Lior Samson writes thoughtful thrillers, stories of action and political intrigue that challenge the imagination and probe issues of personal, religious, and national identity. A university professor, consultant, and science fiction author with more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles to his credit, he lives with his wife and their two children in Massachusetts. He has a new novel out, Chipset. Lior met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about identity and fiction.
Do you think current notions of identity are part of a technological engineering of man?
The short, easy, and uninteresting answer to that is, no. Of course, there is more to the matter, particularly if we separate “current notions” of identity, whatever those might be, from human identity. Our notions are silly putty in a warm draft that changes with the winds of the blogosphere and are revised to follow the next pop-psych bestseller. Who we are and think we are is a different matter. On the one hand, human nature is remarkably stable and resilient. On the other, how we express that nature is highly malleable. Before there were writers, there were story tellers. Once there were cave painters and now there are digital animators. It is the same essence manifest through different intermediaries in different media.
I don’t know about being re-engineered by technology, but we are certainly changed by our tools, which, when they are well-formed and we become well-practiced in their use, become extensions of us. A case can certainly be made that our collective identity is now intimately integrated with digital technology. We are already, effectively, cyborgs. I see my university students who are inseparable from their smartphones, who can be walking hand-in-hand while plugged into separate realities by little white extension cords protruding from their ears, who eat lunch while social networking with people not present, and who answer questions not from memory but from Google. This is transformational and becoming so commonplace in First-World culture that it is no longer remarkable to most people.
Individual identity is another matter and much more variable. I did not grow up with cellphones or personal computers or the Internet, so I have some distance from these technologies. They are part of my work, but they are not truly part of me, not elements of my identity. For the Millennials who have never known a world without a telephone in their pockets and a Web to surf on their desktops, it might be very different.
For many, artifacts have always been part of their identities: men (most) with their cars and women (many) with their clothes being enduring examples. Perhaps because I am a designer, because the act of designing necessarily objectifies the designed artifact and distances the designer from the object, I have never experienced my identity as tightly tied in with my things. I think this position “outside” something that is “other” is part of what helps me as a novelist to consistently take a critical look at technologies that so many others embrace uncritically.
That is the place from which I wrote The Rosen Singularity, which takes a jaundiced, perhaps even noir view of medical advances that could be expected to be part of that uncritical embrace. Who would not want to live longer, much longer? We may be approaching a medical discontinuity where life could be extended radically, perhaps into centuries. But is such longer life really such a good idea, an unalloyed positive for humans and human society? Steve Jobs, technologist par excellence, argued otherwise in his most famous speech, the commencement address he gave at Stanford, when he said that Death was perhaps Life’s greatest invention.
Technology may not be engineering us, but we may be surrendering our identities and our futures to it, nonetheless. As technology grows in complexity and ubiquity, we may be rapidly losing our ability to be the engineers, the designers of our future. In this sense, technology has become a force in its own right over which we no longer have mastery.
Are we and our identity being engineered by technology. The succinct and unnuanced answer is, yes. Didn’t I say that?
Do you think there is inherent intelligence in design in nature?
Intelligence is in the mind of the beholder.
How much “design” is out there as opposed to in our construction of what is out there is a conundrum that some of my characters struggle with. In Chipset, Karl Lustig is a card-carrying control-freak, a rationalist who believes in nothing that can’t be seen or touched, yet his life is often steered by factors beyond his ken or control. His wife, Shira Markham, is equally self-assured that there are no accidents, that she and Karl are bashert, destined to be together. And she underestimates her own agency and impact on the world, even as she decisively takes over. Who is right, whose perception more valid? In my writing, I am more interested in posing questions than positing answers. I am trying to write contemporary thrillers that not only entertain but get readers thinking, possibly in fresh ways about some of the bigger questions. What is the nature of extremism and its relation to terrorism? How is the increasing complexity of the built word itself a risk? Are medical advances really advances? What is the place of fidelity in a fluid world?
Do you think modern intelligence gathering techniques among the secret services in the West are justified as means to maintain democracy?
Another provocative and compelling question, one that gets me to wondering whether it is posed because I am an American or because I write about the clandestine services or because Israel and Palestine loom large in my writing or…
Democracy is, of course, not a natural phenomenon. Democracy is designed. Like all human institutions, it is imperfect, a balancing act that remains erect on the tightrope of time only as the result of tension. The freedom and self-determination it affords are paradoxically possible because of structures and constraints, because of a tug-of-war between the price and the pay-off. Where the bargain is struck, where the line of acceptable compromise or sacrifice should be drawn, is and will remain a matter of on-going deliberation, but the tradeoff itself is unavoidable. There is no right answer, only a perpetual exam that each generation and each actor must puzzle over and complete.
The most perplexing questions are those open-ended essay ones about the use of means that are at odds with the ends: secrecy to protect an open society, terror to combat terrorism, suspension of rights to defend due process, violence in the pursuit of calm. When the putative “good guys” rely too much on the same methods as their enemies, they can sully themselves and their causes; they risk becoming the very thing they oppose. I don’t have a cheat sheet with the answers already filled in, but I do believe that thinking about them is valuable and vital to the balancing act of a living society. We need to look at and ponder the penumbra where light and shadow shade into each other. As a writer, this is my focus.
I am uninterested in writing yet another thriller targeting the same tired parade of conventional bad guys. Al Queda, the Taliban, South American drug cartels, the Russian mafia, Big Oil—these have all been done. I am equally unexcited by triumphant, paper-thin heroes in perpetual battle against malevolent forces. I am more interested in the unexpected villains and in the villainy within heroes. I am not here referring to the “Dirty Harry” style of quasi-hero or the contemporary literary movement of “transgressive fiction” with protagonists in wholesale defiance or disregard of conventions and ethical expectations. I am simply interested in complexity, the complexity that is intrinsic to contemporary challenges and quotidian moral dilemmas faced by real people.
My protagonists sin, and my antagonists have a human story, and both believe they are right and doing the right thing for the right reasons. This is not to say that there is no such thing as right and wrong, but that, as we consultants are wont to say, it depends. In pursuit of this nuanced narrative, I put rather ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and challenge them by heightening their choices. In Bashert, a group of college students with more intelligence than insight launch a stunt that plunges them into a dark world of deception and high-stakes dealings that is way over their heads. In The Rosen Singularity, a quiet and overly persistent researcher stumbles into a life-or-death struggle against a medical cabal.
So, are “enhanced interrogation techniques,” indefinite detention without charges, or warrantless monitoring of the communications of ordinary citizens justified to defend democracy? That’s a good question. Perhaps, sometimes, if there are no effective alternatives that are more congruent with democratic values, but I’d be interested in your answer.
Do you agree with Karl Popper when he wrote in The Open Society and Its Enemies: ‘We must plan for freedom and not only for security, if for no other reason than that only freedom can make security secure’?
Popper? So now the big guns are brought to bear on the interrogation. I am no match for Popper, but I do agree with his work in the philosophy of science regarding the essential role of falsifiability. How does one falsify such an assertion as his that we must do something and that only this something can provide that something. If it is not falsifiable, then it is a religious tenet, not social or political science. But enough of this flying over and around the question. Aside from creating a cleverly worded aphorism, I think the heart of Popper’s argument is in the word and. Social planning—design—must address both freedom and security. If either is ignored or minimized at the expense of the other, the open society does not endure. It is a difficult synergy, this both-and, that demands an enduring allegiance not a commitment of convenience that changes with circumstances.
But, I fear we will lose our blog readers in this intellectual stratosphere. Popper? the next thing you will be doing is quoting Quine or hauling in Hegel. Well, probably not Hegel.
Back to earth. I write thrillers. Yes, they are peopled with intelligent characters and addressed to intelligent readers, but they are still page-turners, with no shortage of action and intrigue. With the exception of The Rosen Singularity, which takes place in some unspecified next month and explores a social discontinuity that we have yet to face, my novels are about the real world and its real problems. They are not works of sociology or philosophy.
I do share with Popper a conviction that open societies have distinctive weaknesses as well as strengths, that they are vulnerable in ways that closed societies are not. When under threat or duress, their citizens and institutions tend to turn from transparency and flexibility to rigid and imposed solutions. If the open society is to survive, these must be recognized as temporary imports, excursions of convenience, rather than restructuring of the framework or repudiation of democratic principles. It is the difference between a declaration of martial law within a democracy and a military coup against a democracy. It is precisely at times like post 9/11 that the commitment to democratic fundamentals most needs to be restated and reinforced. Otherwise, the other side wins, and we become them. There may be some small areas in which this is already true, where the legitimate rights of the citizenry have been arrogated, not as adopted measures, but as core changes.
And, of course, there are serious but less crucial costs in this vulnerability of open societies. Airport security, for instance, is well known among security experts to be an elaborate and expensive sham, theater that serves mostly to reassure travelers even as it irritates them. Indeed, the irritation is probably necessary; a painless procedure, an invisible security system, would seem too much like doing nothing. The bitter irony is that, if you add up the worldwide cost of enhanced security measures in all sectors of the economy, the terrorists won the misnamed “war on terror.” It was arguably the costliest defeat in the history of Western civilization, not merely in economic terms but in terms of what we surrendered of our selves, of our values.
Of all my novels, Chipset is most direct in addressing the dilemma of what we might be called on to sacrifice for the survival of our way of life. Does the sacrifice go so far as deceiving ourselves or even destroying our own? Is there even a way to have both freedom and security in a world in which the truth is elusive and trust is absent?
How would you elevator pitch your latest novel to a man who hates books?
I don’t do elevator pitches. I don’t do sound bites. I write novels—80,000 words and up. And I am certainly not interested in wasting time on some contemporary Cretin who hates books. That said, I might turn to the intelligent looking woman next to him and start up a conversation.
“Yes, that’s right. I’m a novelist. No, really. I just finished my fifth novel, Chipset. Yes it’s published. You can get it on Amazon or order it through your favorite bookstore, if you prefer. What’s it about? Well, it’s about a holiday getaway in lovely Madeira that goes badly awry, a thriller in the best tradition of le Carré and Clancy. It presents some extraordinary challenges to some ordinary people, including a couple of smart, strong women who have to take decisive action in dealing with an unseen enemy. Somebody has tampered with the very computer devices that the military—indeed, all of us—depend on. Who are they? What are they up to and why?
“And there’s a story-within-a-story that sends one of the characters digging into the past to learn the truth about his family, particularly the courageous young woman who made his life possible.
“Would your boyfriend here like it? You say he’s a computer geek who never reads fiction? Oh, he would eat this one up. It’s got microchips, a Learjet air ambulance, breakdown tactical rifles, time-release poisons, shootouts …. I wouldn’t want to give too much away, but after you read it, you can give him a Kindle copy. Better yet, get him the Kindle boxed set, The Homeland Connection. It has Chipset and the three other novels in the series.
“No, you don’t have to read them in order or even read them all. Start anywhere and just enjoy.
“Oh, sorry, here’s my floor. I’m being interviewed by the BBC for a series on independent authors writing in obscurity. I am dreading it. They are going to expect sound bites. I don’t do sound bites. Or elevator speeches.”
What are you working on at the moment?
Packing for my flight to Madeira tomorrow. Yes, I know you were asking me as a writer not a road warrior, but this does have to do with my writing, as will be evident in a moment.
As a writer, I suppose one could say I am multi-tasking. I have started two novels and am unsure about which I will go ahead with first. Both are completely new directions for me. I have the biggest chunk—several chapters—on a very chilly, Steven King-ish dark story of love, devotion, and stark terror. But my heart for the moment has turned to a more daring story, my first murder mystery, which is also a very convoluted love story. I have a good solid start on that one, but need to take some time to do some more research before hammering away in earnest at my laptop keyboard. I also have a long list of projects waiting in the wings: a YA novel started decades ago and worth a return attempt, a fifth book in The Homeland Connection series, and the start of an all new action-adventure franchise.
Civilians, meaning non-writers, often ask about how I can keep coming up with ideas. “How can I not?” responds an inner voice saturated with silent sarcasm. Ideas are not my problem. The ideas are never in short supply, only the time to execute them. Time is one of the perks of teaching at the University of Madeira and partial compensation for being away from home so much. In Madeira, my evenings and weekends are my own, with minimal distraction. When I am really on a roll, I can write all day Saturday and Sunday and tap out 5-10,000 words of first draft. Whichever project I settle on—probably the murder mystery—will most likely be done by the end of the spring semester. Then, of course, the painful fun of revision and rewriting begins.
Do you think we are in the midst of a publishing revolution?
Indeed, these are exciting times. Whatever one calls it, publishing is in a state of chaos and transition. The status quo is completely untenable, with readers and sellers drowning in a tsunami of titles. Even the venerable Sturgeon’s Law—90% of everything is crap—is strained by the flood-tide of independently published books running at a million odd a year and growing exponentially. We know there are good books in there, somewhere, but the odds of them bobbing to the surface amidst the sewage washing ashore seems formidable.
My last order of copies of Chipset for an upcoming public reading arrived in a carton that had a random copy of some self-published tome tossed in by accident. Even Amazon’s streamlined POD operation has glitches, it seems. The freebie was a self-help book (so help me), badly written, untouched by editorial hands, and so amateurish in its production values that one wonderes whether the author/publisher had ever seen a bound book. At least in the days of the vanity presses, there were barriers to entry—the writer wannabe had to pony up thousands for an initial press run—and even the vanity presses understood about front matter and knew better than to set 250 pages in justified 10-point Arial with 1-cm margins.
We are in a golden age of freedom and access, a Wild West of words, where anyone, absolutely anyone, can be a published author with perfect-bound trade paperbacks to hold and caress and electronic editions available for download on the Kindle and Nook. The barriers to entry have not been lowered; they have virtually vanished.
At the same time, mainstream publishers, jumping aboard the digital train long after it left the station, are charging $9.99 and up for e-books that cost zilch to manufacture and pennies to push from a server farm in the Cloud. Historically, books have been dear in part because you have to kill trees to make paper and impress ink on the paper and bind pages into heavy books to be shipped to warehouses and then delivered to bookstores, where they sat on shelves waiting and waiting to be discovered and bought. The unit costs were substantial and the margins were so-so, but a publisher with a winning author could make it up in volume. For e-books from old-line houses, the upfront costs are still there, although substantially reduced, but the unit costs are nothing and the profit margins are usurious. This, too, shall pass—into what I do not know.
As a sometime social scientist and science fiction writer, I might make some guesses. I think some sort of an ad hoc tiered system will gradually assert itself in independent publishing. It will still be true that anyone can self-publish for the smallest investment, but those works without a guild stamp or a seal of approval will be relegated to the back of the book bus.
There are already fledgling attempts to form such guilds or establish such seals, but none has yet gained much traction. The idea is that readers will know that officially vetted books are at least grammatical and relatively free of punctuation and spelling errors. That may not be a lot, but it is a damn-sight better than what we have now.
On the e-book front—and here, too, there is already some halting progress—richer formatting languages will enable electronic editions to be designed, as print books are, with layout and appearance again to be part of the message and the story. Eventually, there will be industry-wide standards that will allow an e-book bought through any source to be read on any reader. These are the obvious coming attractions in the technology infrastructure.
The really big puzzle is what will happen to mainstream publishing. We are already seeing the traditional role of agents eroding into irrelevance. We are already seeing traditional publishers expanding and elevating their digital divisions. We are already seeing a lot of scrambling by CEOs and strategic planners. I think it may take another five to ten years for the dust to settle on an industry that will look profoundly different.
In the meantime, I will just keep writing.
To what extent do you think inherently flawed decisions in mainstream publishing have brought this situation about?
It is fashionable to demonize Amazon, but Amazon has led where others have dragged their feet or stood around in confused incompetence. Like the long-extinct giant ground sloths, mainstream publishers are encumbered by mass and inertia. Their contribution to the present situation is not so much a function of flawed decisions but of institutionalized indecision and missed opportunities. Amazon realized early that, if you are in the business of selling books and the future of books is digital, you sell the best possible e-readers at the lowest possible prices to as many customers as you can while making the purchase of e-books as simple and affordable as possible. The publishing industry could have led this revolution instead of stumbling and tripping over it, then whining over their stubbed toes.
The bumbling continues, in defiance of economic sense. The current attempt to shore up print pricing with inflated digital prices is decisive but misguided, a misstep that must ultimately fail. Another decisive but doomed (we can hope) action is the acquisition by publishing giants of exploitive companies that bilk inexperienced and incompetent writers through over-priced editorial, preparation, and design services coupled with worthless marketing packages. These are the vanity presses of yore reincarnated as the digital presses of the day and now brought into the gluttonous fold of “legitimate” publishers. No need to name names and risk lawsuits, but we all know the companies I am referring to.
My ranting aside, the challenge has always been how the system can balance competing criteria. On the one hand, we all have a collective stake in making access to publication easy and open to all who might have something worthwhile, interesting, or entertaining to say. On the other hand, we have an interest in not wasting shared resources or personal time and money on garbage. If homo sapiens had three arms, I could add a the third hand, which would be our desire to facilitate the best work in rising in visibility and succeeding in the marketplace. The old system worked better at keeping the worst of the worthless from taking up space than at providing open paths for good work coming from the wrong side of the literary tracks or from writers with inadequate track records. The chaotic status quo reverses these. And neither system is terribly efficient in enabling the cream to rise.
It is not just publishers that lag rather than lead in this arena. Writers and their organizations can be just as tradition-bound and defensive. More than one established writer has recently made embarrassing statements to the effect that self-publishing is a professional dead-end that permanently brands the author with the mark of inferiority.
The guilds and organizations that ought to be on the side of independent writers still discriminate even while recognizing the revolution in independent publishing. I am a professional member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America because my qualifying works were all back in the day of paper-and-ink. But, good as I may be as the author of contemporary thrillers, I cannot get into the International Thriller Writers because they require publication by a suitably large and qualified publishing house. This will change, no doubt; I would hope in my lifetime.
How possible do you think it is for an author to successfully market their own work?
It’s been done, so it is possible. The truth is that many of the early, much heralded successes among self-promoting, self-published authors took advantage of windows of opportunity that are closed or closing. It helps to have written one of 25,000 new titles rather than one of 1.2 million. It also helps to be a ruthless competitor with a weak sense of ethics. Some of the biggest success stories were built on 5-star reviews bought wholesale, on aggressively gaming the Amazon rankings, and on social networking tricks that no longer work. Those of us who took the high road and never paid for or traded reviews have also taken the slower road.
Success is also easier if that is your primary goal, and you are prepared to pander to the market. Part of marketing is picking your product. It is far easier to sell zombie apocalypse novels than literary fiction, and the market for formula romance remains orders of magnitudes bigger than that for hardcore science fiction. The epic sword-and-sorcery series is still a popular path. I am amazed to the point of embarrassment by the chutzpah of first-time novelists who begin by announcing, in advance of completion, Count What’s-His-Face’s Castle: Book One of the Twelve-Part Epic Chronicles of Something-or-Other. Everyone seems to want to launch a series, to build a captive fan base, then churn out volume after volume to a ready market.
Another answer to the question is that it must be possible because, in the near future that is unfolding now, all authors, save for a miniscule lucky few, will have to do their own marketing regardless of who publishes them. Mid-list authors have long had to do much of the marketing themselves. Now pretty much all of us have to be hucksters as well as writers just to survive.
Personally, I am inclined to agree with the advice of successful veterans Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who happened to have been responsible for one of my first ever short-fiction sales. They argue that the very best use of a writer’s time is to write more. In the long run there is an inexorable synergy from having a deep backlist in print. Plus, it is a lot more fun and satisfying to write books than to peddle them, especially if you are a good writer and a mediocre marketer.
How will you know if or when you are a success as a writer?
I won’t. The truth is that I am so much harder on myself than even my worse critics. Behind the bravado, I stand quaking, riddled with self-doubt. It is so much easier for me to inventory my shortcomings and failures than to see success. Ask me if I am a good writer, and I would answer that I don’t know. I am not in a position to judge that. Only my readers and reviewers and critics are in a position to say, and they might be wrong.
I am not a casual writer. I work hard at honing my craft, always reaching for something better, always looking back and cringing at something that I should have written differently or could have left out or might have expanded.
I do envy young writers who thoroughly believe in themselves, even if it is misplaced faith, as it so often is. I am a non-believer. Were I to someday make it onto the New York Times Best Sellers list, an extremely unlikely development that at least one reviewer has nevertheless said I deserve, I would still be a doubter, ready with my own list of why it was probably an undeserved fluke. So far, my books have sold moderately well and have been reviewed with enthusiasm, but who can trust that? Not me.
Even more importantly, because of my objectives as a writer and the criteria by which I measure success, I will never know that I am a success. I want to leave a legacy, something of lasting value not just of passing interest, a body of work that will be appreciated and read long after I am dead. Only my children and grandchildren will know whether I succeeded. I hope I am not aiming too high. I have no illusions about creating literature. Again, I am too self-critical to even consider that possibility. But I do write for an audience that wants something more than just a distraction, and I am keenly aware that this is not a mass audience. It may even be an audience that is not yet there.
So, even as I write what I hope are entertaining page-turners about technological threats and cultural challenges, I am digging into deeper stuff—age and aging, identity and isolation, self-invention—themes that I hope will leave bookmarks in the minds of my readers. If I do that, I suppose I will have succeeded.
Thank you Lior for a thoughtful and perceptive interview.