David Louis Edelman's future-business saga MultiReal was one of the books that blew us away the most in 2008. So we had to ask Edelman why his vision of capitalism is so scary.
MultiReal, of course, is the second book in Edelman's Jump 225 trilogy, consisting of Infoquake, MultiReal and Geosynchron. The trilogy follows Natch, an amoral entrepreneur who makes enemies wherever he goes - and whose ruthlessness wins him control over MultiReal, a fantastic technology that allows you to choose from an infinite number of possible outcomes to every action. Edelman also runs a long-running website about John Barth, one of my favorite authors. So I was excited to geek out with Edelman about capitalism, physics, infinite possibilities, and Barth.
How's the third book in the Jump 225 trilogy coming along? We can't wait to read it!
All I have to say is: this writing shit is hard. Really. I didn't make things easy on myself by throwing so many balls up in the air in Infoquake and MultiReal. At the end of book 2, there are six or seven different factions trying to gain control of MultiReal technology - which may or may not have disappeared forever. Meanwhile there's a war of civilizations brewing, a government mutiny in process, an unresolved love triangle, a main character presumed dead, and another character off in prison. And now here I am trying to tie everything up in 150,000 words with Geosynchron.
I know how the major plotlines are going to resolve. The big challenge is resolving them without jumping the shark or getting bogged down with exposition. The other challenge is trying to tie up all the minor characters and plotlines. What do I do with Robby Robby, the sales guy? Or Khann Frejohr, the libertarian politician? I introduced these characters to solve plot problems along the way, but I can't just abandon them in the end. There has to be some conclusion to their character arcs, even if it's only a sentence or two.
I've been studying all the classic SF/F trilogies of book and film for inspiration. Unfortunately there are very few great third acts. Return of the Jedi isn't terrible, but even if you give George Lucas the Ewoks, the first half of the movie is pretty lame. Matrix: Revolutions sucked, plain and simple. J.R.R. Tolkien's Return of the King was terrific - but of course, it wasn't really a third book, it was just the concluding third of one big novel. (As for Peter Jackson's film, I thought it was easily the worst of the three.) Children of Dune was mediocre, Xenocide just went to hell in the last half, Titus Alone is fascinating but not particularly satisfying. The list just goes on: Alien3, Spider-Man 3, Life the Universe and Everything, Back to the Future Part 3. So I feel like I don't have a lot of good role models here.
One of the many things that blew me away about Infoquake/MultiReal is the huge amount of worldbuilding, with the different types of corporations (memecorps and fiefcorps), and the quasi-religious creeds, and the Defense and Wellness Council, and Dr. Plugenpatch and so on. (Plus the backstory about the A.I. uprising, and the rise and fall of the Surinas, etc.) How long did it take you to put together such a detailed backstory for your world? Did you come up with a lot of this stuff as you were writing Infoquake, or did you work it all out in advance? Was it all seamless, or did you have to go back and make some changes after the fact, to make all of the different strands fit together?
I began with a vision of a futuristic world, and worked backwards to figure out how everything came together. Most of the backstory came about when I was writing the early chapters of Infoquake and just started randomly filling things in. When I'd get stuck writing the story proper, I'd just spend some time writing background articles. This kind of thing has always been attractive to me. I was the kid who bought AD&D modules just because I liked to read them, even though I didn't have anyone to play AD&D with. I'm the guy who always liked The Silmarillion better than The Lord of the Rings.
But really, the truth is that worldbuilding isn't as hard as it looks. Anyone can invent a plausible history of the future. The question is how far you want to take it and how plausible you want it to look. I decided to err on the side of making things too detailed. I wanted to take the worldbuilding just one step further than the reader was likely to follow. So I went into a ridiculous amount of detail figuring out how this world works and how it came to be. My future not only has a whole complicated government structure, but a system of shipping, high-tech building materials, a banking network, trade unions, and lobbyists too.
In MultiReal, Natch is put in charge of the development of this software that lets you glimpse every possible outcome of an action, so that you can pick the outcome you want. I'm still unclear on how the system works, even after re-reading some sections - is it just an incredibly powerful predictive engine? Does it actually see alternate timelines in some way? One level it seems like it's just simple physics - people are shooting at Natch, at one point, and he's able to calculate trajectories and stay out of the line of fire - but then there are things like Horvil getting a slightly lower price from a snack-vendor by using MultiReal. Is there going to be a more detailed explanation of how the system works, in the third book?
I've been working on a straightforward explanation of how MultiReal software works, but I can't seem to finish it. The problem is that I'm really not a science guy. MultiReal technology is really just a big metaphor for exploring how we make decisions and how we determine what's important in life. I came up with the idea first, and then hashed out the details of how it might work later with a good friend who has a Ph.D. in Physics.
But really, it doesn't entirely matter how MultiReal works. All that matters is that the reader thinks that it might work, and - even more important - that the reader thinks that I know how it works. Because no matter how you slice it, this is all far-future technology built on made-up scientific principles. At some point it will all fall apart under scrutiny.
For completeness' sake, the technical underpinning I worked out with my Physics friend is that the program has several "modes." On a basic level, it would be an incredibly good predictive engine that could, say, reverse engineer the muscle movements required for you to hit a baseball exactly where you want to hit it. But the program would also be capable of "throttling" to a quantum mode that can travel along different reality tracks and choose the one you want. My Physics friend and I had a couple of long discussions that involved Feynman pathways and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and lots of other things over my head. Eventually I just took his word on some of this stuff.
Do you think the meme (sorry) about your trilogy, that it's a "business story set in the future," has kept some people from appreciating it fully? (Like I said in my review, I see it much more as a story of technological advancement and society than a business tale.)
Actually, the "business story set in the future" thing was supposed to be the big draw at the outset. (In my original cover letter, I used "Dune meets The Wall Street Journal.") I originally envisioned the book as more of a satire of the dot-com mania of the '90s than a work of science fiction. I had hoped that the books would attract the Wired crowd and the Slashdot crowd, not the Singularity SF crowd and the Joss Whedon fanboy crowd.
But for whatever reason, I've had much more success drawing in traditional science fiction readers than high-tech business readers. And that changing reality is one of the reasons why Pyr and Solaris decided to go in a different direction with the new covers. The original cover for Infoquake was very much a crossover book cover, while the new Stephan Martiniere covers for Infoquake and MultiReal are definitely genre covers designed to appeal to hard-core genre readers.
Honestly, I've given up caring what class of people read the books. I'm not going to win the science fiction literary respectability battle all by myself.
Did you have a background in business before writing this trilogy? The books seem to depict entrepreneurship as something feral and anti-social, at least in the case of Natch. (Natch's rivals, Petrucio and his brother, seem slightly more civilized but equally ruthless.) Were you trying to show the downside of entrepreneurship in particular?
My background is in high-tech marketing and web programming. (For those who care, I mostly do web scripting, including lightweight stuff like HTML and CSS, but also PHP and Ruby on Rails. Most of the sites I build these days I build in WordPress, because WordPress rawks.) I've generally been either the geekiest guy on the sales and marketing team, or the artsiest guy on the programming team. I don't really belong in either camps, I've always been something of a go-between.
The books are definitely supposed to be a very exaggerated, stylized, almost parodic version of the dot-com world. I spent most of the '90s working in high-tech for companies that didn't know what the hell they were doing. I saw a lot of strange and unethical stuff, just like everybody who worked in high-tech during that decade. (My favorite story is about the dot-com CEO who refused to pay $75 to get electricity at a tradeshow booth, so he ordered me to run extension cords to the wall and steal our electricity for the show.)
So yes, Natch's brand of extreme capitalism is not supposed to be something you look at with admiration. That's not to say that there aren't things to admire about Natch. But personally I don't think it's a great idea to sic bears on your enemies and stir panic in the marketplace through lies and deceit, as Natch does.
Also, it's interesting that your future world combines almost completely unrestrained capitalism (at least in the fiefcorps) with severe restrictions on the types of technology people have access to. Is this an intentional contradiction? Is the fierceness of the fiefcorp capitalism a result of the Defense And Wellness Council's technological restrictions?
I tried not to be too dogmatic in the politics of the books. Some readers seem to have decided that I'm writing libertarian manifestos about the beauty of unrestrained capitalism. But really, the story is about human beings trying to cope and make decisions in a crazy, high-stress business world.
I really tried not to overthink the economics of the world I was constructing. I came up with what seemed like a plausible boom-and-bust cycle over several generations, and tried to delineate some basic ways that one thing would lead to another. So yes, the Council's restrictive hand in one area does lead intentionally to free-market craziness in other areas. And the reverse happens as well. The important thing to me is that the libertarian/governmentalism axis in the books runs on a kind of zero-sum basis - push too far in one direction, and you get a backlash in the other.
Are we going to see more development of the love triangle between Natch, and his associates Horvil and Jara, in the third book? Are there Natch/Jara shippers out there?
Wow, thank you for sending me to Wikipedia to find out what "shippers" are. I've now wasted half an hour of my life reading about lesbian innuendo in Xena: Warrior Princess. If there is anyone out there invested enough in the sex lives of my characters to write slash about it, nobody's brought it to my attention yet.
There will definitely be more on the relationship front in Geosynchron. But I will concede that the romantic triangle hasn't been foremost in my mind during the writing of this trilogy. I originally wanted much more innuendo and intrigue between Natch, Jara and Horvil. But I came to the conclusion that I'm just not very good at writing the romantic stuff. So I've ended up trimming that aspect of the story down.
And finally, I was googling for info on John Barth a while back - he's one of my favorite authors, especially Giles Goat-Boy - and I saw you maintain an impressive webpage about Barth and his works. How did you get into him, and how has he influenced your writing?
I love Barth. I went to Johns Hopkins University for undergrad, and Barth was the big-shot literary name at the college at the time. Tom Wolfe had just recently made some very caustic remarks about Barth in the pages of Harper's, and when he came to Hopkins to speak there was a lot of buzz about it. ("Fight! Fight!") So I decided to read both Bonfire of the Vanities and Giles Goat-Boy as a kind of extracurricular research project for myself. I enjoyed Bonfire, but Goat-Boy absolutely blew me away. I immediately went out and read everything by Barth I could get my hands on. I started the Barth website somewhere around 1996, I think, and it's been going ever since.
Has he influenced my writing? Definitely. I really like his verbose prose style (or rather, I did like his prose style up through the '80s) and the very structured way he plots novels. I've resisted throwing too much postmodernism into the Jump 225 trilogy, but it's definitely there. You'll notice some mythical resonances around Natch in the story too, which are completely intentional. Definitely Barth's influence.