outside of a closed system. If you like computers and science fiction, you'll get a serious kick out of it.

William was kind enough to agree to answer some questions about these issues, and more. Hit him up on Twitter at @hertling if you have follow up questions or comments.

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Kill Process wrestles with many big ideas that are suffusing the zeitgeist right now. Where did the premise come from? What were the initial moments/thoughts/experiences that the story grew out of? What social struggles are reflected in the novel and why did you focus on them?

​Abuse of power is a theme I've explored throughout my books, especially abuse in the form of manipulation through the control of information. I'm also particularly interested in corporate abuse of power. As companies grow larger and wield more influence, whether intentional or accidental, abuses of power become inevitable. We see that with Facebook, for example, where something as simple as feed selection algorithms have a huge influence over how we perceive the world and what we learn.

The Circle by Dave Eggers and Future Crimes by Marc Goodman were two books I read that intensified my interest in exploring current day issues around data privacy and ownership, but one of the most influential moments for me was meeting Amber Case and Aaron Parecki, then cofounders of Geoloqi, and learning about IndieWeb.

It doesn't get much more grassroots than IndieWeb, which is a bunch of people building a decentralized alternative to the corporate-owned web, line by line of code, without any real backing in the form of venture capital money or corporate sponsorship. They're facing the combined might of Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Those giants may not intend to be evil, but their ownership of and control over everyone's data and relationships is a type of abuse. There's so much as stake, and we've got just a few programmers arrayed against the largest, most powerful companies in the world.

So I wanted to tell a story about that, but I also wanted to tell a story about a character who has many disadvantages yet still fights on. Angie is a woman working in tech, trying to recover from her brutal past, physically handicapped, and yet she never gives up. The technology backdrop is interesting, but ultimately this is Angie's story.

You're best known for the Singularity Series of science fiction novels which are set in a future that's pretty far off (at least in the later books). What was it like to write a technothriller that is much nearer term, much closer to the present day?

​In some ways liberating, and in some ways challenging. In Avogadro Corp, which was set in 2015 or so, the challenge was figuring out plausible technology advances just a few years into the future. It's so easy to get that wrong in very obvious ways. For example, I wrote the book in 2009, and smartphones and tablets make only brief and insignificant appearances in the story. By the last book in the series the challenge had changed. The Turing Exception is set in 2045, and the difficulty became in extrapolating technology far enough to be plausible.

Setting Kill Process in the present day, with current technology removed the need to predict where technology is going. On the other hand, it's more necessary to get the details of the tech right, and I'm limited to existing technology, so I couldn't employ any magic bullets to solve plot holes.

Kill Process is your most personal story yet, and takes on major sociological questions. Does science fiction play a role in our culture beyond entertainment? If so, what role does it play?

​I think so. I enjoy stories that are just entertainment, but the best and most memorable science fiction makes you think about people, society, and technology, and it changes you. In many ways, I am the product of all the science fiction I've consumed, from Neuromancer to Star Trek to Buffy. I hope Kill Process helps at least a few people make different technology choices because of the implications for data ownership, and it helps at least a few people implementing this stuff see how their decisions can ultimately be abusive toward their customers.

How does your work as a technology strategist influence your science fiction writing, and vice versa? What interesting similarities/differences are there between writing software and writing novels?

Both writing software and writing novels are creative acts. Both involve lots of hours meticulously arranging alphanumeric characters according to rules in order to achieve an end product, which is then given over to other people to use and enjoy. Both are gratifying in a lot of the same ways.

That being said, it's far easier, more forgiving, and satisfying to write a large novel than a large software program. Far more time is spent in the actual act of creation in the novel case, whereas the vast majority of time is spent debugging in the software case.

The fact that both are connected, in that technology is integral to my stories, is nice. It means I get to swim in a sea of ideas all the time.

What was your creative process like for Kill Process? How did it go from idea, to rough draft, to finished product?

​It took about eighteen months from start to publication, and began only with a clear image of Angie's character, her history, and her short term objectives. Everything else--all of the bigger plot arcs, the decision she makes about a quarter of the way through the book, even the inclusion of IndieWeb--came organically as I wrote and continually asked myself what would have to happen next.

As with my other books, Kill Process is indie published, but that wasn't always a given. A well-known publisher asked me to send them the manuscript and give them a chance to make me an offer before I published it myself. I figured it couldn't hurt to hear their offer, and planned to take them up on it as soon as the manuscript was complete.

Around then I heard from yet another writer, the third in total, who had started out indie published, then took a traditional publishing deal, and ended up disappointed due to lack of creative control, poor marketing, and poor sales. The offers these writers received were attractive in theory, but in practice, were bad business. I decided that it could, in fact, hurt to hear an offer--an offer that might sound too good to pass up--and avoided the problem by going straight to indie publishing Kill Process.

What lessons did you learn from writing Kill Process?

Back in 2009 or so, I shared an early draft of Avogadro Corp with friends to get feedback, and one of them said, "Good story, but are there no women in your world?" I was deeply embarrassed and disappointed to discover I really wasn't giving women a fair part of the story, especially when I loved strong female protagonists. I started paying a lot more attention to women-in-fiction panels at writing conventions, to woman-in-tech panels at tech conferences, and to feminist issues in general.

​So when I wrote Kill Process, which tackles several issues--women-in-tech, domestic abuse, and a strong, female dominated cast of characters--I cared quite a lot about getting all of those details right. Eventually I asked a writer friend who focuses on feminist issues to read the manuscript, and then waited, practically sick to my stomach with worry, waiting for her to get back to me. When she did, her feedback was something like "Great story, loved all the strong female characters, but are there no people of color in your world?"

There is always room for, and in fact, requirement for, more growth as a writer.

Can you share some reading recommendations? What are a few recent favorites? 

​I loved The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, although it's a frightening book to read amid the current political backdrop in the United States. I'm currently reading her MaddAddam trilogy.  The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin was fantastic. Stacking in Rivertown by Barbara Bell is a well written and deeply disturbing book that will give most people nightmares.