Stephen Baker

The Boost
Sierra Blanca, TX


From The Boost

"The car speeds ahead, past crumbling clapboard houses and deserted strip malls, and under rusted and rickety bridges. There was a time, Ralf thinks, when society marked its progress on the physical landscape, building skyscapers, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, even simple and stately porched homes, like his grandparents’ place in Montclair. But in the last half century or so, most of the landmark projects have been virtual.... For most Americans, he thinks, progress is defined in software apps. The physical Oklahoma looks abandoned."

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Slideshow of an odyssey from El Paso to Big Bend
April 28, 2014General


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Why my characters race to El Paso
April 28, 2014General

One spring day a couple of years ago I started to write a novel. It featured a young man named Ralf. Recently, some bad and very violent people had opened up his head, right above the temple, and ripped out his cognitive chip, or “boost,” leaving Ralf “wild.” The future United States in this story is not a hospitable environment for the wild. They cannot exchange messages, nor can they look anything up or locate themselves on a map. They have no money, which is all virtual. Ralf, a software engineer, feels as if he’s suffered a lobotomy.


On the first page, I had Ralf on the run, with his girlfriend, Ellen. Where was I going to send them?


To El Paso. It was a no-brainer for me. Even though I lived in the border city for only 16 months in the mid-80s, El Paso is where my stories gravitate. The writer Linn Ullman makes the case that picking a place precedes a plot, and that each of us has a special place or two to tell a story: “In your life there a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened. And then there are other places, which are just places.”


I had just moved back from Venezuela and was looking for a newspaper job when I first visited El Paso. I figured I was ready for a big city paper, like Dallas, Miami, or Los Angeles, one that might send me back to Latin America. But I found a cheap Southwest flight to El Paso and flew out to spend a weekend with my roommate from Venezuela.



The view toward Juarez from my old neighborhood, Sunset Heights


He picked me up at the airport. The desert light was blinding. He pointed to the Franklin Mountains, which stretched into the downtown. Compared to the bright green mountains of Caracas, they looked to me like big piles of dirt. I wasn’t impressed. As we drove toward the city on I-10, he gestured beyond the oil refineries, to the purple mountains to our south. That was Mexico, he said. He took a few turns through the downtown, through the hurly burly of South El Paso, which felt like Mexico, and then across a bridge into Ciudad Juarez, which was real Mexico. We had a beer in the Kentucky Club, a throwback saloon with a polished mahogany bar. The place was growing on me.


I ended up with a job at the now defunct El Paso Herald-Post. We worked in a newsroom where the sun streamed in through the blinds, lighting up all the smoke. There were old guys (my current age) working there  who ambled off to city hall or the police station mid-morning, had a drink or two at lunch, and then spent the afternoon writing up eight or ten inches of news and trading jokes, some of them at the expense of coastal newcomers like me. I don’t think those guys ever went to Juarez.


I did much of my reporting, on both sides of the border, on bicycle. I could zip back and forth across the bridges without waiting in customs lines. And because the climate was so dry, I didn’t have to worry about showing up at interviews drenched in sweat. It was reduced to rings of salt. Sometimes I carried a huge walkie talkie in my back pocket.


Now there are lots of reasons El Paso was special for me. It was my first time living in the American West, and in the desert. I could buy my beer and hot sauce in Juarez, and eat dinner there. I enjoyed my colleagues at the paper. My eyes adjusted to the desert and the mountains, and found the colors. Most important, I met my future wife and stepson there.


But El Paso was also a weird place, an isolated outpost of the United States that shared a valley with Mexico. The border introduced conflict and often comical misunderstanding into almost every story.


When I was there, my colleague Terry Poppa was writing hard-hitting stories about a Mexican drug lord named Gilberto Ontiveros, known as El Greñas, or Mophead. One day a part-time photographer of ours was taking a picture of a hotel Ontiveros was building in Juarez. The photographer was abducted for a few hours, beaten, and sent back with a death threat for Poppa.


There was nothing comical about that. But when that death threat arrived, the editors of our paper started walking taller. They had found their mission: to defend freedom of expression and expose the hypocrisy in Mexico, where drug lords and crooked politicians were in evil cahoots. They had a case to make, of course, but they knew little about Mexico, and they filled their chest-thumping front-page editorials largely with cliches.


I twisted this incident around and used it as the dramatic lynchpin of my yet-to-be-published novel, Donkey Show.  The story features a bike-riding journalist (hmmm) who loves languages and wants to be a foreign correspondent--and is also a lazy reporter. He writes a story about a drug lord that’s filled with hearsay. (The man is said to have a harem, and tigers as house pets. He has a glass eye that he pops out and sometimes puts in people’s cocktails as a joke…) This story appears to earn the reporter a death threat, and we’re off and running. (This fictional reporter, incidentally, is the great grandfather of Ralf, the chip-less hero of The Boost.)


The title Donkey Show itself refers the kind of comical misunderstanding so common on the border. Back when I was reporting there, before recent drug wars scared tourists from Juarez, men would whisper, “Meester, you want see Donkey Show?” The first time I heard one of these guys, I thought he was saying something about “Don Quichotte,” which is what the French call Don Quixote. Why, I wondered, would this man telling me something so urgent about a translation of 17th century literature?


A donkey show, it turns out, involves the promise, using the word loosely, of a sex exhibit involving animals. These border entrepreneurs somehow manage to interest carousers in such a show. Then they lead them from bar to bar, selling them overpriced drinks (and getting kickbacks), telling them at every stop that the donkey show is coming up, just a little bit later. (The Mexican word for this is “ahorita.”)  Perhaps some tourists actually see a donkey show. Who am I to say they don’t? But most of them, I’ve been told, reach the end of  their nocturnal odyssey falling-down drunk and much poorer, and still waiting for the show. Like much of what passes for knowledge along the border, it’s shrouded in myth.  


I’ve lived in lots of special places, including Paris, Madrid, New York, Vermont, Washington DC, and Quito, Ecuador. Given a choice of my various addresses, I think most people would put El Paso toward the bottom of a wish list. And I’ve been wondering why my mind always wanders there. I've concluded that in addition to the border, the sunshine, the weirdness and great food, it has to do with a period of freedom in my life.


It was a time when I felt I could go anywhere. If journalism didn’t pay, English classes were a fallback, and in most places I could get by on less than $10,000 a year. El Paso, though, was the last stop of my solo career. Within two years, I was living in Mexico with my wife, kids, a dog, a serious job for a Fortune 500 company. It was what I wanted and wouldn’t trade it back for anything. But everytime you move forward, you leave something behind. It's easy for me to see now why I dream of those days of riding my bike across the border and falling in love.


This message on the Juarez mountain urges people to find truth in the Bible. One character in The Boost sees the same message in 2072 and wonders if the wild people in Juarez might be closer to the mystery of religion....

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A Philosophical Quintet
April 21, 2014General

I flew to Amsterdam over the weekend to participate in a so-called Philosophical Quintet. It was a televised roundtable about the future of technology and its intertwined conundrums. I was there with Peter-Paul Verbeek, author of Moralizing TechnologyMaartje Scherme, an expert on the ethics of human enhancement, and John Gray, a prominent Britiish philosopher. Our 55-minute discussion, moderated by the journalist Clairy Polak, is below.

Our show was one of dozens of lectures and panels in a huge event in Amsterdam called the Philosophy G8. It all took place in a beautiful downtown building, the Beurs van Berlage. The lectures were packed. Philosophy, at least in Amsterdam, is a big draw. It's amazing, really. Our session, which was broadcast nationally, ran from a little after midnight until 1:15 in the morning. The studio audience was standing-room only.






On Saturday, I had a free day to enjoy Amsterdam. My first stop was the beautiful Rijksmuseum, which I knew would get very crowded very soon. I was one of the first in at 9 a.m., yet by the time I got to Rembrandt's famous Nightwatch, a crowd had gathered. 


But once I left the museum's central hall, featuring the most famous masterpieces, the place was pretty empty. I think my favorite painting was by an artist I'd never heard of, a contemporary of Vermeer named Gabriel Metsu. Below is his Sick Child, which was painted during an outbreak of the plague. Not a cheery subject, but I find the painting fabulous, worthy in fact of a place in the central hall.


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Kirkus on the Boost: "an exquisite thriller on the Mexican border"
April 17, 2014Marketing the book

Here's your one-stop shop for reviews of The Boost, which will come out May 20. These are from Kirkus, Library Journal, Booklist and Publishers' Weekly, publications that bookstores and libraries use to scope out what's coming. (Excerpt of The Boost here

KIRKUS REVIEWS

THE BOOST 

A novel about the technology that controls our lives accelerates into an exquisite thriller on the Mexican border.

The year is 2072. Technology has left the keyboard and is implanted in our brains; those who don't have the implants are “wild,” meaning natural thinkers. Baker has created a believable, not-too-distant world with the same issues we face but on a grander scale: People spend too much time in virtual reality; there's a proliferation of porn sites and a computing-power arms race. But here, it's all done seamlessly through “the boost” in people's heads; keyboards and screens are antiques. The ghost in the machine is surveillance—surprise! A scheduled software update will enable American workers to be as efficient as their Chinese counterparts; Ralf Alvare is tipped off about a gateway that will allow Varagon Inc. to snoop, collecting personal data from anyone’s head, for marketing and advertising purposes. He is caught trying to close the software gate, his implant is removed—rather, ripped from his head—and he's soon on the run to El Paso. He's now “wild,” which isn't a comfortable state of mind for this digital genius. Baker’s characters are memorable and wickedly fun. Ralf’s companion, Ellen, has been genetically enhanced as an Artremis—a stunningly beautiful, Amazon-like ball of fire. Don Paquito is an unassuming hero who prints the last remaining newspaper, the only outlet for uncensored truth. As Ralf and his brother Simon shimmy through a tunnel from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, they enter a world where the boost is safe from surveillance and the largest population of “wild” people in the world lives in the past. From here, they make their stand against “the virtual as real.”

Baker has written a true delight of a techno-thriller that has deep, dark roots in the present.

LIBRARY JOURNAL

Computing has moved into our brains in the near future, and when the United States loses the chip wars, the country turns to chips from China to remain technologically competitive. Ralf is in charge of the rollout of the nationwide chips upgrade, called "boosts," but he discovers that someone has deliberately left a security gate open that will allow surveillance of every aspect of people's lives. When his boost is ripped from his brain, Ralf ends up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, one of the only communities for those living "wild" without a chip. He needs to find a way to get a new boost and prevent the chip upgrade before the government finds him and stops him for good. VERDICT Baker has put together an intriguing cast in which the secondary characters are almost more exciting than the leads, including an egomaniacal Paraguayan drug lord-turned-newspaper mogul, a beautiful but ditzy Mata Hari, and the conflicted government hit man sent after Ralf who instead spends his time enjoying Juarez. After writing several nonfiction books about technology (The Numerati; Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest To Know Everything), this is Baker's first novel.

BOOKLIST

In the not-too-distant future, just before a major update to the network of computer chips, known colloquillay as "boosts," implanted in the brains of most of the world's population, Ralf, a low-level government employee who also happens to be a bit of a techno-whiz, learns that the Chinese company behind the chips has incorporated into the update a rather frightening security breach, which will allow the Chinese to monitor each and every boost-outfitted person. Before he can blow the whistle, Ralf's boost is forcibly removed, leaving him unconnected from the network and on the run, hiding out in a community of similarly unconnected people (they're called the "wild"), hoping his brother, a fella with a seriously mysterious lifestyle, can help him survive. This is an exciting story, even if it's built on a familiar platform. Thee are plenty of other novels involving similar types of implants, but Baker loads this one with enough fresh material that it doesn't seem like a been-there, done-that affair. Highly recommended to sf and techno-thriller fans. --David Pitt

PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY

 An update to the boost, a revolutionary human-computer interface, threatens to open Americans’ brains like a Facebook account left unattended in Baker’s chillingly possible debut, a futuristic thriller with a few flaws. Baker weaves a complex plot about permanently blurring the lines between real life and the digital world, humanized by a family intimately involved with the development and propagation of the boost. Technology slowly erodes privacy inch by inch, forming a strong moral quandary, but it’s undermined by the grating portrayal of China as an unrelentingly evil country that will stop at nothing for dominance, as if the U.S. wasn’t capable of the same ruthless tactics. Baker’s ear for dialogue gives each character a unique voice, but sometimes the perspective shifts abruptly, and info dumps drag down the pace. This is a strong first effort with broad appeal to readers of thrillers and SF. (May) 



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The Boost: an excerpt
April 15, 2014Marketing the book


My publisher, Tor Books, just released an excerpt of my upcoming novel, The Boost. It's also on the Amazon and B&NWeb sites. I'll cut 'n paste below. As the book begins, Ralf and his girlfriend, Ellen, are on their way from Washington, DC to El Paso. Ralf has recently had his cognitive implant, or boost, ripped from his head. He's newly "wild," and very unhappy about it. And he's being secretive about it with Ellen.

The photo, above, incidentally, is a shot I took out the car window of Juarez as we were motoring down I-10 on the west side of El Paso a couple of weeks ago. I took a lot of pictures down there and in the Big Bend, and I'm planning to use them to illustrate a big social media push behind this book. Since much of America in The Boost is something of a post-industrial wasteland, I tended to focus on the decrepit, forlorn and wind-swept in this swing through West Texas. I don't want to overdo that side of things, or people will think it's grim. I don't think of the book that way all. In fact, it wasn't until I'd finished writing what I thought was a cheery brand of sci-fi that I learned that my book was "dystopian."

Anyway, I have a new author page on Facebook. I might put a bit of money into promoting it. Have to say, though, the design possibilities on that page are pretty limited. I'm having more fun with a new Tumblr blog, RalfLostHisBoost. I might also put a few dollars into promoting on Goodreads, where I also have an author page (but find myself spending more time chatting with fellow readers in the Proust group). 

Here's the excerpt:



Introduction


Sunday, March 6, 2072: Ten days before the national cognitive update



9:02 a.m. Central Standard Time

“The way you talk, I can tell you’re wild,” she says.

He has just awoken. He slept like a corpse from the DC suburbs to the Mississippi, stirred  briefly to glimpse down at the mighty river, and then fell into another long nap. He pauses, trying to collect his thoughts. Their burnt-orange Sheng-li is driving itself west along a lonely stretch of 1-40. Oklahoma scenery flies past their windows at a constant 97 miles per hour.

“How far to El Paso?” he asks.

“You see?”

“See what?”

“Only a wild person would need to ask.”

He shakes his head slightly, and tugs at the rim of his red baseball cap, a relic with a stretched-out P on the front. “How far is it?”

“830 miles.”

“When do we get there?”

“3:31, if we’re going downtown, 3:33 to the Stanton Street Bridge, 3:33 to Cielo Vista Mall, 3:54 to...”

“All right, I get the picture.”

With a blink of her green eyes, she snaps back from her processor, or “boost.”

“I know you’ve gone wild, Ralf, because I’m not getting anything from you at all.”

He shrugs.

“Is it gone, or did you somehow turn it off?”

He looks away from her, out the window to the south, at the rusted remains of oil derricks, and the gray hills stretching to the horizon. They’ll head west to the Rio Grande, then turn left, following the river to the border, which divides El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, the notorious outpost of the wild in North America. He knows these facts and doesn’t have to look them up, even if he could.

He listens to the wind whistling past the car, the hum of the hydrogen engine. That’s all he hears. No videos, no soundtrack, no info blasts. He hears himself breathing, as if for the first time. He knows they’ll get to El Paso sometime after 3. Ellen said so. But he has no idea what time it is and has nothing to tell him. People used to wear wrist watches or look at the screens of their cell phones. But once the processors moved into the heads, clocks slowly disappeared, along with computers and televisions and telephones, and all the other machinery that he remembers piling up in his grandparents’ basement. That’s all in the head now, he thinks. But not in mine.

He looks at Ellen. With a couple of wardrobe commands, she has turned her pullover to gold and her skin-tight leggings to black, with deep blue highlights. They shine like the feathers of a raven. She’s staring straight ahead, living in her boost. He knows she’s been spending hours on end in virtual Rome, with a college friend of hers, checking out Etruscan art. But by the way she’s shifting her weight in the seat and moving her lips, he wonders if she’s having sex. If so, is it with him? Ellen has the face of Greek goddess. It’s the Artemis line: a perfect oval surrounded by wavy golden hair, the nose slightly turned up at the end. Her lips move slightly, as if trying out sentences. They look like parentheses drawn by a sharp red pencil. Ellen is his processor now.

“What time is it?” he asks.



 Chapter One
 
 
9:21 a.m. Central Standard Time
Ralf’s memory is shot. His whole life, he has been considered a prodigy of the digital world. But the detailed time-tagged images, the videos, notes, links, they’re all gone. All that remains is the wet brain, where memories, if you can call them that, well up in pools of appetites, regrets, and desires. He can fish out only snippets of conversation. The blurry pictures he summons seem to change and fade. They’re not distinct images: more like ideas with ghostlike transparencies hovering over them. It’s a sorry excuse for a brain, he thinks. There’s good reason people like him are called wild.

He tries to dredge up memories from his last full day in Washington. That would be … day before yesterday? He isn’t sure, and doesn’t want to ask Ellen. He remembers sitting at breakfast with Ellen in their second-story apartment in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, just two blocks up from the zoo. The last specks of snow were melting from the branches across the street, but spring was still a good month away. He was sipping a protein blend and flipping through college basketball highlights in his boost, when a message popped up from Suzy. “Have to talk.”

He messaged back. “Talk talk?”

“Face to face.”

They agreed to meet for coffee at the Taizhou Tower, near Dupont Circle, and Ralf hurried out to his bike. 

Ten minutes later he was sitting across from Suzy, blowing warm air onto his frigid hands. She looked just like Ellen, but a half foot taller. Instead of wavy shoulder-length hair, the standard Artemis style, she kept a just a hint of blond fuzz on her skull. Suzy carefully dipped a corner of her scone into her steaming glass of greenish tea. She greeted him with a nod. He messaged her: “What’s up?”
She frowned and shook her head. “I meant ‘talk,’” she said.

Ralf sat up straight in his chair and coughed. He found face-to-face conversations awkward and he tried, whenever possible, to sidestep them. He nodded, looked at Suzy’s eyes, and quickly shifted his focus a few millimeters down, to the less threatening terrain around the bridge of her exemplary nose.
Over the next few minutes, Suzy whispered across the table to him, the old-fashioned way, laying out the issues. Ever since Suzy’s arrival, earlier in the year, they’d been working closely in the chip lab at the Department of Health and Human Services, overseeing the annual processor updates. Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier. Some inevitably complain that they’ve lost memories or have to concentrate harder to send messages. Some say they notice more ads popping up, or soundtrack music that’s hard to mute. But most are satisfied. Their heads work better.

Preparing for the updates is a long process. A few months before the scheduled date, the code comes in from China. A technical panel reviews the changes, and draws up a summary for the Senate subcommittee and the White House. Once the design is approved—largely a formality—the chip is divided into a dozen segments, so that no single person has access to the entire architecture. This is Suzy’s first cycle. She’s a junior staffer on segment 3, which is mostly data storage, along with other odds and ends. Ralf heads up the all-important segment 4, which runs communications, including six different radio signals and the vital interface to the wet brain.

This year, the country is scheduled to receive the update on March 16. If it goes smoothly, the process will begin with the general population, followed by Congress and the Supreme Court, the vice president and the cabinet, and finally the president. Then, presumably, the country will be on firm cognitive footing for the next year.

Suzy asked Ralf, as he waited for his coffee, to take a look at one of the gates, 318 Blue, in his segment. She had its counterpart in hers, and had found an anomaly. He called it up in his boost, and saw, to his shock, that 318 Blue was wide open.

She didn’t have to say another word. Ralf knew. The Chinese were updating the chip with a version of their domestic software. Its surveillance gate was open for both communications and data. What Ralf didn’t understand—and still doesn’t—is how Suzy Claiborne spotted the anomaly. She was new to the department and often asked him questions that a sophomore comp-sci student could answer. She was perhaps the last person Ralf would have expected to notice an open gate.

As Ralf looks back, the rest of that day is a blur. The details are lost with his boost. But he remembers the general outlines and can bring back fragments of the day, each one wrapped in the animal blend of emotions and physical sensations, chiefly nausea and jangling nerves.

His idea, he recalls, was to upload Suzy’s segment into his head, match the two sections, and figure out commands to close the gate. Otherwise, as he saw it, companies would have free run in everyone’s boost. They could mine lifetimes of memories. Experts had been declaring privacy dead for decades, but this would obliterate the last vestiges of it.

Ralf was a hacker, had always been one. He knew he could close the gate. He felt he had to. He can still picture Suzy, standing over him as he locked his bike across from the frozen Botanic Pagota on the Mall, whispering that his plan was “reckless.”

“If you didn’t expect me to do something,” he messaged her, “why’d you loop me in?” But even as she complained, she transferred her segment file onto his boost, and he was busy exploring it as they made their way into HHS and climbed the stairs to the lab. In the file he could see the open gates. 
While Ralf knew that carrying Suzy’s data was risky, he hardly expected to be nabbed the very first day. His messages, like anyone’s, could be intercepted, but the surveillance gates in his own boost were locked down, at least as far as he knew.

Minutes after he reached the office, two uniformed security guards hustled him out of the building. Ralf remembers that his colleagues turned their heads from him, as if embarrassed. He felt ashamed. He remembers wondering why one of the guards had grabbed his dirty green gym bag.

Next thing he knew, he was stretched out on a hospital bed in a white room. The sheets on the bed were rumpled. The curtains on the small window high above the bed looked like rags. Smudged on the wall above the sink was a single footprint, far too large to be Ralf’s. The sound in his head, if you could call it that, was the solitary hum of consciousness. He had never felt so alone. He summoned his mapping function to see where he was. Nothing came up. Just the same hum. He called up his messaging. Nothing. Ralf felt a surge of panic. He thrashed, and knocked a metal tray from the side of the bed, sending bits of debris falling to the floor. He looked down and saw the tray lying on his gym bag. He felt soreness on the side of his head. He reached up and touched a bandage.

They had ripped out his chip. For Ralf, whose boost had been installed on his first birthday, this amounted to a lobotomy. He was wild. For the first time he could remember, at least with the remaining hunk of brain in his head, he cried.

He remembers hearing explosions, and wondering if it was thundering outside. Then a young Asian man came into his room. The sculpted arms and shoulders of a body builder seemed to burst from his tight white T-shirt. He had a primitive twentieth-century look to him, unenhanced. He didn’t say anything, but simply placed his hands on Ralf’s shoulders, sat him up, reached down for Ralf’s gym bag, zipped it closed and handed it to him. Then, still without a word, he placed a firm grip on Ralf’s elbow and led him out of the clinic to the street. He stayed in the doorway and waved good-bye.
Ralf didn’t know where he was or what to do. If his boost had been in place and working, dozens of streams of information would be informing him, orienting him, messaging, carrying out thousands of risk scenarios, in short, making him aware. He would have figured things out. But as a brain-surgery patient, recently sequestered and newly wild, he walked in a fog.

He made his way down a tree-lined street and came to an esplanade with an Alexandria Metro stop he recognized. King Street/Old Town. He considered taking the Metro back to the Mall, where he’d left his bike. But he couldn’t pay for a ticket without a credit beam from his chip. As a wild man, he was broke.

He would walk. Without geotags, even that was a challenge. He wondered which way to go and got no directions. The only signal coming from his wet brain was the same gentle hum, with no data, no meaning. He was full of questions but powerless to answer them. He looked at the February sun, low in the southern sky, and took off for the north. In time he felt hungry, but found no signals leading him toward food. He was on his own. He wanted to see Ellen, and to hug her. But he could not message her. He dug into his ancient memory for her whereabouts and came up empty.
He remembers the crunching sound and feel of his footsteps on gravel as he walked north from Alexandria, across the Potomac, and back to his bike. Were they watching him as he walked? 

Are they following us now? He turns around and looks out the back window of the car.

“You’re not going to see anything back there,” Ellen says. “This isn’t a movie from 2010.”

He peers up, through the windshield. “If any drones are following us,” she says, “they’re no bigger than bees. They might even look like bees. Kind of useless to look for them.” Though Ellen’s an artist, she’s up to date on spy gadgets. Some of her contract work for the Pentagon includes drone design, which on occasion she incorporates into her leggings and blouses.

Ralf sits back. He’s small, dark and wiry, with deep-set violet eyes and black hair that curls around his ears. He’s good-looking, to such a degree that his mother convinced him to avoid all of the enhancements they were offering in middle school. He contemplates human beauty, and pictures Ellen without the Artemis package. That reminds him of Suzy, which in turn reminds him once again of the fix he’s in. Funny, he thinks, how thoughts meander in the wet brain.


Untitled


The car speeds ahead, past crumbling clapboard houses and deserted strip malls, and under rusted and rickety bridges. There was a time, Ralf thinks, when society marked its progress on the physical landscape, building skyscapers, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, even stately porched homes, like his mother’s place in Montclair. But in the last half century or so, most of the landmark projects have been virtual. What new physical construction there is comes from the Chinese, who have money for such things. For most Americans, he thinks, progress is defined in apps. The physical Oklahoma looks abandoned.

They pass a sign for a Civil War battle at Honey Springs. A Civil War battle in Oklahoma? Ralf wonders if he lugged around that morsel of data, unknown and unread, in his processor for twenty-eight years. He considers the trove of information stored on that chip, entire years of video, every virtual world he’s ever entered, every song he has ever heard, every conversation he’s ever had, the full database of all his messaging, even much of his sex life. All of it gone.

“Listen,” Ellen says, stirring him from his reverie. “How about this? You tell me what you know. I’ll do the same.”

He pauses for a moment. “It’s classified,” he says.

In their three years together, she has heard that same phrase a thousand times. “Let me get this straight,” she says. “They tie you down, take out your boost, patch you up, and send you as a wild man down to El Paso, and you have to protect their secrets?”

Ralf wants to tell her what he knows. But first he’s attempting to run risk-reward calculations in a brain not built for such work. It’s painfully slow, and does not deliver answers, only ideas.

“They didn’t send me to El Paso,” he finally says. “That was my plan.”

“Because your brother lives there?”

“My family has roots there, too,” he says. “My grandmother grew up there. Her father was a big shot on a newspaper.”

“That’s quaint,” Ellen says, before returning to Ralf’s brother. “I thought you two didn’t get along. Now, he’s the one you run to?”

“I wouldn’t call it running, exactly.”

“No?”

“I’m taking a trip,” Ralf says.

“Semantics,” Ellen says flatly. She gestures toward the backseat. “So you usually take trips with no more luggage than that disgusting gym bag of yours?”

“Actually, I wasn’t even planning on bringing that.”

Ellen pauses and looks at him. He stares straight ahead, as if he were driving the machine. These kinds of conversations, he thinks, would be a lot easier if he had driving to focus on.

“Let me tell you what I worry about,” she says.

He glances at her and nods.

“I’m worried that you want to go to Juárez to be at home with all of those wild people. I love you, Ralf, I really do. But that is the single-most … It’s the scariest place on earth, and if you want to live there, or even visit, we’ve got a big problem.”

“Don’t worry,” he says. “My destination’s El Paso, not Juárez.”

Ellen studies his profile and concludes, after a few seconds, that further questions will get her nowhere. So she sits back, and as the car hurtles west through Oklahoma, she tells him her side of the story.

Two days ago, Ellen says, she was working at home, creating herds of dinosaurs for a virtual safari site, when she got a message from her friend Robin. “She said they were rounding up every Artemis they could find. Tall ones, fat ones, every shape and flavor.”

“‘They’?”

“The government.” Then she stops for a moment, replaying the conversation. “Actually, she didn’t say that … but I assumed it was. I messaged you twenty-three times and couldn’t even leave a note.”
By messaging friends in her network, and friends of friends, Ellen learned that young men wearing green sweaters had arrested two Artemis women, or Artemi, at a lunch spot on Capitol Hill. Fifteen minutes later, they picked up one near Chinatown, and then one in Farragut Square. “I did the numbers and figured they were eighteen to twenty-three minutes from our house,” Ellen says. “So I got in the car.”

He asks her where she went.

“I didn’t know where to go, so I put it on a shuffle route in Georgetown,” she says. “Then Julie messaged me that she saw you on the 14th Street Bridge. She said you were walking and looked terrible.”

“Yeah, I love her, too,” Ralf says, ransacking his mind to come up with a face for Julie.

“She was worried for you.” Ellen goes on to say that she headed over to the HHS building on the Mall, figuring that Ralf would be there. When she arrived, he was bent over his bike, trying to wrench it free without the signal from his boost.

“So why do you think they were picking up Artemi?” Ralf asks.

“Call me naive, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the update, and that hole in your head,” she says.

He shrugs. “Then why do you think they didn’t stop us from leaving town?”

“Maybe I wasn’t the Artemis they were looking for.”

This leads the conversation straight to Suzy, a subject that they’ve agreed tacitly to avoid. Ralf dated another Artemis in grad school. This raises Ellen’s suspicion that he might be drawn to her largely for the beauty she shares with Suzy and a few thousand other women in the country, plus others in South America. No words from Ralf could put these doubts to rest.

“Why would they pick up all these people based on what they look like?” Ralf says. “Kind of primitive, wouldn’t you say? They have machines that can ID her boost in about two milliseconds.”

“Maybe her boost isn’t in her head.”

The idea, so simple, leaves Ralf stunned. He lowers his head and says nothing.

“What I don’t get,” Ellen goes on, “is why they rounded up all the normal Artemi and didn’t just focus on the one with no hair?” She considers it for a second, and then answers her own question. “I guess she could have bought a wig.”

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Painter George W. Bush updates Warhol in irony
April 14, 2014General




It turns out that when former president George W. Bush set up his easel to portray the world leaders he knew, he didn't rely for source material on his own memory, or even on snap shots he may have taken with his camera phone. He Googled them. He even Googled the image of his own father.

Viewed from the tech angle, this is a cloud story. Bush offloads storage and "memory" work onto networked computers, just like the rest of us, and he locates them with search. He's living in 2014. Why wouldn't he?

But it appears he didn't burrow through the thousands of images of these world figures, looking for just the right one. Most the time, he seems to have picked the first picture shown, or one that shows up on Wikipedia. This is where the irony comes in. His show is marketed as his personal brushes with the historical figures of his (and our) time, but he simply reworks and reissues archetypal images. In doing so he fortifies them.

In this way, you might say, he's playing with us, almost as Andy Warhol did when he created art from the mass-produced labels on Campbell's soups. I "know" these people, Bush could be saying, just the way the rest of you do, from Google. And I'm not telling you anything about our meetings. He doesn't, for example, show Germany's Angela Merkel from above and behind, the perspective he must have had when he gave her the surprise neck massage in 2006. In the end, it's only by focusing on the significant diverges between the photos and the painted portraits that we can hope to find the artist, our former president. 

In another way, you could argue that #43, as he likes to call himself, is participating in our national life in an open and democratic way. He's not relying on the special access he enjoyed, but instead he's using source material available to all of us, from classrooms of fingerpainters to legions of water-colorists in retirement homes. He's invoking no privilege. The question, of course, is whether he brought back interesting or surprising insights from the time he actually spent with those distinguished people. His artwork, like so much else in his life, leaves the question open. 


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Ray Bradbury: Does detail undermine credibility?
April 7, 2014General


Ray Bradbury's stories are beautiful and spare, like poetry, or bare surrealist art. I think of paintings by de Chirico, such as the Prodigal Son (above). I read the Martian Chronicles for a Coursera class on Sci Fi and Fantasy, and we had to write 300-word essays about every book. Here's what I wrote about Bradbury:

The characters in Martian Chronicles are continually comparing numerous different worlds: The earth that they remember or the one that they imagine, and the Mars that they experience, both in life and in dreams. Out of these changing perspectives, the characters--Martians and earthlings alike--attempt to come to grips with what is real and enduring, both in life and the universe. A crucial element of their analysis involves the level of detail that they perceive.

In our traditional view, detail provides credibility. An eyewitness, for example, who can remember what the suspect was wearing, or the color of the car he was driving, is more likely to be believed. But in the Martian Chronicles, detail raises suspicion. Meticulously rendered towns and machines seem too perfect to be true. In The Earthmen, the Martian Mr. Xxx explores the spaceship, marvels at the astonishing level of detail inside, and attributes it to the visual and auditory fantasies of psychosis. This leads him to shoot three men.

In The Third Expedition, Capt. John Black sees a town that looks so much like Green Bluff, Ill., that it frightens him. “It looks too much like Green Bluff,” he says. He suspects it’s a trap, or perhaps an illusion. By contrast, the level of earth-like detail in the town suggests to his colleague, Hinkston, that God has been at work on Mars. No one accepts what appears to be detailed reality at face value.

That is true of nearly everything in Bradbury’s Mars. Experiencing a different planet is so close to magic, or a dream, that every detail is suspect. The possibility of an agreed-upon version of reality dissolves. In such a scenario, everyone experiences something akin to insanity--or at the very least is hard-pressed to prove their sanity. This same dynamic can occur on earth. After all, once humans are free to find and interpret their own realities, all consensus dissolves--without even flying to Mars.

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Big Bend: A walk to Dog Canyon
April 1, 2014General

Dog Canyon

When I tell people we vacation in West Texas, they wonder what in the world could be out there. And I know I'm feeding all of their prejudices by leading this post with a sandy desert photo. It can look a little bleak. If I wanted to promote Big Bend National Park, I'd focus on the beautiful Chisos mountains, and the Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande which feels like a cathedral full of birds. But today I'm focusing on the dry side.

Have you ever driven through seemingly empty countryside, whether farms or forests, and wondered what it would feel like to get out of the car and just walk through it? That's what appealed to me about Dog Canyon. If you look at the photo above, the canyon is the little notch between the mountains. We walked to it one hot afternoon. It's about two miles from the road. 

It's not as empty as it may look. We found lots of the usual plants, of course--creosote bushes, yucca, sotol--as well as a number of flowers.

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Towards the end of the walk, we found ourselves on a river wash. The soil was sandy, and it led us into the canyon. It reminded me of a hideout for outlaws in the westerns. You can picture the sharpshooters posted high on the cliffs. 

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We found a bit of shade and, after making sure that snakes hadn't found it first, we relaxed. Then we began the walk back to the car. (Next time I think we'll take a little more water.) That was our first day in Big Bend. In following days, the walks got prettier, greener, and shadier, more post-card worthy. But now that I'm back in New Jersey, I appreciate the dry intensity of Dog Canyon. Walking to it felt like traveling.

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Is The Boost anti-Chinese?
March 18, 2014Marketing the book





In the America of The Boost, which takes place in 58 years from now, the Chinese are pretty much running the show. Their dominance of the next stage of technology has catapaulted them to the top. That victory, which I'm planning to detail in a prequel, happens in the 2030s and '40s, when they come up with the first and best cognitive implants for the brain. These are networked supercomputers, and people who have them appear to function at a higher and more efficient level. So when the Chinese offer these chips and software to the rest of the global population, who can turn them down? To do so would relegate populations to a backward status. It might be similar to siding with the Neanderthals while the Cro-magnons are already busy making tools and covering their cave walls with fabulous art. The word for people without these chips, or "boosts, is "wild."

Why would the Americans resist the Chinese chips? Lots of reasons. Whoever controls the chips also dominates the market for information, because almost all of the machines and services in our lives, from televisions and phones to computers and credit cards, move into the chip. It gobbles up and destroys other markets, much as the cell phone does today. What's more, whoever operates the chip can monitor the population, and control it with apps and software updates.

So by the time the book begins, the Americans have essentially lost the battle for control of the information economy. Those with the most power in the United States (the villains in the book) are corporate lobbyists who work closely with the Chinese.

This brings me to the reason I'm writing this. I got my first review of The Boost. It's in Publishers' Weekly. And while the reviewer has some nice things to say about the book ("a strong first effort with broad appeal to readers of thrillers and Sci-Fi)  s/he laments a "grating portrayal of China as an unrelentingly evil country that will stop at nothing in its quest for dominance." 

I certainly didn't intend that. As I see it, the Chinese role isn't all that different from what the U.S. presence must have felt like in much of the world following World War II. They have a lot of power, money and influence. They put up new buildings, export machines, and have a lot of say about the direction of local governments. In short, they advance their interests. As far as "evil" goes, most if it in the book is carried out by lobbyists and their corporate patrons.

It'll be interesting to see how other reviewers read it. Anyone with a blog or publication want to see a review copy?


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