Archive for December, 2015

Bluescreen Early Access: Bao!

Monday, December 28th, 2015

bao page 2
The world of Bluescreen is full of variety: rich and poor, old and young, honest and criminal, cybernetic and aggressively technophobic. Today’s preview is wildly different from the others we’ve met, and a bundle of contradictions all on his own: say hello to Bao Behar.

That awesome image is, once again, from the artistic wizardry of Santo Ibarra.

Bao met Marisa several years ago, when they wound up in detention together at school; Marisa had been caught trying to hack the school computer, and Bao had been caught straight up stealing from the front office. They realized that they each had a skillset the other lacked, and from that initial rule-breaking team-up they forged a strong friendship that has become, if Marisa’s being honest, maybe even a little stronger than her friendship with Sahara. Despite their closeness, though, his life is significantly darker than hers, and in many ways he lives in a world completely different than hers. Marisa’s family, after all, has the restaurant, and with it a more or less steady middle class income. Bao’s family has nothing, and lives on the meager scraps he’s able to steal in his double life as a digital pickpocket.

Bao was born in the bustling city of Novosibirsk, where his Chinese mother had married his wealthy Russian father. Mr. Behar was not a very good man, however, and when Bao was barely three years old he and his mother found themselves out on the street, forced to survive as best they could. Bao learned how to break in to back doors and windows, how to lie and steal and misdirect, and how to stay invisible in a world of constant surveillance. After several years of scrimping and saving he and his mother were able to flee to LA, where she met and married a loving Chinese man with two twin girls of his own–Jin and Jun, just a few years younger than Bao. Life was good for a year at most, when suddenly Bao’s new stepfather was injured in a factory accident, losing not only his health but his job as well. Once again Bao was forced back into his old schemes, stealing food and money where he could, but LA was a very different place, and his methods had to adapt: virtually nobody in LA uses cash anymore, or even physical credit cards, so picking pockets was not option. Instead, Bao’s come up with a way to hang out in public, high-traffic areas and skim micropayments from tourists; you use your djinni to buy a hot dog or a magazine or anything else in his vicinity, and a couple of extra cents will find their way into one of his many fake accounts. It’s hard, and slow, and dangerous, but in a city where nulis have already taken most of the jobs, it’s all he can do to keep his family going.

One of the things that’s makes Bao such an excellent thief and infiltrator is that he doesn’t have a djinni–and not just because of the cost. Almost everyone in the city has a djinni, from the rich to the homeless, because they’re simply so easy to obtain and install. Bao is different. Bao doesn’t have a djinni because he doesn’t want one, and that makes him one of the strangest people in LA.

A djinni is not just a computer or a phone, it’s also your wallet and your keys and your ID. When you go to a store it reads your djinni, figures out who you are, and offers you deals and helps you pay. When you go to school it reads your djinni, checks your schedule, makes sure you’re always in the right place, and forwards and manages your homework for you. Public transportation reads djinni IDs to know when to stop and who’s getting on; your own home reads djinni IDs to unlock and open your door for you, and if your djinni isn’t working you might be locked out until a technician arrives. Djinni’s make the world function, and trying to get by without one makes virtually everything in that world harder. But…if you can somehow manage to get by, having no djinni is the greatest thing a thief could ever ask for. The world treats you like a ghost, but sometimes you want to be a ghost. If a building doesn’t recognize you as a person, you’re free to move through it with impunity; if a security system is designed to make sure the wrong djinnis stay out of the wrong places, having no djinni at all is like a free pass. Sure, a human security guard watching the door could stop a djinni-less person with no problem, but if everyone has a djinni anyway why bother with a guard? Bao uses this loophole to come and go as he pleases, and when Marisa’s hacks require a personal touch he’s always there to help.

Bao is a bundle of contradictions: a hi-tech luddite, a digital pickpocket, and a living ghost. He has a horrible past but a cheerful demeanor. And he never trusts anybody…but he trusts Marisa with his life.

Tune in next week for another member of the Cherry Dogs: the greatest assassin Overworld has ever seen, Wong Fang.

Bluescreen Early Access: Anja!

Monday, December 21st, 2015

You’ve already met Marisa and Sahara; now it’s time to meet the third girl in the trio. Ladies and gentlemen: Anja Litz.

anja page

Anja grew up in Germany, the daughter of Jochen Litz, a top-ranking executive for Abendroth, one of the largest drone and nuli companies in the world–and in the year 2050, a megacorp that successful is more powerful than most nations. While Marisa and her family are barely scraping by, Anja is unbelievably wealthy, and now that they’ve been transferred to LA, her father hates it when she hangs out with her hooligan friends from Mirador. Unfortunately for him, Anja loves pissing him off almost as much as she loves Marisa and Sahara.

Anja is the wild card in the group. No, that’s not going far enough: Anja is the wild card in any group. She’s the one who’s always running off to try new things, or push new boundaries, or break new rules just because they’re there and need to be broken. She believes in change for change’s sake, which makes her fantastically curious and adventurous, but also sometimes drives her to do things she doesn’t even want to do–either because someone told her not to, or because she thinks it’s time to break out of some perceived rut (even if that rut is as simple as “I haven’t done anything stupid in a while, let’s shake things up”). She was the kind of kid who’d destroy her favorite toy just because she didn’t want to get too attached to anything, and now that she’s 17 she’s teetering on the line between “fun to hang around with” and “dangerously self-destructive.” In my head I think of her as a cross between Starbuck, Tony Stark, and Boo from Monsters Inc.

While Marisa specializes in hacking software, Anja is the expert in hacking hardware. If you ever need someone to modify your nuli, overclock your tablet, or jailbreak your djinni, Anja’s the one to call. She loves getting inside of some new piece of tech and tearing it apart, figuring out how it works, or how to make it better, or how to make it do something it was never intended to do. She can mess with your autocar or rewire the computer that runs your house–and heaven help you if you leave your cybernetics on their factory settings.

This obsession with hardware even extends to her fashion sense: take a close look at the picture above (by the inimitable Santo Ibarra) and you’ll see a variety of cables coming out of her hair. Almost everything a djinni does is wireless, but for some applications–like virtual reality–you’re transferring so much data so fast that you need a cable, so most djinnis come with a plug-in port at the base of your skull, called a headjack. Anja has a special djinni called a Huckleberry (that’s a nickname; it’s actually an HKL, for Hong Kong Limited) which is hugely modular and modifiable, and comes with a huge range of data ports. She likes to keep all of her cables plugged in all the time, and braids them into her hair as a way of melding body and machine.

Anja’s constant drive to try new things and to hell with the consequences frequently gets the group in trouble, especially when she shows up at a party with a new digital drug called Bluescreen…but then I guess I’d better stop talking before I spoil anything :)

Join me next week when we meet another of Marisa’s friends: a street thief name Bao Behar. Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Bluescreen Early Access: Sahara!

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

Last week I talked about Marisa, the main character in my new series, called Mirador. Today we get to talk about Marisa’s best friend, Sahara Cowan. I’ll skip the long preamble and get right to the awesome character portrait:

sahara page

The art is, once again, by the amazing Santo Ibarra.

Sahara is one of my favorite characters in the series. Where Marisa is a hacker and a programmer, Sahara is a celebrity–or at least she wants to be. Her greatest goal in life is fame, and she has three main areas where she pursues this. First, of course, is Overworld, the virtual reality videogame she plays with Marisa. An Overworld team has five players, who play five specific positions, just like any other sport; Sahara is the General, who leads the team and calls the plays and coordinates all the action on the field. This is a great fit for Sahara because she is always in charge, even off the field. One of my great epiphanies in writing the series was to make Sahara the leader rather than Marisa–I assumed Marisa would be kind of the Queen Bee character, because she’s the main character of the series, but letting her take a social back seat to Sahara just made everything work so much better. Sahara loves the spotlight, and she loves speaking her mind. Marisa will often come up with the crazy ideas that carry the group forward and get them out of (or into) trouble, but it’s always Sahara who makes them happen, using everyone’s talents like the mastermind in a heist movie.

Sahara’s second path to fame is her vidcast. You see those two little thingies flying around above her head? Those are camera nulis, and they follow her everywhere, recording her entire life and streaming it to a real-time 24-hour video feed of Sahara’s life. Her vidcast is pretty popular–not enough that she gets recognized everywhere she goes, but enough to pay her rent and keep her dreaming of some major breakout moment that will make her a star. One of the things she loves about her friends are the constant trouble they’re always in–tangling with digital druglords is dangerous, but it makes for great viewing. Sahara is, in many ways, the answer I came up with when trying to imagine the future of privacy and social media: in a world where the sky is filled with nulis, where even the cars are watching you, and where everyone you meet has a computer in their skull, privacy just doesn’t make sense any more. Some people try to fight this, but Sahara embraces it, and lives her entire life online for everyone to see.

By the way: someone asked me last week if “nuli” was taken from Bernoulli, a famous physicist and mathematician. That’s a cool explanation, but nope. Nuli is an anglicized corruption of the Chinese word for slave, and has become standard (in my series) as shorthand for any kind of domestic or commercial robot. If it shoots you, it’s a drone, but if it folds your laundry or picks up your garbage or delivers your mail, it’s a nuli. I looked at a lot of words, trying to find the perfect one, and nuli was just such a great fit for what we wanted. I liked the connection to “null,” because they are not remotely intelligent or self-sufficient, but more than that I liked the sense of history in it. The word “robot” is based on an old Czech word for “slave,” and nuli is just the Chinese version of the same thing. It feels like an advancement of a familiar concept, plus it helps to underscore that the world of Mirador is wildly international, and dominated by Chinese ideas and culture.

Sahara’s third path to fame is through fashion. You can tell from the picture that she’s dressed much more elaborately (and provocatively) than Marisa; Marisa wears jeans and T-shirts and whatever it takes to get the job done, but Sahara wears fancy dresses with crazy flaps and folds and intricate patterns. She even has a kind of wacky floral bustle in her portrait, which I love. Fashion was another area where I really tried to sit down and predict the future; Go online, or on Pinterest, and look up “cyberpunk fashion,” and you’ll get a whole lot of black–cloaks and hoodies and goth-y, grungy, almost post-apocalyptic clothing. I wanted the clothes in Mirador to have a little more variety to it. A friend of mine is a fashion designer, and we had some long conversations in person and online trying to figure out what these characters should be wearing. One of the things she pointed out is that we already have, in the real world today, 3D-printed clothes; extrapolate that 35 years into the future, and every home could have a clothes printer right there in the bedroom. You find something you like online, you download it, and you’re wearing it in minutes. Not only does this make high fashion more accessible, but it makes complicated patterns and layers–once the hallmark of wealth, because they’re so hard to create–trivially easy to reproduce. That’s a world where fashion trends move so fast you can’t rely on major designers to do it for you–if you want to stay on the edge, you have to start tweaking those patterns you download, and maybe even designing your own stuff from the ground up. That’s what Sahara does. One of her fondest dreams is to see a dress she created on somebody else–that means people are not only watching her vidcast, they’re liking her stuff enough to steal it. And there is no greater honor in the world of fashion than having your ideas stolen.

There’s a lot more to Sahara than I have time for here–she’s emancipated from her parents, she loves math and accounting, she’s a lesbian–but you’ll have to read the book to find out the rest. For now we’ll just say this: she lives in a little apartment over Marisa’s family’s restaurant, right in the middle of the Mirador neighborhood in LA, and is one of Marisa’s only friends. Two of their teammates live on the other side of the world, but next week we’ll talk about the third LA local: the wild and crazy troublemaker Anja Litz.

Bluescreen Early Access: Marisa!

Monday, December 7th, 2015

Bluescreen CoverI am so excited about this.

Seriously, SO EXCITED.

I have a new book coming out in February–not just a new book, but a new series. It’s another YA science fiction series, like Partials, but this time instead of a post apocalyptic dystopia we’re diving into a cyberpunk world full of digital drugs, professional gamers, and computers planted in people’s heads. The series is called Mirador, and the first book is called Bluescreen, and it’s launching on February 16 from Balzer & Bray. And I am more excited about it than I’ve been about a book in a very long time.

Cyberpunk is one of my favorite genres, and I’ve always wanted to write in it. In very general terms, cyberpunk is near-future science fiction that focuses on things like the Internet, virtual reality, and human augmentation–cybernetic implants, mind-altering computer programs, and that kind of stuff. The roots of the genre lie in books like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and the Budayeen books by George Alec Effinger, as well as anime and manga like Ghost in the Shell and Bubblegum Crisis. More recently we’ve seen a lot of American TV shows delving into cyberpunk themes, like 2013’s canceled-too-soon Almost Human, about lifelike androids trying to fit into human society. The TV show Person of Interest is kind of a proto-cyberpunk story about the early beginnings of a cyberpunk world, and the birth of a self-aware Artificial Intelligence. These stories use flashy technology and gritty crime stories and thrilling adventure to talk about some very basic, personal, thought-provoking questions: what does it mean to be alive–does an AI or a clone count? What does it mean to be human–does someone rebuilt with bionic technology lose touch with their humanity? What value does the real world hold, if a virtual reality can be made to seem infinitely better? When machines are doing all our work, and computers are making all our decisions, what purpose do humans have left?

The Mirador series takes place in the year 2050, in a sprawling Los Angeles that’s become larger than some states. Cars drive themselves in an endless web of activity, and above them the sky is filled with nulis–private and commercial drones that carry out a million little tasks that keep society running. China and India have surpassed the US as economic superpowers, and Mexico is strong enough that the border is essentially open, and in fact many people head south across it to look for work. Almost everyone has a device called a djinni implanted in their brain, which fills the role of a computer, a phone, a TV, a GPS, a game console, a wallet, and even a key ring; when you come home your house reads your djinni, recognizes you, and opens the door, and when you go out in the city the stores that you pass do the same, checking your djinni ID against a database and sending you real-time sales offers customized to your purchase history. Everyone is connected 24/7, and life is even more online in 2050 than it is now, and distance has in many ways become meaningless–maybe you live in Buenos Aires, and your best friend lives in Lagos, and you both go to a virtual school in Tokyo. Or maybe you’ve lost your job to a nuli, and you can’t afford to move, and you end up selling designer Russian drugs behind the bodegas in East LA. In some ways it’s a paradise, and in some ways it’s a hell.

Our main character is a 17-year-old girl named Marisa Carneseca, the second child of a large Mexican family in an LA neighborhood called Mirador. She’s a computer geek and kind of a gray-hat hacker–she doesn’t go out and destroy other people’s systems, but she’s not really saving the world, either; she’s just having fun, joyriding around in her digital world the same way her grandparents used to cruise around their city in cars, showing off and testing her limits and exploring the shadows. Her great obsession is a videogame called Overworld, a virtual reality MOBA-style game that’s become one of the most popular sports worldwide. Marisa plays on a team called the Cherry Dogs, and her four teammates–Sahara, Anja, Jaya, and Fang–are also her best friends. One of the things I love about Marisa is how connected she is: so many YA characters are on their own, with parents who are missing or dead, and only a handful of friends. Marisa has nosy parents, pushy siblings, and a whole world full of people who can use their djinnis to reach her anytime and anywhere–and because her phone is literally inside her skull, she can’t just tell her parents she didn’t have it with her when they called. She’s cheerful and frustrated and angry and loving and incredibly fun to write about. You want to see another picture of her? Of course you do:

Marisa Carneseca

That image is by Santo Ibarra, an artist based in LA that I met through DeviantArt. We spent a month or two this year talking about the characters, sharing early drafts of the book, and figuring out exactly how each character would look. Then Santo created a portrait for eight of the characters in the book–all five of the girls on the team, plus three boys they hang out with–along with a couple of other illustrations you’ll get to see later. I’ll be showing you one of these each week until the book is released, so buckle up! It’s going to be awesome.

One final note before I end this week’s preview. You’ll notice in that picture that one of Marisa’s arms is metal; this is not a sleeve or armor, it’s her actual arm, or rather it’s her prosthetic arm replacing the one she lost as a child. You see, when Marisa was two years old she was in a car accident–which is super weird, because nobody’s ever in car accidents anymore. There are a lot of questions about this accident, actually: the car belonged to Don Francisco Maldonado, the crime boss who runs Mirador, and who hates Marisa’s father more than anyone in the world, so…why was Marisa in it? And why had Maldonado’s wife disabled the autopilot, attempting to drive herself? The mysteries behind that accident, and the bitter family feud that lies at the heart of it, are tied into more aspects of Marisa’s life than she realizes….

I love this series. I love these characters. I especially love Mexico–I used to live there, and it was wonderful to be able to put that into a book. And, of course, I love the story of Bluescreen, which I haven’t even talked about yet. Come back next Monday for another Early Access preview, and I’ll spill some more details.

I wrote a new thing

Friday, December 4th, 2015

A while ago we did a crowdfunding campaign to help my brother get out from under some of his student and medical debt, and one of the perks I offered was called Official Fan Fiction. Whoever bought it could choose one of my books and I’d write a story where they got to be in it. I was totally expecting someone to want to hang out with Kira Walker, or get murdered by John Cleaver, or maybe go on date with one of them, but the actual request was way more interesting. A group of gamers got together and requested that I write their GM into the world of my dark historical farce A Night of Blacker Darkness.

Blacker Darkness is a ridiculous book, if you haven’t read it. It’s most famously about vampires, but more broadly it’s about intense passions pointed in absurd directions. The characters are thieves and poets and gravediggers and morticians and every one of them wants something desperately, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get it. That’s not the kind of thing you can just casually throw somebody into and make it work, but I had an idea. Years ago I’d started a short story about a man who goes into a police station and reports his own murder–not one that’s going to happen soon, but one that already happened, and no one will beleive him. I couldn’t make the story work, but I loved the idea of it, and I thought that idea’s dark, death-obsessed tone might work well in a farce about a mortuary.

So I wrote a scene where a man goes into a funeral home claiming to be dead and attempting to arrange his own funeral, and I liked it so much that I turned it into a full novella, and now you can read it. It’s called A Pear-Shaped Funeral, and you can buy it on my website. If you haven’t read Blacker Darkness it’s there too, down at the bottom of the page. Both are, at this point, ebook only.

You’ll see some other ebooks and short stories of mine up there as well, and I’ll be posting more throughout the month.