The idea for the novel, Axon, Inc., came to me on a golden October morning of 2013, riding the bus to work. I was reading Ursula LeGuin’s take on that venerable piece of writing advice, “write what you know”:
As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of “know.”
Now, for decades I’ve written about dragons, wizards, time travel, alternate history, and the like, and I’ve produced two novels, a novella, and a dozen short stories. (I’ve tried somewhat fitfully to publish them, but honestly, I was never much for promoting my own work.) I felt that I did indeed “know” about these things. But it struck me that I also knew a lot about the modern tech industry.
For fifteen years I’ve developed language processing software for start-ups, defense contractors, and industry leaders like Nuance and Amazon. It occurred to me that a book set in this world of disruptive technologies, venture capital, and monolithic corporations, would be not only fun to write, but interesting to many readers, too.
Of course, it would also have to be speculative fiction; otherwise it would be too much like memoir. Memoir is great, but I’ve tried very hard to have a quiet, satisfying life — a life that would be boring to read about. I feel like I’ve succeeded at that pretty well.
So: a novel. It should be about a small company struggling in the modern tech industry. It should have a very disruptive technology — something that would be so disruptive that the tech industry itself would be threatened. (If you want to make your imaginary world interesting, make it a character in your story. Put it in danger.) I jotted down a few ideas for such technologies, brainstorming…
And when I hit on telepathic computing, I knew that was what I had to write about. For nearly a decade, at Amazon and other companies, my specialty has been speech-to-text technology: using machine learning to convert sound waves to written text. It occurred to me (and of course I wasn’t the first) that in principle it might not be much harder to create thought-to-text technology. You’d just switch out the sound waves with brain waves. Obviously it’s somewhat trickier than that, but the principle is sound, and the technology, while nascent, is advancing very rapidly.
It’s an odd thing, but science fiction authors have almost never included telepathic computers in their stories. Human telepaths, sure, and telepathic aliens — but not telepathic computers. Perhaps we intuitively feel that they’re just impossible, unbelievable. Yet they’re very possible, and extremely useful. (It may be that in one hundred years, the fact that there are no telepathic computers in Star Trek will look even more ludicrous than their dictionary-sized tricorders.) But they’re also extremely dangerous, as I hope Axon, Inc. will show.
For years I’ve also been a Druid, with particular interest in Celtic and Norse gods. The Prose Edda especially fascinated me. I wanted to explore these stories and their themes — Odin’s strong desire for order, reason, defense, and strength, and the moral compromises he makes to protect the ones he loves; and Loki, with his mischevious, treacherous cleverness, which transforms him from Odin’s beloved blood-brother to his greatest enemy. These brilliant, mortal, flawed gods would be great characters… Especially for a book intended to illustrate the effect of great power on brilliant, mortal, flawed human beings.
And suddenly it all clicked together, and I started writing. Six months later, scribbling away on the bus, I finished the last scene of the first draft, having filled four moleskine notebooks with 85,000 words of novel and 35,000 words of notes, background, and discarded drivel.
And now it is time to revise. Three characters will be collapsed into two; one character’s son changed to his younger sister; existential angst tightened up and made into real existential danger; more examples of the transformation of capitalism caused by radical transparency; reorganizations and changes in emphasis inspired by The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Seven Basic Plots, and even Save the Cat!; a proper timeline established…
On this blog I’ll publish a variety of things as I revise: sketches of the characters, backstory, and the world of 2030; updates on how the revision is going; links to articles about thought-to-text technology (which I hope will not pass the state of the art in the book before I finish it!); quotes from the book, and occasional scenes; and some articles about the philosophy of language, thought, spirituality, and other themes in the book. I hope you enjoy!
Feb 5, 2015