M.H. Mead, authors of the Detroit Next series | Interview

M.H. Mead Author Photo

Margaret Yang & Harry R. Campion: M.H. Mead

M.H. Mead is the name of Michigan-based writing team Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion. Margaret is a full-time writer and parent, and Harry writes in addition to teaching. Taking the Highway is their third collaborative novel, all of which are set in the same alternate future Detroit. Margaret also keeps up a blog about the writing process and books about writing called Writing Slices.

Android Dreamer: For those who haven’t read your novels yet, what’s the general idea behind the Detroit Next universe?

M.H. Mead: The Caline Conspiracy, Fate’s Mirror, and Taking the Highway are crime novels set in near-future Detroit. Our imagined Detroit is finally prosperous, but some strange political and economic compromises have been made to get there. The heroes are a PI, a hacker and cop. The books are fast-paced and don’t rely on high-tech jargon or far-out worlds to make the plot. Our fans tell us we write “science fiction for people who like thrillers.”

AD: How do you divide the writing duties between the two of you? How does the process differ from writing fiction alone?

MH: We live about an hour apart, so we have to plan our writing time or it won’t happen. We start by brainstorming together in marathon sessions where we throw ideas at each other—nothing is too crazy to think about. These sessions lead to a rough outline we would never show to another living soul. We get together again and make a more detailed outline. We each write part of the first draft, then come together again for editing. We do a ton of re-writing, both individually and together, so the whole thing sounds like one story told with one voice.

AD: Who are your biggest literary influences? Were there any in particular that affected choices you made in writing any of your novels?

MH: Well, of course, the sun rises and sets on Larry Niven. We’re inspired by Niven’s attention to social change. It’s fun to write about technology and new toys, but the real fun is marking the ways people react to the technology. It isn’t always in ways you’d expect. We also learned a lot from the novels of Bruce Sterling and George Alec Effinger. We love how their future worlds shine a spotlight on the world we live in today.

AD: Which character in your novels are you the most proud of?

MH: Morris Payne, the super-hacker from Fate’s Mirror. He’s a triumph of contradictions: a criminal you root for, a hermit who must interact with people, a nerd in the role of hero.

AD: How much does your personal experience influence the way your characters progress and the way the stories unfold?

MH: Every single one of our heroes is caught between two worlds–whether it’s work/family, job-for-pay/job-you-love, or in the case of Morris Payne, hiding/living. As parents with careers in addition to writing, we are constantly pulled in two (or three) directions. So that’s one way our characters are like us. Their circumstances might be different, but the emotions are the same. Maybe that’s why our readers like our heroes. Everyone can relate to that feeling.

AD: Are you happy with the results of self-publishing? Is there anything you wish you’d done differently based on what you’ve learned in publishing your three novels?

MH: We like it a lot. It’s fun to have the final say over content, jacket copy, cover, and price. The community of other indie authors is extremely supportive and helpful. For example, Lindsay Buroker was one of our first twitter friends and she introduced us to our cover artist. We learned so much from those who came before us that we were able to avoid most of the pitfalls of DIY publishing–so far, at least.  After all, there are always new mistakes to make.

AD: Do you have any plans for another entry in the series, or will Taking the Highway be it?

MH: There are things in our world still pestering us. If something clamors for enough attention, we’ll listen to it. If the idea is good enough to sustain the standards we’ve set for ourselves, we’ll write it.

AD: Is there anything in particular you’d like readers to take away from your novels?

MH: The general tone is cautious optimism. Although a lot of people have given up on Detroit, we think it still holds promise. We believe that Detroit and the people of Michigan will make some tough choices and adapt to the world. There will be some choices that make life even more difficult. Our books deal with those, too. But overall, our books are meant to be good reads. We’re here to entertain the readers for a few hours with some murder and mayhem in near-future Detroit. If we can do that, we consider our books a success.

Taking the Highway, the latest entry in the Detroit Next series, is available on Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. You can follow Margaret on Twitter at @Margaret_Yang, read about M.H. Mead’s literary exploits at their website, and like them on Facebook.

Signing Alert: Gary A. Ballard, writer of the Bridge Chronicles

Gary A. Ballard, the self-published writer behind the novels that make up the Bridge Chronicles, will be doing a book signing on August 21st at  G. Chastaine Flynt Memorial Library in Flowood, Missouri. This is his first public signing, and he will be autographing previously purchased copies of his works as well as having some for sale. He will also be doing a talk about the development of his characters. Ballard’s novels are fun, fast-paced cyberpunk adventures with good characters; definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area.

All three of the novels of the series are available on Amazon, including a collection of all three books in ebook form. For more information about Gary A. Ballard and his work, see his website: Tales from the Bridge Chronicles.

If you yourself or a self-published writer you know are releasing a book soon or doing a signing, tweet at us @androiddreamer with a link to the information and we may post about it here.

Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Bantam, 1992

Rating: D+

When cyberpunk as a subgenre is brought up as a point of literary discussion, the first novel that most people think of is William Gibson’s outstanding and groundbreaking Neuromancer. In general, Snow Crash is next in line, with many members of today’s science fiction readership believing it to be superior to the novel that started the genre. Those people would be wrong.

Snow Crash is the story of an ex-pizza delivery guy named Hiro Protagonist (the name of whom is the first of many utterly stupid things about the novel). The opening few chapters are devoted to talking about Hiro’s pizza delivery practices, despite the fact that he is fired as soon as the “action” starts and it doesn’t really matter in the longer terms of the story whether or not he ever had a job before starting to work solely as a computer hacker. Hiro teams up with a bicycle courier called Y. T. to work in the Metaverse (cyberspace) for money, almost entirely with shady characters. They hear about a new drug called Snow Crash, which affects the users both in the Metaverse and in reality. Naturally, an investigation is in order.

Coherence isn’t really a strong suit of the novel, which rambles on and jumps between many short storylines that don’t seem to really even be connected. Y.T. and Hiro are occasionally together, but spend the majority of the time off in their own figurative words, and it is really difficult to figure out how that they are doing relates to the story at all. Around the midpoint of the novel, Hiro starts having long-winded conversations with a computer construct called the Librarian that teaches him about the connection between ancient Sumerian mythology and overall culture with today’s ideas of religion and viruses. Although it isn’t really plot, and severely violates the rule about showing and not telling, the conversations between Hiro and the Librarian are really the most interesting parts of the novel.

Although both Hiro and Y.T. get more likable as the story goes on, they both essentially fit stereotypes of cyberpunk, to the point of almost being self-parody. Hiro is a generically named part-Japanese cyberspace hacker who wields a katana and fits the role of “street samurai” a la the Shadowrun universe. He’s sort of a cross between Neuromancer’s Case and Molly Millions– the weasely hacker who gets thrown into the plot of that novel, and the badass mercenary who does all the heavy lifting. Y.T. is a courier, which apparently becomes a recurring theme in the genre. She’s a young teenager with a chip on her shoulder that comes across as naive early on but later on makes her more enjoyable as a character for her feistiness. Neither character is particularly memorable or unique, though.

Stephenson is a capable writer of prose but not strong enough to warrant the endless tangents and asides that go on for chapters at a time. Combining the abyssmal pacing with characters that are generally likable but not all that interesting leads one to scratch his head and wonder what all the fuss is about. It is DEFINITELY not the greatest cyberpunk novel, and would not even approach the top five. It is all borrowed aesethetic and self-indulgent rambling. A poor novel at best. It should be read for its significance but its nearly universal renown is a mystery.

The Second Wave of Cyberpunk Almost Isn’t Sci-Fi

Cyberpunk was a huge thing in sci-fi in the 1980s. It kind of took that style that was so purely 1980s and added a healthy dose of  noir, and threw it in a blender with extremely advanced technology involving a world wide computer network that connected everyone and everything. Of course, William Gibson’s Neuromancer started it all, but in recent years it has become clear that Gibson is some sort of other-worldly prophet, as his vision of the internet is essentially true.

That puts today’s cyberpunk (which we are calling second wave cyberpunk as opposed to postcyberpunk which unfortunately implies that the movement is over) in a weird place,  because what would have obviously been part of the genre in the 80s now just seems like real life. In novels like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, the setting is a near-future dystopia where climate change and economic collapse have left poor people with only the internet and an MMORPG called the Oasis as a way of getting away from the harsh realities of existance. In the real world, when you drive down the car, you are bound to see a poorly dressed teenager with a stupid haircut driving a 1992 Ford Tempo with his $600 iPad in his lap. High tech and low life is right. Cyberpunk isn’t really science fiction anymore—it’s just the real world.

That said, fiction writers are still dabbling in it. Aside from Ready Player One, there was also Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW series (the first installment of which was reviewed here last week), which heavily involves the internet in the story of a blind girl gaining sight through an ocular implant that ends up allowing her to actually see the internet. Sure, there are aspects in that story that are slightly beyond our own real technology, but it is not nearly as much of a gap as what was present at the time of Gibson’s original masterpiece.

So what is second wave cyberpunk? It no longer really has the implication of lowlifes whose only assets are their tech—it’s more about the general emphasis of technology with the typical science fiction veneer. If the internet is either the primary setting or actually a character in the story, that’s really what cyberpunk is now. Although all science fiction written in modern times dabbles in the internet, it isn’t always the primary setting (as in Ready Player One), or basically a living thing (as in the WWW series). Purists may criticize the explanation but it is what it is. Kids in mirrorshades and green mohawks was fun for a while, but every genre eventually transitions to a different phase. This is it.

Review: WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer (2009)

WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer
Viking, 2009

Rating: B

Caitlin Decter is a pretty, young, highly inteligent high schooler who recently moved with her family from Austin, Texas to Toronto. It is the first time she has been at a regular public high school, as up until this point, she had been attending a school for the blind in Austin. Her father, a theoretical physicist, was offered a lucrative job in Canada, and Caitlin wanted so badly to go to a regular high school with regular kids, so the family went. Everything changes when a scientist named Dr. Kuroda from Tokyo contacts Caitlin via email about an experimental procedure that would use computer technology to give her sight. After the experiment, Caitlin begins to realize that she is starting to see is not actually the real world, but the World Wide Web, all around her in colors and light.

The thing about Robert J. Sawyer that perhaps makes him most endearing and yet probably will damn him to a lack of longevity of influence is that all of his novels feel definitively “of their era.” When cracking open a novel by Sawyer, who has won so many major science fiction awards that it is useless to try to list them all, it is always clear that what you are reading was written in the late 20th or early 21st century. WWW: Wake features heavy reference to current day artists, and more importantly to technology that even now in 2012 seems a bit outdated. Caitlin, the wonderfully spunky (though perhaps exaggeratedly teenage) protagonist writes a blog on LiveJournal, a website that wasn’t even hip anymore at the time the novel is set but now even moreso seems to be a fossil of a bygone era of the internet. Because of these aspects, it is hard to foresee novels like this aging well. Sawyer is a capable but not amazing writer, whose strength lies in his ideas and the quality and depth of his characters. Caitlin Decter is an immediately likable and memorable main character, and as in all of Sawyer’s work, his characters feel like real people.

WWW: Wake is sort of a modernist cyberpunk. There are definitely liberties taken, but it reads like the natural manifestation of what happens when you take the slightly optimistic technological prophecy of William Gibson’s classic Neuromancer, but set it in the now current era with technology that is closer to what actually exists in present day. The aesethetic isn’t the pure noir feel of the 1980s and early 90s cyberpunk; it feels more like young adult fiction by the basis of the fact that the primary character is a teenager and it sort of borrows what would be her natural narrative voice despite being third-person omniscient in terms of perspective.

Being that the novel is the first book in a trilogy, it has a lot of setup to do for what will come in the other two books in the series. Taken on its own merits, it is still a deeply enjoyable read, despite borrowing so heavily from its inspirations. WWW: Wake is basically a love letter to cyberpunk of old that reinvigorates the genre and makes it a bit more accessible for today’s science fiction reader. Although it is not indispensible reading, it is certainly an enjoyable look at the nature of the World Wide Web and today’s technology as a whole. It bodes well for the rest of the series.