David Louis Edelman
Geosynchron
'Geosynchron' trade paperback cover

Afterword to the Trilogy

You won’t believe how long it’s taken me to write this trilogy.

When I wrote the first lines of the first chapter of what was then known as Jump 225.7 — intended to be a single novel or possibly even a novella — it was 1997. I was training Capitol Hill staffers how to send bulk letters to their constituents with correspondence management software. I wrote a three-page fragment about a worker at the Universal Generative Plant named Natch who was late for his train. The man runs through the station and ends up using the Jump 225.7 program to leap inside before the doors close. (This whole section largely survived intact and became the dream sequence in chapter 7 of Infoquake.)

Let’s stop and think about this for a second. In 1997, Bill Clinton was president, and was still untainted by impeachment. In 1997, George W. Bush was an amiable Southern governor and potential presidential candidate, but that was okay, because he wasn’t nearly as insufferable as his dad. In 1997, you generally accessed the Internet by using a program called Trumpet Winsock to dial your Internet provider on a 28.8K or 56K modem.

Dude, I was using Windows 95 then.

I messed around with the first part of Jump 225.7 for the next few years. Natch sat on a tube train looking at the redwoods and chatting with his girlfriend. He went to a company meeting and heard about a product called “the MultiReal,” which did who-the-Hell-knew-what.

It wasn’t until late 2000 when I had burned out on dot-coms that I quit full-time work. I bought myself a Compaq laptop and decided that I was going to write the novel I had always wanted to write. I figured it would run about 60,000 to 75,000 words and take me around six months. Really, Jump 225 was supposed to be little more than a proof of concept — proof that I could actually finish a piece of fiction. (Up until 2006, my only piece of professionally published fiction was a short story I wrote in the mid ’90s about a sexually frustrated housewife.) After I had gotten this quirky science fiction novella under my belt, I’d go back to writing my serious contemporary novel about pornographers and politicians in Washington, DC.

My experience in the dot-com scene of the ’90s gave me lots of material for good workplace fiction. One boss made me steal electricity at a tradeshow with extension cords because he refused to pay the venue’s outrageous $75 fee. Another company screwed me out of thousands of dollars in sales commissions and fired me. A military contracting firm hired me to program a pair of intranets for the U.S. Army in ColdFusion — even though I told them up front that I didn’t know how to program ColdFusion. And then my boss chewed me out when I expensed a $30 book to try to learn it.

I saw the same pattern over and over again. Handsome, charismatic entrepreneur with a pot of money hires pudgy, nuts-and-bolts engineering guy to build this crazy idea he has. Enter cynical marketing woman and slick sales guy to throw a coat of polish on top of it. The half-baked idea is rushed into a half-assed product before the seed money runs out, and then the juggling begins.

I really wanted to do something different, something that I had never seen before. I wanted to write a science fiction book about the workplace of the future that was really about the workplace of the future. Too often in fiction, you see the workplace treated as a nice jumping-off point for the inevitable gunfights and car chases and theatrical courtroom speeches. I wanted to find the inherent drama in press releases, sales demos and marketing meetings. I wanted to write an exciting book about, as one critic sarcastically put it, “the office politics behind the creation of a PowerPoint presentation.”

I had material. I had inspiration. I had a good head start. So what happened? Why am I just now finishing this fucker in late September 2009?

What happened was that some fundamentalist assholes decided to slam a few planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I had literally just finished the first draft of Jump 225 the day before. And when I sat down to reread it in the days that followed, I saw a cutesy little satire about dot-coms that was meant to elicit lots of wry chuckles. There were a zillion silly tech-sounding names and acronyms, like L-PRACGs, the Defense and Wellness Council and ChaiQuoke; Quell was an old man who liked to smoke cigarettes; Brone (then named Bill) got whacked during the Shortest Initiation; and Natch had a plucky, long-suffering girlfriend named Ferris. Part I — the part that became Infoquake — was titled “Randomly Generated Pleasurable Startle 37b.”

Imagine a cross between Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Jeff Noon’s Vurt, except much, much suckier. (You can read some of the early drafts if you’re feeling brave.)

In those days following 9/11, I started over. I began to ask myself the same deeper questions the entire country was asking itself at that point. Did our consumer culture lead us to this? Is capitalism really a vehicle that can sustain humanity through the long run? Is this obsession with advancing technology a healthy thing, and is it improving us as a species? How do we judge if the species is improved, anyway? And so on.

As I rewrote, I discovered that I already had a perfect vehicle for these speculations in the character of Natch. A person who embodies simultaneously the best and worst impulses of the West, and possibly of humanity itself. He’s endlessly inventive, but he’s shortsighted; he’s got boundless drive, but he’s not sure where he’s headed; he’s got the capacity to save the world, and he’s got the capacity to destroy it. It’s really a classic novel setup. Take a deeply flawed antihero, put him on the fence between the ultimate selfishness and the ultimate selflessness, and see what he does.

I thought about Bill Gates, who (whatever you think of his Windows operating system) has saved tens of thousands of lives through his Third World vaccination efforts.

I thought about Adolf Hitler, who chose to use his remarkable gifts of oratory, strategy and motivation to conquer a continent and pointlessly slaughter millions. (For more about this, see my Big Idea piece on John Scalzi’s Whatever blog.)

As you surely noticed if you just finished reading the trilogy — and if you don’t mind an author divulging the structure behind his work — Natch starts his journey at the beginning of Infoquake well down the path towards ultimate selfishness, and he concludes by committing an act of ultimate selflessness at the end of Geosynchron. Jara, meanwhile, is engaged in a parallel journey in the opposite direction. She begins the trilogy as someone who has completely lost her sense of self, and by the end she’s found her center and her self-worth.

It seemed to be a pretty serviceable structure. But for some reason, it’s thrown a lot of readers for a loop. Perhaps I should have signaled early on in capital block letters that you really weren’t supposed to admire the way Natch threatens civilization to achieve number one on Primo’s. (“Natch cackled evilly as he released evil black code on the Data Sea in an evil manner like the evil, evilly evildoer he was.”) I sorta assumed that my readers would get that I was writing a novel with a flawed hero, someone you are supposed to feel ambivalent about by design.

Instead, a number of people concluded that my trilogy was supposed to be a libertarian propaganda tract or a love letter to capitalism. And we’re not just talking about readers, but some critics and at least one hard leftist author whom I very much admire. They gave up on the trilogy in the opening chapters of Infoquake, because they felt they were being preached to about the virtues of extreme selfishness. Which to me seems kind of like abandoning the original Star Wars trilogy before Luke Skywalker hits the screen, because the first twenty minutes of the movie glorify Darth Vader.

The truth of the matter is that I’ve never had a political or an economic agenda in these books. I never meant for Natch to be a heroic emblem of capitalism standing tall against evil government bureaucracy, any more than I meant for him to be an example of a greedy capitalist pillaging and exploiting his fellow workers. I wanted the politics in these books to be credible, and I’m sure some of my biases slipped in around the edges here and there. But the politics are definitely there in service of the story and not the other way around. My own personal views are all over the place and don’t fall neatly in either the governmentalist or libertarian camps. As for economics? Truth be told, I can look up the Laffer curve or Adam Smith’s invisible hand on Wikipedia as well as anyone, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got any special insight into the way money works.

(And allow me to confess that I haven’t actually read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. I’m sorry, but Jump 225 is not meant to be a paean to John Galt. The only Ayn Rand I’ve read is Anthem, and that was because — uh — Rush wrote a song about it. Hey, I really dug Rush in junior high school, okay?)

So now that I’ve done one thing authors aren’t supposed to do by baldly revealing the structure underneath my book, I’ll do something else authors aren’t supposed to do — science fiction authors, at least — and say that I have no immediate plans to continue writing in the Jump 225 universe. I won’t say never, because one of these days someone might actually pay me a big chunk of money to write more Jump 225 novels, and I’m sorry to drizzle motor oil all over your romantic ideals, but I am capable of being swayed by money. Truth is, I’ve had twelve years to play around in this sandbox, and I’m ready to find another one.

Regrets? I have a few. I regret that Quell called Benyamin “boy” during a conversation in Infoquake. I regret that it took me until the middle of MultiReal to figure out what the Autonomous Minds were up to, though I knew all along that they were still out there. I regret that I had to chop out several chapters’ worth of Quell/Margaret Surina backstory from Geosynchron because it was sucking energy and focus out of the rest of the book. I regret that I had to take out the scene of Horvil jumping off a (virtual) cliff, and I regret that I never found the right place to stick in a reference to TF/EAG-PERN (Task Force for Eliminating Acronyms in Government and Providing Easily Remembered Names).

But overall, I have to say that I’m very proud of Infoquake, MultiReal, and Geosynchron. They’re very carefully structured and very carefully written, even if I have shaded the prose a bit too purple for some tastes. In fact, I bet that if you picked up Infoquake and started the whole trilogy again from the beginning, you’d see a whole bunch of stuff you didn’t see on the first go-around.

Ready? I’ll start you off.

Natch was impatient…

—David Louis Edelman
Reston, VA
September 30, 2009