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?
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.
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.
Enjoy this interview? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.
Eliot Peper is the author of Cumulus, Neon Fever Dream, and The Uncommon Series. His books have been praised by Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, Qualcomm, and Future in Review. When he’s not writing, he works with entrepreneurs and investors to build technology businesses.