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Cyberpunk

An Interview with MATTHEW BLAKSTAD

blakstad Name: MATTHEW BLAKSTAD

Author of: SOCKPUPPET (2016)

On the web: www.matthewblakstad.com

On Twitter: @mattblak

Matthew Blakstad’s first career was as a professional child actor. From the age of ten, he had roles in TV dramas on the BBC and ITV, in films and at theatres including the Royal Court. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, he began a career in online communications, consulting for a range of clients from the BBC to major banks. Since 2008, he has been in public service, using his communication skills to help people understand and manage their money.

He is a graduate of the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course and a member of the Crime Writers Association and The Prime Writers.

Thank you, Matthew, for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure!

The central storyline of Sockpuppet might have been ripped from the headlines: the theft of personal data; incompetence and cover-your-ass mentality of government organisations. Let’s talk about the book’s origins – what was the seed, and did the finished product in any way resemble your original vision?

It’s true – life has been showing a worrying tendency to replicate events from my book. Microsoft’s chatbots going rogue, the government launching its digital ID service – even a political scandal called #piggate! Of course a lot of that is just fluke but I think it also reflects the fact that Sockpuppet is based on a lot of research. The scandal that engulfs my government minister, Bethany Lehrer, is based on any number of recent examples.

But the roots of the book go a lot further back for me. Its earliest incarnation came in 2001, when I tried to write a novel about the dot com crash. But like many newbie writers, I was trying too hard to put across all my (I thought) brilliant ideas. Good novels don‘t start that way. They begin and end with character and conflict. So that first book was pretty bad and it’s now consigned to a drawer. Still, elements of it have found their way into Sockpuppet – not least one of the central characters, maverick hacker Dani Farr.

The idea for Sockpuppet proper came some years later, when I heard about a friend of a friend who was trying to build himself a fake identity, by leaving a false data trail across websites, phone records and credit card transactions. I was fascinated by this idea of carving out a new identity from data alone; and that became the seed of the novel. The story fell into place very quickly after that. Although I’ve honed and tightened it a lot since that first draft, it was already pretty much the book it is today.

The book deals very heavily with the concept of “identity”, both on the macroscopic scale – the theft of personal data of millions of people – and on the microscopic, or more personal, level – Dani Farr’s media gauntlet and the many different versions of her that seem to exist – and also dabbles with the concept of machine intelligence, programmed “personalities” designed to beat the Turing Test. It’s a storyline based on solid fact and you’ve built a lot of detail into the narrative. Tell us about your research approach: where did you start? Did the story evolve as you found more information?

My research process is pretty simple: I read voraciously and I talk to lots of people who know more about the subject than I do. I’m a bit of a magpie, picking up information here, there and everywhere. When you’re writing about contemporary tech, you can’t only rely on books, because they’re produced on a time lag of at least a year and the information in them stales quickly; so I glean a lot from blogs and other online sources. To research the social media milieu of Sockpuppet I spent way too much time on Reddit.

While I’m fossicking around like this, I start to jot down little prose sketches – images, snatches of scenes. Gradually, characters and scenes grow out of these. When I’m ready, I sit down and hammer out an outline, including character pen portraits and a plot summary. Then I dive into a first draft.

The research process doesn’t stop there, though. I like to break a cardinal rule of fiction writing, by continuing to do research through most of the writing process. The received wisdom says you should completely finish your research, let it percolate inside you a while, and only then start to write. That doesn’t work for me. Partly this is because I’m writing about things that are in constant flux, but it also reflects my approach to writing. For me the first few drafts are a process of constant enquiry. Little pieces of a puzzle keep falling into place as I ask myself, What if this happened? How does that work? What would this character do in this situation? And these questions inevitably lead to more research.

As an extension to that: your writing, much like that of Neal Stephenson, is a combination of narrative (often filled with black humour) and technical detail. How do you approach the story to ensure the balance is right: enough detail to satisfy readers who know what you’re talking about, but not so much that it turns into a lecture and sends the more “casual” reader to sleep?

You won’t be surprised to hear that I greatly admire Stephenson’s writing. Far more than me, he has the mind-set of an engineer, as do his characters. He often goes on for page after page of delicious geeky riffs, as his brilliant characters go about solving seemingly impossible technical challenges. He really understands tech and his passion for communicating about it is one of the great pleasures of reading his work.

My motivation is a little different. I think I’m more interested in the interior, rather than the active dimension. When I look at the world today, so much of people’s time and emotional energy are committed to interacting with, and through, devices. Our sense of identity and our place in the world are constructed in large part on-screen. This is something fiction should be responding to, and interpreting back to us. That’s what art is for. But I don’t always see this happening in a lot of ‘serious’ fiction. Of course that’s much less true of genre fiction, but the stuff at the front of the bookshop often ignores tech completely, apart from the occasional clumsy use of Facebook messaging. (There is of course a whole other discussion to be had about why genre fiction isn’t in the front of the bookshop, but let’s not go there now.) I think many writers see tech as an unfit subject for the creative imagination.

So to answer your question, I wanted to find a way to write engagingly, and well, about technology and techies. I tried to give Sockpuppet a language and a voice that incorporates the distinctive modes of speech and patterns of thought associated with technology. And it’s hard to write about this stuff without becoming dry and cold. You need to find ways of reflecting the rich emotional experiences people have online. The character of Dani really helped me find a way into this. Her online experience is, I hope, every bit as rich and dark and complex as that of a romantic hero striding across a moorland.

But I didn’t want the book to appeal only to people who already understand the digital world. So a lot of the story is seen through the eyes of Bethany, who is older and to a large extent turned off by tech, even though she’s the government minister responsible for it. She describes herself as not so much a digital native, more a ‘digital shipwreck’. Part of my intent in writing her character was to create a route into the world of the book for people who feel a bit like Bethany, when they see how their endlessly SnapChatting children have taken to these machines since birth.

One of the gratifying things about early responses to the book is that non-technical people have found the book as engaging and revealing as those at the nerdier end of the scale. I get a lot of people saying, ‘I read your book and now I want to delete all my online accounts and live in a bunker.’ So I guess that’s a win.

Sockpuppet is the first book in the Elyse Martingale Cycle. Martingale herself appears only briefly in the story, in the form of flashbacks, though her book The Electronic Radical, informs much of the story’s philosophy. I’m intrigued as to how you can build a cycle of books around a character who no longer exists – are we likely to see books set in earlier time periods, or will Elyse Martingale continue to influence events from beyond the grave?

The character of Elyse Martingale was a twentieth century computer pioneer and political radical. She died in the 90s so her presence in Sockpuppet is through the long shadow she’s cast over the techies and protestors who inhabit the book. But yes, I do intend to take the Cycle back in time as well as forward – to tell stories set in Elyse’s own lifetime. I have the whole Cycle mapped out at a high level, including two Elyse stories, though no doubt the plan will evolve as I go along.

The idea is that each book will stand alone, and that they can be read in any order – but the more of them you read, the more they’ll stitch together an alternative history of technology and protest.

Looking to the future, do you have a definitive end-point for the Cycle, or are you taking it a book at a time? Are we likely to see the characters at the centre of Sockpuppet – both real and not-real – in future instalments?

Sockpuppet is book one in the Cycle, and we’ve already put out a short e-novella called Fallen Angel, which is book zero. This takes place in the dot-com boom – around the turn of the millennium – and it contains some important prehistory to Sockpuppet. I’m now working on a near-future sequel to Sockpuppet (book two) and I’ve already written most of a story set in the late 60’s, among the futurists and early hackers of that time (which will probably be book minus one). Beyond that I have one more book planned, which is set in the late 1940’s, plus a short story set in the future – but I’m keeping my options open about future titles!

Along with Elyse Martingale herself, the books share a number of recurring characters, family connections and overlapping plot elements. The tech entrepreneur Sean Perce, for instance, appears in both Sockpuppet and Fallen Angel; and a number of other characters from both books will appear in other stories. I hope the reader may find that their feelings about a character based on their appearance in one book are challenged when they re-encounter them in another.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

We’ve already touched on Neal Stephenson. Along with him, I love William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Phillip K Dick – the usual suspects! These are some of the more direct influences on my style and subject matter – but I’m a really eclectic reader, so I’ve absorbed elements from a pretty diverse pool of writers. I read a lot of modern American literature, including David Foster Wallace, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, Jennifer Egan, Lydia Davis, Dave Eggers…I could go on! A lot of these writers share a distinctly North American way of absorbing and processing popular culture within a literary mode of writing. That’s something I can definitely see reflected in my own style.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I’m always terrible at these types of questions. I can never remember that single book or movie that’s the perfect example of something or other. I’m sure the perfect answer will pop into my brain the second this interview goes live. But I think for now I’ll say, Paul Auster’s novella City of Glass, which is the first part of his New York Trilogy. This is the book I’ve reread most over the years; and it still blows my mind each time, in its concision, its downright weirdness, and the way it repurposes the hardboiled detective story to mind-bending effect. It’s like a Philip K Dick Novel written by Camus.

There’s also a brilliant comic book adaptation of it by David Mazzucchelli, which like all good adaptations is a distinct work of art in its own right. Both are highly recommended.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Matthew Blakstad look like?

As well as being a novelist I have a Monday-to-Thursday day job, so a lot of my writing is done in brief snatches – in cafés, on the bus to work – whenever I can grab the time. I’m lucky that I’m able to keep working on a book in the back of my mind while I’m going about my busy day-to-day existence. So time spent actually sitting at the keyboard is something of a luxury – and it’s always productive. When I sit down on a Friday or weekend morning to do a full day’s writing, I feel like the words are already waiting in my fingers, primed and ready to type. I often find the day has suddenly turned into evening, and I’m sitting with sore eyes and ever sorer shoulders, wondering where the hell the past eight hours went. I suspect if I was a full-time writer I’d struggle much more with the glare of the blank sheet of paper, but the way things are, that’s never been a problem.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Write. And keep on writing. I wish there was a short cut but there isn’t. As I’ve already said, I sweated over a first failed attempt at a novel, and I’m really glad I did. It was a ladder I had to climb before throwing it away, on my way to writing a better novel. You need to get a lot of bad writing out of your system before the good writing comes. And of course I’m still learning.

Another key to becoming a good writer is to first become a good reader. Critiquing other people’s work develops your ‘ear’ for good and bad prose, and the more you do this, the easier it becomes to see the flaws in your own work. A great way to make this happen is to join a writer’s group, where everyone submits a passage of their work every few weeks and gets feedback from the others. This peer review approach is a big part of how writing courses like Faber Academy work. I did a FA course, and it was a real turning point. This was a few years back now, but seven or eight people from my class still meet every month and review each other’s work. They’re still the first people to read my stuff and I trust them implicitly because we’ve all exposed our worst and best to each other along the way. It’s invaluable.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

Both! As part of my research for Martingale book 2, I’m reading The Boy Who Could Change the World, a collection of writings by Aaron Swartz, the digital activist who died tragically young and was appallingly treated by the US authorities. I don’t want to myth-make about a young man who was taken too soon but the truth is, he was a brilliant mind and a terrible loss.

I’ve also just started Our Endless Numbered Days by my fellow Prime Writer [LINK: https://theprimewriters.com], Claire Fuller. I can’t believe I’ve left it so long to read this one. It’s extraordinary – beautiful and dark, with a brilliantly twisted take on the survivalist post-apocalyptic narrative.

If Sockpuppet should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

That’s hard! I used to be a professional actor myself when I was a kid, but I’d make a terrible casting director. Still, since you ask, here’s an all-Game-of-Thrones cast list that’s for some reason just popped into my head:

Gemma Whelan, who plays Yara Greyjoy, would be amazing as the ballsy, shoot-from-the-hip Dani. Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) could carry off Bethany’s patrician manner – and lace it with just the right dose of vulnerability. To complete the set, Sean Bean could play his bullish Burnely namesake Sean Perce. (He’s a bit old but I’m sure with a slap of foundation he could pull it off.)

In terms of directors, Joe Cornish of Attack the Block fame gave the book a lovely quote for the cover, so he’d definitely have first refusal. He’d do amazing things with it.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

In my experience, genre writers are definitely the most fun. Especially in the bar at two in the morning. If I had to pick just one I’d probably go for Neil Gaiman because you could talk to him about literally anything and he’d have something fascinating and unexpected take on the subject. For drinks, I imagine he’d be happy with some fine craft ale or other. I know I would. But if he insisted on drinking, I don’t know, faerie mead or some such, then I’d be game.

Thank you once again, Matthew, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

SOCKPUPPET by Matthew Blakstad

SOCKPUPPET - Matthew Blakstad SOCKPUPPET

Matthew Blakstad (www.matthewblakstad.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£16.99

Days before the nationwide rollout of Number 10’s Digital Citizen initiative, news appears online that the pilot scheme has been hacked, and the data stolen. The source of the information becomes an immediate suspect, but there’s only one problem: famous Parley personality sic_girl doesn’t exist; she’s a piece of software created by hacker Dani Farr to win a bet, and there’s no way she should be revealing the kind of information she has started sharing with the world. Dani finds that her own private life suddenly becomes very public, her career and reputation in tatters. Pressure is also mounting on Minister Bethany Lehrer who has staked her career on Digital Citizen: is the data as safe as she claims, and just who is Mondan Plc, the company who manages the service and the collected data, a company not on the government’s list of sanctioned suppliers?

Matthew Blakstad’s debut novel fuses the political and technological worlds to examine the concept of identity in our increasingly Internet-driven world. In a storyline that might have been torn from the headlines, Sockpuppet looks at what defines us in this world: our identity – our most important asset as members of civilisation – is little more than a set of data stored on vast servers across the globe, a collection of personalities that represent the different versions of “me” that we often present to different audiences. Through the narrative, he asks a number of fundamental questions that should strike fear into the heart of every person who ever provided personal details online: who, despite security provisions and Acts of Parliament, actually has access to our data? And what happens when our different personalities are linked and cross-referenced, when they start to bleed into one another – what does this mean for that prized ideal for which we all strive: privacy?

It’s a serious message – and one that will make you consider just how much of who you are is no longer in your own hands – presented in an often blackly-comic but always intelligent way. Think The Thick of It written by Neal Stephenson and you’re some way towards understanding what lies behind that grinning pig’s face. The story is told primarily from the points of view of the two main characters, Dani and Bethany. In many ways polar opposites, the women find themselves drawn, in very different ways, into the fray caused by sic_girl’s revelations. On the one hand is Bethany, career politician who talks a good sales pitch but understands little the technology behind the real-world applications of Digital Citizen. Dani, on the other hand, is the archetypal socially inept hacker whose understanding of the technology leads her ask questions, because it shouldn’t be doing what it is doing, and these questions lead Dani into a world of trouble. What’s interesting here is that the two central characters are female, working in what are traditionally male-dominated fields, and Blakstad takes time to look at the continued prevalence of sexism in these fields in particular, and in society in general.

Two characters loom large in the background as the stories of Bethany and Dani play out centre stage. The first is Sean Perce, CEO of Mondan Plc and to all appearances the villain of the piece. A self-made man, Perce is building an empire and looks to be using Lehrer’s project as a means of doing so. As he buys up smaller companies and moves them all into the vicinity of his iconic – and ironically-named – headquarters at 404 City Road, the reader can’t help but question his motives or guess at just how culpable he is in the misfortunes that are haunting both Bethany and Dani. The second character is the ghost (not in the literal sense) of Elyse Martingale, a technological pioneer and political radical who worked with the likes of Turing at Bletchley Park. Sockpuppet is the first book in the Elyse Martingale Cycle, so it’s intriguing to find that she is long dead when the events of the novel occur. But her presence is felt throughout: as well as being the grandmother of Bethany Lehrer, her 1957 book, The Electronic Radical, plays an important role in the development of many of the story’s central players.

I have, for a long time, been a fan of the cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writings of the likes of Stephenson, or William Gibson, and even the research-laden adventures of the much-missed Michael Crichton. Matthew Blakstad, if his debut novel is anything to go by, fits neatly into this category of writers who like to combine story with detail in an attempt to offer different experiences to different levels of reader. He speaks directly to those of us of a more technological bent through his in-depth discussions on the political and technical issues that surround identity management, his description of social media platform, Parley, or of the technology behind the “personalities” that inhabit the platform, and does so in such a way that the casual reader will also take enjoyment from the reading experience. It’s a fine balance, and one that very few writers manage to find even over the course of several novels, but one that Blakstad strikes without any problems: the story continues to move forward, the reader so engrossed in the writing that the possibility of skipping the detail never crosses the mind.

Brilliant writing and a story that is relevant to every person who has ever used a networked device combine to make Sockpuppet one of the standout debuts of the year. Behind the apt (if coincidental) grinning pig on the front cover is a story that grips you from the outset and leaves you wishing for more as the final page is turned. Darkly comic but intrinsically frightening, this is a cautionary tale of an all-too-possible near future and marks Matthew Blakstad as an extremely talented new voice in the world of speculative fiction.

ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson

ALIF THE UNSEEN - G Willow Wilson ALIF THE UNSEEN

G. Willow Wilson (www.gwillowwilson.com)

Corvus Books (corvus-books.co.uk)

£12.99

Released: 1st September 2012

Get your pen and paper, it said. I will tell you the final story. It comes with a warning.

“What’s that?”

When you hear it, you will become someone else.

From time to time I’ll start reading a book and find myself thinking: this is what it’s all about. It’s a feeling that’s rare enough to be special, and I find myself marking my progress through life by these literary landmarks – “The Mist”, which was my first encounter with the mind of Stephen King; Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series; Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. It didn’t take long for me to realise that Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson’s first novel, would be one such book, and while the warning of the djinn that mark’s the novel’s beginning may not be true in the literal sense, Alif the Unseen is at least as educational as it is entertaining, and does provide plenty of food for thought.

The Middle East, in the midst of the Arab Spring. One by one, revolutions rise, and governments fall, the protestors empowered in large part by the Internet, and the anonymity it provides. In an unnamed emirate, the all-powerful State has employed the Hand to identify these trouble-makers and ensure their swift removal. Alif, a young hacker who makes a living keeping his clients safe from the prying eyes of the Hand and his censors, is having girl trouble. The woman of his dreams has abandoned him to marry a man of whom her family approves, leaving Alif heartbroken and angry. In a fit of pique, he sends her a gift and receives in return a foul-smelling ancient book bearing the title The Thousand and One Days. Hunted by the Hand, Alif takes the book and flees, unsure of why he is now the centre of attention.

With the help of Vikram the Vampire, an ancient djinn, Alif discovers the origin of the book and finds within it a code that could lead to the downfall of the Hand, of the censors, of State, and lead to the glorious revolution towards which he and his friends have been working. But the book is tricky, and nothing is ever that straightforward. Alif must make whatever sacrifices are necessary to save his friends on both sides of the veil that separate the human and djinn worlds.

Alif the Unseen is part Eastern-inspired fairy tale, part cyberpunk adventure, part love story, part fable, a very credible bridge between Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, with an original voice and an inside track on a world that many people in the West (myself included) know very little about. Wilson uses her unnamed fictional state to examine issues faced by people in the region – oppression by tyrannical governments and faceless agents of the State, and the inherent “unease” that comes from so many races, religions, political affiliations and classes living in such close proximity. We see this world through the eyes of Alif, an ideological young man whose roots – his mother is Indian – make him something of an outsider.

There is also a fantastical element to the story, and Wilson places her (unnamed) City on the edge of what she calls the Empty Quarter. This is the realm of the djinn and it is here that Alif will find many of the answers he is seeking. It is a world where humans were once welcome, but which is now largely forgotten by the “sons of Adam”. Amusingly, though, it’s not the ancient Eastern paradise we are initially led to believe it might be. In amongst the bazaar-like marketplaces and beautiful quartz walls, Alif discovers technology of a much more recent vintage.

I’ve got a two-year-old Dell desktop in the back that’s had some kind of virus for ages. The screen goes black five minutes after I turn the damn thing on. I have to do a hard reboot every time.

Alif felt a new vista of serendipitous opportunity open before him.

“You’ve got internet in the Empty Quarter?” he asked in an awed voice.

Cousin, said the shadow, We’ve got WiFi.

Alif is assisted in his quest by a cast of rogues and outcasts, both human and djinn, and it is through these vastly different characters that Wilson shows us something of the culture and history of this region. Each has a distinct personality, a different perspective on the events that are unfolding, and of the backstory that leads to this point. Amongst them you’ll find Alif’s religious, veiled next-door neighbour; an American convert who has trouble with the language, and trouble reconciling her reasons for conversion; Vikram the Vampire, part-man part-animal, a rogue who turns out to be more loyal than anyone might have thought; Alif’s fellow hacker, whose involvement is all the more surprising when his identity is revealed. Aladdin’s genie of the lamp even puts in a brief appearance. Wilson has a deftness of touch that renders the most unthinkable of beings perfectly in the reader’s mind:

It was a beast, though unlike any other animal Alif had ever encountered: massive, reddish, indistinct, a bloodstain on the pale paving stones. Fur hung down in clumps over the goatish pupils in its gas-blue eyes. There were no teeth in its primitive jaws; instead, row after row of knives receded into the darkness of its gullet. It was a child’s nightmare, the fantasy of a mind too innocent to encompass human evil, but capable of imagining something far worse.

When it comes to in-depth and detailed discussions of technology, metaphysics and philosophy in fiction, Neal Stephenson is the man to beat. With Alif the Unseen, Wilson gives him a run for his money. An early discussion about how one might go about writing a piece of software that could identify a person based on how they type sets the tone, and prepares us for deeper discussions later in the book, including a conversation about fictional characters eating fictional pork (you’ll understand when you get to it), and an examination of the nature of quantum computing and the essence of metaphor. Happily, there is never a sense of getting bogged down in the detail, and the discussions are edifying and entertaining, illuminated as they are by Alif’s quick wit.

At its core, Alif the Unseen is a story about identity and its place in society. We learn few names as we progress through the action – Alif’s given name is revealed towards the end of the book, but for the most part we know him only as his Internet handle, and with only a handful of exceptions Wilson refers to characters by their designation (“the convert”), or by false names (“Vikram the Vampire”, “NewQuarter01”). In this modern society, where many people have an online identity, this is not an unusual state of affairs. The supernatural element brings with it an added dimension in the form of an old moral – to give someone (or something) your true name is to give them power over you. Wilson applies this to the modern Middle East, and shows it to be true there too: Alif is only safe for as long as the Hand is unable to find his true identity. It’s interesting food for thought in today’s society where, for many, social network interactions are as commonplace as real life ones.

G. Willow Wilson has produced an exceptional debut novel that seamlessly melds technology and mythology to astounding effect. A must read for fans of Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, Alif the Unseen introduces us to a brilliant new author with talent to burn. With elements as diverse as computing, djinn, love, adventure and an examination of what makes us who we are, there is something here for everyone. The Diamond Age for the twenty-first century, Alif the Unseen establishes Wilson as one of the finest new writers to emerge this year. I, for one, can’t wait to see where she goes next.

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