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.

The Uncommon Series is now available on Kindle Unlimited

That's right, The Uncommon Series is now available on Kindle Unlimited. You can dive in and start reading right here.

The trilogy is the #1 top-rated financial thriller on Amazon and follows a kickass entrepreneur as she takes her tech startup from garage to IPO and gets caught up in an international conspiracy along the way.

Kindle Unlimited is an Amazon subscription service almost like a Netflix for books. In return for a monthly fee, readers get access to an enormous library of tens of thousands of digital books.

If you haven't read the story yet and you're a KU subscriber, now's the perfect time.

Audiobook of Uncommon Stock: Power Play is available now

You can find it here:

http://www.audible.com/pd/Mysteries-Thrillers/Uncommon-Stock-Power-Play-Audiobook/B01GUE4PLO/

Power Play is the second book in The Uncommon Series, the #1 top-rated financial thriller on Amazon (you can find the audio version of the first book here). The story follows an entrepreneur, Mara Winkel, as she leads her tech startup from garage to IPO and gets caught up in an international conspiracy along the way. Here's what to expect:

Mara Winkel is the CEO of Mozaik, the fastest-growing tech startup in Boulder, CO. But Mozaik doesn't just build widgets; their software uncovers financial fraud. When Mozaik's first major project reveals a dark secret at the heart of a large international bank, Mara and her team get sucked deeper into a conspiracy of dangerous money launderers, dysfunctional team members, and shady venture capitalists. Can they build a new business and survive intact? Their company and their lives are on the line.

Audiobooks have exploded in popularity over the past few years. I'm not surprised. I've loved audiobooks every since I was a kid. We'd listen to them on family road trips and I made constant trips to the local public library to borrow large sets of books-on-tape. Smart phones have made the experience that much easier, and now with the touch of a button we can dive into a story while driving or doing the dishes (right now I'm listening to The Fireman by Joe Hill).

Because I love audiobooks so much, I take production very seriously. Jennifer O'Donnell is a brilliant narrator and really brings Mara to life (we reviewed ~40 auditions). Brick Shop Audio did a great job mastering and producing the files. I think you'll appreciate the results.

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

Cumulus is available now

I've got a new book out. Check it out here.

Cumulus takes place in a near-future Bay Area ravaged by economic inequality and persistent surveillance. It’s a dark, gritty, fast-paced story packed with political intrigue, world-changing technology, and questionable salvation.

I’m humbled that some esteemed people and publications like Brad Feld, Tim O'Reilly, Andrew Keen, Lucas Carlson, Josh Anon, Ars Technica, and Endless Magazine have said nice things about it. Google has asked me to give a talk about the book in June and I'm delighted that a number of my favorite science fiction authors requested advance copies. You can find a review here, an excerpt here, and a podcast interview here.

I’m really proud of how Cumulus came together. I moved back to Oakland in 2013. It was the city of my birth and where I grew up. Seeing how Oakland has evolved since the ’80s is at once inspiring and harrowing. Cumulus is a kind of twisted love letter to my favorite city in the Bay Area.

Over the course of the past few years, we’ve bonded with many of our incredible neighbors, sated our appetites at countless ethnic food joints, had a triple homicide on our block, installed a free little library for our community, hiked in beautiful Redwood Park, and watched a protest with thousands of people and hundreds trailing police vehicles terminate at the end of our street. We love the birdsong but hate the gunshots. Oakland feels like a special point of confluence for so many critical social issues: the implications of the growing wealth gap in American society, the extraordinary promise of new technologies and diverse world views, our failure to solve persistent social problems like poverty, racism, and homelessness, and the power of fierce, pragmatic optimism.

Writing Cumulus allowed me to explore my enthusiasm for my hometown and my fascination with how new tools like the internet are reshaping our lives in so many ways, big and small. Through years of working with startups and venture capital investors, I’ve had the privilege of seeing how some new technologies come to be and getting to know a few of the people who build and popularize them. I’ve never been more excited about the promise of human ingenuity and there’s no other time in history when I’d rather live. That said, these new developments are changing our social fabric, the texture of our personal lives, and even our geopolitics. Such change is always painful. Times like these require open-mindedness, compassion, critical thinking, resourcefulness, and creativity. I don’t have the answers but I hope that this story might contribute a few questions.

I will be donating the first six months of proceeds from Cumulus to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Chapter 510. The Electronic Frontier Foundation fights tirelessly for a free and open internet, championing user rights in the face of entrenched special interests. Chapter 510 is a local literacy non-profit serving underprivileged youth in Oakland. These organizations are the real heroes. Day in and day out, they roll up their sleeves and work to avert the darkest aspects of the future that Cumulus portrays.

Both the audiobook and Bound serial are currently in production. Oh, and there are a few easter eggs hidden in Cumulus for fans of the Uncommon Series.

Give it a read. I’d love to hear what you think.

Newsletter 4/19/2016

I want to take a moment to extend a warm welcome to all the new readers who've subscribed to this humble little newsletter. Over the past year we have more than quadrupled and now these missives go out to 2,863 folks. A lot of newcomers have arrived after coming across my first book, Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0. I love hearing from all of you and it's been a true delight to see a community start to build around the stories...

http://eepurl.com/bYeT2n

Cumulus coming out May 5th

I'm excited to share that my next novel, Cumulus, has an official release date: May 5th! You can check out the gorgeous cover design here. The Kindle version is available for preorder here.

Cumulus is a standalone novel set in a near-future where economic inequality and persistent surveillance push Oakland to the brink of civil war. Feedback has started to roll in from advance readers and I'm really excited about how the story came together. Here's the very first blurb:

"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."
-Andrew Chamberlain, Ph.D., Chief Economist, Glassdoor

The last edits have been submitted, the typography has been set, the formatting is complete, and the final files are being prepared for distribution. I can't wait to get it into your hands.

How to build an organic fanbase if you write novels

You’ve written a book, but who’s gonna read it?

Now that I’m working on my fifth novel, I get a lot of inbound questions from aspiring writers. Some ask about craft. Some ask about inspiration. Many ask about building an audience for their own work.

I’m usually hesitant to dispense advice because every creative person makes art in their own way. Despite that, we all love directives, especially in list format. They force the writer to form strong, concise opinions which we can quickly identify or disagree with. So here we go. Here are some simple tips I give aspiring novelists looking to attract readers:
  1. Write. A lot. It’s funny how many writers don’t actually spend much time writing. Write. Write Write. It’s the only way you’re going to hit your 10,000 hours and really hone your craft. In fiction, the rule of thumb is that you start getting good after your first 10 novels.
  2. Write a book you love. Hopefully, others like you will also fall for your story. Fans who truly love your writing will champion your work. I don’t buy books because of banner ads or billboards. I read books because people I trust recommend them. Word of mouth is the way good books find new readers. It’s not about shouting as loud as you can to try to reach new people. It’s about delighting people that are already enamored with your books and stoking their enthusiasm even more.
  3. Read. Challenge yourself. Read books that make you think. Read books that make you feel. Read the best books you can get your hands on. Share your favorites. We want to know what piques your fancy. Always be reading.
  4. Do things that improve people’s lives. If you share your book on social, invite people into your life rather than plugging your book. If you go on a podcast, don’t just talk about yourself. Instead, think about what you might be able to share that would make a real impact for listeners. If you write a guest post, don’t just try to drive traffic to your work. Craft something that’s valuable on its own as a piece of evergreen content. Put the interests of your readers ahead of your own.
  5. Fans are humans, so treat them like people. Don’t think of them as metrics, customers, engagements, or anything else. Even if you only have a few readers, do everything you can to make their day. Don’t force email blasts into their inboxes. Send them personal, substantive notes that show how much you appreciate and respect them. I respond to every single email from folks who subscribe to my author newsletter. The more we treat each other humanely, the more we earn each other’s respect.
Wait, not so fast! Don’t browse around for another article to read. Write the next chapter instead.


This article ran in The Writing Cooperative.