Stephen Baker

The Boost
Going to school on Gone Girl
June 29, 2014General


A couple of weeks ago, as I was sketching out the prequel to The Boost. I downloaded Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. I wanted new ideas about plotting and character development, and what better source than a massive best-seller that a good friend called "compulsively readable?" 

It starts well: "When I think of my wife, I always think of her head." The narrator goes on to describe its shape and angles, "like a shiny, hard corn kernal or a riverbed fossil."  Then he adds a touch of dark foreshadowing. "You could imagine the skull quite easily."

After that first paragraph, I felt that I was in the hands of a master. And I prepared to enjoy the first easy reading in months. (I'd been plowing through Proust since Thanksgiving, with a few breaks for non-fiction.) I would be spending consecutive weekends in Cape Cod and Nantucket, and I had the perfect beach reading, and even a Kindle with a non-reflective screen. It was almost luxurious to have a book written in modern American English, with protagonists who lived the lives of people I know (One is a laid-off journalist). 

But something unexpected happened. I kept putting the book down. The plot didn't grip me. I didn't care about the characters. My mind wandered. 

This isn't to rip the book, or to discourge people from reading it. Judging from its sales, and reviews, people are crazy about it. It just wasn't right for me. 

However, I can still take lessons from it. One device Flynn uses is the unreliable narrator. She has two of them, and they take turns hiding important facts from the readers. They admit such awful things about themselves that you tend to believe them. But their revelations are calibrated to gain credibility, so that they can hide the more damning aspects of their existence. (By the way, next time someone tells me that readers want "likeable" characters, I'm going to cite Gone Girl as a counter-example.)

This reading has changed my thinking about my prequel, Washington at War--2043. I was planning to write it with the same omnicient narrative that I use in The Boost, skipping from character to character and reading most of their minds. (For some reason, I never got into Don Paquito's head.) Now I'm considering having one of the characters tell the story. And it might be someone who's up to no good. 

(In the spirit of Gone Girl, I came upon the scene below near the Walnut Street market in Montclair.)



link to post share:

The steam engine and the future
June 25, 2014Marketing the book


When the steam engine was king, the future looked steamy. The hulking machines, it seemed in the 19th century, would just grow bigger and more powerful.

That's easiest way to imagine the future: Start with what we have now, and exaggerate everything. And that's sort of what I did with The Boost. We have cell phones that increasingly dominate our thinking, track our movements, and are fast turning into external lobes of our brains. So I simply made them tiny, maybe a million times more powerful, and moved them into the head.

I believe that computers will increasingly knit their way into our minds, but I'd bet the technology I describe in the book will be laughable in 2072. That's because between now and then there are likely to be jumps to different tech platforms. These will probably make the boosts seem as silly as a cell phone powered by an internal combustion engine, or perhaps Jules Verne's vision of a moonship fired into space by a massive cannon. 

What will the jump be? John Markoff writes in the New York Times about Microsoft's research into quantum computers. These could conceivably turn computing upside down. It would not only make computers thousands of times more powerful, but would also revolutionize the way they process information. It would conceivably permit them to introduce doubt into calculations--more the way we do. (Today's computers, in contrast, simulate doubt with billions of statistical calculations). Other researchers are looking into computing models based on animal brains. 

The point is that the change won't come in a straight line, and it's likely to be more dramatic than we imagine--and more dramatic than the brain chips in The Boost. 




link to post share:

An online Playboy in a cyberworld swimming in porn
June 22, 2014News

The news industry in the age of the boost (2072) is dead. People with brain implants get most of their news directly from e-commerce companies and governments, and they spend most of their online time in the world of entertainment. For many, this means the virtual world, and a lot of what they're doing in that world involves sex.

This fits into the plot of The Boost. Without giving away too much, think of it this way: if you have vital news to communicate to a large population, where do you find everybody?

This is the business model for a site called Badoink (don't want to link to it by adding .com). Jasper Hammill outlines the strategy in an article in Forbes. The idea is to offer a news and features magazine, and to finance the journalism with links to porn sites. Hammill compares it to Playboy, which published big-time writers and featured great interviews, all of them financed by soft porn. The Badoink site looks like Maxim, which updated Playboy's model for the '90s.

Anyone's guess if this venture will work. Most don't. But I expect news to continue to cozy up with the parts of the entertainment industry people will pay for. That means porn, gambling, sports, games and comedy. 

This isn't entirely new. When Jimmy Carter wanted to reach an important demographic in 1976, he looked to Playboy, but later regretted it. 


link to post share:

My next novel: Washington at War
June 20, 2014General


I'm working on my next novel. It's a prequel to The Boost, and I'm calling it Washington at War. It takes place in the crucial years of 2043/44, when China and the United States battle for tech supremacy in the age of brain iimplants. The implants, or boosts, will become the platform for virtually all human communication--news, business, entertainment, diplomacy, and virtual worlds. Whoever rules the boost runs the world. Needless to say, the stakes are large.

I have a plot sketched out. I'm wondering, though, whether to tell the story more or less as I did in The Boost, with an omniscient narrator going from character to character, or to try something different. I'm toying with the idea of a first-person narration. In this case, this character wouldn't be entirely reliable. He (and I think it's a he) wouldn't know everything. And he might not be the nicest person in the story. In fact, he might be something of a villain. 

I'll let you know what I decide, but would welcome ideas.

The art, incidentally, comes from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I was looking for images of Washington at War, and all I came across was Revolutionary War art featuring Gen. Washington. That's about three centuries too old. So I opted instead for an old image of the future.

link to post share:

Amazon Fire phone: One step closer to the Boost
June 19, 2014News


Amazon's new phone is out, and one of its features, Firefly, brings it closer to The Boost. Firefly allows a user to point the phone at practically any object, send an image to the cloud, and have it recognized and located in Amazon's warehouses. Hit buy, and it will be at your doorstep in a day or two. It even works with movies and songs. 

In The Boost, where nearly everyone has a brain chip, most artifacts of the physical world are also identified and tagged. There's less need for physical objects, because more and more of our lives occur in the entertainment and communications hubs on the chip. (In fact, much of the physical world looks abandandoned.) But it occurs to me that Amazon, if it continues along the line traced by Founder Jeff Bezos, will one day be looking into brain chips. It's the natural evolution of the brand.

link to post share:

Will kids have to hack cars to drive them?
June 11, 2014General


Google's braintrust in a robotic car

Driverless cars are inevitable, I believe, because they're safer by orders of magnitude.
 Robotic drivers don't fall asleep, drive drunk or fiddle with text messages. Today's NYTimes lays out the numbers. Of course, if it were up to us, that wouldn't matter. We smoke, eat bacon cheeseburgers and ride motorcycles without helmets. 

So what will force the change? Insurance companies. They'll start, I'm guessing, by offering rich discounts to people who hand over the driving to robots. As these numbers grow, the economics will shift. Those who insist on driving their own cars will have to pay hideous premiums. Imagine what it's like today to get insurance when you have a couple of drunk driving convictions on your record. That's what it'll be like for those who want to drive on robot-dominated roadways.

In The Boost, which takes place in 2072, all cars have been robotic for decades. Ralf, the protagonist, has had his brain chip, or boost, ripped from his head, and is now "wild." At one point, he marvels that back when his mother was a teenager, in the late 2020s, people still had the freedom to drive cars. 

"They'd make phone calls, turn around to yell at their kids, even get drunk or fall asleep--all while driving a three-ton machine that was getting instructions from no one but them. It wasn't only the people who were were wild. Cars were, too."

One question is whether kids in the future will be able to "hack" robotic cars to be able to drive. It'll be hard for them, of course, if there's no steering wheel.

link to post share:

Long before Snowden: My time at the NSA
June 7, 2014Datamining


The secretive National Security Agency wanted some publicity, if you can believe it. This was in 2005. I was working on a  BusinessWeek cover story about the coming age of data, and the NSA put me in touch with the chief of its mathematics group, James R. Schatz.

In the age of growing data, Schatz told me, "There has never been a better time to be a mathematician." And that was precisely why he was on the phone. The market was hot for math. Wall Street was gobbling up mathematicians, and so were the Internet giants, like Google and Yahoo. The NSA was hard-pressed to compete for brainpower. In this race, the NSA was handicapped. It was limited to U.S. citizens, and while the banks and Web companies could offer stock and big salaries, the NSA could only offer government pay. Its pitch: Patriotism, interesting work, regular working hours, and a suburban life style near its base in Ft Meade, Md. 

I went on later to meet James Schatz in Ft. Meade while working on the Terrorism chapter for the book that grew out of the BusinessWeek story, The Numerati. (We met at the National Cryptologic Museum down the road from the black glass headquarters pictured above.) Anyway, I was thinking about his concerns when I saw the NYT story this morning on how the Internet giants are building defenses against the spies. Wonder who'll win that battle of brains.

link to post share:

A presidential birthplace lost to China
June 5, 2014News


A Tiananmen Square anniversary post.

The scenario. Twenty-nine years from now, the Chinese offer their cognitive brain chips, or boosts, to the rest of humanity. This presents a no-win choice to the Americans, who have no similar technology in place. If the Chinese chips prevail, they will rule the next stage of technology, and all of the commerce and information that runs on it. But to take a pass on the chips might mean settling for relative Neanderthal status while the rest of humanity advances into Cro-Magnon. 

This is all history by the time of my story, in The Boost. But as a result of the negotiations that occur between the Americans and the Chinese, China extends its dominance across the Pacific, as the Americans did in the 20th century. And they take over Hawaii--the birthplace of President Obama. If you look at history, maps change, often dramatically. 

Far-fetched? 

add comment link to post share:

Kevin J. Anderson and religion in other worlds
June 4, 2014General


Kevin J. Anderson, the prolific sci-fi author, sat at a panel with me at Comicpalooza in Houston. We have the same publisher (Tor), but I've published one novel, he's on #125 at last count. He knows a thing or two. When someone in the audience asked him how he creates new worlds in his fiction, he had a ready answer, complete with an acronym: PERSIA.

P stands for politics. Who's in charge? How do they maintain control?
E = economics. Do they have money? What is valued and exchanged? What do the inhabitants do for work?
R is religion.
S is science. What do they know, and what can they do with this knowledge. It's related, naturally, to politics and economics.
I is the murkiest to me: Intelligentsia. Is there a group with special knowledge? Do they threaten the rulers, or do they run the place?
A is art. What do they create for beauty, and what does it say about their civilization?

I thought about these categories for The Boost. One that comes up nearly empty is religion. There's no talk of religious affiliation (though it could be argued that the brainwork to run the boost courses through neural pathways devoted in previous generations to prayer). Some of the characters, however, think about religion. At one point, Ellen looks from her window in El Paso toward Juarez, where the people lack cognitive chips (and are considered "wild"). 

"She wonders if wild people are more religious than everyone else. That would make sense, since they carry around more mystery in their lives--or at least fewer answers. They have almost no idea of what diseases they're most likely to get, or what food and medicine to take to avoid them. It's like a crap shoot. When you get down to it, they don't know that much more about their lives and their bodies than the cavemen did. Then again, even with all the advances from the boost, the applications that spot cancer cells and obliterate them with nano agents, the programs that stimulate neurons and reverse diseases like Parkinson's and MS--despite all that, people still die with chips in their heads. Death just comes a couple decades later, barely a blink in eternity. So religion shouldn't be that much less relevant, she thinks. The wild people just have more empty time to consider it."

add comment link to post share:

Hunger Games, Divergent or Fahrenheit 451?
June 3, 2014Marketing the book


It wasn't until after I'd written The Boost that I learned it was dystopian. I just thought it was a book about the future, both good and bad. Now I'm interested in catching up on this genre I participate in. I searched dystopian books on Google and found a few I'd read--and a bunch I haven't gotten to yet. I'd welcome recommendations.

Here's what I've read: 

1984, by George Orwell. Beautifully constructed book, pervaded by grimness and despair. Very few laughs. 
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Much like 1984, but post-apocalyptic. Love persists.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Read it in high school. Only remember the drugs.

Let's stop the charade. I'm nearly unread in this genre. I took Fahrenheit 451 out of the library, but didn't read it. I saw the movies of Never Let Me GoThe Children of Men and A Clockwork Orange. Which dystopian books should I read? Hunger GamesOryx and CrakeDivergent?

***
Incidentally, looking for the links to these books, I just came across the Amazon interview with Veronica Roth, of Divergent. She gives a nice piece of advice to writers:

"Want something else more than success. Success is a lovely thing, but your desire to say something, your worth, and your identity shouldn’t rely on it, because it’s not guaranteed and it’s not permanent and it’s not sufficient. So work hard, fall in love with the writing—the characters, the story, the words, the themes—and make sure that you are who you are regardless of your life circumstances. That way, when the good things come, they don’t warp you, and when the bad things hit you, you don’t fall apart."


add comment link to post share:




©2014 Stephen Baker Media, All rights reserved.     Site by Infinet Design







Kirkus Reviews - https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/stephen-baker/the-boost/

LibraryJournal - Library Journal

Booklist Reviews - David Pitt

Locus - Paul di Filippo

read more reviews



The Boost: an excerpt
- April 15, 2014


My horrible Superbowl weekend, in perspective
- February 3, 2014


My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
- May 30, 2013


Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012


The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama
- September 10, 2012


"Corporations are People": an op-ed
- August 16, 2011


Wall Street Journal excerpt: Final Jeopardy
- February 4, 2011


Why IBM's Watson is Smarter than Google
- January 9, 2011


Rethinking books
- October 3, 2010


The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010


The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010


My next book: IBM's Jeopardy mission
- March 22, 2010