Stephen Baker

The Boost
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Brain-squinting: How to operate a cognitive implant
February 14, 2018Marketing the book

This is an excerpt from Dark Site: Boost Trilogy--Alissa's Story. In the scene, Alissa, a 16-year-old from Washington DC, has just gotten a cognitive implant in her brain. It's a powerful networked computer, though only the size of a fly's wing. But she needs help learning how to operate it...


A therapist came in. Noli. She was Japanese and extremely nice, though she treated me like a baby. First, she told me how lucky I am to have blue eyes and blond hair. Then she lifted up my hand and patted it for a while, the way I do when our poodle, Gilda, puts her paw in my lap.

Noli taught me a lot about how to operate the Boost.

“Look at a space behind your eyeballs,” she said. I tried. It took a while, but eventually I could make out a dark screen. A black dot seemed to float in the middle of it. She told me to concentrate on that dot, and to move it up and down with my thoughts, and to one side or the other. I did, and it moved.

“Now squint with your brain,” Noli said.

I didn’t want to be rude to her, because English wasn’t her native language. But I explained that we squint with our eyes, not our brain.

She insisted. I should stare at the dot and try squinting with my brain. So I tried to give it a contraction. The dot seemed to jump in place.

That was a click, Noli said. By steering that dot with my mind and brain-squinting on it, I would navigate entire worlds with my new chip, she said. For starters, she had me follow the dot down what looked like a corridor of applications. She told me to stop at one called Life Diary. I did, and with more clicks, I filled out a little menu and clicked OK.

What did that accomplish? I asked.

She told me that from that moment, every minute of my life for the next 20 years would be recorded. Everything I saw, every conversation, every meal I ate, it would all be there. (In fact, I’m looking at that conversation right now. It’s easy to find, because it’s at the very beginning of my records. Noli has my hand in hers and is explaining that it’s hard to find certain scenes. She says that search is “a work in progress.”)

I asked her about words. How was I going to send messages with my thoughts? She told me to be patient. The Boost needed some time to link up words with what they mean to me. She said it was a “learning algorithm” and I laughed, because she had a cute way of pronouncing her Ls.

As she left, Noli told me not to obsess over the Boost, just to forget about it. It would adapt to my brain, she said.

“You can’t turn it on by thinking,” she said. “It just happens.”

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Dark Site: The Boost Trilogy--Alissa's Story
February 9, 2018Marketing the book

Dark Site, my new novel, is for sale at Amazon's Kindle store. Price $2.99.

The year is 2043. It’s as close to today as we are to 1993. Pods roam the streets of Washington, and black drones circulate above. Sometimes they swoop down, wrap their metallic arms around their targets, and carry people away, high above the Virginia exurbs. The drones slowly shrink into dots, eventually disappearing into the southern skies.

These drones are usually taking people to Dark Sites. Alissa doesn't think about it too much until her friend is carried away. Then Alissa, a high school senior, does some research. Her conclusion:

“It used to be that we had prisons, and if you were a criminal, that’s where you went. Everyone else was free (at least once we were done with slavery). A Dark Site is sort of a middle ground. You don’t have to be a criminal to go there, but you’ve probably done something wrong. Or maybe they think you’re going to do something wrong. So they hold you there. And if they think you’re dangerous, it could be forever.”

Alissa lives with her father in small apartment on Columbia Road, in Adams Morgan. He doesn’t know it, but Alissa’s billionaire grandfather had her spirited off to Jakarta a few months earlier, and she returned with a tiny chip, barely the size of a bee’s wing, implanted over her right temple. It’s a Chinese cognitive chip, a Boost. She’s the only kid in Washington with one, and it’s a secret.

Boosts are the global rage. The Chinese have implanted their entire population, and productivity is soaring. It’s like they’ve taken an evolutionary step forward. And the US is under enormous pressure to match them. But naturally, some people resist the idea. The more vocal ones, including Alissa's friend, Javier, are ending up in Dark Sites.

Here I’m going to stop telling the story, and instead ask a question. If the new brain chips give the Chinese a cognitive boost, and if the United States is preparing its own chips for a national rollout, when exactly should the president get his or her implant? Should the president be first? It wouldn’t make sense, after all, for the rest of us to get these powerful processors in our heads, and for the president to remain “wild.” That would be silly.

I should add a word about the Shotgun app. It's one of the outstanding, almost magical features of the Boost. In Shotgun, one person rides on other person’s chip, and experiences the world through that person’s eyes and ears (or virtual versions of them). It’s through this Shotgun app that Alissa finds herself in the White House. The story rolls from there.

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How futuristic will the future be?
January 2, 2015Marketing the book


I got an email from a friend who just read my manuscript of the prequel to The Boost. The working title is Dark Site. For a story that takes place about 30 years from now, in 2044, he said, it had a few anachronisms.

Bandages, for example. When people get a brain chip, or "boost," implanted above their right temple, they have that patch of scalp shaved and the incision covered with a small bandage. The bandage signals that a person has passed to this new order--from wild to enhanced--and is probably still struggling to master the brain-machine interface (or even to find the computer in his or her head).

But who will wear bandages in 2044? Won’t there be membranes that cover the skin, breathe like skin, and decompose over time, either blending into the skin or flaking off like dandruff? Could be, I thought. So I switched bandages to “patches.” I’ll leave it up to readers to figure out for themselves how advanced those patches are. (an example)

I also had my characters pick up groceries at a supermarket on Columbia Road in Washington (the same Safeway I used to shop at in the ‘80s). I knew this sounded outmoded as I wrote it. My friend agrees. So I’ll have them order more food. (It’s too bad, because excursions onto the street are good chances for the characters--and readers--to get some fresh air, and run into people.)

Try as I might to fish out anachronisms from the future, part of me is in rebellion. The future, as I see it, invariably carries a lot of the past. Look around you today. How much of what you see could have been there 30 years ago, in early 1985? From where I’m sitting, lots of elements could be from '85--the moccasins, the coffee cup, the lamp, the fan. Much is the same. And some things, like the flat-screened TV, are mere upgrades. But there are a few differences, like the Nexus tablet playing Lee Morgan on a Sonos Wi-Fi speaker.

The point is, some things change, but lots don’t. So I’ll yank the supermarkets from the prequel, just to be on the safe side. But if I make it to 2044, I won’t be surprised if I’m still wandering through frigid produce sections.

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Prequel to The Boost: Dark Site
December 3, 2014Marketing the book

On Sunday afternoon, I finished writing the prequel to The Boost. It's (tentatively) called Dark Site, which is the name for the corporate prisons featured in the story. The one readers get to know is in Vienna, Virginia, within walking distance of the Metro. 

On Monday and Tuesday, I went through the text, about 119,000 words. I cut out extraneous stuff, including plot elements I never developed and ruminations that slowed the pace. I chopped out about 12,000 words (or nearly two weeks of writing). That leaves it at close to 400 pages, about 15% longer than The Boost. (I can see coming back to it with fresh eyes in a month or two and chopping out more.) 

Today, I sat down to write a promotional precis for the book. This isn't my favorite activity. Actually, it reminds me of writing a short BusinessWeek article, where you have to squish a complex story into 500 words. In any case, now I'm done that, and I'll have to figure out what to do next.

I placed the narrator of the book, Gary, in an apartment building some of my friends lived in long ago. It's called The Shawmut, and it's on Columbia Road in the Adams Morgan section of Washington. I'm sure it's a very nice building now, and Adams Morgan is a wonderful place to live. But when my friends lived in a borrowed apartment there, they kept it "untidy," and the kitchen walls and sink were alive with rushing roaches. I have no idea why those bugs kept so busy. It was as if they were trying to lose weight. 

                                                                     The Shawmut

I don't know yet when this book will by published, or by whom. But here's the precis I wrote today:

Dark Site

The Boost Files: Washington 2044

2043. Two billion Asians operate Chinese-made supercomputers, or boosts, implanted into their brains. Americans, still waiting for their own chip, remain “wild.” In the coming cognitive war, the two powers will battle over access to brains—and control of mankind’s thoughts. The United States starts out dangerously behind.

On a summer day, a software lobbyist in Washington named Gary Terwilliger learns that his lovely downstairs neighbor, Stella, is the first government employee with a Chinese boost running in her head. The Congressional guinea pig for brain implants, she has access to top political leaders, including the president.

While privacy mavens are terrified by brain implants, advocates tout them as the next jump in human cognition, similar to our leap 40,000 years ago to cro-magnon. Some wealthy parents, including Gary and his ex-wife, fearing that their children will be left behind, start sending them on “cognitive vacations” to Asia.

From his apartment in the Shawmut, in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, Gary harnesses his newly boosted 11-year-old daughter, Alissa, as a spy. Riding “shotgun” on her neighbor’s boost, Alissa sees the world through Stella’s eyes. She witnesses chilling corruption and back-channel intrigue. She also sees political opponents being snatched up by drones and carried to corporate prisons, known as Dark Sites. And she learns a startling secret about the president that could bring down the government.

The exuberant Alissa is fascinated by what she’s learning—but cannot keep her mouth closed. As the secrets spread through Washington, powerful players, from tech plutocrats to South American capos, trace them back to their source. Will they lay claim to the precious flow of intelligence by throwing Gary, or even Alissa, into a Dark Site?

As dangers mount, Gary finds himself falling in love with Stella. But he’s all too aware that his daughter might be riding shotgun, and spying on him through Stella’s eyes. For his own privacy, he needs Stella to block Alissa’s access to her brain chip—but not before one final mission, which could carry Alissa into the innermost sanctum of the President of the United States.

Dark Site is a fast-paced prequel to The Boost (Tor Books, 2014), which takes place 28 years later. Kirkus Reviews called The Boost “a true delight of a techno-thriller that has deep, dark roots in the present.” Paul di Filippo, writing in Locus, notes that the “tale is rendered in light, easy, smooth prose which walks the tragicomic tightrope brilliantly and deftly.”

Baker was a senior technology writer at BusinessWeek for 10 years, and is also author of two non-fiction books, The Numerati (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) and Final Jeopardy: Man vs Machine and the Quest to Know Everything (Houghton Mifflin, 2011).

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How the prequel to The Boost starts
August 15, 2014Marketing the book

I'm about a third of the way through the first draft of the prequel to The Boost. It's called Washington at War. To give you an idea of where it's going, I'm pasting the first paragraph below. A bit of context for Boost readers: The lover is the 29-year-old Stella, and her husband is Francisco.

Between March of 2043 and the following January, war raged between United States and China. You wouldn’t have noticed it walking across the Mall on a late summer afternoon, as the Congressional teams played softball and drank beer. I strolled past them one evening and thought: We’re at war and life goes on. The drones circling above seemed as harmless as sea gulls. A Frisbee fell at my feet. I picked it up and heaved it toward the Monument, and someone yelled thanks. My trek continued past the White House. I waded through the vaporing crowds around DuPont Circle, and from there to Columbia Road, where my lover waited for me—assuming her husband wasn’t around, or too drunk to notice.

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Facebook ads: Scary stuff wins
July 3, 2014Marketing the book

See that scary looking ad? I've been dabbling in advertising on Facebook, trying different images and ad copy. And I'm sure it comes as no surprise that the most menacing graphic and message gets by far the most clicks.

The issue for me is that I don't view the future in The Boost as especially terrifying. It's simply the future. Sure, there are aspects I'd rather do without. People can send headaches to each other, journalism no longer exists within the borders of the United States, people eat tasteless pellets and flavor them with brain apps, etc etc. But there's still love, laughter, jokes, and above all, hope. Life goes on. 

But when it comes to selling the book, dark wins. 

I've faced this issue before. The Numerati attempted to portray a balanced view of Big Data. Yes, there would be privacy issues. But governments, corporations, and doctors would stop treating us like herds. Data, for example, would bring us personalized medicine. But the scary stuff sold. When it came time to publish the book in paperback In the UK, my publisher actually changed the title to the menacing "They've Got Your Number."  (The New York Times used the same headline in its review of the book.)

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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. 

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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."

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American dullards: What happens here when foreigners get brain implants?
May 31, 2014Marketing the book

A nation of dimwits?

The year 2043, in the world of The Boost... Early in the year, the Chinese moved to implant cognitive chips, or boosts, into their entire population, and they offered chips to all of humanity. Workers with chips were more productive, enhanced diplomats communicated wordlessly in negotiations, children with chips aced the standardized tests in minutes!. Still, Americans resisted Chinese chips, worrying about privacy and safety issues, and sovereignty--not to mention religion.

An outtake from the novel: 

In the end, a grassroots movement forced the government’s hand. Across the country, parents filed successful suits, pressing the Commerce Department for rights to import Chinese processors for their children. Overnight, normal students budded into prodigies. Within months, exclusive private schools around San Francisco and New York were demanding Chinese processors in the heads of incoming students. Tech companies entered into bidding wars for capped engineers from Asia. Thousands of “cognitive tourists” were traveling to Malaysia and Singapore and returning with startling powers. An enhanced elite was taking shape. It threatened to turn the wild majority of the country--which still included the government--into a vast underclass of dullards.

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Paul di Filippo reviews The Boost
May 21, 2014Marketing the book

I've trimmed a bit. The full review is in the Sci-Fi journal, Locus

...Reading The Boost, one discovers that Baker plainly knows all this and is intent on giving us a stefnal allegory about our contemporary madness. But that goal does not stand in the way of a rousing, idea-packed adventure story from this highly competent beginning novelist, whose CV as a tech writer for BusinessWeek has obviously prepped him well to speculate on cutting edge technology and its impact.

The year is 2072, and every single citizen who is not an outcast “wild” human has “the boost” in his or her head: a gadget no bigger than a fly’s wing, implanted in youth, that offers virtual reality, augmented reality, mind-to-mind communications, life-logging, auxiliary memory and general internet access. With free annual software upgrades! “Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier.”

But that upgrade is now the source of trouble. This year’s download contains a secret back door inserted by the Chinese engineers, Gate 318 Blue, allowing who-knows-what kinds of hacking. Learning of this, our hero, Ralf Alvare of the federal Upgrade Department, finds his life immediately overturned and in peril before he can even act. He’s kidnapped and his boost is surgically removed.

Escaping with the help of a mysterious Asian man, now a helpless “wild human” himself, he goes on the run, hooking up for assistance with sometime paramour Ellen (who happens to sport the fashionable “Artemis” somatype). They head to El Paso to meet with Ralf’s brother Simon, who might offer some solutions.

But on their trail, under the command of despotic, ninety-three-year-old billionaire John Vallinger, is the oversized hired killer named Oscar Espinoza. The trio of Ellen, Rafe and Simon eventually flee over the border, into Ciudad Juárez, where everyone is a wild human. There, they encounter the local crime kingpin, Don Paquito, whose old-fashioned illicit network—featuring an actual newspaper, of all antique things!—might just offer a solution to their problems and to the larger dilemma of the tainted upgrade.

Now, before we begin to look at Baker’s commentary on the nature of the boost—and by extension, our always-wired cell phone culture—let’s give him props for sheer storytelling. His tale is rendered in light, easy, smooth prose which walks the tragicomic tightrope brilliantly and deftly. There’s a definite Donald Westlake vibe to such elements as put-upon hit man Espinoza, who relishes becoming wild because it frees him from his overseer, Vallinger’s hireling, the virtual-porn entrepreneur George Smedley, allowing Espinoza to luxuriate in Mexico with lots of meals of delicious goat. Then there’s the intriguing love story between Ellen and Ralf; the surprising family dynamics of the Alvare clan; the lifestyle of being a beautiful Artemis woman; international realpolitik; and a host of other non-tech aspects of late-21st-century life.

But the most substantial aspect of this adventure is Baker’s dissection of what the boost does to baseline humans, who are deemed Neanderthals and essentially disabled compared to the boost users. Baker catalogs the dismaying shifts: people can be rudely having virtual sex while seeming to converse with you. They are content with eating tasteless protein pills and allowing the boost to fool their sensorium with artificial tastes. Eye-to-eye contact is painful. Ralf to Ellen: “It’s easier to manage memories of you…than to manage the relationship in real time.”

Perhaps the core speech occurs when older brother Simon and Ralf are talking about their different childhood experiences of the boost, echoing some of the same thoughts that Rudy Rucker has blogged about, concerning simulations versus nature.

Simon goes on to describe the generation gap that he still feels with his little brother. He and his friends grew up with their experiences grounded in the wild brain… “Then they come along and give us virtual apps that were just the crudest version of reality… When we were disappointed, they called us Luddites… But your generation was different… You accepted the virtual as real.”

And there’s the theme in a nutshell. Reality versus simulation, solipsism versus mutuality, dominance by constructs versus unmediated interactions. This is certainly one of the biggest issues of our time, explored here with sophistication and insight.

One final observation on this novel: Stephen Baker comes from outside the genre, but is as proficient, savvy and adept as any prozine-trained acolyte of Campbell. Like Ernest Cline with Ready Player One, Kenneth Calhoun with Black Moon, Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, and any number of other allied “mainstream” books, he proves that SF is now truly a universal language accessible to anyone anywhere who is willing to learn it.

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Kirkus Reviews -

LibraryJournal - Library Journal

Booklist Reviews - David Pitt

Locus - Paul di Filippo

read more reviews

Prequel to The Boost: Dark Site
- December 3, 2014

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